Peace day, July 19th 1919

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Peace day, July 19th 1919

Berichtdoor Tandorini » 14 apr 2012, 08:15

It is still often forgotten that the First World War did not officially end on 11th November 1918. The treaty negotiations at Versailles continued long into the following year, with the Germans desperately battling with the allies' desire to turn the screw as tight as possible in the matter of war reparations. But clearly the Treaty would be signed sooner or later, and governments started to turn their minds to the matter of marking the official end of the war.

In Britain the Peace Committee met for the first time on 9th May 1919, with Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary in charge. Curzon, who loved pomp and ceremony, outlined a celebration running over four days (tentatively pencilled in for the beginning of August), including a Victory March through London, a day of Thanksgiving services, a river pageant, and a day of popular festivities. Lloyd George favoured something simpler, but the the rest of the Cabinet supported Curzon.

In any event the signing of peace at the end of June meant that arrangements had to be speeded up, and the celebration was fixed for 19th July. Lloyd George was taken with the French plan for their Victory March in Paris on Bastille Day, 14th July, which involved Allied troops marching past a great catafalque and saluting in honour of the dead.

Edwin Lutyens was called to 10 Downing Street and asked to come up with a design for a suitable structure. Within hours he had produced a set of full-size working drawings of a "cenotaph" (meaning literally "empty tomb"), and plans for the London Victory Parade and associated Peace Day celebrations went ahead.

In some ways it was never entirely clear what message Peace Day was intended to put across. A letter in a Manchester newspaper put one view of the matter:

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 of Manchester looking for a job. Could a term be found that would be more ironical for such men. Perhaps, after the Manchester and Salford Corporations have celebrated this 'Peace' and incidentally will have wasted the thousands of pounds which it will cost, they will devote their spare time to alleviating the 'bitterness' and 'misery' which exist in the body and mind of the unemployed ex-soldier.

It is high time some very forcible and active measures were taken. Many Manchester businessmen refuse to employ the ex-soldier on the grounds that he has lost four years of experience in this line or that line of business through being in the army. What a splendid and patriotic retort to make to the men who were chiefly instrumental in saving their business from being in the possession of the Hun.

Manchester Evening News July 10th 1919

And there were others who felt that perhaps it was not quite the time to celebrate. The ex-serviceman's federation in East Anglia had decided in June 1919 to boycott peace celebrations and throughout Norfolk the federation was to take no part in the celebrations: in Norwich an official explained:

Our pals died to kill militarism, not to establish that here. We have had militarism burned into us, and we hate it... The Norwich branch of the federation, which consists of nearer 4,000 men than 3,000, has decided that they will take no part in the celebration of this mock peace.

quoted in "The Story of the Cenotaph" by Eric Homberger, in TImes Literary Supplement, 12 November 1976

The preparations had a dynamic all their own, however, and mere protests would not stop them. And there was a genuine sense that the fact the war was really over should be marked in some way. It had been on July 19th 1588 that a chain of beacons had blazed to warn of the coming of the Spanish Armada, and in an echo of that there was a plan for nationwide bonfires to be lit as night fell on July 19th 1919.

As preparations were made for the Victory Parade in London, a huge military camp grew up in Kensington Gardens, with large numbers of Allied troops bivouacking there. The population of London swelled, with thousands of people coming into the capital on Friday's overnight trains. Hundreds of people spent the night in the parks or streets to be sure of a good place. Women climbed on top of the high wall round the Victoria memorial gardens and sat there for fifteen or sixteen hours. The rush for places on the processional route was in full swing by six in the morning, and by eight o'clock it was almost impossible to cross Trafalgar Square.

On the morning itself King George V issued a message to the wounded:

To these, the sick and wounded who cannot take part in the festival of victory, I send out greetings and bid them good cheer, assuring them that the wounds and scars so honourable in themselves, inspire in the hearts of their fellow countrymen the warmest feelings of gratitude and respect.

reported in Daily Express, 19 July 1919

The crowds continued to pour in looking for vantage points on the route of the parade. The official programme (price 1 penny) sold in hundreds of thousands. Pubs near the main route ran dry very early on and had to close. It was reported that a man who tried to auction a bottle of ginger beer to the crowd was almost killed in the rush.
Those crowded along the Mall, were greatly impressed by Lutyens' Cenotaph where the troops were to march past and salute the "glorious dead":

Standing in the centre of Whitehall, the memorial was most impressive, with its summit crowned by a great laurel wreath, holding in place a Union Jack that was draped loosely above the monument. The sides were adorned with the White Ensign, the Red Ensign and the Union Jack representing the Navy, the Mercantile Marine, and the Army.

