Analysis: From Glasgow to Berlin – how strikes, mutinies and revolutions ended WW1

Ben Wray

Official commemorations for the end of WW1 refuse to acknowledge how it ended

STATES around Europe have held official commemorations for the 100 year anniversary of the end of WW1 in 1918. 

They have managed to do this by creating fanfares of nationalism, but somehow they have managed to avoid discussing how the war actually ended.

CommonSpace looks at how the European working class finally put an end to the slaughter in the trenches.

The war

The first world war was the consequence of the growth of imperialism in Europe. By the early years of the 20th century, European powers like France and Britain had carved up large tracts of the world between them, in Africa, Asia and all over the world. Other European powers, most importantly Germany, had taken less of a share of the spoils and were eager to expand their own influence. 

The war had everything to do with the interests of the rich and powerful, in stark contrast to the propaganda about ‘defending the homeland’ preached on all sides.

Arms races and diplomatic intrigue led to all out war by 1914. Any lingering thoughts that this ‘war to end all wars’ might resemble conflicts in the 1800s were quickly swept away. The first major battles displayed the destructive potential of new weapons, and in France both sides dug in for a long defensive war.

Millions would die in a seemingly endless series of meaningless offensives. Many more died in squalid trenches from disease, and at home from food shortages. But the horrors of war also began to stir resistance.


At the start of the war, anti-war voices found themselves isolated. The major European left parties who pledged resistance to the war only days before swung in behind ‘their’ national governments. Major trade union federations followed and a social peace was declared for the duration of the war.

This tidal wave of national sentiment didn’t last long. The shock of mass death at the start of the war, and a crackdown on democracy and restriction of living standards on home fronts led to a steady increase in dissent. Already by mid 1915 significant strike actions had begun to return to cities across Europe.

In Glasgow, massive arms production drew tens of thousands of new workers into the cities. Landlords took the opportunity to hike rents so high that working class women, who’s husbands, sons and brothers were dying at the front, were threatened with mass eviction. The women fought back, launching a rent strike and repelling landlord’s with street fighting. This movement dovetailed with growing strike movements in factories and shipyards.

Low morale in  the armies at the front was boiling over into mutiny. In the summer of 1917, half of the French army had become unresponsive to orders. Tens of thousands openly resisted, attacking politicians, assassinating officers, even trying to storm Paris and overthrow the government.


Revolution struck first in the ‘Second city of the British Empire’ – Dublin. The war had split the national movement in Ireland. With more conservative Home Rulers helping the British war effort, more radical Republicans plotted to overthrow the British administration in Ireland.

The Easter Rising saw more than 1200 armed insurgents hold onto Dublin for a week, forcing the British army to divert some 20,000 troops to put the rebellion down. After the Rising, Ireland became increasingly ungovernable.

Revolution broke out in Russia in February 1917. A series of pro-war governments were turned over by the revolution until October 1917, when the anti-war Bolsheviks finally came to power.

Partly inspired by Russia, revolution spread among soldiers, sailors and workers in Germany and Austria-Hungary. The writing was on the wall by the time mutinying soldiers in Northern German ports made an armed dash inland towards a Berlin gripped by strikes and protests. The Government collapsed, the Kaiser abdicated, the war was over.


In the years after the war, the European ruling class struggled to fend off the revolutions sweeping the continent. Early commemorations of the war became rallying points for enraged former soldiers, many of whom were abandoned by the rich once they returned physically or mentally traumatised, or simply demanding justice after the privations of the war years.

Official, nationalist commemoration services and events were designed to suppress the memory of the war and its end in revolution. Some monuments, like the Cenotaph in Glasgow’s George Square, are specifically designed to divert attention from the years of mass dissent. It was built to prevent mass assemblies from establishing themselves opposite the city chambers after the 1919 riots in the square at the peak of ‘Red Clydeside’.

The official state commemorations are therefore an act of anti-remembrance, seeking to replace the reality of the suffering of the war and its popular overthrow with a message of national unity.

Most ordinary people who participate want to remember the losses and suffering of the war. It is necessary also to remember that the power of ordinary people can stop war.

Picture courtesy: Wikimedia Commons