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The "Jolly George"

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London in 1920

In London the summer of 1920 was a time of transition. London was still the world’s largest city. It was the capital of the Empire “on which the sun never sets”. Britain was known as “the workshop of the world”. The Port of London was the hub of world trade; today it is smaller than the container port of Immingham and will soon be overtaken by Hartlepool.

The Coalition Government

The Great War had produced major changes on the Home Front. Women gained the Vote. Trade Unions were becoming domesticated. Local trades councils originated before the War but they reached their heyday of radicalism in the 1920s. The Labour Party, which had been largely funded and controlled by the trade unions, adopted a new constitution which included the socialist Clause Four and provided for individual membership.

The UK had a coalition government. David Lloyd George (Liberal) was Prime Minister. Austen Chamberlain (Conservative) was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Curzon (Conservative) was Foreign Minister. Winston Churchill (then a Liberal) was Minister of Defence. The British economy was shrinking. The balance of trade was worsening. Unemployment was at record levels. Britain was entangled in an Irish conflict which divided the electorate.

The enemy at the gate

The 1917 October Revolution had brought Lenin and the Communists into power in Russia. Their first act had been to publish secret agreements between the Allies for sharing the spoils of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and the Ottoman Empire (comprising present- day Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Turkey); (WikiLeaks pales by comparison!). However the Russian Revolution was initially a puzzle and embarrassment to Marxists weaned on Das Kapital. They had anticipated that the proletarian revolution would start in an advanced capitalist nation, whereas Russia was largely mediaeval. They concluded that the Russian Revolution was the prelude to a world-wide rising. Accordingly Leon Trotsky’s Red Army, having rebuffed a Polish invasion of Ukraine, advanced westwards through Poland, killing capitalists, aristocrats and anti-Communists who stood in their way.

The White Army

For over a century Poland had been partitioned between Germany, Russia and the Austro- Hungarian Empire. The independent Polish “White Army”, under Jozef Pilsudski, now stood between the Red Army and Western Europe. British soldiers, in partnership with French, American, Italian, Czech and Japanese troops, had been in Murmansk, Archangel and Siberia in support of anti-Communist armies.

The British and Allied governments were quietly sending steady supplies of surplus munitions – guns, tanks and even aircraft - to the White Army. They also sent military advisors, including Brigadier Harold Alexander from Britain and a Major Charles De Gaulle from France.

Winston Churchill the Liberal

Winston Churchill was in favour of more decisive military intervention against the Red Army. Bolshevism, he famously said, must be “strangled in its cradle”. Then as later, Churchillian oratory was colourful:
“Civilisation is being completely extinguished over gigantic areas, while the Bolsheviks hop and caper like troops of ferocious baboons amid the ruins of cities and the corpses of their victims” (Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Vol 4:1917-1922, Heinemann, London, 1971).
“What is the use of being War Secretary if there is no war?” he is said to have asked; at which his Cabinet colleague Andrew Bonar Law quipped, “If we thought there was going to be a war we wouldn’t appoint you War Secretary” (M Peterson, Winston Churchill: His Military Life, 1895-1945, David and Charles, Newton Abbot, 2005. p 238).

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister

Others in the Conservative/Liberal coalition were more cautious. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, complained to Churchill about his anti-Communist activities at the post-war Paris Peace Conference:
"Am very much alarmed at your telegram about planning a war against the Bolsheviks. The Cabinet have never authorized such a proposal. They have never contemplated anything beyond supplying the Armies in anti-Bolshevik areas in Russia with necessary equipment to enable them to hold their own. I beg you not to commit this country to what would be a purely mad enterprise out of hatred of Bolshevik principles. An expensive war of aggression against Russia is a way to strengthen Bolshevism in Russia and create it at home" (M Peterson, op. cit. p. 239).

The Red Army

Leon Trotsky’s Red Army reached the outskirts of Warsaw. The capture of Warsaw was to open the door to the overthrow of capitalism first in Germany, then in Western Europe. On 3rd July 1920 the Red Army received the following order:
"Turn your eyes to the West. In the West the fate of World Revolution is being decided. Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to World Conflagration. On our bayonets we will bring happiness and peace to the toiling masses of mankind. The hour of attack has struck! Westwards!" (Cited in A Zamorsky, Warsaw 1920 , HarperCollins, London, 2008, p 53).

The Russian Revolution and World War I

The Russian Revolution and the overthrow of the Tsar had taken place during World War I, and were seen as a set-back for the Allies. In Winston Churchill’s words in 1919,
“Every British and French soldier killed last year was really done to death by Lenin and Trotsky, not in fair war, but by the treacherous desertion of an ally without parallel in the history of the world” (Quoted in M Gilbert, op. cit., p 278).

