My favourite story about Armistice Day – reported by A J P Taylor in his English History 1914–45 – is inevitably contained in Guy Cuthbertson’s superbly researched and exhaustive survey of the day the Great War ended. Taylor (who, as Cuthbertson points out, was a schoolboy at the time and in bed with flu in Buxton) observed that ‘total strangers copulated in doorways and on the pavements. They were asserting the triumph of life over death.’ One of the strengths of this fine book is that the reader has the sensation that he or she actually took part in what, at the time, was regarded as the greatest day in the history of the world, though with his or her clothes on.
Cuthbertson has not merely trawled memoirs, diaries and letters in which personal experiences of the day were recorded; he also seems to have been through just about every local newspaper in Britain – a much underappreciated source – to describe the ‘mafficking’ that went on when the news arrived from Compiègne. This can at times give his book the feel of being something of a list, or a round-Britain round-up, which is its only shortcoming. But the extensive context and understanding he provides more than compensate for this. Cuthbertson is not a historian but an expert in literature who has edited the works of Edward Thomas and written a life of Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly a week before the guns fell silent. Cuthbertson retails the unfortunate story of how, as the bells of Shrewsbury rang out to celebrate the ceasefire, a telegram arrived at the house of Owen’s family announcing his death. It is the most vivid reminder that 11 November 1918 was not a day of rejoicing for everyone.
Cuthbertson sets the scene expertly. He describes the much-delayed and elongated meeting between German and Allied generals in the railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne at which the ‘Kaiserless’ Germans – Wilhelm II had abdicated two days earlier – finally accepted the thirty-four terms on which the Allies insisted. This happened at 5.12am on 11 November, though the finalised document, for purposes of regularity, set it at 5am. It was the age not just before the internet but also before broadcasting. Nonetheless, news travelled reasonably fast. It was wired to the trenches and to towns and villages across Europe, to newspaper offices and post offices. In the trenches the men didn’t believe it, and some only had it verified minutes before the Armistice became operative at 11am. The last British soldier to die was killed, fabulously pointlessly, at 9.30am.
When maroons went off in some towns to signal the end of the war, there were occasional panics, the public thinking an air raid had started, though there had been none for several months as the Germans concentrated on holding their line in France and Belgium. For most people the realisation that peace had come was when churches across the country began ringing their bells, which had mostly been silent since 1914. This was the spark for rejoicing, which lasted through the afternoon and into the evening and became more riotous as the alcohol started to flow. By the afternoon towns and cities were bedecked with flags – not just the Union flag, but those of Britain’s French and American allies too. There was much singing, notably of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, though occasionally, where skills permitted, of ‘La Marseillaise’. When darkness fell, which in London was not long after 4.15pm, fires were lit, including one in Trafalgar Square that left scorch marks at the foot of Nelson’s Column that remained visible for years.
Some of the carousing got out of hand, not least among privileged types. In Berkhamsted drunken boys from the school teamed up with drunken servicemen. The intended climax of their celebration was to throw the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in the river. The man in question – Charles Greene, father of Graham Greene – escaped that fate, but nonetheless expelled 122 of them. Presumably realising the effect on the school’s finances, he reinstated the boys shortly afterwards.
Cuthbertson also looks at the day through the lens of contemporary literature, from Dorothy L Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club to Ford Madox Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up. He quotes Thomas Hardy on the desolation of victory to great effect. With around 888,000 Britons killed in the war, there were many people for whom this was a day of sad remembrance, as its anniversary has been ever since. If the balance in the book, though, is weighted towards the exuberance and relief felt on Armistice Day, that can hardly be considered surprising.
There are just two assertions in the book with which I would take issue. Cuthbertson writes that ‘this was arguably the last day in English history when the Church of England was truly a national church’. The Church had not been truly national since the spread of dissent in the 18th century, and especially since Catholic Emancipation in 1829. Yet if by ‘national’ he means the Church provided a focus for the sentiments of people who were not communicating members of it, then it played a similar role in 1945, and indeed at Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.
And he observes, with European empires and thrones falling, that ‘the crown survived … but it could not behave as it did before 1914’. I wonder how he imagines the crown carried on before 1914. George V was essentially the first middle-class king, and behaved as such from the moment he succeeded his father in 1910. He was seldom happier than when crammed with his wife and five children into their (by royal standards) modest house on the Sandringham estate, playing with his stamp collection. And he continued in exactly the same way until he died in 1936, bequeathing his throne to precisely the sort of delinquent too many well-to-do families of the era had to cope with in the aftermath of such an appalling war. Those caveats aside, this is as definitive a work as one could wish for about the day that saw the end of what was supposedly the war to end all wars.