The Unknown Army: Mutinies In The British Army In World War One

By Gloden Dallas and Douglas Gill

The authors make the introductory point that the early 20th century British army was still almost Wellingtonian, despite some reforms: ‘I daresay it is snobbish to say so, but the fact remains that men will follow a gentleman much more readily than they will an officer whose social position is not so well assured.’ Furthermore, the majority of the army came from rural areas; the urban working class was in an extreme minority; the battalion was the basic unit of the army and drilling was seen as important as preparation for war .The battalion had something of a family atmosphere: 800 or so men, organised into companies, with a local attachment and a reverence for tradition.

Kitchener’s recruits meant the end, of course, of this BEF and Territorial Army tradition. By the end of the war, 5 million industrial workers had joined the army – ‘Nor were they unwillingly dragged in. More than 10% of the industrial workforce joined up in the first two months of war…’ Two and a half million men had volunteered by 1916 and a further 2 million men indicated that they would willingly countenance conscription.

This patriotism still meant some cultural problems, however: trade unionism, for example. But, in the main, military discipline did its job: from saluting right through to executions. But when trouble did break out, as at Etaples, then the old class antagonisms came to the surface – as with General Haig: ‘Men of this stamp are not content with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances…’ But class prejudice was of little consequence when placed alongside racial prejudice – when colonial support workers went on strike in France, summary public shootings were the response.

The top brass military and domestic fears of 1917 and early 1918 were son forgotten when the late summer and autumn 1918 Allied advance occurred, but the armistice only led to demands for speedy demobilization – and the strikes and mutinies of 1919. And that leads to the question of whether there is any substance to the claim that revolution could have been a possibility in 1919, rather than 1918. The essential question underpinning this is whether the army strikes and mutinies could be defined as political, or merely, as it were, ‘economic’ in the sense that they involved disputes over hours, wages and a quicker return to civvy street: conditions of service rather than capitalism.

So where did these actions take place and what impact did they have:

Calais (‘we had a real hard-core of trade unionists and Socialists’), Dunkirk (‘practically all downed tools’) and Boulogne were affected; the disruption of supplies from these areas to the entire British army brought concessions from top brass and the strikes soon ended. Even though the left was to say the least, in a minority in these affairs, this did not stop General Sir Julian Byng from asserting that the strike ‘had its origins in Bolshevism.’

Then there was also action at Le Havre (riots, destruction and looting), Etaples (vandalism and insubordination) and then in January 1919, in Folkestone, 10,000 soldiers marched through the town to voice their resentment. A Soldiers’ Union was formed and a compromise was reached about demobilisation.

January 1919 saw further direct action with servicemen marching on Whitehall; Bristol and Maidstone saw unrest too: ‘I well remember the regiment going on strike and marching through the streets of Maidstone protesting about the very poor rations we were receiving.’ Shoreham in Sussex saw a mutiny over demobilisation too and when a general officer spoke in ‘his Oxford accent … “I have been sent here from the War Office to talk to you men,” that was as far as he got when some old warrior in the audience got up and shouted in his cockney accent, “Don’t you believe it cock it’s us that are going to talk to you,” which they then proceeded to do.’

There was action in the Middle East over ‘food and leave and…discipline; and…demobilization.’ A meeting in Kanatara gives a flavour of the time: ‘As the chairman rose to address the crowd, one soldier in the audience…suggested we should start by singing the National Anthem, to which suggestion the chairman gave his assent. The Crowd at once began to sing that well know soldiers’ song Take me back to dear old blighty. This at once put the meeting off to a very good start.’

And when demobilization took place, what was it like? Here is another flavour of the time:

‘Well, we arrived at Marseilles…the Stationmaster said he hadn’t any trains for us, so there was a whole row of cattle trucks…we brushed the manure out with our army caps and got in and stayed there till they found an engine. We were 2 or 3 days going across France… At last we reached Boulogne… The cross-channel Boat Maid of Orleans was in dock…so we all got on…after it seemed hours trying to get us off the Boat they decided to sail… We reached Dover at last. We all got on a train what was going to Charing-Cross, more trouble… At last they decided as there was so many of us they would have to take us to London…a colonel asked us to forget what had happened. I ask you…’