July 19, 1919: Peace Day Riots: British Veterans Burn Down The Town Hall

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A Brief History

On July 19, 1919, England celebrated Peace Day in honor of winning World War IUnfortunately, her veterans were not so thrilled, and expressed their unhappiness by rioting and burning down the Luton Town Hall.

Digging Deeper

British commoners were drafted to fight in World War I, for low pay and under horrible conditions.  Treated like cannon fodder by politicians and generals that did not understand modern warfare, they died and suffered en masse.  Soldiers with trench foot, pneumonia, and other serious illnesses were treated with contempt at recovery centers and were made to engage in physical exercise even though it was bad for their recovery.  The thought was to make rehab bad enough that slackers would want to go back to the front.

Upon release from the military, soldiers found mass unemployment at home, and little appreciation for their sacrifice.  Many had lost girlfriends and wives to men that did not serve, their previous jobs taken and they found that businessmen got rich while workers remained as poor as ever.  Owners of businesses and stores tried to treat the veterans like children or slaves, but the warriors had a taste of a hard life and were not to be pushed around.  The veterans were outraged by the lavish public extravaganzas planned while they either could not find work or found low paying menial jobs.  Many of the protesting veterans had been maimed, crippled or disfigured during the war.  Pensions for these disabled men were meager and no programs to integrate them back into society were in place.

As public ceremonies began for Peace Day, veterans began to jeer officials and then to riot, burning down the Luton Town Hall and dragging pianos into the street for music and singing.  Bonfires were started and when the town hall was burned rioters cut the firemen’s hoses.  The mayor and his contingent cowered in his house, protected by police.  Order was finally restored around midnight, but only with help from London police that had been sent for.  The mayor left town in fear for his life, and stayed gone.

Only a few arrests were made, despite the town looking like a war ravaged battlefield.  Fearful of provoking new violence, perhaps directed at officials, the court handed out remarkably light sentences for those charged with rioting.

Luton was not the only place in Britain where veterans expressed their displeasure.  It was obvious that the generation that had been blooded in the Great War demanded to be treated with respect.  Change came slowly, though, and the working poor remained that way for a long time to come.

Returning American servicemen suffered during the depression and marched on Washington, D.C. to demand early payment of bonuses promised to them, only to be attacked by federal troops led by Douglas MacArthur.

Hopefully, people in Britain and the US have learned something since World War I and veterans will not be treated so callously in the future.  The Veterans Administration scandal unfolding today does not cause optimism to run rampant. 

Question for students (and subscribers): How do you think veterans should be treated?  We know what we think, but please let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.  

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Craddock, Dave.  “Where They Burnt the Town Hall Down”.  The Book Castle, 1999.

The featured image in this article, a photograph from 1897 of Luton Town Hall uploaded by GazMan7 at English Wikipedia, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.