Remembering the price of peace 100 years on
WITH the centenary of the Armistice falling this week, this year’s Remembrance Day is very special. Those who served in the Great War are long gone, now. But, in this year’s march past the Cenotaph, their presence will be felt more than ever. Never forgotten.
Here’s a reminder of how the Armistice was greeted in the Black Country.
At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the unimaginable carnage of the First World War came to an end. After four, bloody years of slaughter, the war that was meant to be over by Christmas, finally ceased. A whole generation had been decimated and things would never be the same again.
As news of the Armistice sank in, there were mixed feelings across the nation. Sheer relief that the killing was over, mixed with grief for the millions slaughtered at the Front. Few remained untouched by tragedy. And, even in the war’s final throes, news of loved ones killed, or missing in action, blighted many people’s joy.
On the 12th and 13th November 1918, the Express and Star recorded how Wulfrunians greeted the peace. To mark the occasion, an open air service of thanksgiving was scheduled in the old market place. It featured “a procession, including members of the Council, representatives of the colonial regiments, the Volunteers, and every section of civic and religious life, led by the Police Specials Band”.
At the time, Wolverhampton’s Mayor, Councillor Alfred Jeffs, was “indisposed”, and sent a letter for his Deputy, Councillor John Francis Myatt, to read to the crowds. The thousands attending were asked to “take their rejoicing in as dignified manner as possible, because every domestic circle had some sorrow ...”
When the speeches finished, the crowd sang Oh, God Our Help In Ages Past and the National Anthem. It was a sombre affair.
But, as soon as the band started playing “the tunes of the Allies”, Wulfrunians began singing and dancing their hearts out.
As the Express and Star reported, “The principal streets in Wolverhampton were crowded, for the most part, on Monday night ... The townspeople were intoxicated with joy, and the soldiers were not slow in their demonstrations of enthusiasm at the turn of events ... several groups of young men and maidens tripped the light fantastic, in the circle of admiring crowds. Thousands of flags of all sizes and emblematic of many nations were waved, and the National Anthem, and no end of ditties were sung and shouted”.
Yet, people were still grieving, and, as the reporter noted, “... on the whole the excitement was restrained, and the proceedings, from the receipt of the good news till the last of the crowds had left the streets was not marred by disorder, a tribute to the law abiding character of Wolverhampton’s citizens”.
While many were celebrating the Armistice and looking forward to the return of their loved ones, for many others the Peace was bittersweet. During the very last days of fighting, many were cruelly robbed of loved ones.
In the same editions covering the celebrations, the Express and Star reported the sorrowful news received by a Belgian refugee. The paper told of Peter Van Cleven, a “well known Belgian subject who, since German soldiers rushed through his native land, has been residing in Wolverhampton”.
Just before the Armistice was signed, Mr Van Cleven had received good news that his eldest son, Julian, who had been missing for some time, was safe and well. Two days later came news that another son, Gabriel, “had fallen in the battle at Houthulst Wood, Ypres, on September 28th. Gabriel was 23 years of age, and was twice mentioned in dispatches”. He had served as a stretcher bearer, later serving on the Front as an NCO – “with the certainty of promotion to officers’ rank after the battle in which he took a valiant part”.
Like countless bereaved parents of the time, Peter Van Cleven bore his loss stoically: “I rejoice for my country ... and for all the people who have suffered so much for more than four years. I make the sacrifice willingly for my dear country, because with it I see the end of the war”.
Gabriel Van Cleven was one of millions who paid the ultimate price for peace. Across Britain, the losses spared few aspects of society. Businesses, Public Services and Institutions were all affected, as millions of men had gone off to war. Schools suffered, too, as teachers and older pupils answered the call.
Wolverhampton Education Committee reports for November 1915 show how the town’s schools had done their bit during the early stages of the war. Many schools had been involved in recruitment campaigns, with many teachers going into the Red Cross or Marine Artillery, as recorded in log books at Graiseley Secondary School.
As the war and slaughter wore on relentlessly, school log books and education committee reports noted disruptions to schooling and closures, as more and more pupils stayed away. Especially, when fathers or brothers went off to war, and on happier occasions when they came home on leave.
Most poignant are the recordings of school absences occasioned by fathers, brothers or sons being killed at the Front. An entry for November 1917 records Graiseley School’s Headmaster, Samuel Bevon, taking a few days leave of absence when his son was killed.
When the men eventually returned from the Front they were hailed as heroes, with civic receptions and dinners held in their honour. In the Black Country, Bilston Urban District Council advertised a special luncheon for ex-servicemen as part of their peace celebrations. Months later, such events were still being held, with the Express and Star hosting a dinner for 913 returning prisoners of war, in March 1919.
Across the land, councils set up rolls of honour and War Memorial Committees. By 1919, Wolverhampton Borough had its own committee, producing a roll of remembrance as tribute to the 1,700 local men who lost their lives. The roll reads:
“Herein are written the names of the men of Wolverhampton who served in the Great War and made the supreme sacrifice. The things these men saved for us and humanity are beyond price.”
Across the borough, memorials were erected, with many schools and businesses producing their own permanent tributes to fallen workmates, pupils and teachers. Wolverhampton Higher Grade School’s memorial tablet lists the names of 90 former pupils who were killed. Many other schools were devastated.
Brewers William Butler and Company were among many local firms to suffer heavy losses. Based at the Springfield Brewery, the company produced its own Great War Memorial to honour its dead. The stone tablet, now in the Black Country Living Museum, says it all. Underneath the names of the fallen, an eloquent inscription honours and laments a lost generation:
“They whom this memorial commemorates were numbered amongst those who, at the call of King and country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger and finally passed out of the sight of men, by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those that come after them see to it that their names are not forgotten.”
The centenary on Remembrance Sunday should make sure of that.
The Express and Star organised a dinner for returning prisoners of war
Piece from the Wolverhampton Chronicle highlighting one family making the sacrifice
The Express and Star announcing the Armistice