The origins of the British Legion, the bourgeois state and its demobilised troops
The British and Irish Communist Organisation is remembered amongst Marxist-Leninist circles in Britain for the outstanding role it played in defending Marxist political economy in the face of the revisionist betrayal of socialism in the USSR (in particular the pamphlets defending J V Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism). This organisation, born from Marxism and being blessed with many talented worker-theoreticians, was sadly incapable of preventing its members from unrestrained intellectual flights of high scholarship. The result was that they became detached from reality and like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Their abandonment of Marxism-Leninism and failure to apply practically their theoretical knowledge to the building of a revolutionary movement wasted many talents. What remains of the vast intellectual output of this group is available from Athol Books publishing house and it is amongst this collection that an excellent pamphlet entitled The British Legion and Hitler by Eamon Dyas can be found. The work by Dyas is sympathetic to the working class, its class allegiances are clear throughout, and it has many interesting asides relating to Ireland. This short presentation relies largely upon this Athol Books pamphlet and it is hoped that this material will find an appreciative audience amongst our communist readers who may use the information for some concrete, practical and revolutionary purpose.
Lenin on the State and army
“The centralised state power that is peculiar to bourgeois society came into being in the period of the fall of absolutism. Two institutions most characteristic of this state machine are the bureaucracy and the standing army. In their works, Marx and Engels repeatedly show that the bourgeoisie are connected with these institutions by thousands of threads” (Lenin – State and Revolution).
The Leninist teaching on the state is a weapon in the hands of the workers and oppressed. The ruling class is extremely adept at utilising various avenues in civil society for the purpose of pursuing its political objectives. The crimes of the bourgeoisie, domestically and inter-nationally are concealed by a thousand threads from the scene of their crimes, very often there is a veritable smoke screen of charities, NGOs, watchdogs, media organisations and religious institutions knowingly or unknowingly covering the tracks of the ruling class.
In the labour movement the link between imperialism and war is hidden by class collaborators, rather than exposed. We may now expose one such thread. It is a thread which hides the role the bourgeoisie played in ensuring that the moral responsibility for looking after the victims of war falls to the general population and becomes a cause in which workers are enrolled and mobilised. Whilst the state raises its army, pays those it takes into its ranks, educates some and provides a basic training for all, the state at the same time distances itself from the welfare of these men and women when their service comes to an end. That work is understood to be the work of all; it is a charitable cause for a caring society. In achieving this aim the bourgeois state ensures that the working people are removed from the decisions which are taken to launch wars of aggression and plunder, but that the burden of caring for the victims of these adventures falls onto society at large. It means that the relationship between most British workers and the armed forces are characterised by charity, sympathy and the annual ritual every November in which the entire population pays homage to those who have taken part in British military service, regardless of the widespread disgust or opposition to any particular action.
The Help for Heroes charity claims there are more than 2,000 charities in the British state whose purpose is in some way connected with the welfare of military personnel. Long before Help for Heroes mobilised hundreds of thousands of well-meaning workers to wear multi-coloured rubber wristbands in celebration of, and defence for, two criminal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, millions of others had been indoctrinated into the habitual pinning of the poppy, a campaign of the Royal British Legion, which itself was the product of the machinations of the British ruling class in its desperate attempts after World War 1 to divert anti-militarist, anti-war and anti-capitalist sentiment away from the state and into peaceable, charitable dead-ends. The following sections will demonstrate that contention.
Napoleonic wars to 1914
Prior to WW1 the state’s role in providing assistance to ex-servicemen was limited. Dyas writes that “should a soldier suffer wounding or disablement, there was no established structured system of compensation. The Chelsea Commissioners operated a compensation scheme that, on the surface, was linked to considerations like loss of earnings potential, but the actual payment also took account of length of service, the character of the soldier, and the particular circumstances regarding his conduct when wounded. Issues like family circumstances, wives, children or other dependants etc., were not part of any compensation equation… It was not until 1900 that the widow and children of those who died in service became entitled to a pension. However, if the soldier had not died, but was discharged because of injury or ill health, such provisions were not available. Nor was it considered the state’s business to maintain a discharged man’s medical treatment. The state’s responsibility ceased as soon as the soldier was discharged.
“Even in 1915, once it became evident that a soldier would not be able to return to active service, he was discharged and the state’s responsibility for further medical treatment ended. Responsibility for finding work for ex-servicemen was even less of an issue for the state. Although the issue was investigated by five major committees between the 1870s and 1906, nothing was done and the solution continued to be left to the voluntary charity agencies. All of the main charities operating for servicemen during the First World War were founded much earlier and bear witness to the sustainability of the British military continuum. The earliest was Lloyds Patriotic Fund. This was founded in 1803 and designed to cater for the needs of British casualties during the Napoleonic wars. The Royal Patriotic Fund was established to assist the British victims of the Crimean War. The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association began at the time of the Sudan Campaign. The Soldiers and Sailors Help Society emerged under Lord Roberts’s patronage at the beginning of the Boer War. The simple fact that all of these charities had their genesis in military conflicts stretching back over a hundred years is in itself testimony to the durability of the relationship between military activity and British civic society.”
