The ex-servicemen’s group known as the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ was founded in 1917. Like me, you may be surprised to learn that even at that early date, it wasn’t the first association seeking to represent the hundreds of men being discharged from the Front.
Conceived the year before, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers arose from the labour and trade union movements. It was followed in 1917 by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, made famous by its stand against the ‘Review of Exemptions Act’. This was a notorious new law, which allowed for the re-conscription of recently disabled ex-servicemen, a horror summed up by the evocative NFDDSS rallying cry of ‘Every Man Once Before Any Man Twice’.
Another of their slogans was ‘Justice Before Charity’. In fact, both the NADSS and the NFDDSS wanted similar Government assurances regarding the provision of adequate pensions, re-training and, of course, work. As the saying implies, they didn’t want ex-servicemen to have to rely on charity but to get what was their due.
The Comrades of the Great War was originally formed in reaction to these two groups, to represent the Establishment point of view. So, unlike the other two, it did not exclude officers, who (initially) were encouraged to take on leadership roles. It didn’t make radical political demands and firmly acknowledged the use of charity fund-raising as the way forward.
Not surprisingly, the Comrades flourished in the rural southern counties, especially in Berkshire. However, what began as a London-based response to a perceived left-wing threat in 1917, soon turned into a more grass-roots movement, with a new constitution in 1918.1 It too emphasised the growing need to help members meet the challenges of returning home: disability, lack of housing, inadequate government welfare and rising unemployment. The list is all too familiar.
According to my records, the Comrades were established in Berkshire in November 1917. I was fascinated to learn that the Division HQ was originally in Yeomanry House in Reading, the current home of the Reading Register Office and the Berkshire Family History Society and right next door to the Berkshire Record Office!
By December 1917, the HQ had moved to No. 20 The Forbury (near Forbury Gardens) in central Reading. I went to take a photograph but No. 20 has long since gone!
 The Lion and the Poppy: British Veterans, Politics and Society 1921-1939 by Niall Barr (2005) Praeger Publishers pp.12-13
© Emmy Eustace