Wednesday 6 June 2018

And of course everybody but everybody wanted to be demobbed – immediately. The war was over and all that had held it together had gone, you see…

Although the armistice of November 1918 ended the war on the Western Front, the millions of men who were serving there didn't immediately return home. A demobilisation scheme was implemented, to ensure the gradual release of men from military service. Tom Bromley of the Army Service Corps explained the necessity of this.

They knew, the authorities knew, there would be a sort of difficulty in organising demobilisation in an orderly fashion. Instead of it being a free for all, which would have been terrible… It would have been absolute chaos, everybody going home at once and there was rationing… It was very, very difficult. So there was a system of grading devised in the form of groups. And they were run in groups of one to about 40-odd. Group one were miners and agricultural workers: those men who were essential for the satisfactory conduct of the economy, if you can use those words. I was group 40-something, right at the end of the queue! Right at the end: not a chance!

British officer William Benham remembered how civilian employers could help men who wanted to leave the armed forces.

Then there came out an order in, oh, I suppose it'd be at the end of November it might’ve been, or early December, saying that any officers or men who could prove that they were required by their civilian employers: if their civilian employers would make application, they could be given prior release. And the banks were particularly mentioned, so I wrote to the manager of the bank that I was in, in Longton in the Potteries, and asked him if he'd like to make application and sent him the right form and so on for me to be released. And I was released on indefinite leave in January 1919 to go back to work in the bank.

Harry Wharton’s father intervened to secure him an early release from his service with the Norfolk Regiment in February 1919.

Demobilisation was bad because there was no set… how it could be done and there was a lot of trouble about that which caused the strike, of course. But, where we were lucky, I met my brother in France – he got through alright – and father had a letter from the ministry, would he take two ex-officers to train for farming? This was when the war was over, he got this letter. And the old boy was clever enough to reply, he'd be very pleased to have these two boys, provided he could have his two sons home from France to help him. And we were sent home in the February.

British NCO William Cowley also found a way to avoid waiting to be demobbed.

I actually demobbed myself. I was in charge – all our officers were gone, left me in charge, with a corporal, in charge – with the whole lot. I thought, I'm going to be here forever! I'd got the papers and I was responsible for everything, so I signed the forms myself! Signed myself out and came home, left the lance corporal in charge, just left him to it. I just, it didn't matter to me – I was out of it.

Demobilisation was based on a man’s peacetime occupation, with priority given to those who were needed most on the home front. Some men had to wait months until they were released. Londoner William Davies was one of many who were impatient to get home.

We only got halfway to Cologne and then we were billeted at Charleroi, an industrial village near Charleroi, in Belgium, where we were mostly billeted. By then, of course, having got there, then there was a void. There was nothing much to do seriously – guards were mounted and so on but of course drilling and all that was a mere token drilling. And of course everybody but everybody wanted to be demobbed –immediately. The war was over and all that had held it together had gone, you see… It's quite easy to see that the Germans, if they'd had any body of troops still equipped, there'd be nothing to stop them!

British troops to be demobilized assembled in the grounds of the Expeditionary Force Canteens.
British troops to be demobilized assembled in the grounds of the Expeditionary Force Canteens, December 1918. © IWM (Q 26207)

The long wait for “demob” caused not only resentment, but in some cases strikes, mutiny and even riots. Emily Rumbold, serving with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps in France, recalled the unrest amongst soldiers waiting to go home.

Then this one man started to go around to the troops and say, look here we've got to do something about it, you see, either strike or something – I don’t know exactly what happened. But anyway, it was preaching sedition which, had the war been on, he would have been shot. Well he was arrested, eventually, and taken to Boulogne. And the rumour was that he was going to be shot. And that started off all the rest of the troops, because I think there were 32,000 troops out around the Calais area. They just didn't do anything they were supposed to – I suppose, really, you would call it a strike.

But not everyone was in a hurry to be demobilised. British private William Gillman explained why he didn't mind staying in the army.

I got recalled into the office and they said, ‘Well your regiment has been disbanded and you've now got the choice: you can be demobilised,’ he said, ‘or we’ve got vacancies in the train crew company.’ And that was a company that had been formed of any regiment, composed of any volunteers who didn't particularly want to be demobilised for one reason and another, like myself. I hadn't got any particular reason for going home and I was enjoying things as they were because I'm that sort of character, you know, took things in my stride. So I opted for the train crew company and that consisted, as I say, of these various people. We were allocated the troop trains and they used to carry the troops then on leave from Cologne to Calais.

For those who remained on the Western Front after the armistice, there was often little to do to pass the time. British officer R Thorpe-Tracey was tasked with providing the men with some recreations.

I was approached by a major via battalion headquarters as to whether I would assist him in organising and co-ordinating various phases of entertainment, you might say. Which eventually meant that we would go from battalion to battalion, at different parts of the country, and organise football matches and inter-divisional league matches, in order to keep the troops from boredom. And we did very often form football teams in each battalion or perhaps even in a company.

