‘Everyone suddenly burst out singing…’
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.
“Bells burst forth into joyful chimes, maroons were exploded, bands paraded the streets followed by cheering crowds of soldiers and civilians and London generally gave itself up wholeheartedly to rejoicing,” wrote the Daily Mirror the next day.
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.” Some soldiers celebrated, while others reflected on the friends and comrades they had lost.
This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. All week, 10,000 torches have been lit outside the Tower of London each night to mark the end of the First World War. On Sunday 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 it was called “Peace Day”, and the serious daytime services (including the first two-minute silence) 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. That year, the vicar Dick Sheppard argued that, after the horrors and losses of war, they were “not so much irreligious as indecent”.
He won the argument, and Remembrance Day in Britain took on the solemn character it has kept to this day.
But commemorations differ across Europe — in Poland, for example, it is celebrated as Independence Day. Before 1918, the country had spent 123 years occupied by various empires.
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. To this day, families and communities pass down stories about how the conflict affected their grandparents or great-grandparents. 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 when we give thanks for that freedom. 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.”
- Should Remembrance Day be a celebration?
- Was the First World War a “good war”?
- 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.
- Research how another country either celebrates or commemorates the anniversary. Write a short report comparing the traditions to those in the UK.
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, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire). The US entered the war much later than its allies. The arrival of US reinforcements helped to push back German troops in the Hundred Days Offensive, which began in August 1918. 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, futile war in which brave but naive soldiers were killed by the incompetence of clueless generals. But others argue that, had Britain not gone to war, Germany would have continued invading Europe and possibly the UK itself.
- A type of rocket which makes a bright flash and a loud banging noise. In Britain they were used during the First World War to warn of German bombers approaching.
- Western Front
- A line of trenches and battlefields stretching across France, Belgium and Germany, where the war’s most significant fighting took place.
- 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.
- The war memorial in London, erected shortly after the war ended, where official remembrance services take place each year.
- First two-minute silence
- This 1919 silence was so complete that even buses and trams stopped still in the street.
- Dick Sheppard
- The vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London. When that year’s victory ball at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled, it was replaced with a service of remembrance, led by Sheppard.
- Independence Day
- In 1795, Poland was partitioned and split between the empires of Prussia, Russia and Austria. It regained its independence after the First World War.