The First great inter-imperialist world war and the British military
By the end of the first inter-imperialist world war, well over 20 million had lost their lives. Britain lost nearly 900,000 soldiers, total casualties numbered 2 million. Many thousands of men took part in unrest in the ranks, particularly in the period after the Etaples mutiny (see The First World War – an imperialist attempt to redivide the world, CPGB-ML ) and then the victory of the British and their allies. Frustrated at the slow process of demobilisation thousands broke ranks, and pressure grew on the British state to release the men, reclaim their weapons and ensure that the feeling of unrest and rebellion did not catch on. By 1919 the dole queues in Britain were full of demobilised soldiers. The Home Office reported that “in the event of rioting, for the first time in history, the rioters will be better trained than the troops” (Ward, Stephen R. (1973). Intelligence Surveillance of British Ex-Servicemen, 1918–1920, The Historical Journal,16(1), 179-188).
From 1918 a branch of the Home Office Criminal Investigative Department began to publish a “fortnightly report of pacifism and revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom and morale abroad”. In 1919 this report went weekly and was entitled Report on revolutionary organisations in the United Kingdom, stored by the National Archives at the Wiltshire and Swindon National History Centre. The reports were discussed at Cabinet meetings and were compiled from reports from spies infiltrating Bolshevik organisations, workers’ committees and pacifist groups and anti-conscription campaigns, they also took an interest in the rise and development of organisations of ex-servicemen (see The First World War – an imperialist attempt to redivide the world, CPGB-ML).
The development of ex-servicemen’s organisations coincided with 1916 Acts of Parliament introducing conscription into the army. Workers were dragged, very reluctantly by all accounts, into the slaughter being inflicted on their fellow workers. These men were experienced in industrial organisation and carried with them into the army the methods and habit of class organisation. Field Marshal Douglas Haig wrote a letter to Lord Derby in which he said,
“It must not be forgotten that under enlistment on a voluntary basis the Army was composed of men imbued with a spirit of self-sacrifice and patriotism, but under the Military Service Act a leaven of men whose desire to serve their country is negligible has permeated the ranks. The influence of these men and their antecedents generally are not such as to foster any spirit but that of unrest and discontent, they came forward under compulsion and they will depart from the Army with relief. Men of this stamp are not satisfied with remaining quiet, they come from a class which like to air real or fancied grievances, and their teaching in this respect is a regrettable antidote to the spirit of devotion and duty of earlier troops.”
The establishment of organisations of ex-servicemen
The existence of ex-servicemen’s organisations in Britain is inextricably tied up with the question of unemployment. This is because so much of the work of the early ex-servicemen’s organisations revolved around the problems demobilised workers had when they returned to the labour market. It must be said that in addition to those men organised in ex-servicemen bodies, many former soldiers were to be found amongst the ranks of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, an organisation led by the communist Wal Hannington. For those wanting more information on that, look no further than Wal Hannington’s book Unemployed Struggles 1919-1936 (MW Books, Galway, 1973). For the purposes of this article, a few remarks from comrade Hannington will suffice to illustrate the situation in post-war Britain:
“The government had anticipated mass unemployment following the war, and on 25 November, 1918, parliament, realising that there would be anger and resentment unless some provision was made, passed a Bill to pay a ‘donation’ benefit to all unemployed, ex-servicemen and civilians, insured and non-insured, amounting to 29s. a week to men, and 25s. to women, plus 6s. for the first dependant child and 3s. for each additional child. This ceased for civilian workers in November 1919, and for ex-servicemen and women in March 1921.
“The threat from the workless also compelled the government to pass a new Unemployment Insurance Act in December 1919, to raise the benefit scales to 11s. a week for all men and women over 18 years of age …
“But as the unemployment figures mounted higher so the agitation amongst the unemployed increased. The approach of winter in 1920 saw the first definite forms of organisation amongst the unemployed in many parts of the country. These organisations were of a local character and mostly used the title of ‘Local Unemployed Ex-servicemen’s Organisation.’ Demonstrations were organised to march the streets for the sole purpose of begging charity as a means of relieving distress.
“In London it was not an uncommon sight to see two separate demonstrations of workless marching passing each other in Oxford Street or other parts of the west end, and expressing actual rivalry and opposition to one another, in scrambling to collect money from well-to-do shoppers. To take collections on the streets it was necessary to obtain police permits. The police, however, readily granted such permits. They saw the political importance of doing so in more ways than one. They realised that such charity-mongering methods were a safe outlet for the discontent of the unemployed, and were an effective means of keeping the unemployed divided amongst themselves and diverting attention from the real problem of making the authorities face up to the task of providing adequately for them.”
Hannington was undoubtedly correct in his observations. In his review of the Intelligence Reports on British Ex-servicemen, academic Stephen Ward remarks “The lines of unemployed contained a high percentage of ex-servicemen demobilized in 1919 with expectations that England would be a ‘ land fit for heroes to live in’. Indignation among these men grew and some turned to violence to vent their frustrations against a government whose promises had crumbled about them. They seized vacant homes and buildings, marched in the streets and tangled with police. Their experiences in tactics of violence learned in war made them potentially dangerous if organized and armed… prospects for revolution in 1918—20 were as serious as those posed by Chartism in the mid-nineteenth century. Many radical movements were formed in this period due partly to the influence of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and syndicalism at home. Lloyd George’s coalition government gathered information on these movements and in the process encountered ex-servicemen among the ranks of discontented. Intelligence surveillance was placed on developments among ex-servicemen in early 1918 and continued rather extensively to early 1921. A case study of effective intelligence surveillance helps to explain how open confrontation was avoided after the First World War. It also shows how information concerning veterans’ activities aided rather than prevented understanding of a movement whose disruptive power was capable of destroying the government.”
