11 November 1918: The day the world turned upside down

Across Britain and further afield, the signing of the armistice agreement, on 11 November 1918, was greeted with an outpouring of joy. Guy Cuthbertson takes us through an extraordinary day, from the moment the news reached British shores to that night's raucous celebrations

11th November 1918: An army lorry in a London street on Armistice Day, carrying jubilant passengers. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

In Cambridge on Monday 11 November 1918, a merry mob of students went wild, smashing windows and throwing books and paintings into the street. Crowds cheered and danced energetically, and cars careered about heaped with people who were trying to make as much noise as possible. A bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the kaiser was burned in the market square while people danced round the bonfire. The Cambridge Daily News reported that “the world seemed to have turned upside down”. Similar events occurred across Britain. The day the war ended was a weird and wonderful carnival rather than the day of mournful seriousness that Armistice Day would become in later years. The armistice brought church services and tears, but it was a day of joy, spontaneity, noise and fun.

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British troops in the trenches, Belgium, c1914–15. The horrors of the First World War lived long in the memories of its centenarian survivors. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

The day began, though, with disappointment and anxiety. Many people had expected armistice news on Sunday, the day after the kaiser’s abdication was announced as support for him in Germany disintegrated. “We know the enemy is beaten, and God has given us the victory in this greatest of all the great struggles in the world’s history,” the vicar of All Saints, Maidstone in Kent told his congregation. Late on Sunday evening, a large crowd in Bristol was waiting for news from the offices of The Western Daily Press. That newspaper noted that “there was a much bigger crowd assembled than on that fateful night in August 1914, when the news came that Britain had declared war on Germany”. But there was no news on 10 November, and by midnight the crowd had gone. All over Britain, people were on tenterhooks, hoping that the war to end wars was about to end.

The timer ticks

The armistice agreement would emerge from a railway carriage stationed in the Forest of Compiègne. As Monday arrived, Germany’s delegates were close to accepting the armistice terms. At 2.05am, nearly three days since talks began, the German delegation stated that they were ready for a fresh round of discussions, which began at 2.15am. Thirty-four terms were read out by Maxime Weygand on behalf of Allied commander-in-chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch. The armistice was signed at 5.12am, amended to read 5am. The first of the terms was “Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the armistice” (the cessation at sea was immediate), so the act of signature set the timer ticking for the end of the war – like a game of football or rugby, the war now had a fixed duration.

British former field marshal Douglas Haig, inspects poppies before Armistice Day, October 1922. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The armistice was signed when most people in Britain were asleep, and even when they woke up and went off to work, they didn’t know the news. In Aberdeen, though, none of the trawlers had put to sea because they expected an explosion of rejoicing. Gradually the news was spreading, both on the western front and the home front. Soldiers were cheering soon after sunrise. The 1st Birmingham Battalion, the 14th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was at Pont-sur-Sambre when, at 8am, the news was received. Many soldiers had heard by 8.30am – though not everyone believed it at first.

War is over!

Hawarden in Flintshire heard the news when it reached the village postmaster at 8.30am. Ernest Barnes, the future bishop of Birmingham, learned about the armistice at about this time, too: the village where he was staying had received news from a nearby air force station. He saw, in a cottage doorway, a little flag tied to a child’s chair, and then went to a newsagent where the woman behind the counter confirmed the news, telling him that there had been too much killing.

Ports tended to celebrate early. At North Shields, the first indication of peace was at 8.10am when two boats were seen to be decked out with bunting. At South Shields, the sirens of boats could be heard just after 8.30am. By 9.30am, the news had clearly reached the Royal Navy at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles. People at the port of Kirkwall on Orkney were given the news by the sirens of naval vessels, and set about rejoicing – many flags and much bunting soon appeared, ships blew whistles and the bells of the cathedral were rung. Unlike in London, Scotland had some lovely weather.

