Jim Beach reveals Army reporting on the local political situation in 1919.
Over the past year I have been rummaging through some not-very-exciting government documents. But for an intelligence historian, that’s pretty much par for the course.
As I say to students who take my third-year module, Secret State: British Intelligence, 1558-1945: “Just because it’s secret doesn’t automatically make it interesting”.
Although I should point out that the module does include many fascinating things, including the contribution of intelligence to the British effort in both world wars.
The documents in question are intelligence summaries produced by British army officers on the Home Front, both during and after the First World War.
Their remit was to keep their superiors informed about the political situation in their local area. And to do this, they gathered information from the courts, the police, and local newspapers and then consolidated it into regular ‘intelligence summaries’.
These were transmitted upwards and, through a quirk of archival survival, many of them have ended up in the Air Ministry files at the National Archives.
Their content raises many interesting questions about the military intelligence system, especially in 1919, when demobilisation tensions, economic upheaval, and industrial unrest buffeted the country.
In the case of Northamptonshire, although only nine reports are in the files they do offer some insight into the local military’s perceptions during the wider political turbulence.
These summaries were submitted, between March and July of that year, mostly by Major Harold Cartwright, a regular army officer who had been wounded early in the war.
His day-job was commanding the Northamptonshire Regiment’s depot, which was located on the site now occupied by Northampton International Academy.
But he was also designated as the ‘Competent Military Authority, No.15 Area’ and was therefore required to write intelligence reports about the town and county.
Cartwright first missive was fairly downbeat. On 8 March, he reported that: ‘As far as I have been able to gather hitherto there has been very little expression of public opinion in regard to demobilization unrest’.
And, for the rest of that month, Cartwright continued to submit the same assessment. Although he did note that voluntary recruitment for the post-war army ‘appears satisfactory’.
In April and May only one item was reported. Robert Cook, a labourer from Easton-on-the-Hill in the north-east of the county, was prosecuted, and found guilty for ‘interfering with the discipline and administration of a Prisoner of War camp’.
Cartwright’s report only provided basic details but, in an earlier report, his superior headquarters had fleshed out the circumstances.
Back in January, Cook had been given some money by a German prisoner who was helping to build an airfield. In exchange he supplied the prisoner with tins of cocoa and condensed milk, some salt, and a packet of rice. He was fined £5, the equivalent of £200 in today’s money.
In late June and early July, Cartwright finally had some substantive items to report.
The first was a ‘small strike’ involving coal carters in the town. But this outbreak of potential unrest was caveated with the observation that ‘the public & soldiers have not […] taken any particular interest in it & the strikers are quite peaceful’. And, a week later, the dispute was resolved.
The ‘School Masters and Mistresses’ also went on strike, but were similarly ‘peaceful’.
Perhaps more promising for an army officer on the lookout for trouble, Northampton had branches of the ex-servicemen’s associations. Nationally, in 1919 these organisations were agitating for greater assistance to veterans and some of them advanced a radical, left-wing agenda.
Cartwright reported that, in his locality, they were growing in membership. But he also noted that:
‘The Comrades of the Great War Society does not appeal to the better class man, and appears likely to develop into a drinking club only for the lower class of man’.
Assessing the general situation at this time, Cartwright observed that trade in Northampton was ‘good’. But in a comment that perhaps says more about his worldview than local economics, he added that:
‘There are certainly many men out of work and it is difficult to say whether it is their fault or not’.
The army’s primary concern was unrest amongst their troops. In that regard, Cartwright concluded that there was:
‘Very little labour unrest in this Area, and troops appear to take very little notice of Strikes or Strikers’.
Therefore, whatever fears senior army officers might have had about British revolutionaries and potential disorder, it seems very clear that Northampton was not one of the hotspots that needed closer monitoring.
But if anyone is aware of any subversive individuals or groups in Northamptonshire that escaped Cartwright’s attention, please could you let me know!
The reports referred to are: Eastern Command intelligence summary (Part 1), 26 February 1919, AIR1/557/16/15/53; CMA No.15 Area intelligence summaries, 8, 15, 22 March, 26 April, 3 May, 25 June, 5 July 1919, AIR1/553/16/15/40 & 42, AIR1/556/16/15/48 & 49, National Archives.
Thanks are also offered to the anonymous contributors to rootschat.com whose discussion thread signposted some useful sources on Cartwright.