Bliss it was, in that dawn, to be alive

A cen­tury af­ter it was signed, Clive Aslet re­flects on the mean­ing of the Ar­mistice

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

Lon­don went mad. It be­came “the scene of an im­pro­vised car­ni­val”

IN the late sum­mer of 1914, Ethel Bil­bor­ough, an am­a­teur artist mar­ried to an in­surance man­ager, bought a small Union Flag. Just as the rest of the coun­try did, she waved it en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as the British Ex­pe­di­tionary Force marched off to war. When not be­ing waved, it was put in her win­dow.

How­ever, as the months dragged on, such ex­hi­bi­tions seemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate. It was hung on her chim­ney­p­iece, only to be taken down when there was some­thing worth cheer­ing about. That mo­ment came on Novem­ber 11, 1918. ‘To­day has been a truly won­der­ful day,’ she wrote in her di­ary, ‘and I’m glad I was alive to see it!’

Ethel had spent the morn­ing at­tempt­ing to write a let­ter, which was dif­fi­cult in the at­mos­phere of febrile ex­pec­ta­tion. Then ‘sud­denly the air was rent by a tre­men­dous BANG!’. Her first in­stinct was that a Zep­pelin raid was tak­ing place, but ‘when an­other great ex­plo­sion shook the win­dows, and the hoot­ers at Wool­wich be­gan to scream like things de­mented, and the guns started fran­ti­cally fir­ing all round us like an almighty fugue, I knew that this was no raid, but that the sign­ing of the ar­mistice had been ac­com­plished!’.

Other sig­nals left no doubt that ‘the great­est war in his­tory was over’. Lon­don went mad. It be­came, in the words of The Il­lus­trated Lon­don News, ‘the scene of an im­pro­vised car­ni­val’. Long-re­pressed feel­ings erupted. A na­tion that ‘had never in­dulged in ju­bi­la­tions over in­ci­den­tal suc­cesses, found ex­pres­sion at last in the hour of fi­nal tri­umph’. Buses were mobbed, mo­tor­cars com­man­deered, car­toon im­ages of the Kaiser mocked.

Thou­sands col­lected in front of the gates of Buck­ing­ham Palace, call­ing for the King.

Queen Mary, usu­ally un­bend­ing, went so far as to wave a flag. MPS left Par­lia­ment to give thanks in St Mar­garet’s Church. By evening, the cap­i­tal, as other cities did, had thrown British re­serve to the winds. As Robert Graves later re­mem­bered in his poem Ar­mistice Day, 1918: And there’s flap­pers gone drunk and in­de­cent Their skirts kilted up to the thigh, The con­sta­bles lift­ing no hand in re­proof And the chap­lain averting his eye

The out­pour­ing of emo­tion wasn’t an en­tirely un­preceded ebul­li­tion: sim­i­lar scenes had oc­curred af­ter the re­lief of the siege of Mafek­ing dur­ing the Sec­ond Boer War. Mafek­ing, how­ever, changed very lit­tle. The First World War changed Bri­tain for­ever.

Four years, 14 weeks, two days. Many peo­ple knew ex­actly how long the war had lasted. For sol­diers still at the Front, it was hardly over. ‘Fine day but cold and dull,’ noted Field-mar­shal Sir Dou­glas Haig, the British com­man­der-in-chief, in his di­ary; he was at Cam­brai, in north­ern France,

or­gan­is­ing an ad­vance into the Ger­man sec­tor on a front of 32 miles. ‘The state of the Ger­man Army is said to be very bad,’ he con­tin­ued, ‘and the dis­ci­pline seems to have be­come so low that the or­ders of the of­fi­cers are not obeyed.’

When, in Bel­gium, the colonel of the 1/2nd Bat­tal­ion Mon­mouthshire Reg­i­ment an­nounced that peace would be de­clared in an hour’s time, they were too stunned to cheer. At ex­actly 11am, as they rested dur­ing a march, the com­mand­ing of­fi­cer ‘raised his hand and told us that the war was now over. We cheered and with our tin hats on and our ri­fles held aloft, cheered again’. They were soon shocked to dis­cover that they had to con­tinue the march.

Else­where, a lieu­tenant with the 103rd Field Com­pany of the Royal Engi­neers was called out into the gar­den by the vil­lager on whom he was bil­leted. Af­ter some grub­bing in an over­grown gar­den, a long-buried bot­tle of wine was pro­duced. ‘We crowded into his front room, where, it be­ing very cold out­side, the stove and its long pipe were heated red-hot; we toasted ev­ery­one in turn.’

Safely back in Eng­land, Sgt-maj Arthur Cook didn’t know whether to be pleased or fu­ri­ous; he’d been long­ing for a ‘nice Blighty wound’ that would send him home

and, now that he’d got one, it proved to be dis­tinctly sur­plus to re­quire­ments.

In Tan­ganyika, the King’s African Ri­fles got the news at 5pm. ‘I can’t re­alise it,’ wrote John Bruce Cairnie in his di­ary, ‘that the war is fin­ished, prob­a­bly be­cause we are so far from ev­ery­thing.’ As he ate din­ner out­side, he could hear ‘sounds of rev­elry all over the camp, altho’ I don’t think the askaris know what has hap­pened, ex­cept in a vague way’.

Lionel Dun­ster­ville was in In­dia. He was the British gen­eral—a child­hood friend of Ki­pling—who had ex­u­ber­antly led the ‘Dun­ster­force’ across the Cau­ca­sus, briefly cap­tur­ing Baku, only to be un­fairly blamed when his tiny band with­drew, af­ter a gal­lant ac­tion against an over­whelm­ingly larger Turk­ish army. His daugh­ter Su­sanna and a friend ar­rived by train, bring­ing ‘with them the won­der­ful news of: PEACE AT LAST! and this GREAT­EST WAR is over… Mean­time I have been more or less for­given’.

He looked for­ward to the com­mand of a new brigade—al­though he pre­sciently noted that ‘I do not be­lieve now that the war is over that they will ever want any new Brigades’. His ca­reer, as were those of many other sol­diers, was over. For the time, how­ever, such thoughts—and their at­ten­dant bit­ter­ness—were put aside.

‘Dear Folks,’ wrote an Amer­i­can ser­vice­man from Paris. ‘Any­one who was not here can never be told, or imag­ine the hap­pi­ness of the peo­ple here. They cheered and cried and laughed and then started all over again… Each sol­dier has his arms full of French girls, some cry­ing, oth­ers laugh­ing; each girl had to kiss ev­ery sol­dier be­fore she would let him pass… There are some things, such as this, that never will be re­pro­duced if the world lives a mil­lion years… There is no where on earth I would rather be to­day than just where I am.’ Bliss it was, in that dawn, to be alive.

Ar­mistice Day was not, how­ever, only for 1918; it would re­cur as a fixed point on the na­tional timetable on ev­ery an­niver­sary of that mo­men­tous day. This thought must have been present in the minds of the Al­lied politi­cians even as they ne­go­ti­ated the end of hos­til­i­ties, which took place, rit­u­al­is­ti­cally, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Ev­ery­one, from the Prime Min­ster

Each sol­dier has his arms full of French girls, some cry­ing, oth­ers laugh­ing

Si­lence, com­plete and ar­rest­ing, closed upon the city... Only those who have felt it can un­der­stand the over­mas­ter­ing ef­fect

down­wards, knew that the end of the war would cre­ate a need for memo­ri­als and cer­e­monies to re­mem­ber the sac­ri­fice of the 900,000 ser­vice­men who had died dur­ing it.

In Paris, the pa­rade that fol­lowed the sign­ing of the Treaty of Ver­sailles, in the sum­mer of 1919, had a nat­u­ral fo­cus in the Arc de Tri­om­phe. Lon­don had no com­pa­ra­ble mon­u­ment that march­ing troops could sa­lute. Lloyd Ge­orge asked Sir Ed­win Lu­tyens to de­sign a catafalque; Lu­tyens, re­mem­ber­ing a chance re­mark made years ear­lier, apro­pos a mar­ble bench in Gertrude Jekyll’s gar­den that a friend had com­pared to the Ceno­taph of Sigis­munda, pro­posed the term ceno­taph.

The word means a memo­rial built to some­one buried else­where—par­tic­u­larly ap­pro­pri­ate in the case of the First World War dead, be­cause the de­ci­sion had been taken early in the con­flict that no bod­ies of the Fallen, how­ever se­nior, should be repa­tri­ated. It was a wood-and-plas­ter af­fair, to be re­placed by the present stone Ceno­taph, in all its ge­o­met­ri­cal com­plex­ity, in 1920.

