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31 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:16pm

The Armistice bacchanal: how Britain rejoiced at the 11 November ceasefire

 In Trafalgar Square and in the countryside, revellers went hand-in-hand in circles singing songs round the flames. 

By Guy Cuthbertson

In 16 November 1918, the New Statesman noted the lack of “unpleasantness” and “drunkenness” among the huge crowds who celebrated the Armistice on the 11 November, quoting one observer who saw “such general good humour, so little delirium”. And yet it is clear that, while there was indeed a spirit of decency and kindness among the crowds, there were also some wild celebrations that included a thirst for beer and a taste for riotous indecency. Sobriety shared a pavement with impropriety as Britain’s Armistice celebrations presented a strange mix of sights and sounds, and of tradition and modernity.

The Armistice news “jerked everybody into a state of excitement”, as the New Statesman put it. Ancient and modern forms of celebration were soon in evidence. Motor cars careered about sounding their horns, and the top decks of trams and buses became crammed with cheering passengers, while church bells rang in the peace. Cars, buildings, people, horses and dogs were all covered with flags. At Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, the news arrived at 12.15pm by aeroplane when Captain Basil Collison came to the boarding school and entertained the cheering boys with some stunts in the air, looping and spiralling over the school grounds before landing on the cricket field. Across the country, the peace arrived by some very modern means – not just aeroplanes and motor cars but also by wireless telegraph and the telephone. But it was characteristic of the day that, having given their pilot a wonderful send-off, the school sang a solemn “Te Deum” in thanksgiving to God. 

The day’s songs were a wonderful combination of national anthems, hymns, marching songs and popular ditties. At the public celebration at Maidstone, Kent, at 3pm, the vicar asked the crowd to sing “Rule Britannia”, but no one in the crowd seemed to know the words, so a canon shouted out “Keep the Home Fires Burning” as an alternative, and everyone sang enthusiastically. Outside Buckingham Palace, a band played songs such as “Tipperary” but also national anthems, and the vast crowd joined in. The Royal Family joined hands on the balcony for “Auld Lang Syne”. At the Waverley Market in Edinburgh, an enormous crowd gave a spirited rendition of “Scots Wha Hae”.

At Downside School in Somerset, before the boys sang the “Te Deum”, the band played a popular repertoire and the “Rag Orchestra” played “national and rag-time airs” at lunchtime. Many bands weren’t capable of putting together a tune and were just happy revellers bashing along on pots and pans or anything that made a loud noise – this music was jokingly described as “modernist” or “futurist” by some newspapers. On the upper deck of a London bus on Regent Street, wounded servicemen banged out “Tipperary” with their artificial limbs. And high above it all there were the church bells, often ringing through the afternoon.

The music accompanied dancing, which sprang up wherever there was a gap in the sea of humanity. Troops from New Zealand led a Maori dance in the centre of Birmingham. The historian AL Rowse recalled how in Cornwall the Armistice brought an instinctive “momentary return to the old ways”. He experienced a return to folk culture, when the locals celebrated with a Flora Dance: the people of St Austell had mostly forgotten how to do it but they felt the need to give it a go. At Shipbourne in Kent, meanwhile, there was another scene from Merrie England as children danced round the old oak tree on the green.

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Other traditional forms of popular entertainment were on display that day. The kiss was a public feature of the Armistice, but how often did kisses lead to something more scandalous? “Total strangers copulated in doorways and on the pavements,” according to AJP Taylor, adding that “they were asserting the triumph of life over death”. William Orpen’s painting Armistice Night, Amiens (1918) shows British soldiers rejoicing with bare-breasted nocturnal Frenchwomen. For some soldiers, drink and girls were what they had been fighting for.

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At home, where it was often hard to find alcohol, bonfires were possibly even more exciting than playful munitionettes. It was a Bonfire Night, not just six days late but four years late, as bonfires and fireworks were banned during the war. Fires were everywhere, even in Trafalgar Square, where the crowds reminded Osbert Sitwell of a scene by Bruegel the Elder, and another writer, Wilfrid Gibson, thought they were more like a bacchanal in Thrace. In Trafalgar Square and in the countryside, revellers went hand-in-hand in circles singing songs round the flames. Communities burnt effigies of the Kaiser. At Tedburn St Mary in Devon, the blacksmith made an effigy that was paraded through the village with an impromptu band before being burned, and “dancing was kept up until a late hour”. In Newcastle, a large effigy, “laden with squibs, exploded into small pieces” as the Geordies cheered.

The flames complemented the streetlamps. Bright lights came back after wartime restrictions. At St George’s Catholic Church in Taunton, the sanctuary was “brilliantly illuminated, in pleasing contrast to the subdued lighting of war days”. Clergyman Bernard Walke, out for a stroll in quiet Cornwall that night, noticed that the countryside looked different, “And then it came to me that there were lights down in the valley and over the hills where for years there had been blackness.” The lights came from “uncurtained windows where some little family was rejoicing, as I was, at the end of the war”. In the remote countryside, and the raucous city, it was peace at last.

Guy Cuthbertson is the author of “Peace at Last : A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918” (Yale)

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This article appears in the 31 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great War’s long shadow