National Association, National Federation and old ‘Comrades’
The first group of significance to emerge was the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers. This was founded in 1917 as ‘a purely working-class organisation’ by James Frankland, a councillor in Blackburn, and its first meeting “took place under the auspices of the local Trades and Labour Council”. But it wasn’t a socialist organisation and was very close to conservative forces. Sponsoring a number of candidates in the 1918 general election as the ‘Silver Badge Party’, one member was elected – as an independent Conservative.
The next group, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, formed in April 1917, had rules that prohibited membership of officers except those who rose from the ranks. An Officers’ Association already existed and, since most campaigning essentially took the form of begging, the exclusion of officers was little more than a trade distinction – although one inherently political.
According to Dyas “The second reading of the Parliamentary Bill that became the Military Service (Review of Exceptions) Act 1917 triggered the tendency to radical action inherent in both these bodies. This Act empowered the military authorities to compel previously discharged (and even disabled) men to be medically re-examined in order that they be sent back to the Armed Forces. The Federation and the Association were to the fore in organizing the protests against this Act culminating in a large demonstration in Hyde Park. Such protests, representing independent action by ex-soldiers organised around a political agenda, were interpreted by conservative opinion as an expression of extremist and syndicalist influence.
As a direct reaction to this, a Tory Member of Parliament, Colonel Sir John Norton-Griffiths, with the assistance of Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for War, established the Comrades of the Great War ex-servicemen’s society. The motivation for founding this body was to ensure that ex-servicemen were kept clear of politics” (Ward, op.cit.).
This body (Comrades of the Great War) was not established from thin air. It was a premeditated action by the ruling class, much like ‘Help for Heroes’ in more recent times (which was established after a meeting with General Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff). The ‘Comrades’ was founded as a result of a conference at the War Office held under the auspices of Lord Derby in 1917. Sir Hamar Greenwood, who acted as Chief Secretary for Ireland (1920-22), also took part (Greenwood was a Liberal MP, like Winston Churchill, and became infamous for his use of the Black and Tans during the Irish civil war). These men were less concerned with the welfare of ex-servicemen than with the control of the avenues for expressing their dissatisfaction.
To ensure the ‘Comrades’ was a success, businessmen donated large sums of money, and further backing came from “Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere, Major Astor, Lord French, and the Duke of Westminster. The next step to neutralise the radical potential of the other two ex-servicemen’s organisations was to concentrate upon the issue of unifying them with the Comrades organisation. With ample funds and important connections, the leaders of the Comrades believed that their emphasis on removing politics from the nature of ex-servicemen’s associations would prevail at least among the majority of ordinary servicemen. Two attempts were made in 1918 to establish such unity but both proved unsuccessful. The second attempt in November 1918 was held under the auspices of the Army Office, the Navy Office and the War Office, with Sir Douglas Haig active behind the scenes. The War Office also brought to the table the prospect of allocating the millions of pounds of accumulated profits from the Navy and Army Canteen Board and the Expeditionary Force Canteens. This money, which had grown significantly since the Armistice, mostly belonged to the rank and file but the War Office was reluctant to hand any of it over to ‘political’ ex-servicemen’s organisations.” This first attempt proved unsuccessful – events had not fully run their course. By 1920 the issues were resolved and the bribe became a clear one.
De-mobilisation and opportunities for revolutionaries
The logic for demobilisation was simply that the first to be sent home were those deemed necessary to re-start the economy. Anyone who had a letter from a prospective employer offering work was given preferential treatment, but the system was heavily abused and resulted in growing dissent among the ranks. This, together with the badly organised de-mobilisation arrangements, led to direct action by many soldiers. In January 1919, a few days before Winston Churchill took over the War Office, the approach to the War Office building was blockaded by lorry loads of Army Service Corps men who had driven in from around London. They also set up a ‘Sachets’ Council’ and declared solidarity with the workers. A full-scale mutiny occurred in Calais towards the end of January when around 4,000 armed soldiers took possession of the town for 24 hours, and on 8 February some 3,000 armed soldiers, arriving at Victoria Station in London only to find inadequate sustenance and travel arrangements, descended on Horse Guards Parade.
The Federation was the largest ex-servicemen’s organisation with branches throughout the country including Brighton, Durham, Eastbourne, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Portsmouth, Sheffield and elsewhere. It organised two ‘Monster’ demonstrations in London in 1919. The first, in May 1919, was attended by 20,000 ex-servicemen, (The Times of 27 May reported a figure of 10,000—an interesting underestimate that sits uncomfortably with that paper’s fantastic overestimate of British Legion membership the following year). The demonstration became violent when a section decided to march on the Houses of Parliament and was attacked by the police. Again in 1919 it called on branches to demonstrate locally to improve the condition of ex-servicemen by the building of housing schemes to reduce unemployment, better retraining allowances, and improved war gratuities…
The resentment was to grow in magnitude during the next months, as those returning to the UK found no work, inadequate housing and poor welfare provision. In 1919, increasing numbers of disillusioned and alienated ex-servicemen were entering an economy where, during that year, 35 million working days had been lost because of industrial unrest. This, combined with the political crisis in Ireland, the political vacuum of the war coalition, and the recent experience of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, meant that there was a very real danger to social cohesion. On 19 July 1919, Luton Town Hall was burnt down in a night of rioting by ex-soldiers protesting against their general treatment by the government as well as inadequate war pension provision. The majority of the rioters were said to have been members of the National Federation of Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, and rumours (incorrect as it turned out) spread that they had also attacked the local offices of the Comrades of the Great War.
Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Union
The Home Office discovered an organisation called the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Union which solicited members from veterans’ and servicemen’s ranks. Stephen Ward explains that “Army regulations forbade soldiers from joining ex-servicemen’s groups throughout the war, but the Comrades had been allowed to recruit ‘honorary members’ and consequently had set a precedent. The SSAU took advantage of this precedent and began a recruiting campaign in early 1919. The ‘Herald’, which became the ‘Daily Herald’ when labour leader George Lansbury purchased it in April 1919, supported the organization under the auspices of its Herald League. According to intelligence sources, a writer for ‘The Herald’, Captain E. S.Donisthorpe, organized the SSAU in late 1918. Soon after the union was formed, demobilization disturbances broke out and ‘The Herald’ published an article entitled ‘The Great Mutiny’, which described acts of insubordination among soldiers in France and England. Donisthorpe and ‘The Herald’ were evidently encouraged by this example of discontent and decided to sponsor an organization to sow further insubordination among army men. The purpose of this activity was to undermine Britain’s involvement in the Russian Civil War and was associated with the ‘Hands Off Russia’ movement which had gained support among labouring groups in late 1918-19. Thomson’s Special Branch had probably infiltrated the union by March. A second report, submitted in that month, revealed that Lieutenant-Commander J. M. Kenworthy RN had joined the movement. Kenworthy (later Baron Strabolgi) encouraged the union and offered it financial aid. One agent reported that the Executive of the Union are believed to have held a meeting in London a few days ago at which Kenworthy, Fairchild and other revolutionaries were present. Plans for a coup d’etat of a very childish description were discussed, and Kenworthy is asserted to have declared that the navy was ripe for mutiny. Other speakers talked of arms and bombs being secretly stored and of soldiers who were ready to join them in establishing a republic. There is no cause for alarm in this, for such talk is the stock in trade of these extremists when they get together…
“Perhaps Thomson’s agents were not very worried about the SSAU, but revolutionary activity was on the rise throughout England and caused the Home Office to develop an improved intelligence surveillance apparatus. In April, Basil Thomson left his position as head of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard and established a new Directorate of Intelligence in nearby Scotland House.
“This new agency was created to channel all intelligence gathering into a single bureau reporting directly to the Home Secretary. On 30 April it issued its first communication entitled, ‘Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the United Kingdom ‘…. Thomson’s activities remained unchanged in his new position. One of his first concerns proved to be a portentous overture made by the SSAU to servicemen. During the spring of 1919 the union had been developing plans and pleading its cause through the ‘Daily Herald’ and its own periodical, ‘The Forces’. It demanded that the government increase pensions, recognise unions in the army and navy and pledge not to use servicemen as strikebreakers. In April the ‘Daily Herald’ joined the SSAU in a new proposal that exceeded earlier demands. It suggested that men who had enlisted under the Derby Scheme should be released from service in May. The scheme, inaugurated by Lord Derby in 1915, encouraged married and single men to attest their willingness to serve in the army. Thousands had attested and were eventually drafted when conscription was passed in 1916. Those who had come into service under the Derby Scheme signed a contract of enlistment. The ‘Daily Herald’ published this form (Army Form B 2512A) which stated: ‘You may be retained after the termination of hostilities until your service can be spared, but in no case shall this retention exceed six months… The SSAU interpreted ‘termination of hostilities’ as the armistice of 11 November 1918, while the government assumed that a state of war existed until the peace treaty was signed (the Treaty of Versailles was concluded on 28 June 1919.)…
“Men of the SSAU and the ‘Daily Herald’ thought an issue had been found that would arouse new incidents of protest within the army. The SSAU proposed that soldiers who had signed Army Form B 2512A should be demobilized forthwith or they should demobilize themselves. The union’s fifty branches (perhaps non-existent) submitted progress reports that read, ‘Painting the town red ‘, and ‘Waiting for May’… The ‘Daily Herald’ exploited the campaign for an 11 May demobilization and combined it with its continuing crusade against intervention in Russia. ‘The Derby men’, it claimed, ‘are being kept in the Army because large forces are needed to fight Russia and compel Ireland, Egypt and India to accept rule to which, rightly or wrongly, they object. Derby men attested to fight Germany – not Russia, Ireland, India or Egypt.’ The new Directorate of Intelligence clearly uncovered a critical situation. Agents reported that the SSAU were encouraging Derby men in England and France to remove their buttons, shoulder-straps, badges and declare themselves demobilized on 11 May. In addition, British sailors received leaflets exhorting them to capture ports and unite with soldiers and policemen in a general strike. The necessity for quick response became obvious. A revival of riots… would have a far-reaching impact and could not be tolerated. On 8 May, therefore, the Criminal Investigation Department raided the union’s headquarters and seized its records. At the same time, Churchill reported the SSAU’s 11 May plans to the war cabinet. He told them that army commanders in the field had been notified to prepare for acts of insubordination, but he thought prompt action would spoil the union’s plans. In addition, newspapers were informed of union activities and some of them, including ‘The Times’, published articles about the SSAU. Quick action by the Directorate of Intelligence and the government crippled the union’s plan. No act of self demobilization took place on 11 May although some feeble attempts were made on the 12th. Thomson later wrote that publicity regarding the plot and an explanation of what was meant by ‘cessation of hostilities’ evidently, as he put it, ‘appealed to the good sense of the men’.”
