Professor Hew Strachan is Emeritus Professor of All Souls College, Oxford and the author of The First World War: A New History (Simon & Schuster UK, 2nd revised edition, 2014)
Tomorrow, many cities across Britain and further afield will mark the end of the First World War. They will do so with solemnity, mindful of the 880,000 British and imperial service personnel who lost their lives. This, after all, is Remembrance Sunday and, although that day is now associated with the commemoration of all wars since 1914, its symbols — the poppy, the Cenotaph and even the timing — are the products of how the nation decided to mourn in the immediate aftermath of the Great War.
We should not, however, be too po-faced. For us, Remembrance Sunday is about the dead. But this year it coincides with Armistice Day, when the Germans signed the terms of surrender in 1918. It was a day of celebration. It was more about the living than the dead. Over the war’s centenary, we have done more to commemorate the latter than recall the former.
They were the vast majority: 88% of those who put on uniform came home. Men who had given up hope of seeing the war’s end now realised that they would survive, that they would be reunited with their families and that citizen soldiers could become citizens once again.
Beatrice Webb, the Fabian and socialist, writing her diary in London on November 11, 1918, could hear “a pandemonium of noise” outside. A New Zealander, John Lee, who had won a Distinguished Conduct Medal at Messines in 1917 and lost an arm in the German offensive the following spring, was convalescing at Brockenhurst in Hampshire. Hearing of the armistice, he caught a train from Weybridge to Waterloo and partied for three
Heroic image: a statue of a soldier from the Great War on a memorial in Shildon, Co Durham
days. During the 1920s, the nation was divided on how best to mark the end of the war. Many veterans thought the appropriate way to remember their fallen comrades was to live life to the
full. In contrast, grieving mothers and bereft wives were anxious to institutionalise mourning. Mourning came to prevail over celebration, partly because the First World War did not end
at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month. What ended were hostilities between Germany and the Allies fighting on the Western Front. The armistice was a temporary cessation in the fighting, initially fixed for a period of 36 days, and not a peace settlement. On land, the terms were designed to give the Allies the power of strategic manoeuvre, through the control of railways