This article first appeared in Bulletin 114, the internal news and information magazine for members of The Western Front Association. [Available in print or digital formats].
Comprising a military procession that wound its way for seven miles through central London, crossing and re-crossing the Thames, where warships formed a Naval Pageant, along with a variety of festivities in Hyde Park, and numerous other events around the country. The most memorable and lasting image of the day was the sight of military and naval men and women, of all ranks and many countries, stopping and saluting at the newly-built, temporary, Cenotaph, symbolising the dead. Yet the details of the day’s events, even the date, were in doubt until just a few weeks beforehand.
These doubts reflected the uncertainty and unrest that characterised the period from the Armistice on 11 November 1918 to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. They also reflected the feelings of many, even in the War Cabinet itself, who wondered if any kind of celebration was appropriate when peace had been achieved at such great cost in human lives, continued suffering and a pervasive sense of loss.
The Armistice was signed initially for just one month, and renewed in December for another month. At the beginning of January, a rash of soldiers’ strikes spread across the UK and even into northern France; they were fed up with the slow pace of demobilisation and doing drills, church parades, route marches and the like when, as far as they were concerned, the war was over. Yet the Paris Peace Conference didn’t even begin until 18 January, by which time the armistice had been renewed for yet another month. By the time that in turn expired, in mid-February, the extent of the task of negotiating peace had become clear, and this time the renewal was for a whole year.
It was not, of course, only serving soldiers who were restless. Three major ex-service organisations, the National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Sailors and Soldiers, and the Comrades of the Great War had formed in 1917, the first two from very radical roots, the third a more conservative counter-weight. They were vying with each other for new members among the discharged veterans flooding home, and pressuring the government by all means at their disposal to improve war pensions and dependants’ allowances, re-train the disabled, create jobs, and much more. In March 1919, the Federation published a remarkable ‘General Programme’ for the country, encompassing an end to secret treaties, abolition of the House of Lords, universal adult suffrage for men and women alike, a welfare system to ‘banish destitution and want from the cradle to the grave’, equal pay for women, slum clearance, rent control, land reform and a great deal more. Public demonstrations by ex-service men and women were frequent, most dramatically on 26 May, when a meeting in Hyde Park became heated and the veterans marched to Westminster, where they clashed with a police cordon, violently enough to alarm MPs in session in Parliament.
By this time, a committee of the War Cabinet was planning how to mark the signing of a peace with Germany though nobody knew when, or even if, that would happen. It was chaired by Lord Curzon, a member of the War Cabinet and famous for his love of creating vast and spectacular ceremonies, above all the Delhi Durbar of 1903. Held over two weeks to celebrate the installation of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark as Emperor and Empress of India, the Durbar was planned by Curzon on a grand scale and in meticulous detail, cementing his reputation as an organiser of great events. He was supported in the committee by the Home Secretary, First Commissioner of Works, and representatives of the Admiralty, War Office and Colonial Office, though not by anyone from the ex-service organisations, not even the supportive Comrades of the Great War. There wasn’t much to discuss at first as progress in Paris was slow, and when they reported to the War Cabinet on 23 April, it was just to recommend that soon after a treaty was signed there should be a military demonstration on a Saturday, and thanksgiving services on the Sunday.
A few weeks later the committee’s proposal to the War Cabinet had expanded considerably to encompass four days of celebrations in the first week of August, including Saturday, Sunday and the Bank Holiday in order to cause ‘as little dislocation as possible to the industrial life of the country’. Tellingly, and reflecting the general state of uncertainty, Curzon also told the meeting that the decision to ‘fix the celebrations for so far ahead as August’ was ‘in case anything untoward should happen ... considering the disturbed state of Europe and the world at the present moment.’
Finally, on 28 June 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed, and the War Cabinet met two days later with ‘Peace Celebrations’ at the top of the agenda. Curzon had to report that the King was not happy with deferring thanksgiving services until August and instead wanted them held on 6 July, a mere six days away, otherwise ‘it might look as if the nation was not particularly anxious to give thanks for the signing of the Peace’. Curzon explained the need for ‘careful preparation and organisation [which] could not be properly carried out in a hurry’, and so the Cabinet sent him back to the King, to explain the difficulties that a change of date would cause.
Quite remarkably also, Curzon said in that meeting that ‘that there was no desire on the part of himself or his Committee to have the celebrations, as they doubted whether the occasion really justified extensive rejoicing’, an astonishing statement from the committee charged with organising the events, and just two days after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. However they were also ‘aware from a great mass of correspondence ... that the peoples of the Empire had a strong desire to celebrate Peace.’
The War Cabinet met again the following day, to be told that the King was resolute when it came to the date of the services, and was also anxious that there should be a River Pageant of Royal Navy warships on the Thames. The minutes record a prolonged discussion in cabinet, with a variety of different and frequently contradictory views expressed. Prime Minister David Lloyd George weighed in with his suggestion for a symbolic ‘catafalque ... that some prominent artist might be consulted’ to design, to represent the dead and for the soldiers and sailors to pay their respects to, as they marched past (a catafalque is the raised platform that supports a coffin in a Christian funeral). Rather surprisingly perhaps, the cabinet did eventually reach two clear decisions: Thanksgiving Services should be held throughout the Kingdom and the Empire, on Sunday 6 July, with the ‘National Celebrations of Peace’ on 19 July. The latter ‘should comprise, if possible, a Military Procession of representatives of all the Fighting Services, together with an American contingent, and a River Display, the whole day to be given up to organised national rejoicings.’
