The ticker-tape machines stuttered to life. An armistice had been signed ... Fighting was to cease at 11am
YEARS ago this Sunday, the Great War ended and all of Bristol went mad with joy and relief.
Monday November 11 1918 dawned grey, foggy and damp. A fine rain would fall for most of the day. To an outsider, nothing about that morning held any promise. The city was exhausted, worn out by four years of tragedy and loss, and dashed hopes as all the generals’ efforts on the Western Front had failed.
Four years in which thousands of local boys had died, four years of hard work and by 1918, food shortages as well.
At that exact moment, the Grim Reaper took one last savage swipe of his blade as the Spanish Influenza pandemic hit the city, stretching local hospitals – and undertakers – to the limit.
But now there was hope. That summer had seen a string of genuine and decisive victories, and now the Kaiser, Germany’s emperor and “Supreme War Lord” had abdicated. Surely it was only a matter of hours before it all came to an end?
Some people had waited up late the night before, hanging around outside the offices of local papers late into Sunday evening in case word was telegraphed through. Gradually, they had drifted home to bed, disappointed.
The news arrived in Bristol at 10.30 on that dour Monday morning. The ticker-tape machines at the offices of the Western Daily Press on Baldwin Street and the Bristol Times & Mirror in Small Street stuttered to life. An Armistice had been signed. The fighting was to cease at 11am.
Among the first to learn the news were children; most of the city’s schools had been closed to prevent the spread of flu and many were playing in the streets or running errands for busy mothers.
When the news came, it spread faster than any virus ever could. In the minutes before 11am when the guns at the Front were due to fall silent, Bristol was already in a state of near-riot. Bunting and flags appeared from nowhere. Ships at Avonmouth and the City Docks sounded sirens and hooters and launched rockets and flares.
Paper boys selling special editions rushed out within minutes of the news being confirmed, were being told to keep the change from shillings and even half-crowns.
Almost every worker in the city had downed tools to take to the streets. Never mind the weather, never mind the dangers of catching flu - everyone wanted to be out with other people.
For the rest of the day, groups of men, women and boys paraded up and down the streets on whatever vehicle they could clamber on. Local cabbies soon took their cars off the roads for fear of broken axles.
Groups of factory girls danced in circles in the city centre, a band of small boys marched in perfect military formation up and down Corn Street and across up to Park Street banging tin cans and biscuit tins making “an indescribably medley of noise.” University students in mortar boards and gowns marched, accompanied by a small group of American soldiers carrying a huge Union Jack.
They were celebrating, but as every account makes clear, they were not celebrating what was undoubtedly a victory. They were celebrating in relief that a ghastly war which had killed so many brothers, husbands and sons, was now at a close.
It’s impossible to give the precise number of Bristolians killed by the war, but it was in the region of 6,000. Six thousand men, few of whom had been professional soldiers in 1914. Six thousand men with names like Tom, Albert, Dan, George, John, Frank ... Six thousand men who had been factory hands, tram drivers, clerks, shop assistants, lawyers, doctors, priests … Men who five years previously had never dreamed that they would ever wear a uniform.
Thousands of homes, their peace and hopes shattered by a brief telegram with the words “regret to inform you …”
This war changed everything; nothing would ever go back to the way it was before. Now, women over 30 and all males over 21 had the vote, and they were going to use it.
The old days of deference to one’s social superiors were going. The demands of war meant that working people could secure better futures through the vote and trade union membership. The better-off would complain about “the servant problem” as fewer women fancied skivvying in rich people’s homes when they could work in factories with better pay and hours.
Later that morning, the Lord Mayor and the Bishop accompanied other city fathers to the Commercial Rooms, close by the Council House and the heart of Bristol’s business community.
Prayers and hymns were offered, and His Worship was greeted with an impromptu chorus of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”, though the contribution of pram manufacturer Henry Twiggs (Liberal), to the war effort had been nothing special.
The Mayor was accompanied by the previous holder of the office, Alderman Frank Sheppard. Sheppard was a Labour Party member and trade unionist and was received politely but with less enthusiasm.
There was revolution abroad. Crowned heads across Europe had fallen, the communists had taken over in Russia and looked to be doing the same in Germany. Many British cities were hotbeds of leftwing agitation. In the coming election campaign Prime Minister Lloyd George would promise a “country fit for heroes to live in” because if the government didn’t pledge it, it would have been taken anyway.
When he was called onto the stage at the Hippodrome later that evening, Frank Sheppard was greeted with huge enthusiasm by the audience. Sheppard it was who pledged that the city would do all it could for the boys who had given so much. And in the years to come Sheppard would do his best to keep that promise, particularly in housing.
Relief, joy, better days ahead … But as the evening wore on, with bonfires and the tinkling of pianos and merry sing-songs, few could not but think of loved ones gone for ever, could not help but dwell on things that might have been.