Ahead of the centenary of the end of the First World War. CHARLIE CONNELLY reconstructs the moving and momentous events of the very first Armistice Day, assembling personal accounts from diaries, newspaper and museum archives.
Across Europe rain had fallen through the night. In Britain it fell on the towns and cities, villages and hamlets, on roofs thatched and tiled. It fell on school playgrounds and farmers’ fields, church steeples and factory chimneys, glens and fens, made rivers rush and roads puddle-slick, splashed on slates and sloshed along gutters.
In France and Belgium it rained on medieval squares and shuttered chateaux, on factory towns and bombed-out hamlets. It rained on field hospitals and field guns, mess tents and mess tins. It pattered off rain capes and pinged off helmets. It made matches damp and tobacco clump. It soaked the duckboards, it soaked the rats. In no-man’s-land it topped up shell craters and washed clean the waxy flesh of the dead.
Forty miles north-east of Paris a fine drizzle fell on the forest of Compiègne, leaving a sheen on the mud between two sets of railway carriages at the end of a remote railway artillery siding at Rethondes. Lamps burned in the windows of one carriage. Inside the Compagnie de Wagons-Lits carriage number 2419, part of Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s personal train, there was a rectangular conference table, its veneer blemished with the thumb prints and smears of a long night, around which sat eight men, four Germans on one side, four from the Allies on the other.
Three hours earlier Matthias Erzberger, the plump former schoolteacher and journalist turned pacifist politician leading the German armistice delegation, had notified Foch the Germans were ready to sign the document that would silence the guns. Erzberger kept thinking of the last thing chancellor Prince Max von Baden, in office for barely a month, had told him before he’d left Berlin.
‘Obtain what mercy you can, Matthias, but for God’s sake make peace.’
At 5am, as the rain stopped, both sides were ready to sign. Over the previous three hours Erzberger had managed to secure some minor concessions from an otherwise intransigent Foch but these were down to simple factual inaccuracies in the documents rather than Allied accommodation. The discussions had been curt, the terse cordiality of the Allies barely concealing deep and simmering resentment. Foch had lost his son and son-in-law in the first months of the war and was in no mood to be gracious with representatives of the nation responsible.
The last of the 35 clauses was rubber-stamped at 5.10am and ten minutes later, having secured the assent of everyone present that they should sign the final page immediately and not wait for the entire revised document to be typed up, Foch picked up a pen and became the first to put his name to the document. At his suggestion it was agreed the official time of the signing be given as 0500, meaning the Armistice would come into effect six hours later at 11am on Monday November 11, 1918.
There was a brief silence. Foch rapped on the table with both hands, said, ‘très bien’, stood up and walked stiffly out of the carriage. The Germans followed, squelching wearily across the duckboards to their own train. There had been no handshakes.
A general order went out, dictated by Foch. ‘Hostilities will cease on the whole front as from November 11 at 11 o’clock French time,’ it read. ‘The Allied troops will not, until further order, go beyond the line reached on that date and at that hour.’
As the clock ticked towards six the commandant of Foch’s train produced a bottle of port and a box of biscuits. The remaining Allied support staff and clerks gathered, a British officer cleared his throat, made a short, uncertain toast to the Armistice and the men drained their glasses. Nobody was quite sure what to do.
The sky was beginning to lighten when Chas Turner walked through the door of the family home on Queen’s Place in Tranmere. He was alone and the house was empty. It was only when he stood at the door to the parlour that the true enormity of what had happened hit him: the chair on its side, the dark stain on the rug, the gun laying by the fireplace where he’d dropped it. He covered his face with his hands and wept.
This had been his first leave, the first chance he’d had to come back to the Wirral since he’d crossed the Channel in 1916. He hadn’t told his mother he was coming home, he thought he’d surprise her, and the look on her face when she’d opened the front door was something to behold. It was hard to believe that was barely five days ago.
The previous afternoon Annie Turner had asked her son about life at the front. He didn’t want to tell her the worst of it but he wanted to make her proud, so he’d talked about the camaraderie, the time they spent out of the line, how it wasn’t all that bad really, and he’d shown her his rifle, how he held the butt against his shoulder and looked down the sight, how you had to keep as still and calm as you could.
