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” 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 1919
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.
TWO MINUTE SILENCE
George 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.
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.”
A GREAT AWFUL SILENCE
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’.”
It 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.
ARMISTICE DAY 1920 — THE UNKNOWN WARRIOR
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.
Afterwards 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.”
ARMISTICE DAY 1921 — POPPIES
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.
Earl 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.
Later 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.
POPPIES FROM 1922
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.
To 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
The 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.
ARMISTICE DAY RESISTANCE AND PROTESTS
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.
Pacifists 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.
In 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.