The National Union (NUX) and the International Union (IUX)
The National Union of Ex-Servicemen (NUX.) was formed in 1919: it emerged as one of two groups to leave the Federation. The leadership of the NUX was social democratic, and it aligned itself to the Labour Party. Dyas says that “a contributing factor to the emergence of the National Union was undoubtedly the change of policy in both the National Association and the National Federation during 1919. Although much of its membership continued to identify with Labour, the leadership of the National Association began to distance itself from its Trade Union and Labour connections in late 1918 and by 1919 was beginning to resemble the Comrades in outlook. The National Federation’s decision to open its membership to officers in June 1919 also generated disenchantment among sections of the membership and in fact the National Union was founded by men who had left the Federation in protest against this decision. The leaderships of both the Association and the Federation were changing policies in the cause of unity of the ex-servicemen’s organisations, a cause that by now was synonymous with the abandonment of politics.”
In addition to the emergence of the NUX from the Federation was the emergence of the IUX – the International Union of Ex-Servicemen. This organisation was founded in Glasgow and had the temperament of the city which had produced the Clyde Workers Committee and the great proletarian leaders Maclean, Gallacher and MacManus. It proposed revolutionary tactics: its organiser, James Cox, is reported by Ward to have admitted that “The International Union is an out and out revolutionary socialist organisation. It stands alone among ex-service organizations in this country in its determination to fight for the overthrow of the capitalist system …” (Ward, op.cit.).
According to the research of Ward, “although the IUX boasted only ten chapters with 7,000 members by November, the NUX eventually formed over 100 branches. In December both organizations received an invitation to meet in Geneva to form an Ex-Servicemen’s International. Henri Barbusse, author of ‘Under Fire’, initiated the proposal that ex-servicemen from the former belligerent countries must come together and take the lead in keeping peace in the post-war period. The following spring the International met and the Directorate of Intelligence watched proceedings closely. The IUX could not afford to send delegates, but the NUX sent three. The British delegates took the conservative lead at the conference and thwarted Barbusse’s bid to join the Third International. The IUX criticized the NUX for not voting with Barbusse but the NUX had no intention of aligning itself with revolutionary causes and by mid-1920 had joined the Labour party as an affiliate. By the middle of 1920 surveillance of ex-servicemen began to decline. Reports were submitted periodically on particular incidents, but the Directorate concluded that ex-soldiers would not serve as a ‘red guard’ as some had feared. Unemployment, inadequate housing and low pay continued to plague ex-servicemen into the 1920s, but the ex-heroes rejected revolution. In fact, they moved to the Centre. The Federation, Association, Comrades, and a new group, the Officers Association, came together in 1921 to form the British Legion.”
The formation of the British Legion, an alliance of the conservative and social- democratic ex-servicemen’s organisations was a great achievement for the British ruling class. A media campaign and generous sub ensured the leading role the British Legion was able to take up in the years which followed.
Knocking up the British Legion
To bring about the unity of the non-revolutionary forces, the British establishment used a tried and tested tactic – bribery. The carrot was a £7 million stash originating in the canteen fund and transferred via a Trust into a Fund for Unity! This £7 million would be the equivalent today of something in the region of £300 million. A tidy inducement to unity!
“… moves in the direction of non-political unity were apparent in the creation of the United Service Fund. This was established in late August 1919 to administer the Army and RAF’s proportion of the surplus profits of the Expeditionary Forces Canteens and the Navy and Army Canteen Board. The War Office had previously used this money as an inducement for unity but it was now felt that formal arrangements for its disposal should be made in a way that created more distance from government. The Admiralty had previously taken its share and formed it into the Royal Naval Benevolent Trust. The United Services Fund had at its disposal nearly £7,250,000 and was administered by General Lord Byng. In October 1919, Lord Byng chaired a conference attended by the mainstream ex-servicemen’s organisations (the left-wing National Union was excluded because of its political character and was never to have access to any of the funds) and out of this, the basis was laid for the eventual unity of these organisations. In line with these moves for unity, efforts were also being made to forge the 11 Officers’ Help Societies into a single body. This happened in January 1920 with the formation of the Officers’ Association.
“It was at this stage that General Haig lent his direct influence to events. At a meeting of the Grand Council of the Officers’ Association held on the 10th November 1920, General Haig, spoke freely because, as he said, ‘there are no reporters present’. He recalled that when he became Commander in Chief, Home Forces, he had been greatly disturbed by the revolutionary ideas that existed among societies of ex servicemen. ‘The only solution was to get those men back to their old leaders, the officers, and consequently I urged union amongst all ex-servicemen’. Unfortunately for Haig someone in the audience diligently recorded his speech and sent it to the ‘Daily Herald’ newspaper. It was subsequently published in the ‘Daily Herald’ over three successive issues of the paper on 14th, 15th, and 17th January 1921. An edited version of his speech, with the above parts omitted, was sent to the leaders of the embryonic British Legion on the 25th November 1920 (the above incident is recorded by J. Graham Wootton in his ‘Politics of Influence’, published in 1963).
