Armistice Day

Today is very special because it is both Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. It is, of course, also the centenary of the end of fighting in the First World War.

Armistice Day - old radio“Armistice” is an interesting word. It is a temporary truce during which warring parties meet to discuss possible peace. I remember my grandmother telling me that, before she told me anything else. I was very small. The emotions coming out of the radio into the small suburban sitting room awed me. And so did those of the two elderly ladies, tough as old boots in my previous experience, who were both damp-eyed.

From them I picked up a terrible sense that we had made peace at the very last moment. And that we might not have. It has stayed with me ever since.


Armistice Day train after the signature

After signature of the Armistice

The Armistice had been signed in the private railway carriage of Marshal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander. It sounds as if it was a bit of scramble. It took place in a railway siding in the Forest of Compiègne. Signed at 5.00 am on 11th November 1918, it came into force at 11.00 am, Paris time. Hence the memorable “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

The first anniversary of the Armistice was commemorated at Buckingham Palace on the morning of Tuesday 11th November 1919. The ceremony took place in the grounds of the palace. There had also been a banquet in honour of  President of France the night before.


Armistice Day George VGeorge V proposed the two minutes silence as his personal initiative. The newspapers carried the royal proclamation: “I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of that great deliverance and of those who laid down their lives to achieve it.”

The Home Office announced that the observation of the silence “must be left to the sympathetic goodwill of the community.” They noted that it would only be impressive if it was “universal and spontaneous”.

To aid spontaneity, the Home Office stopped trains and required police to halt traffic in London. They hoped that other cities would follow suit. They suggested that people in shops or other business pause to observe the silence. The signal would be “maroons” in London and the suburbs. Villages, town and cities did their own thing. In most places, the signal was probably the local church clock or bells in rural areas. Some factories used sirens.


Armistice Day Silence

2010 – charity single 2 minutes silence by Thom Yorke, Bryan Ferry, Andy Murray et al

The London Evening News published a letter from an Australian ex soldier and journalist, Edward George Honey, on 8 May 1919. He proposed that “all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.” He wanted 5 minutes, however.

Sir Percy Fitzpatrick suggested a two minute silence to the monarch. He was an Irish-South African adventurer, businessman, amateur naturalist and author.  It is possible that Lord Milner, the Colonial Secretary, encouraged him. Previously a long-term administrator of South Africa, by 1919 Milner was one of the Signatories to the Treaty of Versailles. The King’s Private Secretary wrote to Fitzpatrick that the King, “desires me to assure you that he ever gratefully remembers that the idea of the Two Minute Pause on Armistice Day was due to your initiation.”


Armistice Day - hush… was what The Times called it. Awful in the classical sense, of course. The silence mostly brought people out into the streets, to observe it together.

The Guardian has a moving account of the occasion in Manchester. “It was remarkable with what quickness all noise was hushed… a silence that, like the Egyptian darkness, might almost be felt… a woman coughed fifty yards away; a baby gave a faint cry; one could not move a foot without self-consciousness. Here and there were persons crying quietly, women furtively drying their eyes. The street seemed the centre of a calm… ‘Be still, and know’.”

Armistice Day - HarrodsIt became less emotional over the years. My mother recalled shopping in Harrods one day in the fifties and being completely bewildered by the staff suddenly stiffening to stand to attention. She said it was as if they had all  had a message from their Martian Controller. Very unnerving, especially as she was mid-purchase.

She opened her mouth to ask for an explanation. But a fellow shopper hushed her, though quite kindly. “She was wearing a fur coat,” said my mother. “Definitely a Colonel’s Lady. I suppose they were the sort of people who still expected it. The rest of us were too busy.”


In November 1919 the Cenotaph was a still a wood and plaster structure designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and hurriedly erected in time for the Peace Parade following the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June. People surrounded it, however, for the two minute silence. This Pathé News reel shows the crowds.


In 1920 the ceremonies were based around the burial of the Unknown Warrior. This was the body of an anonymous British soldier exhumed from the battlefields of Northern France. His journey from France began on 7th November. On the morning of the 11th, the coffin, on a gun carriage drawn by six black horses, progressed through the crowded London streets.

Its first stop was Whitehall, where King George V unveiled the Cenotaph, by now permanent and constructed of Portland Stone. From there it went to Westminster Abbey for a full church service and the burial.

