The day the world turned up­side down

BBC History Magazine - - Armistice 100 Years - Guy Cuth­bert­son is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in English lit­er­a­ture at Liver­pool Hope Univer­sity. He is the au­thor of Peace at Last: A Por­trait of Ar­mistice Day, 11 Novem­ber 1918 (Yale, 2018)

Across Bri­tain and fur­ther afield, the sign­ing of the ar­mistice agree­ment, on 11 Novem­ber 1918, was greeted with an out­pour­ing of joy. Guy Cuth­bert­son takes us through an ex­tra­or­di­nary day, from the moment the news reached Bri­tish shores to that night’s rau­cous cel­e­bra­tions

In Cam­bridge on Mon­day 11 Novem­ber 1918, a merry mob of stu­dents went wild, smash­ing win­dows and throw­ing books and paint­ings into the street. Crowds cheered and danced en­er­get­i­cally, and cars ca­reered about heaped with peo­ple who were try­ing to make as much noise as pos­si­ble. A bull was driven into one of the col­leges, and an ef­figy of the kaiser was burned in the mar­ket square while peo­ple danced round the bon­fire. The Cam­bridge Daily News re­ported that “the world seemed to have turned up­side down”. Sim­i­lar events oc­curred across Bri­tain. The day the war ended was a weird and won­der­ful car­ni­val rather than the day of mourn­ful se­ri­ous­ness that Ar­mistice Day would be­come in later years. The ar­mistice brought church ser­vices and tears, but it was a day of joy, spon­tane­ity, noise and fun.

The day be­gan, though, with dis­ap­point­ment and anx­i­ety. Many peo­ple had ex­pected ar­mistice news on Sun­day, the day af­ter the kaiser’s ab­di­ca­tion was an­nounced as sup­port for him in Ger­many dis­in­te­grated. “We know the en­emy is beaten, and God has given us the vic­tory in this great­est of all the great strug­gles in the world’s history,” the vicar of All Saints, Maidstone in Kent told his con­gre­ga­tion. Late on Sun­day even­ing, a large crowd in Bris­tol was wait­ing for news from the of­fices of The West­ern Daily Press. That news­pa­per noted that “there was a much big­ger crowd as­sem­bled than on that fate­ful night in Au­gust 1914, when the news came that Bri­tain had de­clared war on Ger­many”. But there was no news on 10 Novem­ber, and by mid­night the crowd had gone. All over Bri­tain, peo­ple were on ten­ter­hooks, hop­ing that the war to end wars was about to end.

The timer ticks

The ar­mistice agree­ment would emerge from a rail­way car­riage sta­tioned in the For­est of Com­piègne. As Mon­day ar­rived, Ger­many’s del­e­gates were close to ac­cept­ing the ar­mistice terms. At 2.05am, nearly three days since talks be­gan, the German del­e­ga­tion stated that they were ready for a fresh round of dis­cus­sions, which be­gan at 2.15am. Thirty-four terms were read out by Maxime Wey­gand on be­half of Al­lied com­man­der-in-chief, Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch. The ar­mistice was signed at 5.12am, amended to read 5am. The first of the terms was “Ces­sa­tion of hos­til­i­ties by land and in the air six hours af­ter the sign­ing of the ar­mistice” (the ces­sa­tion at sea was im­me­di­ate), so the act of sig­na­ture set the timer tick­ing for the end of the war – like a game of foot­ball or rugby, the war now had a fixed du­ra­tion.

The ar­mistice was signed when most peo­ple in Bri­tain were asleep, and even when they woke up and went off to work, they didn’t know the news. In Aberdeen, though, none of the trawlers had put to sea be­cause they ex­pected an ex­plo­sion of re­joic­ing. Grad­u­ally the news was spread­ing, both on the west­ern front and the home front. Sol­diers were cheer­ing soon af­ter sun­rise. The 1st Birm­ing­ham Bat­tal­ion, the 14th (Ser­vice) Bat­tal­ion of the Royal War­wick­shire Reg­i­ment, was at Pont-surSam­bre when, at 8am, the news was re­ceived. Many sol­diers had heard by 8.30am – though not ev­ery­one be­lieved it at first.

War is over!

