‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing…’

Lest we forget: London crowds celebrate on Nov. 11, 1918. Around 10 million soldiers died in WWI.

Should they have? Should we? These were the words of war poet Siegfried Sassoon of the day the guns fell silent in 1918. This Sunday, sombre rituals will mark the centenary of Armistice Day.

“I am glad to tell you that the war will be over at 11 o’clock today,” said Prime Minister David Lloyd George, appearing outside Downing Street on the morning of November 11, 1918. The crowds were jubilant. When the hour finally arrived, Londoners flooded into the streets to celebrate.

Across the channel in Europe, the guns on the Western Front finally stopped. Years later, the soldier William Collins recalled that “a silence came over the whole place that you could almost feel.”

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. At 11am, Britain will observe a two-minute silence and Prince Charles will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

Remembrance Day was not always so sombre. In 1919, the serious daytime services were followed by fancy dress “victory balls” which raised money for veterans.

They had a “celebratory air about them,” historian Chris Kempshall told the BBC. Survivors “marked the sacrifices of their fellows by living and enjoying their own lives.”

The balls continued until 1925, when the vicar Dick Sheppard argued that the balls were “indecent” after the horrors and losses of war.

He won the argument, and Remembrance Day in Britain took on the solemn character it has kept to this day.

Should November 11 be a day of mourning? Or celebration?

“We will remember them…”

Mourning, say some. Ten million soldiers and seven million civilians died in the First World War. We have a duty to remember those sacrifices, and take them seriously.

Celebration, say others. Those people were fighting for peace and freedom in Europe — and, along with the soldiers of the Second World War, they secured it. We should be joyful. As one soldier wrote in 1925: “The last thing that they would wish is that they should stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves.”

You Decide

  1. Should Remembrance Day be a celebration?

Activities

  1. Read Siegfried Sassoon’s poem about Armistice Day, “Everyone Sang”. (You can find the link under Become An Expert.) Then write your own poem, imagining how you would have felt if you were alive on November 11, 1918.

Some People Say...

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

George S. Patton, US Second World War general

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The war was between the Allied Powers (including Britain, France and the US) and the Central Powers (including Germany). By November, German troops were exhausted and the German people were fed up — so the armistice was signed.
What do we not know?
How the First World War should be remembered. Many in Britain now see it as a pointless war, but others say it was necessary.

Word Watch

Western Front
A line of trenches and battlefields stretching across France, Belgium and Germany, where the war’s most significant fighting took place.
Armistice
A formal agreement that ended the fighting. It was signed in a train carriage in Compiègne, France. Technically, the war did not formally ended until June 1919.
Cenotaph
The war memorial in London, erected shortly after the war ended, where official remembrance services take place each year.
Dick Sheppard
The vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London.