On the steps were a number of tiny home-made wreaths and humble garden flowers, placed there by loving hands. A very pathetic instance occurred just before the arrival of the procession. A lady, richly attired in the deepest mourning, emerged from the crowd. Silence immediately fell upon the huge assemblage. Slowly advancing to the Cenotaph, she reverently laid a beautiful wreath at its base. She remained for a few moments with head bowed in sorrow and pride before again disappearing among the people.

from Sunday Times, 20 July 1919

The Victory parade itself was a massive success. Nearly 15,000 troops took part in the march, led by the victorious Allied commanders. The salutes of Pershing, Foch, Haig and Beatty to dead comrades as they passed the Cenotaph were captured in unforgettable photographs which appeared in newspapers throughout the country.
In the day there were entertainments put on by the League of Arts in St James' Park; Shakespeare was performed by the National Organisation of Girls' Clubs in Regent's Park. There was a concert in Green Park, and an Imperial Choir of 10,000 voices with the massed bands of the Brigade of Guards, in Hyde Park, to which the King and Queen paid a surprise visit during the afternoon.

A lavish firework display followed at 9.45pm which led to a widely reported unfortunate accident for Lady Diana Cooper, the society beauty whose recent marriage to the dashing young officer Duff Cooper had been a media sensation.

In his memoirs Duff Cooper recalled:

On 19th July we watched from Carlton House Terrace the peace procession, in which I thought Foch was the most impressive figure. That evening we went to dine with friends in a house in Mayfair in order to see the firework display. On account of the crowds in the streets and the impossibility of getting transport we arrived very late and dinner was finished. We were helping ourselves to what remained of it when it was reported that the fireworks were beginning and Diana, ever enthusiastic, led the procession to the roof. I was bringing up the rear, had reached the top floor and was about to climb the ladder that led up from it, when I heard the sound of shattered glass followed, after what seemed to me a long interval, by the sound of a falling body.

I opened a door from behind which the noise seemed to come and looked into a narrow box-room, on the floor of which Diana was lying. She had fallen through a skylight about twenty-five feet from the floor. The opening was so narrow that the large hat she was wearing remained on the roof. She had broken her thigh. ... This was not an auspicious beginning to our married life.

from Old Men Forget, Duff Cooper (1955)

Round the country celebrations took a host of different forms: convicts at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight were were given a holiday and extra rations including plum pudding. Birmingham laid on entertainment in its municipal parks for all the city's children who were also presented with a commemorative medal. In Tisbury, Wiltshire there was a children's procession, followed by a tea-party, and dancing.

Cakes and ale were added to the meals at some of the workhouses - and at Shoreditch old married couples were allowed to sit together "if they wanted to." In Reading the Lady Mayoress planted trees grown from seeds picked up on the Verdun battlefield.

In Gillingham, Kent:

A grand parade of the armed forces through gaily decorated streets, was followed in the afternoon by a procession of schoolchildren ...Entertainment by St Luke's Gymnasts and the Salvation Army band followed the Big Tea Party, concluding with evening fireworks arranged by the military on the Great Lines.

The illuminations received favourable comment, especially the Corporation's coloured display of its arms, the High Street Conservative Club's illuminated crown, and A.F. Smith's (Duncan Road) novel windmill with four revolving sweeps each studded with fairy lights. Balmoral Road residents arranged a life-size representation of a British tar, rolling up his sleeves ready for action.

The trams ran until well after midnight, when an impromptu Barber's Shop Quartet assembled outside Dr Aldrich's house, favouring all of Balmoral and Duncan Roads with patriotic and sentimental songs until 2 am. The good doctor then joined them for The End of a Perfect Day and the National Anthem.

from The Book of Gillingham, Norman Tomlinson (1979)

Not everyone joined in with the spirit of things: in Leamington ex-servicemen refused to take part in a procession but declined the honour of being "ornaments for one day" and in Merthyr Tydfil, 25,000 people attended a thanksgiving service in Penydarron Park, then passed a unanimous resolution calling for higher pensions for ex-servicemen and their dependants. In the afternoon Manchester city centre saw a procession of unemployed and demobilised soldiers carrying banners demanding "work not charity", and the Manchester Evening News remarked "the printed invocation to the crowds to 'Honour the dead - remember the living' was a depressing note to sound in the midst of the jubilation."

The most serious disruption of the celebrations came in Luton, where there was already bad feeling over the town council's refusal to allow discharged soldiers to hold their own memorial service in a park.

The town clerk's office was broken into and a bonfire was made of papers and documents. The fire brigade was prevented from approaching the fire, and police and special constables were driven hack. The Town Hall was burnt out before a detachment of soldiers arrived, who dispersed the remaining rioters who were by that time staging an impromptu sing-song on a stolen piano. For days, Luton was under military occupation.

As one newspaper put it:

Peace has brought disaster to Luton. They are now without a town hall, half of the police force of the town is on the sick list, nearly all the members of the fire brigade are down with injuries, more or less serious, and there is a bill of damages estimated at more than £200,000.

reported in Daily Express, 21 July 1919

In the final analysis of course, the terms of that Peace signed at Versailles were to prove even more disastrous for Europe, with the festering resentment over reparations playing a large part in the rise of the Nazi party, and the subsequent horrors of yet another war to end wars.
NEC JACTANTIA NEC METU ("zonder woorden, zonder vrees")

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