Downward, inward persuasion — III

In my previous post I looked at who was behind the leaflet drop drop on striking workers at Coventry in December 1917. The official answer was that it was an obscure MP and military administrator, Major H. K. Newton; I suggested that it was actually an RAF officer and Ministry of Munitions propagandist, Captain Ernest Andrew Ewart, alias Boyd Cable. And there is some more evidence to support the existence of a wider campaign by the Ministry of Munitions.

This evidence comes from a similar but earlier incident, during the bigger wave of industrial unrest in May (the one which spawned the shop stewards movement, which eventually resulted in the December Coventry strike). It turns out that another propaganda leaflet was printed for aerial delivery to the May strikers, though as far as I can tell it was never actually used. It took the form of a mock congratulatory letter from the Kaiser and Hindenburg, the commander of the German army; and it would have been dropped from 'sham German aeroplanes'!1 According to later press accounts -- apparently originating with the Nation's Wayfarer -- it read:

To Engineers on Strike!
Greetings and thanks.
Wilhelm II.
Berlin, 19th May, 1917.
No more guns; no more tanks;
No more aeroplanes; many thanks!2

The leaflet was said to be devised by 'an official of the Ministry of Munitions':

The leaflet bore no printer's name or address. It was destroyed, say the officials. What happened to the concoctor of it? Is the department from which it was issued the same as that which produced the agent provocateur? And what kind of a nest of iniquity is this which harboured it and him?2

This nameless official could perhaps have been Ewart, though it seems cruder and less positive than his later efforts. But more importantly, the mention of the agent provacateur above points to a wider dirty tricks campaign being waged by the Ministry of Munitions against militant labour. According to William Anderson -- the same ILP MP who later raised the issue of the December Coventry leaflets in Parliament -- 'He had evidence in his possession that men in the pay of the Government had been playing the part of provocative agents, and had been putting ideas into the heads of munition workers about strikes and revolution, and so on':

One very sinister figure that appeared again and again was the man Alec Gordon, who had turned up at Sheffield, Liverpool, Coventry, and other places. It was admitted that this man had gone down to Derby and put ideas into the heads of foolish or wicked people. He was [now] carrying on the same kind of work among munition workers, telling them that there ought to be a revolution, apparently for the purpose of ascertaining what they would say in reply, and secret reports were furnished to the Government Departments.3

Whether Anderson's claims were true, I don't know. But Alec/Alex or Alexander Gordon did exist, and was an agent provocateur for the Ministry of Munitions, albeit by way of MI5: he was a key informant in the Alice Wheeldon affair, in which most of a family of Derby socialist anti-conscriptionists (presumably the 'foolish or wicked people' mentioned by Anderson) were not-entirely-convincingly convicted in March of plotting to murder the prime minister, Lloyd George, and the Labour leader, Arthur Henderson.

So, was the leaflet drop on Coventry's strikers in December really just an independent initiative by a minor official, or was it the first (and probably only) trial of an aviation spectacle designed to intimidate the government's domestic enemies?

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  1. Birmingham Gazette, 15 December 1917, 4. []
  2. Ibid. [] []
  3. Daily Mail (Hull), 26 May 1917, 1. []

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