News of the Armistice reaches Medway – at 11:30 am on 11 November 1918, the Bells of Rochester Cathedral rung-out to announce Peace.
The Armistice with Germany had been anticipated for some weeks. The Turks had surrendered and Austria had applied to Italy for an armistice – leaving Germany fighting on alone. When peace arrived there was great excitement mixed with relief, but for many across Medway who would have been laden with grief, expressing joy would have been beyond their capacity. The flu epidemic was also still taking lives and the future was far from certain. Despite these circumstances people across Medway did celebrate and give thanks.
The ‘Official’ Announcement
In anticipation of a final victory the Rochester bellringers petitioned the Dean & Chapter of Rochester Cathedral to sanction the addition of two new bells to commemorate the declaration of peace when it came. Local traders started preparing to mark the Peace with special sales. Chatham Furnishing Stores (80 High Street), for instance, placed a large advertisement in the press under the headline of – “With the Proclamation of Peace – Prepare for the Home Coming”.
The Bishop of Rochester also involved himself in arranging a ‘Diocesan Festival Service of Thanks Giving’ for when peace was declared. The preparations included arranging for a special choir to support the musical part of the service planned for the Cathedral.
By Sunday 10th November anticipation was running high but there was still no news of of Peace being agreed. Dean Storrs therefore announced from the pulpit of the Cathedral, that when news of the Armistice came through the Cathedral bells would be rung and 30 minutes later a service of thanksgiving would be held in the Cathedral.
On Monday 11 November news of the Armistice officially arrived in Rochester. Just as the Dean had announced the Cathedral’s bells started ringing at 11:30am., and by 12 noon as many as 2,000 people had gathered in the Cathedral for the service that was held in the choir.
The Dean presided over the service despite learning that over night one of his sons, Francis Edmund (barrister aged 35), had died of the flu/pneumonia. It was therefore quite understandable that the Dean did not give an address but in a deeply emotional voice he said: “Brethren, at this hour of everyday during the past four years a small company have gathered in the Lady Chapel of this Cathedral to make intercessions to Almighty God, to pray for our sailors and soldiers for the cause for which they were fighting, and for final victory”. The Thanksgiving Service included the hymn “O God, our help in ages past” sung to the never dying “St. Anne” tune; it was sung by people whose “hearts were overflowing with joy and thankfulness”.
After the service the bells of the Cathedral – and those of churches across Medway and beyond – continued to ring for the greater part of the day.
[In 1925 and in memory of his son Francis, the Dean dedicated a pair of gilt candle sticks on the Jesus Alter of the cathedral.]
The ‘Announcement’ was Leaked!
The inhabitants of Rochester – as well as those of the other Medway towns – did not need the Cathedral or church bells to announce that the Armistice had been signed. It was around 10:15am on the 11 November that the Prime Minister announced to the press that the Armistice had been signed but it was already known in the Dockyard by around 9:30am. On hearing the news the dockyard sirens and hooters sounded with great vigour. The news was quickly relaid along the Medway by the steamships, and it wasn’t long before the hooters of railway engines and factories joined the merry din; it was said to have been quite musical at times!
At 12 noon the workers in the dockyard were called to a muster station and officially told of the news. They were then given the remainder of the day off – but were also reminded they needed to present for work at 7am the next morning.
As soon as the news was officially announced constant cheering rent the air, and flags were hoisted and shop fronts decorated. Compared to the other Medway towns the citizens of Rochester received the news far more stoically. Despite them not indulging in the boisterous scenes witnessed in other parts, or attempting to rival the gaiety of the neighbouring Boroughs, their joy was none the less sincere. The boys of the Maths School though showed no such restraint. On receiving the news from Headmaster Lucy their cheering was so long and loud the headmaster had great trouble in telling the boys that they could have the rest of the day off.