David Lloyd George appeared outside No 10 just before 11am, and the crowd sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’

The Orcadian newspaper was keen to note that the Kirkwall public found out an hour before the London public (in that pre-BBC era, the news didn’t radiate out of London, but found its way piecemeal). Indeed, the public in many large cities didn’t hear until nearly 11am. In London, it was 10.30am before a crowd started forming at Downing Street, as newspapers and newsboys began spreading the word. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, appeared outside No 10 about five minutes before the armistice began, and the crowd sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. “At 11 o’clock this morning the war will be over,” the jolly good fellow said, and cheers ensued. Hats were thrown in the air and into the garden of 10 Downing Street. At Buckingham Palace a policeman confirmed the news a few minutes before 11am and let officers and wounded soldiers within the gates.

The last victim

In America, it was still nighttime (on the east coast, the war ended at 6am) but enthusiastic celebrations were already taking place. Cecil Sharp, an English expert on folk dancing, was visiting Cleveland, Ohio, where he was woken up by bells at 4.30am – unable to sleep, he spent the rest of the night thinking about the news. He was overjoyed, like everyone else, but he could not forget fellow folk dancers who had been killed in the war.

And, in fact, on the western front, many more men died in the cold and fog as the fighting continued until 11am. One victim was George Edwin Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, a middle-aged man who served right from the start of the war. Believed to be the last British soldier killed in action, he died at Mons, where he started fighting in August 1914. He is buried near the first British soldier killed in action in the war. The war had returned to where it began. But at 11am it was all over and a strange silence reigned.

In Birmingham, women were “masquerading in male attire”, and in Aberdeen there were men dressed up as female nurses

Whereas the western front saw a swift and shocking transition from noise to silence, on the home front peace continued to break out noisily. Many places deployed sirens and maroons (a form of loud rocket). New Yorkers were woken up by sirens and factory whistles. Some people in London thought it was an air-raid warning at 11am, and rushed for shelter. At Elephant and Castle they fled to the tube stations for cover. Only an ‘All clear’ signal on a bugle would convince some Londoners that there was no danger. Nine-year-old John Raynor, the son of a teacher at Westminster School, was on a shopping trip when the maroons went off and there was a stampede in the street – a man was knocked down and the crowd trampled over him as he bled.

London calling

In London, Big Ben didn’t chime or strike at 11 o’clock, having been silenced during the war so that it wouldn’t assist enemy Zeppelins, but it returned at noon. Recalling how a crowd started forming in Northumberland Avenue below his office at the Metropole after two strokes of the bell, Winston Churchill was convinced that he heard it at 11am, as were other people, and books still refer to Big Ben striking at the moment the war ended. But Churchill later suggested that perhaps it was St Martin-in-the-Fields that he heard.

In many different places, church bells were used to announce the news, although it wasn’t always possible to gather bell-ringers together before noon. At Malew on the Isle of Man, a variety of parishioners all lent a hand so that the bells were rung from 11am to 8pm. By noon, most towns and cities in Britain (The Daily Express referred to ‘Armisticities’) were a noisy mix of cheering, singing, bells and music. Crowds were huge and still growing, even though people had been advised to avoid large gatherings during the flu pandemic. And the situation was similar around the world. In Australia, where it was nighttime, the centres of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide were a mass of happy people.

In Kirkwall, the town crier proclaimed a half holiday at noon. Elsewhere, employers and mayors did the same. Schoolchildren, too, were given the afternoon off, and flooded out of school to join the crowds, singing and yelling and waving flags. The boys of Eton College were released at noon, and went down to the beflagged High Street with flags attached to their top hats. And in Shrewsbury, while church bells rang and a regimental band played, schoolboys formed a manic band of their own, bashing away at drums and vigorously blowing bugles.

It was in Shrewsbury at noon, though, that one of the most famous moments of Armistice Day occurred, when a telegram arrived to tell Wilfred Owen’s parents that their son had been killed in action. Many unwelcome telegrams arrived at homes that day. Across Britain, women in the crowds wore mourning and tears were shed. However, even many of the bereaved cheered and smiled, grateful that such a terrible war had been won, and happy for others.

