The Lanarkshire Village That Defied An Empire
Liam Turbett on the forgotten story of how a Scottish mining village resisted conscription to the First World War.
In Scotland it never really gets dark at the height of summer. It was at 3am that the police crossed over the bridge into the village, on the first day of July 1918. There was 60 of them packed into three vehicles, the early morning twilight the closest their raid could get to the cover of darkness.
The massed ranks of Lanarkshire constabulary had arrived to apprehend 26 young men who had, despite their pleas of conscientious objection, been conscripted into the British army. As the police went door to door around the “miners’ rows” with the local constable, it did not take long before the whole village was awake and in the streets.
With the great slaughter of the First World War still going at full pelt, and ever mounting losses leading to more men being called up, the people of Douglas Water – a socialist stronghold in the Lanarkshire coalfield – were having none of it. By the time the sun was up, both the gathered crowd and the arrested miners had erupted into a rendition of the internationalist anthem, the Red Flag.
“The spectacle was so impressive and inspiring that it will remain imprinted indelibly on the minds of all in the village,” was how a local miner, James C Welsh, would put the events in the following Saturday’s edition of Forward, an anti-war newspaper published in Glasgow, informing readers that “the militarists have at last broken down the socialist village.” Welsh would go on to be a novelist and Labour MP, serving four terms. Notwithstanding the impression it made on those there, the events of that day have – until now – been largely unrecognised, despite the keen interest in other events of that period.
But then Douglas Water is not, in the grand scheme of things, a place where much happens these days. Lying a couple of miles east of the M74, it sits amid the rolling landscape – the green hills and slag heaps – of rural South Lanarkshire.
Once a thriving community with over 1,000 men working its two coal shafts, it lost both its pit and railway station, Ponfeigh, in the 1960s. Rapid depopulation followed, with much of its housing demolished and an eerie pattern of deserted streets left behind. The pavilion of its cup winning junior football team, Douglas Water Thistle, was soon claimed by local cattle, and its busy social clubs, pipe band and annual gala day have long been consigned to history. Even the bridge into the village from the north has been closed to traffic for the last two years, after it was deemed unsafe, with a five mile diversion in place and little sense of urgency in financing a replacement. Douglas Water, you get the sense, does not rank highly when it comes to municipal priorities in 2018.
It is a far cry from a century ago, when as discontent with the war grew across Europe and its opponents became increasingly bold in their actions, the village suddenly found itself at the epicentre of resistance to Britain’s role in the conflict.
It was during 1916, as setbacks in the war became more apparent and lists of the deceased became ever longer, that popular opinion began to become more open, or at least tolerant, towards anti-war activity. It was this shift which enabled groups that had opposed the war from the outset, such as the Independent Labour Party, to start waging a more open campaign against it. In Glasgow, the largest single expression of that came in 1918, when 100,000 people, many taking the day off work, marched on May Day in a huge act of defiance. John Maclean, the Clydeside revolutionary, was in the process of becoming the folk hero he remains to this day, sent to prison that May for his anti-war activities, while the Women’s Peace Crusade, led by Helen Crawfurd and Agnes Dollan, was also bringing thousands to the streets. Nonetheless, the constant appeals to patriotism and the news of suffering overseas made for a challenging atmosphere for campaigners, with anti-war gatherings frequently, and sometimes violently, disrupted.
The men of Douglas Water probably knew what was coming that morning. The day prior to the raid, senior police officers had visited in an attempt to pick up those who had been conscripted. It seemed to “have produced little or no results”, local newspaper the Carluke and Lanark Gazette would wryly note.
Amid the early morning commotion, the police would leave with 11 men, having dragged two from their sick beds, and drive them the seven miles to Lanark Jail.
The deep mines at Douglas Water had been sunk in 1895, its population doubling shortly after. Influenced by the ILP, the area became a bastion of radical politics, with local cooperatives, a Clarion Cycling Club, a Socialist Sunday School and even a socialist pipe band, pictured at a May Day rally in 1917 with a large “peace” banner. It was a tradition that continued over the following decades and one that was, apparently, amplified by the dramatic events of July 1918.
“We have to thank the militarists for thus converting the remaining 25 per cent of the population of Douglas Water to socialism,” wrote Welsh after the arrests took place. “Some of our erstwhile opponents were the most vehement in their condemnation of the methods adopted.”
