British workers came close to overthrowing the government just after the First World War, writes Julie Sherry
Soldiers returning from the First World War in 1918 faced poverty, not “a land fit for heroes”. But they weren’t prepared to take it.
The 1917 Russian Revolution showed workers could change the world. From Germany to China, workers were in revolt.
Strike days in Britain rocketed from six million in 1918 to 35 million in 1919.
Engineers, railway and transport workers, miners and cotton workers were all involved in waves of militant strikes.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin said that a revolution becomes possible when workers “do not want to live in the old way and the upper classes cannot carry on in the old way”.
In 1919 Britain, both of these conditions were met.
In late January, the bitter 40 Hours Strike broke out in Glasgow and Belfast. It was a response to munitions workers facing unemployment after the war, while engineers in work suffered a 54-hour week.
Strike committees led over 100,000 workers. There were daily mass meetings and mass pickets.
Glasgow had already experienced militant, unofficial strikes. The Clyde Workers Committee, an elected rank and file organising body, was born out of these struggles.
This time the strike committee demanded that trams come off the roads for the day.
When the authorities refused, strikers cut the cables connecting trams to the overhead lines, stopping the whole tram service. Trams blocked roads throughout the city.
Police were chased off when they try to intervene. Harry McShane, then a shipyard engineer, described one incident when two officers tried to stop a tram being disconnected: “The strikers pulled their clothes off and they had to run for their lives naked.”
Strikers showed incredible determination and creativity. But union officials had wormed their way into the strike committees, which caused problems.
The biggest union, the ASE engineering union, was against the strike. Its officials reluctantly sat on the strike committee in an attempt to maintain some control on the situation.
Their battle to stop the strike being seen as a political struggle allowed the government to isolate it.
On the last day of January a mass of striking workers in George Square were attacked by police. They fought them to a standstill, in what became known as “Bloody Friday”.
But the next day Glasgow woke to find the government had brought in troops supported by tanks and field guns from across the border in England.
An eyewitness said, “Trainloads of young soldiers had been brought to the city—young lads of 19 or so who had no idea of where they were or why they were there.
“The authorities didn’t dare use the local regiments billeted at Maryhill barracks, in case they supported the strikers.”
Yet 100,000 workers would return to the streets on that May Day.
The miners, railway workers and transport workers—who in 1912 had formed the Triple Alliance—all had national wage claims in at the same time.
The cabinet desperately needed a strategy to derail the possibility of a general strike. This wasn’t a defensive strike but was about demanding a pay rise.
They appealed to the reformism of the trade union leaders, in particular Robert Smillie, president of the miners’ union.
They offered a commission to look into the issue of pay, conditions and hours—the Sankey Commission.
Miners’ leaders toured the country, singing the praises of the commission. They eventually got miners to accept.
So the government managed to avoid nationalisation, and sidestepped the issue of the appalling conditions and death-at-work rates.
The railway workers were led by Jimmy Thomas, a right winger who set out to call off their strike demanding the standardisation of pay upwards.
He managed to cancel a strike set for 27 March. But he could not hold back action when the cabinet moved to impose wage cuts.
On 27 September, 100,000 struck and won. They stopped the attack and gained extra wages for the lower grades.
Throughout 1919, trade union leaders in every case squandered opportunities to generalise the struggle.
In some cases workers’ militancy won significant concessions in spite of this.
Even the police struck in 1919.
In August 1918, 12,000 of 19,000 Met coppers struck over pay and against victimisation of a union organiser and for union recognition.
Prime minister Lloyd George described the moment by saying, “This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since.”
The government made concessions. It promised to grant recognition after the war, although it had no intention of doing so.
The police strike in July 1919 suffered as a result. Fewer than 3,000 came out nationally.
All those who struck were sacked and the union was smashed.
The state learned a valuable lesson—buy the loyalty of the police force, and there’s no way they’ll be in a union.
But the strike was an astounding expression of the volatility of the times, a reflection of the revolutionary moment.
At the same time British imperialism suffered a damaging blow with the partition of Ireland.
This was by no means the end of the empire, but it marked a turning point in Britain’s standing in the world.
Yet the leadership of the working class movement managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory—and not accidentally either.
In spring 1919, Lloyd George told the leaders of the Triple Alliance that the government was at their mercy.
He said, “If you carry out your threat and strike, you will defeat us… but have you weighed the consequences?
“If a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered if you are ready?”
Smillie later admitted, “From that moment we were beaten and we knew we were.”
So workers had essentially beaten the government and had clear lessons from Russia of what to do next.
Yet union leaders sided with the capitalist state.
Had the Communist Party been launched during these struggles it would have been shaped and strengthened by the experience.
But it could also have shaped and directed the strikes.
In 1919 workers’ revolutions were taking hold around the globe and soldiers were identifying with a mood of resistance.
A revolution could have erupted in Britain—just as it had in Russia.
War minister Winston Churchill was desperate to extend conscription so the army could be sent to fight Bolshevism in Russia.
Like every other capitalist government, the British state wanted to suffocate the revolution at birth before it could spread across Europe.
But British soldiers were already infected by it and they mutinied.
In early January 1919 some 2,000 troops in Folkestone, Kent, refused to board boats for service abroad.
They marched through the town. Their numbers grew as they were joined by returning soldiers who had just docked.
The mutinies caught on, spreading like wildfire until there were nearly 50 across Britain.
Sailors on HMS Kilbride joined the revolt, raising a red flag and refusing to set sail.
The mutineers’ demands included not being sent to Russia, quicker demobilisation, higher pay and a challenge to bullying officers.
Across the channel in France, British soldiers in Calais revolted, organising themselves into soldiers’ councils. They called a strike.
Sentries were replaced by pickets.
By now 20,000 men had joined the mutiny and French railworkers were helping them by blocking the movement of British military traffic.
The Yorkshire Light Infantry based in Archangel, in northern Russia, were won to supporting the revolution and formed their own soviet.
The extraordinary level of turmoil in the army forced the government to concede.
Even Churchill spoke up against carrying out the standard death penalty for mutineers.
In a frantic memo, Churchill revealed the cabinet’s panic. He wrote, “Will troops in various areas respond to orders for assistance to preserve the public peace?
“Will they assist in strikebreaking? Will they parade for draft to overseas, especially Russia?”
He concluded “the army is liquefying fast”.
Our side was too strong—their side was walking on eggshells.
And they knew it.
Further reading: 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution by Chanie Rosenberg, £2.25.
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk