Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 by Guy Cuthbertson
Yale University Press, 2018
The subtitle of this compelling book might well have been “an aural history of the armistice,“ such is the cacophony of human emotions that pulse in all sorts of ways within its pages. Commotion, clamour, hysteria, a torrent of jubilation and lamentation: all provide the soundtrack to one extraordinary day. But it begins with silence, the morning air heavy with exhaustion as delegates from Germany, France, and Britain assemble in a railway carriage situated in the Forest of Compiègne in northern France. Terms are agreed to end four years of collective slaughter, with Germany, the cowed aggressor, admitting defeat. If not officially the end of hostilities (this would come with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919), the Armistice agreement reached on that cold, foggy November morning effectively put an end to the First World War. With the savagely illogical irony of war, the Armistice was signed at 5:12 a.m. on the understanding that hostilities would not officially cease until several hours later, 11:00 a.m. to be exact. During that interim period all combatants were at liberty —and indeed were fully expected— to continue with the killing, which is why one unlucky American soldier, Henry Gunther, died at 10:59 by machine-gun fire at Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, even though the German soldiers whom he was charging were already aware of the Armistice and tried to wave him away before shooting.
By 11:00, as author Guy Cuthbertson puts it, “the game was over” and an eerie quiet prevailed. According to a contemporary report in The Times, “what was by far the most striking feature about the cessation of hostilities [was the] uncanny silence.” Once the appointed hour arrived, the men “just stopped firing.” Rudyard Kipling quoted a member of the Irish Guards as saying that the silence “felt like falling through into nothing. Listening for what wasn’t there.” This unearthly peace went together with a realisation of what slim territorial conquests had been achieved in relation to all the lives lost, or, as one soldier put it, “it was a strange coincidence that, after more than four years of war we should finish fighting within less than a mile of the place where we had first come into action.” In a macabrely succinct observation, another soldier remarked that it was “as though the beginning and the end were shaking hands.”
So, with a strange stillness blanketing the battlefields on the stroke of 11:00, what of the reaction when word of the Armistice reached the home front? Dividing his book into morning, afternoon, and night-time, Cuthbertson deftly charts the rising crescendo of the nation’s response to the news that the war was finally over. As is fitting in a chronicle of a day on which those present must have experienced all manner of thoughts and emotions and witnessed some extraordinary sights, the accounts of what took place come thick and fast, so that at times it feels as if one were actually caught up in the whole tumultuous spectacle. On the stroke of eleven, sirens, hooters, and gun-shots suddenly rent the air across the nation. It was the human voice, however, that soon became the prevailing source of sustained commotion. Indeed, Lloyd George said in 10 Downing Street that morning that given the circumstances, people were entitled to “a bit of shouting”— or as Rear-Admiral Kelly put it to his troops in Portsmouth naval barracks, “I think this is not only an occasion for three cheers, but for a yell. Now yell.” Not just yelling, but singing and dancing crowds began to assemble within a short space of time, to the point where it soon became obvious that wartime decorum had fallen by the wayside. By and large, officialdom seems to have conceded this point early on in the celebrations, with such dignitaries as the Mayor of Chester wryly sanctioning the hubbub by telling his citizenry, “I leave it to your consciences how you should behave today.” In London the multitudes that gathered are described by Cuthbertson as “uncontrollable, unpredictable, immeasurable, awe-inspiring; this was the crowd as an example of the sublime.” Main thoroughfares such as Whitehall stopped functioning altogether as traffic came to a standstill. Meanwhile office workers, in a frenzy of celebratory insubordination, took to shredding documents which they turned into confetti to rain down on the crowds, so that, as one eyewitness put it, “the ground was covered with a deep autumnal layer of bits of paper,” some of which looked “terribly confidential.” The idea of throwing off the shackles of strictly regulated behaviour even penetrated the police courts, where there were several instances of unusual clemency being doled out to miscreants, including one William Henry in York, charged with being drunk and incapable. When this habitual offender was actually let off for once, the magistrates’ clerk observed that he hoped that “under the happy circumstances” the Armistice would prove to be a turning point for Henry, before wearily adding that “it will look well if he is up here tomorrow for celebrating it.”
