After the war, the trouble begins ...
When the fighting stopped, peace broke out ... Well, not quite. As the world adjusted in the years after the war, new tensions arose which would send ripples far into the future. explains ...
Sir Hew Strachan
THE news of the Armistice spread rapidly. On November 11, 1918, there was no two minutes’ silence. True, guns on the Western Front were silent, but in cities across the world, from Paris and London to New York and Sydney, “a pandemonium of noise” (in the words of Beatrice Webb) brought people out on to the streets.
In Edinburgh, a party of soldiers and sailors halted a lorry laden with beer barrels in Leith Walk and broached one barrel on the pavement. 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 in Brockenhurst in Hampshire. Hearing of the Armistice, he caught a train from Weybridge to Waterloo and partied for three days: “I can scarcely remember whether I slept in a bed, on a couch or on a carpet or with whom.”
Celebration, although the dominant response to the German surrender, was not the only emotion of the day. The dying had not stopped and peace, when it came, would force a different adjustment to loss and grief. As the expectation of a settlement mounted in October, Cynthia Asquith, the daughter-in-law of the former prime minister, realised “the need to look at long vistas again, instead of short ones”.
Famously, Wilfred Owen’s family heard of his death on November 11 itself. That day many were in hospital, with wounds from which they too would succumb.
In the following weeks influenza returned with renewed force, taking off soldiers under training who had yet to see action. How to mourn and how to memorialise had not yet assumed a pattern. Just as there was no silence on November 11, 1918, so there was no Cenotaph, no poppies and no Unknown Soldier.
Moreover, their creation and establishment would generate controversy and division, between church and state, and between family and country. The church would be unhappy at the secular nature of many memorials; families would resist the decision of the Imperial (today Commonwealth) War Graves Commission’s decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who had died overseas.
As unsettling were the political and social challenges. Beatrice Webb, a socialist and Fabian, wrote in her diary on November 11: “Thrones are everywhere crashing and the men of property are everywhere secretly trembling.” As she sat at her desk in London, listening to the noise, she asked herself: “How soon will the tide of revolution catch up the tide of victory? Will it be six months or a year?”
Caroline Ethel Cooper, an Australian who had been trapped in Germany since 1914, reflected similar concerns. “There is no time to lose in making peace,” she wrote from Leipzig to her sister in Adelaide on November 10, 1918. “The red flag is not stopped by geographical boundaries, and the wiping out of a ridiculous feudal system in Russia or Germany will not satisfy it, and the establishment of an old-fashioned bourgeois republic on Swiss, French or American lines is not its object.
“Its real enemy is capitalism and its real object, the founding of a socialistic republic ... If peace is not concluded quickly, it looks as if we might have a European chaos which would be even worse than an organized war.”
Responses at the front were as confused. Many took the news quietly, barely able to comprehend that the war was over. Pelationships, between husband and wife, parent and child, fractured by long separation and life-changing but divergent experiences, would have to be rebuilt. Men who had had no other career, and who were not sure they would ever have one, for whom military service represented the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood, could be bereft without war’s intensity.
“Once you have lain in her arms you can admit no other mistress,” Guy Chapman wrote of the military life 14 years later: “No wine gives fiercer intoxication, no drug more vivid exaltation.” Chapman, an officer in the Royal Fusiliers, was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Ghissingies, close to the Franco-Belgian border, on the day that Owen had died, November 11, 1918.
Many Americans, latecomers to the war, felt acutely the frustration that it had ended so soon. Some sought battle up to, and even beyond, the deadline of 11am. For them, as for the Royal Navy in Scapa Flow, the end of the war came as an anticlimax. The Grand Fleet, thwarted at Jutland in 1916, still sought their equivalent of Waterloo, a battle so decisive that it would both define an era and sanctify what had been achieved. In some respects these responses were premature. The
Sir Hew Strachan is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews and a member of the WW100 Scotland Panel. Armistice still gave the navy an active role: the blockade of Germany, now tightened as never before, was to continue. The Germans protested that continued economic warfare constituted active hostilities, ones moreover directed specifically at women and children. The United States, and particularly its president, was not happy.
In the new year, Herbert Hoover responded by organising famine relief, and the Save the Children Fund was established in Britain in April 1919. Of course, for those on other fronts the formal fighting had finished weeks or – in the case of Russia – months before, but even after November 11 not all hostilities with Germany immediately ceased. News of the Armistice took two days to reach East Africa, and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s force in today’s Zambia did not accept terms until November 25. Importantly, the Armistice was a military arrangement, technically a pause in the fighting, and was renewable every 36 days until a peace settlement was finally concluded.
Formally the war continued until the peace treaties of Versailles, Neuilly, St Germain, Trianon and Sevres were all signed, a process only completed in 1920. The separation of the military processes for ending the war from the political bargaining proved profoundly damaging.
After his success at Megiddo in September 1918, Edmund Allenby signalled the Foreign Office in London to ask for guidance on what terms he should offer if the Turks sought an Armistice. Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary, replied that he did not yet know what they would be.
For Foch in France, this failure in autumn 1918 to link the incipient victory directly to the delivery of political outcomes was unconscionable. But when he protested, France’s premier, Georges Clemenceau, told him that as a soldier he should stay out of politics. In practice, a
The Armistice was technically a pause in the fighting, and was renewable every 36 days until a peace settlement was finally concluded