This time next year the North St Margarets Residents Association – the NSMRA, and their local church, All Souls on Northcote Road, will be completing preparations for two events they are planning to mark the end of the 1st World War and the silence of the guns on the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918. The day of the Armistice.
At the end of five years of industrial slaughter and millions of lives lost you might have thought that marking the peace would be a relatively simple task – put up loads of bunting, wheel out some cheery songs and upbeat poetry and add some optimistic expectations for the future – but unfortunately that is not the way it was.
Despite the wild celebrations in city centres around the country there was a deep and sobering pessimism gripping the nation and a sense of profound loss that seemed impossible to ease. As the troops came home the full horror of the Great War began to reveal itself, the hundreds of thousands dead, the maimed and wounded men now walking our streets There was a growing discontent in the land and a collective disenchantment with the government and its attitude towards those who had fought and particularly those who had died. Widows’ pensions, pensions for the disabled and separation allowances were barely above subsistence level and were steadily being eaten away by rising inflation. Lloyd George’s promise of troops returning to “a land fit for heroes” seemed appeared impossible to fulfil. Families had little information about how or where their loved ones had died or where they might be buried. Rumours abounded about class differences in the treatment of the dead – officers in individual graves with personal headstones, ordinary ‘Tommies’ committed to common graves. Unemployment was also rising. Between November 1920 and June 1921 it had increased from half a million to two million. To add to the general misery Britain was in the grip of an Influenza pandemic. During 1918/19 a quarter of the British population were affected. With mortality rates estimated to be between 10% to 20% of those infected.the total death toll was 228,000 in Britain alone.
Fearing national unrest Lloyd George increased supplies of food, beer and spirits and lifted restrictions on fuel for lighting and heating. In an attempt to revive the wartime patriotic spirit and to mark the signing of the Peace Treaty on the 28th June 1919 he also proposed a Peace Day Parade for 19th July 1919 along Whitehall and past a Cenotaph (‘an empty tomb’) dedicated to ‘The Glorious Dead’. Designed by Edwin Lutyens the wood and plaster structure was only intended to stand for one week, but it proved so popular that a permanent replacement was commissioned. After the original was removed in January 1920, the new Portland stone memorial was completed and installed, ready to be unveiled by King George V at 11.00 am precisely on Armistice Day – 11 November 1920.
On the morning of the unveiling the body of an unknown soldier, chosen from six unidentified bodies exhumed on the Western Front was drawn in a formal procession to the Cenotaph and waited for the unveiling at 1.00am. The Manchester Guardian described the ‘Great Silence’ that followed…
“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
“Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain… And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”
As the silence ended the body of the Unknown Soldier was taken to Westminster Abbey where it was buried at the west end of the nave. To the surprise of the organisers, in the week after the burial an estimated 1,250,000 people visited the abbey, and the site is now one of the most visited war graves in the world. The text inscribed on the tomb is taken from the bible (2 Chronicles 24:16): ‘They buried him among the kings, because he had done good toward God and toward his house’.
The idea of having a symbolic funeral for an unknown soldier in a place of such high honour took on an unexpected significance particularly for all those who had lost loved ones during the war but had no idea where they might be buried. One elderly man said “My two sons are buried out there, but the third may be here. The mystery as to whose son he is makes him the son and brother of us all”
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married Prince Albert, Duke of York – later to become King George VI – on 26 April 1923 in Westminster Abbey she unexpectedly laid her bouquet on the Tomb of The Unknown Warrior in memory of her brother Fergus who was killed at Loos in 1915. His final resting place is not known… but for Lady Elizabeth he could have been lying there. Ever since, the bouquets of subsequent royal brides have traditionally been laid at the tomb, though after the wedding ceremony rather than before.
It took two years for the government to get in step with the nation’s frame of mind.
Armistice Day provided a moment for this nation, its Empire and allied countries to stand as one and remember the war that was supposed to end all wars. The Cenotaph provided a focus for homage not just to the dead of the Great War but from all other wars and conflicts since. The Unknown Warrior offered the possibility that it might be your son or father now lying in such hallowed soil. The Imperial War Graves Commission promised that the dead would all be buried in identical individual graves, each with its own headstone. On the 11th November – Armistice Day – 1920 J.F Kendall, the Vicar at Richmond Parish Church said…
“I hope that the observance of the day will become a permanent feature of our national life to keep always in mind the great service rendered by those who made the supreme sacrifice during the Great War…but an observance of this kind is of little account unless it serves to make our people resolve to be worthy of those who have given their all for their country.”
Observance of the Armistice does continue to this day, virtually unchanged in practice since first originated as a Peace Day Parade for 19th July 1919. Last week the Queen announced that she would no longer be attending the ceremony at the Cenotaph. Her place and duties will be taken by Prince Charles. The Queen first took part at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day 1945 as Pathé News reported.
— from Martyn Day