Historical Notes: The long, slow road to Civvy Street
Thursday 14 January 1999
"Keep the home fires burning / Till the boys come home": Ivor Novello's famous 1915 song was but one factor among many that produced a powerful urge among soldiers everywhere to get back to "Civvy Street" immediately their job was done. Writing at 11.01 on Armistice Day an infantry sergeant in France stated in a letter home: "The question on everybody's tongue is `When shall we get home?' "
The answer was slow in coming and deeply unsatisfactory when it came. The British government announced as its top priority the release of so- called "pivotal men": those who could be slotted back instantly into the running of the nation's economy. But this in effect meant: last in, first out. The earliest in uniform, those who by definition were the furthest removed from their pre-war civilian skills, were bitterly resentful. One officer marooned in far-off Persia wrote to his wife: "My contract of three years or the duration has expired and all who joined when I did, `The First Hundred Thousand', are surely entitled to our discharge first." It would be many angry months before such as he got home.
Some senior officers ignored the regulations. A Royal Engineers CO demobilised his companies strictly according to length of service abroad, which all concerned thought much the fairer way. He later commented: "I am sure that every officer who demobilised a Unit ought to have had the DSO. It was the hardest job of the war."
Eventually the Government conceded, but not before a surge of protest that in some cases produced that unthinkable consequence: soldiers refusing orders point-blank, even coming out on strike. On 3 January 1919 at Folkestone 3,000 men ordered to parade for embarkation for France flatly refused to do so. There was a similar demonstration on the following day at Dover.
Meanwhile there was a scatter of smaller disturbances in France. In Le Havre a 38-year old Warrant Officer with eight years of service in India behind him and a Mention in Despatches for gallantry in Gallipoli found himself branded a "Bolshie" for taking a prominent part in agitation for demobilisation. His battalion was lectured by the CO on Bolshevism. The Warrant Officer commented in his diary: "British Prussianism afraid of being upset." Further afield troops were still mounting massed meetings of protest in Egypt as late as April.
The Australians managed their demobilisation with rather greater success, because their commander, Sir John Monash, upheld the principle of "First come, first go". "Our demob is going on very steadily," wrote a "Digger" corporal in the spring of 1919. "The system is very fair, and upheld owing to that fairness by all the boys."
With hindsight it is clear that political motives played virtually no part in the British soldiers' disaffection: when Tommy said he wanted to go back to Blighty, he meant precisely that. A Royal Engineers sergeant would later comment: "It seemed as though the whole Army had become imbued with a spirit of revolt against the system which had held the individual for so long." But revolt did not mean that the soldiers were revolutionary: rather they were just "bloody-minded" at what they saw as a palpable injustice. In sum, they were far more likely to sing that favourite, heart-felt Tommies' dirge, "I want to go home", than ever to burst into the "International". But they had made their point: they demanded, and finally got, fair play.
Malcolm Brown is the author of `The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918, Year of Victory' (Sidgwick & Jackson, pounds 25)
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