“Despite approaches from the various ex-servicemen’s organisations, Haig had refused to accept any position, declaring that he was only interested in leading a united ex-service organisation for all ranks. With movement towards unity being increasingly expressed by the leadership of the main ex-servicemen’s societies, a conference was arranged for August 1920 at the Royal United Services Institution. Although the left-wing National Union was present, its influence was marginal among the overwhelmingly pro-unity delegates. In fact, when it came to a vote, the only opposition was from the National Union and Mr. Ernest Thurtie, a delegate from the Federation. The vote in favour of unity led to several further constitutional drafting conferences culminating in the formal birth of the British Legion on 1st July 1921 with Earl Haig as its President (however its functional birth could be said to date from the establishment of the Unity Relief Fund in December 1920).”
The British Legion is given a helping hand in the press
With the paper unity in place, the establishment now threw its weight behind a propaganda campaign aimed at extinguishing all opposition. “The ‘Daily Telegraph’ claimed that the embryonic organisation had a membership of between 2 and 3 million (16 May 1921) while ‘The Times’ placed the number at 2 million (13 June 1921). …the real membership at its formation was in fact just above 18,000…Further credence was forthcoming with the assistance of the Government when, during 1922, the Legion acted as labour exchanges, with the General Secretary, Lieutenant-Colonel E.C. Heath… claiming that the Legion was finding jobs for ex-servicemen at the rate of 1,000 jobs a month. Heath is also reported in the ‘Times’ (31st August 1922) complaining that one of the reasons for unemployment among ex-servicemen was that foreigners were taking British jobs—a far cry from the position previously adopted by organisations like the Federation. All of this propaganda could not but bear fruit and by 1922 the membership had dramatically risen to 116,426.”
The general strike 1926 and the LLX
In the inter-war period the British Legion reigned as the undisputed king of the ex-servicemen’s organisations. The German Communist Party which organised its own Workers Defence Forces was the inspiration for the Communist Party of Great Britain when it repeatedly called for, and had some success in putting together, Workers’ Defence Corps under the control of local Trades Councils during and after the strike. These organisations were formed for the purpose of preventing fascist and police attacks upon trade unionists and labour movement meetings. A dedicated ex-servicemen’s organisation took a back seat to the pressing requirements of the day. The CPGB before, during and after the General Strike was calling for “Organisation of Workers’ Defence Corps, composed of Trade Unionists and controlled by Trades Councils, to protect working class meetings from fascists and reactionaries, and effort by the General Council to put the workers’ case before the workers in the Army, Navy and Air Forces” (Ward, op.cit.).
With the leadership of the CPGB under arrest and in jail, the reactionary forces in British society were free to organise against the TUC. The CPGB-ML pamphlet on the General Strike covers this period in more detail. For present purposes let it be said that the British Legion was mobilised at this point to defend the interests of the ruling class and against the workers. The Legion adopted a position as follows, “generally one of neutrality in any industrial dispute but if that dispute threatened law and order and the Constitution, British Legion members should take steps to safeguard the interests of the community at large.”
This policy was distributed to branches on 3 May 1926 but on 8 May, with the General Strike at its height, the General Secretary, Colonel Heath, issued a statement through The Times in which he said:
"The Legion therefore calls upon all ex-service men who saved the country in the war, to come forward once more and offer their services in any way that may be needed by the authorities."
The statement was also printed as a leaflet and distributed during the strike in various parts of London. Many British Legion members answered the call and contributed significantly towards Winston Churchill’s efforts at breaking the strike. However, there was also a reaction among the Legion members who opposed this action. At the Annual Conference on 23 May, the Stoke Newington branch reported the loss of a large number of members because of the position adopted by the Legion. The Stoke Newington and South Paddington branches consequently tabled a resolution condemning the original statement—in which they were supported by the Marylebone, Grimsby, and Worcester branches. The resolution however, was roundly defeated. It was obvious that the overwhelming majority of the membership supported the General Secretary’s position. The emphasis of the organisation, although eschewing politics in theory, was in practice increasingly right-wing.
The disillusionment among some of the British Legion members in the aftermath of the General Strike, combined with the demise of the overtly left-wing Ex-Servicemen’s Union, helped create the basis for the emergence of the Labour League of–Ex-Servicemen. Very little is recorded in the ‘official’ histories of the CPGB about this organisation, although it was most certainly a Party affair. The various histories of the CPGB produced by Page Arnot, Klugman and Branson make no mention of the LLX which was founded in September 1927 as a communist organisation by J.S. Snooks, (reportedly a kitchen-porter who rose through the ranks, became a lieutenant, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the First World War). The photograph of the LLX below was found in the influential magazine The Graphic. This magazine, thoroughly bourgeois, was founded in the 1800s and was wound up in the 1930s. Its pages for May 5 1928 are troubled by scenes from International Workers Day that year. The Graphic led with “Commandant Snooks makes our flesh creep with a uniformed ‘clenched fist’ Labour League”. As repulsive a sight as it may have been for The Graphic, the well drilled lines of marchers photographed coming from London’s east end are an impressive sight, and one the labour movement rarely manages, unless, that is, you are admitted into the tight lines of Red Youth which impressively assemble in Clerkenwell on 1 May each year.
