Dawn of the DS&S in Luton

Luton Town Hall c1914

  • Luton Town Hall would play a pivotal role in the story of the DS&S in Luton.

There was not a large attendance at the Luton Town Hall last night [September 21st, 1917] at the meeting for Discharged Soldiers and Sailors to form an association on trade union lines. The initial stages were by no means auspicious, for leaders of the local trades union movement were expected to be present, and it was long after eight o'clock before a start was made.

In the meantime several of the audience chafed at the delay, and one veteran with a vein of humour not too refined, had a wordy duel with Mr Tom Smith, the secretary of the Luton Trades and Labour Council, on the merits of punctuality. But his reason, as he frankly admitted, was the desire to assuage a strong thirst.

The Chairman, Mr Herbert W. Booth, an ex-sergeant, also expressed dissatisfaction, but it was generally recognised that the speakers who were expected were doing very useful work on a War Pensions Sub-Committee in a room below.

The first meeting of the men was held on September 11th at Franklin's Restaurant, and was adjourned until the question of organisation had been considered by the discharged men of the Labour Party. After this meeting had been held, it was agreed to hold a meeting last night.

The Chairman moved that the Luton News report of the last meeting should be regarded as minutes, and this was agreed to. He then said that he had received from Capt Donald Simpson, of the New Zealand Engineers, as telegram with reference to the last meeting and asked, in order to prevent misunderstanding, that he (the Chairman) should visit him in regard to the work of the Comrades of the Great War Fellowship.

In order to get at the facts, the Chairman said he also wrote to the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors. He read the reply which pointe out the difference between the two institutions, and said that Mr J. M. Hogge MP and Mr Pringle MP, two of the leading spirits, were fighting for the discharged soldiers and sailors in the House of Commons, and they were the first to lend a hand when help was required for the National Federation in its infancy.

"You are getting people saying that Messrs Hogge and Pringle are not for the discharged men, but are out for themselves," said the letter. "I give those people the lie in the face. After the Liverpool election, run by the discharged men, we fund we did not have enough money to pay expenses. We went to several people for funds, and we were refused and not able to foot the bill. Mr Hogge put his hand in his pocket and paid for the whole concern."

The letter went on to say that Mr Hogge had refused an under-secretaryship as well as the secretaryship to the Food Controller, positions each worth £1,200 a year. It also pointed out that the members of the House of Commons at the head of the Comrades of the Great War Fellowship either voted for the Review of Exceptions Act of 1917 or were conspicuous by their absence when the Bill was before the House, and Messrs Hogge and Pringle were among the 16 who voted against the Bill.

The Chairman said he went to the London headquarters of each of these institutions and got the whole facts of the movement, and he would deal with any questions which might be raised when a resolution was put before the meeting. On the last occasion, and in his letter to the Luton News, he made his own position clear, and he stood by those things, and was quite ready to take the responsibility for anything he had said or done.

Advert for first meeting of DS&SEx-Quartermaster-Sgt Walker moved that an association of discharged soldiers and sailors be formed on trade union lines, and this was seconded by Mr Rudd.

Mr Pym, a member of the Luton Trades and Labour Council, rose to support, and said that, although he could not claim to speak as a discharged soldier, he had been rejected on medical grounds.

He proceeded to say that many of them had hoped and had faith at one period that a change of heart could come over those who ad control over the finance of this great empire. Subsequent happenings had proved that their faith was misplaced and faith shattered. They had seen how many of the capitalist class had been more concerned with the amount of dividend they could obtain rather than the source from which those dividends sprung.

The Chairman hereupon rose and said: "I think this gentleman is putting political views which I do not accept. The term capitalist and other expressions are purely political phrases, and as such do not concern this meeting.

Mr Pym protested, whereupon the Chairman abruptly asked: "Have you anything to say in support of or to confirm the proposition- for or against?

Several members voiced their approval, shouting "No politics."

Mr Pym briefly expressed his pleasure that there was a prospect of such an association, gave an assurance of his hearty support and then resumed his seat.

Mr Tom Smith said he was heartily in sympathy with the movement and wished it every success. He said the Trades Council had this matter before them for the last month or two, thinking that many of the discharged would like to combine.

Mr J. Mabley was deputed to attend the first meeting convened by Mr Booth. He reported favourably, and the arrangements for the meeting were decided upon. He supported them heartily, recognising that they who had been soldiers had been defending the homes, had done their bit and their best, and it was not to be expected that they were now coming home, after hazarding their lives and health, to be exploited by those who wished to exploit them.

If they combined they could ensure representation on the different public bodies which had a voice in the disbandment of soldiers, their pension welfare and other things. Individually they would find they could do little; organised they could do much.

If they elected an executive committee and got thoroughly into the movement and strengthened their ranks, they could them apply for affiliation to the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors and become something of a power themselves locally, and strengthen the Federation nationally (hear, hear).