Hawar­den in Flintshire heard the news when it reached the vil­lage post­mas­ter at 8.30am. Ernest Barnes, the fu­ture bishop of Birm­ing­ham, learned about the ar­mistice at about this time, too: the vil­lage where he was stay­ing had re­ceived news from a nearby air force sta­tion. He saw, in a cottage door­way, a lit­tle flag tied to a child’s chair, and then went to a newsagent where the woman be­hind the counter con­firmed the news, telling him that there had been too much killing.

Ports tended to cel­e­brate early. At North Shields, the first in­di­ca­tion of peace was at 8.10am when two boats were seen to be decked out with bunting. At South Shields, the sirens of boats could be heard just af­ter 8.30am. By 9.30am, the news had clearly reached the Royal Navy at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles. Peo­ple at the port of Kirk­wall on Orkney were given the news by the sirens of naval ves­sels, and set about re­joic­ing – many flags and much bunting soon ap­peared, ships blew whis­tles and the bells of the cathe­dral were rung. Un­like in Lon­don, Scot­land had some lovely weather.

The Or­ca­dian news­pa­per was keen to note that the Kirk­wall pub­lic found out an hour be­fore the Lon­don pub­lic (in that pre-BBC era, the news didn’t ra­di­ate out of Lon­don, but found its way piece­meal). In­deed, the pub­lic in many large cities didn’t hear un­til nearly 11am. In Lon­don, it was 10.30am be­fore a crowd started form­ing at Down­ing Street, as news­pa­pers and news­boys be­gan spread­ing the word. The prime min­is­ter, David Lloyd Ge­orge, ap­peared out­side No 10

David Lloyd Ge­orge ap­peared out­side No 10 just be­fore 11am, and the crowd sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fel­low’

about five min­utes be­fore the ar­mistice be­gan, and the crowd sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fel­low’. “At 11 o’clock this morn­ing the war will be over,” the jolly good fel­low said, and cheers en­sued. Hats were thrown in the air and into the gar­den of 10 Down­ing Street. At Buck­ing­ham Palace a po­lice­man con­firmed the news a few min­utes be­fore 11am and let of­fi­cers and wounded sol­diers within the gates.

The last vic­tim

In Amer­ica, it was still night­time (on the east coast, the war ended at 6am) but en­thu­si­as­tic cel­e­bra­tions were al­ready tak­ing place. Ce­cil Sharp, an English ex­pert on folk danc­ing, was vis­it­ing Cleve­land, Ohio, where he was wo­ken up by bells at 4.30am – un­able to sleep, he spent the rest of the night think­ing about the news. He was over­joyed, like ev­ery­one else, but he could not for­get fel­low folk dancers who had been killed in the war.

And, in fact, on the west­ern front, many more men died in the cold and fog as the fight­ing con­tin­ued un­til 11am. One vic­tim was Ge­orge Edwin El­li­son of the Royal Ir­ish Lancers, a mid­dle-aged man who served right from the start of the war. Be­lieved to be the last Bri­tish sol­dier killed in ac­tion, he died at Mons, where he started fight­ing in Au­gust 1914. He is buried near the first Bri­tish sol­dier killed in ac­tion in the war. The war had re­turned to where it be­gan. But at 11am it was all over and a strange si­lence reigned.

Whereas the west­ern front saw a swift and shock­ing tran­si­tion from noise to si­lence, on the home front peace con­tin­ued to break out nois­ily. Many places de­ployed sirens and ma­roons (a form of loud rocket). New York­ers were wo­ken up by sirens and fac­tory whis­tles. Some peo­ple in Lon­don thought it

was an air-raid warn­ing at 11am, and rushed for shel­ter. At Ele­phant and Cas­tle they fled to the tube sta­tions for cover. Only an ‘All clear’ sig­nal on a bu­gle would con­vince some Lon­don­ers that there was no dan­ger. Nine-year-old John Raynor, the son of a teacher at West­min­ster School, was on a shop­ping trip when the ma­roons went off and there was a stam­pede in the street – a man was knocked down and the crowd tram­pled over him as he bled.

Lon­don calling

In Lon­don, Big Ben didn’t chime or strike at 11 o’clock, hav­ing been si­lenced dur­ing the war so that it wouldn’t as­sist en­emy Zep­pelins, but it re­turned at noon. Re­call­ing how a crowd started form­ing in Northum­ber­land Av­enue be­low his of­fice at the Metropole af­ter two strokes of the bell, Win­ston Churchill was con­vinced that he heard it at 11am, as were other peo­ple, and books still re­fer to Big Ben strik­ing at the moment the war ended. But Churchill later sug­gested that per­haps it was St Martin-inthe-Fields that he heard.

