Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REVIEW: Coal On One Hand, Men On The Other: The Forest of Dean Miners’ Association and the First World War 1910-1920.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm

 THE FOREST MINERS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Written by Ian Wright, and published by the Bristol Radical History Group, 2014 

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, mining was an important (indeed arguably the most important) industry in the Forest of Dean. Some 6,000 were employed down the pits, plus of course the Dean’s freeminers.

There was also a strong sense of militancy amongst the miners – and a high level of opposition both to the war and to the demands made on those who hewed the coal. But back then they lacked any central union organisation. What did exist was a loose federation grouped together under the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB).

In the Forest, most (though not all) miners belonged to the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA). But whilst there was an obvious level of collaboration, the federal structure did not necessarily guarantee solidarity with miners elsewhere in the country.

CROSSCURRENTS:

In this booklet Ian Wright has done a good job in piecing together the events of the war, and how these affected the miners of the Forest of Dean.  Coal was vital both to the war effort and to keep the country running, and consequently mining was a reserved occupation – ostensibly exempt from conscription when this was introduced in 1916. But this did not prevent several hundred miners from volunteering for the armed forces in the early years of the conflict.

To try to keep up coal production in the pits, inexperienced men had to be recruited to work underground. Meanwhile, whilst there were strong anti-war sentiments amongst the miners, their agent in the FDMA,  Henry Rowlinson,  was a strong supporter of the war – as was the Forest’s Liberal MP, Henry Webb (himself a coal mine owner).  Indeed, in many ways they worked together to try to sustain the dwindling support for the conflict.

GROWING OPPOSITION:

But as the casualties of war increased, so did opposition to the slaughter. Meanwhile calls on the miners to increase production intensified. And the ideals of Socialism began to permeate the Forest – so much so that by 1918, the constituency was able to elect its first Labour MP, and the Liberal stranglehold on the Dean came to an end.

All in all it was a toxic brew as far as the Forest’s establishment was concerned.  Strikes were outlawed – though this did not prevent stoppages from taking place, particularly in the South Wales coalfield.

THE “COMB OUT”:

One issue that caused a degree of controversy was that of “combing out”.  In other words, removal of men from the pits, to fight at the front. In April 1917, the MFGB was called to a meeting with the military authorities, to assist in the direct conscription of 21,000 miners – with some 140 from the pits in the Forest of Dean. By August opposition to the “comb out” had grown and resolutions were passed condemning the scheme.

By this time, Rowlinson’s authority was on the wane, and by the end of the year he was forced to leave his post as agent for the FDMA.

Ian Wright’s booklet is extremely well researched (with copious footnotes), and it’s not possible to do it justice in a brief review. He carries his account up to 1920 – the immediate aftermath of the war – with a description of the new order of things emerging in the Forest. The miners now had a new leadership, and a fresh sense of militancy. By 1919 there was also an eruption of mutinies and strikes within the British military. The world was changing in those immediate post-war years.

Many of the leaders of the Forest of Dean Miners Association were blacklisted following the miners’ strike of 1926.  But the radical spirit that had grown since 1914 was to remain.

JOHN WILMOT.

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