The LLX had by 1928 a branch in Tyneside where 200 ex-servicemen attended its district congress. It also had some support in South Wales where the Neath contingent interrupted the annual memorial service arranged by the local Legion branch by attempting to lay a wreath on the war memorial with the words "Victim of Capitalism". It appears that many women were organised in the LLX, including Mrs Marjorie Pollitt, and JR Campbell’s wife was head of the Women’s Section whilst he worked on the Workers’ Weekly, forerunner of the Daily Worker). “On 3rd September 1928 members of the League provided the guard of honour for the return of William Brickle, William Baker, and Oliver Sanderson to Newcastle. These men, miners from Cramlington, had been imprisoned for their role in the de-railing of the Royal Scot express train during the General Strike, and they were welcomed home by a crowd of between three and four thousand supporters. However, early in 1929, with membership having fallen to around 3,500, it changed its name to the ‘Workers’ Legion’ and was no longer constituted as purely an ex-servicemen’s organisation” (Ward, op.cit.).
Hitler and the British Legion
Having charted the historical origins of the British Legion, and counterposed them to some of the more radical workers’ organisations which blossomed all too briefly, it is of considerable interest to turn our attentions to the paragraphs in Dyas’s pamphlet The British Legion and Hitler which relate the extraordinary events of the 1930s.
In a period of political upheaval, when Winston Churchill openly declared to Mussolini “If I were Italian, I am sure I would have been with you entirely from the beginning”, it is perhaps not so surprising to communists that the British Legion met with, and offered assistance to, Adolf Hitler. To a great many British folk, it would come as something of a surprise, because of the historical revisionism that has hidden from ordinary people the great affection and support rendered to Italian and German fascism by various influential British members of the bourgeoisie before the outbreak of World War Two. The story of how the British Legion met with Herr Hitler and then organised a detachment to be sent to police the occupied Sudetenland is taken up by Dyas in the paragraphs which follow:
“In February 1933, Hitler assumed power in Germany, The official historian of the British Legion has this to say on the event:
"’If Hitler’s rise to power did at first appear to make the possibility of friendship with German ex-servicemen more remote than ever, in the end it had exactly the opposite result’" (Graham Wootton, The Official History of the British Legion, p171, published 1956).
“One of the reasons for this was the fact that he had ‘rationalised’ the number of left-wing ex-servicemen’s organisations out of existence. However, the main reason, according to Wootton, was that Hitler wanted to improve Anglo-German relations. Consequently, the British Legion sent a delegation to meet Hitler in July 1935. During their meeting ‘he stressed the special value of collaboration, in the interests of peace, between soldiers who had fought in the Great War’. On the 21st July some of the delegation were also shown around Dachau Concentration Camp, followed by a family supper at Herr Himmler’s that evening. They did, however, refuse to lay a wreath on the memorial to the National Socialist killed during the Putsch against the Bavarian government in 1923 on the grounds that their visit was non-political!
“On several subsequent occasions during the 1930s, representatives of the British Legion visited Germany, but usually to attend conferences or in unofficial capacities. However, one visit in 1938 was to bring the organisation into the very centre of the growing European crisis. Despite its insistence in 1925 that a democratic Germany must recognise and accept existing European boundaries as a precondition to membership of the League of Nations, the British government abandoned all such insistence after Hitler came to power. Within months of taking power in 1933, Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations, indicating that Germany no longer felt bound by the terms of the Locarno Treaty. Rather than applying the same standards as they were insisting upon a mere 8 years earlier, the British now acquiesced in the expansion of Nazi Germany at every turn. The march into the Rhineland in March 1936 and the annexation of Austria in March 1938 were met with a muted reaction. After Austria it was obvious that Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, with its large ethnic German population, was next on the cards. Instead of meeting this challenge head on, the British government sought an accommodation with Hitler that involved the sacrifice of the territory of another sovereign state.
“Lord Runciman was sent to Prague as an independent mediator to work for a settlement between the Czechoslovak government and the Sudeten Germans. He reported in September 1938, recommending that, in the frontier territory between Czechoslovakia and Germany where the Sudeten Germans constituted an ‘important majority’, they should be given full rights of self-determination immediately. In effect, this meant transferring these frontier territories to Germany. In other areas, where the Sudeten Germans did not constitute an ‘important majority’ there should be a measure of local autonomy. These recommendations were to be implemented by a Commission, under a neutral Chairman to demarcate the territory to be ceded, with an international force to maintain order in that territory to enable Czechoslovak troops and police to withdraw.
“Chamberlain decided to ignore the Runciman proposals and instead agreed with the French that those areas inhabited principally by Sudeten Germans be ceded outright to Germany. These proposals were far more unfavourable to the Czechs than the Runciman proposals, which defined an ‘important majority’ as 75% whereas the Anglo-French proposal defined it as 50%. The Czech government considered the proposal overnight but rejected it on the evening of the 20th September. The British and French governments responded by informing President Benes in the early hours of 21st September that if the Czech rejection of these proposals were to lead to military conflict with Germany, neither Britain nor France would come to their aid. Benes thereupon capitulated.