So ‘Peace Day’ as it was soon dubbed by the press, was just 18 days away, but this does not seem to have fazed Curzon, even in the face of adverse comment from some ex-service groups. The Federation was particularly caustic, stating just two days later that ‘the first step towards Peace Celebration should be the placing of Discharged and Demobilised men in employment, and the substantial increase of Pensions and Allowances to Widows and Dependants. In the event of no steps being taken, nationally, to satisfactorily grant these demands ... all Branches should take no part in Peace Festivities.’ Needless to say, no such improvements were forthcoming in the short time before the big day, and most Federation branches either ignored the festivities or held their own meetings, more in protest than in celebration.
Some individuals too, expressed anger, such as an ex-soldier writing to the Manchester Evening News to say ‘I am sure the title Peace Day will send a cold shiver through the bodies of thousands of “demobbed” men who are walking about the streets ... looking for a job’ going on to lambast the ‘many Manchester business men [who] refuse to employ the ex-soldier on the grounds that he has lost four years’ experience ... through being in the army’.
However more generally there was growing enthusiasm for the event, and contemporary accounts suggest that the day itself was truly extraordinary, a tribute to Curzon’s vision, superb organisation and meticulous attention to detail, implemented in a very short time, including the temporary Cenotaph. This was an ‘empty tomb’, designed by Edwin Lutyens, instead of the catafalque originally proposed, and ‘ordered, designed and built in ten days’. Where Curzon had throughout his life shown his love of pomp, aristocracy and royalty, for Peace Day he clearly wanted ordinary sailors, soldiers and their families to be at the centre. Those veterans who were too disabled to march were not hidden away, but given prime spots at the front of the crowds, while a large part of the seating on Constitution Hill was kept for the ‘mothers, widows and children of the soldiers who never returned’. People started taking up positions as early as 3 am, along a seven- mile route that began at the Albert Gate to Hyde Park, turned south to cross the river, winding through London south of the Thames, before eventually returning across Westminster Bridge, past Parliament and Big Ben and turning north onto Whitehall, where the temporary Cenotaph had just been unveiled, into Trafalgar Square and onto the Mall, past the Victoria Memorial where King George V and the royal party would take the salute, then along Constitution Hill to the finish back in Hyde Park.
The parade of some 20,000 men and women, began at 10 am, led off by US General Pershing on a great brown horse, accompanied by his staff officers and company after company of infantry. They were the first to enter Whitehall where ‘men’s eyes turned instinctively to the simple white cenotaph, with a silent bowed sentry at each corner, and they remembered those other soldiers who will march no more.’ Belgian soldiers were next, loudly cheered and closely followed by a smaller contingent of Chinese officers, and then the ‘Czecho- Slavs’. Next a group of French lancers, ahead of Marshal Foch ‘on a black charger’ and carrying ‘a gold-tipped baton’, and so it went on: Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Poles, Portuguese, Rumanians, Serbs and Siamese. Each country’s soldiers, it was reported, brought renewed applause and cheers from the vast crowds, and then it was the turn of the British, led by Admiral Beatty and sailors of all ranks from the Royal Navy, along with naval nurses and Wrens, and members of the mercantile marine.
After the sailors came the soldiers, led of course by Field-Marshal Haig, and many of his generals, ahead of officers and men of ‘the Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force of 1914. And this was the curtain-raiser for groups from every part of the British Army, the Guards, Regulars, Territorials and Yeomanry; artillery crews with their field-guns, engineers, infantry, machine-gunners. Then it was the turn of ‘the Dominions’: Australians, South Africans, the Labour Corps, followed by the Women’s Legion, doctors, nurses, VADs, chaplains, and WAACs. The parade was completed by the youngest service, the Royal Air Force, and the whole procession took more than two hours to pass each point along the route.
While all this was happening, and long after, there was a range of festivities of all kinds in London’s public parks, folk dancing, singing, children’s entertainments, and much more, culminating in a huge night-time firework display of 84 spectacular set-pieces. Numerous smaller events took place around the country, including a line of bonfires and beacons said to stretch from ‘the Channel to the Cromarty Firth’. Not everywhere was peaceful though, most famously in Luton, where a meeting outside the Town Hall, called to protest the continuing perceived neglect of veterans’ welfare, turned violent, with the building itself set ablaze, firefighters attacked and every one of them hospitalised, shops looted, and martial law imposed for three days. Coventry was almost as riotous, scenes ... over one hundred casualties ... boarded-up shop fronts where most of the glass has been smashed [and] looting of stocks’.
Overall though, newspapers and authorities pronounced the day a success, and just two days later the calls began for the Cenotaph be made permanent, in marble or Portland stone, and within a fortnight, the Cabinet agreed. Peace Day and the permanent Cenotaph were the first steps in the creation of what became over the next two years, with the additions of the two-minute silence, the Last Post and the poppy, the Remembrance Day ceremony we know today.
Mike is in the final year of his PhD at the University of Edinburgh. He has for many years been an independent radio producer, making programmes for the BBC, including historical documentaries about aspects of Remembrance for Radio 4.