Armistice Day 1920 Unknown WarriorAfterwards the Abbey remained open for people to walk past the grave and pay their respects — while the organ played. Tens of thousands are said to have walked past it by the end of day. Over a million people had visited by the end of the week.

Westminster Abbey website has a full and moving account. One of the choristers recalled returning to the Nave after the Abbey had closed for the night. He wrote, “The Abbey was empty save for the guard of honour standing stiffly to attention, arms (rifles) reversed, heads bowed and quite still — the whole scene illuminated by just four candles.”


The first British Legion Poppy Day was on 11th November 1921.

The poppy had already become a symbol of remembrance following the publication of the poem by Canadian Medical Officer Colonel John McCrae. He wrote it on 3 May 1915 after the death of a close friend at the Second Battle of Ypres. Punch published it in December 1915.

Armistice Day 1st poppiesEarl Haig launched his Fund to help ex-servicemen on 15 May 1921, at the same time as the British Legion constituted itself by amalgamating four existing ex-servicemen’s associations. Earl Haig became President and the Prince of Wales its Royal Patron.

Frenchwoman Anna Guérin proposed the sale of poppies as a fund raiser to the British Legion. She had initiated their sale in France to support widows and orphans of the war some time previously. In September 1921 she visited the Legion’s HQ at 1 Regent Street.

Armistice Day poppies, Anna GuerinLater she wrote: “Field Marshall Haig, the President, called a meeting where I explain the Idea which was adopted immediately, but they had no money in the Treasury to order their Poppies. It was September and the Armistice day in November. I offered them to order their Poppies in France for them, so my own responsibility, that they would paid them after. Gladly they accepted my offer.”

You can read a full account of this remarkable woman, of whom I had never heard before I began to research this article. It sounds as if they could have done with some of her organising ability as well. Haig’s assistant was still calling for motor cars and volunteer sellers as late as 9th November.


Armistice Day Poppy Factory with Prince of WalesNevertheless, that first poppy sale raised £106,000. My historic inflation calculator tells me that is roughly  equivalent to £4.5mn today.

From April 1922 the British Legion set up a factory in the Old Kent Road, staffed by disabled ex-servicemen, to manufacture poppies. By 1924 they were making 27 million poppies a year. The Prince of Wales visited.


weeping window poppies at Carnarvon CastleTo commemorate World War 1 the poppy has been developed into bold and moving installations which have travelled the country.

The Weeping Window has now reached the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. You can see it there until November 18th.

Here (right) you see it at Carnarvon Castle.


Armistice Day field of remembrance crossesThe first Field of Remembrance was in 1928 in the grounds of Westminster Abbey. Major George Howson, who ran the poppy factory, initiated and ran it with a group of disabled veterans from the factory. These days, fields of remembrance occur in 5 other centres as well, including Royal Wootton Bassett and the National Arboretum.


Throughout the twenties many communities built local war memorials. They turned into the focus of Armistice Day ceremonies. Often ex-servicemen took the opportunity to protest against so much attention paid to the dead, when the survivors were living on inadequate pensions, sometimes in direst poverty.

In 1937 the two minutes silence at the Cenotaph was broken when a veteran pushed his way through the crowd shouting “Hypocrisy”. The poor soul turned out to be mentally disturbed, but he still spoke with the authority of a battlefield survivor. Mass Observation reported in 1938 that 43% of the population were against continuing the two minutes silence.

Armistice Day white poppyPacifists proposed a white poppy, to add to remembrance a hope for the end to all wars. The Co-operative Women’s Guild sold the first white poppies in 1933. (In February the Oxford Union had debated the motion that this house will in no circumstances fight for King and country. It was carried 375 votes to 153.) The Peace Pledge Union started to distribute white poppies in 1936.

This year St John’s Ambulance has announced that it will permit volunteers to wear the white poppy.


From 1939 the government discontinued observation of Armistice Day on the grounds that it would interfere with necessary war work. Remembrance Day, on the second Sunday in November, replaced it. This continued after World War 2 and Armistice Day mostly fell out of fashion for 50 years. In the mid-nineties the British tabloids mounted a crusade to restore observation of November 11th in the High Street and by the BBC. Some schools and bodies like Scout Troops, as well as the British Legion, now observe the day itself.


