Monday, 24 November 2014

The Deserter in Cider with Rosie: Questions

           A Retrospective on ‘British Army Mutineers, 1914 – 1922’, by Julian Putkowski

At first glance, it must seem obvious
That as there was no explosion of mutiny
Until after the conclusion of conflict,
Then the British Army must have been,
On the whole, loyal to King and Country
(Over half of the army were volunteers);
Admittedly, two hundred and sixty six men
Were shot for desertion in the face of the enemy,
But these were acts of individual insubordination,
Rather than acts of collective, mutinous solidarity,
And few executions resulted at the Great War’s end,
(Nothing like the musket balls in Burford Church,
After the Leveller’s Mutiny in 1649,
Nor the 1797 mutinies at the Nore and Spithead,
When 29 members of ‘the floating republic’ were hanged),
But on the other hand…
The necessities of trench line duty
Prevented the mass meetings necessary for mutiny,
As opposed to acts of individual insubordination,
But when troops did get the chance to meet en masse …
Then sometimes all hell let loose,
So, who, where, when, what, why and how?
Over 2,000 men were charged with mutiny
Between 1914 and 1922
(Only men and other ranks, no officers;
A staggering 90% found guilty),
And there were over 300,000 courts martial cases,
With, again, a similar figure of 90% found guilty:
Officers demanded absolute discipline,
While diffident Tommies were often alone in these courts,
Facing a vehement prosecution …
There were over fifty wartime mutinies at home,
The major ones being at Canterbury,
In July 1915 and January 1917,
Towcester, November 1916,
And Bramshott, November 1917;
There were also 5, 739 conscientious objectors
Who faced charges,
As well as the formation, in June 1917,
Of a workers’ and soldiers’ council
At, of all places, Tonbridge Wells:
Ringleaders were posted to France and elsewhere,
But government spies and agents provocateurs
Could not prevent the ubiquitous unrest in 1919,
When army camps were overwhelmed
By strikes, demonstrations and protest
At the slow pace of demobilization;
Special Branch top toff, Sir Basil Thomson, gloomily intoned
‘I do not think at any time in history since the Bristol Riots
have we been so near revolution’,
So worried was he by the flying of red flags …
But, in the main, motivations for mutiny
Were about dreadful training camps and rations
(Wiltshire, 1914 and 1915, Etaples, 1917),
War weary impatience with demobilization
(Dover, Folkestone, Calais and India, 1919),
Complaints about mistreatment and punishment
(Blargies North Prison, 1916),
But even when taking that into account,
The 1919 mutiny at Poona is an exemplar,
Of how an ostensible protest about demobilization
Was, in fact, a pregnant denotation
About the fragility of Empire,
And its impact upon boss and worker at home:
Soldiers in India were worried about their jobs,
If not speedily repatriated;
The top brass in India were worried that after Amritsar,
There might be insufficient troops to quell rebellion -
But fighting for King, Country and Empire
Would be cold comfort if you lost your job,
A few ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ were not enough,
Strikes, wage cuts and unemployment
Were just around the corner in ‘Dear Old Blighty’,
And as for Ireland and Empire …
And as for war against the Bolsheviks …

                                                  He is a tantalising figure, that deserter.
David Adams in his recent book about F.W. Harvey, The Nightmare Trail, writes of direct disobedient action by soldiers in 1919: 'Indeed, such was the discontent among returning soldiers that in January 1919 700 men of the Third Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment refused to parade, drill, train or work, and marched and demonstrated about work, pay and food conditions - part of a nationwide series of strikes and mutinies hidden by the government from the public.'
Question: Was the deserter one of these? He could not have been one of the three men of the Glosters who mutinied at Malvern Wells in 1915 - could he?

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