“Mutinies” at Shoreham Camp

“England is different: we shall not tell of divisions and army corps refusing to go into battle, of warships sailing in charge of the crews’ delegates, or of machine guns turned on mutineers. This difference is fact: these things have not happened in recent British history, as they have in French, German and Russian.”1

In other words – there were no actual mutinies in the British army during the Great War, so there were no mutinies at Shoreham Camp. But there were expressions of discontent about the way the troops were being treated, which could have perhaps grown into mutinies if the authorities had not made concessions.

Researching this topic is extremely difficult as the constraints of the Defence of the Realm Act prevented reporting of any operational information that could be exploited by the enemy and it was illegal to try and get information from military personnel. However, references to three “mutinies” at Shoreham Camp have emerged.

None of these is an actual mutiny and perhaps their significance has been exaggerated by those recording events who tend to be of a left wing persuasion. Or perhaps there were more and the government censors supressed all details.

1917

In the early years of the War the British army was formed from volunteers, but by 1916 the government had introduced conscription. Compulsory military service for single men aged 19-40 became law in March 1916 and was extended to include married men in May 1916. The scheme was deeply unpopular, and in the first six months following the introduction of the Act tribunals heard 750,000 cases of men trying to win exemption. One of the causes of complaint was that the legislation had been enacted by a government that could not be said to represent the people of Britain. There had been no General Election since 1910 and that was held on a property-based franchise which excluded a third of all men; so many of those being conscripted were not actually ‘citizens’.

A consequence of conscription was that the army now included men who were less than enthusiastic about fighting; notably socialists. The Independent Labour Party (ILP), led by Ramsay MacDonald, was a pacifist group and so opposed the government. In 1914 the ILP was a small organisation but it grew in importance from 1916 when the Liberal disgruntled Liberals defected to Labour.

The TUC supported the war in 1914 but union members grew increasingly alarmed by government proposals for “industrial compulsion” which meant forcing people to work in munitions factories. This did not actually happen but in May 1917 200,000 men went on strike in protest and 1.5 million working days were lost. The strikers only went back to work when 15 shop stewards were arrested under DORA.

The unions were encouraged by events in Russia. In March 1917 there was a revolution against Tsar Nicholas II which started with a mutiny of troops in Petrograd. The revolution was widely welcomed by the British left with 17,000 people turning up at the Albert Hall on March 31st for a celebration.

Lord Derby, the War Minister, was worried about the impact on British soldiers. He wrote to General Haig, commander of the BEF,

“There is no doubt that the Russian revolution has created an unrest which is revolutionary and dangerous” 2

The influence of the revolution on troops in Shoreham is mentioned in two sources, both by reputable historians:

David Englander and James Osborne The Historical Journal Vol 21 issue 3 September 1987 Jack, Tommy and Henry Dubb: The armed Forces and the Working Class.

“A company of hungry men at Shoreham went absent, leaving behind a placard expressing their intention of imitating the Russian soldiers.”

And Lawrence James Mutiny in the British and Commonwealth Forces 1797-1956 Buchan & Enright 1987

“In July 1917 soldiers at Shoreham Camp left behind them a placard calling on their comrades to imitate the Russians”

Neither of these sources elaborates on the circumstances in Shoreham, but supporting evidence for the claims can be found in the National Archive in the form of a letter, dated September 3rd from the Bishop of Oxford to Lord Curzon.3 Curzon was Leader of the House of Lords and a member of the War Cabinet. The Bishop had not visited Shoreham but he had heard details of events there from his friend, un-named, who was working for the YMCA. His account concerned soldiers in the convalescent camp at Shoreham, which is not the same as the training camp.

According to the Bishop, the causes of the discontent among the soldiers were not ideological but practical and concerned the need for improvements in their standard of living.