Armistice Day Tomorrow's GhostIn Anthony Price’s Tomorrow’s Ghost, published 1979, the disconnect between Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday is a major plot point. The story takes place in 1977 — Armistice Day fell on a Friday, people were watching The Sweeney on TV.

The novel, a mystery with spy and adventure story elements, is elegiac. At a key point the main characters reference William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “…the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths … love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice…”

That seems to me to reflect Armistice Day at its best. Not militaristic. Certainly not triumphalist. But not morbid tourism into the past, either. And not highjackable by self-seeking and shallow politicians. Truths of the heart, contemplated in silence.
Sophie Weston Author


A Dog : A Writer’s Best Friend?

The Dog in Fiction

Dogs are very popular with writers. Think of fictitious ones like Heyer’s Italian Greyhound, Tina, in The Grand Sophy, Bulls Eye the fighting dog belonging to Bill Sykes in Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Timmy, the fifth member of Blyton’s Famous Five. Even Conan Doyle’s “gigantic hound”. We love them all.

image of Italian greyhound but not Heyer's Tina

Not quite Heyer’s Tina

The Dog in Sarah’s Life — Willow

Many writers have dogs of their own (some, like Liberta’s very own Sophie, have cats, but that, as they say, is another story). I must hold up my hand. I have a dog.

Sarah Mallory and her dog Willow

Sarah with her faithful friend

First things first, let’s get something straight. Willow is a dog. Yes, yes, I hear you say, we can see that.

He is a male dog. He looks so elegant, even pretty, and being called Willow, it is no wonder that many people think he is a girl.

We adopted Willow as a rescue dog when he was just over three years old. We thought it would be better to keep his name than change it to something more, er, butch, such as Bouncer or Max.

Adopting Willow was one of those serendipity moments that happen, sometimes. Continue reading

Award-Winning Historical Author Joins Libertà this Weekend

Hot News!

Libertà will have a fourth bee buzzing in the hive from this weekend.

She’s the award-winning author of dozens of historical romances and she has a worldwide following of fans. Among those fans — needless to say — are the other three members of the hive.

Who is this prolific author? Is she one of your favourites? Find out in her first blog here on Sunday 4th November. Not long to wait, is it?

Subscribers will find out who she is first, in Saturday’s Libertà newsletter.
Can’t wait to find out? Just use the Subscribe button in the top right of our sidebar.

More Blondes

More Blondes feet in fountainIn my post on Fictional Blondes I promised that there would be another piece on More Blondes with further consideration of the phenomenon in the works of Raymond Chandler and other 20th Century masters.

So here it is.


More Blondes The Long GoodbyeIn 1953, Chandler wrote what was possibly his masterpiece – The Long Goodbye. The narrator is again his honourable loner private eye, Phillip Marlowe. He still battles the forces of corruption, injustice and conflicted loyalties. He is as clever, wary and tough as usual. But he is not invincible  – and this time the police arrest him for murder.

But this is a darker book than its predecessors. It is full of damaged people. Two in particular must have been very close to what Chandler felt himself to be: the self-doubting alcoholic writer, Roger Wade, and a psychologically wounded war veteran.

And it is this book, heartfelt and dangerously close to home, in which Chandler/Marlowe has a substantial digression on blondes – and it’s not for fun. Continue reading

Roman Germany : Dark and Dangerous? Or Delightful?

Roman Germany? What picture does it conjure up for you? Mile after mile of dark, trackless forest with a hostile warrior behind every other tree, waiting to kill you?Roman battle against Germanic tribes from film Gladiator

Yup, that was what I thought, too.

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

Varus Massacre (Varusschlacht), Otto A Koch, 1909

Probably I’d been watching too many films like Gladiator with that opening forest battle [above] and all those barbarian attackers.
Or reading about Falco’s bloody struggles in Germania in AD71 in The Iron Hand of Mars. In that story, Falco finds links back to the massacre of the legions in AD9 where up to 20,000 Romans died.

The massacre is depicted in this painting [right]. You’ll note Germanic warriors complete with winged and horned helmets.
It’s by a German painter, too 😉

For me, that battle always conjures up an image of Augustus butting his head against the wall and crying, “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions.”

