World War I, May 1918

This video about Scotland says about itself:

Striking workers in Glasgow circa 1918. Archive film 99413

World War One billboard poster of Kitchener pointing – “Your Country Needs YOU”. Soldiers marching past the generals during an inspection. Newly-signed up soldiers board trains heading for the frontline, waved off by their wives and children. Women workers in good spirits heading for the factory. Inside the factory where women are doing carpentry. Women at work on the railways and munitions plants. Lloyd George inspects the munitions works and talks to the women there. Lloyd George and Arthur Henderson. Demonstrations or strikes near end of World War One on the homefront in Glasgow, Scotland. Bagpipers lead the victorious soldiers through streets.

By John Ellison in Britain:

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Looking back a century to May 1918

ON MAY 1 1918 Glasgow experienced a massive May Day demonstration. For those taking part, it demonstrated that “patriotic” support for the war (with hundreds of thousands of casualties suffered since the German advance on the Western front had begun on March 21), ceased to be an argument on the table.

Some 90,000 people came on to the streets, bound for Glasgow Green. Speakers from 20 platforms were then heard. The British Socialist Party’s The Call soon afterwards commented: “It was quite plain to all that that great assembly of workers were out for Peace and the overthrow of Capitalism.” There were many shouts for the release of leading socialist agitator John Maclean, then in Duke Street prison, awaiting trial on May 9.

The first of May was also the day of the appeals heard in the London Inner Sessions at Clerkenwell by philosopher Bertrand Russell and peace campaigner and socialist Joan Beauchamp against their February sentences for encouraging “disaffection” in the Tribunal, the organ of the No Conscription Fellowship (NCF).

Russell’s sentence of six months in the “second division” was now upgraded to the privileged regime of the first, while Joan Beauchamp, previously given a fine or three months in prison, now received one month’s jail, having refused to pay the fine. Russell’s sentence was adjusted in the light of his being “a man of great distinction”, unlike, the judicial thinking may have run, the usual riff-raff of anti-conscriptionists.

London’s May Day meeting, unlike Glasgow’s, was to be on Sunday May 5, but was abruptly prohibited by the Home Office.

A year earlier, more than 100,000 people had turned out for the celebration, and another big gathering was expected. But late on May 3, police served notice on the Karl Marx Centenary Committee (comprising the British Socialist Party (BSP), Independent Labour Party and trade union branches etc.) that the meeting and its associated processions were outlawed by the Home Secretary. It had been planned that seven marches would lead into Finsbury Park from different directions, and that fifty speakers would address the crowd from eight platforms.

The ban was promoted by the Daily Express, owned by the present Minister of Information, Lord Beaverbrook. On May 3 it proclaimed: “The peacetime toleration that permitted every addle-pated orator to let off steam is no longer possible. This proposed pacifist orgy is a direct incitement to a breach of the peace. They include however, middle-class pacifists … and various representatives of a mysterious body that calls itself the Karl Marx Centenary Committee.”

There was no mystery about the committee, or about the courage of the people (perhaps a thousand) who braved the ban to gather in Finsbury Park on May 5 to listen to speakers before being dispersed violently by mounted police.

Three miles away, at Highgate Cemetery, another show of defiance took place. A good number of people wishing to take part in a commemorative event at the grave of Karl Marx a century after his birth were prevented from doing so. Eventually the police allowed a deputation to go in to place wreaths on the grave. One wreath was the offering of “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov, who had been refused, like his government, recognition. It carried the inscription “From Russia, the first Socialist Republic, in memory of Karl Marx, who showed the workers of the world the path to self-emancipation.” Litvinov had by now moved with his family from West Hampstead to new rooms at 11 Bigwood Road, Hampstead Garden Suburb, and his BSP-published pamphlet The Bolshevik Revolution: Its Rise and Meaning was available for 1 shilling.

On May 8 two leading members of the NCF were up before the Bow Street beak. These were Lydia Smith, undisclosed editor of the Tribunal, and Violet Tillard (“Tilly”), general secretary. They had refused to give police the address of the printer of the internally circulated NCF News, after the breaking-up and confiscation of the Tribunal printer’s equipment in April. Tilly was singled out, fined heavily, and appealed.

John Maclean’s trial took place on May 9 before judge and jury in Edinburgh. The previous night 30 Scottish socialists had tramped from Glasgow to the trial venue. The charges against him were of sedition, of prejudicing recruiting, and of attempting to cause disaffection, and were based on his recent speeches.

The Times on May 10 solemnly caricatured the prosecution case. “The prisoner advocated ‘downing’ tools, and said that socialists should break all laws. He advised the workers to take control of Glasgow City Chambers, the Post Office, and the banks, and urged that the House of Commons should be superseded by a Soviet, saying that he did not care whether they met in the usual place or at Buckingham Palace.”

If accurate, that would have been sufficiently outlandish to make prosecution ludicrous. Refusing to plead guilty or not guilty, Maclean gave a lengthy speech which newspapers did not care to report. It included, prophetically:

“If one side or the other wins [World War I], then the revenge will come … In view of the fact that the great powers are not prepared to stop the war until the one side or the other is broken down, it is our business as members of the working class to see that this war ceases today, not only to save the lives of the young men of the present, but also to stave off the next great war … I am out for an absolute reconstruction of society, on a co-operative basis, throughout all the world; when we stop the need for armies and navies, we stop the need for war.”

