Saturday, 8 November 2014

Armistice Day - the view from 1918

A hundred year after the armistice was signed, lavish commemorations are being held up and down the country and all over the world to mark the event. But for those who believe the pomp and ceremony is starting to take on a life of its own, here's what it felt like for the ordinary people who were actually there on 11 November 1918...

Private Tom Fake, of the Rifle Brigade, writes to his wife from the Western Front:

‘This is the day we have been looking forward to, hostilities ceased at 11 o’clock this morning, so I guess it’s fairly safe out here now with the exception of accidents. Of course we have to be on the alert in case of anything re-starting. But I did not think when I wrote my last letter to you that it would come so soon. Well, my dear, I can tell you I am more than glad for I have had more than enough of it lately, and thank God he has brought me through. I am quite well, but owing to marching etc I am as sore as though I have been kicked all over.’

Later he added: ‘I think the day the armistice was signed or rather the morning hostilities ceased was the most miserable day I have had since I have been out here, and all I feel is roll on the time when I am free once more.’ 

Maude Boucher, a Bristol mother of four, kept journal she kept throughout the war:

'The hooters from the ships were all sounded and the church bells pealed forth, so we understood the good news was true ... The workpeople at many of the big factories and laundries put on their hats and coats and left their work and in the majority of cases would not return again any more that week. Everyone got very excited and the streets were soon crowded with people and flags were seen flying everywhere.’ 

Eight-year-old Olive Fairclough, of Colchester, writing to her father in the Machine Gun Corps:

‘You better hurry up and come home now peace has come because we want either to spend Christmas or the new year with you. Yesterday, the day peace was declared, the soldiers were singing and shouting wrapping themselfs in flags and dancing catching the girl and some of them got in long trails and shouting left right all the time.'

Lance Corporal Stanley Goodhead of the Royal Engineers, one of the first to enter newly-liberated Belgium:

‘I shall never forget the day we landed in Ostend from Calais, on our arrival the people went mad with joy, kissing us, shaking hands, hugging us, and in every manner possible they showered their thanks on the “English Gentlemen” as they called us. I was carted off for tea at a large house near the Grand Promenade, and along with three other men entertained to music and dancing.'

Captain Warren Sandes, of the Royal Engineers, a prisoner of war in Turkey since 1916:

The loss of liberty is a severe punishment and becomes more and more irksome as time goes on. But the full rigours of captivity are not felt till the prison is reached and the doors are closed...Not until we settle down to the dreary monotony of monastic prison life among a semi-civilised people did the iron really enter into our souls. Some went to pieces under the strain. Most did not. Work was found to be the panacea for all ills, and those who worked hardest were the least affected.’

These extracts are taken from my new book 'Letters from the Trenches' which is published on 30 November and tells the story of the First World War in the words of those who were there. Lest we forget.

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