Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

A different view on World War I

In O. Adams on January 13, 2014 at 1:55 pm

by Owen Adams (un-edited edition)

ONE late night at the Angel pub in Coleford, I found myself chatting with a soldier based at Beachley about the war in Afghanistan. He agreed that there was no good reason for the British army to be there, but as to the idea of bringing the troops home, he said “if we give up now, the deaths of all those killed in action in Helmand, including my mates, will be in vain”. In other words, to retreat would be to dishonour the fallen, despite the lack of justification for the war in the first place.

The same kind of rationale seems to be the main theme every remembrance day. If you’re not wearing a red poppy, or arguing against wearing a poppy because it’s glorifying war, it’s considered a betrayal to the memory of the dead and injured. Many poppy-pushers don’t want to hear about the futility of war, or that arms traders use remembrance day functions as networking events… or that remembering the fallen isn’t enough, we need to strive for an end to all war.

A year before the centenary of the outbreak of “the war to end all wars” (which rather paved the way for more wars), the government has announced a £50 million fund to pay for commemorations. Every school will receive funding to visit French and Belgian battlefields. The PM said: “Let’s get out there and make this centenary a truly national moment in every community in our land… to ensure the sacrifice and service of 100 years ago is still remembered”. Communities secretary Eric Pickles added: “Remembering the huge losses of people and sacrifices made across the Commonwealth during the First World War is something that will unite the whole country next year… We have a duty to educate future generations about the First World War to ensure that the role our armed forces played, and continue to play, in defending our liberties we take for granted today are remembered.”

Never mind that even the best historians are unable to explain precisely why or how all the major world powers of 1914 mutually massacred more than 15 million of their young, that people’s liberties weren’t on the agenda (rather they were slaves ordered to murder), we are now obliged to remember the sacrifices people made for “their country”, in the stage-managed propaganda of the military-industrial complex.

The sacrifices people were forced to make – under pain of court-martial, imprisonment or firing squad, or at best accusations of cowardice – were in the name of capitalism and empire. Is it coincidence that war was declared at a time of immense social upheaval across Europe, when trade unions, labour movements, calls for universal suffrage and socialist causes were beginning to make headway and threatening to topple the establishment and capitalist fat cats? While we remember the war, will we also remember the widespread industrial unrest (including two police strikes), mutinies, peace truces, the Easter Rising of 1916 in Ireland and the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as the German Revolution of 1918, the anti-war sentiment of the shipyard workers of Red Clydeside and many socialists in Britain and elsewhere, plus the devastating 1918-19 influenza outbreak which killed far more people, already exhausted by years of unnecessary brutality?

Will we remember one of the enduring slogans of the war: “A worker at both ends of a bayonet”? Perhaps not even Labour Party historians would want to see the First World War as intrinsically a war to stem the tide of international socialism and a burgeoning working-class uprising – Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was published just a few months before war was declared?

Just two days before war was declared, Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson signed a manifesto at an anti-war rally at Trafalgar Square which stated: “Workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all… Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the War. Up with the peaceful rule of the people.” Within several weeks, the British Socialist Party, the Labour Party and TUC swung firmly behind the war, leaving only the national council of the Independent Labour Party unstinting in its anti-war stance.

Bristol Radical History Group, which includes input from Forest of Dean historians such as Ian Wright, are researching and appealing for hidden and buried war-time history to be unearthed and collated as a counter to the government’s propaganda machine about 1914-18.

Among the revelations they are working on is that the so-called Christmas Day truce of 1914 involved hundreds of thousands of soldiers, in some places lasted for months rather than a day or two, and was repeated several times; that Churchill and other leaders hatched a plan to engage British and other troops – 500,000 of them – in nipping the Bolshevik revolution in the bud, but had underestimated the lack of enthusiasm for such a campaign; that soviets were declared not only in Russia, but even a soviet formed in Southampton; and that there was a roaring trade in VD  gononoccal pus, rubbed on the groin, as a way of getting out of the trenches, as well as soldiers shooting themselves in the foot.