Hands Off Russia

The English press, with the exception of George Lansbury’s Daily Herald, was hostile to Lenin and his cause. Despite this a Hands Off Russia campaign was launched in London by left-wing activists including the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst.

Its first meeting, on 18th January 1919, resolved ambitiously:
“to carry on an active agitation upon every field of activity to solidify the Labour Movement in Great Britain for the purpose of declaring at a further conference, to be convened for that purpose, a general strike, unless before the date of that conference the unconditional cessation of allied intervention in Russia … … shall have been officially announced … …”.
The Hands off Russia movement was comparable to today’s Stop the War coalition. Its initial popular support exceeded its political effect. Its activists distributed copies of Lenin’s appeal To the Toiling Masses, whose printing and circulation had been declared illegal in the UK. Shipyards and docks in the East End of London were particularly targeted. That neighbourhood was proud of its Socialist reputation. Keir Hardie Britain’s first Labour MP, had represented West Ham South. George Lansbury, Mayor of Poplar, was later to go to prison rather than raise council rates.

Arming the White Army

Rumours abounded about secret shipments of munitions to the White Army. Early in 1920 London dockers discovered that two large Belgian barges in Blackwall Shipyard were to be adapted to carry military equipment to Poland. One boilermaker, Harry Pollitt, refused to work on the barges and was sacked on the spot. (Pollitt was to become a founding member when the Communist Party of Great Britain was launched later that year). Those barges set sail but their towing rope broke and they sank in the North Sea.

In April 1920 guns and aircraft openly marked “OHMS Munitions for Poland” appeared on the London wharves. On 1st May the Danish steamer Neptune, loaded with munitions, left the East India Docks. On board were a couple of activist stokers. As the vessel sailed downriver past Gravesend the stokers emerged to explain the situation to the crew. The Captain left his bridge demanding to know what was up. While the debate raged the Neptune was rammed by another vessel sailing up the Thames. She was towed, sinking, into the nearest dock; her cargo never reached Poland.

The Jolly George


This incident alerted the dockers, especially in the Port of London, to watch out for cargo labelled “OHMS Munitions for Poland”. The crisis came when they were ordered to load military equipment onto a Walford Line cargo ship, the "Jolly George". (Walford Line vessels were always prefixed by the adjective “Jolly” and included the Jolly Angela, Jolly George, Jolly Guy, Jolly James, Jolly Laura and Jolly Marie - the last-named is illustrated on the left). The stevedores sent a delegation to Ernest Bevin, General Secretary of the Dockers’ Union, who assured them of union support if they took strike action. Accordingly on 10th May 1920 the coal heavers refused to refuel the Jolly George. On 15th May the munitions were disembarked onto the dockside, decorated with the campaign sticker “Hands off Russia”.

Councils of Action

On 9th August 1920 an emergency conference of the Labour Party, the Parliamentary Party and the Trades Union Congress established a National Council of Action, and "pledged itself to resist any and every form of military and naval intervention against the Soviet Government of Russia".

"Form Your Councils"

The Council immediately issued directives -
1. Secretaries of local Trades Councils and Labour Parties should straightaway elect a local Council of Action.

2. The local Councils should form sub-committees to deal with
  • Supply and transport
  • Strike arrangements
  • Publicity and information
3. Names and addresses of secretaries of local Councils should be forwarded straight to the National Council.
Over 350 local Councils of Action, mostly based on local trades councils, were set up in towns across the country. The whole Labour Movement stood behind the dockers.

Read about Hastings' own Council of Action.

Where were the Quakers?

What did the Councils of Action Achieve?

To judge from the paucity of subsequent records, the Jolly George and the Councils of Action seem to have vanished almost as rapidly as they had emerged. In fact the campaign had achieved its purpose.

Lloyd George's government agreed to accept the Soviet offer to withdraw the Red Army from Poland in return for an end to the Allied blockade. The Daily Herald and the Labour Party claimed that this was in response to the Councils of Action. Lloyd George claimed that they had been "pushing at an open door." It seems clear in retrospect that the Cabinet had been divided and that the London dockers and the Councils of Action had won the day; no further armaments were ever sent to the White Army.

The "Miracle on the Vistula"

At the very time that the British government was wavering, the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ was being played out. On 14th August the White Army counter-attacked and, contrary to all probability and expectations, forced the Red Army to retreat. Two incidental factors seem to have contributed to Pilsudski’s victory.

A unit of the White Army cavalry slipped between two divisions of the Red Army and destroyed their radio transmitter on the back of a large lorry. This meant that orders issued by the Red Army headquarters could no longer reach their front line troops. Note that in 1920 a radio transmitter would have been a bulky object. (In those days there was no BBC; in 1922 the first public broadcasts, from Station 2LO, used a transmitter 20 feet in length, and reception was restricted to the London area).