So far so riotous, but Cuthbertson is also careful, throughout his account, to contrast all this frantic exuberance with those aspects of Armistice Day which were decidedly less joyful. As on any other day during the four-year conflict, black-bordered telegrams were still posted through doors across Britain announcing the deaths of those who would never join the revels. One such case was that of war poet Wilfred Owen, whose family received their notification of his death at noon in Shrewsbury, when, according to his brother, “church bells were still ringing, the bands playing and the jubilant crowds surging together.” (According to one contemporary school of thought, Owen and all the other combatants who had either fallen or somehow managed to survive had at least experienced what it was like to be in the thick of it. For some who had not served in the trenches, not having had the chance to take part was a source of lasting regret; take, for example, T. E. Lawrence who, having hot-footed it all the way back from Damascus and the Arab Revolt, was despondent on finding that he was too late to “pitch in with chasing the Germans back to Berlin.” Meanwhile, fourteen-year-old schoolboy Graham Greene would lament that “the war ended too soon for us,” a sentiment shared and recorded by several other would-be under-age combatants at a time when to someday fight for one’s country was an ingrained ambition amongst many of the young male population — although, as George Orwell remarked, in some quarters of the Eton of his day “the pacifist reaction had set in long before the war ended.”) By this point in the book, Cuthbertson has succeeded in carrying us along on something of a breathless journey from a few hours before the Armistice was declared through to noon, showing how all manner of emotions collided in that space of time. Had the book continued at this breakneck pace of rapid vignettes whizzing by, the result might have been increasingly formulaic, not to say tedious. Fortunately, the author shows himself to be much more in control of his material than to allow that to happen.
The place of organised religion and, more particularly, Christianity in the Armistice celebrations is one of Cuthbertson’s significant themes as his account reaches the afternoon of the eleventh. Declining congregations were a source of concern during the course of the war; God’s essential benevolence or even very existence had been called into question in the face of such remorseless loss of life. With the fighting at an end, the clergy set about the task of associating the advent of peace with a reaffirmation of faith, as thanksgiving services were held across the land. As one contemporary report proclaimed, “it has been an inspiring experience to find the definite emphasis by the unanimous voice of the people, in the very dawn of their new found gladness, that we are still a Christian nation.” Catholicism, by virtue of not being the country’s constitutionally established religion, could take a more ecumenically neutral approach to its thanksgiving messages by promoting an indiscriminate sense of peace and reconciliation which transcended national borders. The Church of England, on the other hand, had something of a dilemma: implicitly associated with the nation’s faith in the righteousness of the war, it was also sporadically reminded by its harsher critics that the Protestantism which it espoused ultimately originated in the German heartlands of the enemy. As one particularly virulent malcontent saw it, “this God which Luther created heeds neither thanks nor appeals. For all we know to the contrary He is asleep or deaf…we have won the war by our own unaided efforts, by big guns and many battalions.” On a much more reverently orthodox note, the mayor of Hove assured the Armistice celebrants of the town that “God has used us as his instruments to undo Germany’s mighty efforts to rule the world by might.” A grimmer assessment of the kind of divine intervention that had brought about victory was supplied by the Rev. Father Riley of St Helens, who dourly informed his flock that “whilst God has attempted to use this war to set right the great injustice, in the very using of us He has punished us…this punishment was due to us for our neglect of God and his service.”
