Churchill, Troops & Strikers (1)

Churchill, Troops & Strikers (1)

This is a time when we often ques­tion the actions of police forces. In Amer­i­ca, gov­er­nors occa­sion­al­ly call in the Nation­al Guard dur­ing riotous protests. Local res­i­dents are always the main vic­tims of such events. Churchill’s expe­ri­ence with strik­ers is wor­thy of study, his mag­na­nim­i­ty wor­thy of reflection.

Did WSC Send Troops Against Strikers?

For a cen­tu­ry it has been part of social­ist demonolo­gy that Churchill sent troops to attack strik­ers dur­ing a 1910 min­ers’ work stop­page in Tony­pandy, Wales. In 1967 an Oxford under­grad­u­ate wrote that Churchill faced down strik­ers with tanks. This was very pre­scient of him, since tanks didn’t exist in 1910.

And for half a cen­tu­ry Churchill’s defend­ers, begin­ning with his son and includ­ing this writer, insist­ed all this was a lie. Churchill, were said, deferred from using troops against the minework­er strik­ers and left law enforce­ment to the local constabulary.

Out of this has grown a con­sid­er­able mud­dle, to which I have added my share. So this is to cor­rect the record: Churchill did send troops to areas con­tain­ing strik­ers and riots in 1910-11. He with­held their deploy­ment in 1910, but in 1911 their pres­ence at one loca­tion result­ed in fatalities.

Now, as the traf­fic judge used to allow me to do in my lead­ed-foot­ed days as a teenage dri­ver, I shall plead on Churchill’s behalf: “Guilty with an explanation.”

Tonypandy, Wales, November 1910

A coal min­ers’ strike grew out of dis­putes over wage dif­fer­en­tials for work­ing hard and soft seams. Up to 30,000 min­ers were involved, and local author­i­ties appealed for troops to the Sec­re­tary of State for War, Richard Hal­dane, who con­sult­ed Churchill, then Home Sec­re­tary. They agreed to send police, but to sta­tion some troops near­by if worst came to worst.

Churchill report­ed to the King that he had restored peace with­out resort to sol­diers. The Con­ser­v­a­tive press attacked. The Times said that he did not under­stand the need for “deci­sive han­dling.” The Lib­er­al press defend­ed him, a Lib­er­al MP. “The brave course was also the wise one,” wrote the Man­ches­ter Guardian…“Instead of a score of cas­es for the hos­pi­tal there might have been as many for the mortuary.”

Writ­ing to David Lloyd George the fol­low­ing spring, Churchill expressed his wish to help the min­ers. The gov­ern­ment, he said, should meet their requests for stronger safe­ty reg­u­la­tions and inspec­tions, giv­en the high­est death rates since min­ing sta­tis­tics had begun—and finance the expense with a sur­charge on mine­own­ers’ royalties.

Llanelli, Wales, August 1911

Nine months lat­er, a nation­al rail­way strike broke out when rail oper­a­tors refused to rec­og­nize the unions as nego­tia­tors. This time troops arrived at numer­ous scenes of dis­tur­bances around the coun­try. Most­ly they act­ed with cau­tion, and when they did fire, they usu­al­ly aimed over the heads of crowds.

Lloyd George set­tled the strike by con­vinc­ing the rail­ways to rec­og­nize the union nego­tia­tors. But in Llanel­li, Wales—two days, iron­i­cal­ly, after the strike had ended—the only fatal­i­ties from the use of troops occurred. Riot­ers held up a train and knocked the engine dri­ver sense­less. Sol­diers attempt­ed to clear the track but loot­ing began, and they fired into the crowd, killing two or four riot­ers (accounts vary).

Troops left when the strike end­ed. On August 20th King George V telegraphed Churchill: “Glad the troops are to be sent back to their dis­tricts at once: this will reas­sure the pub­lic. Much regret unfor­tu­nate inci­dent at Llanel­li. Feel con­vinced that prompt mea­sures tak­en by you pre­vent­ed loss of life in dif­fer­ent parts of the country.”

Ran­dolph Churchill wrote in the offi­cial biography:

For all the crit­i­cism that came Churchill’s way from the Labour mem­bers of Par­lia­ment for his atti­tude to the use of troops dur­ing this strike, there is lit­tle doubt that the King’s telegram rep­re­sent­ed pub­lic opin­ion at the time. But Labour was not to forget….

Con­clud­ed in Part 2


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