Then as he let the rifle drop down on to his lap there was a sudden and terrible confusion. A loud bang made his ears ring and he jumped, startled. His mother was looking at him, her mouth opening and closing. She had her hand on her abdomen and a circle of red was spreading around it, swallowing up the flowers on her pinafore. Chas could barely comprehend what was happening as he watched his mother slide forward slightly on the chair, then roll sideways and fall to the floor.
‘Mam!’ he cried. ‘Mam!’
He scooped his mother up in his arms. The infirmary was four streets away. Although physically slight Annie Turner was a strong woman and lingered for hours. Chas knew there was no hope. He’d seen enough bullet wounds to recognise the fatal ones.
Annie Turner died at around 9pm on November 10. Chas walked aimlessly all night, arriving back at the house almost by accident to find the door still ajar, the teacups still on the table in the parlour half-drunk and cold, the fire in the grate just ashes.
Foch arrived at the Ministry of War in Paris where he was greeted by the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau. Bells began to ring across the city.
Despite news of the imminent Armistice, French forces in the Ardennes continued with an attack on German positions close to the River Meuse. At 10.50 a 40-year-old messenger from the French 415th Infantry Division named Augustin Trébuchon was shot and killed close to a railway line. He was carrying a message to troops telling them that hot soup would be served once the Armistice came into effect.
At 10.55am in London the door to 10 Downing Street opened and prime minister David Lloyd-George appeared, his diminutive figure dwarfed by the large policeman standing guard beside him. A boisterous crowd filled the narrow street and when they recognised the slight figure in the doorway there was an immediate chorus of For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow. Lloyd-George smiled awkwardly and motioned for silence.
‘At eleven o’clock this morning,’ he announced, turning left and right to ensure everyone in the street could hear, ‘the war will be over’.
A chorus of cheers.
‘We have won a great victory,’ he added, ‘and are entitled to a bit of shouting.’
He stepped back inside and as the door closed behind him headed for his study where the book of psalms he kept there awaited his attention.
Two minutes before the Armistice came into effect at the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers in Lorraine a 23-year-old private from the US 313th Infantry unit named Henry Gunther from Baltimore came within sight of a German roadblock. Gunther’s unit held back, but Gunther himself suddenly began to run towards the German soldiers, bayonet fixed, roaring at the men manning the machine gun. Aware the Armistice was a matter of seconds away the Germans gestured and waved at Gunther to go back but still his boots thudded along the road, still his bayonet was fixed, still he bellowed.
As he drew nearer Gunther raised his rifle and fired a couple of shots at which point the astounded Germans had no option but to open fire, riddling the American with bullets and killing him instantly.
In July Gunther had been a sergeant when military censors had opened a letter he’d sent to a friend advising him to avoid enlisting at all costs because the conditions in France were so bad. It earned him a demotion to private, a punishment many thought severe. Colleagues would later recall how Gunther had spoken of his determination to make good his reputation before officers and colleagues. Marie Curie heard the news of the Armistice in the laboratory at the Radium Institute on Riding House Street in the heart of central London. She downed tools immediately and with her assistant Marthe Klein went out to buy commemorative flags. Finding the shops completely sold out they returned to the Institute, stitched together some red, white and blue material they’d found and hung the makeshift banners from the windows. Keen to explore the celebrations, Curie, Klein and the caretaker from the Institute drove out in one of the cars belonging to the radiology department that had been used at the front as mobile x-ray units.
At Hogarth House in Richmond, Surrey, Virginia Woolf was at her desk writing, as she was every morning. ‘Twenty-five minutes ago the guns went off, announcing peace,’ she wrote in her diary at around 11.30…
‘A siren hooted on the river. They are hooting still. A few people ran back to look out of windows. A very cloudy still day, the smoke toppling over heavily towards the east; and that too wearing for a moment a look of something floating, waving, drooping. So far neither bells nor flags, but the wailing of sirens and intermittent guns.’
At midday in Shrewsbury Mrs Susan Owen answered the door to the telegram boy who handed her an envelope without a word. Inside a brief message stated that her son Wilfred, a Second Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment, had been killed in action a week earlier crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. Church bells pealed joyously as she read the telegram. At the end of the path the telegram boy had to step smartly aside to avoid being knocked over by two running, laughing children.
