The Battle Of George Square
Everything was pretty cushty at Maryhill Barracks until the aftermath of the First World War. Returning soldiers and the rise of the ‘Red Menace’ had put the establishment of the city’s teeth on edge again. Men coming home from the front were left unable to find work while those who had found employment were rightly irked at having to work a 57 hour week.
The Clyde Workers Committee saw the solution as being a 40 hour week. Better lives for those in work and more hours to provide jobs for those out of it, right?
No-one knows what began the riot in George Square on January 31st 1919. 70,000 workers had been out on strike for four days before gathering in George Square to hear the government’s response to their demands and they soon found themselves surrounded by the Glasgow constabulary. Was it an ill-timed baton charge or a tram trying to weave its way through the crowd that threw the city into tumult? No-one really knows but one thing’s for sure: Glasgow was rioting.
Sheriff MacKenzie did his best to bellow his way through The Riot Act but found it difficult as the document was torn from his hands and thrown into the air. It was one of the last times that The Riot Act was read in the UK.
As a wee aside; The Riot Act (1714) is actually a real thing and not just something your Mum says when she’s annoyed at you. The declaration which was often read is as follows:
Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!
One of the ‘pains’ was death. Those attempting to disperse rioters (if the rioters didn’t break up within an hour) were indemnified in the event that they killed someone).
The fighting continued as iron railings were pulled up and used as a defence against the police truncheons and a nearby lorry’s contents were put to good use as the glass bottles it was carrying became projectiles (the city never changes that much). Bloody Friday saw men, women and children injured in pitched battles between police and protesters with the police unable to break the riots as they attempted to march from George Square to Glasgow Green.
The rioters were again attacked by police but managed to rally and rout them, managing to push them back long enough for the fighting to spread out across the city.
Riots continued into the night and Glasgow awoke on the morning of 1st February to an altogether different sight.
Two days previously on 29th January, representatives of the Clyde Workers Committee had met with the Lord Provost and asked him to deliver their message to Parliament. They intended to inform the Provost that “drastic action” would be taken if their demands were not heard but this was not barricade-building talk. This was talk of more widespread picketing.
The Cabinet’s reaction was to appear on the streets by the morning of the 1st.
Accounts suggest that as many as 10,000 armed troops were sent North to quell any Bolshevik violence within the city. Those marching under the Red Flag soon saw machine guns posted on the roof of the General Post Office, a 4.5 inch Howitzer artillery gun stood sentry outside the City Chambers and the Cattlemarket was utilised as a tank depot.
Last year much of Glasgow’s city centre was locked down for the filming of World War Z and the clamouring throng of over-excited movie buffs exclaimed that Glasgow had never seen the like. Sure, flesh-eating zombies is one thing but try to imagine a Howitzer outside the City Chambers now.
It is largely accepted that the Army’s deployment took a few days as most of the hardware and infantry was actually brought from other locations in Scotland, this is despite having the Highland Light Infantry stationed at Maryhill. They were called upon but their Glaswegian men were confined to barracks.
One simple reason: they couldn’t be trusted.
Such was the paranoia surrounding Communism at the time, it was thought that the likelihood of Glaswegian soldiers sympathising with the rioters and turning against their paymasters was too great and the decision was taken to exclude them from the ‘peacekeeping’ efforts.
After a week, the Army had calmed the situation on the streets down and the leaders of the movement were put on trial but a concession was eventually agreed with workers agreeing a 47 hour week. Red Clydeside was once again under the heel of the Government, but the moniker remains to this day.