Whilst the war criminal Tony Blair walks free, having suffered not so much as a slapped wrist from the joke Chilcott Commission, the truly heroic Joe Glenton remains banged up for nine months at a prison camp in Colchester, a judgement that was confirmed on 21 April when his appeal was rejected. His crime? Refusing to fight a war in Afghanistan which he had come to realise was both illegal and immoral.
The judge at his court martial, one Emma Peters, waxed lyrical over the unfairness of some other unfortunate having to be sent to the front to take Glenton’s place, all because he refused to do his “duty”. However, as was established by more competent judges at the Nuremberg Tribunal, the plea that one was “just following orders” and doing one’s “duty” is no justification in international law for participating in the commission of war crimes. The cowards are the politicians, military leaders and judges who conspire to send soldiers to kill and be killed in genocidal wars of aggression. The heroes are those who, like Joe Glenton, are prepared to sacrifice their own freedom sooner than lend their assistance to these crimes against humanity. By throwing down his gun and marching boldly at the head of the last national demonstration against the war in Afghanistan, Glenton was acting in the real interests of British workers – not least those in uniform.
Every day that Glenton spends in a prison cell is an affront to natural justice and international law, and the campaign to free him deserves the support of all decent people. The state’s sensitivity to the impact upon public opinion of such principled defiance of its warmongering can perhaps be judged by the fact that the much more serious charge of desertion was quietly dropped in favour of the lesser charge of going absent without leave. We can assume that this softly-softly approach derived less from a tender regard for Glenton’s welfare than from an understandable reluctance to risk the trial developing into a public critique of the legality of the war itself.
It is not the first time that a British soldier has found himself up on a charge for refusing to fire at his brothers, nor is it the first time in such a case that a charge of desertion has been softened to one of going AWOL for fear of triggering a public backlash. Back in the railway strike of 1911, when Churchill sent in the troops to regain control of Llanelli station from the strikers and over a thousand of their supporters, Private Harold Spiers found himself called upon to “act in the assistance of the civil power”, i.e. turn his gun on his fellow workers. As part of their efforts to close the line down the workers had managed to halt a scab-driven train just outside the station. The army under a Major Brownlow Stuart was guarding the train while the working people of Llanelli kept a close and hostile watch from the embankments on either side of the track. Some stones were thrown, in response to which the riot act was read and then the order to fire was given. Two men who had been observing events from a back garden were shot dead, one a highly regarded local rugby player and the other a railway labourer who had interrupted his shaving to see what the fuss was about. The murders resulted in an outburst of popular rage and further tragic loss of life.
In the middle of all this, Private Harold Spiers took a stand. He refused Major Stuart’s order to fire and was arrested and held as a prisoner. Later he contrived to escape in the confusion. Apprehended and charged with desertion, he was at once embraced by the workers as a hero. Mirroring the general sentiment, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) at Penygraig declared
“We appreciate and record our admiration for Private Spiers for refusing to shoot when ordered at Llanelly, and in our opinion the courage displayed by him on that occasion deserves the highest praise that can be bestowed upon him, and we demand his immediate release”. (Killing No Murder, Robert Griffiths, p.60)
And a poem written by Rose Sharland and published in the Clarion depicted the stand-off between Major and Private in terms which could apply equally to that between Judge and Lance Corporal at Glenton’s court-martial.
“You hear me?” roared he, “Do your duty!
Protect England’s wealth from their greed,
Her statesmen, her power and her beauty
Will praise you for serving her need;
So shoot for old England, your mother,
Deserters the world will deride”.
He answered “I shoot not my brother”,
And stood with his gun at his side.
Scared by this mutinous popular response, the military did all they could to muddy the waters and undermine Spiers’ credibility. They fed the press the tale that Spiers had not personally been ordered to shoot, had not actually refused, possibly had not even been present at the time! But when various dubious witnesses tried to testify in support of this version, their accounts all contradicted one another.
Churchill’s under-secretary of state relayed the Home Secretary’s view to the War office. Churchill, he reported, “has noticed in the newspapers the case of a private soldier who is reported to have refused to fire at Llanelly on the occasion of the recent riot and who subsequently deserted… in his opinion if the alleged incident actually took place, it would be contrary to the public interest to make the case a cause celebre by holding a sensational court martial, and thus investing it with an unnecessary and extremely undesirable importance. Mr Churchill hopes that the course will be adopted which will most effectively avoid any undesirable publicity.” (ibid, p.64)
With the authorities under instruction from the highest levels to drop this hot potato as fast as possible, the desertion charge against Spiers was dropped and (does this sound familiar?) replaced by the lesser charge of going AWOL. Spiers stayed a mere two weeks in the glass house and two months later bought his release from service.
Despite the campaign of misinformation about the Spiers case, the “undesirable publicity” continued to serve as an inspiration to the working class in revolt against capitalism, an inspiration which neither propaganda nor brute force was able to extinguish. At the beginning of 1912, a railway worker was arrested for publishing a leaflet which exhorted soldiers not to be brutalised into acting as a tool of repression against workers’ resistance:
“When WE kick, they order YOU to MURDER us. When YOU kick, YOU get court martialled and cells. YOUR fight is OUR fight. Instead of fighting AGAINST each other, WE should be fighting with each other.” (ibid, p.66)
And when in turn Tom Mann reprinted the leaflet in his paper, The Industrial Syndicalist, he was charged with incitement to mutiny and sentenced to a six month stretch – but got out after seven weeks thanks to some serious campaigning in the labour movement. Let us see what can be achieved today by the campaign to free Joe Glenton!
Because the ruling class is not mistaken in fearing the power of a good example, today no less than a hundred years ago. The criminal war against Afghanistan cannot be waged without the daily practical support of workers, whether in or out of uniform. As the recent Proletarian article concluded, Glenton “has set an example to all those British workers and soldiers who are connected with the illegal war effort, whether it be making and moving arms or supplies, fighting, or writing and broadcasting the propaganda.”
Free Joe Glenton!
Follow his example!