Copyright Janet Cameron, Family Album
Desperate men took desperate measures to escape further enforced conscription and get home to their loved ones.
Certain crimes of the past seem to us today not to be crimes at all, for example, the mutiny of the troops during and after the terrible carnage of the First World War. Nor were mutinies confined to Britain. German, Italian, French and Russian soldiers were shot in large numbers as a result of refusing to fight, or walking off the battlefields. Sixty British soldiers were shot for cowardice and desertion during 1916. A year later, the number was 221, and in 1918, there were 676 executions. After 40,000 French troops had withdrawn from fighting in 1917, the British Army bore the brunt of the war, so it is hardly surprising the figures escalated as the war drew to a close.
Grievances and Harsh Discipline
Once the Armistice was declared in November 1918, the soldiers wanted to get home to their loved ones as quickly as possible. At his election, with the intention of courting votes, Lloyd George had promised them exactly that, but the military had other ideas. There was talk of men being sent to fight the Bolsheviks in Russia, and although it was promised that only volunteers would be enlisted, common knowledge indicated that men were being conscripted unwillingly.
A soldier in Shoreham in West Sussex, enraged by the treatment of one of his comrades by an officer, walked out. It took the efforts of a general to calm the men down. The soldiers stood their ground, and, next day, 1,000 men were demobilised. A few weeks later, there were disturbances at Dover and Folkestone. The Folkestone soldiers had many grievances against the harsh discipline of their officers, as well as poor living conditions in the camp and the fear of being sent off to fight again. Soon, the harsh news that Folkestone soldiers were to be sent back to France caused further agitation.
A Desperate Protest Against Injustice by Folkestone Soldiers
The men announced that, until their demands were taken seriously, no military vessel would be permitted to leave from Folkestone for France, and they followed this up by planting pickets around the harbour. Men arriving back from the battlefields of France joined the demonstrators in their protest.
The men were surprisingly patient. Without undue force, they managed to repel fusiliers armed with bayonets and ball cartridges sent to discipline them. A procession of around 10,000 men set off to march through Folkestone, with the support of the people. The soldiers formed a union with officials of their own. Sir William Robertson duly arrived from the War Office to hear their demands. He allowed the men to elect demobilisation committees from their own numbers.
Dover Soldiers Support their Folkestone Comrades
Meanwhile, 4,000 Dover soldiers, equally disillusioned with the futility of their situation and the harsh conditions at camp, stood firm in support of the Folkestone soldiers. The Dover men held a meeting at the harbour station to form a deputation, and they, too, decided to march in procession, presenting themselves at the Town Hall to confront the mayor. It is recorded that they were entertained with some welcoming piano music, and invited to attend a film at a nearby cinema.
The politician, Horatio Bottomley, MP, was known as "the soldiers' friend", and he helped to calm the situation. Ministry of Labour officials rushed the paperwork so the men could be demobilised. The Dover and Folkestone soldiers became role models for a number of other troops, and the War Office was beside itself with the protests. Before long, many other desperate soldiers were discharged and allowed home to their families.
Dover Library Archives
- Dover - Murder and Crime, The History Press, Janet Cameron