There were similar scenes of excitement in the factories – it was said to have known no bounds at the seaplane works of Shorts Brothers. Once the department heads had conveyed the news to the men and women in their departments all hope of work was forgotten until the next day. “The din of the beaten metal, the shouts of the men and women workers will never be forgotten – it was as if Bedlam had been let loose.” A number of people who had been ‘conscripted’ to work at the plane factory were told they could leave and they immediately made their way to the Labour Exchange to arrange for a ticket home. Similar joyous scenes were witnessed at the works of Aveling & Porter and the Medway Steel Works.
Although celebrations in Rochester were comparatively restrained bunting and flags did
make an appearance. The loftiest flag was the national flag that was affixed to a sweep of the windmill of Messrs. Glover & Son’s – on high ground in Delce. Flags and bunting also soon appeared on the Guildhall and the Castle.
Throughout the afternoon and evening there were wild scenes of joy across Medway. Immense crowds thronged the streets making merry with much singing and shouting. The excitement was enlivened considerably by the explosion of fireworks and the excitement of men in uniform. Soldiers were seen climbing on the transports, and a party of the military commandeered a motor bus for joy rides – probably necessitating the stopping of all trams by noon. At Gillingham the band of the Salvation Army paraded the streets playing patriotic airs.
Not all could share in the excitement.
Flu was still endemic in Medway early in November 1918, and there were many wives, parents and children who would have been so overloaded with grief they would not have been able to join the merriment. The Towns suffered loses that probably matched the worst of any town in the Country as many Chatham ships, that would have been extensively crewed by Medway men, were lost during the war.
In January 1915 the Mayor of Rochester in paying tribute to sailors who had lost their lives in the sinking of the Cressy, Aboukir, Hogue, Pathfinder, and Formidable, recognised the huge losses that had affected Gillingham – he reported that in one street there were 43 women who had been widowed and 28 in another. (And the war was still to last another three and a half years.)
Words of comfort offered to bereaved mothers by Amelia McCudden
Trench warfare belongs to history now but the pain and anguish experienced by families 100 years ago when a loved one goes to war, or is killed or wounded, will be as severe today and tomorrow, as it was a century ago. I would like to end with the words of comfort that were shared by Mrs McCudden – mother of three sons including James McCullen VC, who lost their lives during the war:
“Mothers of England whose boys have run their last race, remember, remember, what they did was done for you; the sacrifice that they made, with life stretching away in front of them, was made for you.
Remember this, mothers, and as you gaze on an empty chair … or passing the bedroom where he once slept and you peep in, call-up the ‘carry on’ spirit. It is what he would have wished. You can almost hear him saying “Carry on mother, carry on!” You will then be able to face the world with a proud smile. It was all done for you. He is not dead, Such spirits never die.”
23 Nov. ’18, Chatham, Rochester & Gillingham Observer.
Immediate implications of the Armistice
All recruitment under the Military Services Acts was suspended. All outstanding call-up notices, whether for medical examinations or service, were cancelled. All cases pending before tribunals were suspended.
Austerity did not end and in December 1918 Rochester held “Recognition & Reconstruction Week”, with a target to raise £100,000 (equivalent to £10,000,000 today). It was reached. Seventy two tons of soil was dumped in the colonnade of the Guildhall. It was crafted into a ‘Dug-out’ bank by men who have served. It included realistic touches – such as naming parts “Hell-fire corner” and “Whizz-bang corner”. The success of the week was partly attributed to a black cat making itself at home on the ‘dug-out’.
Details of the Armistice
The following is added for interest. Agreeing the Armistice was not just about ceasing fighting. All sides needed to agree the terms under which the fighting was to stop. The Peace was fragile with the first agreement only being for 36 days – although it did subsequently get extended. It was largely based on 14 principles put forward by Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA, to secure what he considered would be a “just and stable peace”.
Germany wanted to protect its sovereignty and as many of its assets it could secure. The Allies not only wanted an unconditional surrender they required Germany to accept its culpability in starting the war, and to make recompense for the damage that was caused by the war. The Allies also wanted financial restitution for what the war had cost them.
