“An open letter to British soldiers…the Idle Rich order you about too…”

Posted by on July 8, 2011

Determined efforts were made by the government to bury the case of Harold Spiers. In reply to a question about the fate of the soldier who refused to fire at Llanelli, Colonel JEB Seely, the under-secretary of state at the War Office, twice denied that such a soldier existed. But early in 1912 further events thrust the case of Harold Spiers back under the spotlight.

The use of the military during the rail and transport strikes of 1911 presented the British labour movement with a problem. What attitude should striking workers adopt to soldiers who were being used to break strikes? What strategy would be most effective when strikers were confronted with the armed forces of the state?

 

At the beginning of 1912 a railway worker named Fred Crowsley distributed at Aldershot barracks a leaflet with the headline “HALT! ATTENTION! Open Letter to British Soldiers.” It said the following: “YOU ARE WORKING MEN’s SONS. When WE go on Strike to better our lot, which is the lot also of YOUR FATHERS, MOTHERS, BROTHERS, and SISTERS, YOU are called upon by your officers to MURDER US. DON’T DO IT!…The Idle Rich Class, who own and order you about, own and order us about also. They and their friends own the land and means of life of Britain.YOU DON’T KICK. WE DON’T. When WE kick, they order YOU to MURDER us. When YOU kick, YOU get courtmartialed and cells. YOUR fight is OUR fight. Instead of fighting AGAINST each other, WE should be fighting with each other.”

 

Crowsley was arrested and the leaflet confiscated. But then the radical workers’ newspaper The Industrial Syndicalist reprinted the leaflet in full. The chair of the paper’s publishing board, the industrial militant Tom Mann, was now arrested as well, along with the paper’s manager and two printers. They were charged under the Incitement to Mutiny Act, prompting the Labour MP Keir Hardie to refer in the House of Commons to “the Llanelly case, during the recent railway strike, when two men who were not participating in what happened and when there was no riot in any legal sense of the word, were shot dead…in giving advice to the soldiers not to shoot their brethren who were on strike, we are trying to save them from the commission of murder.”

 

Tom Mann was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. The case attracted much publicity, and after seven weeks of militant campaigning by the labour movement he was released. In September 1912 the Trades Union Congress demanded a public enquiry into police and army excesses at Llanelli and at Liverpool, where another two men had been shot dead during the transport strikes.

 

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