Hope and tragedy in April 1919

The Limerick Soviet (13 – 27 April 1919) was one manifestation of a series of revolutionary crises that confronted British imperialism in the aftermath of WWI. The events of 1919 offer powerful examples of the potential power of workers, as well as important warnings for future struggles, writes Mike Thompson.

April 1919: The authorities make Limerick city a special military area and workers respond by calling a general strike until the end of martial law. The ‘Scotch and Soda’ tank as a barricade in the city

World War I, like so many wars, was built on lies told to those that fought, by the liars that stood to profit from the slaughter. The lies didn’t end with the armistice in November 1918 – and the British government didn’t want war to end either. It continued to wage war against movements for independence across its empire. The Black and Tans were recruited from returning troops to fight in Ireland; in India, the colonial army massacred civilians in Amritsar in April 1919, at the same time as British troops were suppressing a popular revolt in Egypt. Troops were also being sent to France and Russia. Any mention of ‘home fit for heroes’ has to be seen against the background of resistance, and the fear of the Russian Revolution.

At the start of 1919 there was a wave of mutinies at Southwick, Folkestone, Dover, Osterley Park, Shortlands, Westerham Hill, Felixstowe, Grove Park, Shoreham, Briston, Aldershot, Kempton Park, Southampton, Maidstone, Blackpool, Park Royal, Chatham, Fairlop and Biggin Hill, as well as at several London railway stations where troops refused to embark for Russia and France. Troops already in Calais and Archangel formed Soviets and made links with local struggles.

HMS Kilbride joined the revolt, raising a red flag and refused to set sail. The sailors demanded that they wouldn’t be sent to Russia, called for quicker demobilisation and higher pay, and challenged bullying officers. Many ex-service personnel were outraged when employers and authorities attempted to take advantage of the post-war depression to impose the old bonds of discipline upon returning soldiers.

Against this background, when official celebrations took place after the signing of the peace treaty in 1919, many protested against the money spent on extravagant victory parades and banquets. In Luton, for example, thousands were involved in riots, which resulted in the burning down of the town hall, as the crowd sang ‘Keep the home fires burning’.

The fightback wasn’t limited to the army and navy – workers across the country showed they wanted change too. Engineers, railway and transport workers, miners and cotton workers were all involved in waves of militant strikes.

October 1919: policeman standing guard over a lorry at a milk depot in Hyde Park during the railway strike

In late January, the 40-hours Strike broke out in Glasgow and Belfast. Munitions workers facing unemployment after the war, while engineers in work suffered a 54-hour week.

Strike committees led over 100,000 workers. There were daily mass meetings and mass pickets. Glasgow had already experienced militant, unofficial strikes. The Clyde Workers Committee, an elected rank and file organising body, was born out of these struggles.

As so often, the union leadership sought to isolate the industrial struggle from the broader political mood – narrowly concentrating on the fight for a shorter working week.

When the fight is at this level, if our side doesn’t use politics to gain broader solidarity – the then other side will use it to isolate.

On the last day of January a mass of striking workers in George Square were attacked by police. They fought them to a standstill, in what became known as ‘Bloody Friday’.

But the next day Glasgow woke to find the government had brought in troops supported by tanks and field guns from across the border in England.

In Belfast the fight was less militant – partially as there was no equivalent to the Clyde Workers Committee to challenge the moderation of the trade union leadership. But in neither strike was the dominant nationalism sufficiently challenged. In Belfast the issue of the War of Irish Independence was avoided, while in Glasgow there had been a racist attack on 30 non-white sailors – along the lines of ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. It was only the activists around the Socialist Labour Party that raised the idea of internationalism:

The Trades Unions have prided themselves on having ousted coloured labourers from certain occupations . . . . The very existence of capitalism depends upon driving all the elements of present day pugnacity, a trait always in prominence after a great war, into racial or national avenues. By forcing the workers to ease off their pugnacity over lines of colour, this blinds them to the class line which forms the focus of the struggle of the modern international proletariat.

Unfortunately both the disputes ended up accepting the offer of 47 hours – but the aftermath in Belfast meant that a pogrom was carried out in July 1920, 7000 workers were expelled from their jobs, and 22 killed. The majority of the targeted workers were catholic, but large numbers of ‘rotten Prods’ were also attacked – many of these would have been active supporters of the strike.

The miners, railway workers and transport workers unions formed the Triple Alliance, and in 1919 had national wage claims in at the same time.. The Government, was worried at the prospect of a national general strike, so appealed to the reformism of the trade union leaders, in particular Robert Smillie, president of the miners’ union.

27 September 1919: Railway pickets and police at Euston Station in London during the railway strike

They suggested a commission to look into the issue of pay, conditions and hours. Miners’ leaders toured the country, singing the praises of the commission. They eventually got miners to accept. In spring 1919, Prime Minister David Lloyd George told the leaders of the Triple Alliance that the government was at their mercy.

He said:

If you carry out your threat and strike, you will defeat us… but have you weighed the consequences?

If a force arises in the state which is stronger than the state itself, it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen, have you considered if you are ready?

Smillie later admitted, ‘From that moment we were beaten and we knew we were.’

The railway workers were led by Jimmy Thomas, a right winger who managed to cancel a strike set for 27 March. But when the cabinet looked to impose wage cuts in September, 100,000 struck and won.

In August 1918, 12,000 of 19,000 Met coppers struck over pay for union recognition. The sense of fear amongst the bosses is seen with Prime minister Lloyd George saying, ‘This country was nearer to Bolshevism that day than at any time since.’ It bought off the strike but set in motion an attempt to isolate the union. The police strike in July 1919 was smaller, with fewer than 3,000 out nationally – although the strike was strong in Liverpool. All those who struck were sacked and the union was smashed – but in the course of the two disputes police pay had doubled.

The state learned a valuable lesson — buy the loyalty of the police force, and make it illegal for them to be in a union.

6 August 1919 Striking Policemen addressed by a Union leader during a meeting at Tower Hill, London

In the course of 1919 the British state lost temporary control of its police, armed forces, the major cities of Glasgow and Belfast, and had to plead with union leaders to maintain the status quo – and they had to accept the partition of Ireland.

Workers had shown that they had the power to take on the state – the revolutions in the east had shown was a different way of doing things – and some examples were not that far away – the Limerick Soviet of April 1919 being one.

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