Harry’s tribute to the fallen
The joy of peace in 1918 soon gave way to anger as millions of soldiers desperately waited to get home. When they got there, the ‘land fit for heroes’ they dreamed of was blighted by economic and social woes, writes Alison Campsie
Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex, salutes after planting a memorial cross at the Field of Remembrance service at Westminster Abbey yesterday
The war was won – but life as a soldier back in Scotland felt far from glorious.
Soldiers spent months trying to return to their loved ones following Armistice Day on 11 November, 1918. Kept in camps and often forced to do menial jobs for low pay, unrest broke out across the country as the government and army figured out how to return up to 3.8 million men to civilian life.
When home, the men faced new challenges. Scotland was recovering from the aftermath of the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 and 1919 which killed an estimated 70,000 people. Meanwhile, high rents, high cost of living and low wages blighted a “land fit for heroes”.
Mike Hally, a Phd candidate at Edinburgh University who has examined demobilisation, says: “My overall impression is that both the military and the government just weren’t ready for peace and so the men were not prepared either for what was to come next.
“They thought that when the guns stopped firing they could go home but it was far more complicated than that.”
The policy of allowing men who had jobs in key industry roles to go home first also proved unpopular.
Mr Hally says: “These men typically joined the war later on. As a result, those who had fought the longest found themselves staying the longest in uniform.
“These men were left behind. They thought it was one thing being out there to fight but now they just wanted to be home for Christmas.”
A series of soldiers’ strikes broke out across Great Britain in 1919 as servicemen were put in menial jobs and summoned to do drill and form parades at church services.
They viewed themselves as “civilians in khakis”, Mr Hally says.
A letter to go on show at the National Library of Scotland in its winter exhibition,
A Better World? Scotland after the First World War, highlights the frustration of servicemen.
Writen by George Dott of Musselburgh in January 1919, Mr Dott queried the view that the discontent was caused by an ignorance on the part of the rank and file of the army’s plans and intentions.
Mr Dott wrote: “It is a distrust of the intentions of the army as a government department coupled with the resentment at the … desire of the military oligarchy to preserve a sort of mystery around the plans.
“The root cause of the discontent in the ranks all through the war has been the archaic idea held by the hierarchy that the soldier be treated like a child and under no circumstances have his feelings taken into account by that hierarchy.”
The unrest was particularly ugly in parts of the UK where demobilised soldiers from the dominions were stuck waiting for transport to get home. There was a mutiny at a camp for Canadian soldiers in Rhyl in March 1919 which ended in a number of deaths.
Demobilisation also exacerbated social tensions in various British ports. A series of ugly race riots took place in Liverpool and Cardiff during June 1919, as the local white population clashed with black workers and seamen, many of whom were left unemployed at the end of the war.
Scotland, too, had its flashpoints.
In January 1919, 700 men of the 3rd Reserve Battalion,
Seaforth Highlanders – some who had been injured two or three times during war – marched from their camp in Cromarty in protest at delays in demobilisation.
On 9 January, all 700 refused to go on parade as a protest against the continued slowness of the process to get the men home. A further demonstration was held.
About 100 men of the Highland Light Infantry, who served in France and Mesopotamia, marched on 8 January to the Scottish Command Headquarters. They had been stuck in Haddington for four weeks waiting for demobilisation but instead were kept on guards and pickets. They demanded immediate demobilisation or 14 days leave.
In the same month, around 200 men of the Scottish Rifles, mostly transport workers, were being used on work in the docks at Leith Fort but refused to drill in protest at their living conditions.
At Stirling Castle, a disturbance was reported as soldiers protested over being “lent out to farmers at low wages”. Two of the soldiers were arrested but their comrades stormed the police station and released them.
A picket was sent by the military authorities to restore order. In court next morning one man was given a two-month jail sentence and another fined, according to Andrew Rothstein’s book, The Soliders’ Strikes of 1919.
By January 1919, discontent had been “seething for fully a month” in the minesweeping flotillas on the Firth of Forth with some crews refusing to go to sea. Discontent had been growing since the surrender of the German fleet, according to accounts.
Winston Churchhill took over as Secretary of State for War on 10 January, 1919.
Mr Hally says: “His impression was that demobilisation was an absolute sham. I am no great fan of Churchill, yet the key thing he recognised was this unfairness surrounding those who had served the longest. He changed that and it changed the atmosphere.”
In November 1918, the British army had numbered almost 3.8 million men. Twelve months later, it had been reduced to slightly less than 900,000 and by 1922 to just over 230,000.
But, of course, the returning soldiers found a country broken and changed.
Social tensions driven by the wartime economic conditions were almost unbearable by armistice, according to Rothstein.
Soldiers wives were living on “beggarly” separation allowances or getting low wages in factories.
Conscription continued long into 1919 with some soldiers signing up to serve the army again for the money.
Real wages in mid-1918 were 75 per cent of the 1914 level and by January 1918 the cost of living as a whole, taking into account food, rent, fuel, lighting and clothing was 85 to 90 per cent above the level of 1914.
Meanwhile, union attempts in Glasgow to create jobs for demobilised soldiers by cutting the working week
from 47 to 40 hours led to the Battle of George Square when between 20,000 and 60,000 supporters were surrounded by army tanks.
While Lloyd George wanted to build a “land fit for heroes” the economic collapse of 1921 led to rapidly rising unemployment with the government’s ambitious wartime programme of “reconstruction” shelved during the 1921 economic slump.
There was a further threat facing soldiers and their families on home turf – Spanish Flu.
With living standards and health of the nation suppressed by the cost of war, the outbreak proved the most fatal epidemic disease of any form that has occurred in Scotland since death registration begun.
There is some evidence to suggest that the UK pandemic among civilians started in Glasgow, spread throughout Scotland, and then spread to England and Wales. It is said it was responsible for five times as many deaths as were caused by the war itself, with huge crowds gathering to celebrate the Armistice becoming a breeding ground for infection.
● A Better World? Scotland after the First World War will be on show at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, from 16 November to 27 April, 2019.
0 A tank flanked by troops at the Battle of George Square, Glasgow, 31 January, 1919
0 Returning British soldiers at Waterloo Station in March 1919
0 Detail of a letter by George Dott of Musselburgh, which reveals the frustration returning soldiers felt at how they were treated