It is almost exactly 100 years since the moment when…
…just after breakfast, at 8.00am on Monday 11th November 1918, Maude Onions, a 33-year-old signaller with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, sat down at a stenograph machine in an office in Boulogne with the instruction to relay the following message to ‘All Allied Armies in the field’…
‘Hostilities will cease at 11.00 am November 11th. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at that hour which will be reported to army headquarters. Defensive precaution’s will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy. Further instructions will follow.’
Three hours later Maude glanced at the clock and noticed that it was 11.00am, the Armistice had started and the Great War was finally over. Maude looked out of the window. There was stillness and silence. It was, observed Maude, ‘as though France had just heaved a vast sigh of relief. It was as if the stricken soul of France had not been able to find within itself the desire to rejoice.’
At the same time, in Germany, a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry lay on his hospital bed and wondered if he would ever fully regain his sight after being blinded in a gas attack a few weeks earlier. The news of the Armistice reduced him to a state of despair as he thought of ‘so many a dear friend and comrade’ who had died in the fighting. Watching him burying his head in his pillow the medical staff were worried. They wondered if Corporal Adolf Hitler was going out of his mind. Two months later, in January 1919 Hitler became the 55th member of the Bavarian Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the German Workers Party, demonstrating increasingly hostility to capitalism and Jews.
Despite all the problems troubling the nation during September and October 1918 - the oppressive rationing and shortages, the ever upward death toll on the front and the influenza pandemic, which had already taken the lives over 200,000 in Britain alone there was a clear sense that the end of the war was in sight. Russia, fighting on the German side and convulsed by 2 revolutions, had pulled out. America, fighting on the Allied side, had stepped in. On the 30th October the Ottoman Turks asked for an armistice. On 3rd November the Austrians asked for the same. On the 18th October 1918 the All Souls parish magazine for St Margarets-upon-Thames carried this message from the Archbishop of Canterbury…
“We are passing through days of almost breathless tension. From hour to hour the victory for which we have hoped and prayed is brought nearer by the heroic deeds of our Forces and the Forces of the Allies. After long years of anxious strain, the goal seems to be at length in sight. Our hearts are full of thankfulness, thankfulness above all to God who through the courage of these men has wrought His will. In the firm handling of our statesmen rests the future of the world. Pray then that they may be endued with a large vision of what is just and right, and may act worthily of the trusts we hold for the generations yet unborn.”
With the end in sight the public were already demanding changes. Mrs Galloway from Twickenham wrote to George Cave, the Home Secretary…
Now that we have the dark evenings could not the shading of the street lamps be removed? I was crossing Sandycombe Road last week and had a nasty fall, hurting myself badly. Now the air raids are over do you not think we might have our lights back? Mrs Galloway, Twickenham
Her request was joined by another from the Revd. B. Gower…
For four years now, we have happily supported the spiritual defence of the country in silence with no bells ringing or public clocks striking the hours! However, the splendid advance of the Allied armies in Flanders and the subsequent imminence of a state of peace suggests that now is the time for a lifting of these restrictions if only to cheer on the nation and our gallant troops to their well-deserved victory! Rev. B Gower, Surrey.
On the 9th November 1918, the Kaiser, William 2nd abdicated. Even our own local paper, the Richmond and Twickenham Times could see that it was all over.
“A big and bitter pill has been offered to Germany in the terms of the Armistice for which they asked. What everyone is eager to know now is “Will he swallow it?” Germany has it in her power today to set the joy bells ringing in every civilised country. Millions of hearts are fervently hoping that her leaders will have the grace to do it.”
On the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th Month - Monday 11th November, as Maude Onions sent out her communique and Hitler buried his head in his pillow, the Germans did just that, signing an armistice that included the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German forces to behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhineland and bridgeheads further east, the preservation of infrastructure, the surrender of aircraft, warships, and military matériel, the release of Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, and eventual reparations.
What was to come next? Nobody really knew and nobody really cared. Minds were numbed by the shock of peace. The past consumed everyone’s whole consciousness. The present did not exist - and the future was inconceivable.
On Sunday 11th November of this year the North St Margarets Residents Association in collaboration with All Souls Church on Newry Road will be marking the Armistice with a reimagining of the event as it took place 100 years ago. There will be a commemorative service, a rededication of the Roll of Honour which carries the names of 86 men from the parish who died and using contemporary accounts, poetry and song an interpretation of the period that became known as the Great Silence -when the world learned how to mourn its dead.
– from Martyn Day