For years I have been fascinated by the thought of 11 November 1918. How did people react, after four years of hardship and, for many people, the loss of their loved ones? I presume I was already fascinated when, twenty years ago or more, I was confronted by a box containing the 50 or more volumes of diary entries kept by my great-aunt Winifred from the 1890s through to the early 1950s. I looked up my own birthdate (and found a reference to myself a few days later), and I looked up the day of my parents’ wedding, at which Winifred was present (she had pasted in a pressed flower from my mother’s bouquet, as I remember), and then I looked up 11 November 1918. Winifred James was in Birmingham, her home town at the time (later, in the early 1920s, she went to work in refugee camps in Austria). She walked up New Street, I think — it could have been Corporation Street — and was shocked to the core by the immorality and licentiousness on public display. She does not go into details, but I got the impression that there was a lot more public drunkenness than she was accustomed to, and a lot more kissing, and maybe more. Similar sights were possibly seen on many streets in the UK and elsewhere; below you can see some comments on the celebrations in London and Paris.
In some of the lives which I record on this website, there are details of how they passed that day: I have mentioned and quoted each of them below.
Almost every one of the writers on this website actually did survive the war: only Émile Driant (d. 1916), Gerald Grogan (d. 1918), William Hope Hodgson (d. 1918) and H.H. Munro (d. 1916) died in active service. (Guillaume Apollinaire, ironically, died on 9 November 1918, just two days before the Armistice, but of the Spanish flu; a wound had put him out of action in 1916.) The sample is skewed, of course, by the fact that, although some of the lives recorded were of writers who had made their name as writers before 1914 (including three of the four who died), many (and I really should do a proper count) only became published writers during or after the war. How many mute inglorious Miltons died too young, and were laid to rest in some Flanders field? And, another unanswerable question, how many of the writers whose careers began after the war were impelled to write because of their war-time experiences?
A few were at the heart of the action. Maurice Baring recalls 11 November:
A historic day. We returned last night from Paris. We had been summoned by Marshal Foch from his Headquarters two days before, and we arrived there just as the Delegates were expected. As you know, they were late owing to road trouble. We stayed at the British Mission one night, and the next day we went to Paris. Paris was very full. It was most exciting, with bits of news arriving every minute. We got the news of the Emperor’s abdication here, the day before yesterday, in the afternoon. In the night there were manifestations in the streets. Last night we got the news of the Armistice and the official news this morning.
Vernon Bartlett was invalided out of the Army, and was working for the Reuters news agency in November 1918: this gave him some prior warning of the coming of the Peace.
Shortly before eleven o’clock I climbed on to the top of a bus at the Bank and by the time we had got halfway down the Strand the maroons went off. I knew what they meant, but it took perhaps sixty seconds before the people around me realised that this was not another air-raid warning but the signal that firing had ceased all over the world. Never had I known, never shall I know, sixty more exciting seconds. From the windows of the Hotel Cecil, then part of the Air Ministry, hysterical typists showered down upon us thousands of sheets of paper, letters, envelopes and memoranda marked secret and strictly confidential—or whatever the proper phrase in the Air Ministry might be. But most vivid of all in my mind was an old lady who also sat on the top of my bus and wept contentedly all the way down Whitehall and Victoria. It was the one day, the only day, when there was no hatred.
That makeshift confetti clearly stuck in people’s minds
Cicely Hamilton and her sister were in London on 11 November 1918, and mentioned it
Looking back at that uproarious moment what I see most clearly is the façade of the Hotel Cecil—hotel no longer, but a warren of government offices. At every window of those government officers excited government employees who all of them were throwing out sheets of paper—the taxpayers’ foolscap—which fluttered down on the crowd in the manner of an outsized snowstorm. Paper was scarce then, and paper was expensive, but what did it matter—we rejoiced! … That was all I saw of the Armistice alarums and excursions; the mafficking at night I had no mood for.
Edward Heron-Allen was working for a government propaganda department in London. At 11 a.m. a signal maroon was fired from the top of every police and fire station in London, and one from the top of Adastral House too, which shook him almost out of his chair. Some people thought it was an air-raid. “But within five minutes everyone realised the truth, and then London went mad.”.
