Wages Fit For Heroes: The GFTU in the First World War

Edda Nicolson, Wolverhampton University

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The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) was created at the 1899 Trades Union Congress in Manchester, with a view to collecting and administrating a strike fund that could be accessed by affiliates at times of industrial unrest. Within 5 years, they had a membership of over 500,000; by 1915, there were more than a million workers on their books. Although created by the TUC, they operated as a separate organisation from the very beginning, with a management committee that travelled the country mediating between aggrieved employees and employers, administering strike benefit payments and encouraging trade unions to grow their membership numbers.

Despite this central role in the labour movement, only one book has been written about the GFTU. Their membership figures may have grown rapidly, but they dwindled even faster following the first world war, which goes some way to explain how overlooked they have been in scholarship. My doctoral thesis looks at their involvement in the wider labour movement up until the general strike of 1926 and explores their activities with Lloyd George’s national insurance scheme, their relationships with international trade unionists and their (very brief) foray into journalism. However, this blog post is about my first chapter, which explores their involvement with obtaining pay increases for sailors and soldiers during the first world war.

William Appleton alongside Ramsay MacDonald, 1909. Parliamentary Archives

The link between the armed services and the GFTU was not new by the time war broke out in 1914. At their 1909 Annual Conference, Ben Tillett (of the Dockers’ Union, and also GFTU management committee) had attempted to encourage trade unions to accept former soldiers into their ranks upon their discharge. Although it had been voted down after Arthur Henderson’s strong rebuttal that a policy of employing untrained soldiers in lieu of skilled workers would most negatively affect craft unions such as his own, it marked the beginning of their concerns over the welfare of servicemen. At the outbreak of war, the GFTU General Secretary William A Appleton was made Treasurer of Henderson’s Workers’ National Committee (WNC), with several of his fellow GFTU committee members appearing alongside him. They stood shoulder to shoulder with other notable labour leaders on the WNC executive committee, such as Margaret Bondfield, Mary Macarthur, Ramsay MacDonald and Marion Phillips, to tackle issues concerning the labour movement during war time.

However, the GFTU’s main cause was to be obtaining wage parity between British soldiers and their colonial counterparts. In an unusual move, Appleton resolved to invite all members of parliament regardless of political affiliation, to a specially convened conference they hosted at the House of Commons on 1st August 1917. After gathering together Conservative, Liberal and Labour MPs, Lords and Bishops, the GFTU argued persuasively that ‘sixpence per day was a scandalous sum to offer’ British servicemen, which amounted to ‘one-sixth of the pay that the Australian and New Zealander receives’. They called for a cross-party alliance that would ensure that all British soldiers received a minimum of three shillings per day with immediate effect.

There were big personalities at that conference. Ben Tillett, a staunch supporter of the war but known for being the firebrand leader of the 1889 dockers strike butted heads with Colonel Wilson over the issue of awarding allowances to the illegitimate children of servicemen. Wilson stubbornly refused to support ‘unmarried wives’ of serving soldiers being in receipt of allowances from the state in the same way as legally married spouses were, much to Tillett’s distaste.

Ben Tillett and John Ward, Vanity Fair 1908
Ben Tillett and John Ward, Vanity Fair 1908

Despite their ideological differences, the newly formed committee forwarded their unanimous resolution calling for an immediate pay increase to front line servicemen to the Prime Minister’s office. Lloyd George’s response was to reply with enclosed details of planned reforms that had been settled on by the War Cabinet. Dubbing the group ‘an unofficial composite committee of Lords and Commons’, The Times reported the GFTU’s displeasure at these plans, as the £50,000,000 promised by the War Cabinet fell far short of the £125,000,000 that had been requested. The GFTU were then invited to Downing street to discuss the matter further, and subsequently obtained a revised offer for servicemen that amounted to an extra expenditure of up to £69,000,000. Not quite the longed-for £125,000,000, but Appleton was very pleased that the revised scheme included provisions for wounded soldiers in hospital to not have their pay stopped during their recuperation, that privates would receive at least 1 shilling and sixpence per day, and that all servicemen would be entitled to extra proficiency pay after 6 months of service, instead of having to wait for two years.

Appleton was even more pleased about the news he received only two weeks after his initial conference of MPs and Lords: William Appleton, General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, was to receive a CBE. His name appeared at the top of the newly created honours list of civilians, in recognition of his services to Britain during war time. Never a revolutionary man, he was a devoted advocate of trade unions as organisations that could work alongside the establishment, and as such was extremely proud to be included on the King’s Roll. He abhorred any talk of what he called ‘hothead socialism’, and the question of whether or not his aversion to left wing views made him unpopular with the wider labour movement, and contributed to the GFTU’s fall from grace at the close of the war, is an issue I explore further in my thesis. Nevertheless, towards the end of the war at least, British servicemen and their families owed a debt of gratitude to his now little-known organisation for that extra daily shilling.


The GFTU is still very much in existence, although it has a very different role than the one envisaged by its founders. Their records are now held at the Bishopsgate Library in London.


About the author: Edda Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Wolverhampton. Her PhD thesis explores the early years of the General Federation of Trade Unions, and she broadly interested in the labour movement of the twentieth century. Her current work centres on emotions in the trade union movement.

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