Eighteen-year-old Claude Choules, a naval messenger boy from Worcestershire, was on the battleship HMS Revenge at Rosyth naval base in the Firth of Forth when news of the Armistice came through. The ship’s captain, a formidable Irishman named Neil O’Neill, immediately gave the order to splice the mainbrace, the naval code for serving up an extra tot of rum for all hands.
Shortly afterwards the entire ship’s company was summoned to the quarterdeck to dance with the officers to the music of the band. As the extra rum ration began to take effect, Claude leaned on a guard rail, looked out across the base and chuckled to himself as he saw the crews of every ship in Rosyth doing exactly the same.
In London the American poet Ezra Pound was soaked by drizzle on the top deck of an open-topped bus in Piccadilly that hadn’t moved for 20 minutes. He was about to stand up and make his way off when he saw the crowds on the other side of the street being pushed back by a line of policemen as the king and queen drove slowly past in an open car. The royal couple were on a brief crowd-pleasing circuit from Buckingham Palace to the Strand to the Mansion House and back along Piccadilly to the palace, waving and smiling at the joyous crowds.
Pound looked down at the King, in military uniform as he had been constantly since war was declared, and later wrote of how ‘the poor devil was looking happy, I should think for the first time in his life’.
Not far away, high up in St Stephen’s bell tower in Westminster mechanics from Dent & Co., having checked and re-checked that they’d replaced all the necessary gears and removed all the ropes and stays that had prevented Big Ben from chiming, made their way back down the narrow staircase before they were deafened by the imminent ringing of the top of the hour.
In Blackburn, 19-year-old Sam Short from Poplar felt as if he’d been reprieved from a death sentence. Indeed, that’s exactly what he’d just told the girl he’d been talking to in the pub. They’d been chatting about this and that, why he’d ended up in the hospital at Whalley, her job in the haberdasher’s, when suddenly she’d asked, laughing, how it felt, knowing that there was no war to go back to.
He’d paused, looked away and the smile flickered on his face as he said, ‘like being reprieved from a death sentence. That’s it, like being reprieved from a death sentence’.
When news of the Armistice had come through everyone in the hospital who was able to walk had hopped out of their beds, put on whatever clothes they could find and joined the crowds on the streets. Sam still had pyjamas on under his khakis and managed to bump into a friend of his from the front, a young man from the Royal Army Medical Corps.
They were having quite the day, ending up in a back street pub where Sam looked across the bar at the people smiling in the light of the wall lamps and milky daylight and gave silent thanks that he could see anything at all. It wasn’t even two months since he’d been gassed and left blinded with swollen, sticky eyes.
How he landed up in a Blackburn hospital when he was from east London he didn’t know, but by the time he arrived in Lancashire he could see shapes and lights. It was four weeks before he’d recognise faces: the family friends from Bolton who came to visit were a welcome sight after weeks in the dark.
Could the war really be over? He’d been just a boy when it started and he’d grown into a man who’d seen terrible things and had to do terrible things. The war seemed like it would go on forever until there were no men left to fight, just empty trenches and rows and rows of graves covering the entire continent.
The faces of the people milling in the streets, hanging from the buses and on the running boards of cars and taxis, the people in the pub chattering, shouting, singing, joking, with every cheer and every joke and every song they were losing a little bit more of that haunted look they’d worn for the last four years.
He was starting to believe he wouldn’t have to go back when his body was wracked by a coughing fit: the cigarette smoke in the pub had irritated the mustard gas-raw alveoli in his lungs and his eyes were still tender and sensitive. That had to be the reason they were wet. The smoke. He saw the girl reach out and lay her hand on his. Yes, the smoke, that had to be the reason for the tears.
As the clock struck four Alderman John Jeal, J.P., appeared as promised on the steps of the town hall at Hythe in Kent. A crowd had been milling around in the square since the announcement of the Armistice and when the 68-year-old building contractor had announced his intention earlier in the day it had given at least a semblance of focus to the gathering.
With a showmanship Jeal hadn’t realised he possessed he unfurled a German flag and held it in front of him to a chorus of boos. He handed the flag to a policeman, reached inside his jacket pocket for his cigarette lighter, flared it into life and held it to the lower corner of the flag. A hush fell over the crowd. It took a few seconds to catch, accompanied by a couple of shouts of encouragement from the audience, but when the corner of the began to curl and burn as the bright orange flame grew in the murky late afternoon light a roar of appreciation went up, punctuated by whistles and applause.
