By Gordon Barclay, Former Principal Inspector and Head of Policy at Historic Scotland

ON January 29 this year The Herald published evidence that showed that a photograph of a tank in a crowd, published repeatedly in the last 20 years to show the “oppression” of Glasgow’s workers on January 31, 1919, in the “Battle of George Square”, was actually taken at a fund-raising parade a year before, in 1918.

The article also mentioned other commonly repeated myths about the military deployment that took place in the wake of the riot, including the myth that the force was entirely made up of “English troops”. Two days later, on the 2018 anniversary, the National published the extraordinary statement that “no-one has claimed that all the soldiers sent into the city were English, only that some of them were”.


This will be news to at least three recent historians of Glasgow and Red Clydeside, broadcasters, hundreds of people online, and even the authors of a current school history textbook, all of whom have stated as fact the complete “Englishness” of the force.

One of the most extraordinary features of the military deployment is that no-one until now has tried to explain how 10,000 men and six tanks appeared in Glasgow over a long weekend. I don’t mean they haven’t put a few paragraphs into a book, maybe turned it into a dramatic story over a page or so.

READ MORE: Myth of 1919 Glasgow tank finally stopped in its tracks

But no-one has made the deployment of the army the focus of a detailed study based on the primary evidence from 1919. Consequently, myths circulate and re-circulate, and without an evidence-based account, new “facts” are made up and added to the mix, especially on social media.

The “all the troops were English” myth has, so far, not been traced back before 1994. Five minutes online will reveal that the newspapers of 1919 listed (and photographed) men from four Scottish regiments and about 1,600 men from two English regiments (one of them based, in 1919, at Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, the other in Co Durham).


There are lots of myths, including that Churchill “rolled the tanks into the crowd”. He didn’t. The soldiers arrived after the rioting was over; the tanks three days later. No-one was shot, beaten up or forced back to work by the army, although this is routinely claimed. No rioters faced troops”with fixed bayonets” and there were no “tanks in George Square”. And all contemporary sources put the size of the crowd at 20,000-25,000, rather than the 60,000 or even 100,000 people routinely claimed nowadays.

An “English government” is often blamed for “sending the troops”. Leaving aside that more than half of the civilians attending the War Cabinet were Scots (and Churchill wasn’t even a member), the Government didn’t send them; the War Cabinet had been forcibly reminded on January 30 1919 by the commander of all troops in Britain, that it had no power to send troops against British civilians, without declaring martial law (it was not declared).

READ MORE: Myth of 1919 Glasgow tank finally stopped in its tracks

The troops were requested by the Sheriff of Lanarkshire, and how he made this difficult decision was described in detail in the evidence at the strike leaders’ trial. He had even checked the day before the demonstration on the 31st that military aid would be available, if needed.

The mythologising of the events in 1919 began the day after the riot, and it’s gone on since. The myths are used, sometimes as crude agitprop, to reinforce a narrative of anti-capitalist struggle or, more recently, of “English oppression”. As the centenary approaches, perhaps we should be thinking more about writing evidence-based, nuanced history, rather than recycling simplistic mythology.

* The author writes on 20th-century defence archaeology and the effects of English and Scottish nationalisms on writing about the past. A preliminary draft of his article on the military deployment is available at It has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies.]