The Gloucestershire poet FW Harvey, who lived in Yorkley from 1921 until his death in 1957, is remembered almost entirely as a “war poet”, mainly thanks to his poem Ducks, penned while a prisoner of war, but scarcely known for the peace meetings he organised at Devil’s Chapel after the Great War. While we have no proof either way, Harvey enthusiasts will typically dismiss any suggestion that he deliberately went over the top to hand himself over to the Germans in 1916 to escape the trenches for a prison, as so many others did. The stigma remains, promoted by warmongers, that someone trying to save their own life or sanity by leaving the battlefield is a coward.

The narrative Cameron and co will no doubt want us all to follow is that everyone in Britain was eager to play their part before and into the war, and it was only after soldiers experienced the horror of the trenches that they were moved to pen poignant poetry. The story is well known that those who didn’t volunteer before conscription was introduced in 1916 had white feathers thrust on them by “patriotic” women and elders.

However, research under way by Ian Wright suggests that in the Forest of Dean, at least, only a small number of miners were willing to leave the pits for the trenches. This was despite a recruiting office being set up directly outside the entrance of Norchard pit, near Lydney. But in January 1915, figures show only 600 out of 7,000 miners (out of a total Dean population of 15,000) had signed up to fight the Huns. Only about a quarter of the 800-strong Forest battalion of the Gloucesters regiment were recruited from the Dean – while the officers came from ruling-class families and mine owners. The battalion last 292 men, 38 from the Forest. And there was also opposition to conscription, as more than 200 Forest miners were to be dragged into the war by order of HM Government after 1916.

“In the summer of 1916 at the annual miners’ demonstration at Speech House the National President of the Miners Federation urged the miners across the country to stand together against their natural enemy, the coal owners,” writes Ian. “He emphasised the need for union solidarity with other industries, in particular the dockers and railway workers. These views were very popular and had the support of the Forest miners, where union membership was nearly 100 per cent.

“At a meeting in Drybrook in August 1917 syndicalist miners from south Wales met with the Forest men. They decided to oppose any further scheme and declared in favour of negotiation for an immediate and honourable peace with Germany.”

The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) syndicalist slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” seemed to apply at Norchard Colliery, where 6,000 Forest miners threatened an all-out strike in 1918 calling for the reinstatement of one sacked worker.

In Russia, the Tolstoyan Valentin Bulgakov’s first reaction to the outbreak of war was an appeal to “wake up, all people are brothers!… The common enemy of us all, no matter what nationality to which we belong – is the beast within us.” He was soon arrested. AE Ashworth’s The Sociology of Trench Warfare 1914-18 remains one of the best alternative narratives which reveals the humanitarian lengths ordinary soldiers in both trenches went to while their bosses, the generals and other commanders, weren’t looking. One British soldier remembered: “Hatred of the enemy, so strenuously fostered in training days, largely faded away in the line. We somehow realised that individually they were very like ourselves, just as fed-up and anxious to be done with it all.”

Ken Weller’s Don’t Be A Soldier! also offers valuable insights which depart from the establishment version of jingoism and sacrificial lambs. The title is taken from a leaflet produced by the North London Herald League in 1914, which stated: “A good solider is a blind, heartless machine. At the word of command he will put a bullet in the brain of the bravest and noblest man who has ever lived. He respects neither the grey hair of age nor the weakness of childhood. He is unmoved by prayers, by tears, or by argument. He is indifferent to human thought or feelings. Don’t be a soldier – be a man!”

Finally, the official account always tells us that the war ended with the armistice of November 11, 1918; the reality was demob didn’t get underway until the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919, and only after numerous mutinies, mass walkouts, an influenza epidemic and civil unrest in towns such as Luton, where rioting returning servicemen faced with unemployment smashed up the town hall and a grand banquet organised for the mayor. “For a while the power of the armed forces had slipped out of the control of the ruling classes,” Dave Lamb notes in his extensive study of mutinies from 1919-20, of which there were many – some leading to the setting up of soviets or workers’ councils.

We all know what happened after Versailles. The toxic brew of nationalism and fascism fermented across Europe over the next two decades, tolerated – and supported – by the British Establishment right up until 1939. Industrialists, capitalists, church and other forces of ruling-class authority were bolstered and workers repressed by fascism – only when their empire, land, resources and private interests were specifically threatened did the allies swing into action and push the cannon fodder into service again. Just like any war waged in the name of “our country”, past, present and future, it was good for business, good for averting crises in capitalism and continuing the great lie.

Find out more about Bristol Radical History Group’s alternative WW1 history project here:


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