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Demobilisation in Britain, 1918-20
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Demobilisation in Britain, 1918-20

In August 1917 the Glossary - opens new windowLloyd George government created a Glossary - opens new windowMinistry of Reconstruction. Under the leadership of the reform-minded Liberal, Glossary - opens new windowChristopher Addison, it was charged with overseeing the task of rebuilding 'the national life on a better and more durable foundation' once the Great War was over. It set up a plethora of committees that investigated many aspects of life in Britain, ranging from housing and local government to labour relations and the post-war economy.


Re-incorporating the demobilised troops into the civilian workforce gave rise to serious concerns in government circles. Aside from the logistical problems involved, returning soldiers were seen as a possible rallying points for labour unrest and Bolshevism. During 1919, 2.4 million British workers were involved in strike action - 300,000 more than in Germany, widely regarded as the likeliest home of the next Communist revolution. Although the Bolshevik influence in Britain was, in fact, negligible, army chiefs were still working on a plan 'in the event of Soviet government at Liverpool' in January 1920.

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Demobilisation plans
 

The original demobilisation scheme, drawn up in 1917 by the war secretary Glossary - opens new windowLord Derby, proposed that the first men to be released from service should be those who held jobs in key branches of industry. However, as these men were invariably those who had been called up in the latter stages of the war, it meant that men with the longest service records were generally the last to be demobilised. Derby's scheme, as shown in 1918 by the small-scale mutinies at British army camps in Calais and Folkestone and by a demonstration of 3,000 soldiers in central London, was potentially a serious source of unrest.

Thus one of Churchill's first acts, after he was announced as the new war secretary in January 1919, was to introduce a new and more equitable demobilisation scheme. Based on age, length of service and the number of times a man had been wounded in battle, it ensured that the longest-serving soldiers were generally demobilised first. The new system defused an explosive situation.

Progress of demobilisation - opens new window
Progress of demobilisation,
1918 (229k)
Transcript

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Unrest and riots
 

Demobilisation, nonetheless, remained a difficult undertaking. Many ex-servicemen, promised a 'land fit for heroes' by the Lloyd George government, suffered when unemployment rose rapidly and the ambitious wartime programme of 'reconstruction' was shelved during the 1921 economic slump.

 

Some problems were caused by demobilised soldiers from the Glossary - opens new windowDominions, who were often left waiting in Britain for long periods until transport could be found to ship them home. A mutiny at a camp for Canadian soldiers in Rhyl in March 1919, for example, was only suppressed after a number of men were killed. A few months later, rampaging Canadian soldiers broke into a police station in Epsom, killing one policeman and causing a serious riot.

 

Demobilisation - opens new window
Demobilisation of British
and empire troops
Transcript

Demobilisation also exacerbated social tensions in various British ports. A series of ugly race riots took place in Liverpool and Cardiff during June 1919, as the local white population clashed with black workers and seamen, many of whom were left unemployed at the end of the war. In Cardiff, in particular, white ex-servicemen, including Australians stationed in the area, headed lynch mobs that terrorised the city's black community during a week of violence that left three men dead and dozens more injured. In the aftermath the government repatriated hundreds of black people (600 by mid-September 1919).

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A relatively trouble-free process
Photo of demobilised troops - opens new window
Demobilisation of British troops

Despite these flashpoints, however, demobilisation was a relatively trouble-free process. In November 1918, the British army had numbered almost 3.8 million men. Twelve months later, it had been reduced to slightly less than 900,000 and by 1922 to just over 230,000.

The majority of those who left the armed forces in this period were re-integrated successfully into the British economy. Whereas demobilisation in Germany created a mass of discontented ex-soldiers ready to support extremist paramilitary organisations, ex-servicemen in Britain generally eschewed political radicalism and gravitated towards the Glossary - opens new windowBritish Legion for support and like-minded comradeship. The extensive post-war turmoil that many had anticipated in 1917 never materialised.


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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

Reference
Document
AIR 10/199: RAF notes for airmen on demobilisation, 1919.
CAB 27/41-42: Minutes and memos of the Cabinet Committee on Demobilisation, 1918.
CAB 33: War Cabinet Post War Priority and Demobilisation Committees: minutes and registered files, 1918-19.
MEPO 2/1962: Various material on the riot by five Canadian soldiers at Epsom police station, Jun 1919.
RECO 1: Various Ministry of Reconstruction files on demobilisation, 1918-19.

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