Frederick Goodman of the Royal Army Medical Corps worked to repatriate prisoners of war while he waited to be demobilised.

The troops didn't like it very much but what they had to do was to stoke up the fires there and keep this place very warm – the whole of Mons station and also the hall adjoining – because when these prisoners came down… our chaps of course, and some of our own men, incidentally. Some of our own chaps, who'd been taken prisoner during the war, believe me were astounded when they came through and saw Freddy Goodman sitting there for one, and others of course. And I had to take all their details; that was my job. I had a staff to help me, of course, because there were so many. And then these other chaps who were on the cadre establishment they had to re-equip these men with uniforms and with boots, underclothing – the lot. They had to have a complete kit change for reason that, as I've mentioned before, they were probably not very clean, in any case. And some of them, well they didn't have any boots at all. Some chaps came down almost with nothing – how they got there I don’t know – you've no idea the conditions. The condition of these men coming down from the prison camps was really ghastly. They had a pretty awful time.

Following the end of the war, British troops served in the Army of Occupation in Germany. George Archer was posted to Cologne as part of this force.

Then we went up into Germany, up to Cologne and we were, all our chaps were on guard, hotels and places. And, of course, you had to be on spit and polish then, you know. We thought we were going to get home and then we were told, you see, we were what they called the young soldiers – we were put in the Young Soldiers Battalion, which went up into Germany. We didn't mind, we didn't mind. We were told that we'd be getting relieved sooner or later, which we did. Although I had about, oh, nearly a couple of years after the armistice before I got out.

Charles Wilson also served in Germany. He described how the German population reacted to the British soldiers.

Well the men were very, very sullen and to begin with, as we marched into the villages where we were going to be billeted, all the shutters were up and the children… There was no one to be seen in the village at all, it was like a dead village and then the children began to come out and the troops began playing with them and giving them chocolate and things. And then the women thought, ‘Perhaps they're not too bad after all.’ Then the shutters came down and the women came and of course we were billeted on them in their houses, so they had to get used to us – they were quite happy. But the men were very sullen. They were all working in the fields in their field grey uniform, but you never saw them. But yes, they were a defeated nation all right.

Men began to return to Britain from their wartime service abroad in late 1918. Thomas Cass, who had been a POW in Germany since March that year, had a warm welcome when he arrived at Dover in December.

A band of the Grenadier Guards was playing ‘See the conquering heroes come’ on Dover landing place. And then we got the Red Cross train with nurses, and they gave us a postcard which was printed in red. And you had to put your parents’ address on, where you want to send to and say: ‘I've arrived in England. I'm going to Canterbury for about 10 days and I shall be home.’ So they took us up and we went to Canterbury then for 10 days. There was a camp there; it was lovely – spring beds, ordinary spring beds and sheets. Oh, we didn't know ourselves. Issued new army clothes, we had, and cleaned and bathed. Oh, they treated us well there.

But Donald Murray of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry had a less comfortable reception on his return.

They were totally unprepared in Britain for us. We had to go to a place called Clipstone, Clipstone Camp in Nottingham. We came over on the boat – that was alright – when we got to Southampton I think it was, there were ladies there with tea for us and buns and all that sort of thing. And that was very nice. Then we went up to Clipstone Camp and then the trouble started. They said, ‘Put all your belongings in your steel helmet and carry that with you: take all your clothes off, strip and go in and have a bath.’ Well that was lovely, proper hot showers, you know, well that was the first we'd had in four years. Oh, I just revelled in it! But the unfortunate thing was, when we came out, they found they'd no more uniforms to give us. We were all stood naked on the parade ground, like that! You wouldn’t believe it, would you?!

Edgar Woolley was also disappointed with his treatment when he returned to Britain in January 1919. 

Naturally, we were pleased to be home and we were looking forward to the sort of welcome which we'd heard which said we would be welcomed and we should be kissed on our arrival. But, in point of fact, the atmosphere and the reception which greeted us was one of returned jail escapers. We were directed to a concrete-covered floor, given a couple blankets, told to make ourselves as comfortable as we could. None of us had had any money for many weeks – we were hoping to get a decent meal and they had nothing to offer us. And the men were getting very disappointed with the reception and the conditions and they wanted to know what was being done about it. They started marching around the camp singing out words like, ‘We want food, we want money.’ And they were just trying to make some sort of demonstration and were extremely disappointed with the nature of their treatment and reception when they got home.

During the demobilisation procedure, men were offered medical checks, given civilian clothing and handed in their equipment. Leslie Matthews wanted his demob at Wimbledon in early 1919 to be as quick as possible.

Well, I got on the train from Haselmere to Wimbledon and there were literally thousands of troops there to be demobbed, as you can imagine. Eventually, I found the marquee I had to report to and I kept going, got inside the marquee and there was a chap coming away from where the officer was giving him his ticket, I suppose. I went straight up to there, he took my pay book and of course I'd had a lot of malaria reports on my pay book. He said, ‘Do you want a medical? I can see you've had malaria quite a number of times.’ He said, ‘Do you want to have a medical?’ I said, ‘No I don’t want no blinking medical! What I want is to get home!’ Right. ‘Suit of clothes do you want?’ I said, ‘No I don’t, give me the money: I don’t want no suit of clothes, give me the money!’ So he gave me the money and a railway ticket back to Haselmere and within half an hour, I'm away back home. How about that!