The grounds of objection appear to be 1) Insufficiency of food – especially their having nothing after 4.30 tea: 2) Refusal of leave: the grounds of this are intelligible: but it is put upon the absence of sufficient railway accommodation. And the soldiers see constant empty trains pass along the line, and when they go into Brighton (without a railway pass by walking four miles and ‘bus) they see the crowds of trippers who have been low rate of pay, “not nearly enough to keep them in cigarettes.”

The Bishop’s claims were discussed by the War Cabinet on 12th September 1917. 4.

Major-General Hutchinson stated that:

The grievance as to leave (a) was primarily due to the restrictions in the use of trains running to Brighton, an Order having been issued by the Army Council, as the result of a War Committee decision on the 29th November 1916, that train travelling was prohibited and that men going on leave from Shoreham must travel by motor buses. These, owing to the petrol shortage, had since ceased to run. Another grievance was the question of pay, the low rate of which caused irritation to our men, owing to the fact that Canadian troops, with their high rates of pay, were quartered in their vicinity. A further grievance was the food question (c), for which he thought there was no foundation, as the men had practically the same food ration as if they were camped in France. He stated that the men stationed at Shoreham were sent there to harden them up for further service, after being wounded or sick, and that their daily work was progressive until they had been rendered fit for service once more.

As regards (a) the War Cabinet requested-

The Army Council to make the necessary arrangements to provide accommodation for the troops going on leave in the trains running between Shoreham and Brighton and vice versa.

With regard to (b) the War Cabinet requested–

The Military Authorities to go into the matter of regrouping the Convalescent Camps so that Dominion soldiers were not quartered in the same Command Depots with British soldiers.

As regards the actual rate of pay of the latter, the War Cabinet directed the secretary to put on the Agenda at an early date the report of Sir Edward Carson’s Committee on Increased Rates of Pay for Soldiers.

As regards (c) complaints with regard to food, the war Cabinet were unable to concur with the view expressed by the Military authorities, that the food ration was adequate, having in view that the men were convalescent, and the suggestion that the dietary was not equal to that consumed by the average working man in England. They therefore directed- The War Office to enquire into food supply not only at Shoreham, but at all Command depots, and to furnish a report on the subject as soon as possible.

Whether these improvements were sufficient to stem the disaffection is not known. The reforms, though welcome, seem piecemeal and inadequate to dislodge genuine republican sentiment.

From 29th September 1917 soldiers received one penny per day War Pay in addition to their normal service pay.

1918

One source, T.H.Wintringham, records a mutiny at Shoreham on November 13th 1918, two days after the Armistice.

Tom Wintringham was brought up in a Quaker family but he was not a pacifist in the Great War and he served as a despatch rider. During the war he became a Communist and he travelled to Moscow in 1920. When he returned to England he formed a group of students aiming to establish a British section of the Third International: a Communist Party. In 1925, he was one of the twelve CPGB officials imprisoned for seditious libel and incitement to mutiny. In 1930, he helped to found the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, and was one of the few named writers to publish articles in it. In the Spanish Civil War he was commander of the British Battalion of the International Brigade. Wintringham’s book Mutiny was published in 1936.

Wintringham’s evidence for the Shoreham mutiny is the testimony of someone called ‘G.P’ from North Shields. Who this was I have not been able to ascertain. From G.P.’s account it seems that he was in Shoreham Port on his way to Shoreham Camp, rather than in it at the time of the mutiny. Also it is not clear what his grievance was as the account has been abridged by Wintringham.

G.P. writes:

I saw a major push a man up to his thighs in mud ….

I was a sergeant and I marched the troops off the dock in spite of all the colonels and majors and lesser fry……..

And the guard of marines opened the gates to let us out. When I got them about half a mile from the huts, I halted them, and addressed them from the top of a bank and told them to stand firm, as the authorities would be giving them some soft soap as well as threats, which afterwards proved to be the case.

The next day the General came down from the Admiralty (we being under the discipline of the marines) and formed us up in three sides of a square, drove his motor car into the centre, read the Army Act out, and then invited any man to step out and go to work who liked; I myself was made to fall out on the right by myself.