The policeman held the flag as long as he could before dropping it to the ground. Alderman Jeal poked at the burning fabric with his foot, sending up showers of sparks, and looked out across the gathered happy faces.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he called, raising his hands palms outward to call for quiet. There was a general ‘shushing’.
‘On this momentous day, in which we think of friends and family lost and friends and family safe, I beseech you all to return here at eight o’clock this evening, when we shall burn an effigy of the kaiser.’
The crowd roared its approval.
In Backwell, Gloucestershire, German prisoners of war had, for the past year or so, been set to work in the fields. Relieved to be away from the fighting they were an amiable bunch who worked quite happily in their grey uniforms with red horseshoes on the back to signify their POW status. The children were fascinated by the men and would often hang around watching them work. They particularly liked a big Prussian with a red face who was always quick to laugh and joke with them even though neither spoke a word of the other’s language. He had a beard like the kaiser’s and they called him Mr Whiskers.
The news of the Armistice had reached Backwell later than other parts of the country but eventually the switchboard operator had run into the street shouting, ‘it’s peace! It’s peace! The war’s over!’ Everyone came out of their houses and shops and there was a great commotion. Mr Whiskers happened to be in the village on an errand and was bewildered by all the activity. When a local woman was finally able to make him understand he lifted her into the air, spun her round and ran back to the other prisoners as fast as he could.
At Kigoma, on the north-eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, German East Africa, Frank Musto, a signaller with the King’s African Rifles, was playing football with the rest of his unit. They had been at Kigoma for a couple of days, camped in tents on the shore, as part of a long journey south to set up a signalling station at Abercorn, now Mbala, on the southern tip of the lake, around 500 miles away.
Football had become a daily ritual once the worst of the heat had gone from the sun and a cooling breeze came in off the lake. The kickabouts would become intense and competitive, hence, by the time Frank became aware of the shouting, the man running towards them waving his arms was already close.
The game stopped, the ball bobbled to a halt, everyone turned to look and Frank soon recognised the man as a signaller from the Belgian station nearby. He halted, put his hands on his knees and between gasps told the footballers word had just come in that the war was over. He was asked a couple of times to repeat this news as it came as a complete surprise: Frank and his comrades had had no inkling from the regular bulletins from the British base at Aden that the end of the war was imminent. The Belgian invited the men back to their hut where a bottle of whisky was produced and Land of Hope and Glory and the Belgian national anthem were sung with more enthusiasm than musical ability, the raucous sound drifting out over the lake as darkness began to fall.
The bars and éstaminets in towns and villages along the Western Front were doing a roaring trade. British soldiers danced with French and Belgian girls to the accompaniments of gramophones, penny-in-the-slot pianos or local accordion players. On the front itself Verey lights – the pistol-fired flares used to light up no-man’s land to check for enemy activity – filled the sky in a display of colour that illuminated the blasted countryside and made the mud and shell craters shine.
Meanwhile British army medic Lloyd Fox was trying to keep warm in an abandoned convent in Courtrai. He was suffering from a heavy cold and sat alone with a hurricane lamp and his feet in a bowl of hot water when he heard a commotion; cheering and the blowing of horns. He followed the noise and reached the main square, helped to pull the German bandstand to pieces and assisted in turning it into a bonfire. He watched as a group of drunken American soldiers cavorted around the square firing off Verey lights, one of which hit a young local man and killed him on the spot.
In London crowds milled through the streets, gathering outside the embassies of the Allied nations, St Paul’s Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and in Whitehall. The city’s theatre frontages blazed with light for the first time in many months. Trafalgar Square became a focus for celebration with crowds in khakis and civvies dancing, singing and drinking. A workman with a ladder had been cheered at dusk as he moved methodically around the square removing the shrouds that had covered the street lamps since the Zeppelin raids began.
A group of Australian soldiers set fire to a workman’s hut and danced around the conflagration. Benches were broken up and set alight; the war bonds posters that papered the hoardings around the base of Nelson’s Column torn down and used as kindling. A tank of pitch was set ablaze, its contents oozing through the square like lava. As the hours passed revellers cavorted ever more frantically in the light of the flames, dancing as if tomorrow need never come.
As midnight approached the rain began to fall again.