Instead of being the means of saving capitalism, the organised ex-servicemen will now be the means of destroying it.
Ernest Mander, general secretary NUX, 1920
When the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918, the instinctive response of both the British state and people was to rejoice. But their motivations were very different, suggesting a split over the interpretation of the Great War.
In the broadest of terms, the state wanted to celebrate a great – if delayed – military victory. The people, on the other, wanted to mark deliverance and survival, an end to the suffering that had cost nearly a million lives; and, behind their joy lay a deep sense of grief and mourning at the losses. Very soon, however, a new note began to emerge: an anger at the treatment faced by ex-servicemen, in particular at the mass unemployment to which they returned, and the poor pensions they were awarded.
On 19 July 1919 – declared by the government to be Peace Day – parades were staged all over the country to mark the signing of the Versailles Treaty, and at many of those parades there were demonstrations and protests. A banner in Glasgow sarcastically announced: ‘400,000 unemployed ex-servicemen. A grateful country will never forget you.’ In Manchester, a speaker spelt out the political message:
They had fought for freedom, but the freedom they had won was the freedom to starve. At the cost of millions of pounds the country had found work of a destructive character for them to do, so surely it could find a few thousands for work of a constructive character.
There were also riots to mark Peace Day in Luton, Coventry, Swindon, Bilston and elsewhere.
The demonstrations and disturbances continued over the next few years. On Armistice Day 1921, ex-servicemen left wreaths on the Cenotaph. ‘To those who died and were not forgotten, from those who live and are forgotten,’ read the message on one. ‘In memory of victims of capitalism who died, from victims of capitalism who are starving,’ said another. ‘To the victims of capitalism, who gave their lives for rent, interest and profit, from the survivors of the peace, who are suffering worse than death for the same unholy trinity,’ ran a third.
This politicisation of ex-servicemen troubled the state, for the war had changed the nature of the country. Once, the British army had existed to the side of society, with very little interaction between soldier and civilian, but the mass mobilisation of 1914 and the advent of conscription in 1916 had brought the military into virtually every family in the country. Soldiers were now seen as being of, and for, the people, not simply the servants of the establishment.
Nor could the police entirely be relied upon. In August 1918, the Metropolitan Police had gone on strike and, although they had since been bought off, the memory was too recent to be discounted. ‘Britain was closer to Bolshevism that day than at any other time,’ as the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, was later to recall.
In the years immediately after the war, there was an understandable fear of the anger being articulated by the ex-servicemen, men who had only recently trained in the use of firearms. Indeed, many of the veterans still possessed weapons, for the demobilisation process had been far from tidy. One answer to the concern was the 1920 Firearms Act, which removed the old legal freedom to bear arms (as enshrined in the 1688 Bill of Rights), but still the fear remained; not least because there were some bad examples that might lead the men astray. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was very fresh in the mind, while the Irish War of Independence culminated in 1921 with a treaty that saw the breakup of the United Kingdom itself.
In 1919 Winston Churchill claimed that there were groups in the country who wanted ‘to provoke an outbreak in the form of a mutiny or general strike, or preferably both together, in the hope that a general smash and overthrow of society may result’. These people, he said, sought to forge links between soldiers, ex-servicemen and workers, ‘to weld them altogether, to rouse them altogether, to make a general overthrow on the Russian model’. The group the war secretary was thinking of was almost certainly the National Union of Ex-Service Men, commonly known as the NUX.
In May 1919, a march on parliament by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers had been broken up by mounted constabulary and police baton charges. In response to this brutal suppression of a peaceful demonstration, the more radical members of the group had soon split to form the NUX, determined to take a more active stand in pursuit of their demands.
In the words of Ernest Mander, who had served in the Royal Field Artillery and was the founding general secretary of the NUX, ‘generally speaking, the main characteristic of the ex-servicemen has been their timidity,’ but now ‘they are beginning to realise the futility of begging with feeble, hesitating voices for trivial concessions.’ To put it another way: ‘No one should join the union unless he is joining for a fight.’
Many of the NUX’s concerns were shared with other campaigning groups: issues such as veterans’ pensions, employment rights and better working conditions, to end ‘the exploitation of the disabled and demobilised men by unscrupulous employers’. But they went further, proposing that British troops should be given back-pay for their service in order to make up the discrepancy between what they had been paid during the war and what their Australian counterparts had received.
To fund these demands, the NUX called for the nationalisation of land ownership. It also supported the Irish independence struggle, opposed British involvement in the Russian civil war, and invited conscientious objectors to address its meetings. Socialism, peace, internationalism: from the point of view of the British government at the time, it’s hard to imagine a more disturbing platform.
Nor did the rhetoric reassure. As Mander wrote of the NUX:
It stood for the abolition of existing conditions of wage slavery and capitalist exploitation, under which disabled ex-servicemen were perhaps the worst sufferers, and for the establishment of a social system which should no longer be based upon privileges of property, but upon plain and simple rights of common people.
At the first national conference of the NUX in 1920, its president praised ‘those who, having suffered under capitalism and secret diplomacy, organised themselves for the first time in history with the avowed object of smashing and destroying once and for all the system which made such things inevitable’.