Out of every window of the rooms occupied by the girl clerks and typewriting staff, excited masses of young females were hanging—clapping their hands and cheering, and kissing their hands to whoever looked out of any other window. From 11 to 12 a roar of voices rose from the Embankment outside, and from inside the house. At 12 noon all discipline had gone to smithereens—a long procession of girls and boy clerks rushed around the passages all over the house, shouting, cheering, blowing ‘hooters’, waving small flags, and beating tin boxes with the office rulers. At 12.30 pm it was impossible to work—and indeed with the arrival of peace our work in the Ministry of Intelligence is at an end. […] From Charing Cross the streets were filled with people, and car-loads and lorry-loads of soldiers and government ‘flappers’, yelling tone another. From most of the government office windows in Northumberland Avenue, the girls had deluged the streets with improvised ‘confetti’: the contents of the office waste paper baskets, and many reams of ‘forms’ must have contributed to the ‘snow’.
At the Imperial Restaurant in the evening, the place was crammed, and there was almost no food to be had.
It was enthusiasm at lunch time, but now it was a mad chaotic orgy. I never saw so many drunken people other before. Everybody shouted, everybody sang, and as the night wore on the champagne flowed in growing streams, we became one large hysterical party. Everybody tried to propose toasts or make speeches—you could not hear a word, and even the band was quite drowned and gave up in despair. On almost every table a charming and respectable young girl was standing. leading the particular song of her immediate entourage. One fine young French girl in black wearing a huge tricolour was a most impressive and decorative spectacle—yelling ‘Vive la France’ and getting more intoxicated and affectionate every minute.
John Masefield, for one, may have been in the wrong place, as he was actually expecting more intoxication than he found. On 9 November he had met up with Siegfried Sassoon, whose writing he had admired, and signed a picture of himself in uniform to give him. Two days later, in a letter to his American friend Florence Lamont:
It is over now… The day of peace was dark, with a lowering sky and rain, so much rain, that the tumults were kept within bounds. Flags, yells, a little gunfire, and a little drunkenness saw the day through. Yesterday, being fine, they went further and burnt a bonfire in Piccadilly Circus. Tonight, being fine, and the streets lighter, I expect something rowdier and more drunken. But it has been a happy time of deliverance, a setting free from death, a loosing of bonds … may this great, kind, generous and truly noble people find its reward in beauty and happiness after all these years of death and hell.
Celebrations in France were if anything wilder.
Robert Service worked for the Canadian Government, reporting on the experiences of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Service was, he claims, one of the first of the Allies to enter Lille, before the British troops: acclaimed by the crowd and welcomed by the mayor himself. He went back to Paris, and typed furiously on his Remington to get it all down. He was typing one morning, at about eleven, when he heard the bells of Paris begin to peal. The concierge told him that the war was over.
“Vive la France!” I yelled, and ran down the street. Already every building was a rash of bunting. Flags flamed and pennants streamed. Everywhere was colour, joy, triumph, and above the mad cheering was the madder tumult of bells. Never again would there be such a frenzy of joy. The people were heading for the Grand Boulevards, crazy to celebrate the victory. Down the Boul’ Mich’ I hurried in the midst of a riotous throng, across the flag festooned Tuileries, up the Rue de la Paix to the Opera which was a mass of bunting. There a prima donna was singing the “Marseillaise” and everyone joined it. Dancing, cheering, singing, hugging, kissing—for two days and two nights the boulevards were given up to a saturnalia of romping rowdyism.
For a while I remained in the midst of it, carried away by the extravagances of a mirth-mad mob; then I tired of it all. I thought of those out there who had given their lives for this, and for whom no one in all that cheering multitude had a single tear. So back to the Rabbit Hutch I crawled with sorrow in my heart. There on my desk were the articles I had written with such enthusiasm—excellent work, a month of effort. With sudden loathing I looked at them. I need not go on. Taking up my manuscript I tore it in tatters. That ends it,” I said. “No more war. Not in my lifetime. Curse the memory of it. Now I will rest and forget. Now I will enjoy the peace and sweetness of Dream Haven” [his house in Brittany].
