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Podcast 47: Armistice

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He said, ‘There's a sign on that thing marking somebody’s headquarters and it says the wars over.’ Don’t believe it. Nobody would believe it. The war couldn't be over; it had been on for years, nobody would believe it could finish!

In early October 1918, Germany, no longer able to continue the war, approached the United States about an armistice. Many ordinary British soldiers on the Western Front could sense that the war was drawing to a close, as Marmaduke Walkinton remembered.

We realised that the war might be ending but we really couldn't believe that it could be ending. Anyway, early in November, I wrote home and said we may have peace by Christmas but this is not very probable: Easter should see the end of it all. That was my view at the time. We ran a sweepstake on the day the war would end, even though we couldn’t believe that it would end. I chose December the 25th as my day. Many people chose a day around Easter and the winner of the sweep chose November the 13th. Clever fellow, wasn’t he?!

The men in the front line were fairly isolated from up-to-date news of the wider war. William Davies of the Machine Gun Corps had trouble convincing his battalion of what he had found out during a spell of leave in Paris.

In Paris, I could see the continental Daily Mail and from it I gathered that the war was virtually over. I got back to the unit and said, ‘This war’s nearly over’ and they would not believe me. They said it was absolutely ridiculous – not in that language – because there were lorries pouring, troops, ammunition incessantly. It was all going on as if we had to go all the way to Cologne, you see…

After weeks of diplomatic wrangling, an armistice was finally signed at 5am on 11 November. Military commanders on the Western Front were then informed that the hostilities would cease at 11 am. John Boon, who served on the telephone exchange at the 9th Wing RAF Headquarters, read the message he received about the armistice that day.

The telegram that was received on November 11, here's the message: 8.05, five past eight in the morning. Hostilities will cease at 11.00 today Ack. Ack. Ack. No operations should be undertaken which cannot be completed by that time and no machines will cross the lines after that hour Ack. Ack. Ack. (‘Ack. Ack. Ack.’ is the code for full stop) Patrols will be maintained but should not operate further forward than the line of our balloons. So after the armistice was signed, no plane crossed the line.

The way in which news of the armistice was communicated to members of the Allied forces varied. British private William Gillman was told in a formal way.

The column was marching; we had the bands with us then. It was open ground through a meadow on either side. And all of a sudden, horses galloped up, a band of horses galloped up with brass hats and all this and course we were called to a halt, left turn and stand easy. The chief bloke, brass hat, on his horse he didn’t get off his horse, none of them did. And he waved his hands; take it easy, sort of. And he unrolled this long, white document and he read out – he'd got a good voice, we could hear him – he read out the armistice was signed this morning at so and so place, gave the place. And he's stating that the hostilities will cease from 11 that morning. And of course we had heard rumours for a couple of days that we'd really got Gerry on the run then. And of course this didn't really come as a surprise and actually there wasn't a cheer of any kind raised when that was read out.

Signaller Bertram Neyland got the news from Paris.

The infantry, the Westmoreland and Cumberlands came crowding round the door – ‘Is it true, is it true?’ So, the rain had stopped then, we carted our table with our tuppenny-ha’penny set on it, and we had an enormous aerial there, right the length of a football field, and very high. So we were picking up Eiffel Tower on it quite distinctly. And Eiffel Tower broadcast the details of the Armistice to the world, going through it all day long on the eleventh. I suppose when they got to the end of it they started off again. And I can always remember one chap digging another chap and he said ‘The war is over. Look, hear those noises? They’re coming from Paris!’

The news travelled at different speeds, and was delayed in getting to some places. George Jameson’s unit read about it.

