Just why a large mob of American, Canadian and Australian soldiers and sailors took on London’s finest in March 1919 is a mystery. You would think everyone would be fed up with fighting after four years of the greatest slaughter the world had known. But it seems not.
America maintained an enormous comforts facility for its troops located to the north of Aldwych. Established by a group of American businessmen when the United States entered the war in 1917, Eagle Hut was run by the YMCA and a force of 800 volunteers. Troops could eat, sleep, exercise, groom and generally recreate in a vast complex of canteens, barber shops, cinemas, library and lounges. You could even borrow money there and all things American, including hash browns and chewing gum, were available through what must have seemed a small paradise to soldiers returning from France but still a long way from home. Troops of other allied forces, including Canadians and Australians, were also welcome at Eagle Hut and its friendship and comforts would be long remembered in all those countries.
But in March 1919, the war had been over for barely four months and there was now little for soldiers to do. Men who had been in peril of their lives a few months earlier were now hanging around in London, aching to get back to their homes, lives and loved ones. As well as the official activities provided by Eagle Hut, the soldiers had their own pastimes. Gambling was prime among them and it was a game of dice – either craps or possibly the British Crown and Anchor – that started a serious riot known as ‘the Battle of Bow Street’.
The official police narrativebegins with a group of three soldiers dicing for money on the steps of Eagle Hut and so, technically, on the street. Public gambling was illegal and the game was spotted by two policemen. The bobbies, no doubt politely, requested the soldiers to desist. The soldiers felt that as they had come far across the seas to risk their lives fighting for Britain, the least that country’s constabulary could do was to let them have a little harmless fun while they waited to go home.
We might think that a reasonably-minded policeman, or even two of them, would see this argument, even if it may not have been presented very diplomatically. The sensible thing to do would have been to give the gamblers a caution, turn two blind eyes and continue on the beat. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the bobbies decided to run the soldiers in.
Mistake. A mob quickly appeared and attacked the policemen who were forced to blow their whistles for assistance. It arrived and battle continued, with a Corporal Zimmerman injured by police who feared he had a firearm. He too was arrested and the police struggled back to Bow Street nick with their prisoners.
That evening, a false rumour circulated that Zimmerman had died in custody. Outraged soldiers marched on the station. Reinforcements were called as a large crowd of soldiers threw missiles at the station and threatened police if their mates were not released. The police defended themselves with apparently effective baton/truncheon charges, though the riot was not quelled for many hours and with the assistance of mounted police.
Skulls and bones were cracked, flesh bruised and eyes blackened but, surprisingly, no one was killed or seriously injured. Twenty or so police and rioters were injured and seven (some sources say eleven) Americans were eventually apprehended and handed to the American military authorities for court martial. That night, Eagle Hut was cleared of occupants, as sailors were sent back to their ships and soldiers were found alternative lodgings. Ten other rioters eventually faced charges in London courts.
All this suggests that the authorities had been seriously rattled by the riot and may well have feared further unrest among the crowds of overseas troops waiting to return home. There were probably tensions between the British and these expatriate troops, many who had been wounded and not seen their families for perhaps many years. It was these tensions and the bungling of the bobbies that flared into the riot and perhaps threatened to spread, with resulting disturbances of public order and a contradiction of official pronouncements of post-war harmony between allied troops.
After this incident, we hear no more of troops rioting. As repatriation processes continued and servicemen left, the tension in the city dissipated. Life slowly returned to a semblance of what it had been before August 1914. Eagle Hut was no longer needed and closed less than six months later.
The Battle of Bow Street has faded into history as a successful, if relatively minor, restoration of the peace by police. But there is a problem with this narrative.
It seems highly unlikely that fifty-or-so policemen, even with truncheons, could subdue two thousand hardened soldiers and sailors with an attitude problem and a grudge, justified or not. Certainly, the sparse photographic evidencesuggests a much smaller number of rioters than the two thousand usually claimed. I would suggest less than half that number, still frightening enough for authorities, especially as soldiers often had souvenired firearms, a factor in the police response.
The clearing of Eagle Hut and the American court martials indicate that the authorities were seriously concerned about the riot.
There also doesn’t seem to be much eyewitness testimony from bystanders or from the soldiers to give their point of view. No doubt some might be turned up with an archive search, possibly telling a very different tale to that given by the bobbies.
Whatever the truth of ‘the Battle of Bow Street’, it hardly matters now, though riots are still frequent occurrences and the accounts given of their origins, suppression and aftermaths still tend to differ drastically between the official and unofficial versions.
The Wikipedia entry on the riot, taken from The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard,takes the police line.
A memorial plaque at Aldwych testifies to the existence of Eagle Hut and to the ‘friendship of the English-speaking peoples’ – though not on the occasion of the riot, which is not mentioned.
A souvenir booklet of Eagle Hut in Museums Victoria, Australia collection at https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1811009
In Martin Fido and Keith Skinner, The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard, Virgin, London, 1999, paraphrased in the Wikipedia entry on the riot. A slightly different version of events appears at https://blog.maryevans.com/2013/07/the-eagle-hut-of-aldwych-the-battle-of-bow-street-.html
Photograph in The Illustrated London News, 15 March 1919, online at https://blog.maryevans.com/2013/07/the-eagle-hut-of-aldwych-the-battle-of-bow-street-.html