Today (March 17) in London History – the Battle of Grosvenor Square

It was known as The Battle of Grosvenor Square. It took place on March 17, 1968. This episode of Today in London History tells the story.


I know. It’s getting like Wall Drugs in South Dakota. Mile after mile of requests that you’ll pull in and vote for the London Walks team in the 2022 Superstar Awards competition. But we’re almost there now. Five more signs, five more days. And then it’s into the magnificent Black Hills – we so want it to be the faces of London Walks guides up there on Mount Superstar 2022. 

And in any case, for this day in London’s history – March 17th – this request is the respite, the calm before the storm. 

As for Today in London, maybe try the Vietnamese restaurant Viet Food at 34-36 Wardour Street in Soho.

Ok, today in London history.

Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English); `now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!

If you open out what happened in London on March 17, 1968 – open it out like the largest telescope that ever was – it’s curiouser and curiouser.

“It” being the demonstration against the Viet Nam War. It came to be known as the Battle of Grosvenor Square. Grosvenor Square because the American Embassy was there. I think it’s fair to say, the demonstration got out of hand. Dozens of protesters and 117 policemen were injured. 246 protesters were arrested and charged. 

The protest started peacefully enough. It formed up in Trafalgar Square and marched toward Mayfair, toward Grosvenor Square. The march was led by, amongst others, the actress Vanessa Redgrave. Somewhere in the estimated crowd of 15,000 protesters, was a 24-year-old Mick Jagger. Well, 1968 was, after all, the year of the Rolling Stones’ Street Fighting Man.

It’s curiouser and curiouser first of all because of the 1968 Timeline.

You go through the 1968 timeline what you see is that protest-wise London was in the vanguard. It doesn’t make any sense at all, not least because, unlike Tony Blair and a later American military adventure in a faraway land, Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister at the time, said no, terribly sorry, but we can’t really, when LBJ tried to get the British military to go halfway round the world to stop dominoes from toppling. 

But it’s the timing of the big 1968 events and developments that have me scratching my head. Here’s that timeline.

The Tet offensive was in January and February of 1968. So, yes, that preceded by a couple of months the Grosvenor Square protest. And anti-war maverick presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy did unexpectedly well – 42 per cent – in the New Hampshire primary. The first of the U.S. presidential primary races. But that’s it.

Well, there is one other “event” for lack of a better word – a horrifying event: the My Lai massacre. Time-wise it’s right there with the London protest. It happened the preceding day, March 16th. But it was 20 months before the world found out about the war crime that took place in that little hamlet in Vietnam.

So everything else – all the events, all the developments that are the historical equivalent of eternal flames – happened after the Grosvenor Square demonstration. Let me take you through it. For a bit of light relief, I’ve thrown in a couple of wild cards.

On March 31st President Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run for a second term of office.

Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4.

The other American primary elections took place in April, May and June.

Enoch Powell gave his infamous, rivers of blood anti-immigration speech on April 20th.

The famous Columbia university student occupation started on April 23. 

An American businessman bought London bridge that same month. 

The Paris student uprising took place in May 1968

As did the Prague Spring.

Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 5th

The year had to have a pandemic – that was the Hongkong flu pandemic – it started on July 13

The Democratic National Convention in Chicago took place in August. There were running battles between protesters and Mayor Daley’s fearsome police force on the streets of downtown Chicago. 

The British Post office introduced 1st class postage in September 1968

The world saw the Black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics on Oct. 16

On October 31 LBJ announced an end to the bombing of North Vietnam.

So, there you have it. Trying to account for the Battle of Grosvenor Square by referring to the 1968 timeline is a non-starter.

I sometimes half wonder, was it just something in the air? Or something about the month of March itself?

Let’s look at that for a minute and see if we’re any the wiser.

For Jewish people in olden days this month was consecrated to their opening round of festivals. 

In the Roman calendar, March held first place for many years. That was the case here as well, until 1752, when Parliament passed an Act that said the year should commence in January. The French had made that move nearly 200 years earlier, in 1564. The Scots were also far ahead of us in that regard – they made that change in 1599. The Anglo-Saxons called the month Lenet-Monat, length month, to indicate that now the days begin to exceed the nights in length. 

But back to the Romans we go for the name we know the month today. It was named by Romulus, in honour of his father Mars, the god of war. Why? Well, because the ground was firming up. Chariot wheels weren’t going to be mired in mud. The Roman equivalent of farmers planting in the spring was making war. Were the protesters and the police hearing and responding to a distant, primal drum? The drum of war.

Perhaps worth mentioning here – for anyone who doesn’t know – March days were deemed unfortunate for marriages. Why was that? Men going off to the wars, in some cases not coming back. Marry them and then see them go off to maybe die – no thanks. 

It’s unsettling, March. Comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. 

Or how about the Scottish version, “having come in with an adder’s head, goes out with a peacock’s tail.”

The poet Spenser called it “sturdy March.”

And of course you’ve got St. David’s Day – the patron St. of Wales – getting the month underway.

There’s that wonderful old couplet,

March, various, fierce and wild, with wind-crackt cheeks,

By wilder Welshmen led, and crowned with leeks.

Quite a vision isn’t it.

And then our day, March 17th – St. Patrick’s Day. The patron Saint of Ireland. Born either in Wales or Scotland. No matter that, St. George, the patron saint of England, was born in Turkey.

Famous of course for driving all venomous reptiles out of Ireland. The story is he made Irish soil so fatal to the race of serpents that they die at once on touching it. Equally nice, the story that King’s College Cambridge being built of Irish wood, no spider doth ever come near it.

Best of all, though, the story of St. Patrick using the shamrock to teach the doctrine of Trinity because it’s a plant that has three leaves upon one stem.

Anyway, provides us with lots of food for thought, March. And in terms of that protest, I wonder if maybe in part there was something primordial going on there, something to do with sap rising and blood heating – something akin to stags clashing antlers and rutting.

But let’s end by hearing from a couple of young men who were there, who took part. They’re madcap, these two accounts. Lots of mayhem and disorder. Not a whole lot of sense. And that chimes with my impression that whatever it was that happened there, and why it happened – its being an anti-war demonstration, that was just the surface of something deeper, something more elemental. Had it been every inch an anti-war protest it would have come at a different place on the 1968 timeline. 

Our speakers are, first, Dick Pountain. He went on to become the editor of the UK’s first PC magazine, Personal Computer World. He’s now, at 77, well and truly into the sixth age of man: in the lean and slipper’d pantaloon with spectacles on nose and pouch on side.

The second speaker is Mick Farren. Dead now – mere oblivion, sans everything – Mick Farren was the singer with the proto-punk band The Deviants. He was also a journalist and an author – a figure of some note in this country’s counterculture scene.

Here they are. Dick Pountain first.

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