The middle-class jury found him guilty as charged without needing to retire, and the judge found sentencing an easy chore. He was given five years’ penal servitude.

“He is sentenced to this fearful punishment simply for talking”, commented Labour’s George Lansbury-edited Herald.

Within a fortnight the Clyde District Defence Committee was formed to work for Maclean’s release, while Maclean went on hunger strike.

On May 11 the Herald’s front page contained only the words “TERMS OF THE SECRET TREATIES (Special Number)” and inside seven pages were devoted to these deals for distribution of territorial extensions among Allied countries. The editor of the booklet on the treaties which had appeared the previous month, F Seymour Cocks, declared that the Allied governments had declined to speak out on the subject “because their mouths are stopped by the secret agreements … because their voices are choked by the ink and parchment of the shameful treaties they have signed.”

The previous day in Ireland, arrests of Sinn Fein leaders had taken place — of Eamonn de Valera, Arthur Griffith, Constance Markievicz and others, more than a hundred in all. According to Lord French, military viceroy for Ireland, they had been in treasonable communication with the enemy. As to this, the Daily Mail was confident, “there could be no doubt.” In fact those arrested were Irish patriots, interned for their independence activity and for their hostility to the conscription of Irishmen which the government had not yet dared to enforce.

On May 19 the annual conference of the Workers’ Suffrage Federation, which now became the Workers’ Socialist Federation, opened. Besides re-electing Sylvia Pankhurst as secretary, the conference declared its opposition to all war, demanded self-determination for all nations, and the release of John Maclean.

One leading conscription-refuser, at that moment in Liverpool’s jail, was Fenner Brockway, former Labour Leader editor. His decision to break the prison rule of silence was reported in the Herald on May 25. His example was swiftly copied by other COs, and before long he was transferred to Lincoln Prison.

On May 27 came another push of German forces on the Western Front, while large numbers of US troops were arriving to strengthen the Allied side.

Meanwhile, British military intervention in Russia was quietly developing. On May 17 the War Cabinet was informed that a military mission was setting off for Murmansk and Archangel, with a view to recruiting Czech forces for anti-Bolshevik designs in north Russia.

So it was that Britain’s war to keep and extend its empire was now also a war against socialism.

August 100 years ago: attacks on the Bolshevik revolution and transport workers’ strikes: here.

September 1918: Confidence grows among war resisters. JOHN ELLISON charts the events at home and abroad that affected the British conduct of WWI.

October 2018: 100 years ago: imperialist carve-ups and anti-war agitation. JOHN ELLISON looks back a century to how socialist writers were being persecuted for opposing war and how the seeds were being sown for WWII.

1 thought on “World War I, May 1918

  1. IN June 1918 the Lloyd George government’s drive to stifle the public voice of the anti-war movement in Britain, which was powered by both socialist and pacifist convictions, continued to be extra-energetic against the background of the critical military situation on the Western Front.

    Symbolic of this repression was the June 6 issue of the No Conscription Fellowship’s weekly paper, the Tribunal, which consisted of nothing more than its front page — though this itself was a statement of defiance.

    Printing problems as a result of the government’s instructions to police to dismantle machinery, in preference to prosecutions for inciting disaffection, had taken their toll.

    The imprisonment of the Tribunal’s printer and publisher, Joan Beauchamp (actually clandestine co-editor), for one month, following refusal to pay a large fine, may not have helped matters.

    Still, from June 13 a four-page issue appeared again, printed in secrecy, despite the best Home Office efforts to render production impossible.

    Leading Scottish socialist John Maclean had commenced his five-year jail sentence “simply for talking,” but on June 2 thousands attended the first rally on Glasgow Green calling for his release.

    If the anti-war movement’s publicity was reaching only a limited part of Britain’s population, the largely pro-war press was uninhibited in condemning war resisters as traitors.

    In early June the reactionary fantasies of maverick Tory MP Pemberton Billing were given wide circulation as a result of a private High Court prosecution for criminal libel by him.

    The fantasy, promoted in Billing’s well-titled paper The Vigilante, was that 47,000 people in Britain were named in a (never produced) Black Book as having been blackmailed into support of the enemy primarily because of “sexual weaknesses” ie not being heterosexual.

    Billing had targeted a female actor in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, whose libel claim failed, giving credence to Billing’s fantasy. A virulent campaign to intern German-born naturalised British residents followed.

    Real enough, on the other hand, was the fact of the continuing German offensive, commenced on March 21, and renewed repeatedly.

    The allied lines had been pushed back. On May 27 German forces made rapid gains along the ridge of the Chemin-des-Dames, assisted by the unrealistic decision of the French general in charge to place far too many troops in the forward trenches, as if they were poised to attack.

    On the 30th the advance reached the river Marne. Soon it was believed that Paris itself could be in danger.

    But this latest offensive fizzled out, and another renewal on June 9 was also short-lived.

    Casualties on both sides continued to be horrific, while German divisions entrained to France from the Eastern Front — and infected by Bolshevik ideas — were increasingly prone to desert.

    Press willingness to pump out war propaganda for the Lloyd George government was bottomless.

    Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook was also Minister of Information (ie propaganda).

    The owner of the Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and other papers was the extreme reactionary Lord Northcliffe, who at this time was informing Scotland Yard of suspected enemy agents invisible as such to anyone else.

    News of the World owner was Lord Riddell, a frequent guest and confidant of Lloyd George.

    Riddell had in January’s honours list been made a baronet. Now, on King George’s birthday, Northcliffe’s brother was awarded a baronetcy, while the editors of the Daily Telegraph and the Liverpool Post were both knighted.

    How many beneficiaries of titles this time paid cash down for them to Lloyd George’s honours broker Maundy Gregory? All of them?

    On June 6 the Labour Leader publication commented: “When we remember how hundreds of thousands of men and women are enduring indescribable suffering and performing great deeds of noble heroism, it seems almost offensive to single out for special recognition and distinction the mediocrities whose names appear in the Birthday Honours List…”

    In June’s last 10 days the voice of the anti-war movement became louder.

    On the 23rd in London’s Finsbury Park the Sylvia Pankhurst-led Workers Socialist Federation held a demonstration, protesting against the suppression of the May Day celebration.

    By now the government’s pledge to extend conscription to Ireland was quietly forgotten, though Sinn Fein leaders arrested the previous month remained in custody.

    Eamon De Valera for one was in Lincoln Prison, where refuser of conscription Fenner Brockway, former editor of the Labour Leader, was also incarcerated.

    On June 26 1,000 delegates sat down in Westminster’s Central Hall for the second Labour Party Conference of the year.

    Supporters of the war had resumed tight control of the agenda. In the chair was Arthur Henderson, not long before in the War Cabinet.

    January’s wave of revolt against the war amid enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution had faded, extended conscription and the fraught situation in France having taken their toll.

    The platform refused to hear an Independent Labour Party motion that the Cabinet be told to terminate the war and strike out the secret treaties.

    Refused too was the joint proposal of Robert Smillie of the Miners’ Federation and of the British Socialist Party for Labour’s withdrawal from the government.

    Former Russian prime minister Alexander Kerensky (who days before had had a secret meeting with Lloyd George, when he supported intervention against the Bolshevik government), was welcomed to majority applause.

    When, during his second speech in two days, he openly advocated international suppression of the Bolshevik revolution, he was applauded more feebly, and there was discontent when the platform refused to allow Russian “ambassador” Maxim Litvinov, present as an observer, to speak.

    Sylvia Pankhurst, besides speaking at the conference in support of Smillie’s motion, took a leading part in a demonstration on Tower Hill on the 30th.

    There, surrounded by other women wearing pale blue armlets stamped with a silver cross and the word “Peace” (the answer to the silver badges of discharged servicemen), she began to speak against the war to passers-by before being prevented by the police from continuing.

    Although the press next day claimed the peace demonstrators had been “chivvied and hurtled in all directions,” the reality was that the violence against them was minimal.

    The participants simply took a train to Whitechapel, where they continued the meeting to a finish without further interruption.
    German advances in France did not stop the War Cabinet from proceeding further with intervention in north Russia.

    At Murmansk, where the local soviet was anti-Bolshevik, the tiny British force was on the 23rd of the month augmented by 600 more men, while another 600 were Archangel-bound.

    The Manchester Guardian’s man in Moscow, future Labour MP Michael Phillips Price, soon reported this escalation.

    US president Woodrow Wilson, who gave his blessing at the beginning of June to the dispatch of US troops to north Russia, was less certain about approving the intervention of Japan — a rival in imperialism — in Siberia.

    Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour nevertheless pressed the Japanese ambassador to agree to intervene there where, according to The Times correspondent, “workmen and undesirables” were exerting a pernicious influence.

    If the US approved, he asked, would Japan be willing to enter Siberia and advance as far as Omsk if not to Chelyabinsk?

    The latter was about 1,000 miles from the nearest Germans, Omsk some 500 miles still further distant.

    On the 24th Lloyd George made vague but menacing noises in the Commons about British intentions.

    He promised “help” to Russia “if Russia wants it.” The George Lansbury-edited Herald observed a few days later: “By ‘help’ we presume he means a Japanese invasion; and by ‘the Russians,’ those people who will make common cause with anyone — Germany, or Japan, or the devil — against the Bolshevists…”

    In Russia, Britain’s agent Bruce Lockhart was now supporting Japanese intervention. He had the previous month facilitated the departure for Britain via Murmansk of Kerensky by granting him a visa, enabling him, as it happened, to attend the Labour Party conference.

    Lockhart was to recall much later: “June was a dreary month … I increased my contact with the anti-Bolshevik forces.”

    The British Socialist Party’s Russian-born Joe Fineberg, on the other hand, had now arrived in his homeland to join the Bolsheviks — now fighting external aggressors.


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