That day, the district’s miners would down tools in protest at the arrests. Their minds were clearly elsewhere, with the Gazette reporting that “early in the forenoon, a large proportion of the male population of Douglas Water district began to pour into Lanark”.
They didn’t have to wait long.
Shortly after noon, the 11 arrested miners were brought before the Lanark courtroom and charged with being absentees under the Military Service Act. The first miner to appear was John Mitchell, who would go on to be a figure within the miners’ union and, for 23 years until 1947, chair of the Lanark Labour Party. Refusing to enter a plea, an exchange between Mitchell and the Justice of the Peace was detailed in the Gazette’s animated write-up of the “day of sensations” in Lanark.
“I will not recognise the authority of the Court at all,” Mitchell declared. “You must treat this Court with respect,” returned the JP. Shortly after, Mitchell would be found guilty and sentenced to a fine of £5 (around £270 in today’s money) or 20 days imprisonment. He was also to be handed over to the military.
The other miners would follow his lead, and each was granted the same penalty. Meanwhile, a large crowd had gathered outside and “the singing of the Red Flag could be heard at intervals.” When a military escort arrived from Hamilton, it was the “signal for further excitement”, and as the men were escorted to the railway station, a large crowd gathered round them, “of which came hostile and friendly shouts”.
The stand taken in Douglas Water was unusual in a number of ways. Although there were around 20,000 conscientious objectors during the First World War, it was a largely individual endeavour, taken for religious as well as political reasons. The level of collective non-compliance with the military which occurred in Douglas Water is probably unique.
Conscription in the First World War arrived in 1916 and mineworkers were, initially, exempt. But the scale of losses at the front meant that by early 1917 they had become the target of military conscription. While opposition was widespread, with mass meetings and threats of strike action across the Scottish coalfield, every pit would fall in line by April 1918. According to labour historian Robert Duncan, whose recent book Objectors and Resisters provides an accessible and acutely researched overview of Scottish opposition to the war, their acquiescence was a “patriotic response to bad war reports” from the Western Front in March.
Every pit fell in line, that is, except Ponfeigh. James C. Welsh explained in his Forward write-up that “Douglas Water is probably the only mining village in Britain where the Miners’ Executive have refused to take part in the ballot for the taking of the men for the army.”
Instead, it was alleged, the local clergy and coal company officials had drawn the ballot up themselves. It was, perhaps, a useful way of rooting out any known troublemakers in the Ponfeigh workforce, who would have been well known to those in authority. An insight is provided in a write-up in the Lanark and Carluke Gazette from April 1918, which tells of John Mitchell addressing an ILP street meeting in Lanark town centre in April 1918. Having “made reference to the cause and conduct of the war”, the meeting ended in chaos after a “large number of soldiers” raised objections.
The ILP supporters came under a shower of missiles and were “seized and pulled from their bicycles” as they tried to escape the town. But then that the bulk of public opinion, as well as many union leaders, was behind the war effort would be hard to dispute. It makes the Douglas Water story all the more remarkable.
The idea of workers standing up for a cause beyond their own immediate conditions is one that retains an incredible potency. Far from an act of cowardice, it was one of resistance against the mass and aimless slaughter that had been unfolding in the trenches over the preceding four years.
As Britain approached its commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War a few years ago, many of us were – quite understandably – bracing ourselves for the worst. All indications were that the UK Government were gearing up for four glorious years of ahistorical flag waving, with pop historians (well, Dan Snow) on hand to remind us that, actually, plenty of soldiers “enjoyed” their time in the conflict.
David Cameron even pledged it would be “like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations”, capturing our national spirit of keeping calm and carrying on, while Michael Gove blamed Blackadder and “left-wing academics” for giving people the wrong idea about the war.
In the end, the promised jamboree never amounted to much, although it took the journalist Paul Mason, in a searing blog, to point that it was, in fact, mass working class action in Germany which brought the war grinding to a halt. The German sailors’ uprising, which forced the Kaiser to abdicate and brought the social democrats into power, is easily forgotten because “the war ideologies of the present demand the war ideologies of the past be perpetuated.”
The best antidote to ideology, he wrote, is detail. As its centenary approaches, it makes a good argument for remembering the deeds of those in Douglas Water, the ordinary miners who refused to acquiesce to militarism.