As if this weren’t bad enough, the NUX saw its role as being firmly within the trade union and labour movement. In 1919 the Labour Party sent a circular to all its branches telling them that they should accept affiliation requests from local NUX groups:
The National Union is distinctive as an ex-servicemen’s organisation by the fact that it was originated by, and composed of, members of our own party, who emphasised the principle that the general interests of ex-servicemen are identical with those of their fellow workers, and who, therefore, seek to fight shoulder to shoulder with organised Labour, both industrially and politically, in our common endeavour to secure a new social order.
Here, some felt and feared, was potentially the basis of a movement of workers’ militias; the means with which to defend the general strike that was then widely anticipated.
By the beginning of 1920 the organisation was claiming a membership of 200,000 men, rising to a peak of 300,000. Yet the same year also saw the NUX begin the process of winding itself up.
It was not alone. Elsewhere, the plethora of ex-servicemen’s associations were gradually being brought together, merged into one body, the British Legion, under the leadership of Field Marshal Douglas Haig. The intention of the Legion was to take over the various campaigns for ex-servicemen, but to do so in a non-political, unaligned, official capacity. That way, it was hoped, the anger that had so frighteningly stalked the streets might be neutralised.
Towards the end of his life, Haig made a speech explaining that, in his view, this had been his aim from the outset: the Legion ‘saved this country from bloodshed during the critical years since the Armistice,’ he claimed. Some of the groups that were absorbed into the Legion, he was reported to have said, ‘were Bolshevist in intention, and they were better with him than with their Bolshevist leaders. They had had machine-guns, arms and munitions.’ In his own words: ‘I got these organisations into the British Legion, and the Bolshevist organisations were broken up.’
Even so, the NUX lay beyond Haig’s pale. It did not participate in the merger talks that created the Legion, but clearly it was not unaffected by the development. Deciding not to stand alone as a rival to the new body, it instead opted to dissolve itself into the wider labour movement.
In November 1920 Ernest Mander issued a statement explaining the position as he saw it:
The NUX was intended to take up individual cases of hardship and to get what temporary relief it could for its members under the present system. But it was intended, too, to preach that the only way in which the disabled men can get full justice, the only way in which the women and children who have lost their breadwinners can be honourably and adequately maintained, the only way in which unemployment can be abolished, the only way in which all the servicemen – together with all the rest of the people – can come into their own is by the abolition of private property in land and capital, by the establishment of a system based on the social ownership of all the means of producing wealth and sustaining human life.
Over the last couple of years, he reported, the NUX had formed 480 branches, staged 47,000 open-air meetings, together with hundreds of lectures, and distributed millions of leaflets. Some of its campaigns had failed – a proposed national rent strike never got off the ground – but ‘although its activities have not been spectacular, the NUX has carried on its vigorous and effective propaganda all over the country’.
He said that the moment for separate organisation had passed, and that ex-servicemen should now begin to see themselves primarily ‘as citizens and workers’. He concluded:
Personally, I believe that the time has now arrived when, in many places, our members would be more useful in other bodies than in a special ex-servicemen’s organisation. I know of many branches of the NUX which, I am convinced, would be of greater service to our common cause if they would now go over en bloc as branches to the Labour Party, the ILP or the Communist Party.
Some branches continued operating independently, but by 1922 the NUX had ceased to exist. The following year, for the first time, the Labour Party was invited to form the government, and began the process of learning how to make political accommodations. In the process, the story of the NUX rapidly faded.
Ernest Mander himself emigrated to New Zealand soon after the dissolution of the union. There he became active in the Workers Education Association and in the Reform Party, which he saw as offering his ideal of ‘socialism without bureaucracy’. It’s probably reasonable to suppose that he wouldn’t approve of the Reform Party’s successor, the National Party. He later moved to Australia, where he became well known as a commentator, teacher and popular psychologist. He also served in the Australian Intelligence Corps during the Second World War, despite his long-standing pacifism.
The fact that that war happened at all was, of course, an indication of how the NUX and similar veterans’ groups elsewhere had failed to win the peace. One of the great clichés of the First World War is that the ex-servicemen didn’t speak of their experiences, an attitude encapsulated in ‘We’ll Never Tell Them’, the closing song of the stage musical (and later film) Oh! What a Lovely War. In remembrance season, it may be worth noting that Mander argued strongly against such a course. This is him in 1920:
It is probable that even the militarists have given up all hope of ever recreating in the present generation the illusions of the ‘honour and glory’ of war. Yet their system depends upon these illusions, for wars cannot be made unless a large number of people can be hypnotised by the ‘glamour’ of warfare. So today we find that those who wish to recreate the war-spirit are concentrating their efforts upon the children.
But the ex-soldiers of Europe can defeat them. They can teach the children what really is. They can expose to the children, as no one else can, the horrible, sordid, revolting realities of the most degrading and bestial business in the world.
If every ex-soldier would tell his own children the truth, the whole truth, about war, the war-spirit would be stamped out for ever.
Alwyn Turner is the author of The Last Post: Music, Remembrance and the Great War (Aurum Press, 2014) and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary with the same title in 2015.