Nevertheless, for every baleful Father Riley there were many others keen to put aside all thoughts of perdition and wave a flag instead. The impromptu hoisting of Union Jacks and associated bunting took place all over the country, to such an extent that The Times coined the phrase ‘Buntingitis’ for this phenomenon. One firm in Glasgow sold £2,000 worth of its flag stock in an hour. When no official merchandise was available, impromptu substitutes were made using such items —according to Cuthbertson— as bed covers and ladies’ underwear. Not that such activity was solely to do with declamatory nationalism. Often flag-waving was simply about rejoicing for the sake of it, an activity which also served to elide national boundaries so that, on Armistice day, French flags were flown in Wales, Cockneys draped themselves in Stars and Stripes, and American troops in Belfast carried Belgian flags. Amidst such indiscriminate jubilation, Cuthbertson will suddenly swoop down into the melee and focus in on a particularly choice vignette, such as the scene in London’s Chancery Lane where: “…a stout policeman on point duty was surrounded by girls all clamouring to dance with him. The London bobby rose to the occasion – without a word he took on one after another for a turn around the narrow pavement, whilst his countenance remained absolutely impassive.”
Elsewhere we are told of how, in Manchester, two sailors were dancing on the roof of a taxi when it collapsed and they plunged into the cab’s interior. At the other end of the country Harry Patch, who would be the oldest surviving Great War combatant when he died aged 111, saw soldiers turn on a particularly bossy sergeant and chase him along Yarmouth Pier, from which they threw him into the sea. This episode is recounted in a chapter that Cuthbertson appropriately entitles ‘Carnival Afternoon,’ which is replete with such puckish escapades. However, if all this was mere high spirits in the first unfettered afternoon of peace, as sunset crept over the country at around 4:15 other emotions of a decidedly less breezy nature manifested themselves in the nation’s psyche. There are several accounts of Armistice bonfires in the streets, upon which stuffed effigies of the Kaiser were howled out as they disintegrated in the flames. Elsewhere, similar spike-helmeted, thickly moustachioed attempts to invoke the lately abdicated German Emperor were publicly —and gleefully— hanged. Secluded from such grand guignol, but unable to block it out completely, were lugubrious members of the intelligentsia. These included Bertrand Russell who professed himself appalled at the ‘frivolous’ crowds, a gloomily distracted Virginia Woolf, and Robert Graves writing of “the froth of the city/ The thoughtless ignorant scum” (perhaps understandably, given his first-hand experience of front-line horrors). These refined souls seem to have quailed at the sheer sensory overload of Armistice night, which, as Cuthbertson puts it, was filled with “strange, carnal, bestial sounds which might have indicated strangers copulating but could also have just been the screams, roars, moans, groans, shrieks and sighs that the Armistice had been producing all day.” This cacophony may also have expressed individuals’ uncertainty about their destinies, now that the fighting was over and they once more had to deal with the freedoms and responsibilities of which, paradoxically, wartime restrictions had relieved them. Would there be enough jobs to support returning soldiers, and would those same soldiers and their families be able to live happily together again? As Armistice night drew to a close and the streets echoed with the footsteps of slowly dispersing revellers, these and numerous other hopes and fears probably lent an unsettling tinge of trepidation to the atmosphere.
Cuthbertson ends this absorbing book with a brief overview of Armistice memorialisation in the years that followed. During that time, the day became predominantly associated with the payment of respects to all those lost in the conflict that had ended on that momentous Monday morning in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. It was this same railway carriage that Hitler would make a point of using to accept the French surrender in 1940 — before the SS destroyed the vehicle in 1945. There is an oft-remarked symbolism about this grim bit of trivia, since it sheds light on the causal links between the First and Second World Wars. Cuthbertson is not the first to suggest that the Armistice of 1918 could be regarded, ultimately, as “a colossal failure,” at least in terms of how it then led to the punishment meted out to Germany in the Treaty of Versailles, which caused such festering resentment amongst that country’s nationalists. Ultimately, though, the best elements of Peace at Last are not found in passages which dwell on such future developments. It is when the book stays in the moment on that joyful, strange, melancholy, and chaotic day that the Armistice really comes to life. —Mark Jones