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Lest we forget

06 November 2015

Robert Beaken traces the origins of our Remembrance-tide observances


Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph on Whitehall

Edwin Lutyens’s Cenotaph on Whitehall

IT WAS something of a historical accident that the First World War ended at 11 a.m. on Monday 11 November, 1918.

Lloyd George had instructed Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the British representative at the Armistice negotiations at Compiègne, to arrange that the Armistice should commence at 2.30 p.m., in order that he might announce it in the House of Commons between 2.45 p.m. and 3 p.m., and, presumably, make political capital of the news.

Wemyss exceeded his orders: he felt that more lives might be lost if the war dragged on for even a few hours longer than was absolutely necessary; and the poetry of hostilities coming to a close at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month appealed strongly to him.

The French and the Germans agreed to Wemyss’s suggestion of 11 a.m., and the Armistice was signed at 5.10 a.m. The French agreed to transmit the news to the Allied front line.

Wemyss hurried back to Paris, and, fearing Lloyd George’s reaction to his initiative, he bypassed the Prime Minister and managed to telephone King George V at Buckingham Palace. The King and his staff spent the next few hours telephoning the news of the Armistice to the government and military and naval authorities.

Wemyss’s anxiety about the reaction of Lloyd George was well founded. When he reported to the Prime Minister and Cabinet on 19 November, he was shocked to find them ungrateful and vindictive.

Wemyss did not receive the £100,000 grant awarded by the government to other service chiefs, such as Admiral Beatty. He also had to wait a year longer for his peerage than the other senior officers honoured at the end of the war, and he was made a baron (Lord Wester Wemyss) rather than an earl, like the others.

The war did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, five years to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which had precipitated the conflict.


How remembrance began

HONOURING the dead of the First World War took two forms in the years after the Armistice: the erection of war memorials, and the evolution of rituals of remembrance.

During the war, churches had displayed rolls of honour bearing the names of parishioners serving in the forces, and lists of those who had been killed. Similar street shrines commemorating those killed were also erected in various parts of Colchester.

These later evolved into permanent memorials to the dead. Photographs of the dedication of the war memorial at Colchester show that, after the formal unveiling ceremony, the crowds burst through the ranks of soldiers and civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries, and crowded around the base of the war memorial.

It was clearly a highly emotional occasion, and here lies a clue to the importance of war memorials: for many people who could not afford to visit military cemeteries overseas, or whose loved ones had no known resting-place, the war memorial became a surrogate grave and a place where grief and loss could be focused and expressed.


RITUALS of remembrance were another way in which grief could be addressed and channelled. The observance of two minutes’ silence on the first Armistice Day, on 11 November 1919, was a last-minute decision that proved immensely popular.

There was no official act of remembrance in 1919 at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, which was still a temporary wooden memorial erected for the peace celebrations in July that year. Armistice Day grew in the popular mind after 1920, when King George V unveiled the permanent stone Cenotaph, and the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Within a week, somewhere between 500,000 and a million people had paid homage at the tomb in Westminster Abbey, and 100,000 wreaths had been laid at the Cenotaph.

In 1921, the King participated in an act of remembrance at the Cenotaph for the first time, and a pattern was established that has continued, with minor changes, until today.

In many towns and cities in the early 1920s, special gala dinners and dances were held on the evening of Armistice Day, and there was an annual Victory Ball in the Albert Hall. Such events were seen by those who participated in them as celebrations of victory, or continuations of the revels of Armistice night in 1918.

As the years passed, such events became highly controversial: it seemed unfair that former officers with money should dance the night away while impoverished ex-officers and former ordinary soldiers and sailors struggled to make ends meet.

Such celebrations also seemed insensitive to civilians trying to come to terms with painful bereavements.

At the last moment in 1925, the Victory Ball was deferred by 24 hours, and the Albert Hall was made available on Armistice night to Canon Dick Sheppard, who improvised a service of remembrance.

From this point, dinners and dances on Armistice night quickly faded away; and, in 1927, the Daily Express sponsored the first British Legion "Festival of Remembrance" at the Albert Hall, which was attended by the Prince of Wales and relayed by radio all over the British Empire.


This is an edited extract from The Church of England and the Home Front 1914-1918: Civilians, soldiers and religion in wartime Colchester by Robert Beaken, published by Boydell Press (£30; Church Times Bookshop £27).



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