When the war actually ended, we didn't even know about it. We knew that things were getting pretty critical, we knew that we were doing well and nobody wanted to cop out on one when the war might be ending tomorrow, sort of thing. It was the wrong time to get wounded or hit or anything, you see! So we were pretty careful. But we were moving forward with the idea of taking another position when one of the drivers shouted up to somebody, ‘There's a sign on that,’ it was an entrance to some house. He said, ‘There's a sign on that thing marking somebody’s headquarters and it says the wars over.’ Don’t believe it. Nobody would believe it. The war couldn't be over; it had been on for years, nobody would believe it could finish! It’s a fact; it says there the war was over. So somebody rode back and read this thing that said, as from 11 o'clock this morning, hostilities have ceased. And we then realised the war was over.

Fighting continued in some places as the news made its way along the Western Front, and men still lost their lives on the final day of the war. Jim Fox of the Durham Light Infantry remembered one such incident.

Of course, when the armistice was to be signed at 11 o'clock on the 11th of November, as from 6 o'clock that morning there was only the occasional shell that was sent either by us over the German lines or the German over at our lines. Maybe there was one an hour. And then, about 10am, one came down and killed a sergeant of ours who'd been out since 1915. He was killed with shrapnel, you know. Thought that was very unlucky. To think he’d served since 1915, three years until 1918, nearly four years and then to be killed within an hour of armistice…

William Collins clearly remembered conditions on the morning of the 11 November, and noted the significance of where he was that day.

On armistice morning, I remember the fog was – it was a Monday morning, November the 11th. The fog was so thick that visibility was down to 10 yards. And as we moved and moved on, we found ourselves at about 10 o'clock that morning we were up with the infantry patrols. And of course, when we found out that they were the closest to the Germans, we stopped and we stood in that place until… must have been oh, half past 12, one o'clock before the order was given to retire. A silence came over the whole place that you could almost feel, you know, after four and a half years of war, not a shot was being fired, not a sound was heard because the fog blanketed everything, you see, and hung really thickly over… We were north-east of Mons, whereas I'd started the battle four and a half years before, south-east of Mons. So there I was, back where the war started after nearly four and a half years of it.

When people found out that the war had ended, they reacted in different ways. For British officer Tom Adlam, the outcome had never been in doubt.

I don’t think any of us thought we’d lose. I think we were confident all the time. I don’t think any of us did. We always thought we were a bit better than they were. The German, I always thought, was a good fighter. I’d sooner have them on my side than on the opposite side. We always felt, even the most timid of us, that we’d win in the end. And so we carried on with it.

Harry Hopthrow found that some were keen to fight up until the last minute.

At breakfast time that morning there was an, I think an infantry battalion had halted just outside the divisional headquarters, who were making their breakfast. I went out and I said, ‘Oh the war’s going to stop at 11 o'clock today.’ And then an officer came up and said, ‘What's this, cookhouse gossip?’ sort of thing. And I told him and that. The result was the cavalry, the 7th Dragoon Guards, with horses had turned up by then and they heard this and they immediately – they were going to halt – and they immediately saddled up and off they went and went into action.

Charles Wilson of the Gloucestershire Regiment was delighted when he heard of the armistice.

Well of course there was tremendous jubilation, I can remember. We had just come out of this battle and the armistice was on the 11th of November. We were doing battalion drill back in some village in France when we formed up and the commanding officer made the announcement: an armistice was signed at 11 o'clock today. Of course there was a swell of excitement amongst the men and our only interest then was to find something to drink to celebrate it and there was nothing to be had, not a bottle of wine or anything else! However we soon put that right…

But Clifford Lane was just too physically and mentally shattered to celebrate.

Then as far as the armistice itself was concerned, it was an anti-climax. We were too far gone, too exhausted, really to enjoy it. All we could do was just go back to our billets; there was no cheering, no singing, we had no alcohol – that particular day we had no alcohol at all – and we simply celebrated the armistice in silence and thankfulness that it was all over. And I believe that happened quite a lot in France. There was such a sense of anti-climax; there was such a… We were drained of all emotion really – that’s what it amounted to, you see. Then it was a question of when we were going to get home…

Some were shocked at the news. British private Herbert Cooper recalled his disbelief that the way of life he was used to had come to an end.

