Today, the nation will mark the anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. Millions of people will keep a two minutes’ silence in memory of the men and women who died in the Great War, and other conflicts. Armistice Day in 1918 in London was quite different as people, understandably, swarmed through the streets celebrating the end of the war. Swirling crowds, fireworks, bonfires and stolen artillery pieces were the order of the day!
The fighting on the Western Front ended at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. News of the Armistice immediately spread through London. Guns were fired to announce the occasion in central London; in Croydon, the air-raid warning maroons were fired, followed by the all-clear bugle calls; the Union Flag was run up the flagpoles of the town hall and churches simultaneously. In the City of London, ‘Within a minute the central streets were packed from side to side with wildly cheering crowds’ and the buildings sprouted flags and decorations.
Outside Buckingham Palace, 5,000 people gathered within five minutes. At 11.15, the King appeared on the balcony before a large and vociferous gathering.
Christopher Addison MP, the Minister for Munitions, described the scene in Westminster in his diary: “not only the inhabitants of the Government Offices, but as it seemed, the whole of London simultaneously “downed” tools and rushed into the streets – taxicabs, motors, lorries, buses and vehicles of every description were commandeered by joyful crowds, driven up and down – cheering whistling, singing, rejoicing.”
That evening, Vera Brittain was outside the Admiralty building on Whitehall where “a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis; with a shout they seized two of my companions and disappeared into the clamorous crowd, waving flags and shaking rattles”.
It was not quite a day universal joy. For some, the thought of what, or whom, they had lost prevented it being a day for celebration. Georgina Lee’s friend Florence Younghusband ‘was on top of a bus when the guns were fired. In front of her were two soldiers one with his face horribly scarred. He looked straight ahead and remained stonily silent; the other just bowed his head in his hand and burst out crying. The omnibus conductress dropped into the vacant seat next to Florence, leant her head to her soldier and cried too. “I lost my man two months ago, I can’t be happy today”, she murmured.’ Likewise, Vera Brittain simply wanted to be alone, realising that the young men she cared about and had wanted to share her future with were gone.
The mood of the day, though, was predominantly one of celebration. All across London, crowds gathered in public places. Mayors made speeches from the steps or balconies of their town halls. The festivities were not as extensive beyond Westminster and the West End, but many Londoners had streamed across the capital to be part of that crowd (around 100,000 are estimated to have taken to the streets to celebrate the Armistice). The King and Queen’s visit to the East End on 12 November was described as a ‘return visit’ after so many had come to Westminster the previous day.
The celebrations in central London continued every evening for the rest of that week. Addison noted that “crowds filled the streets from Trafalgar Square as far as Waterloo Bridge, still dancing and singing. Thanks perhaps to the still prevailing liquor restrictions, I do not remember myself seeing anybody who appeared to be drunk, although no doubt, like most other rules that week, the Closing Hour Regulations were a good deal disregarded.”
Despite this description of calmness, the Daily Express described a ‘pandemonium’ on 12 and 13 November, with ‘rivers of people’ and ‘whirlpools of dancers’, accompanied by concertinas, cornets, tambourines, wooden rattles and singing. On the 12th, a big bonfire was lit on Trafalgar Square against the base of Nelson’s Column; it was started at around 10 p.m. and fuelled by wooden road-blocks from the nearby roads, and a temporary wooden structure in the square was burned to the ground – later one of the captured German guns that lined the Mall was added to the flames!
That night, the whole square was full of people setting off fireworks and crackers. Another bonfire was lit in Piccadilly Circus, fuelled by advertising hoardings from the Pavilion theatre.
The flames of the Trafalgar Square bonfire actually caused permanent damage to the plinth of Nelson’s Column. After the war, the authorities decided that replacing the stone with new pieces would look worse than leaving the original damaged pieces in place. The damage is still visible on the western side of the plinth.
On the 13th, a number of German guns went missing. “One gun was taken for a riotous joy-ride on a great motor-lorry” and disappeared along the Strand towards the East End trailing a “Buy War Bonds” banner, according to the Express. Others were pulled by hand and abandoned nearby; many appeared in Trafalgar Square, one making it as far as Piccadilly Circus. Just before midnight, the gates of Admiralty Arch were closed to try to stop the departure of more of the weapons. Another bonfire was lit in Trafalgar Square, this time near the end of Cockspur Street. Some soldiers fetched another captured German gun, which was again added to the fire while the crowd cheered.
In the years after 1918, Armistice Day became increasingly a day for reflection and mourning rather than celebration – particularly once it became obvious that war in Europe had not been banished for ever. On 11 November 1918, though, the mood in London was primarily – and understandably – one of relief and rejoicing for the lifting of the immediate burden of the war.
- Daily Express
- Daily Mirror
- Christopher Addison, Four and a half years
- Georgina Lee, Home Fires Burning
- Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
- Adrian Gregory, Silence of Memory