by Guy Cuthbertson
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)