In many dif­fer­ent places, church bells were used to an­nounce the news, al­though it wasn’t al­ways pos­si­ble to gather bell-ringers to­gether be­fore noon. At Malew on the Isle of Man, a va­ri­ety of parish­ioners all lent a hand so that the bells were rung from 11am to 8pm. By noon, most towns and cities in Bri­tain ( The Daily Ex­press re­ferred to ‘Ar­mistic­i­ties’) were a noisy mix of cheer­ing, singing, bells and mu­sic. Crowds were huge and still grow­ing, even though peo­ple had been ad­vised to avoid large gath­er­ings dur­ing the flu pan­demic. And the sit­u­a­tion was sim­i­lar around the world. In Aus­tralia, where it was night­time, the cen­tres of Syd­ney, Mel­bourne and Ade­laide were a mass of happy peo­ple.

In Kirk­wall, the town crier pro­claimed a half hol­i­day at noon. Else­where, em­ploy­ers and may­ors did the same. School­child­ren, too, were given the af­ter­noon off, and flooded out of school to join the crowds, singing and yelling and wav­ing flags. The boys of Eton Col­lege were re­leased at noon, and went down to the be­flagged High Street with flags at­tached to their top hats. And in Shrews­bury, while church bells rang and a reg­i­men­tal band played, school­boys formed a manic band of their own, bash­ing away at drums and vig­or­ously blow­ing bu­gles.

It was in Shrews­bury at noon, though, that one of the most fa­mous mo­ments of Ar­mistice Day oc­curred, when a telegram ar­rived to tell Wil­fred Owen’s par­ents that their son had been killed in ac­tion. Many un­wel­come tele­grams ar­rived at homes that day. Across Bri­tain, women in the crowds wore mourn­ing and tears were shed. How­ever, even many of the be­reaved cheered and smiled, grate­ful that such a ter­ri­ble war had been won, and happy for oth­ers.

At the in­nu­mer­able church ser­vices, the em­pha­sis was on tri­umph and thanks­giv­ing, rather than re­mem­brance of the dead. God was on the side of Bri­tain and her al­lies, and gave them vic­tory. At a cer­e­mony at St Matthew’s Church, High Brooms in Kent, the com­mu­nion ta­ble was draped with a large union flag. Even the ser­vice at St Mar­garet’s Church, West­min­ster, the ‘par­ish church’ of par­lia­ment, was a happy af­fair. Fol­low­ing a brief but crowded par­lia­men­tary ses­sion where the terms of the ar­mistice were read out and acclaimed with much cheer­ing, the speaker ad­journed the House of Com­mons at 3.17pm, and led the mem­bers to St Mar­garet’s. The Lords also at­tended the ser­vice, and the arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury presided. Psalm 100 opened the

In Birm­ing­ham, women were “mas­querad­ing in male at­tire”, and in Aberdeen there were men dressed up as fe­male nurses

sim­ple ser­vice: “Make a joy­ful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” From out­side came the sound of cheer­ing and mu­sic.

While the ser­vice was tak­ing place, King Ge­orge V, Queen Mary and their daugh­ter Princess Mary were jour­ney­ing out into that cheer­ing crowd (and the pour­ing rain). The fact that they were in an open car­riage, with barely any po­lice pro­tec­tion, showed that the king was not go­ing to meet the fate of ei­ther the tsar or the kaiser. The roy­als shook many hands, and the pa­tri­otic crowd cheered them all along their jour­ney.

Bankers and beg­gars

It was a day when bar­ri­ers were ig­nored, rules were hap­pily bro­ken and nor­mal­ity was turned on its head. Dif­fer­ences in wealth or class or gender could be ig­nored. “Banker and Beg­gar Walk Side by Side,” The New York Tri­bunee noted, and sol­diers in New York wore women’s hats and coats. Back in Eng­land, women wore their hair down and gave out kisses gen­er­ously. In Birm­ing­ham, there were “a num­ber of women mas­querad­ing in male at­tire”, and in Aberdeen there were men dressed up as fe­male nurses. In Sun­der­land, small boys wore their fa­thers’ or broth­ers’ khaki, and one boy was dressed up as the kaiser. In city cen­tres, chil­dren took sol­diers pris­oner or led joy­ous pro­ces­sions of wounded men. In Leeds, ac­cord­ing to The York­shire Even­ing Post, march­ing women formed a mock army half a mile long. In Dublin, just af­ter 3pm, there was a mock funeral for the kaiser with a hearse and stu­dents dressed as cler­gy­men.