An additional factor was revealed only in the 1990s after the Fall of Communism, when an archive of intercepted Red Army transmissions was unearthed. It transpired that Polish cryptographers had cracked the Red Army’s military codes in September 1919, so the Polish High Command was able to intercept the enemy’s intelligence and orders.

The Battle of Warsaw produced a strategic stalemate. Both sides were ready to end the fighting. An armistice was agreed on 12th October 1920. The Treaty of Riga was signed on 18th March 1921.

The Aftermath

The Battle for Warsaw was to cast a long shadow. In retrospect its most obvious consequence was to persuade Lenin and his comrades to postpone the expected World Revolution and concentrate on creating ‘Socialism in One Country’. They did not abandon their belief in the inevitable victory of Communism, retaining the words of the Internationale, then the Soviet national anthem – “then comrades come rally and the last fight let us face .. …”.

Arguably too the achievement of Polish national independence stimulated nationalist sentiment throughout Europe, helping to empower Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Salazar, Horthy and other dictators in the run-up to World War II.

A further effect arose from the Polish Army’s expertise in radio monitoring. This did not stop in the 1920s. It included the first investigations of the ‘Enigma’ encoding machine which was being developed by the German forces. During the Second World War the Polish work contributed to the code-breaking achievements at Bletchley Park which allowed the Allies to monitor German military communications.

Churchill and Stalin

World War II was to produce some strange reversals. Churchill and Stalin became buddies. Ernest Bevin, who had first come to public attention in support of the Jolly George dockers, became Churchill’s wartime Minister of Labour. Several of those present in Warsaw in 1920 were to achieve prominence in the Second World War. Field Marshal Alexander and General de Gaulle, once White Army veterans, found themselves with Churchill on the same side as their old enemy, the Red Army. It was their experience in Warsaw which convinced them both that the future of warfare lay not in the trenches but in mobile forces – tanks and aircraft.

Alexander (later Viscount Alexander of Tunis) became General Montgomery’s chief in North Africa, deputy to General Eisenhower and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Italy, Governor General of Canada (1946-52), and Minister of Defence under Winston Churchill (1952-54).

De Gaulle led the Free French Forces (1940-44) as allies of the Soviet Union in World War II. He subsequently became French Prime Minister (1958-59) and President of France (1959- 69).

Winston Churchill had lost his Dundee seat in the 1922 General Election. In October 1924, having left the Liberal Party, he stood as a Constitutionalist candidate with official Conservative backing and was elected as MP for Epping. In November 1924 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government. In 1925 he joined the Conservative Party. Doubtless his earlier anti-Bolshevik stance helped to reconcile his new colleagues to their maverick companion.

Reflections on the Centenary, 1920-2020

The hundred years since 1920 have seen few sequels to the Jolly George. These few deserve to be better known -

In 1984 engineers at the East Kilbride factory of Rolls Royce refused for four years to repair aircraft engines returned for maintenance by the Pinochet regime in Chile. They later learned that this act of solidarity contributed to the return of Chilean democracy. Their achievement is celebrated in the documentary Nae Pasaran.

Action for Palestinian Freedom

Dockers in the San Francisco Bay Area, in Sweden. in Tunisia and in South Africa have all taken industrial action against Israeli ships and cargoes.

In 2006, Tram drivers in Dublin refused to train Israeli drivers to operate the new Jerusalem Light Rail system connecting Jerusalem to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Action against Apartheid

There was extensive international industrial action against the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s. Workers at the computer manufacturing firm ICL (now Fujitsu) in Manchester refused to dispatch the equipment they had designed and constructed for administrating the Pass Laws.

Air France pilots were poised to refuse to fly uranium illegally mined by Rio Tinto Zinc in South African-occupied Namibia. The trade was suddenly switched to sea. But a decade later Liverpool dockers blockaded containers to interrupt the export of processed South African and Namibian uranium, touching off an outcry in Japan where electricity contracts with RTZ were cancelled.

Dublin shopworkers refused to sell Outspan oranges, and were sacked.

Oakland dockers refused to offload South African steel and coal, and survived.

Action against Robert Mugabe

In 2008 dockers in Durban refused to handle a consignment of weapons from China destined for Robert Mugabe's army in Zimbabwe.

Action for Yemen

In May 2019, French dockers refused to allow the Saudi ship Bahri Yanbu to dock in Le Havre to load arms shipments which they feared were destined for use in Yemen. Later dockers in Marseille refused to load Canadian weapons on the same ship, and Italian dockers in Genoa went on strike against loading electric generators which could have been used in the Yemen war.

See current action against the arms trade and against General Dynamics, the Hastings arms manufacturer.