1919 – Whose Peace?

Also published on the Workers’ Liberty website here.


11 November 1918 had been merely an armistice. The war would not be officially over until peace terms had been negotiated.

The victorious Allied countries began six months of talks in Paris in January 1919, before compelling Germany to sign the treaty that ended the war at Versailles on 28 June.

The treaty required Germany to accept all responsibility for the war, to disarm, to concede territory, and to pay reparations later assessed at 132 billion marks, equivalent to around £284bn in 2018. The economist John Maynard Keynes, a British delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, criticised the treaty as too harsh on Germany, and warned of the economic and social consequences.

The humiliation and economic distress imposed on Germany would fertilise the ground for a rise of populist nationalism in that country. On 12 September, Adolf Hitler joined the tiny, but virulently racist, ‘Workers’ Party’, and the next month made his first public speech. In Italy, Benito Mussolini formed the Fascist Party, which began a campaign of violence by attacking the offices of the Socialist Party’s newspaper, Avanti, in April.

In Britain, the government declared 19 July as ‘Peace Day’, encouraging celebrations across the country to mark the end of the war. The new Cenotaph was unveiled the day before, and many people joined events on the day itself.

But in some places, ‘Peace Day’ struck a bitter note.

In Luton, Mayor Henry Impey invited is friends, fellow councillors and assorted wartime profiteers to a sumptuous Mayoral banquet at the Town Hall. No-one on the guest list had fought in the war.

The local Discharged Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Association asked for permission to hold a Peace Day service in Wardown Park, but the Council refused. So the ex-servicemen and their supporters marched to the Town Hall with floats and a band, and when Mayor Impey persisted in his arrogant, self-satisfied, exclusive banquet, they burned the Town Hall down.

Two days later, protesters burned down a commemorative flagstaff outside Swindon Town Hall in protest at lavish spending on peace memorials but little on relieving poverty.

For these working-class people, remembrance of their fallen mates did not mean standing in solemn silence next to the politicians and generals who had sent them to war. It meant fighting noisily in civilian life for their share of the peace against their rulers who wanted to keep it for themselves.

There were several organisations of ex-servicemen. The National Federation of Discharged Soldiers and Sailors was left-wing, with membership open only to rank-and-file fighting men, not to officers. The smaller National Union of ex-Servicemen was even more left-wing. The Comrades of the Great War, on the other hand, was right-wing, extremely patriotic, dominated by officers and linked to the Conservative Party. It would be a few years before the military establishment, in the person of General Haig, persuaded the two main groups to drop their politics and merge.

In the early post-war years, 11 November was a day of protest. In 1922, twenty-five thousand people marched past the Cenotaph demonstrating against ex-services poverty, led by a wreath inscribed with the words, ‘From the living victims – the unemployed – to our dead comrades, who died in vain.’

Around the hot summer time of Peace Day 1919, rioting took place in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton and elsewhere. Anger was abundant, but political shape and leadership was lacking.

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