When we came back from this divisional inspection, outside our billets, well the officer just said, ‘An armistice has been signed with the Germans at 11 o'clock this morning’ and we just said that we hope the war is over and we just sort of gave a slight cheer. But we didn't believe it; we thought that it would all start again in another week. A few days then, outside battalion headquarters, they had the terms of the armistice, the German fleet to go to Scapa Flow; all machine guns, so many thousand machine guns and artillery to be handed over and that the German troops should go back so many miles etc. And then that really convinced us that it was over. But then I used to dream that the thing had started again. I think it was quite a few weeks before I really got down to the fact that there was going to be no more war and that we were not going into the trenches again.

Arthur Dunton of the Seaforth Highlanders recalled his first reaction to the end of the war.

Relief of course, it was a job over and well done, good! Naturally, because there were times when you’d think to yourself, ‘How is this war going to end?’ It was year after year, it was, what, since ’14, so three and a half years without any break. You thought to yourself, ‘How the Dickens is the war going to end?’ You'd get on a few miles and the Germans would get on a few miles, then not doing anything important – neither one of us was, you see. The Somme, we fought there all the time on the Somme from beginning to end and we were about 10 miles, I suppose, in advance. And Passchendaele, never get any further, you got in the mud, bogged down in the mud so there was never any… After the first few months of the war when we'd driven the Germans back over the Marne and over the Aisne then it became a fixture – that was the end; no further after that.

British officer G Spicer was too exhausted to react in any way to the news.

I met an officer who informed me that an armistice had been signed and that the war was over. I got my men back, because we were all pretty worn out by that time. And I regret to say that the only celebration I had of armistice was, I got back to this hut somewhere about 2 o'clock and I lay down and the next time I woke up was the next morning. I'd been to sleep for 15 hours without waking up!

For many, the moment of the armistice was a time to reflect on all the lives that had been lost during the war. Ruby Ord was serving in France with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.

I think it was a bit of an anti-climax. Suddenly you thought about, you see, all the people you had known who were killed, etc. They were just in the war zone, and they could come home in your imagination. But the Armistice brought the realisation to you that they weren’t coming back, that it was the end. I think that it was not such a time of rejoicing as it might have been. You were glad the fighting was over and that not more men would be killed. But I do think it was dampened down very much, in France. I think they had all the enthusiasm probably in England, but I think we were too near reality to feel that way. I didn’t, certainly. I did not go out of camp on Armistice Day.

But others did celebrate. Lloyd Fox served with the Friends Ambulance Unit. He remembered that the festivities where he was stationed in Belgium got out of hand.

News of the armistice came into the town and there were lots of horns blowing and all that sort of thing. I had to deal with the last of my army cases during the war. An unfortunate young soldier was hit in the face by a star shell fired by some drunken Americans, who were going round the streets of Courtrai firing off their Verey pistols. And one of these things came down and hit this unfortunate man and killed him on the spot. And that was the last war casualty and the last stretcher I had to clean up.

Celebrating with a drink was the first thought of a lot of people when the fighting stopped, including British NCO Harry Forrester.

Now we'd arrived at Lille and the war was over and all the sergeants were allowed out of barracks to go and have a drink. Of course we overdid it; everybody got drunk. And the orderly sergeant booked us all in, so he was as bad as all of us. I got entangled with a military policeman, coming home, and I broke every rule in the book apparently to this military policeman and he took my rank and name and what not. And I didn’t think much more about it. We eventually got trucks to take us back to camp. And the following day, I was at work in the anvil, when Mr Major McGuinness came to me and he says, ‘What the hell were you getting up to last night?’ He said, ‘I've got 11 charges here against you from a military policeman.’ So he looked at me and he grinned, he says, ‘I think I’d better burn that, hadn’t I?’ And he put it on the forge. So I got out of that one!

For Malcolm Hancock, serving with the West African Regiment in Sierra Leone, there was a similar urge to celebrate.

We did of course hear the news of the armistice – we didn’t hear that until two days afterwards when someone came up from Freetown came up the river bringing stores and that sort of thing to the camp and he brought the news up. We had quite a celebration. I remember we lit an enormous bonfire; all the troops understood very well what the end of the war meant for them and they entered into the spirit of the thing very well. You see, we'd had five years of it, it was terribly wearing. It affected one’s outlook all the time. You felt you couldn't do this; you couldn't do that because there was a war on. It was a terrific relief.

British officer Bill Haine was travelling to Italy when he learned of the armistice with Germany.

We left France and got to Turin the following morning and we were all full of joy over this armistice business because it was new to us. But apparently the Italians had had their armistice about a week before so it went as flat as mud all that. No, that was my armistice. But I’m told by the chaps who were in the line that it was one of the flattest moments of their lives. They just couldn’t comprehend it and they didn’t know what was happening and there was nothing, no joy. It wasn’t like London where they all got drunk of course.

London was, indeed, quite a contrast to the front line. When the news reached the capital, crowds quickly gathered to celebrate.

Mary Lees, who worked for the Air Ministry, was caught up in the scenes of jubilation that day.
But of course, I mean, Armistice Day was fantastic. You see, you visualise every single office in Kingsway pouring down the Strand. I should think there must have been about 10,000 people. There was no traffic of course. It was solid, like that. And you see, when they got to the end of the Strand of course it opened up, like that, into Trafalgar Square. And still Trafalgar Square was packed. Well, we didn’t get back to the office, to our work, till about half past three, four. And, when I came to get my bus back in the evening, the people had been careering all round London on the buses. But nobody would go inside because they all wanted to go on top and cheer. I forget how many it was in the papers the next morning, fifty or sixty buses had all their railings broken, going up the stairs on the top.

During the First World War, future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill held various government posts and served on the Western Front. He described what he witnessed in London on Armistice Day.

Then suddenly, the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me – it was deserted. Then, from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out from all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay, thousands rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner shouting and screaming with joy. I can see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me, in our very headquarters, disorder had broken out – doors banged; feet clattered down corridors; everyone rose from the desk; all bounds were broken. The tumult grew, it grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic, streams of men and women flowed from the embankment. They mingled with torrents pouring down the Strand. Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium. At any rate, it was clear that no more work would be done that day.

There were similar scenes in towns and cities across the UK. Harold Boughton, serving with the Royal Defence Corps at Leigh POW Camp near Bolton, recalled the mood there.

And of course when the time came on that 11th hour of the 11th day, pandemonium broke loose. Everybody went mad. Work finished; all the factories poured out; the sirens went; crowds rushed round the streets. Just pandemonium broke loose. Even in the camp, there was no discipline or anything, everybody just broke loose. I think they let the prisoners out into the compound and they all joined up and all joined together and celebrated. I know I got out and went into town and I was swamped with people and all the pubs and everything else was full up. I believe that evening, if I remember, I went to Bolton Hippodrome with my wife and there was a man there who played the organ. And he used to travel round with one of these Wurlitzer organs and we had a wonderful time in that theatre that night, singing all the patriotic songs.

Maisie Nightingale worked at a factory in Southampton and took part in the celebrations in the city.

We went round in lorries, didn’t we, with little flags. We all went round in the lorries, all round everywhere, singing and laughing and had a jolly good time. We were in work, but as soon as the armistice was out, everybody come out. Men, all the workmen and all, didn’t matter who it was, all cluttered up in the lorries and we went round in our overalls and our mob caps and all over the town. Yes, it was a wonderful day, I can remember that.

Harry Smith worked on a farm near Sheffield.

They were rejoicing everywhere, it was a right carry on. It was announced at 11 o'clock in morning. All the hooters blew from the works – all the works’ hooters were going at the same time round about; you could hear them from miles away, you could hear them in Sheffield and the local pits and all round. Everybody was rejoicing and they all walked out from work. I did the very same thing. I packed up work, what I was doing, and got myself washed and dressed up and I went off to Sheffield to see what was going off in Sheffield. And I never saw owt like it in my life. There was rejoicing and everybody… they were just on the streets, they were dancing, the streets were full of people. They didn’t have much to show off with, as regards having a celebration, but they were just getting a drink or two down them and dancing and singing in the streets. You can't explain it, only that everybody was happy and relieved.

British officer William Chapman, who had been wounded in the war, had a subdued response to the armistice.

We couldn’t believe it, we couldn’t believe it. There was a sense of unreality about it. As though we had entered into another world and hadn't got our bearings. In that hospital, there were two officers’ wards and it was the same in either ward and there were hundreds of other troops scattered about the hospital. But that day particularly the mood that happened in London and other big towns was supposed to be exciting and thrilling… but in hospital amongst us wounded officers, there was perfect… I don’t know, inhibition almost – perfect calm. And men were wondering where they were, just wondering where they were…

For conscientious objectors who were imprisoned for refusing to fight, the end of the war meant a hope of being released. But Wilfred Littleboy, held in Dorchester Prison, knew that it would probably not be a speedy process.

But, November the eleventh. Ah, we shall be home by Christmas! Now that was the attitude of a great many people, great many COs. Some of us felt pretty clearly that it was going to be a very difficult thing for the authorities to free conscientious objectors while the getting home of the Army was a huge job and taking a very long time and we said it would be much nearer six months. In point of actual fact it was just about six months because it was April 1919 – early in April – that all those who had done at least two years were liberated.

Prisoners of war did not necessarily find out about the armistice immediately. For Bert Fearns, a POW in Germany, the news almost got lost in translation.

They used to put a bulletin on a board outside but this day, when we looked at the bulletin board, there was just one word on it: ‘Waffenstillstand.’ It was a huge, long word and we couldn't make head nor tail of it. We’d picked up quite a bit of German, but that was a new one on us. So we called the old sentry over and he came over with his rifle and we told him to have a look at it. And when he did, he sort of looked up to heaven; put his rifle on the ground; and did a sort of Scots sword dance over it. So we knew by that, that the war was over.

As part of the terms of the armistice, Germany’s High Seas Fleet surrendered to the Allies in late November. George Fox of the Royal Navy witnessed this event.

Well there wasn’t very much preparation, we were all in our usual battle formation and the signals were all informing the senior officers what procedure and who was to lead and what position the ships were to take up. And we met the German fleet in single line and we took up our station on each side of them and then turned 180 degrees and led them into Scapa Flow. Well you know, that was the most pitiful sight that I think I shall ever see. To see such magnificent ships surrender to another fleet it was pitiful, really. You know, I could have cried, honestly I could…

After the long years of hardship, suffering and loss, it was no surprise that the news the war had finally ended was received with such a mixture of emotions by those who were immediately affected by it. From shock and disbelief, to relief and jubilation, men and women around the world had their own reactions to the armistice. Basil Farrer served on the Western Front during the war. He was in Nottingham on 11 November 1918 but found he couldn't join the cheering crowds in the city that day.

I remember Armistice Day and I didn't know at the time but in every city, everybody went mad. In London, they were dancing in the streets, the crowds, in all the cities, in Paris and in Nottingham too. In Market Square, it was one mass of people dancing and singing. I did not go there. I do remember – for some reason or other – inexplicable, especially in so young a chap as myself, I felt sad. I did – I had a feeling of sadness. And I did remember all those chaps who'd never come back, because there was quite a lot, nearly a million – not quite a million. As a matter of fact, in Paris I remember the Prince of Wales inaugurating a plaque in the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris to the million dead of Great Britain and the British Empire. And I did have a feeling of sadness that day.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 48.