A three night Parisian party was mentioned by Edward Knoblock too. He was working in France, for the War Office, and was with a British officer in Intelligence, whom he nicknamed Florry, when he heard, late on 10 November 1918, that the Germans had agreed to surrender.
Florry and I were so overcome by the news that for a moment neither of us could speak. Then we filled ourselves two large tumblers with whisky and soda and drank “To Peace”. I have my tumbler still. No one has drunk out of it since.
They drove into the small town near her village the next morning.
All the bells of the little churches and chapels began to ring. […] Everywhere flags were flying, and wherever we passed a group of people we were cheered and cheered them in return. It was a beautiful, mild day. A holiness seemed to lie on the land, a sense of strange, unaccustomed relief that is indescribable to those who did not experience this great, mystic hour (265-6) […] We .. picked up a young French and an American officer and drove out to a little restaurant, where we sat in the garden in the warm November sun, had a delicious meal and a good deal of delicious wine, toasting each of the Allies in turn, the King, the President of France, the President of the United States, Foch, Haig, Pershing, everybody we could think of, ourselves included, till the world seemed rosier to us than it had for many a long day.
He and Florry went to Paris by train overnight, bathed and breakfasted in Knoblock’s Paris flat, and then went into the street and joined the party that, he said, lasted three days.
Michel Corday, a French writer, reminds us that the Armistice was not signed at 11 in the morning on the 11thday of the 11thmonth, as I have seen people say: that was the time the Armistice came into force. (I have recently seen speculation that perhaps the French High Command chose 11 November deliberately: it was Martinmas, the feast day of France’s greatest saint after Saint Denis — this was after all several years before the canonisation of Saint Joan of Arc.)
On the 11th, at seven in the morning, the local military HQ was informed by wireless that the armistice was signed at five o’clock in the morning. … Bells are ringing. The air is full of their peals. Soldiers dance with ecstasy. They brandish flags. They wave bouquets of flowers. It is a pleasure to witness their delight. Tragedy was looming over them. The 1919 class… they were just on draft for reinforcements. Within six months they would all have been killed. At noon, we heard of the flight of the Kaiser to Holland. At three o’clock I was informed by telephone from Paris of the terms of the armistice… The only chance that this unparalleled war shall not entail further war lies in vigorous action by international Socialism during the peace discussions. God grant it may play its full part! And now, for the moment, we must savour the gladness of salvation and echo the soldiers’ words: “The war is over” (387).
For many, however, the Armistice was a time for reflection as much as for rejoicing. D.H. Lawrence was one, as David Garnett tells us in his memoirs. Duncan Grant and David Garnett (both conscientious objectors) pedalled furiously to get the train to London and to join in with the celebrations.
There were more than the usual number of motor-buses—in some places the roads were blocked with them. They no longer ran on their accustomed routes, but loaded with a full and permanent complement of cheering passengers, they explored new neighbourhoods, such as the squares of Mayfair and Bloomsbury, at the whim of the driver. Every taxi had half a dozen passengers inside and a couple more on the roof.
Garnett and Grant ended up in a flat in the Adelphi: Lytton Strachey and Carrington were there, together with the Sitwells, Diaghilev and Massine, Lady Mond, and D.H. Lawrence and Frieda. It was the first time Garnett had seen Lawrence for three years. Lawrence greeted him coldly: “So you’re here.” And later ranted “something like this”:
“I suppose you think that the war is over and that we shall go back to the kind of world you lived in before it. But the war isn’t over. The hate and evil is greater now than ever. Very soon war will break out again and overwhelm you. It makes me sick to see you rejoicing like a butterfly in the last rays of sun before the winter. The crowd outside thinks that Germany is crushed for ever. But the Germans will soon rise again. Europe is done for; England most of all the countries. This war isn’t over. Even if the fighting should stop, the evil will be worse because the hate will be dammed up in men’s hearts and will show itself in all sorts of ways which will be worse than war. Whatever happens there can be no Peace on Earth.”