Siegfried Sassoon in uniform. (Photo by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the innumerable church services, the emphasis was on triumph and thanksgiving, rather than remembrance of the dead. God was on the side of Britain and her allies, and gave them victory. At a ceremony at St Matthew’s Church, High Brooms in Kent, the communion table was draped with a large union flag. Even the service at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, the ‘parish church’ of parliament, was a happy affair. Following a brief but crowded parliamentary session where the terms of the armistice were read out and acclaimed with much cheering, the speaker adjourned the House of Commons at 3.17pm, and led the members to St Margaret’s. The Lords also attended the service, and the archbishop of Canterbury presided. Psalm 100 opened the simple service: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.” From outside came the sound of cheering and music.

While the service was taking place, King George V, Queen Mary and their daughter Princess Mary were journeying out into that cheering crowd (and the pouring rain). The fact that they were in an open carriage, with barely any police protection, showed that the king was not going to meet the fate of either the tsar or the kaiser. The royals shook many hands, and the patriotic crowd cheered them all along their journey.

Bankers and beggars

It was a day when barriers were ignored, rules were happily broken and normality was turned on its head. Differences in wealth or class or gender could be ignored. “Banker and Beggar Walk Side by Side,” The New York Tribune noted, and soldiers in New York wore women’s hats and coats. Back in England, women wore their hair down and gave out kisses generously. In Birmingham, there were “a number of women masquerading in male attire”, and in Aberdeen there were men dressed up as female nurses. In Sunderland, small boys wore their fathers’ or brothers’ khaki, and one boy was dressed up as the kaiser. In city centres, children took soldiers prisoner or led joyous processions of wounded men. In Leeds, according to The Yorkshire Evening Post, marching women formed a mock army half a mile long. In Dublin, just after 3pm, there was a mock funeral for the kaiser with a hearse and students dressed as clergymen.

When it got dark across Britain, fireworks and bonfires were lit, and street lights came on for the first time in years. It was a magical evening. Soon after 6pm in Aberdeen, the electric lights were switched on in the quadrangle of Marischal College, where about 500 students gathered, and in fancy dress with flaming torches and bagpipers they processed through the town at 7pm, before returning to the quad, where they threw the torches into a pile and made a bonfire, dancing round it wildly.

On many of the country’s bonfires, effigies of the kaiser were burned. Indeed, in the victorious nations, there was a public desire to see the kaiser punished. When President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress in Washington at 6pm GMT, he didn’t mention retribution, and his focus was on “friendly helpfulness”, feeding the starving people in Germany and preserving peace. But at 10 Downing Street that evening, Lloyd George, FE Smith (attorney-general), Winston Churchill (minister of munitions) and Sir Henry Wilson (chief of the imperial general staff) discussed the kaiser’s fate – Smith, the lawyer, was keen to see the kaiser executed. Crafty Lloyd George, with one eye on the electorate, supposedly agreed.

Not everyone was impressed by the armistice crowds. Poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves and philosopher Bertrand Russell were scathing about the “mob”, and many intellectuals stayed away.

In restaurants, glasses were smashed and revellers stood on tables to sing. Drink (where it could be found) played a part, and there were accidents. In Blackpool, a drunk taxi driver ran over a soldier on a pavement at 8.45pm. At Kirkintilloch in Dunbartonshire, after magistrates asked for pubs to be closed, a mob threatened to break in.

As the day drew to a close, merrymaking continued. Shades were being removed from street lamps in Leicester Square as late as 11pm, and searchlights were turned on, but streets across the country began to clear. By midnight there was a sense peace and quiet had finally arrived. At Folkestone, a service was held at Tontine Street Congregational Church to mark “the passing of the closing hour of the greatest day in history”.

Guy Cuthbertson is an associate professor in English literature at Liverpool Hope University. He is the author of Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 (Yale, 2018).

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This article was first published in the November 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine