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Remembered Today:

Miners Delegation visits the Western Front c. Jan 1917


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My grandfather, in the 1/19th Londons, 47 Div wrote this to his father on 21st January 1917 when the Battalion was at Devonshire Camp near Ypres:

Did I tell you that we recently had a visit (in the trenches) from some civilians miner's delegates who came out, I suppose, in order to be able to buck up the would-be strikers at home about the perils of their fellows out here. I think it is a good idea, but it was odd to see blue serge suits and white collars in the trenches.

Can anyone shed light on who they were and the background? I've Googled, checked the 1/19th London War Diary, 47th Divisional history, the Sheffield/Bourne edition of Haig's diaries and those books that I have on the home front to no avail. It sounds like the sort of event that might have been covered in one of the part works and perhaps the national papers.

Thanks for any pointers.

Charles

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I'm afraid that I can't help with specifics, Charles. I did have a look at Blake's edition of Haig's papers. There, even more than with B&S, one realises that there was a constant stream of visitors to the Western Front. Most would visit GHQ and the leaders of the delegations might, if important enough, get to meet Haig. Tillett was over late 1916 and he met Haig. I can't find a mention of a Miners Union delegation but perhaps they did not get to see the boss and so the visit, like most of them, would be unrecorded except perhaps in the Union archives.

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The study of miners in the Great War is a study in itself, but the date is quite significant as there had been considerable industrial unrest, especially in South Wales, towards the end of 1916. The leader of the Miners Federation was MIchael Smillie (a Marxist opposed to the war and conscription, which he called an attack on the rights of labour see wiki for an accessible biography http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Smillie.

In one Parliamentary debate it was said, " I was told I could not touch a single miner, my hands were tied, because if I did Mr. Smillie, the leader of the Miners' Federation, deliberately said. "Touch one of my men, and I will down tools throughout the country." I do not know whether it is right or not; I heard it entirely from outside sources; but I do know that I was stopped from taking more men (for active service)... Hansard June 1917

In 1915 the South Wales Miners went on strike and there was unrest throughout the war, especially as the mine owners were making huge profits. In late 1916 there was an infamous Labour conference in Cardiff. By November 1916 the South Wales Miners were threatening to strike again (which was probably the 'would be strikers' your grandfather referred to) as the mine owners were threatening to cut wages to reduce the price of coal. On 27 November 1916 a Times leader under the headline 'Welsh Coal Crisis' decried 'their sordid squabbles' while the Nation faced such danger. On December 11 there was another conference in Merthyr,attended by Ramsey Macdonald which passed a number of anti-war/conscription resolutions. In the end the government intervened and miners didn't strike, it must be said not all mining regions were as militant as they were.

Miners were exempt from the MSA which was also controversial and by 1917 there were moves to get soldiers back from the front and into the mines. My grandfather, like his brother and cousins, were South Wales miners and all of them volunteered in 1914. He went to Gallipoli, others to Mametz Wood. So there was a shortage of skilled men which affected production, especially the South Wales steam coal needed by the navy. The Federation was involved in the MSA Tribunals and there are reports of wholesale cancellation of call up papers.

Following from the above, and the many delegations to the Front, one can easily imagine a delegation from the Miners Federation, or the 'Triple Alliance' of miners railwaymen and transport workers being sent out to the Front, perhaps even Smillie himself. There were a number of issues which would justify 'fact finding'. Haig may not have been to eager to meet with them given their politics and views on conscription, later that year Smillie was applauding the Russian Revolution. I guess there was a regular itinerary for those visiting the Front, although if these visitors were from the Miners Federation they may have wanted to meet with soldiers who were miners and a camp would have seen just such a concentration of men. The timing may be significant as in February 1917 there was a 'combing out' decision made at the annual conference so perhaps the visit had an effect.

Just a flavour really, it was widely reported at the time (see Times Archive) so your grandfather would have been aware, and no doubt discussed the 'bolshy miners demanding 15%' with his mates while they were facing the enemy.

Ken

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Thanks chaps, that's very helpful background. My grandfather refers to striking Welsh miners in another of his letters. I'll check the Times and the TNA copy of Haig's diary in due course.

Charles

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Thanks chaps, that's very helpful background. My grandfather refers to striking Welsh miners in another of his letters. I'll check the Times and the TNA copy of Haig's diary in due course.

Charles

Ship building was another industry which caused concern to the authorities. So much so that questions were raised as to whether conscription of men from the Clyde area might not introduce elements into the army which would be bad for morale. Rent strikes in Glasgow among other areas were aimed at landlords making large profits from the war while demands were being made on the work force to observe their patriotic duty. The jute industry in Dundee was another area where the manufacture of sandbags was a veritable goldmine for the millowners while the millworkers and weavers were living in very poor conditions and earning a poor wage. A greatly complicated situation where the workers were seen by many to be carrying the main burden of the war and by no means confined to Britain. French and German workers went through very similar struggles. Russia of course, actually suffering the revolution which was acutely feared through most of Europe.

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Even the Australian coal miners went on strike. There was also a General Strike in France in 1918, Italy too suffered much industrial unrest, interestingly it was often the women, newly employed but still repressed who led the strikes in these countries.

btw if your library service has an e-library as in east sussex you can access the Times Archive from home with a pin

Ken

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Thanks for additional thoughts. Ken, good thinking, I hadnt thought of that.

Charles

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  • 3 weeks later...
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Hi Charles

Came across this pic on Getty Images of Ben Tillett the Marxist Dockers leader presumably taken shortly after his election as an M.P. on a 'Cook's Tour of the front. It's dated January 1918. Unusually among the trade union leaders Tillett supported the war. (See another photo in series of him greeting a soldier on leave) but I believe he also wanted the clergy to be conscripted!

http://www.gettyimag...detail/80750355

Copyright acknowledged

Ken

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Ken

I have found your input very instructive on this topic. One word of caution is that I have heard that Getty will seek out unauthorised use of their images and levy the appropriate fee which might be $1000. The example I heard was the website of a parish church who were sent a large bill but there are various stories on the web.

S

EDIT: you could remove the uploaded image and just leave the link.

EDIT2: Read this if you don't believe me!

Edited by Simon Jones
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I've removed the picture but left the link - as Simon says, better to be safe than sorry!

Alan

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I've removed the picture but left the link - as Simon says, better to be safe than sorry!

Alan

No problem I did think twice but shoulda been thrice thanks guys thumbsup.png

Interesting there's a couple of pictures of me - wonder where I stand guess i won't be using it any time soon!

Ken

oh ok then

http://www.gettyimag...l%20tax%20riots

I'm the one behind the mblush.gif

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Blimey! What's a mblush.gif and how do you stand behind one?

Seriously I am interested in the subject of recruitment from the collieries and your comments explained to me how miners could still demand 6/- a day before joining up even after conscription came in.

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