We’ve just passed the 97th anniversary of the Battle of George Square, when a mass strike in Glasgow was brutally attacked by the police in 1919, sparking riots across the city and the calling in of the military.
As happens with these things, a deluge of memes appeared on social media to mark the occasion. Unfortunately, one of the pictures that was doing the rounds – alleged to be of British tanks occupying Glasgow in a bid to put down the working class rebellion that had gripped the city – is actually nothing of the sort. As we’ll prove below, it couldn’t be of something more different: it’s a jingoistic propaganda procession by the British military, raising funds for the mass slaughter of the Great War, instead of anything remotely radical. But this inconvenience hasn’t stopped the photo being repeatedly used by both its copyright holder – the Herald and Times group – and everyone from the BBC, the Scotsman, the Guardian and a slew of Twitter memes that purport it to be of the military occupation in late January 1919. When STV produced a documentary about the events a few years ago, they padded it out with some random tank footage that isn’t even in Glasgow.
With the centenary of the Battle of George Square just three years away – and a likelihood that it’ll be marked by national commemorations and events – it’s probably a good thing that we get the truth about this photo out the way now, rather than contuinue this falsification. It’s an incredible photo by all accounts and provides a fascinating perspective, capturing the tank trundling along the street and the stoic faces of the working men surrounding it, the old Glasgow trams and the soldiers and policemen lining the route. Attach to it a narrative of English troops invading the city to put down Glasgow’s working class rebellion – and with its setting instantly recognisable as the Trongate – it’s little wonder it resonates so much and is so frequently reproduced. It’s just a shame it is of something totally different.
In fact, although both Scottish and English troops and armaments were sent by rail into Glasgow the day after the Battle of George Square, there’s no evidence that tanks actually took to the street. Rather, they were held in the cattle market on Bellgrove Street, although machine gun placements were set up in the city centre. It’s also true that local troops were kept in their barracks rather than be deployed.
The photo of the Trongate tank is actually from January 1918 and of “Julian”, effectively a touring, tank-themed funfair that traversed the country propping up the war effort and raising funds while hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers died in the trenches. The tank’s arrival in Glasgow was a big event, endlessly hyped by the local press and with huge crowds flocking to see it. Coming from a similar fundraising week in Edinburgh, it was offloaded at High Street, before carrying out a stunt show in Glasgow Green. From there, it would travel to George Square, where the “tank bank” would be set up base. The day after its arrival, the Glasgow Herald reported how it made its way through the city:
“The detachment of the HLI [Highland Light Infantry], which acted as a guard of honour and followed behind, had some difficulty in struggling through the mass of people and forming up. The police on the ground had much to do in regulating matters…. The route to George Square, everywhere seething with people, was covered without mishap. Issuing into Saltmarket, the machine was hailed by great crowds which lined both sides of the street. At Glasgow Cross and in the Trongate there were some difficult moments owing to the fact that a line of standing tramcars limited the area of movement. Turning into Queen Street the pipers struck up a lively tune, and the Tank moved triumphantly into George Square.”
The parade that the Herald is describing here is exactly what appears in the photo that’s been continually reproduced as showing the rather different events of January 1919. We’re not the first to speculate about this though, with some collective sleuthing on the Urban Glasgow forum into it a few years ago. On that post, it was pointed out that the Trongate tank bears a startling similarity to Julian, even bearing the same distinctive ‘113’ marking.
The Julian tank was also a different type to those deployed to quell the unrest in 1919 – a Mark IV rather than the Medium Cs that there’s photos of from 1919. How the photo ever came to be mislabelled by the Herald is a mystery – perhaps an honest mistake by a picture editor in a decade gone by.
Glasgow would go on to raise more than other city in its “Tank Bank” contributions, with the Herald reporting it was “beseiged by investors from all classes”. Exactly a year later, that same square would see heavy clashes with the police as demonstrators raised the red flag, and shortly after, troops occupying strategic points about the city. This was not exceptional, with similar scenes of working class unrest across the continent, but it’s still important that we remember what happened then and its role in the city’s working class history – and remember the less comfortable aspects of it, like the anti-black rioting on Broomielaw the week before too.
Huge public interest in the Battle of George Square lives on, as seen with the recent viral post on the Lost Glasgow page on Facebook, which received 14,000 likes and 9,000 shares. Of the thousand odd comments left below, many commented that this was the first they’d heard about it.
But with the centenary coming up in three years, let’s stop spreading the myth of the Trongate tank, which only does a disservice to the real events of 1919.
Post-script: being a boring pedant with nothing better to so, I emailed the Sunday Herald about this after they published the photo in September 2014, asking if they would raise it with their group picture desk. No response was ever received.
Post post-script: In January 2018, we were contacted by a historian who, after looking into the events of January 1919, had contacted The Herald and was in discussions with them about correcting the historical record of this photograph. Having dug out the photo from their archives, contained in the Mitchell Library, the Herald reporter was initially confounded after finding “1919” pencilled on its back. However, further digging then found the photo adorning the back page of the Glasgow Bulletin in… January 1918, alongside another photo of the “tank bank” parade, thus settling this story once and for all. On 29 January 2018, the newspaper published their findings – including a wee mention for this blog.
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