Peace At Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918



by Guy Cuthbertson


published 2018

This marvellous book – produced for the Armistice centenary last year – looks at contemporary reports of the celebrations for the end of World War 1 in the UK, and gives them shape and purpose.

In one section, Guy Cuthbertson features the festivities in my home city of Winchester, so that’s what I have picked out for this entry. First of all, Winchester College schoolboy Arthur MacIver writes a letter home:

We crowded along into the Close and past Cathedral into the town and so on to Westgate. Just beyond there we met a band and back we came behind down the High Street, through the Westgate, past the God-begot, past the Market Cross, past the Guildhall, to the stature of King Alfred where we stopped.



Another student, Philip Sydney Jones, wrote in his diary:

We all then rush about the streets yelling in a mob. We then go up town and parade up & down the High Street. We all climb onto lorries & motors and cheer wildly. The whole place was covered with flags. We stand outside the Guildhall and sing domum. We parade up the street all linked arms.
[All the places in both extracts easily recognizable today.]

And this is Guy’s commentary:

There is a photograph of a crowded Winchester High Street that day, where Arthur and Philip might be among the Winchester schoolboys in their ‘strats’ (straw hats), walking behind the uniformed band of boy musicians... while American troops and black-hatted women look on.

One could argue that the day’s rejoicing children were too innocent to properly understand the war, but these were children who had lived through it and had lost fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins; these were children who had seen bereavement at close quarters, and some wore black armbands.



And there is another consideration – those boys reporting on the celebrations must have known that if the war had continued they would have been fighting in it. The College is a boys’ public school (ie private education for boys from 13 to 18) and lost a huge number of former pupils during WW1 – they obviously signed up in their droves. (There is an enormous war memorial in the College, which is quite ugly, and highly affecting.)





Peace At Last is a monumental achievement. It contains a huge amount of research, brilliantly put together – I am in awe at the way Guy Cuthbertson managed the material, putting the right things together, and painting such an extraordinary and indelible picture of the whole 24 hours. You feel the movement through the day from early in the morning (before the signing), the rumours and then the confirmation that the war was over, then the celebrations continuing into the night.

His use of the primary sources was wonderful. In an inspired move, he looked at school magazines reporting on local celebrations, as well as diaries and letters as above. He obviously used newspapers, and books, fiction and non-fiction, of the time - including, I am proud to say, one that I suggested: Jane Duncan’s My Friends the Miss Boyds.  And also blog favourite Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End books.

The book passed the non-fiction annoy-your-partner test – I was reading it and constantly saying ‘Oh guess what I just read…’ and ‘he says X and Y, isn’t that extraordinary?’ and so on (starting with wondering whether any of us would’ve known what day of the week the Armistice was. It was a Monday).

And the byways of the story were fascinating: cross-dressing, effigies, bell-ringing and bonfires. As the author says: The Armistice was one of those throwback moments when people instinctively turned to a folk culture, something ancient, even while they were also piling onto the roofs of buses and cars as aeroplanes were looping overhead.

He makes it clear that while now Armistice Day is seen as a solemn occasion, for remembrance, back then the emphasis was on joyfulness and rejoicing. ‘For several years, armistice balls or victory balls continued the tradition of celebrating the peace with a smile and a fancy-dress costume, and, for a few years after the war, the Armistice could still be associated unembarrassedly with laughter and play.’

This is a wonderful and revelatory book, and anyone at all interested in history should read it.

Hilary McKay’s The Skylark War, set before during and after WW1, was one of my favourite books of last year.

For Armistice Day last year, I did a post on a WW1 poem, and translated some Ancient Greek to show its classical sources.

As mentioned above, Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End books deal with the same era.

The pictures are all from the Imperial War Museum:

A military band playing to cheerful crowds during a parade on Winchester High Street on Armistice Day, 11th November 1918. From a collection of photos by Horace Nicholls, used with the kind permission of the Imperial War Museum. This is their attribution © IWM (Q 31229)

American soldiers parade down Winchester High Street on Armistice Day, 11th November 1918. Same source and photographer. Attribution: © IWM (Q 31230)

A member of the Land Army bidding goodbye to an American soldier at Winchester after the troops attended the Armistice Service at Winchester Cathedral. Attribution: © IWM (Q 31214)






















Comments

  1. Oh, this does sound excellent, Moira. There's nothing like personal accounts of major events and eras to give a feel for that event/era. The impact of war (and peace) on 'average,' 'regular' people resonates in ways that larger descriptions (like battles and so on) don't achieve, in my opinion. And it is a powerful approach to communication. I can understand how this one appealed to you as much as it did.

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    1. Thanks Margot - it was history explained in the best possible way, with such marvellous and unexpected and authentic details.

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  2. I was following the route in my head! (Also born in Winchester - although we moved away when I was 4, we've been back very often.)

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    1. Oh lovely! Yes, it was so nice to read it and see it in your mind's eye.

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  3. A. G. Macdonell went to Winchester and was strongly affected by WWI. The hero of England, Their England meets the Welshman who sends him out to find out about England in a trench on the Somme. Towards the end of the book there's a strange chapter where he visits Winchester and wanders around the place, still haunted by the war.

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    1. Oh yes, I remember reading that years ago, before I had ever been to Winchester. I read it for the famed chapter on the cricket match, but went on. My recollection is that he keeps mentioning the Lady of College Street without ever explaining who she was - assuming his readers would know. I eventually worked out that this must be Jane Austen, who lived nearby and died in the city. Had no idea that I would end up living in Winchester for a large proportion of my life.

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    2. So you live in Winchester... Lucky you! I live in town called Malmö in the south of Sweden, an old harbour/industrial town which has seen better days. The closest I can think of in UK terms would be Glasgow, which Malmö resembles ta little. It has its own kind of charm, certainly, and it has the sea (even a long, sandy beach) which can never be wrong, but pretty it ain't. I hope you are properly grateful!

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    3. Well I visited Glasgow for the first time last year and I thought it was lovely, so I'd have high hopes of Malmo! I haven't visited Sweden at all, but one day... I am delighted to live in Winchester, which is a beautiful and lovely place, but everywhere has its own advantages I think.

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    4. A book by A. G. Macdonell that is well-worth reading is The Autobiography of a Cad, which is unexpectedly ferocious. Goebbels thought it was a genuine autobiography.

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    5. I just looked it up and downloaded it - Flashman was mentioned in the blurb, is that fair comment? But I also saw two murder stories by him which I also downloaded. You are very much to blame! I think I did know that he had written a lot, but had only ever looked at England Their England. (When I read it all those years ago it would NOT have been a minute and a few keypresses to find out what else he'd written and obtain a few choices... )

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    6. I hope I haven't sent you after things you won't like. Flashman is a good comparison.
      I haven't read Macdonell's detective stories, but the other satires of his I've read don't seem to work - interesting or moving bits, but he can't control his feelings, where he needs to.

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    7. I'll be interested in his books even if I don't love them. No recriminations!

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  4. An interesting book, fascinating for you, bearing in mind your connection to Winchester. You'll have to prod the author and get him to repeat the exercise for Liverpool, maybe the end of WW2.

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    1. That's a really good idea. It is surprising how fascinating it is reading about armistice celebrations. And the photos at the Imperial War Museum collection are amazing.

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  5. This does sound like a very good book, and especially for you with the Winchester descriptions. Did I already tell you I got a copy of The Skylarks' War (but in UK edition with the other title)? I hope to read it this year.

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    1. Yes, you could never guess or work out that you wanted to read this book, but it was marvellous, and told me so much about the times and the people.
      I so hope you enjoy Skylark War...

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