|The pamphlet says 1918 - but perhaps should read 1919?|
As a child I was greatly influenced by my grandmother who used to regale me with stories of the privations endured by the workers in the hungry 'forties. She was a child at the time, attending the old village school. Many was the time when she had to go to school without breakfast. Occasionally the good-hearted schoolmaster would manage to rustle up something for them. I started to augment the family income at the tender age of 7 or 8 before and after attending school. Two decades had passed since my gran's schooldays. The old Board and National schools which my parents had attended had been superseded by the council schools. Education was now compulsory and had taken a step forward. Within his lights our schoolmaster was a quite efficient educationist. He was, however, a real dyed-in-the-wool imperialist and was very proud of the Empire on which the sun never sets. He managed to indoctrinate many of the children, including myself, with his imperialist ideology. He had many maps and all were painted a deep red where the British flag flew. I can still remember thinking and feeling what a desirable solution of all our ills it would be, could we but paint the whole world red. However, I suffered no permanent harm as one of my jobs was running errands for a shoemaker who was a socialist. I used to listen to him arguing the point and eventually decided that socialism was the only answer to our problems.
The average wage of the workers in this part of the country was not more than £1 a week, with no social services of any kind. This was before 9d for 4d, and the first old age pension - 5/-. The only provision against sickness was made by the workers themselves through their Friendly Societies or Slate Clubs. The fear of unemployment was a dominating feature of every workers’ life and the spectre of the workhouse was very real. Annual holidays were very rare - just the occasional day out. To give you some idea of the cost of living - bread was 3½d a quarter loaf; meat from 6d to 1/- a pound, rabbits 1/- to 1/3; cheapest farm eggs ld; milk 2d a pint; butter from 1/- a pound, margarine 6d, cheese 7d; village and town rents 5/- to 7/6 a week; the cheapest suits 25/-. You can imagine how little was available for luxuries: so much for the good old days. Our family was slightly better off than some as Father was gardener to a local doctor and free medical attention was included as a part of his wages. He started with a wage of 15/- a week when there were two children in our family and he was given an increment of 1/- per week for each child produced. My mother was never sure whether it was 16 or 17, but only 8 lived, so the wage was increased to the magnificent figure of 21/- per week.
Soon after leaving school I joined a debating society called the Young Men’s Fraternal, run as an adjunct by the local Congregationalist Church. There all the burning topics of the day were discussed and no holds barred. On one occasion I was invited by the local Boy Scouts to uphold the banner of socialism in debate with a much more elderly anti-socialist sponsored by a well-known local imperialist ex-army officer.
At the end of the debate a vote was taken and I was overwhelmingly adjudged the winner. (My father tentatively asked me if I would tone my activities down a bit as he was frightened of losing his job). I remember another occasion about this time when a speaker for the Anti-Socialist Union was leading forth at a pitch at the Five Ways, Tunbridge Wells, about the terrible things that would happen should the people be so ill-advised as to return a socialist government. He said the capitalists would take all of their capital out of the country. I had to intervene and inquired if they were going to take out all the land, factories and railways, etc. 'Sonny', he said, 'you had better go back to school’. – Mister’, I said 'I should guess you’ve never been to school'. Roars of laughter. I think this episode secured my entry into the SDP, Tunbridge Wells branch. I was about 16 years of age and there was no youth movement then. These were the days of the Clarion Vans and Fellowship and Robert Blatchford, who probably made more socialists in Britain than any other single person. His best-known book, 'Merry England', was a best-seller, topping the then astronomical figure of a million copies. Of course, Blatchford was really a national socialist and so for that matter were a great many more, 'which accounts for the support they gave in that War which was so soon to break out to the allied governments against the central powers. I am not suggesting that they were fascists, for although these call themselves National Socialists, their theories have no connection whatever with socialism or for that matter with genuine nationalism. This period around 1910 also saw the birth of the 'Weekly Herald', under the editorship of that grand old man George Lansbury; which was also soon to become the first socialist daily newspaper - around 1913. The 'Herald' had as its cartoonist the Australian Will Dyson who created the famous Fat Man, and was to my mind the greatest cartoonist the socialist movement has ever known.
The War which broke on the world in August 1914 more or less took the socialist movement by surprise, and not unexpectedly many in that movement supported the then liberal Government in the prosecution of the war. I was never under any delusions as to the real nature of the war, but apart from verbal opposition had no idea what to do about it. I probably had not sufficient courage to become a conscientious objector and I could not see that such action would get anywhere. With conscription in the offing, I joined Kitchener's army in July 1915 as a specially enlisted tradesman, a shoemaker, and became a number, 08907, 59th Co. AOC. After a few weeks of hectic training, I was despatched to France in the August of that year.
