On the 1st of February, 1919, after ‘Bloody Friday’, soldiers patrolled Glasgow’s streets.
“I rode a tank
In the General Strike
When the workers raged
And Government stank.”
Anyone with an interest in 20th Century politics and the history of Scotland will undoubtedly have seen a famous, black and white image of ‘Red Clydeside’. It’s a newspaper photograph of the raising of the ‘Red Flag’ above thousands of striking engineering workers who massed in Glasgow’s George Square during the ‘General Strike’ of 1919. The mass demonstration became the notorious ‘Battle of George Square’ and it took place on the last day of January, 1919. The newspapers of the following day dubbed it ‘Bloody Friday’ and the extraordinary industrial and political militancy that spawned those events led the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, to dub Glasgow “the Petrograd of the West.” By the next day, the 1st of February, the Government had deployed its soldiers and tanks on the streets of Glasgow.
After the First World War, the campaign for a shorter working week and improved conditions for workers remobilised the organised labour movement. In 1919, Glasgow’s engineering unions called for a general strike, starting on the 27th of January, to demand a 40-hour week. That took place in the midst of an era of political radicalism known as ‘Red Clydeside’, which was a significant landmark in the development of the movement in the United Kingdom, and Scotland in particular. It grew out of socio-political militancy amongst industrial workers on the banks of the River Clyde; in places such as Clydebank, Greenock and Paisley, and it lasted from the 1910s until, roughly, the 1930s.
Of course, the media of the day brought the term ‘Red Clydeside’ into popular consciousness, but that’s fine; that’s a purpose of newspapers. In some ways, it was a 20th Century manifestation of the concerns that led to the formation of the ‘Friends of the People’ in 1792 and the ‘Radical War’ of 1820. As the organised left grew to replace the Liberal Party as the party of the working class, several ‘Red Clydesiders’ were elected to Parliament at the 1922 General Election. Two of the Clyde Workers’ Committee strike leaders, Emanuel Shinwell and David Kirkwood, joined other Independent Labour Party members, such as James Maxton, John Wheatley, Neil Maclean and George Buchanan, in the House of Commons.
On the 31st of January, a massive trade union rally took place in George Square, where it has been estimated as many as 90,000 were present when the ‘Red Flag’ was raised. Whilst the flag was run up, strike leaders were meeting inside the City Chambers with the Lord Provost, Sir James Watson Stewart, who was due to read a public response from the Government to the Unions’ request for intervention. Outside, it was a riot. It has been said that it started after a tram tried to make its way through the square, but whatever provocation the Police might have had in its collective heads to justify its actions, a baton charge was mounted against what had been, up to that point, a peaceful demonstration. Issue 237 of the ‘Socialist Review’ (January, 2000) suggests the Police acted “under secret Cabinet orders”, but in any case, the Police launched a savage, unprovoked baton charge on the demonstrators, felling men and women. The crowd, with many ex-servicemen to the fore, quickly retaliated with fists, iron railings, which were pulled up, and bottles from a passing lorry, before forcing the Police into a retreat.
Sheriff MacKenzie attempted to read the ‘Riot Act’, but it was torn from his hands and fighting continued, in and around the city centre streets, throughout the rest of the day and into the night. The Townhead area of the City and Glasgow Green, where many of the demonstrators had regrouped after the initial Police charge, were the scenes of running battles. Earlier, when the noise reached the Provost’s office, the strike leaders rushed out to see what was happening. Kirkwood was promptly felled by a police baton and, along with Gallacher, Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Edbury, was arrested and charged with incitement to riot. The next day, the 1st of February, the front page of ‘The Strike Bulletin’, the official publication of the ‘40 Hours Movement’, carried the headline “Glasgow’s Bloody Friday – Brutal attack on defenceless strikers.”
At the news of the gathering, the Coalition Government appears to have panicked. No doubt it feared a threat to order, but maybe even a Bolshevik-style insurrection. After all, it was only fourteen months since the Russian Revolution and the German Revolution was a current affair. In fact, the Secretary of State for Scotland, Robert Munro, said at the time, “It is a misnomer to call the situation in Glasgow a Strike - this is a Bolshevist uprising.” The Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, sent 10,000 soldiers armed with machine guns, six tanks and a 4.5 inch Howitzer to Glasgow; the largest deployment of British troops on native soil. The army appeared on Glasgow’s streets on the 1st of February, 1919, in a calculated show of force. The Howitzer was positioned at the City Chambers, the cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, Lewis Guns were posted on the top of the North British Hotel and the General Post Office, and armed troops stood sentry outside power stations and the docks. Revealingly, the Government’s intent is obvious from civil unrest ‘Regulation 965’, which stated ominously that “It is undesirable that firing should take place over the heads of rioters or that blank cartridges should be used.” Other ‘rules’, such as reading the ‘Riot Act’ or consulting with Magistrates were only to be followed “if time (or circumstances) permits.”
Churchill confined the local regiment to its barracks in Maryhill, fearing the Glasgow troops would sympathise with the strikers, but the claim that all deployed troops were English isn’t backed up by contemporary accounts, which stress the youth and inexperience of the soldiers, rather than national origins. There are mixed reports, such as in ‘The Times’ of the 3rd of February, 1919, in which a veteran, based with the Seaforth Highlanders at Cromarty, recalls, “We had no idea what was going on in Glasgow. But one morning the whole battalion was paraded and all men from Glasgow and district were told to come out to the front of the parade. We thought that was us going to be demobbed, but instead we were kept in Cromarty while all the rest (around 700 men) were sent to Glasgow to shoot if it were necessary.” Contrast with the January 30th Minutes of the War Cabinet Meeting, which record Sir William Robertson stating that “there were certain disadvantages in employing Scottish troops, but on the whole he thought it would be safer to use them than to import English battalions.” Also, the ‘Evening News’ of the 31st of January, which reported “long columns of khaki-clad men who belong to the Seaforths, the Gordons and other Highland regiments.” Interesting.