Mutiny. Or not

Ahead of William Butler’s presentation at the East London branch of the Western Front Association (18 May), on ‘The British Army, Discipline, and the Demobilisation strikes of 1919’, we offer this on the use or avoidance of the term ‘mutiny’, from Words and the First World War.


Though grousing was seen as a safety-valve against a breakdown in discipline, major difficulties did arise, and required a renegotiation of language. ‘Mutiny’ was what happened in Russia, Germany or Austria; it did not happen to allies on whom you were totally dependent, even the French. ‘Riots’ and ‘disturbances’ happened, but were explainable, if not excusable, on the grounds that they were about the living conditions of ‘our boys’ (and the Etaples incidents were ultimately blamed on the MPs and the ‘canaries’); during the war ‘mutiny’ existed only as a potential, for example in the form of words used to prosecute and fine Sylvia Pankhurst in November 1918, for ‘attempting to cause mutiny, sedition or dissatisfaction’ (Grantham Journal, 2 November 1918, p. 7). The actions at Etaples and Boulogne in September 1917 and at Le Havre in December 1918 were conspicuously under-reported, though major disturbances which took place on home territory could not be ignored. In March 1919 Canadian soldiers at Kinmel Camp, near Rhyl, awaiting demobilisation rioted, resulting in the deaths of five men, with injuries to a further twenty-one (Lancashire Daily Post, 7 March 1919, p. 5) – newspaper reports gave varying figures for the casualties. The activities here were reported as ‘disturbances’ (Western Times, 7 March 1919, p. 12), ‘Camp Riot’ (Lancashire Daily Post, 8 March 1919, p. 2) and ‘Rioting’ (Essex Newsman, 8 March 1919, p. 1). The Lancashire Daily Post reported that, according to the camp commandant Col M. A. Colquhun, one man had ‘raised the red flag in an attempt to introduce Bolshevism’, while the Western Timesreported that ‘a cry, “Come on Bolsheviks” was raised by Canadian soldiers, said to be Russian’. Yet the headlines for the Western Times article include the innocuous sounding ‘Canadian Troops Get Out of Hand’.

The Derby Daily Telegraph reported that when the offenders were brought to court martial ‘the charges were mutiny and failure to suppress mutiny’ (Derby Daily Telegraph, 16 April 1919, p. 3). It appears that ‘mutiny’ could be used when suppressing and punishing this kind of action, but there was an effort not to raise the importance of protest while it was happening by giving it the title of ‘mutiny’. But at the same time such a loaded term could be treated light- heartedly: in November 1918 the Yorkshire Evening Post reported the story of a Canadian battalion mascot that had been sold for beer-money, provoking a strike by some of the men. The article reports: ‘It caused the only mutiny in the story of the battalion’ (Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 November 1918, p. 4). Mild though this might be, this incident did involve an action taken against authority; in ‘Another Camp Riot’, an article in the Sunderland Daily Echo reported on fighting between black soldiers and white soldiers awaiting travel to America and the Caribbean, following an outbreak of insults and retaliation, which had been largely controlled by fellow-soldiers (Sunderland Daily Echo, 17 April 1920, p. 6). The newspaper reported that ‘nothing very serious happened’, though the word ‘riot’ was used, just at it had been for the incident at Kinmel Camp.

Over the past hundred years some debate has taken place, not explicitly, as to whether the incidents at Etaples in September 1917 should be called ‘mutinies’, ‘riots’ or ‘disturbances’; in this case protests about an arrest in the training camp led to a fight with military police, an accidental death, a large-scale breakout from the camp, drunkenness, fighting, a court martial and one execution. In 1930 the Manchester Guardian carried an article about ‘The Mutiny at Etaples’ (Manchester Guardian, 13 February 1930), while in 1982 Lt Col C. E. Carrington had no hesitation in referring to ‘the Etaples mutiny’ (Letter to e Times, 11 March 1982). For Jay Winter the incident ‘that has been described as a mutiny was nothing of the sort’, and it is ‘stretching the term considerably to call this set of events a mutiny at all’ (Winter, J, The Experience of World War I, (Oxford: Equinox, 1988), p. 159); for Dan Todman in his discussion of the 1986 BBC production of The Monocled Mutineer, based on the events, the word ‘mutiny’ appears both within quotation marks and with none (Todman, D, The Great War, pp. 336, 114).

While strikers during the war were seen as working against the war effort, and were deeply resented by soldiers, terms of mutiny were not applied to them, nor to striking workers a er the war. For these situations metaphors of conflict were applied: one union compared an employers’ federation pamphlet to ‘the most dangerous of the poison gases used in the late war’ (Amalgamated Engineering Union quoted in B. Waites, A Class Society at War, (Leamington Spa: Berg, 1987), p. 72), while Lloyd George’s secretary Philip Kerr called for ‘a manifestation of the trench spirit’ in requiring trades unions to accept lower pay (Ibid., p. 73). ‘Mutiny’ seems to have been a taboo word, something that could not exist within the British forces: its seriousness was debased in the Navy, where the word was used as a slang term for rum or grog.

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