“Chamberlain flew to Germany with these proposals, where he was informed by Hitler that he wanted all the areas occupied principally by Sudeten Germans to be evacuated by the Czechs by the 28th September. He also wanted a plebiscite to be held by an international commission in certain other areas. Chamberlain then returned to London on the 24th September.
“It was here that the British Legion entered the arena. On the same day that Chamberlain returned to London, the Foreign Office asked Sir Francis Fetherston-Godley, Chairman of the British Legion, for 5,000 Legion volunteers to go to the Czechoslovak frontier at short notice to be followed by another 5,000 at a later date. These were to act as neutral observers, to ‘prevent collisions’, and to ensure that ‘any plans agreed upon by the respective Governments were carried out with a minimum of friction’. The War Office apparently, could not supply any men to undertake this task. The Legion agreed to the request. On Sunday morning the 25th September it received a message from 10 Downing Street stating that ‘the Prime Minister approved of the proposal of the British Legion for service in Czechoslovakia, provided that the consent of the German Chancellor could be obtained’. Sir Frederick Maurice, the President of the Legion flew to Berlin for an audience with Hitler on the Sunday afternoon and met him the following morning. Hitler agreed to the arrangements involving the British Legion.
“By late September, however, an agreement had been reached between Britain, Germany, France and Italy, which involved a change in the extent to which the British Legion would be utilised. It was agreed that the Germans would complete the occupation of the Sudeten territory between the 1st and 10th October and that an International Commission would be established to decide in which areas plebiscites should be held, and ‘international bodies’ would occupy such areas until the plebiscites had been completed. It was now envisaged that the new arrangements would only necessitate the involvement of 1,500 British Legion volunteers. A dispute then broke out around the definition of the ‘international bodies’ which were to occupy the plebiscite areas until the voting had been completed. The Germans insisted that this should be the British Legion, while the British government wanted this role to be performed by the British Army. The British then offered a mixed contingent of British Legion and Army personnel. Lord Halifax informed Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador in Berlin that because ‘we may well be asked and indeed would be willing to send our contingent to areas where trouble from Communists and others is most likely to occur, we feel it essential that the force we sent should be capable of fulfilling any demands that may be made of it’ (Documents On British Foreign Policy, 3rd Series, Vol. III, No 106, pages 75-76, quoted by Graham Wootton, Official Story of the British Legion, [Macdonald and Evans, London,] 1956, page 236). The British Legion would still have a presence but only as a ‘psychological symbol’. The Germans postponed a decision. It appears that Lord Halifax then reconciled himself to using British Legion personnel and by 4 October arrangements were being made to dispatch them to Czechoslovakia. On 6 October, the 1,200 strong Legion Volunteer Police Force assembled at Olympia in London. Within 24 hours all were fully equipped, sworn in and briefed. On Saturday 8 October they made a public display and marched through London before being ordered to be ready to sail on Monday 10 October.
“Discussions continued in Berlin, with the British now hoping for the abandonment of the plebiscite, and, with the agreement of the Czechoslovak government, they put the proposal to the Germans. While waiting for Hitler’s response it was decided to continue with the British Legion plans and on 12 October the Volunteer Police Force embarked from Tilbury in two troopships. The ships, however, sailed no further than Southend where they dropped anchor while the Germans weighed up the various options offered by the British. In the end, on the evening of 13 October, the decision was for the abandonment of the plebiscite so the Legionaries sailed back from Southend and were dispersed on 15 October. From the Locarno Treaty in 1925 to the Sudetenland capitulation in 1938, the British Legion had proved to be useful agents of the British Foreign Office—a position that moved from the imposition of unreasonable territorial concessions on a democratic Germany to one that actively aided the expansionist ambitions of a fascist Germany.”
There is no such thing as charity in a capitalist society. The only law is the jungle law of capitalism, the strong take from the weak. When workers organise themselves to fight the injustices of wage slavery and its consequences, they wrest from the ruling class reforms. Some are big, some are small. The first great inter-imperialist world war remains the war which placed most strain upon the British ruling class and the capitalist system in Britain. The development of the British Legion throughout its formative years is the story of the ruling class gaining control over the forces in society which posed a very real threat to the continuation of the capitalist system. This is attested to by all the principal military men of the time, the politicians and the secret reports from which we have quoted. The 1925 Conference of the British Legion, which granted the Royal Charter upon the organisation, was the guarantee that they would be a reliable apparatus of the British state, the fact that it is referred to as a “charity” is neither here nor there. As Eamon Dyas concluded “Delegating part of the responsibility for the welfare of ex-soldiers to a charitable status… established a safer relationship between war and the people. It ensures that the, people, through their generosity, assume such responsibility and in so doing places greater distance between the human cost and the activity of the state. In the democratic context the purpose of the British Legion is to ensure that the populace is constantly reminded of the sacrifice undertaken on their behalf—it was not the state which made the decision to send these poor unfortunates to war but the people acting through the state— "we owe our current liberties and way of life to those who gave theirs" — and as such it is the people who should shoulder the cost. The link between perpetual war and the people is thereby reinforced and sustained.”