August 2013

Two books are again recommended reading for Unite members this month.

Soldier Box, written by Joe Glenton

The 1913 China Clay Strike, written by Nigel Costley

.Joe Glenton, Soldier Box Soldier Box front cover
(Verso Books, £12.99)

Accused of desertion, and threatened with years in prison, Joe Glenton refused to remain silent on the reality of the war on terror. In his new book he explains why he became disillusioned during active service in Afghanistan.

Why did you write this book?
I think there was a story to be told that could counter the vast amount of hero-worshipping Boys Own literature that is written by the likes of Chris Ryan and Andy McNab. There are too many books called things like Apache Pilot and Sniper, which are very jingoistic.

Why did you join the army?

The usual two reasons: economics – the need for a regular job – and cultural. British people have very specific ideas of what the military is all about and how it conducts itself. Those things are ingrained in us. British identity is one that is connected with war and it is an imperial identity, so when we think about troops we think of plucky Tommy Atkins, and that’s part of the appeal.

What did you believe you were being sent to achieve?

We were never really given a solid line from above and so we drew ideas from the media that we would help the Afghans build schools and infrastructure, provide security, take on the Taliban and build peace. All good, wholesome things.

What made you turn against the war in Afghanistan?
The reality there. I remain quite keen to go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and help improve such places, but in contact with reality I came to the conclusion that that is not why we are there. There was no specific moment when I turned against the war and I held my views privately but over the course of seven months my views changed. They crystallised when I arrived home. I didn’t feel we were helping.

When you were sent to prison for going AWOL did you get much support?
Lots. I had the respect of most of the guys in prison as well as most of the rank and file from my regiment. Some of the screws were also helpful. I had many supportive letters, peaking at around 200 a day, and every few weeks there was a demonstration outside which disrupted the regime, which was nice.

Why do you describe those in prison with you as “vulnerable young lads”?
Many guys were 18-20-year-olds back from tour. They came back traumatised by their experiences and it had not been recognised by the army. They quickly exploded on drink, drugs and domestic violence or by going absent without leave. Because a lot of regiments are regional you could work out which batch of soldiers would arrive next.

Surely if we root out the bad soldiers then Britain’s military can help make the world a better place?
Whenever you send men to war they will be brutalised and they will be brutal. That is what soldiers do, they kill people. If they don’t they are helping others to kill people. War makes people do excessively bad things. You could root out bad apples in a different way by getting rid of the bad apples who send the soldiers to war – sort of flip it on its head. 

Soldier Box can be obtained (price £12.99) from  

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.Nigel Costley, The 1913 China Clay Strike
The story of Cornwall’s most turbulent industrial dispute (£4.95) 1913 China Clay Stike Book cover

Great pamphlet on a successful strike that established trade unions in mid Cornwall. 

A century ago 5,000 Cornish china clay workers defied their employers, poverty and the South Wales police by striking for ten weeks. The industry was one of many developed during the industrial revolution. Based in Cornwall and Devon, production in 1910 was a million tonnes a year, 75% of which was exported. It was better-paid employment than agricultural work but below that of coal/tin miners. The hours were long and the work was highly physical.

Disputes in 1875/6 had restored wage cuts but a five-week strike by 2,000 workers was lost after Cornish miners reputation as strike breakers saw little outside aid being raised. Starving workers were forced back to work whilst mass emigration took miners all around the world to work in the following decades. In 1911 clay workers began to be recruited by the Workers’ Union, which was formed in 1898 by one of the heroes of the 1889 London dock strike, Tom Mann. In December 1912 a 2,500 strong petition was presented to the small number of dominant clay employers requesting an increase of 5 shillings (25p) a week to raise pay to 25 shillings. (£1.25)

Flying pickets
When this was rejected a strike began on Monday 21 July 1913 when thirty men at Carne Stents near St Austell walked off the job and appealed to workers at other pits to join them in solidarity. Within days 1,000 were out and numbers grew as pickets journeyed pit to pit. With the aid of Julie Varley, sent by the union to support the strikers’ families, large demonstrations were held. By mid August 5,000 were on strike. The union managed to pay 10 shillings a week strike pay and local tradesman distributed food vouchers.

Vicious police attacks
The employers and police hit back by drafting in a contingent of 100 from South Wales Police. They had experience of breaking picket lines and informed strikers that ‘unlawful assemblies’ would be rigorously enforced.

When 300 pickets formed up on 1 September 1913 they were met by a detachment of Glamorgan police who baton charged the crowd hitting anyone that got in their way.  There was widespread indignation locally at the violence with the Cornish Guardian condemning the police and shops and landladies refused to trade with them. The TUC offered regret to the injured. By October the long strike had sapped even the most militant worker. On the 12th it was agreed to return to work rather than prolong the suffering. The strikers returned knowing  that many more workers had joined the union and understood the need for organisation.

Union recognition and better pay
Confidence in the union remained high and on January 12 1914 the largest clay company agreed to recognise the union. In February wage increases, bringing pay up to a minimum of 22s 6d (£1.13) with additions for clay working, established pay rates roughly that which the workers had taken strike action for. Other clay firms soon followed suit. The workers had won their demands.

The Workers’ Union continued to represent clay workers until a merger in 1929 with the TGWU, which itself merged with AMICUS to form Unite. Britain’s largest union still represents workers in the clay industry that are employed in Cornwall by Imerys, a world leader in mining natural resources and which employs around 1,000 people in the county.

The 1913 China Clay Strike can be obtained (price £4.95) from

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