So partly because of those cultural influences, I had assumed, without giving the question much thought, that Romans in Germany would always be watching their backs and that their lives would be pretty basic. Continue reading

Fictional Blondes

fictional Blonde La Dolce Vita Mastroianni and EkbergA recent lecture on La Dolce Vita started me thinking about the variety of fictional blondes I have come across in my life. For there is something special about The Blonde. She grabs our attention the moment she appears. Indeed, in twentieth century western culture she became almost an icon.

Yet at the same time she has as many aspects as a Greek goddess, positive, negative and sometimes just plain loopy. And we all know them.

Fictional Blonde“Having a blonde moment,” my friend, author Sarah Mallory, will say, as she discovers the sunglasses she has been searching for are lodged securely on the top of her head.

She’s channelling the Airhead Blonde — charming, disorganised, sometimes a little naïve, sociable, and so good-hearted that you forgive her any amount of stuff that would irritate the hell out of you in a grey-haired matron or a sultry brunette.

Forgive her and maybe even love her. We pay to go and see movies about her. That shows you! Continue reading

Mnemonics: spelling and those dreaded lists

exclamation mark in fire; just right for mnemonicsMnemonics for spelling

Mnemonics, as a word, is no advert for English spelling. And English spelling most certainly needs help. What’s the point of that silent M at the start? (Blame the Greeks. Their spelling isn’t easy either.)

English spelling (and pronunciation) may well be the world’s worst. How many students, trying to learn English as a foreign language, have been flummoxed by:
through, thorough, cough, enough, hiccough, sough, dough?

I often have problems with words where changing the spelling changes the meaning: practise/practice and the like. The spellchecker is no help to me with that, of course.

My regular bugbear is affect/effect. I have to stop to work out which is correct when I’m writing.
The Oxford Dictionary tells me that affect and effect are quite different in meaning, though frequently confused. (A statement of the bleedin’ obvious?) Continue reading

The Romantic Hero Revisited — Essential Hero Qualities

Revisiting the Romantic Hero Formula —
except that there isn’t a formula, as I tried to show in the first blog on this topic. So, instead, I’m going to explore some aspects of creating the romantic hero.

With examples from a master of the art of hero-creation — Georgette Heyer.

Which Qualities Make a Romantic Hero Attractive — to Readers?

Most of us would say that our aim in writing romance is to create a heroine that our readers will identify with and a hero that they will lust after. Warning: it is not easy to do and not all readers will respond in the same way. Some may adore our hero and some may hate him. As romance authors, we’re winning if we have a lot more of the former. 😉

Tall Dark and Handsome?

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister in "Game of Thrones."

Alan Rickman as Nottingham, Richard Armitage as GisbourneTall dark and handsome? Not necessarily. As readers we probably all have favourite heroes who are none of those. As writers, we may have created some of them, too.

Most telling recent example? Who became the abiding hero in the Game of Thrones series? Yes, Tyrion, the dwarf. Continue reading

La Dolce Vita and Blonde

La Dolce Vita Movie poster, blondeThis Monday I was lucky enough to go to a lecture on La Dolce Vita by Professor Richard Dyer. I say lucky advisedly. It was pure chance that I went.

I never enjoyed this 1960 movie very much and, apart from its iconic status, remember little about it. But one of my best friends invited me. I wanted to see my friend. And so I went – and got so much more than I expected.

La Dolce Vita by Richard DyerProfessor Dyer is the sort of enthusiast I could listen to for ever. Moreover, he loves La Dolce Vita. Not uncritically, you understand. He wrote the British Film Institute’s guide to the movie – which I immediately ordered – and he clearly continues to research its creation and ponder its message(s). Above all he is just wonderful on the gossip that surrounds the movie.

Indeed, a major part of his thesis is that the movie is precisely about that gossip: how it arises, how it is delivered, how it is received. Continue reading

Pedantique-Ryter : changing meanings, right and wrong

hand slicing through a stone question markEnglish usage is full of constantly changing meanings. How often do you yell at the radio or TV because some idiot presenter doesn’t know his (or her) English usage? How is it that educated people so often get fairly common words wrong?

English is a vibrant, living language and evolving all the time.

Not always changing for the better, in my pedantic view. But I know I am probably fighting a losing battle against sloppy English.

Changing meanings as words enter more common usage

Some words used to have very specific and precise meanings but have been misused so much that the original meaning has no traction any more.
So, if I say, “We underestimate the enormity of the decimation,” what do I mean? Continue reading