When it got dark across Bri­tain, fire­works and bon­fires were lit, and street lights came on for the first time in years. It was a mag­i­cal even­ing. Soon af­ter 6pm in Aberdeen, the elec­tric lights were switched on in the quad­ran­gle of Marischal Col­lege, where about 500 stu­dents gath­ered, and in fancy dress with flam­ing torches and bag­pipers they pro­cessed through the town at 7pm, be­fore re­turn­ing to the quad, where they threw the torches into a pile and made a bon­fire, danc­ing round it wildly.

On many of the coun­try’s bon­fires, ef­fi­gies of the kaiser were burned. In­deed, in the vic­to­ri­ous na­tions, there was a pub­lic de­sire to see the kaiser pun­ished. When Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son ad­dressed Congress in Wash­ing­ton at 6pm GMT, he didn’t men­tion ret­ri­bu­tion, and his fo­cus was on “friendly help­ful­ness”, feed­ing the starv­ing peo­ple in Ger­many and pre­serv­ing peace. But at 10 Down­ing Street that even­ing, Lloyd Ge­orge, FE Smith (at­tor­ney-gen­eral), Win­ston Churchill (min­is­ter of mu­ni­tions) and Sir Henry Wil­son (chief of the im­pe­rial gen­eral staff) dis­cussed the kaiser’s fate – Smith, the lawyer, was keen to see the kaiser ex­e­cuted. Crafty Lloyd Ge­orge, with one eye on the elec­torate, sup­pos­edly agreed.

Not ev­ery­one was im­pressed by the ar­mistice crowds. Po­ets Siegfried Sas­soon and Robert Graves and philoso­pher Ber­trand Rus­sell were scathing about the “mob”, and many in­tel­lec­tu­als stayed away.

In restau­rants, glasses were smashed and rev­ellers stood on ta­bles to sing. Drink (where it could be found) played a part, and there were ac­ci­dents. In Black­pool, a drunk taxi driver ran over a sol­dier on a pave­ment at 8.45pm. At Kirk­in­til­loch in Dun­bar­ton­shire, af­ter mag­is­trates asked for pubs to be closed, a mob threat­ened to break in.

As the day drew to a close, mer­ry­mak­ing con­tin­ued. Shades were be­ing re­moved from street lamps in Le­ices­ter Square as late as 11pm, and search­lights were turned on, but streets across the coun­try be­gan to clear. By mid­night there was a sense peace and quiet had finally ar­rived. At Folke­stone, a ser­vice was held at Ton­tine Street Con­gre­ga­tional Church to mark “the pass­ing of the clos­ing hour of the great­est day in history”.

Rev­ellers pour onto the streets of Cam­bridge to cel­e­brate the end of the First World War, 11 Novem­ber 1918. In the stu­dent town, “a bull was driven into a col­lege and an ef­figy of the kaiser was burned while peo­ple danced round the bon­fire”, writes Guy Cuth­bert­son

Cana­dian sol­diers pa­rade through the Bel­gian city of Mons on Ar­mistice Day. Na­tions across the world cel­e­brated the end­ing of hos­til­i­ties on 11 Novem­ber

Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch (se­cond from right) is pic­tured fol­low­ing the sign­ing of the ar­mistice in the For­est of Com­piègne

Ef­fi­gies, in­clud­ing one of the kaiser, hang in Brack­ley, Northamp­ton­shire as crowds gather in the town’s streets to cel­e­brate the end of the war

Rev­ellers tak­ing part in peace cel­e­bra­tions on the streets of Chicago, United States

Pri­vate Ge­orge El­li­son’s grave. He was the last Bri­tish sol­dier to be killed in the First World War – at 9.30am on Ar­mistice Day

A vast crowd gath­ers out­side Buck­ing­ham Palace. On the streets of Lon­don, the party would con­tinue un­til late into the night

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.