Armistice Day 2023 falls on a Saturday. Five years ago I wrote a piece for this blog about the evolution of remembrance ceremonies since the end of World War 1.
Armistice Day was the first – on Tuesday 11th November 1919, in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. It specifically commemorated the signing of the document which ceased hostilities on the Western Front. It was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.
Big Ben, silent since 1914, chimed again in London. The next morning, Tuesday 12th November, the front page of The Daily Mirror showed photographs of jubilant people, some in uniform, waving flags and cheering.
But it was a pause, rather than the end
It took another 7 months before the (arguably disastrous) Treaty of Versailles ended the war between the European Powers. And it was yet another 4 years until the Treaty of Lausanne ended hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and an alliance of Britain. France, Italy, Greece, Romania and Japan.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “armistice” as “an agreement made by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.”
Armistice Day 2023
This year, I have been looking at a controversial Armistice Day demonstration in my home city of London. It was organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign UK in support of a cease fire in Gaza. The Israeli Defence Force have been attacking Gaza ever since the bombardment and invasion of Israel by the Palestinian Hamas group on Saturday 7th October 2023.
There has clearly been appalling violence on both sides. The surprise incursion of Hamas into Israel on Saturday 7th October 2023, is claimed to have resulted in the deaths of 800 Israeli civilians and a minimum of 385 Israeli soldiers and policemen, with more than 200 taken to Gaza as hostages. Israeli air strikes on Gaza have cut power, water and communication lines. The Palestinian Ministry of Health reports the resulting death toll in excess of 11,000, including many children.
I have been watching and listening to this unfolding horror for days now. And today, I was never far from screen or radio as reports of the march came in. The media reported 300,000 marchers, by far the largest demonstration so far. (I also hear that the organisers were claiming 800,000; as with reports coming from the war zone itself, I await further and better particulars on that.)
They were to gather in Hyde Park, then march down Park Lane, cross the river by Vauxhall Bridge, and end at the new(ish) US Embassy in Nine Elms. The marchers were to disperse by, I think, 6.00pm, and would be accompanied by policemen.
Some people had forecast violent disputes, racist chants and general mayhem if the demonstration went ahead. The Home Secretary even accused the head of the Metropolitan Police of pro-Palestinian bias in allowing it to go forward.
I sympathise with those people on the Demonstration – several of them wearing poppies, I saw – who want an armistice. But as far as I can see, it won’t come soon. The current appalling destruction results from a long, long series of injuries and disputes. Neither side has people in power willing to negotiate. Yet anyway. I was terribly afraid that frustration would boil over into violence.
A Glimmer of Hope
Well, it didn’t. And from that, I draw hope.
The first encouraging thing I heard on the radio, was a woman phoning into the Any Answers on BBC Radio 4. The crowd she said was bigger than she’d ever marched with before. But it was friendly, people had brought their children. She hadn’t heard any racist chants or seen any kind of hostility from people they passed. The police presence was low key – indeed there was a police officer just over there removing a bicycle so that it didn’t trip up the marchers. I felt quite tearful.
And then, this evening, BBC Television reported that the march had dispersed, with the streets clear of everyone, including the police, by seven o’ clock.
And finally, the evening tally. The march had been good humoured and orderly.
There had been scuffles caused by “counter-protesters” described by the police as of the Far Right. But these seem to have occurred, disgracefully, around the Cenotaph. 120 people had been arrested and 9 police officers were injured. But police information and close monitoring of the hooligan element had kept them away from the marchers. Sadly, there were 12 incidents of possible anti-Semitic chants (one of my great fears) which were being pursued.
But no hand-to-hand combat. No knives out. No hatred.
May it be a good harbinger for a real peace when the combatants can bring themselves to talk.