Saturday, 12 November 2016

Stories of the Great War from Eltham and Woolwich ............. nu 3 the ex soldiers

Now until recently I had never come across the story of those groups of ex servicemen who campaigned during and after the Great War. 

Three Woolwich men circa 1900
The first had been formed in Blackburn and was the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers and its main aims were a demand for employment training, better pensions, and greater government consideration for the problems of discharged men.*

This was followed later in the year by the formation of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers by various London-based veterans groups opposed to the Review of Exceptions Act, which made it possible for men invalided out of the armed forces to be re-conscripted.

It adopted the slogans "Every man once before any man twice" and "Justice before charity"

Lastly there were the Comrades of the Great War which had strong links with both the establishment and in particular the Conservative Party.  Its executive was dominated by MPs and ex officers in direct contrast to the other two.

Top five contests, 1918
At the General Election in 1918 the Federation mounted candidates in 30 constituencies across the country. In five they polled between 47 and 20% of the poll and in seven came 2nd.

Across London their fortunes varied with the Federation achieving 34% in Norwood, down to 6% in Southwark North.

They didn’t put up candidate in either of the two Woolwich seats, possibly because of the popularity of Will Coooks who was elected unopposed and in the new Woolwich West seat which have been deemed unpromising.

But in Woolwich the Federation had a very strong membership and like its other branches across the country organised to protect the rights of ex servicemen.  In Manchester the group were in dispute with several departments the Corporation over promises of reemployment to men who had enlisted while in Woolwich the focus was on the employment rights of disabled ex servicemen at the Arsenal whose jobs were threatened by the practice offering work to pre-war employees.

The Royal Herbert, 1915-1916
The protests included a petition to the King which was presented to Princess Mary when she visited the Victory Club for girls in Beresford Street and demonstration march to the House of Commons.

“With bands and banners, the 11,000 demonstrators made their way [from Beresford Square] to Westminster Bridge where they were stopped by the police and reminded of the Defence of the Realm Act regulation that processions within one mile of the Houses of Parliament were not permitted.  But the men were not to be put off; and thus began what the ‘Pioneer’ described as the ‘The Battle of Westminster Bridge.’


For a solid hour there was fighting as the darkness fell; police with truncheons and batons, vans full of disabled men trying to fight their way through, broken tramcar windows and ginger beer bottles, and pushing and kicking and pummelling – all the ingredients of a riot excepting only the reading of the Act with Lyons’ teashop at Belverdere Road corner a casualty station. Such was the confusion that when Mr Gilden, secretary of the ‘Demonstration Committee came over Westminster Bridge with the news that the notices had been withdrawn he was not allowed through the police cordon.”**

More Woolwich people, circa 1900
Despite angry headlines in the press the Government upheld the actions of the police refused a Labour Party’s call for an enquiry and saw several men charged and fined including Albert Mitchell an Arsenal worker who was fined 40s and £3 costs for breaking a tramcar window.

The Woolwich branch was also instrumental in organising a “comprehensive drumhead memorial service for the fallen on Woolwich Common .... where a crowd of some 50,000 was assembled... With thirty bands and several massed choirs, fifty-two local organizations and sixty-four trade union bands [it] provided what the Kentish Independent described as the most inspiring sight ever witnessed on the Common.”**

Pictures; Woolwich men and a market scene from Woolwich Through Time, Kristina Bedford, Amberley 2014, men in the Royal Herbert, 1915-1916 from the Royal Hebert collection, 1915-16 courtesy of David Harrop

*The Lion and the Poppy:  British Veterans, Politics and Society, 1921-1939, Nial Barr

** The Woolwich Story, 1970, E. F. E. Jefferson.

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