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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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“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”

These were the words of the Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) in introducing the “Representation of the People Act” in 1918. Millions of those who had fought and died during the First World War did not have the right to vote for the government that had sent them to fight – neither did any of the women who had kept the country running for the last four years, while mourning lost loves, husbands, brothers and sons. This Act, at last, gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, though only to women aged over 30.

2014 was the centenary of the beginning of World War I and was rightfully commemorated. Yet we were told by a Government Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove that:-

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect, at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage … Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

I can’t think of anyone who doubts for a moment that these men and women fought, and worked, and died for “king and country,” nor that they demonstrated “patriotism, honour and courage.” Mr. Gove says they were fighting for a “Noble Cause” and that “the conflict has, for many been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Yet there is every reason to believe that the ruling “elite” were out-of-touch. We need only to remember the historic context, the words of the Home Secretary (above) – the “freedom” that people had fought for was a freedom they did not enjoy in their own country. The “western liberal order” had seen fit to withhold from them for generations the right to elect their own government. It had resisted at every turn the struggle for what we now take as basic human rights. Every movement, every rebellion, every attempt at uniting to seek universal suffrage, or better living and working conditions had been ruthlessly suppressed by the “western liberal order” in Great Britain – The Luddites, the Chartists, the Suffragettes – all ignored and victimised.

We are so quick to honour the handful of politicians who swam against the tide and helped secure universal suffrage, rights to basic sanitation, education and healthcare; yet we seem to forget that the vast majority of politicians (of all parties) had opposed such progress at every step. We extol those good old “Victorian Values,” and the age of innovation, while forgetting its dependence on the use of child-labour, the disempowerment of women, the terrible slums, and the dangerous working conditions that the majority of people endured for much of the 19th century. We remember the names of those who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but forget the names of those whose wealth was built upon it, and who were compensated for its loss, or the many who treated their employees, “free” or not, as slaves.

Our democracy is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Many of the rights we may often take for granted are denied to millions around the world. Yet those freedoms were not a gift from enlightened politicians, but were hard-won by generations of “ordinary” people in the face of often bloody resistance from governments they had no part in electing. To my mind it’s that “honour and courage” we should remember – It’s that history we should be proud of. As George Orwell said,

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Don’t let the politicians change our history, it’s part of who we are – Lest we forget.

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