It was not until 28 June 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles was finally signed. During the negotiations the requirements of the Allies changed and compromises were reached. Below is a summary of the main terms of the Armistice that was presented to Parliament in November 1918 – it gives and idea as to why it took so long to agree the Armistice.
Original Terms of the Armistice
- Immediate evacuation of Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine and Luxembourg.
- Evacuation by the enemy of Rhine lands; this to be completed within 16 days.
- The railways of Alsace-Lorraine to be handed over to the Associated powers.
- German troops who have not left evacuated territories within 14 days to be treated as prisoners of war.
- The occupation by the Allied and United Staes forces will keep pace with the evacuation.
- Immediate repatriation of Allied and United States prisoners without repatriation of enemy prisoners.
- Complete abandonment of treaties of Bucharest and Brest-Litovsk.
- Immediate cessation of all hostilities at sea.
- Handing over to Allies and United States of all submarines.
- The surrender by the German Government of the following equipment – 5,000 guns, of which 2,500 will be heavy, and 2,500 field guns; 30,000 machine guns and a large number of trench mortars (quantity later specified to be 3,000).
- The evacuation by German Armies of the left bank of the Rhine.
- The territory shall be administered by the local authorities under the control of the Allied and United States Armies of occupation.
- To be disarmed: 6 battle cruisers, 10 battleships, 8 light cruisers, 50 destroyers, and other services.
- Allies reserve the right to occupy Heligoland to enable them to enforce the terms of the Armistice.
- The occupation of the Rhine territories will be carried out by the Allied garrison holding reciprocal crossings of the Rhine at Mainz, Coblenz and Cologne, together with the bridgeheads at those points for 30 kilometres range of the right bank.
- A neutral zone shall be set up on the right bank of the Rhine between the river and a line drawn between the Dutch and Swiss frontiers. In the case of inhabitants of the neutral zone, no person shall be prosecuted for having taken part in military measures previous to the signing of the armistice.
- Duration of the armistice is to be 36 days. [After this time the Allies would occupy Germany. It was later reported that the Armistice was extended to 5am 17 January 1919 and then again to 5am 17 Feb. 1919.]
- The evacuation by the enemy of the Rhineland shall be completed within 31 days of the armistice.
- Military establishments of all kinds shall be deliver intact, as well as military stores and food within the period fixed for the evacuation.
- Stores of foods of all kinds shall be left.
- Two thousand aeroplanes to be surrendered.
- No public securities shall be removed by the enemy which can serve as a pledge to the Allies.
- Immediate restitution of cash belonging to the National Ban of Belgium, and of Russian and Roumanian (sic) gold.
- Immediate return of all documents, specie [coins], stocks, shares, and paper Monet belonging to the invaded countries.
- All naval and mercantile prisoners of war in German hands to be returned without reciprocity.
How it all went wrong?
I should leave it to professional historians to comment on whether the Allies’ determination to punish Germany in addition to seeking restitution, set up a situation that eventually led to WW2. However, I’m finding myself wondering whether the Peace was won by the soldiers but then lost by the politicians? Certainly after WW2 Churchill stressed the importance of magnanimity in victory and goodwill in Peace; both seem to have been in very short supply at the end of WW1.
The final Peace Treaty – that Germany initially refused to sign – bore little resemblance to the terms proposed by Wilson. Eventually it was agreed – despite it placing what many thought was an unsustainable financial burden on Germany.
John Maynard Keynes, a Treasury advisor to the negotiators, resigned from the role as he felt the penalties being extracted from Germany were excessive. As he predicted would happen Germany soon defaulted on its payments. Inflation ran out of control and many German civilians found themselves unable to afford food, and starving. In November 1923 Adolf Hilter attempted a coup against the German Government. It failed and he was imprisoned, but he was later able to capitalise on the resentment of the German people. Although in 1930 the Treaty of Versailles was altered in favour of Germany it did not prevent its re-militarisation and eventually the outbreak of WW2 – 20 years after the ‘war that was to end all wars’ had been ‘won’.
Geoff Ettridge aka Geoff Rambler 11 November 2018