You can imagine my feelings, as being an old soldier of over twenty years’ service, of course, I knew the consequences of my act.

But I never saw such loyal men in my life, not one man moved. I could hear the sergeants in rear of the men telling them to stand by me, and it was well they did, or I should have got ten years or so.

The following Monday one thousand of us were demobbed, my name at the head of the list, and one thousand every week afterward.

1919

Unlike the other two, the mutiny of 1919 is very well documented, as by now the war was over and the press were allowed to report events more freely.

On January 4th 1919 The Spartacist uprising began in Berlin with a general strike which was supported by about 50,000 people. The leaders of the strike were Socialists and their aim was to install a Communist regime in Germany. The strike lasted until January 15th when it was firmly suppressed by the government of Ebert who used the Freikorps to attack the demonstrators. Around 100 civilians and 17 Freikorps soldiers died during the fighting. The Freikorps was formed from soldiers from the German army who had fought in the War and been defeated but not disarmed.

Against this background came the soldiers’ strikes in Britain, complaining about the slow speed of demobilization.

The government plan for demobilisation was drawn up in August 1917 – long before the end of the war. The government’s aim was to avoid mass unemployment when the soldiers returned home and so the scheme they came up with was to release individual soldiers rather than whole units in accordance with the needs of industry – those with important jobs to go to would be demobbed first. The government identified ‘pivotal men’ – those who could provide employment for other, such as businessmen, and decided they would be returned to civilian life in the first tranche. Next to go would be the ‘slip men’ – those who had a definite offer of employment; then would come men who didn’t have a job waiting but who had a useful skill and were likely to find work quickly and finally would come the ‘non-slip men’ – the rest.

The scheme was highly unpopular with the troops as it seemed so unfair- a ‘pivotal man’ who had only served a few months was released before a ‘non-slip man’ who had served for four years and who had a wife and family waiting for him. Indeed someone who had not long joined the army was far more likely to have a job waiting for him than someone who had rushed to enlist at the first opportunity when Kitchener called.

Another grievance of the troops was the time taken to demobilise. The armistice was signed on November 11th but even pivotal men were not released until December 4th (which does not tally with G.Ps account above.) This was because the war was not completely over. The Kaiser did not abdicate until November 28th and British and American troops did not enter Germany until December 1st. The Versailles Peace Conference to draw up a treaty at the end of the war did not meet until January 18th 1919 and the treaty was finally signed on June 28th 1919.

Public outrage at the slow speed of demobilisation led the government to publish an explanation on January 1st 1919. It was pointed out that the only men released so far were pivotal men and coal miners and that these had found it difficult to get home as the French railways and ports were inadequate for the task.

The explanation was deemed inadequate and a series of mutinies ensued. On January 3rd 10,000 soldiers in Folkestone refused to board ships to return to France. And numerous other demonstrations occurred all over Britain in the following days, including one at Shoreham Camp.

On Sunday 5th January 1919 soldiers held a meeting in a cinema at Lewes and organised a demonstration for the next day. Then the events were recorded in the Brighton Evening Argus:

Evening Argus 6 January 1919

SHOREHAM & SOUTHWICK MEN MARCH TO BRIGHTON

Mayor and Chief Constable Interviewed; MAYOR’S GOOD ADVICE

The most remarkable military demonstration ever witnessed in Sussex took place this morning, when 7,000 from the London Command Depot at Shoreham and the Royal Marine Engineering Works at Southwick marched to the Brighton Town Hall to protest against the delay in the demobilization of the troops.

