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St Margaret's Curch, Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

St Margaret’s Church (and Canadian Graves) Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

I had always assumed that when the First World War ended the troops quickly returned to their homes and families and began the difficult process of re-building their lives and relationships. That’s certainly the picture you get from TV dramas like “Downton Abbey.” In fact, at the end of the war thousands of troops went straight into demobilisation camps and stayed there for months or even years. They had been promised an immediate return to civilian life, but the rules for demobilisation depended on them being able to prove that they had a job, and they also needed their commanding officer’s agreement  to leave the army. Naturally, the longer a man had served, the less likely they would have a job to return to, and the proof of having a job was mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling and Ministry of Labour approvals.

The reason for keeping them in the army it seems, was that many senior politicians in the British Government, even in 1919, did not consider that the war was really over. Many wanted to maintain a large standing army. Some wanted to send troops to Russia to fight the Bolshevic Revolution, to Ireland to suppress Nationalism, to the Rhineland as an army of occupation. Others were concerned at growing dissatifaction and unrest in the country and the potential need to suppress any signs of rebellion. So the promises of homes fit for heroes and rapid demobilisation were quickly forgotten.

The demobilisation camps where the troops were kept were not pleasant places. They were over-crowded, poorly supplied and subject to rigorous discipline. No one knew from one day to the next where they might be sent, or when they might be able to return to their families. The men were “kept busy” with meaningless drills and exercises. After years of suffering in the trenches, and watching their friends die, this was what they had come home to. To many it must have felt like prison – scant reward for the sacrifices they had been asked to make.

On January 3rd 1919 rumours were rife among the British troops that men were to be sent back to France. The troops in Folkestone picketed the docks. They were joined by others on their way to France and “Colonial” troops on their way home. 10,000 troops marched through the city supported by the people of Folkestone. At the same time, 4,000 troops demonstrated in Dover and 1500 members of the Army Service Corps seized lorries and drove them into Whitehall. In the next few days there were mutinies in several places including Bristol, Kempton Park, and Aldershot.

On February 8th 1919 three thousand troops who were being sent back to France after returning from leave, refused to board their ships. A few hours later they marched into Whitehall. They were surrounded by a reserve battalion of Grenadiers and two troops of the Household Cavalry with bayonets drawn and machine guns trained on the demonstrators. Fearing a blood-bath the protestors eventually surrendered.

No incident is perhaps more tragic though, than the mutiny at Kinmel Park in North Wales where 14,000 canadian troops were stationed. No monument is more fitting to the way the way the heroes of the First World War were treated, than the graveyard at St Margaret’s Church in Bodelwyddan (pictured above). In that churchyard are the graves of 80  soldiers who died – after the war was over. Altogether 208 Canadian soldiers died in the Kinmel Bay camp. The majority died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, weakened by the cramped and insanitary conditions in the camp, the terrible winter weather and the poor rations they were fed.

Hearing the rumour that ships due to take them home had been re-allocated to the repatriation of American soldiers, proved the final straw and a thousand Canadian troops rioted in the camp. During the suppression of the rebellion five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded – 51 were later brought before a court martial and 27 were convicted and sentenced to terms between 3 months and 10 years.

Four of those who were killed in the Kinmel Park Riots are buried in St Margaret’s churchyard. The inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Joseph Young simply says –

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

It’s years since I first saw the churchyard in North Wales. I was driving to a meeting on a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the rows of white graves, lit by the sun, took me by surprise. The image stayed with me, yet it wasn’t until years later that I began looking online to find out who they were. Many never fought in the War. I don’t know if that makes their deaths any less tragic or heroic. What did emerge from looking into their deaths was the disgraceful way that the troops were treated – not just in the war – but afterwards.

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Workhouse Gate in Ireland in 1846

The Irish Famine began in 1845 and did not end until 1852.  In less than ten years, Ireland lost approximately one quarter of its population. One million people died of malnutrition and disease, and a further one million emigrated. It is hard to imagine the scale of the suffering involved, yet “emigration” seems such an inadequate word to use in relation to those who left their country, family and friends, and journeyed across the world. True they were leaving by choice, but it was for most, a choice between life and death. Like other emigrants they were also in search of a better life, but “better” meant any improvement in the daily battle to stay alive and feed their families. The migrants all had dreams and hopes for the future, but they also had fears, and few can have really known what lay ahead of them.

Exactly where the migrants travelled to and in what numbers is difficult to determine precisely as many made their own arrangements rather than using government channels. It is known that in the three years 1847-49, at least 182,000 people emigrated to Canada, and 550,000 to the United States. Despite the availability of assisted passages fewer went to Australia as prospects appeared more limited and there was a fear of being treated as indentured servants, in the same way as convict labour. The journey by ship to Australia was also much longer and sea-travel was dangerous particularly for passengers in “steerage” class. For many these were “coffin ships.”

The passengers to North America and Canada paid between £5 and £6 for their passage, a huge amount of money for someone who earned on average, around £20 to £30 per year. The payment included a daily ration of bread and water for the journey, which took anything between 6 and 12 weeks. Bedding, cooking utensils, and any other food they had to provide themselves, and few had little more than the set of clothes they wore. Their accommodation was dark, damp, dirty and over-crowded. Already weakened by malnutrition and fleeing from Dublin where Typhus was endemic, many fell prey to disease.  The Quebec “Morning Chronicle” reported on July 24th 1847 that of the 57,000 emigrants that had set off for Canada since May 8th,  7,000 had died of typhus,

2,200 had died at sea,

1,000 after arrival but before landing,

and 3,800 since leaving the ship.

They had brought typhus with them and fever was already raging in some Canadian cities. It’s hardly possible to imagine the “welcome” they must have received.

Many of the migrants though, could not afford the long sea journey to America and the colonies, and settled in England, mainly in the larger cities where there was at least a prospect of finding work. In Manchester, most of the migrants ended up in “Angel Meadows.” These 33 acres close to the city centre housed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in “purpose-built” housing.  The dark streets, passageways and alleys that linked the housing, were dangerous places frequented by gangs known as ‘scuttlers.’  A London journalist, Angus Reach, visited “Angel Meadows” in 1849 and reported:-

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish.”

The back-to-back terraces had one room in the cellar, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The cellar rooms, accessed via a dark passageway below street level, were the cheapest, the first floor rooms the most expensive. Each room housed an individual, or more likely, a family, or group of people.  Outside privies (toilets) were provided at the rate of 1 per 100 inhabitants. The journalist, Reach, visited one basement room and wrote this:-

“The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive… the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place.”

The Angel Meadows area of Manchester was eventually demolished and paved-over, together with the former burial ground of St Michael’s Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers. In fact, most of the rookeries and slum areas that fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain have been demolished and built-over, including the “Avon Street” area of Bath. It’s a good thing. Slums should be demolished. But we should remember the struggle of generation after generation for decent housing, sanitation, health-care, education and democracy.

The people who lived in Angel Meadows andAvon Street deserve to be remembered. If nothing else they are part of what made us who we are. They  help us to understand and empathise with those who are going through the same thing now, no matter which part of the world they live in, or come from. They also show what people are capable of, given the opportunity, and help us value what we have now, thanks to their sacrifices and struggles in the past. It’s easy to think of the Irish migrants as the “lucky” ones, the ones who escaped. After all, the descendants of those who survived are now respected members of their communities. Yet for many, it was no easy escape, but one that often took generations to achieve.

For those who want to read more about Coffin Ships, the “Great Hunger” and Irish Migration to Canada, there is an excellent piece with several good illustrations on J.G. Burdette’s Blog – “Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine.”

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