Unlike Percy Toplis, there is no doubt whatsoever that Glasgow’s James Cullen took part in the Etaples Mutiny. We have his service records to thank for that, and his service records show that he was sentenced to one year imprisonment for refusing to obey orders at the time the riots at the camp broke out (France, September 1917). Astonishingly though, his story has never been told, despite Cullen’s dedicated campaign of militancy and activism in the immediate post-War period.
Within 12 months of being demobilized this regular deserter became a figurehead in the Communist Party of Great Britain, playing a central role in the organization of the Hunger Marches from Glasgow to London and a key part in the Socialist Democratic Industrial Peace Union 1 (founded by Trade Unionist Havelock Wilson and championed by Communist Suffragette Adela Pankhurst Walsh and her husband Tom Walsh).
After religious conversion in the mid-1920s, some writers have him shift to the far-right, but it’s a view that fails to acknowledge the often blurred relationship between the early fascist movement and its roots in Socialist ‘Revolutionary Defencism’ and a cross-party fear of Soviet takeover of British Trade Unionism (fascist leader, Oswald Mosely at one time was a member of Soho’s Socialist 1917 Club and the Labour Party). The fact that James Cullen made speeches at the Foundry Boys Hall in Bridgeton, Glasgow, a hall subsequently used Billy Fullerton as a base for his short-lived KKK, only serves to confuse things further. Billy led the notorious Glasgow razor gang, the Billy Boys before joining Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and his gangs were often roped in (or roped themselves in) to protect the IPU from Communist disturbances.
There’s clearly a lot more to learn about Cullen but there is one thing in particular I’d like to resolve. In a long forgotten file in the National Archives there is a short teasing mention of a ‘British subject’ called James Cullen who has found himself destitute in Russia and is requesting Consular support. Is it the same James Cullen? (Foreign Office: Consular Department: General Correspondence from 1906). At just 15 or 16 years of age it seems doubtful but many young men were of working age at this time – view here. In view of Cullen’s claims that there was a small but dedicated contingent of Bolsheviks stirring up trouble at the camp in Etaples, it’s a tantalizing possibility. The February and October Revolutions had transformed Russia in 1917 and insurrections and desertions were spreading throughout Europe.
I was approached by a prominent Communist agitator, who asked me what part I would take in getting the troops to mutiny. There was a small council of action set up and we set about doing everything possible to get a general rising… the councils of action, of which I was one, were giving instructions through under channels. The revolt lasted three days, at the end of which a truce was come to between the General Officer Commanding and the rebel troops. I was one who refused point blank to recognise the truce and carried on with a small band of irresponsibles. Eventually we tried to rush the guard one night, but were repulsed. I was captured and made a prisoner.” — James Cullen
Currently I am exploring a possible link between Cullen and vanished Socialist firebrand, Victor Grayson (also at Etaples at the time of the mutiny). The link features a Socialist pal of Grayson’s from New Zealand, Edward Hunter (brother-in-law of James C. Welsh — the miner-cum-novelist who was MP for Bothwell and Vice President of the Lanarkshire Miner’s Union). Hunter moved back to Glasgow from New Zealand in 1919 and became active on the same Gorbals tour circuit as Cullen and several other Grayson allies. Suffragette, Hannah Mitchell, a close friend and ally of Grayson, was present with Cullen’s IPU champion, Adela Pankhurst Walsh when she was arrested for disrupting a Churchill meeting. Grayson and Bradford Councillor, Edward Robertshaw Hartley had been head-hunted by the New Zealand Socialist Party and the Maoriland Worker executive to breathe fire into the movement, and it is interesting to note that Cullen was married in Bradford, West Yorkshire, within just a few miles of Grayson’s Colne Valley constituency (living and working in nearby Wakefield).
Whilst rumours persist that Cullen was the first to concoct the story about Toplis and the Etaples Mutiny, I have not seen the evidence myself. Unlike Toplis, Cullen’s army service records are available in the National Archives.
James Cullen – A Short Biography
Born: Pollockshaws, Glasgow 14 May 1891
Military Service: Enlisted as Private aged 26 in May 1917, Inverness into 11th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (regt no. 20838). Had previously served two years in the Royal Navy.
Trade prior to enlisting: Coal miner
Address at time of enlisting: Prospect Place, Outwood, Wakefield.
