Tuesday, 30 September 2014

1919: The Calais mutiny

A short history of the strike and mutiny of British troops stationed in France following the end of the First World War which won concessions and helped speed up demobbing.
As the end of World War I was nearing, the British Army was being used more extensively in France, as the French military had largely disintegrated due to widespread mutiny. However, as time progressed, British soldiers were proving equally unwilling to fight and to obey.

A court martial following the Etaples Mutiny on September 22, 1918 sentenced five youths aged seventeen to nineteen to ten years imprisonment for acts of indiscipline. This led to further agitation for their release. There was a growing campaign against the censorship of news from home and soldiers at Calais elected delegates who also acted as distributors for the then prohibited Daily Herald. There were also demands for instant dismantling of the Val de Lievre workshops.

The stability of the Army on the Continent was affected by the mass industrial unrest back home. In France, in the war zone, official brutalities were rife. One example was at the prison at Les Attaques, where men were detained for trivial offences such as overstaying their leave by a few hours. Prisoners were only supplied with one blanket, during one of the severest winter for decades. They were flogged and manacled for merely talking to each other.

At the end of January 1919, the men of the Army Ordnance and Mechanical Transport sections at the Val de Lievre camp called a mass meeting which decided to mutiny. Conditions in the camp were bad, and reports of several incidents had already found their way into the newspapers.

The Calais mutiny began after agitation for demobilisation*. It coincided with the arrest of Private John Pantling, of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, while delivering what the authorities described as a 'seditious speech to an assembly of soldiers.'

On pay night the men at Val de Lievre smashed open the jail and let Pantling out. The authorities tried to recapture him. When this failed, fresh military police were brought in. They arrested the sergeant of the guard for failing to prevent the prisoner's 'escape'. Anger was now rising. The Commanding Officer - by now a very frightened man - released the sergeant, and called off the attempt to recapture Pantling. He also agreed to a meeting with the men to discuss their grievances. The next day many concessions were made, including shorter hours.

While this was taking place there was a distinct hardening of the attitude of the officers. The soldiers spent the weekend organising the other camps into Soldiers Councils. On Sunday the officers struck back and rearrested Pantling. The news spread quickly. On Monday the newly organised Soldiers Councils called a strike. Not a single man turned up for reveille. The sentries were replaced by pickets. That same morning, at another camp in nearby Vendreux, over 2,000 men came out in sympathy. Later that morning they marched to the Calais camp as a gesture of solidarity. After a mass meeting both camps marched behind brass bands towards the headquarters, where Brigadier Rawlinson was stationed. By now the mutineers totalled 4,000. The headquarters were quickly surrounded and a deputation entered. They demanded the release of Private Pantling. The authorities capitulated and promised that he would be back in his camp within twenty-four hours.
On Tuesday morning he was returned. But by now some 20,000 men had joined the mutiny and the strike was spreading French workers were cooperating and a total embargo was placed upon the movement of British military traffic by rail. In fact the rail stoppage was a significant factor in the escalation of the struggle. 5,000 infantrymen due to return home, finding themselves delayed, struck in support of their own demand for immediate demobilisation.

In an attempt to intimidate the mutineers General Byng and fresh troops were sent for. Unfortunately Byng made the mistake of arriving before his men. His car was immediately commandeered by the mutineers and replaced by a modest Ford. Byng's troops were delayed for a further two days by Lhe blacking of British transport. When they arrived machine guns were placed at strategic points, such as food stores and munition dumps. Byng's troops, in the words of a participant, were 'bits of boys who were sent out just as the war ended.'

Fresh from the growing unrest at home, they were even more reluctant to be in khaki than the Calais mutineers themselves. They started fraternising with them and before long had joined the mutineers. The strike continued.

Some barrack room lawyer pointed out that Pantling could be rearrested at any time. It was decided that it would be to his advantage to be court-martialled whilst the soldiers were still in control. His acquittal would then be binding and he would be safe from further arrest. Reluctantly, the officers had to agree.

