Re­mem­ber­ing the price of peace 100 years on

Black Country Bugle - - GAIL MIDDLETON -

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

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