Wife: Ida Gray of Prospect Place, Outwood, Wakefield (mining family). Married on January 20th 1915 in Bradford.
Military offences include:
- 29th May 1917: Insolence to commissioned officer
- 29th May 1917: Using obscene language
- 30th June 1917: absent for one month
- 2nd July 1917: breaking out barracks (picked up in Edinburgh on July 6th)
- 16th July 1917: Assault on female worker (sentenced to 7 days imprisonment)
- 10th August 1917 – Arrested by Military Foot police for desertion/absenteeism.
- September 1917: Charged with disobeying lawful command and using threatening language during Etaples Riots. Cullen says a ‘most immflamatory’ and ‘seditious leaflet’ fell into his hands asking troops to ‘ground arms and stop the war’. It asked them to ‘follow the example of their Russian brothers’ and refuse to shoot. He says the Bolsheviks knew that the soldiers in France were in ‘no very nice’ mood and that tensions were at ‘fever pitch’ and need only ‘a spark to cause a first rate explosion’. He says that spark came when Red Cap, Harry Reeve shot an unarmed Scottish Corporal.
- October 1917: Cullen is brought to trial over his role in the Etaples Mutiny. In one account Cullen says he was considered ‘so dangerous’ that the Provost Marshal gave orders to keep him handcuffs for the duration of the trial. Cullen is found guilty and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. His sentence suspended and he is sent directly to the front.
- Deserts and makes his way around France dressed as an Officer with a fellow Australian soldier. Visits Paris and Marseille before enlisting with 5th Battalion Australian Army in Neuve Eglise in Belgium. Continues to sow seeds of dissent amongst troops.
- January 1918: Injured in an attack and returns to Etaples hospital awaiting trial.
- November 1918 – Back at barracks in Duddingston – absent from 8th until 13th November
- November 1918 – Absent from 21st November until 2nd December (arrested by Military Foot Police at Waverley Station in Edinburgh)
Military history subsequent to Eatples Mutiny:
- August 1918: Transferred back to the UK for further medical treatment
- January 1919: Demobilisation delayed due to suspended sentence
- February 1919: Demobilised early (priority/miner)
- March 1919: Cullen’s arrest becomes subject of debate in Parliament between Colonel Ashley and Winston Churchill – view here
- As a result of his wrongful arrest he is approached by John Beckett’s Comrades of the Great War Association. The association featured prominently in several nascent patriotic movements including the British Fascisti. Several prominent members were later used to infiltrate the Communist Party of Great Britain. According to John Fairley & William Allison’s book on Percy Toplis, another of the founder members of the Old Comrades of the Great War association was Frank Reynolds. In their book, Reynolds plays a key role in placing Toplis at the mutiny. If what Reynolds says is true, he may have known John Beckett. Beckett’s Old Comrades partner was Alfred Mander who left the UK in 1920 to play a key role in New Zealand’s Workers Educational Association, a charity to which Victor Grayson’s commanding officer Hugh Stewart & his Liverpool Uni’ colleague, Olaf Stapleton was closely tied.
Political activity subsequent to Eatples Mutiny:
- 1920 – Becomes a member, writer and speaker of the Communist Party of Great Britain alongside John Maclean and James Maxton. Described by the Motherwell Press as a ‘remarkable man’ and a ‘man of considerable force of character’. Cullen says this was the year that he began his ‘activities as an agitator’. Describes himself as a ‘great student of John Maclean. Becomes active in ‘several anarchical organisations’ in Britain.
- 1920 – Works closely with Wal Hannington and Harry McShane, founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and National Organiser of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement.
- 1921 – Son James born in Glasgow.
