Churchill, Troops and Strikers (2): Llanelli, 1911

Churchill, Troops and Strikers (2): Llanelli, 1911

 Llanelli in Context

Llanel­li and the Rail­way Strike: con­clud­ed from Part 1

Through­out the August 1911 rail­way strike, troops stood by. Their orders were to inter­fere only against threats to pub­lic secu­ri­ty. But there was anoth­er rea­son why anx­i­ety ran high at that time. A few weeks ear­li­er, the Ger­mans had sent a gun­boat to Agadir, French Moroc­co. Rumors of war with Ger­many were ram­pant. David Lloyd George said the Agadir Cri­sis was a threat to peace. The Ger­mans, he warned, “would not hes­i­tate to use the [strike] paralysis,,,to attack Britain.” Paul Addi­son, in Churchill on the Home Front, described the pub­lic mood. A simul­ta­ne­ous nation­al rail­ways stop­page alarmed the nation. Fear of Ger­man sub­ver­sion also wor­ried Churchill:

He was also informed by Guy Granet, the gen­er­al man­ag­er of the Mid­land Rail­ways, of alle­ga­tions that labour lead­ers were receiv­ing pay­ments from a Ger­man agent….Conservatives applaud­ed him for tak­ing deci­sive action. But there were loud protests from the Labour par­ty and left-wing Lib­er­als, who accused him of impos­ing the army on local author­i­ties against their will, and intro­duc­ing troops into peace­ful and law-abid­ing districts.

“Guilty with an Explanation”

What Churchill’s crit­ics could not see, Ted Mor­gan wrote, “was the num­ber of saved, and the num­ber of tragedies avert­ed. In their drunk­en fren­zy, the Llanel­li riot­ers had wrought more hav­oc and shed more blood and pro­duced more seri­ous injury than all the fifty thou­sand sol­diers all over the country.”

hqdefaultAfter the deaths at Llanel­li, Churchill was round­ly con­demned and the Man­ches­ter Guardian, which had praised him after Tony­pandy, now turned against him. Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Par­ty, accused Churchill and Prime Min­is­ter Asquith of “delib­er­ate­ly send­ing sol­diers to shoot and kill strik­ers.” That exag­ger­a­tion has endured for a cen­tu­ry. Yet Churchill in August 1911 was clear in the House of Com­mons. “There can be no ques­tion of the mil­i­tary forces of the crown inter­ven­ing in a labour dispute.”

Why did they at Llanel­li? Defend­ing him­self in a hand­writ­ten let­ter to a Man­ches­ter Lib­er­al col­league, Churchill con­sid­ered both sides of the argument:

The progress of a demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try is bound up with the main­te­nance of order. The work­ing class­es would be almost the only suf­fer­ers from an out­break of riot & a gen­er­al strike if it c[oul]d be effec­tive would fall upon them & their fam­i­lies with its fullest sever­i­ty. At the same time the wages now paid are too low and the rise in the cost of liv­ing (due main­ly to the increased gold sup­ply) makes it absolute­ly nec­es­sary that they sh[oul]d be raised. a I believe the Gov­ern­ment is now strong enough to secure an improve­ment in social con­di­tions with­out fail­ing in its pri­ma­ry duties.

 Old Men Remember

Among those inter­viewed by the BBC fifty-five years lat­er for their mem­o­ries of Tony­pandy was W.H. (Will) Main­war­ing, one of the youngest mil­i­tants in the South Wales coal­fields, who was sub­se­quent­ly co-author of a famous pam­phlet, The Min­ers’ Next Step. Over fifty years lat­er he still spoke with pride of his record as a strike leader.

Of Churchill’s deci­sion to send troops into the Rhond­da in 1910, Main­war­ing said on camera:

We nev­er thought that Win­ston Churchill had exceed­ed his nat­ur­al respon­si­bil­i­ty as Home Sec­re­tary. The mil­i­tary did not com­mit one sin­gle act that allows the slight­est resent­ment by the strik­ers. On the con­trary, we regard­ed the mil­i­tary as hav­ing come in the form of friends to mod­i­fy the oth­er­wise ruth­less atti­tude of the police forces.


BBC doc­u­men­tary: The Long Street: Road to Pandy Square (1965)

Paul Addi­son, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (Lon­don: Jonathan Cape, 1992), 250-52, and cor­re­spon­dence with the author, 2014.

Mar­tin Gilbert, Churchill’s Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy (Lon­don: British Acad­e­my, 1981), 96.

 Ran­dolph S. Churchill, Win­ston S. Churchill, vol. 2, Young States­man 1901-1914 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2007), 385-86.

Ted Mor­gan, Churchill: The Rise to Fail­ure 1874-1915 (Lon­don: Jonathan Cape, 1983), 328.

3 thoughts on “Churchill, Troops and Strikers (2): Llanelli, 1911

  1. Not used in 100 years, you both say? But what about those sent to the Bat­tle of George Square in Glas­gow in Jan­u­ary 1919, to quell that strike?

    They were not deployed against strik­ers. The facts are reprised here by Scot­tish his­to­ri­an Gor­don Bar­clay, who writes: 

    The vio­lence in the “Bat­tle” was exclu­sive­ly between riot­ers and the police, not the army….The first of 10,000 infantry troops began to arrive around 10pm on Fri­day night 31 Jan­u­ary. Six tanks arrived the fol­low­ing Mon­day, but nev­er left the shed in which they were stored. The deploy­ment of so large a force was almost imme­di­ate­ly recog­nised as overreaction.

    It is true that Glasgow’s chief legal offi­cer Alis­tair Macken­zie, Sher­iff of Lanark­shire, called for troops when he was struck by a mis­sile dur­ing riot­ing, but he called for them to stem a riot, not put down a strike. They stood about guard­ing things, and were cer­tain­ly vis­i­ble on the streets while they were there. Bar­clay also shows that Churchill, though it wasn’t his deci­sion, warned against send­ing them, say­ing that

    …the gov­ern­ment should have ample provo­ca­tion before tak­ing strong mea­sures. By going gen­tly at first, they would earn the nation’s sup­port if troops were need­ed. But the moment for their use had not arrived…. A dis­pas­sion­ate analy­sis of avail­able evi­dence shows that Churchill was one of the least con­cerned about a “Bol­she­vist threat” in Glas­gow. Indeed he express­ly asked his col­leagues not to exag­ger­ate the prob­lem. Churchill did not “roll the tanks.” Nor did he per­suade the Cab­i­net that troops “should be deployed” or make “a pos­i­tive pro­pos­al’” to send them. Not being a mem­ber of the War Cab­i­net, he played no role in liai­son with Glas­gow author­i­ties. He mere­ly acced­ed to the War Cabinet’s deci­sion to make troops avail­able, should the Sher­iff need them. The army alone deter­mined what it need­ed. The myths of George Square, estab­lished dur­ing the last cen­tu­ry, have com­plete­ly over­whelmed the actu­al history.

    As Churchill said: “The truth is incon­tro­vert­ible. Pan­ic may resent it, igno­rance may deride it, mal­ice may dis­tort it, but there it is.” RML

  2. “Nation­al Guard” (in Part 1) refers to Amer­i­can ter­mi­nol­o­gy; I have amend­ed the text to indi­cate. If in Britain reg­u­lar or T.A. troops have not been used to quell a strike in 100 years, might we con­clude the Llanel­li was the last time?

  3. We do not have a Nation­al Guard in the U.K. As far as I am aware in the past 100 years troops i.e.regular and /or T.A.(now Army Reserve) have only been used to main­tain essen­tial ser­vices e.g.firefighters.

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