In a recent blog article I drew attention to some interesting new research in the BBC History magazine on the rather volatile summer of 1919 in Britain, including the unhappiness of former soldiers and the problems such men had felt they faced when they returned back to domestic peacetime life after demobilisation.
The summer of 1919 appeared to bring to the fore simmering discontent among ex-service men that had arguably been building for at least a year or so previously, and research on the leafy town of Richmond-on-Thames in 1918 illustrates this well.
By the early summer of 1918, there were two organisations each competing with one another for the loyalty of ex-servicemen in the town. In late July, 1918, the local press revealed that a branch of the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ organisation had opened an office at No.9 Golden Court in George Street in Richmond. Publicity for the new branch informed ex-soldiers in the town that the branch embraced Richmond, Kew, East Sheen, Mortlake and Barnes, and stated: ‘Discharged Service Men and Dependents of men who have died on Service should call or write when requiring advice or assistance on Pension or other matters’.
In a further advert for the ‘Comrades’ branch placed in the press a week later, additional information was offered on the purpose of the organisation and its key aims. These included a promise to ‘Watch and safeguard the interests of all Ex-members of the Forces, and to take such steps as are necessary to protect them now, during and after demobilisation‘ (emphasised in bold in the advert). The ‘Comrades’ also intended to ‘press the claims of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors to State and Public Employment‘, and also to ‘secure adequate pensions for discharged men, and promote the welfare of women and children left by those who have fallen’.
Despite these quite radical-sounding ambitions, most historians regard the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ (CGW) as a relatively conservative organisation, which was founded by former officers at national level to channel and ‘calm down’ some of the growing discontent of discharged and demobilised servicemen, as there were worries that angry soldiers might be attracted to Socialist or more ‘subversive’ revolutionary groups, eager to exploit growing disappointment over the broken promises of Lloyd George’s wartime Coalition Government. The CGW’s national president and leader was the Conservative MP Colonel Wilfred Ashley (1867-1939) (see photo), who was keen to steer ex-soldiers away from what he saw as the seductive propaganda of ‘radical’ ex-service organisations.
Meanwhile, another rival organisation, the ‘National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers’ (founded in April, 1917), also established a presence in Richmond in 1918. Under the auspices of the National Federation, a public meeting was held at the Victoria Working Men’s Club one Friday evening in July, presided over by Mr. H.E. Pike. An address was delivered to the meeting by Mr. T.H. Garside, and those on the platform included Councillor J. Morrison and Mr. T. Smith, who was secretary of the local branch of the Federation.
Often viewed as more outspoken and ‘political’ than the ‘Comrades of the Great War’, the Federation appeared keen to highlight how angry soldiers had become with the authorities. This comes through quite clearly at the meeting held at the Victoria Working Men’s Club. In his speech, reflecting on the reasons for the formation of the Federation, Mr. Garside noted that it was stated by many, ‘especially in the press’, that such a combination of discharged soldiers ‘would mean revolution’. They were told, he continued, that discharged men ‘should trust the Government’. But from this he ‘dissented’, for they had, ‘on the contrary, every reason to mistrust the Government’.
While Garside denied that the Federation was ‘a political organisation’, he nevertheless stated that they were out to ‘protect the rights of discharged men’, especially over the question of pensions and the award of pensions to ex-soldiers. He explained: ‘A man had no right of appeal, and this, in his opinion, was an unequal and iniquitous position in which to place men who had been in uniform. They had every right to be paid money from the coffers of the State, to which they were legally and morally entitled’. Garside also went on to strongly emphasise what he called the ‘meagre allowances’ that the State granted mothers and widows.
Perhaps unsettled by the activities of the Federation in the town, a month later the Comrades of the Great War branch held its first general meeting, at the Greyhound Hotel. The chairman, Captain Warren, in welcoming CGW members, opened with a short review of the inception of the branch two months previously and its subsequent work. He also stated that, at the CGW branch premises at Golden Court, a ‘recreation room’ and lending library were under construction, ‘this being the first step in the social side of the organisation locally’, and the ‘nucleus’ of a Comrades Club in the Richmond Borough.
Dealing with the movement generally, Capt. Warren also revealed to the local Richmond members that there were now 388 CGW branches across the country and, on the question of pensions alone, the central organisation had taken up 119 cases directly with the Ministry of Pensions, and had also formed an ’employment and information bureau’.
Interestingly, Warren also referred to ‘the unfortunate friction that had existed between associations formed for discharged soldiers and sailors’, and said that he was pleased ‘to see that a better feeling between these associations was beginning to appear’. He urged all members of the ‘Comrades’ to ‘do their very best to foster this better spirit’.
Nevertheless, despite these calls for cooperation between rival organisations, and the attempts by officers of the ‘Comrades’ to reassure ex-soldiers that the Government was taking their concerns seriously, a careful perusal of further media coverage of both the Federation and the Comrades organisations in Richmond in 1918-19 indicates that some rank-and-file ex-soldiers remained notably angry and disillusioned with both the State and private employers, and their perception that they were being treated unfairly certainly continued well into 1919.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)