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Remembering the final moments of The Great War [excerpt]

11 November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of The Great War. Victory came at a great cost, seeing millions of fatalities in one of the deadliest wars in history.

In the below excerpt from The Last Battle, World War I historian Peter Hart shares testimonies about the war’s end from the men who fought until the eleventh hour.

That morning, the 2/15th London Regiment was released from the haunting prospect of an assault over the River Scheldt at Avelghem.

When this bloody war is over / Oh, how happy I shall be / When I get my civvie clothes on / No more soldiering for me.

We never sang the above ditty joyously, because so far as we could see the war was never going to end. It was sung only on those occasions when, as a small carrying party for example, we waited at some dreary ration dump to collect rations and take them up the line, or, after having drunk more than enough vin blanc, we sat in some estaminet feeling doleful. And now, to our great surprise and joy, it was ‘Après la Guerre’. —Corporal Charles Hennessey, 2/15th (Civil Service Rifl es), London Regiment, 90th Brigade, 36th Division

The army was not a uniform body of automatons. Hidden behind the khaki was a wide variety of personalities – all responding to peace in dissimilar ways – much as men had responded differently to the challenges of war. In a few moments, everything had changed.

It was a strange feeling to ride back to the battery in the quiet that followed 11 o’clock. One had got used to the background noise of shellfire. Near the front it seemed a continuous orchestration of deep and echoing sound, punctuated by the sharper rat-tattat of rifle or machine-gun fire. The landscape was different: no observation balloons to be seen, no plumes of smoke from the shell bursts or burning buildings, no aeroplanes glinting in the sky. Peace seemed a very strange and new experience. —Major Richard Foot, ‘D’ Battery, 310th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, 62nd Division

Men of U. 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918. Image credit: “US 64th regiment celebrate the Armistice” provided by the U.S. National Archive. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

They had become accustomed to the roar of the guns, the rumble of transport wheels, the bellowed orders and the crunch of marching feet.

That quiet – that quietness – we couldn’t get used to it. We’d been deafened by gunfire for years! We were never without the sound of gunfire; either in your sector, the next sector, or somewhere within ear range! Suddenly all was quiet! We wanted to talk in whispers as if we were in church or something. —Private Donald Hodge, 7th Royal West Kent Regiment, 55th Brigade, 18th Division

Many could hardly believe it. Their lives had been shaped by the war. Every day, every action, every thought was dominated by the requirement to somehow survive while carrying out their duties beneath the looming spectre of death. Then suddenly that shadow was lifted.

Nobody would believe it. The war couldn’t be over. It had been on for years. It was so unreal, we had got into the habit of feeling, ‘Oh well, I suppose sometime this show will end!’ But we still didn’t see the end in sight at all. We thought, ‘Well, my godfather! The war’s over!’ Eventually of course it sunk in. Then naturally we thought, ‘Oh, where do we go from here?’ Just that sort of feeling that we’d been sacked, we’d been kicked out of a job. A terribly empty feeling. —Captain George Jameson, C Battery, 72nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

Many accounts refer to a strange emptiness caused by the removal of war from their mental landscape. In consequence, with some units there was no discernible excitement when the news came through. This phlegmatic approach was partially a public demonstration of the legendary British ‘stiff-upper lip’, but it was also deep-rooted in the stultifying effect of entrenched war-weariness. Many men required to control their innermost feelings in battle had become emotionally desensitised. The Armistice was too big an event, just too important for them to properly process what was happening to them. They no longer had the emotional vocabulary to respond appropriately.

We were too far gone, too exhausted really, to enjoy it. All we could do was just go back to our billets; there was no cheering, no singing, we had no alcohol at all. We simply celebrated the Armistice in silence and thankfulness that it was all over. It was such a sense of anti-climax. We were drained of all emotion. —Corporal Clifford Lane, 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment, 54th Brigade, 18th Division

Yet, for all that, many units responded with a riotous sense of release, once, that is, they had escaped the vigilant gaze of their offi cers. Private Norman Cliff soon found that even the Guards could be tempted to displays of excitement.

I rushed back to the billet and amid a din of riotous cheering seized my rifl e, equipment and all my belongings and flung the whole lot in the air. Others followed suit. A kind of frenzied madness seized us and we were no longer responsible for our antics and foolery. All the frustration, resentment, exasperation, sorrow, hope and despair had been bottled up for long harrowing years. Sudden relief was bound to cause an explosion. As suddenly, quietness returned. Feelings welled up that were too deep for expression. A dumbness fell upon us, and a solemn thoughtful mood took over; but not for long. Our excitement could not be contained. I had renounced everything to become Guardsman Cliff ‘for the duration of the war’. The war was over. I was ‘Civilian Cliff’ again. —Private Norman Cliff, 1st Grenadier Guards, 3rd Brigade, Guards Division.

Featured image credit: “The announcing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, was the occasion for a monster celebration in Philadelphia… – NARA – 533478” provided by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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