The strike was now total. It was led and coordinated by the strike committee, which now took the title of 'The Calais Soldiers' and Sailors' Association.' Their method of organising was strictly democratic. Each hut or group of huts elected a delegate to the Camp Committee. These committees then sent delegates to the Central Area Committee. By-passing the officers, these committees issued daily orders from the occupied Headquarters.

The quality and quantity of the food increased. The food surplus served to confirm the rumour that officers had secretly been selling food to French businessmen. S.C.A. Cannel, who was working as a clerk at the Ordnance Depot testified how “our food was being "flogged" to French people. In fact, I saw with my own eyes, clothes baskets full of bully, cheese and bacon going out of the camps at night.”

Eventually a conference was arranged, at which major concessions were won. But the mutiny was drawing to a close. On the evening of the conference, whilst most of the soldiers were attending a local cinema, a surprise vote was taken. The result was acceptance of an officer's ultimatum to return under orders. These men then had to face the wrath of their comrades, who returned to discover that the mutiny had virtually collapsed.

During the mutiny contacts had been made with French workers, and with allied forces on the Rhine. Troops at Dunkirk were also ready to come out, and there was little doubt that they would have found support amongst workers and troops back home. Had the movement continued it could clearly have developed a revolutionary character. A further significant sign that the army was crumbling was when women of the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary stayed away from work, in solidarity with the Calais strike.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Clyde strike had also collapsed. This played a part in lowering the morale of the Calais mutineers, who drew back from a course of action leading to revolution.
This incident had shaken the authorities to the core. British troops had shown they were capable of highly sophisticated forms of struggle, forging important links with other sectors of the army and with the civilian population. Although the strike was over, the authorities never felt strong enough to victimise the strike committees or to re-impose the old type of military discipline. Soldiers were free to return to camp whenever they felt like it, and to enter cafes and the like during 'prohibited' hours, without fear of disciplinary action. The food was improved. New huts were erected. Weekend work was abolished. The Calais Area Soldiers' and Sailors' Association continued to meet and applied for representation on the newly formed Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Union.

The mutiny had ended on January 30 1919. Within three months demobilisation began in earnest - only just in time to avert another wave of mutiny. The lesson that the military machine could be beaten had been learnt. Churchill commented at the time that “if these armies had formed a "united resolve", if they had been seduced from the standards of duty and patriotism, there was no power which could have attempted to withstand them.”

From Mutinies, by Dave Lamb, which is extensively footnoted
* Demobbing is short for demobilisation: being permitted to leave the army and return to civilian life

Originally posted on  LibCom.org
PDF Version here

Friday, 26 September 2014

1919: The Southampton mutiny

The fighting ended in 1918 but soldiers grievances and the drive for further militarism sadly did not, as a result mutinies and rebellions among the European armies actually increased while waiting for demobilisation. Here's a brief section on one of these mutinies.

A history of the militant rebellion of British troops in Southampton following the end of the First World War. Amidst the widespread dissatisfaction, the men were highly reluctant to return to Europe after the end of the conflict.

Following the massacre of World War I, a reminder of the strength of ordinary soldiers came from Southampton, in the middle of January 1919, when 20,000 soldiers went on strike and took over the docks. Robertson, Commander in Chief of the Home Forces, sent General Trenchard to restore military authority. Trenchard had witnessed several mutinies in the French Army and was quite prepared to employ the most ruthless measures. Nevertheless he underestimated the men as he approached the dockgate and attempted to address a reluctant audience. A chorus of boos and catcalls accompanied his remarks. The meeting came to an undignified end when a group of men took hold of him and gave him a going over before ejecting him. Said Trenchard:
"It was most unpleasant.. . It was the only time in my life I'd been really hustled. They said they did not want to listen to me. They told me to get out and stay out."
Smarting from his minor injuries and major wounds to his pride, Trenchard acted with the vengeful cunning which had preserved his military caste for generations. Indifferent to the grievances of the soldiers - many of whom had seen active service - he saw only a mutinous rabble to be put down by force. Fully aware that the mutineers were not armed he phoned a request to the garrison commander at Portsmouth for 250 armed men plus an escort of Military Police. In spite of fierce objections from Southern Command, Trenchard made it perfectly clear that if necessary he would initiate a blood-bath. 

The following morning Trenchard returned to the quayside and waited for the troop train from Portsmouth. Only when the unarmed mutineers had been surrounded by armed troops with their safety bolts in firing position did Trenchard make a second attempt to address the troops. And even then he was told to 'drop dead' by a sergeant, who was promptly arrested. Following this incident the mutiny collapsed. 170 soldiers were personally selected as ringleaders by Trenchard, fifty three of whom were confined in a nearby troopship.

The docks were now quiet but a few score soldiers had barricaded themselves in their billets. Hose pipes were commandeered and after half an hour Trenchard's riot squad had captured about 100 soaked and shivering men who were then forced to stand in the January frost outside Trenchard's office until the latter had satisfied his desire for vengeance. 

A few weeks later, in early February, Trenchard was called in by Churchill, then Minister for War and Air, and was congratulated on his 'masterly handling of the Southampton riots' and appointed Chief of the Air Staff. (Duel of Eagles by Peter Townsend, Weidenfeld &: Nicolson, 1970, pp 47-8)
Unrest amongst the troops merged with unrest in industry. By February 1919 large numbers of soldiers were refusing to return to the Continent. Civil disturbances in mining areas, which under normal circumstances would have been quelled by a show of force, presented grave problems to the authorities, since it was not clear whether the troops could be relied upon. Eventually the Army Council decided that there was a Guards division that could be trusted and issued instructions for them to be brought back from the Continent. The Guards were used on a number of occasions, for example to disarm the Durham Light Infantry at Colchester, when they refused to embark for Russia.
How near was Britain to a full scale revolution during these weeks? This must remain a matter for speculation. The Army was in disarray: soldiers and sailors councils and demobilisation clubs were being formed. Delegates from various camps were beginning to combine their efforts and resources. The number of strikes in Liverpool and Glasgow were increasing. There were riots in Glasgow and troops sent to occupy the streets were beginning to fraternise with the strikers and demonstrators. There were riots in Belfast and a national railway strike was imminent. From August 1918 until mid-1919 even the police force was affected by militant strike action.

Edited by libcom from Mutinies by Dave Lamb

Originally posted at LibCom.org
PDF Version  here

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

1918-1930: Mutiny and resistance in the Royal Navy

The telly's been crammed with guff about WWI a lot of it attempting to glorify one of the greatest mass slaughters in history. In an attempt to counter some of the King and Country rot that's been spewing out of every media pore I'm sharing articles I have on resistance to the War.

For today here's a history of resistance within the Royal Navy, the French, Russian and German navies were also centres of resistance and revolt in this time.

Indiscipline - HMS Revenge
A short history of mutinies and rebellions in the British Royal Navy and Marines from the end of World War I, Russian Revolution and up until 1930.

Whilst the mutinies in the German and French Navies in the First World War have been well documented little information is available concerning the British Royal Navy. There was, however, considerable talk of mutiny at Portsmouth, in the summer of 1918. The threat was serious enough for Lionel Yexley, an admiralty agent,[1] to write a report warning the Admiralty of impending trouble. This was only averted by immediate improvements in pay and conditions. Demands for 'lower deck' organisation were taken seriously. Agitation for trade union representation was spreading throughout the Navy.

The material conditions of the sailors certainly justified a mutiny. Between 1852 and 1917 there had only been one pay increase, amounting to a penny a day, in 1912. Wartime inflation had reduced the sailors' nineteen pence a day to a mere pittance. Another twopence a day was granted in 1917, plus a miserable separation allowance of ten shillings and six pence a week, for wives. Following a series of mutinies in 1919 pay increases of over two hundred per cent were granted.

After the Russian Revolution the British Navy was sent into action against the Russians. It proved ineffective, but this ineffectiveness had less to do with the efforts of the Bolsheviks than with the unwillingness of the British seamen to fight. The extent of these mutinies can be measured by reference to the following comment made in the House of Commons by G. Lambert MP, on March 12 1919:

'...undoubtedly there was, at the end of last year, grave unrest in the Navy... I do not wish to be violent, but I think I am correct in saying that a match would have touched off an explosion.'[2]
Shortly after the armistice with Germany the crew of a light cruiser, at Libau on the Baltic, mutinied. Many other ships were sent home from Archangel and Murmansk after similar experiences. In spite of a propaganda campaign against Russia it was becoming increasingly difficult to obtain reliable crews. Refusals to weigh for Russia were a regular occurrence at Invergordon, Portsmouth, Rosyth, Devonport and Fort Edgar.

