Dr Gordon J Barclay and Dr Louise Heren on the Battle for George Square 1919: myth, memory and reality in Red Clydeside

A demonstration in Glasgow during the 40-hours strike in January–February 1919 descended into violence – the ‘Battle of George Square’: either ‘a vicious and unprovoked attack’ by the police, or a consequence of the week-long, occasionally violent, conflict between the strikers and ‘traitor’, ‘blackleg’ tram-workers, many of them women. The ‘Battle’ is simultaneously the most iconic event of Red Clydeside, the most mythologised event in twentieth-century Scottish history, and unexpectedly under-researched. The dominant narrative is still based, to a surprising extent, on an uncritical reading of a dozen accounts published by the strike leaders between 1919 and the 1980s, even in accounts that have used contemporary evidence. The version of the ‘Battle’ presented in Scottish school textbooks is almost wholly mythological, which became something of an issue in the press in late 2020. We aim to publish a dispassionate account, based on a thorough trawl of contemporary evidence, taking no previous claim or assumption at face value. We are also examining the development and use of the extensive ‘Battle’ mythology, and the historiography of the event.

Regarding the historiography/mythology, we wanted to consider the presentation of the events in popular culture, for example, TV documentaries. We used Society funds to obtain from the BBC copies of seven documentaries, two each from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s and the last from 2006, covering the 1919 events in detail or as part of a wider programme. These are a valuable resource: they include eyewitness interviews; they also show how the telling of the story has developed with the gradual replacement of eyewitness-based accounts, however problematic, with dramatized unhistorical and ahistorical storytelling.  Tracking these developments has been informative.

The earlier documentaries include interviews with Manny Shinwell, Willie Gallacher and others, some repeating versions of the narrative established by the defence at the 1919 trial. No two of Shinwell’s accounts of ‘Bloody Friday’ are the same, and the TV interviews provide further variants. Gallacher (1962 interview), in contrast, re-tells his rousing but unhistorical ‘if only we’d gone to Maryhill Barracks there would have been a revolution’ version, first published in 1936, with tales of ‘raw recruits’ brought up from ‘the north of England’. This interview is a key driver for the myth that ‘the whole force was English’, when in fact it comprised mostly Scots-based veterans.

Image of a first world war tank on city streets.
Tanks in Liverpool, in August 1919, routinely passed off as ‘tanks in George Square’ in the aftermath of the ‘Battle’. (Pathe Films)

We also wanted to examine the use of contemporary moving and still images in the documentaries. Because there is only one 33-second-long contemporary newsreel clip, documentary directors have resorted to using material from other times and other places to fill the gaps in the visual narrative. A few film-clips have been used repeatedly, not only in these seven programmes, and have come to frame the narrative in ways that reinforce the mythological version: for example, that tanks were driven through or parked in the streets of Glasgow to overawe the population (they weren’t – they sat in a shed); one common clip shows tanks parked, menacingly, in a square, but the film is in fact from the Liverpool police strike in August 1919 – this image is now routinely used, especially in blogs and on social media to ‘prove’ that ‘there were tanks in George Square’ and roaming the city’s streets.

Another understudied aspect is the background in the rapidly shifting context and contested development of government and army policy in dealing with industrial unrest. We used Society funds to obtain copies of three files from the National Archives, which set out government preparations for providing ‘military aid to the civil power’ after the First World War: Glasgow in 1919 was the largest single domestic peacetime deployment of troops in British history and events there both reflected current policy and influenced policy changes during 1919. The two WO32 series files document conflict within the War Office concerning the extent to which it was legitimate for the military to counter the ‘Bolshevik threat’.  One group was led by Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff (considered by some as a right-wing demagogue), the other by the more moderate Adjutant General Macdonagh; both attracted support among politicians.  A third file is in the WO73 series, which documents the changes in location of army units made early in 1919, during the temporary dominance of the military ‘hawks’, to facilitate the rapid provision of military aid (or even control), and the subsequent move back to their normal posts as more moderate counsels prevailed.

The final element of Society-funded expenditure was the purchase of the bibliographical software EndNote.  This has facilitated a shared-access research bibliography and archive, and consistent footnote referencing – a key resource as we work together, but at distance, to draft the text of the book. Currently, 955 database entries include: academic publications, popular texts (including a graphic novel), TV documentaries, contemporary and modern newspaper coverage; more than 100 individual pre-trial statements and transcripts of trial evidence; even the floor plans of Glasgow City Chambers. For some sections of the book we have allocated a lead author, with the other acting as editor/critical reader.

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