- May 1922 – Cullen is arrested as one of 14 people for offences relating to the Glasgow Rent Strikes. One militant suffragette (Annie S. Swan?) is arrested. In a report by Pankhurst’s Worker’s Dreadnought dated June 17th, the remaining men and women charged are Harry McShane, 68 year-old tenant James Shaw and his wife Mary Shaw, Robert Haffron, F.P Duffy, Charles McCafferty, Hector McGuire, John Henderson, James Connelly, James Scanlan, James Cooper, Mary Turnbull, John Leyden and George Wratten. Cullen alleges that the Communist Party were behind all the operations. The ‘storm-centre’ as Cullen describes it, is David Kirkwood’s constituency. Their Defence Barrister is King’s Counsel, Lord Craigie Aitchison (he also worked on the Oscar Slater case for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Conan Doyle’s Strand illustrator, Arthur Twidle also worked for Annie S. Swan’s Red Magazine. Swan ran for the Maryhill division of Glasgow in that year’s general election). The siege took place on South York Street. Shaw had been evicted and the group, led by McShane, helped the elderly couple re-enter their home. They were brought before Superintendent Ord and Labour Party member,Bailie Welsh. Their plight was taken up by Thomas McGregor, leader of the South West Scotland Section of the National Unemployed Worker’s Committee in South Govan. Harry McShane told the court that 25 men including four detectives, constables and sherrifs arrived to evict the Shaw family from the premises. ” To hell with law and order”, he was alleged to have cried, “It is better to break the law than to starve. If you are starving, I say take the food”. McShane had had admitted to organizing the rent strikes the previous August, telling tenants that during the war they got “a free rifle amd bayonet” to fight for their boys. This time, McShane went on, they must fight for themselves, reminding his audience that the tenants that there were certainly a few among them who “could use rifle and bayonet”.
- November 1922 – Cullen and McShane help organize first mass Hunger March from Glasgow to London (330 men march). The intention was for a deputation of unemployed men from around the country to meet the Prime Minister, Bonar Law at the House of Commont ‘in order to lay their grievances before the government’ (Pall Mall Gazette 21 November 1922). The Whitehall mission itself was coordinated by George Lansbury. The PM refused to meet the men and the men were left stranded in London. Curiously, the men ended up at the same Brotherhood Church in Hackney that hosted Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin’s 5th Congress in 1907. On November 21 1922, the Pall Mall Gazette ran the sensational headline, ‘Communist plot in London: Truth About Tomorrow’s March of Unemployed’. The report claimed that the orders for the march had come from Moscow and that agents within the body of men were intent on sparking a deadly riot. In his 1927 series of articles, Cullen wrote that the men who took part in that ‘memorable march’ never got over it and claimed it was the closest the county came to a revolution.
You must come together and fight together and bring about the only means by which you can live in peace and happiness, and that is revolution — alleged statement made by Harry McShane shortly before his arrest
- 1924-1925 – Becomes President of the Gorbals branch of National Unemployed Workers Committee (largest and most important branch in Glasgow and closely associated with John Maclean)
- 1925 – Cullen’s NUWC associate, Wal Hannington, 1925 is convicted at the Old Bailey under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797
- 1926 – Cullen and Gorbals branch of National Unemployed Workers Committee separate from the organisation’s National Committee in London. Cullen dissatisfied with ‘extreme Communist’ interference coming directly from Moscow. He says London branch is ruled by Moscow and he is not going to take his orders from Russia. He moves to dissociate the Gorbals Division. The motion is defeated by a majority.
- February 1927-July 1927 – Writes a series of articles for the Glasgow Herald that are subsequently re-published in the British Fascisti periodical, British Lion describing Bolshevik/Communist agitators as the driving force behind the Etaples Mutiny. Cullen writes:
“I was approached by a prominent Communist agitator, who asked me what part I would take in getting the troops to mutiny. There was a small council of action set up and we set about doing everything possible to get a general rising… the councils of action, of which I was one, were giving instructions through under channels. The revolt lasted three days, at the end of which a truce was come to between the General Officer Commanding and the rebel troops. I was one who refused point blank to recognise the truce and carried on with a small band of irresponsibles. Eventually we tried to rush the guard one night, but were repulsed. I was captured and made a prisoner.”
Cullen also claims that he spent six months in Russia and was part of the Communist Movement there.
I have lived in Russia, and I know. The place I was in was the Black Sea port of Odessa. I had occasion to run away from a ship there, and I may tell my readers that it was not a British ship, but a Russian belonging to the Nickolif, another port of the Black Sea. I know Russia and have experienced her methods.
If this is the same James Cullen who is assisted by the Foreign Office as a ‘destitute British Subject in Russia‘ in 1906 then it’s possible (but far from certain) that Cullen is alluding to the Potemkin Mutiny of July 1905, when a ship belonging to Imperial Navy of Russia built a few years before in ‘Nickolif’ (Nikolayev), found its way to Odessa as a result of a mutiny breaking out amongst its crew. Several Glasgow shipbuilders, John Brown Shipbuilding, John Elder & Company, Beardmore, Maxim and Vickers Ltd were among a handful of British companies awarded contracts at the Black Sea Shipyard as part of a deal with the Imperial Russian Navy, so it is entirely possible that he was there as a British worker. A number of these companies provided technical assistance in the Nikolayev shipyard that Cullen mentions.