Every man of the 7,000 has served overseas, and for some time past, it appears, they have been labouring under a sense of injustice at the inequality of the treatment they allege has been meted out to them. Throughout yesterday the leaders of the men were busy enlisting promises of the support of the troops to march out of Camp today, and at 7 o’clock this morning they took active steps towards carrying out their object. The General-in-Command, having been appraised of the men’s intentions, addressed them from the flagstaff on the question of demobilization. He pointed out that thousands of troops could not be demobilized without some delay, and promised that if they had a genuine grievance he would forward it to the proper authorities. He offered to meet them again at 11 o’clock, but the leaders of the men decided at once to march into Brighton, and shortly afterwards the whole route from the camp was alive with masses of khaki-clad men. At Southwick they were joined by men of the RME, and on the way to Brighton every soldier in the streets was invited to join in the procession.

The Brighton Town Hall was reached shortly after 11 o’clock, and steps were at once taken to secure an interview with the Mayor through the offices of the Chief Constable. … Meanwhile the troops formed up in Bartholomews, and, in thoroughly orderly fashion, whiled away the time in songs and a few speeches…

“We demand demobilization as soon as possible,” said this man, who was wearing two wound stripes. “There is far too much messing about,” he proceeded, “doing physical jerks, washing up pans and dishes, and generally doing women’s work while we might be at home doing our own jobs. Why cannot we be discharged, in khaki if they like, and sent home, and if they want us they know where to find us? If we were home we could go and find a job, but we cannot do it while we are confined to Camp.”

The Hull Daily Mail of January 7th 1919 recorded the meeting with the Mayor:

A MARCH TO BRIGHTON.
A. demonstration in favour of immediate demobilisation was held on Monday morning between 4,000 and 5,000 soldiers from the Eastern Command Depot at Shoreham Camp, reinforced men of the local battalion at Southwick. The men marched to Brighton, distance of six miles, keeping good order and singing all the way. At Brighton Town Hall they surrounded the building and sent a deputation to the Mayor, Alderman Herbert Carden, J.P. When the business of the deputation was over the Mayor went on to the balcony of the Town Hall and told the crowd that he fully sympathised with their grievances, would have them brought to the notice of the War Cabinet.

The Times of January 7th reported the Mayor’s response:

Dissatisfied with their treatment they marched out of the camp to sec the Mayor of Brighton. A deputation waited upon him, and he addressed the vast khaki-clad throng. He told them he had discussed fully their grievances and had promised their leaders to telephone to the War Office. – – -” You have grievances, but you must recollect that demobilization is a very big job,” added the Mayor. “I agree that there has been far more delay than there ought to have been, but I hope things will be hurried up. I am quite satisfied that the protest you have made will receive attention.” (Cheers,) The suggestion had been made that all the men who were in those camps should be sent home pending demobilization, and the Mayor promised to press that very strongly on the War Cabinet. Within the next half-hour the men sang “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” re-formed fours, and marched off on their return eight miles tramp. The Mayor jocularly told them, that he was sorry he could not entertain them at lunch, but dinner would await them at the other end, and there would be no punishment. Throughout the men behaved in an exemplary manner.

On their return, the Camp’s commander promised to contact the War Office on behalf of the men. But as he could not make any promises about demobilization the men voted not to go on parade the next day but to march to Worthing. This march never happened because of bad weather but instead the soldiers sent a telegram to Lloyd George.

Evening Argus January 7th 1919

THREAT OF STRIKE AT SHOREHAM

The following is a copy of a telegram sent to the Prime Minister from the disaffected soldiers at Shoreham Camp:-

“We men the London Command Depot, Eastern Command depot, the 1st Siege Artillery Reserve Brigade and the Training Wing, situated at Shoreham-by-Sea, Sussex, bring to your notice the following resolution,

‘That we demand the instant demobilisation of all the men here by being sent home pending demobilisation papers being forwarded to us, thereby enabling without delay to return to civil life.’

The inclement weather conditions had interfered with a projected march to Worthing, and this assembly took place instead, the great enclosure being packed to the doors, and a great number being unable to gain admittance. Without any demure the men decided to stand by their original resolution, which was to the effect that every man, irrespective of whether he has work to go to or not, should be returned to his home to await demobilization papers going through, instead of being kept in uncomfortable surroundings and doing absolutely nothing.