It was the last time Garnett saw Lawrence. Garnett and others went to Trafalgar Square, and joined in the general rejoicing and dancing; he danced with Lady Mond. Canadian soldiers had made a bonfire of hoardings, against the base of Nelson’s Column. Garnett ended the evening in 46 Gordon Square, leaving early the following day for the farm. “When I thought over the events of Armistice Day it seemed to me rather an odd augury for the future that I should have begun it as a slave engaged in forced labour, and before its close should have been dancing with the wife of a millionaire Cabinet Minister in Trafalgar Square” (192).
Bertrand Russell, also a conscientious objector, knew what was going to be announced before 11 a.m.
I went into a tobacconist’s and told the lady who served me. “I am glad of that,” she said, “because now we shall be able to get rid of the interned Germans.” At eleven o’clock, when the Armistice was announced, I was in Tottenham Court Road. Within two minutes everybody in all the shops and offices had come into the street. They commandeered the buses, and made them go where they liked. I saw a man and woman, complete strangers to each other, meet in the middle of the road and kiss as they passed. […] I felt strangely solitary amid the rejoicings, like a ghost dropped by accident from some other planet. True, I rejoiced also, but I could find nothing in common between my rejoicing and that of the crowd. Throughout my life I have longed to feel that oneness with large bodies of human beings that is experienced by the members of enthusiastic crowds. The longing has often been strong enough to lead me into self-deception. I have imagined myself in turn a Liberal, a Socialist, or a Pacifist, but I have never been any of these things, in any profound sense. Always the sceptical intellect, when I have most wished it silent, has whispered doubts to me, has cut me off from the facile enthusiasms of others, and has transported me into a desolate solitude.
Fenner Brockway was in prison in Lincoln, as a conscientious objector, when he heard the sirens go off at 11; a warder had told him what was going to happen. (He was not released until April 1919.) W.E. Johns was in a prisoner-of-war camp when he heard of the Armistice; he was released on 30 November, got back to Calais on 23 December and was home by Christmas. Hugh Kingsmill was in a POW camp too, and was released on November 25.
Some were working hard, and seem barely to have registered the day. Ford Madox Ford (Ford Hermann Hueffer) was still stationed at Redcar on Armistice Day, and remembers working so hard that he fell into bed 4 in the morning, stone cold sober.
His CO said to him, “Well, H., I suppose now peace is here you are the great man & I am only a worm at your feet”, and H[ueffer] cordially agreed.
A.M. Low, working as a scientist on the war effort, just remembered the grey November day.
The war was dying. The end came that autumn, when he was feeling so sick of it that he felt he could not endure another moment. He had to carry on because he was part of the great machinery. When the end came he was sitting in a dreary office, poring over papers. It was a back room. At that time the title ‘Back Room Boys’ had not yet been invented; in the Second World War it was something of an honour, but in the first, scientists were hardly noticed, most certainly they were not appreciated by the country which they served. […] A grey November day was struggling to drag itself out of the laggard haze. Somewhere in an adjoining lab. an assistant was whistling “Over There”. The First World War was over.
John Buchan was vague about the day itself, but his general reaction is interesting:
The armistice found me at the end of my tether and I straightway collapsed into bed. I was not fit to stand for Parliament at the ensuring election, nor did I want to, for the pre-War party labels seemed to me meaningless, so I withdrew from my candidature and induced my supporters to vote for my former opponent. It was not until the early spring of 1919 that I could crawl out of cover and survey the post-War scene. To my surprise I found that I had recovered something of the exhilaration of youth… (Pilgrim’s Way, 177-178).
Rudyard Kipling (who had lost his son John, listed as “missing” in 1915) was in London on November 11, but could not bear the rejoicing, and went to his country house, Bateman’s: ‘I … had my dark hour alone’ (letter of 18 November 1918).
Herbert Read, whose brother had been killed in October 1918, was just numb.
When the Armistice came, a month later, I had no feelings, except possibly of self-congratulation. By then I had been sent to dreary barracks on the outskirts of Canterbury. There were misty fields around us, and perhaps a pealing bell to celebrate our victory. But my heart was numb and my mind dismayed: I turned to the fields and walked away from all human contacts.
Full references to these quotations can be found on the individual pages under “War Experiences”.