The Armistice – An End to The Great War
On Sunday 11th November, in two days’ time, it will be exactly 100 years since the end of the Great War in 1918. In fact, 11am on Sunday will be the exact time that hostilities on the Western Front were due to cease and all weapons of war were to be laid down. After four long years of dreadful conflict, people in Britain were aching for an end to it and a return to peacetime.
The day began with disappointment and anxiety, however. People were expecting news of a ceasefire on Sunday, 10th November 1918, after talks had been going on for three days in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne in France. On that Sunday evening in Bristol a crowd formed outside the offices of the Western Daily press expecting to hear good news, but there was none.
Three days into the peace talks, at 5.12 am on the morning of 11th November, the armistice was finally signed, declaring a cessation of hostilities by land and in the air to begin six hours later at 11am. Most people in Britain were asleep when it was signed and even when they awoke, without Twitter, Facebook, radio and television they would not have known until later that day. In Aberdeen none of the trawlers put to sea because they expected huge rejoicing. Gradually the news spread through the land. Soldiers on the Western Front were told early and at home the news filtered through to village postmasters. Ports celebrated early as ships arrived bringing news. Folk in Kirkwall on Orkney received the news from sirens of naval vessels and blew whistles and rang church bells. Londoners and the public in many large English cities didn’t hear until nearer 11am, and then a crowd began to form in Downing Street as newsboys began spreading the word. The Prime Minister, Lloyd George, appeared just before the armistice began and the crowd sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. At Buckingham Palace a policeman confirmed the news just before 11am.
Many more men died on the Western Front in cold and fog as the fighting continued until the appointed time. George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers was believed to be the last British soldier killed in action during the war at 9.30 that morning. The western front changed from noise to silence. On the home front peace broke out noisily, with people in the streets cheering and singing. There was a stampede in a shopping street in central London. However, many unwelcome telegrams arrived home on that day telling of sons and husbands killed in action. Across Britain women in the crowds mourned but were grateful that a terrible war had been won. In churches the emphasis was on triumph and thanksgiving rather than remembrance of the dead. God was on the side of the British and our allies. The King and Queen journeyed out into the cheering crowds.
In Birmingham and other cities men dressed up as female nurses, there were mock funerals for the Kaiser and effigies burnt in the street on bonfires. In some towns pubs had to be closed as drunken revelry took hold. As the news spread the overwhelming sense of relief turned to mourning and then to despair at the state of the country and the awful social consequences of the most terrible war the world had seen.
The war had cost the lives of eight million men, with another twenty million wounded. In Britain alone 80,000 were suffering from shell shock; the psychological damage was incalculable. The country was shattered, government borrowing was high and industries struggled to change back from war manufacture to peacetime. The years following the end of war were not an easy decade for most people as the effects of the war were far reaching.