Many labour historians have written about the refusal of dockers to load the 'Jolly George' with an arms consignment for Poland in May 1920. But we have heard virtually nothing about far greater challenges to authority in the armed forces. For example, early in 1919 a group of dock workers discovered that the destination of a large cruiser being refitted at Rosyth was Russia. Together with some members of the Socialist Labour Party they leafleted the crew, who refused to sail. In fact the crew stayed put for three weeks, although isolated in mid-stream, until their demands were met and they were paid off at Portsmouth.

In January 1919 there were mutinies on the mine-sweepers at Rosyth. On January 13, 1919 there was a mutiny on the patrol boat 'Kilbride' at Milford Haven, where the red flag was hoisted. This was an uneasy year for the Admiralty. On October 12, 150 seamen had broken out of their ships at Port Edgar on hearing that they were due to return to the Baltic. The First Destroyer Flotilla was prevented from returning to the Baltic war. Eventually half the ships sailed on August 14, their crews made up from Atlantic Fleet battleships. Although most of the mutineers were arrested, some 44 men made their way to London to present petitions at Whitehall. They were arrested at King's Cross and sent to Chatham Barracks.[3] Between October 12 and November 21, 1919 some 96 offenders had been arrested and punished, ten by imprisonment.[4] It should be remembered that the government had repeatedly pledged that only volunteers would be sent to fight against the Russians. It is clear that this was not the practice employed by the Admiralty. Those who did not intend to 'volunteer' had little choice but to mutiny and face the consequences.
HMS vindictive
 By November 1919 discontent had spread to the aircraft carrier 'Vindictive' (pictured, right) in Copenhagen. A marine detachment was called in to disperse a group of seamen demanding leave. Two men were arrested. Later two stokers were caught trying to stop the fan engines. They were each given five years. The following morning virtually no one turned up for duty. This provoked Captain Grace to arrest five more alleged 'ringleaders'. They were condemned to 90 days hard labour before a dishonourable discharge. Another six were arrested, but resistance continued. The next morning 14 crewmen were still refusing duty and were arrested. That evening another two arrests were made.[5]

Meanwhile the crews of the minesweepers operating in the Baltic declared they had had enough. There were incidents aboard the flagship 'Delhi', in December, when only 25% of the crew responded to a command to return to Biorko in the Gulf of Finland.

There was a further naval mutiny in Russia, that of the gunboat 'Cicala' in the White Sea. Death sentences were imposed on the 'ringleaders'. The fact that these were later commuted to one year's imprisonment reflects the continuing strength of the sailors' movement.[6]

Mutinies in the forces of intervention were not confined to the Navy. There was a large mutiny in a Marine battalion at Murmansk. The 6th Battalion of the Royal Marines, formed in the summer of 1919 at a time of unrest over demobilisation, were originally intended to police Schleswig Holstein. But, at short notice, the Battalion had been diverted to cover the evacuation of Murmansk. They were sent to the Lake Onega region, a further 300 miles south of Kem. In August 1919 two companies refused duty: 90 men were tried and found guilty of mutiny by a court martial. Thirteen men were sentenced to death and others to up to 5 years imprisonment.

None of the death sentences were actually carried out. The 90 mutineers were shipped to Bodmin prison, where they continued their resistance to arbitrary authority. (In this they were acting in the best traditions of the Royal Marines. In December 1918 some Marines had been involved in a mutiny inside Bodmin prison which had resulted in three death sentences, later commuted to five years penal servitude.) Continued resistance paid off. The ninety men arrested after the Murmansk incident had their sentences reduced as follows: the 13 sentenced to death were commuted to five years, but 12 were released after only one year, and the other after two years. Twenty men, originally given 5 years, were released after six months. 51 men sentenced to two years were also released within six months.
In recognition of the fact that their officers had acted contrary to Army instructions in employing young and inexperienced lads at the front, the remainder of those arrested were either released or had their sentences commuted to 6 months. Following the announcement, on December 22, nineteen of these acts of 'clemency' the First Lord of the Admiralty told the Commons that 'bad leadership' was a factor behind the mutiny. He even hinted at the possibility of disciplinary measures being taken against several officers.