The meeting was addressed by a general officer who informed them that their grievances had been handed to Sir William Robertson, who was at the present moment in conference with Lord Milner, the meeting had also been advised that the London Command Depot was prepared to demobilize 25 men in each company per day; but it was unanimously decided by vote to stand by the original resolution. The outcome was the telegram to the Prime Minister already mentioned.

This offer by the officer was apparently ill-received. According to Laurence, a soldier recorded by Dallas and Gill:

“He began by saying in his Oxford accent “I have been sent here from the War Office to talk to you men” that was as far as he got when some old warrior in the audience got up and shouted in his cockney accent, “Don’t you believe it cock, it’s us that are going to talk to you” which they then proceeded to do.”

After the meeting and the sending of the telegram the troops freed from custody a prisoner who they felt had been victimised. The soldier quoted by Dallas and Gill continued:

“Unfortunately some young hot-head got the idea to throw a brick through the window of the officers’ mess. He was arrested and put in the Guard room. A mass raid was carried out and he was released. Now the C.O. was most annoyed and angry about this and accused the mutineers of breaking their pledge and the prisoner must be handed over.

On receiving the C.O.’s ultimatum a meeting was called at the usual place… There was the chairman on the stage surrounded by his committee members and in their midst was the prisoner whom they had released. There was a lot of argument going on. Some were for defying the CO whilst others took the view that the prisoner should be handed over, about 50-50 I should say, and there seemed to be complete deadlock on the question.

Then followed what I should describe as a good example of the wisdom of Solomon. Someone proposed that they should ask the prisoner himself what should be done. This was carried and he agreed to surrender himself to the authorities. So he was solemnly escorted back to the guardroom and handed over.”

Later that day the authorities made a new offer –

Evening Argus January 7th 1919

A further meeting of the men at Shoreham Camp this afternoon, it transpired that it had been arranged to demobilize 250 men per day at the London Command Depot. The case of the RGA men has not yet been settled. It was decided that the London Command Depot men should resume their military duties until satisfaction had been obtained for them.

The whole affair ended peacefully when Lloyd George explained the government’s position:

Evening Argus January 9th 1919

A meeting of disaffected RGA men stationed at Shoreham, who have abstained from duty during the past two or three days mainly on account of the slowness of demobilization, took place at camp this morning. The message from Mr Lloyd George, which appeared in the Press was read out to the troops, who were also addressed by their commanding officer and the men, in a spirit of patriotism, decided to carry on with their duties, and to trust to those in authority to remedy their grievances as quickly as possible.

Lloyd George’s speech was a plea for order and patience until the Peace Settlement had been negotiated, as the German army had not yet demobilized and Britain needed to appear strong in order to get good terms in the treaty.

“The German armies have not yet been demobilized and are still very powerful. No-one can tell what the Germans will do, nor whether they will agree to the terms of the Peace and Reparation which we will seek to impose on them. Impatience now may lose in a few weeks all that which has taken years of heroism and sacrifice to gain. During the next few months we must be strong and united in order that a firm settlement may be made with the enemy and that our country may exert its proper influence amongst the other nations at the Peace Conference. Demobilization cannot be carried out in any way that would undermine the military strength of Great Britain until final Peace is secured.”5

However, Lloyd George saw the need to reform his government’s demobilization policy and Winston Churchill, newly appointed as Secretary of State for War, was given the task of sorting things out. On January 29th 1919 Churchill came up with a new scheme which was quite different from the original. Any man who enlisted before December 31st 1915, any man over the age of 37 and any man with 3 or more wound stripes was to be released immediately. This left an army of 1,300,000 men. Of these, a certain number were to be released as pivotal men or on grounds of hardship.