Thomas Olive listed the payments he received at the end of his military service.

I got demobbed at the War Office garage and that was on the… somewhere in 1920, in the March, I think it was. And I've got a copy of the soldier’s demobilisation account. It says: ‘Balance due to soldier on the date of arrival at the dispersal station. £2, 18. Twenty-eight days’ furlough at eight and tuppence: £11, 8 shillings and 8 pence. Twenty-eight days’ ration allowance at 2 and a penny: £2, 11 and 4 pence. Allowance for plain clothes: £2, 12 and 6. The total is £19, 18 and 4 pence. Paid by demobilisation postal draft.’ And that’s it: £19, that’s the account of that. I'd served my seven years.

Demobilised men on the Rhine steamer which took them to Rotterdam on their way to England. Note field kitchen in foreground in which the meals were cooked. Cologne, 23 April 1919.
Demobilised men on their way to England, 23 April 1919. © IWM (Q 7541)

People on the home front saw the gradual return of demobilised men. Leslie Friswell remembered hearing about the war from ex-servicemen he worked with in London.

The chaps who had joined up – I was then with the motorcar company – the fellows who'd joined up from there had their jobs back. And they all came back and so quite a number of these demobilised men came back to work in the workshops there and the assembly department. And, of course, then they told us quite a lot about their experiences abroad, wherever they happened to be. Because not all of them were in France; some were as far as Mesopotamia. But most of them were more or less in France. But particularly the chaps who had survived Gallipoli, you know, they were very concerned about this and because that was one of the slaughters you know like Hill 60 and Passchendaele. Yes the chaps who were out there were, you know, considered themselves very lucky to have got out.

Coinciding with the end of the war, an influenza epidemic claimed millions of lives globally. Eustace Booth served with the Army Service Corps in Britain in late 1918.

In 1918, there was a terrible epidemic of flu, you know, broke out. It was due to a very virulent form of flu. They were dying at camp in their tens of thousands of them. Where the troops were in places like Catterick Camp or somewhere like that, where there were thousands of troops all congregated together, and infection can be passed like wildfire. It was a very virulent form of flu and they were dying like flies. We were very busy carrying coffins. See, a soldier might die in Catterick Camp and his parents might want the body home for burial. And they could apply and they put the body in a coffin and sent it to St Pancras or King’s Cross or Euston. And if their home was in Devon, we'd have to transport it from Euston station to Paddington, or wherever it was appropriate, to ship it on to their parents. I did a lot of them, oh yes, we were always at it.

Despite efforts to limit the negative effects of demobilisation on Britain, there were inevitable problems with reintegrating millions of men into civilian life. Unemployment and poor living standards greeted many ex-servicemen, including Reginald Johnson.

I think it was only, I was demobilised in about the March, I think, or April. I don’t think I was cut out to be a soldier! I think I'd had enough of army life; I was looking forward to getting back to civil life again. Unfortunately, there was so much unemployment about. Many people, you see, had been demobilised from the army and of course there weren't the jobs to go round – I think there was quite a trade depression on, as far as I remember. I of course had to report to the labour exchange when I was demobbed and I was never offered a job: I was on the dole for a year. I made the best of it, you see. Being on the dole, you see, I was drawing I think 28 shillings a week, I think, or something like that. It was nice to be free of army discipline and all that sort of thing, so I didn't worry much. Tried to get one or two jobs but not very successful. There was alot unemployment about.

For some, staying in the army was a better option than trying to find a job in Britain, and many re-enlisted for short periods of service. In 1919, John Ford was part of a force raised to relieve British and Allied troops in Russia, which included such men.

So this force was originally to be a volunteer force and I believe most of the infantry were certainly volunteers and they were a motley crowd. They were called a regiment – I know one of the regiments was the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. But they consisted of men from all sorts of regiments. And a good number of them were ex-officers who had either found no work to do in England… and some I believe were ex-prisoners of war who had been captured at the beginning of the war. I know most of the officers were made sergeants. We had DSOs and MCs and all sorts sitting about! And this force left England in I think about five or six different boats, all going from different ports. I was posted to 155 Field Ambulance.

The shift from wartime to peacetime wasn't a simple process, and many men who had spent months or years overseas found that their homecoming was an anti-climax. Fred Dixon, who enlisted in 1914 and was demobilised in 1919, summed up his thoughts on this.

I would like to add, it's a quotation from Kipling, which he wrote on the occasion of the return of the men from the Boer War. But I feel that it applies also to those men who returned after the First World War – very much so. And this is it:

Me that 'ave seen what I've seen  / 'Ow can I ever take on / With that awful old England again, / And the parson an' gentry between, / An' touchin' my 'at when we meet / Me that 'ave been what I've been?

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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