Acting on the instructions of the Trades and Labour Council, he had endeavoured to secure the attendance of Mr Hogge for the meeting, but it was impossible. It was hoped to secure his attendance later.

He could promise them that the Trades and Labour Council had no axe to grind in calling that meeting Their only motive was to see the men together and to help to do them good, and repay them in a little way for risking their lives in defence of the country (applause).

Mr Suttle asked what he was to understand by the words"trade union lines".

The Chairman said the first intimation that the meeting was to take place was when he saw the Saturday Telegraph. Personally he did not quarrel with the term, but in his letter to the Luton News of Thursday summarised what he thought adequately represented "trade union lines". It was a wide matter, but as he understood it, self-help self-government and no party. "That is sufficient for me," he added amidst applause.

Mr Justin had great pleasure in supporting the view of the Chairman as expressed in the Luton News. "We are old soldiers and have to do our best for ourselves," he said, "and we don't want tolet political bodies and trades union bodies depend upon us." (hear, hear).

Mr Suttle said they wanted no political parties, but an association of their own (hear, hear).

Mr Mabley, who arrived rather late, rose to reply to Mr Suttle. He asked what would have been the position of discharged men without the Labour Party. He referred to Mr G. N. Barnes MP, and his work as Pensions Minister, and said the pensions had increased by 50 per cent.

A voice: "He is paid to do the work."

Mr Mabley said he could go farther and declare that locally and nationally there was not a man who had fought more honestly than the members of the Labour Party. No one had suggested they should be linked to a political party.

As a discharged soldier he candidly told them that they were not allowed to be in a political organisation when they were in the Army for one particular reason - because it would have been for their benefit and not for the benefit of those who controlled the Services.

The time was coming when the workers of the country would not go cap-in-hand to the upper classes. If a man was fit to fight for his country he was fit to take his pace with any man in the House of Lords to legislate for the country (hear, hear). There were any amount of men of military age in both Houses of Parliament who would not go to fight for their country, although they sat and made laws compelling others to go.

"Trades union lines" meant "each for all, and all for each," and they could not do better than that. He had never seen it, although he had served on three continents - in India, Egypt and at home. "I am no novice," he said. "I was discharged as a sergeant-instructor."

He urged them to adopt the trade union principle and spirit and so create a better atmosphere for those of their comrades who would return at a later date. He did not think either that the Labour, Liberal or Tory parties in Luton desired to control them, but wanted them to assist to control the country.

He supported the idea of affiliating to the National Federation because they had done something, and he predicted that they would grow stronger if they adopted the trade union spirit, and eventually there would be nothing to prevent discharged soldiers of the country going to the House of Commons to legislate for themselves (applause).

An auditor pointed out that they had an object lesson in trades unionism, for the only people who got anything were the organised workers, and he instanced the railwaymen and the engineers.

The Chairman's view was that when an educated body like the school teachers adopted trades unionism, it was good enough for discharged soldiers.

Mr Mabley said that at the trades union branch meeting it was a rule that no politics should be discussed. They had a Trades and Labour Council to deal with political questions.

The resolution was carried unanimously. The meeting then proceeded to elect a Provisional Executive Committee. Whe Mr Mabley was nominated, and auditor asked if that gentleman had been in the Army in this war.

Mr Mabley: "Twelve months and a fortnight. I went out on August 4th, 1914, and I don't think many went out earlier (loud laughter), and came back on August 20th, 1915, and got my discharge on August 8th, 1917, after 12 years service with the colours.

The querist replied that this was a civilian army and they were dealing with a civilian army, and not with old soldiers.

The Chairman said that the feeling of the meeting was that they should stand by the men who had been regular soldiers also (applause).

The Provisional Executive Committee was then elected as follows: Chairman, Mr Herbert W. Booth; Hon Secretary, Me W. Walker; Messrs J. Mabley, Cowdrey, Rudd, Hawkes and Suttle.

It was announced that the Luton War Pensions Disablement Sub-Committee has allotted seats to the Discharged Soldiers Association, and these were left over until the next meeting.

The Chairman gave a brief survey of his visit to the headquarters of the two institutions for discharged men, and supported affiliation to the National Federation. A suggestion that there should be a flag day for funds was favourably received.

The Chairman moved, and it was heartily carried: "That this meeting of the discharged soldiers and sailors of Luton and district, having considered the constitution and object of the organisation designated The Comrades of the Great War, is of opinion that as the said constitution and object are substantially those of the existing National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, no useful purpose will be served by the inauguration of The Comrades of the Great War movement, and this meeting therefore urges all discharged men to support the National Federation in every possible way."

Seconding this, Mr Mabley said that the people running The Comrades of the Great War movement were out to use the discharged men for their own convenience, and the Chairman concurred. The resolution was carried.

The proceedings closed with votes of thanks to the Trades and Labour Council for arranging the meeting, and to the Chairman.

[The Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: September 22nd. 1917]