In a few days we found ourselves domiciled in the Valdelievre camp and workshop at Calais, the main supply base for the expeditionary (British) forces in France. The personnel was comprised of approximately 1,000 officers and men, mainly belonging to the AOC (later to be elevated to royal status, the RAOC); also a few of the AS corps and a sprinkling of specially attached individual. Apart from a small hard-core of professional soldiers, this personnel was comprised of specially enlisted tradesmen of all sorts: gunsmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, saddlers and shoemakers etc. I was one of the 59th Co. RAOC, 'The Shoemakers', who all the way through the war nursed a special grievance. Most of them were misled into believing that they would receive a special corps pay of 5/- or 6/- per day, as had previously applied to such specially enlisted tradesmen. Instead, they found that the actual pay they received was the same as the ordinary enlisted soldier, i.e. 1/- per day. Later, after much grumbling, this was augmented by an extra 6d per day, corps pay ex gratia. Always this rankled while working alongside and with men receiving 5/- and 6/- a day ; also later colonials arrived, drawing 7/6 a day.
However, having accepted the king's shilling, there was nothing much that could be done about it. A number of these men were prominent in the constant struggles that were always developing.
At one time there was a big trial of strength over output. As more and more machinery was introduced into the base factory, this was used as a lever to increase output even beyond the level justified by the increased mechanisation. This was resisted by most of the men, who refused to do the quota demanded. This resulted in the defaulters being forced to return in the evening to make it up. In this connection the only army rule we had to watch out for was the one which makes malingering a chargeable crime. Therefore, so long as one was always working, one could not be so charged. Incidentally, no-one was ever thus indicted. However, we could not refuse an order to work in the evening. At first about half the men in the shop (shoemakers) were involved, but after a few days resistance was broken. Finally only two of us were left; a dour Highlander and myself. In any case I was not physically capable of maintaining the new pace, so made a virtue of necessity; indeed, soon after this I was sent to hospital after a breakdown, where I was listed as suffering from fever of unknown origin. On the last night on which we were forced to return to work I had a heart-to-heart talk with the sergeant who had to accompany us. There were no witnesses apart from my mate, and among a great many other things, I told him that we could stick it out longer than they could and - 'You see this work here?' (which was the completion of the official quota.) he said, 'yes', and I retorted - 'Well, that comes off my quota tomorrow, and I mean my quota, not yours'. My comrade confirmed that my remarks went; for him, too. Hell, we kept to our threat, and that 'was the end of the matter so far as we were concerned - we were left alone. Indeed, we did ourselves a bit of good, for after that, if there were any soft jobs going, we would be detailed.
I found myself in charge of German prisoners of war, with whom I fraternized to the best of my ability; although I must confess that I never really overcame the language barrier, nevertheless we managed to convey to one another that our views on the war were identical. I was also at one time in charge of Chinese indentured labour in the docks and I could never wish to work with a finer set of men.
Incidentally, this episode in the struggle enhanced my personal status among the men, and I was always listened to. During the whole of the war, its meaning and purpose was continually under debate, and those of us who were under no illusions on this score kept plugging away. On one occasion, I remember a certain private who fancied himself as a great patriot asked - 'If you thought like that, why did you join up?' My reply was - 'For the same reason as you, mate - to dodge the trenches'. There was no rejoiner.
During the election campaigning in which we indulged prior to the Khaki Election I decorated my little section of the hut with in the centre a portrait of Karl Marx, surrounded by other socialist personalities, including the Labour candidate for my own constituency. One day, after returning to the hut for tea, I noticed that my display had been removed. When tea was over I spoke to all the men in the hut. I told them that they all knew what my politics were, and whilst not everyone agreed with me, I was sure that they all upheld my right to express myself; however, someone had seen fit to remove the decorations I had placed at the head of my bed. I didn't know who had done this, but I was going out now, and when I returned would expect to find them replaced. It worked. Nothing more was said, but the photos were back in their positions when I got back.
On several occasions we had official war apologists visit us and give us the orthodox dope. These meetings were always well attended, and we used to have a lovely time getting these people tied up in knots. I remember one such lecture given by a certain Professor Kerr who nobbled me after the meeting and took me aside. 'Of course you're right, he said, 'but we just have a job to do'.
I am bringing out these things in some detail because I want to illustrate that by and large we were not just another lot of disgruntled and dissatisfied men, but that there was a large element of political consciousness.
We used to receive most of the journals that were circulating at this period, sent out to use by friends and relatives at home. These were passed from hand to hand. The most popular of these was the 'Weekly Herald' - it had been forced to revert to its weekly status owing to the exigencies of the war. A meeting was held and it was decided that I try and get a local newsagent, who was also a wholesaler, interested. We succeeded beyond our wildest hopes: the newsagent turned out to be a militant socialist and was most co-operative - but more of that anon.
Food was another matter about which there was constant complaint. We realised that we were much better off in this regard than the men in the trenches, but contended that with the food and resources available we should be doing much better. There was a lot of graft and also spoilage of food. Consequently a messing committee, composed of elected men from all over the camp, was formed under the chairmanship of the camp CO, a certain Captain Rees, a quite forward thinking and fair man. I remember at one mess committee meeting the subject of the conscientious objectors arose, and this officer sprang to their defence - they were, he said, men of principle and guts. In fact we felt quite sorry that the major struggles should commence whilst he was still in command. This messing committee had considerable powers, including daily inspection of the cookhouse, and stores leakages stopped and there was a very noticeable improvement in the amount and cooking of the food.
Another matter which caused a considerable amount of dissatisfaction was Sunday morning work. This increased when the war was obviously entering its final stages and we argued that it was no longer necessary. We succeeded, and Sunday morning was abolished. There was, however, an interesting sequel to this and that was a little matter of church parade, which was held on Sunday mornings. Whilst we were working the faithful were allowed to opt for Sunday morning service and were excused work. Now naturally for quite a few the service was more attractive than work, so the attendance was quite fair. However, when Sunday morning work was abolished, the number of the faithful was reduced to vanishing point. So now in order to get a sufficient number to form a congregation, compulsory church parade was instituted. This took the form of an NCO coming the rounds and at random picking out volunteers - you, you and you. We put up with this, as not many were involved at anyone time. However, our reaction took on a curious expression, and without any agitation on our part. The service always ended with 'The King', but no-one would sing it, so all we had was a rendering by the band. I was at one such service which stands out in my memory. The band had struck up the anthem and there was the usual silence on the part of the congregation. On this occasion, however, the visiting padre stopped the band half-way through and spake thus: “Men , I think there is a little misunderstanding. We are expected to join in and sing this. Now, let’s start again, shall we?” Still not one joined in. The man of God was in a flaming temper. When the band had finished he slammed his Bible shut with a resounding bang and said - 'Thank God we've got a navy'. He evidently had not heard of Invergorden.
It was Soon after this that the great strike which became known as the Calais Mutiny took place; but before dealing with this I will return to the development with regard to the sales of the 'Weekly Herald'. Instead of a few dozen copies we rapidly achieved a mass circulation. In a few weeks in the Valdelievre camp alone we had a sale of 500 copies a week, I and another comrade used to collect them from the French newsagent, and I can assure you it was quite a weighty job.
In addition to our supplies the news agent displayed the weekly posters and sold further hundreds of copies to the troops in other units in the vicinity. The eagerness with which the paper was snapped up was almost unbelievable and our French comrade was just as bucked about it as we were. If I might digress again here, it was this same comrade who became the sole distributor of the 'Daily Herald' as it again reappeared soon after the war had finished.
It happened thus ….l had recently been demobilised, and called at the 'Herald' office to see what was being done to ensure the circulation of the paper among the troops in France. I saw George Lansbury, who introduced me to his circulation manager. I got into a flaming rage when he told me that nothing had been done. They Here so busy with the Scottish edition and other excuses. I told him that they should be ashamed of themselves, after all the work that had been put in to build up the sale of the 'Weekly Herald', and also pointed out the vital importance of our voice being heard in the armed forces. The upshot was that he asked me if I would undertake the job to which I readily agreed. I immediately opened a correspondence with the French comrade, who was with us responsible for building up the sales of the 'Weekly Herald’, and he became the sole agency in France for dealing with the new 'Daily Herald'. A very good job he made of it, and I have no doubt that the paper played a great part in securing the acknowledged very large Labour vote in the Khaki Election just after the war.
In fact the influence of the paper was such that the brass hats got the wind up. The great Winston Churchill, at that time the Minister in charge of the War Office - we called it by its proper name in those days - ordered the burning of the paper on the Rhine.
Now, as to the strike. The army was by now suffering from extreme war weariness , Their theme song was 'I want to go home'. It was now that the brass hats made their fatal mistake. It was a Sunday afternoon, and one of the Valdelievre boys was making a visit to a neighbouring camp to do a spot of propaganda, but he was in no sense a key man. However, he was seized by the military police and lodged in the old Bastille Prison in Calais.
The news was despatched immediately to our camp, which had come to be recognised as the leader of the impending revolt. An emergency meeting was called; the officers' quarters were surrounded, and I have never before or since seen such panic as showed on their faces. They realised that now they were really up against it. They tried to temporise, but we had now got the bit in our teeth and would have none of it. A strike was decided on to commence the next morning and to cover the whole Calais area and all units.
The strike was complete. Very few turned out on the Monday morning, and it took little to persuade them to pack up. Our committee now took on the title 'The Calais Area Soldiers and Sailors Association'.
In the matter of organisation we were greatly influenced by the Soviet method. It was strictly democratic: each hut or group of tents to the same number, elected a delegate to the camp committee, and these committees then likewise elected delegates to the central area committee. It was so easy really; we were just using the organisation that was already there, obligingly provided for us. We issued the daily orders instead of the camp officers, and in the Valdelievre camp occupied the headquarters offices. It all seemed the natural thing to do.
To show the mass feeling - on the Monday morning, to make sure that everybody got the message, pickets were organised to cover the whole area, and I was one of a small party detailed to deal with the docks area. We soon found that very little picketing was required, so in order to get maximum coverage with minimum effort we split into single units. In the sector I covered I found in one office three high-ranking NCO's sitting at their desks. As I entered they swung round on their swivel chairs with sticky grins on their faces. They obviously knew, but I asked them what they were doing there and didn't they know that there was to be no work until our arrested comrade was released. They made no reply, so I just ordered them out and they went like lambs.
There was only one case that offered any resistance: our picket was arrested. But in about five minutes the tables were turned: this camp had revolted, and released him.
A few days after this we had a mass demonstration of thousands of men, complete with a number of regimental bands, marching through the streets of Calais. The people of Calais got the wind up and shuttered their shops. They need not have worried; we were mostly orderly and well behaved, and so far as I know there were no untoward incidents whatever.
The reaction to all this by the Army Command was to send the 5th Army Corps under General Bing to suppress the revolt. However, the first thing the men of the 5th army did on arriving was to ask us for information as to how we did it and for advice on organization. They followed our advice and joined the revolt.
Having failed to break the strike, the top brass now decided to negotiate. We were placed in a very awkward and invidious position. A really revolutionary situation was developing for which we were not really prepared. We felt, however, that we could not go much further unless we had evidence of support from the workers at home. It was a strange coincidence that parallel with our strike a general strike was taking place on the Clyde. As you are doubtless aware, the Clyde at the time was the focal point of real socialist activity in Britain, and it was with great hopes that we waited for this strike to spread to the rest of the country. This, however, did not happen, and unfortunately there was no communication between the two centres of revolt. The only communication we had was with the 'Weekly Herald', and they were too scared to give any publicity to what was happening across the Channel. Also, possibly some of us were a bit scared of our own success; so we decided to negotiate.
A Long Table Conference was arranged, at which were present 13 representatives of each side, including all the units and regiments involved, and this included the WAAC. Our side was led by the president of our Association, a Scots VC.
On the other side the 13 representatives included some of the most important top brass of the British Army. As the conference was just getting under way, it was discovered by a sea lawyer (he was actually a member of the Royal Navy assigned to our base for special duties – and known as the Bolshie), reading the army manual not the King’s Rules and Regulations – that any soldier who had been arrested and then released under duress was liable at any time to rearrest and trial. A message was immediately dispatched to our president in the conference chamber, because the release of our comrade had already been assured, and was obviously not enough. Our delegation immediately decided that a court martial must be held immediately, with of course an implied acquittal. These were met with all sorts of objections: a court martial could not be held on the spur of the moment, like that. Said our president – ‘Well, aren’t there enough of you here?' Adding, 'In any case, our delegation is not prepared to discuss any other of the outstanding matters in dispute until the court martial is held'. We won that round; our comrade was tried and acquitted and the conference then got down to business.
The principal item was the speeding up of demobilisation - 'But how are we going to occupy defeated Germany if you all want to go home?' - Our delegation's reply was that we neither knew nor cared, but it wasn't going to be us. So demobilisation went forward with a bang, and membership of the committee was a certain rapid passport to home.
Then as time went on, Authority was gradually re-established. So far as I know there was no victimisation, and the Calais Area Soldiers and Sailors Association obviously faded out in the course of time. The whole thing was carried through without any violence; but unfortunately there was a tragic sequence insofar as our victimized comrade was concerned. As a result of his incarceration he contracted pneumonia and did. I am sure that Authority in this case did all they could to save him, as it would do them no good to have his death laid at their door; but to no avail. A collection among the men for his widow and two children realised several hundreds of pounds, half of which was ear-marked for the education of his children.
From a pamphlet published by World Books in January 1976.