- 1927 – Cullen’s sudden shift in loyalties from the Communist Party to the British Fascist movement coincides with Mi5’s decision to scale back its operations against Commmunism. Several of its long serving agents in the Communist Party of Great Britain are retracted. Major operations against domestic Communism do not return until 1930. A memorandum concludes that Communism posed little threat to the stability of the UK and efforts were refocused on German influence (especially where Ireland was concerned). The decoding of Soviet intercepts and the arrest of the ‘Communist Twelve’ all play their part in its brief downgrading.
- 1927-1928 – James Cullen embarks on a series of anti-Communism lectures at various Christian Institutes throughout the UK after undergoing a religious conversion under the guidance of Baptist Minister, Peter McRostie of Tent Hall in Glasgow.
- 1928 – Becomes organizer and lecturer of the Industrial Peace Union of the British Empire. The Union was anti-Communist in nature and promoted peaceful industrial relations between workers and employers. The IPU also drew support from right-wing organisations including the British Union of Fascists who would protect IPU meetings. Former trade unionist and National Democratic Party founder Havelock Wilson was a member (right-wing element of British Socialism) as was James Andrew Seddon founder of the Socialist National Defence Committee to aggressively promote “the eternal idea of nationality”. Like Socialist Victor Grayson (also at the Etaples Mutiny) they started backing the UK War effort as a fight against “Prussian militarism” bringing them roughly in line with Russia’s ‘Menshevik’ party, vying for control of post-Revolution Russia with Lenin’s rival Socialist party, the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks were at this time led by Irakli Tsereteli, an old ally of Leon Trotsky, who like Grayson and the IPU advocated a form of ‘Revolutionary Defensism’ (supporting the war with Germany was seen as preserving the Revolution). After leadership was taken by Lenin, Tsereteli moved to France.
- 1928-1929 – Becomes leader of the West of Scotland Association For the Abolition of Communism
- Feb 1929 – Nominated to stand as MP in the North Lanarkshire By-Election
- March 1929 – Withdraws from election
- March 1935 – Defends parents in Glasgow slums accused of letting their children drink meth in several press interviews: “It my experience that those parents who live in slums through no fault of their own do their best at all times to give their children a decent upbringing.”
- 1936 – 1942 – Serves as Vice-president of Cowlairs Co-operative Society (? – needs a DOB)
- 1937 – address is at 15 Marmion Street North Kelvinside (Glasgow West End). Letter shows he has lost his demobilization papers. Requests duplicate certificate.
August 3, 1964 – Dies in Glasgow
June 23, 1970 – Ida Cullen dies in Glasgow
Motherwell Times – Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer – Leeds, West Yorkshire, England
Carluke and Lanark Gazette – Carluke, Lanarkshire, Scotland
Edinburgh Evening News – Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland
British Lion, July 1927
Industrial Peace Union of the British Empire, Adela Pankhurst Walsh, Pallamana Press (Australia)
National Archives, James Cullen
National Archives, James Cullen, Royal Navy Reserves
Transnational Radicalism, Neville Kirk, Liverpool University Press, 2017
What is the Industrial Peace Union?
1 Adela and Tom Walsh said of the founding of Peace Union movement: “Our aim is the preservation of industrial peace and the development of industry, which can alone give the wages and conditions that Australians have been accustomed to demand. There is no limit to what workers can get and enjoy provided they cooperate to increase wealth. We want to impress employers that they must not regard industry only as a means of making profits. We feel that the whole trade union movement will fail in its purpose unless it can find a basis for cooperation with capital. The Industrial Peace Union will serve to counteract the activities of the Communists. We hope to train a band of speakers who will tour the Commonwealth educating people on the aims of the Communists and the true position of industry.” — Northern Advocate, 14 July 1928
The IPU was represented in the East of Scotland by David Crichton, in Bristol by Matt Tearle. It was a cross-party movement. Like Havelock Wilson, J. A. Seddon was a member of the Executive Council.
Did Cullen ever produce articles for Hannington’s Weekly Worker, Pankhurst’s Worker’s Dreadnought or J.T Murphy & Raymond Postgate’s The Communist?