Historian GORDON LUCY on the reaction, on the front and at h0me, to news of the end of the Great War
Captain E.J. Ruffel of the Royal Garrison Artillery recorded in his diary...
‘On the 11th November at about 8am we received a wire from Corps HQ to say that “at 11am hostilities would cease”. 11 o’clock came, and sudden silence!
‘It was impossible to realise that the war was over. About 11.30am we realised that it was no longer necessary to wear our steel hats or gas masks!’
Shortly before 11 o’clock Lloyd George emerged from 10 Downing Street and told an excited, flag-waving crowd: ‘It is over! They have signed! The war is won!’
The Armistice had actually been signed at 5am but did not come into effect until 11am. During those final hours more than 10,000 men were killed or wounded.
General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, wanted to continue prosecuting the war to the utmost because he felt – with a certain prophetic insight – that the Allies would otherwise be forced to fight another war against Germany at a later date.
Private John Parr, of the 4th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, is generally believed to have been the first British soldier to die in the Great War.
He was fatally wounded on August 22 1914 while on patrol near Mons.
Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers is widely regarded to have been the last British soldier to have died in the Great War. Private Ellison was killed at 930 am on November 11 1918 on the outskirts of Mons.
Private Parr and Private Ellison are both buried in St Symphorien military cemetery, just east of Mons. Their graves face each other.
George Price of the Canadian Infantry, who was killed by a German sniper two minutes before the Armistice came into effect, is also buried in St Symphorien.
The last British despatch of the Great War relating to operations on the Western Front stated: ‘Shortly before dawn this morning Canadian troops of the 1st Army (General Horne) captured Mons.’
One could say that from a British perspective the Great War ended where it began, an observation which could be construed as a commentary on the futility of war.
Enniskillen may have been the first community in the British Isles to learn of the impending Armistice. The military barracks in the town picked up a faint radio message at 6.30am on November 11 1918.
Rockets were immediately launched and church bells started to ring out as crowds gathered in the town for the November hiring fair.
In Shrewsbury, Shropshire, as the bells rang out celebrating the Armistice, at noon the Owen family received the cruel telegram announcing the death of their son, Wilfred, not yet recognised as one of the great war poets.
He had been killed by machine-gun fire, trying to get his men across the Sambre canal, exactly a week earlier.
Having lost her brother, her fiancé and their closest friends, Vera Brittain, the author of Testament of Youth and mother of Shirley Williams, felt nothing but desolation among the cheering crowds celebrating the Armistice.
Sir Edward Carson was the luncheon guest of the British Empire Producers’ Association in London on Armistice Day. Carson asked his audience: ‘How are we to reward the men who have preserved for us everything we possess?’
Even though the United Kingdom in the inter-war years was most emphatically not ‘a land fit for heroes’ (in Lloyd George’s words), Carson revealed his generous nature by observing: ‘There must be no return to the old standards of living or low wages for the working class.
‘You must let the men who have fought feel at the earliest possible moment the gratitude of the nation by giving them their share in the nation’s wealth.’
According to the News Letter news of the Armistice spread like wild fire in Belfast and was signalled in the harbour by the sounds of ships’ sirens.
At the Queen’s Island (Harland & Wolff) and Workman, Clark & Company, ‘the wee yard’, the end of the war was greeted with ‘lusty cheers’ by thousands of shipyard workers.
There was a similar response in all the large mills and factories throughout the city. Many workers decided to take a holiday to celebrate ‘the auspicious event’ and by noon Royal Avenue, Castle Place and adjoining thoroughfares were thronged with enthusiastic crowds. Flags made an appearance outside shops and homes ‘with astonishing rapidity’.
The News Letter of November 12 1918 reported similar scenes in Armagh, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Comber, Limavady, Lisburn, Monaghan, Newry, Newtownards, Omagh, Portadown and Portstewart.
The Union Flag flew from the tower of the Cathedral in Armagh.
Union Flags appeared in great profusion in Portadown.
In Ballymena, Coleraine, Limavady, Newry and Portadown church bells rang out.
In Comber, Limavady and Portadown factory horns and sirens were sounded. While in many towns people took the day off, in Lisburn people continued to work.
A large crowd assembled outside the town hall in Coleraine. Relief was evident on the faces of those assembled in Monaghan, especially on the faces of those with fathers, brothers and sons at the front.
The men of the Royal Fusiliers paraded Carrickfergus. A pipe band paraded round Monaghan. In the evening in Portadown every band in the town paraded the streets, followed by large crowds.
Dublin was not immune to this enthusiasm. A News Letter special correspondent in Dublin reported: ‘Dublin is, without doubt, an amazing city.
‘A few days ago there were signs of disaffection everywhere, and people had the feeling that the community had gone over entirely to the rebel party (ie Sinn Fein).
‘Today’s scenes and events must remove that impression.
‘Never, in a long experience of Dublin, have I seen such unanimity, no such spontaneous exhibitions of loyalty and good feeling.’
Yet across the United Kingdom there were those who could not celebrate (like Vera Brittain and the Owens) because peace brought home more bitterly the loss of those loved ones whom the war had taken away.