Many other mutinies occurred in North Russia. One took place in the 13th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, which ended with death sentences being passed on two sergeants whilst the other mutineers were cowed by White Russian machine gunners called in by the English officers.
News of these mutinies was suppressed. They highlighted the reluctance of British sailors to fight against Russia when the government was theoretically committed to a policy of peace. Contrary to what the people were being told, and at the very moment when the hysteria surrounding the Armistice was at its height, the Foreign Office and Admiralty were finalising their arrangements for intervention in Russia.

The Navy was not only required for the anti-Bolshevik crusade and to defend Britain's imperial commitments. It was also needed to quell internal disturbances. Towards the end of the 1914-1918 war seamen were trained in the noble art of 'blacklegging' in the event of strikes by railwaymen or power workers. 'The battleship Vanguard', says Walter Kendall, 'was sent to the Mersey to command Liverpool during the Police strike of August 1919'.[7]

Resistance in the Navy continued between 1919 and the time of the large Invergordon mutiny of 1931.[8] In 1930 there were no fewer than six major movements within the Navy against conditions of work and the arbitrary injustice of naval discipline. The 'Revenge' (pictured, right), 'Royal Oak', Vindictive', 'Repulse', 'Ramillies' and 'Lucia' were all affected.
Edited by libcom.org from Mutinies by Dave Lamb

1. Lionel Yexley, euphemistically referred to as a 'naval correspondent' (see Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969, p. 191) was the editor of a lower deck journal called The Fleet. Yexley had amassed a lot of information about underground naval organisations and his statement that such organisations had existed for ten years was confirmed in Brassey's Naval Annual of 1919. These incidents are also referred to by Geoffrey Bennett in Cowan's War (London, Collins, 1964), p. 198. See also Kendall, op. cit. , p. 190
2. Hansard, March 12, 1919
3. Bennett, op. cit., p. 198
4. Ibid., p. 199
5. On December 29, 1919, following a series of acts of militancy, a review of the sentences of those convicted of naval mutiny was announced by the First Lord of the Admiralty. Sentences of up to two years were halved. So were one year sentences. The men serving such sentences had their medals restored. Even the two sailors caught trying to sabot the fan engines of the 'Vindictive' had their convictions reviewed after two years.
6. Bennett, op. cit. , p.203
7. Kendall, op. cit., pp. 191-2
8. Wintringham, op. cit., p. 328

Origionally posted on LibCom.org
PDF Version here

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Speculator Miners last Letters

The Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine disaster of June 8, 1917 was the most deadly mine disaster in the history of the United States. Nearly two hundred miners died most from asphyxiation. Utah Phillips reads some of the trapped miners letters. 

First letter

Dear wife, this may be the last message you will get from me. The gas broke about 11:15 pm, I tried to get all the men out, but the smoke was too strong. I got some of the boys with me in a drift and put up in a bulkhead. If anything happens to me you better sell the house and go to California and live. You will know your Jim died like a man and his last thoughts were for his wife that I love better than anyone on earth. We’ll meet again, tell mother and the boys goodbye,
With love to my wife and may God take care of you.
Your loving Jim
Jay D Moore

Second Letter

Dear Pat, well we are waiting for the end, I guess it won’t be long. We take turns rapping on the pipe so if the rescue crew is around they will hear us. Well my dear wife try not to worry, I know you will but trust in God everything will come out alright. There’s a young fellow here Clarence Marthy, he has a wife and two kiddies, tell her we done the best we could but the cards were against us.
Goodbye loving wife

Third Letter

All alive but air getting bad, one small piece of candle left, think it is all off.

Fourth Letter (written on the cover of the book)

In the dark.

Search This Blog

#blog-pager { display: block !important; float: none!important; } .blog-pager-older-link, .home-link, .blog-pager-newer-link { background-color: #FFFFFF!important; }