This was the first reaction of most men when they heard the news of the Armistice on 11 November 1918. It seemed too good to be true. The Great War had been a truly cataclysmic event. Vast empires had fallen and millions of men had died; millions more were crippled or maimed. The fighting had continued right up to the very last minute, but now it was suddenly all over.
Most men seem to have found it nigh on impossible to articulate the tangle of emotions that ran through their heads. Yet hard upon the feelings of freedom came the thoughts of what were they going to do now? Many had presumed that they would not live to see the end of the war. Part of their mental defences was the idea that they had nothing to look forward to; that as doomed men they did not have much to lose if they were killed. In a flash their mental landscape had changed.
The Armistice appeared to offer a wonderful template for a painless fairy-tale future where they could live happily ever after. But had things really changed? Many of the underlying prewar problems had not disappeared with the defeat of Germany. There were still all the old international tensions, class warfare, looming economic disasters, racial hatreds and religious fanaticism to torment humanity.
But that was in the future. All most of the men serving in the British army wanted to do was to get out of khaki and safely back into their civilian lives as soon as possible. This, though, would prove to be a staggering administrative task. Millions of men would have to be returned to their former employments and if this was not controlled strictly then economic chaos and mass unemployment loomed large.
Any demobilisation system had to be both transparently fair and carried out as soon as possible. Thus it was decided that men who were needed urgently at home to help restock the workforce of key industries would be released first, after which release would be grouped according to category and length of service – with priority for those who had volunteered early in the war.
Among thousands of bored men, chafing under a discipline that now seemed redundant, there were many disturbances which could have been easily characterised as mutiny if the bulk of officers, NCOs and men had not kept their heads while a minority of hot-heads railed and kicked against the authorities. Guardsman Horace Calvert witnessed a typical ‘spot of bother’ at Le Havre Camp in December 1918.
It was not unnatural that men resented their continued service, especially as the army soon returned to its default state: a peacetime regime where ‘spit and polish’ ruled. But these men were not ‘natural’ soldiers. They had joined for the duration of the war and for no longer. The system may have been fair enough in principle, but it was inevitable that thousands of individual cases fell through the net. In the end everyone seemed to have some reason or other to be dissatisfied within a demobilisation process that appeared to last forever.
A changed world
Eventually they would all return home. Free to try and pick up the elusive traces of their civilian lives. Too much had changed: the world had changed while they were away; they had changed. As thousands flooded the employment market many men found it very difficult to get work.
Millions of men returned home from the war to their homes, families and girlfriends. Most coped well and against all the odds managed to live reasonably happy and contented lives. Yet many men found themselves alone in a crowd. No one had really defined the nature of combat fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1920s and there was little psychological help available. Some soldiers back from the front had simply seen too much; experienced too many horrors, to go quietly into the tranquillity of civilian life. The collation of symptoms known as shell shock was common, but barely commented on in public life.
A hidden world of suffering existed: a starched array of stiff upper lips, but with a dark unspoken undercurrent of men failing to cope with the pressures of civilian life and far too often resorting to casual violence. For many families the Great War did not end in 1918 – thousands of women and children bore physical and mental scars that really originated in the traumas of the battlefields.
Early plastic surgery
The badly wounded were the obvious victims. One such was Joseph Pickard who had been smashed up by a shell on Easter Sunday, 31 March 1918. He could never forget the loss of most of his nose. The evidence stared back at him every time he looked in the mirror.
In the end Pickard had an early form of plastic surgery when a piece of his rib cartilage was used to rebuild his nose in 1921. It would never look quite right but it was a good deal better than nothing. There were many far worse off than him – and he knew it. William Towers had lost his leg in the war. Most people were sympathetic but there could be rank unpleasantness.
Thousands suffered the phantom pains of missing limbs, the crippling disabilities, the callous jeers from children in the street, the irreparable rending wounds that reduced life to painful torture, wounds that cannot be looked at without a shudder of horror-filled empathy. They inhabited a world of pain and suffering beyond comprehension: a world of tetraplegics, paraplegics, multiple amputations, wrecked lungs, mutilations, emasculation and blindness.
Perhaps in truth there could be no happy-ever-after for those returning from the Great War: no land fit for heroes. Not for the British people at any rate. The world economy had been severely over-strained and Great Britain found itself chained to an enormous national debt. A worldwide depression left economies teetering on the brink of utter collapse. Once again it was ordinary individuals that suffered most in wave after wave of wage cuts, temporary lay-offs and redundancies.
Politics took a messianic turn with ‘strong’ leaders promising an end to all problems. Bubbling away in the background was the prospect of renewed conflict. The Great War was never really a war to end war – that was just a catchy slogan.
But in reality it was just another war. Bigger than any that had preceded it, perhaps: but in essence no different. Just 20 years later the Great War became the First World War with the onset of the Second World War.
Peter Hart is the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive. He is author of 1918: A Very British Victory (Phoenix, September 2009).
This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine