Ex-servicemen's organisations

DS&S marchers

The outbreak of war in 1914 was greeted with patriotic fervour in Britain. Young men rushed to enlist voluntarily for a big adventure involving travel - and it would in any case all be over by Christmas.

But it was to be a war like no other that had gone before. Tactics that might have applied to the Crimean War, for example, were now proving ineffective in modern warfare with its aeroplanes, tanks and submarines.

So three years later, with horrendous casualty lists, unbridled patriotism had given way to questions like "What have we been fighting for?" And men whose Army careers had been ended by wounds, including loss of limbs, and poor health, returned to find their promised land fit for heroes was filled with unemployment and the prospect of poverty.

Perhaps with an eye to the embryo Russian Revolution, the discharged and disabled men began to realise they needed to pull together to win a better life. The war would have victors but very few winners at an individual level.

So the scene was set for the establishment of discharged servicemen's organisations. A first meeting in Luton was held at Franklin's Restaurant in George Street on September 11th, 1917, with the object of forming a purely local group.

Socialists in the town saw the opportunity for the men to be affiliated to and so strengthen the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised sailors and Soldiers, an organisation run on trades union lines. Luton's Trades and Labour Council footed the bill for a second meeting, held at the Town Hall on September 21st, 1917, at which it was agreed to apply for affiliation to the DS&S.

On December 9th, 1917, a Luton branch of the rival Comrades of the Great War was established, also following a meeting at the Town Hall.

The two ex-servicemen's groups were bitter rivals, the DS&S accusing the Comrades of being Establishment-led and out to continue the exploitation of discharged men. The DS&S also excluded former Army officers, except those promoted through the ranks.

The rivalry would ultimately still be revealed on the fateful Peace Day (July 19th, 1919), when the Town Hall was burned down and resulting in headlines in the local and national Press. Both organisations had initially decided to follow national guidelines in boycotting the town procession, but at the 11th hour the Comrades decided that ex-servicemen should be represented and hastily created a float. They were booed by DS&S members as they went past.

The two groups did ultimately come together with others to form the (Royal) British Legion in 1921.