Al­though de­void of re­li­gious im­agery, this al­most ab­stract ex­pres­sion of pure ar­chi­tec­ture was im­me­di­ately ac­cepted by the pub­lic as a great na­tional sym­bol, but a move­ment was un­der way al­ready, across the coun­try, to build lo­cal memo­ri­als. Lo­cated on vil­lage greens and in church­yards, as well as in town halls, schools, col­leges, of­fices, fac­to­ries, rail­way sta­tions, syn­a­gogues and chapels, they would be­come a new fea­ture of the daily land­scape.

Memo­ri­als of this type—re­mem­ber­ing ev­ery­one from a lo­cal­ity or in­sti­tu­tion who had fallen—had barely been known be­fore. They now took a va­ri­ety of forms, from plain sim­ple crosses to sculp­tural groups, from let­tered mono­liths to memo­rial halls. All en­shrined the mem­ory of that first Ar­mistice Day, re­lived each Novem­ber.

Mean­while, in ev­ery theatre of the con­flict, bat­tle­field ceme­ter­ies—hastily dug to bury the newly dead—were be­ing re­placed by the Clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture, ser­ried head­stones and gar­den plant­ing of the Im­pe­rial War Graves Com­mis­sion.

By the first an­niver­sary of Ar­mistice Day, the eu­pho­ria of Novem­ber 11, 1918, had sub­sided. How should it be marked? To­day, the cer­e­monies are so fa­mil­iar as to seem im­memo­rial and yet they had hardly been con­sid­ered a fort­night be­fore the event took place.

It was Sir Percy Fitz­patrick, who had served as High Com­mis­sioner in South Africa dur­ing the war, who sub­mit­ted a mem­o­ran­dum to the Cab­i­net sug­gest­ing a prac­tice that had been adopted there: ‘Si­lence, com­plete and ar­rest­ing, closed upon the city… Only

those who have felt it can un­der­stand the over­mas­ter­ing ef­fect in ac­tion and re­ac­tion of a mul­ti­tude moved sud­denly to one thought and one pur­pose.’

The King de­cided the si­lence to re­mem­ber what he called the Great De­liv­er­ance should last for two min­utes. Huge crowds gath­ered around the tem­po­rary Ceno­taph as wreaths, sent by the Royal Fam­ily and oth­ers, were laid at its base. A new tra­di­tion had been born.

Such was its power that the pub­lic could have been for­given for be­liev­ing that their longed-for wish had been ful­filled and the First World War was truly over. Al­though this may have been true of the West­ern Front, the col­lapse of the Ro­manov, Ho­hen­zollern, Haps­burg and Ot­toman em­pires meant that vi­o­lence con­tin­ued in East­ern Europe, Rus­sia, the Balkans, the Mid­dle East, Greece, Turkey and else­where un­til at least 1923.

The Ar­mistice it­self, so wildly cel­e­brated on Novem­ber 11, 1918, may have con­tained a seed of fu­ture dis­as­ter: be­ing only a cease­fire to ne­go­ti­ate a peace treaty, no Al­lied troops marched through Berlin, which al­lowed the Nazis to prop­a­gate the myth of the stab in the back. But these anx­i­eties were for the fu­ture. To the crowds and politi­cians of 1918, there was only one word that mat­tered: peace.

Fac­ing page: Ju­bi­la­tion in White­hall on Novem­ber 11, 1918. Left: News­pa­pers cel­e­brate as Peace is de­clared and when the tem­po­rary Ceno­taph is raised in 1919 (top left). Above: The Un­known War­rior is car­ried to West­min­ster Abbey in 1920

For sol­diers still on the West­ern Front, the com­ing of peace was an al­most unimag­in­able re­lief, yet they still had to march home

Rea­son to serve: The Queen at­tends the Re­mem­brance Ser­vice at the Ceno­taph

The Tomb of the Un­known War­rior, ded­i­cated to the thou­sands who lie un­der for­eign fields

At long last, the sun shines as the Ar­mistice is signed: British sol­diers cheer the com­ing of Peace to the West­ern Front in France

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