Julian the Tank Bank – The Long Read by Duncan Harley

It’s been a funny old day. Firstly, I finally found an old photograph of Julian the Tank which had eluded me for years.
I had been trying to find a review copy of Gordon Duthie’s early album ‘Thran’ and alongside Thran and his later ‘Dunt, Dunt, Dunt’ there, staring me full in the face, was Julian in all of his full glory atop the Broad Hill down by the beach. I mean, how serendipitous is that? 

There are a very few on-line images of the steel monster but, until today at least, I had completely forgotten a folder headed war-bonds tucked deep within my research archives. Sounds grand really, but of course in reality the Duncan Harley Archives Collection comprise a three-drawer steel filing cabinet full of current projects plus a few dusty cardboard boxes of done and dusted folders heading for the loft to await, no doubt, my untimely demise in some forgotten year or other.

Then there was the reading of the local paper. In amongst the piles of Auntie May and Theresa Brexit articles and those word for word regurgitated Press Reader fillers – you know the familiar type, ‘Actress stars as own grandmother’, ‘Bring me the head of Armando Garcia says local minister’ and ‘California death toll rises as Trump visits fire zone’. God help California is all I can say. As if it wasn’t enough to have suffered devastating wild-fires, now Trump is upping the body count. There was also a tribute to Poland’s WW2 soldiers complete with the stunning revelation that “around 600 soldiers fled Poland during the Second World War.”

Well, bugger me. I had previously assumed that the figure might have been in the hundreds of thousands. Maybe someone forgot to add a few extra zeros. The piece somehow reminded me of a fairly recent local history book which informed readers that the POW camp over at Monymusk contained Polish prisoners. Nothing, and I mean nothing could be further from the truth. Even Cleaver Greene would have been appalled by the mendacity of it all.

Anyway, back to the story of the rusting Julian.

Tanks had played a significant role in breaking the stalemate on the Western Front but had seemingly been prone to breakdown and also prone to not really being proof against bullets. The early models mainly broke down and lacked decent armour plating. Seemingly even a pistol bullet could easily penetrate the side armour which made the whole concept of armoured invincibility at best psychological. Who after all would stand firm with the bayonet before a determined tank attack.

Things were to improve but not before heavy losses forced a major re-think of both armoured tactics and tank design.

So, what to do with a hundred or so under-armoured early designs. Well, the government of the day – recognising the PR value of the fire-breathing monsters – decreed that every major town and city in the UK should have their very own tank. Not for defence purposes you understand. But for the selling of war-bonds. The good folk on the Home-Front were to be asked to donate hard-earned cash in exchange for promissory certificates repayable following victory and the pay-booths were to be early Mk1 Machine Gun Corps manned battle-tanks.

The propaganda value of those early steel monsters was to prove much more valuable in the fund-raising role than it might have been on the battlefield.
Glasgow seemingly raised a few million pounds for the war effort and was to be rewarded in blood when, in 1919, the very same tanks funded by its Tank Bank scheme entered the city as part of a government clamp-down on post-war disorder in the city.

Picture the scene if you will.

The War to end all wars has recently ended and the troops have returned home to discover that all is not well in Scotland. There are few jobs for the returning heroes and working conditions are poor with low wages and a long working week.

The workforce which had been in reserved occupations manufacturing the arms and tools for war are unhappy with the cuts in the standard working week due to the fact that the war has ended and there is no longer much demand in France for barbed wire, bullets and explosives.
Plus of course the Bolshevist revolution has taken place leading to the early demise of the Russian Royal Family by a firing squad.

So, on Friday 31st January 1919, after a general strike by 40,000 workers in the industrial heartland of Scotland, there was a mass rally in Glasgow’s George Square.  Now the aim of the rally was to hear the response of the UK government to the workers’ demands so the Lord Provost, Sir James Watson Stewart, and the Trades Council President, Mannie Shinwell, duly entered the City Chambers to have a wee natter.

Sadly, things got out of control. As they talked, the enthusiastic local police baton charged the assembled crowd. A magistrate tried to read the Riot Act but had the document taken from his hands and ripped up and things just got from bad to worse.

The failure of the police to control the riot prompted the Coalition Government under one David Lloyd George to react. After Scottish Secretary Robert Munro described the riot as a “Bolshevist uprising” troops armed with machine guns, tanks and a howitzer arrived to occupy Glasgow’s streets. The howitzer was positioned on the City Chambers steps facing the crowd, the local cattle market was transformed into a tank depot, machine guns were posted on the top of the North British Hotel, the Glasgow Stock Exchange and the General Post Office Buildings.

As is usual in such situations no local troops were used. The Scottish battalions who had recently returned from France were confined at Maryhill Barracks while seasoned troops from south of the border were instructed to open fire if required to do so.
Amazingly, there was no major bloodshed as far as I am led to believe. There must have been broken heads and limbs via the initial police action but I can find no record of deaths.
The troops did not open fire although the tanks were paraded around the city centre to threaten the strikers. I can only assume that the government of the day decided that it would be a bad idea to provoke social change via more major bloodshed.

Mannie Shinwell and some other trade union activists were jailed for a bit and a 47-hour working week was agreed. Until the 1922 General Strike, things smouldered on of course, but that’s another story.

I have no information about what transpired in Aberdeen or indeed in Aberdeenshire on the 31st January 1919 and would ask folk to get in touch with any memories of that day. I did however find a reference to Aberdeen Trades Council discussing the issue and agreeing to mount a protest against the “continued imprisonment of the Clyde Strikers” and I have no doubt that given the politics of the time there must have been folk from the North-east not only attending the demonstrations but serving within the military during these troubled days.

But back to Julian the local Tank Bank. Local lore has it that Julian sat at the Castlegate for a month or so before making his way down to the beach where he was symbolically installed on Broad Hill right next to the Beach Ballroom.

I have no idea how much money he raised in terms of war bonds, but clearly a grateful government did not want the return of the relic following the Armistice. Towns up and down the land found themselves unwilling recipients of war related junk and even places such as Tomintoul became caretakers of such memorabilia.

Seemingly Julian sat menacingly on the Broad Hill until he was sold off for scrap sometime in the late 1930’s and, as this 1934 photo-caption from The Aberdeen Bon Accord & Northern Pictorial indicates “The army of today does not forget the lessons of the last war, and here is an appropriate picture of the present against an eloquent background.” The caption continues “Marching home from manoeuvres at the beach, these Gordon Highlanders passed by a relic of the wartime days – the tank on the Broad Hill.”

Mind you, I have to wonder if that rusting tank on the hill beside the seaside was really Julian and not just some post-war imposter.

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire plus the forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire - due out on1st  March 2019. Both titles can be ordered via Amazon.


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