After that the age limit was to be reduced to thirty-six and then to thirty-five; and then men with two wound stripes would become eligible, followed by men of thirty-four until the army was down to 900,000 strong. To sweeten the pill for those men left in the 900,000, soldiers were all given a bonus of 10s 6d a week for a private up to £2/2s for a Lieutenant Colonel. As soon as the Peace settlement was signed (June 28th 1919) all those who had been conscripted into the army were free to go home anyway.

This scheme proved popular and the mutinies ended.

So why did the government change policy? Obviously the mutinies had an impact. As well as at Folkestone and Shoreham there were protests by troops demanding demobilization in London, Southampton, Milford Haven and Calais. Moreover, since the original scheme was drawn up in 1917 the government had changed. The Representation of the People Act of February 1918 gave the right to vote to all men aged 21 and middle class women aged over 30. When a General Election was held in December 1918 demobilization was a big election issue and Lloyd George assured voters that:

The Military Service Act was passed in order to meet a great emergency. When the emergency is past the need is past, and the Act will lapse, and there is no intention to renew it. (Loud cheers.)6

The Conservatives won a landslide victory although Lloyd George, a Liberal, remained Prime Minister.

In November 1918, the British Army had numbered more than 3,800,000 men, many in distant parts of the world. By November 1919 only 900,000 men remained, which was a major achievement considering the wartime loss of shipping and damaged transport infrastructure.Post-war Britain was strongly affected by industrial unrest. In 1919, roughly 2.4 million British workers came out on strike. At the end of January 60,000 men went on strike in Glasgow calling for a 40 hour working week (instead of 54 hours) to enable returning service men and ex-munitions workers to find employment. The strike was crushed. By 1920 the unemployment rate in Britain was over 10%.

— Hilary Greenwood
August 2014

Timeline

1914 AugustOutbreak of War.
1916 MarchIntroduction of Conscription.
1916 AprilEaster Rising in Ireland.
1916 DecemberLloyd George replaced Asquith as Prime Minister. Liberal Party split.
1917 MarchRussian Revolution 1– Tsar deposed.
1917 NovemberRussian Revolution 2– Lenin and Bolsheviks came to power.
1918 FebruaryRepresentation of the People Act – all men and some women can now vote.
1918 NovemberArmistice signed.
1918 DecemberGeneral Election – Lloyd George won in a co-alition with Conservatives.
1919 JanuaryDemobilization mutinies.
1919 JuneVersailles Settlement agreed.

Bibliography

  • PRO CAB 24/25/80
  • PRO CAB 23/4/5
  • The Hull Daily Mail of January 7th 1919- Demobilisation Delays
  • The Times December 12, 1918- The Prime Minister on Conscription
  • The Times January 7th 1919 – More Soldiers’ Protests
  • Corum, Michael et al. Blighty Brighton QueenSpark Books 1991
  • Dallas Gloden & Douglas Gill The Unknown Army Verso 1985
  • Englander, David and James Osborne. The Historical Journal Vol 21, No. 3 (September 1987) Jack, Tommy and Henry Dubb: The armed Forces and the Working Class.
  • Graubard Richards Stephen, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1947) Military Demobilization in Great Britain Following the First World War The University of Chicago Press
  • James Lawrence. Mutiny in the British and Commonwealth Forces 1797-1956 Buchan & Enright 1987
  • Millman, Brock. Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain Frank Cass 2000
  • Rothschild, Andrew. The soldiers Strikes of 1919 Macmillan 1980
  • Wintringham, T.H. Mutiny; being a Survey of Mutinies from Spartacus to Invergordon Lindsay Drummond 1936
  • http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa/document/9418

Footnotes

  1. T H Wintringham Mutiny   
  2. PRO WO 256/18 27th May 1917.   
  3. PRO CAB 24/25/80   
  4. PRO CAB 23/4/5   
  5. Speech on demobilization made by Prime Minister Lloyd George
    http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/gwa/document/9418
       
  6. The Times December 12, 1918   


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