Monday, November 10, 2008

Armistice Day

At 11 a.m. on November 11th, 1918, the guns fell silent across Europe as the Armistice of Compiègne brought an end to the fighting of the First World War.

The war itself would not be officially over until the peace settlement of the Treaty of Versailles the following year, but the killing had ended.

The 'War To End All Wars' had been a brutal, bloody and savage awakening to the reality of modern industrial-age conflict. Approximately forty-one million people became casualties (killed, wounded or missing), including some twenty million military casualties. The casualties alone, though, were not the real story. It was the way they died that shook civilization to the core - massacred in long lines by machine-guns, blown to pieces by shellfire, drowned in mud so thick and deep that after the battle of Passchendaele, a British staff officer, Lieutenant-General Sir Launcelot Kiggell, is said to have broken down in tears after seeing the battlefield for the first time, and asked, "Good God! Did we really send our men through that?"

The military leadership on all sides in this holocaust was, in general, abysmally poor. Generals sent their men to be slaughtered in set-piece attacks against barbed wire, machine-guns and gas. They clung to the outmoded belief that morale could conquer any obstacle . . . only to have the reality thrust upon them that modern munitions cared nothing for courage. Most of those who died in the battle lines never saw their enemy face-to-face.

Even worse, the Generals' contempt for the lives of their men continued, in the face of such massive casualties, to the last day of the war. On November 11th, 1918, over 10,000 men became casualties - including over 3,000 in US forces, the heaviest loss of any nation on that day. General Pershing, addressing a Congressional inquiry into this loss, was contemptuous of the peacemakers, insisting that the fighting had to continue right up until the last moment. His intransigence meant that many Americans died fighting for territory they could have walked into peacefully only twenty-four hours later. Another British general ordered his troops to capture a town so that his unit could have shelter from the elements. Over 300 of them were killed and injured in doing so - one hour before the shooting stopped.

The casualties were on a hitherto unimaginable scale. For example, Great Britain (then comprising the whole of Ireland as well as England, Scotland and Wales) saw over 6% of her total population (military and civilian) either die or be wounded by enemy action. This amounted to one out of every sixteen to seventeen people. Almost every member of the British population knew someone who'd been killed or wounded - frequently more than one. Almost a million women were widowed, and over five million children left fatherless - and that's only in Britain. The other Powers involved suffered at least as gravely, some of them much more severely.

Not for nothing was it said that the 1920's were a decade of mourning, and the excesses of that decade an attempt to escape from the sadness and bitter sorrow of loss.

My own family suffered the after-effects of World War I for many decades. My grandfather died while I was still an infant, but I can remember him coughing . . . the result of a German gas attack on the trenches. Many shared our burden of caring for aging parents and grandparents.

The overwhelming impression one gets of the Great War is of immense sadness, spreading like a blight across Europe, and not lifting until well after the Second World War. Perhaps the story of the arrival of the Unknown Warrior is a good illustration of the feelings of the people.

On the stroke of midnight on 7 November, 1920, Brigadier General L.J. Wyatt, General Officer Commanding British Troops in France and Flanders, entered a hut near the village of St Pol, near Ypres in northern France. In front of him were the remains of four bodies, all of them lying under Union flags.

Earlier that afternoon, the bodies had been disinterred from unmarked graves in each of the main battlefields, the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. Four blank crosses had been chosen from the forest of crosses that now covered the shell-pocked French landscape.

As well as coming from unmarked graves, the bodies all had to belong to soldiers who had died in the early years of the War. The orders given to the exhumation parties were very clear on this point. The bodies had to be as old as possible in order to ensure they were sufficiently decomposed to be unidentifiable.

Wrapped in old sacks, the four dead soldiers had been brought to St Pol, where they were received by a British clergyman and two undertakers who had travelled to France for the occasion. There, the remains were examined to make sure they bore no identifying marks, then placed inside the hut for the remainder of the day.

In some reports of what happened next, Brig Wyatt was described as being blindfolded. There were also reputed to have been six bodies rather than four. However, the brigadier makes no reference to being blindfolded in his account of what happened, and insisted that he saw only the remains of four bodies when he stepped into the hut as midnight struck.

There, the brigadier lifted up his lantern to take in the scene. Then he simply reached out and touched one of the Union flags. That was it; he had made his choice. He had picked a body to go inside the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

. . .

After Wyatt had made his choice, the body was placed inside the coffin and sealed with two wrought-iron straps topped with a seal. Inscribed on the seal were the words: 'A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918. For King and Country.' A sword was also attached to the seal. This was a gift from the King and came from his private collection. By now, George's attitude had undergone a further change. Far from being lukewarm about the idea, he had become completely absorbed in it.

On the morning of 10 November, the coffin was taken to Boulogne. With it were six barrels of earth from the fields of Flanders. In Boulogne, the mile-long cortège passed through the streets of the town to the strains of a military band playing Chopin's Funeral March. Children had been given the day off school and they joined the townspeople lining the streets.

On the dockside, Marshal Foch of France gave a speech praising the fortitude and bravery of British soldiers. He also offered to accompany the coffin onto British soil. However, this offer was rejected as being inappropriate.

Along with the six barrels of earth and four wreaths so large that it took four soldiers to lift each of them, the coffin was carried aboard the Royal Naval destroyer HMS Verdun.

In the middle of the Channel, the Verdun was met by another six destroyers. As she approached, the destroyers lowered their Union Jacks and ensigns to half-mast, an honour usually reserved for the King. Then the seven ships headed for Dover.

At 3.15 in the afternoon, as the ships came into view, a 19-gun salute was fired and a band played Land of Hope and Glory. Shops had been closed for the day and the quayside was crammed with people.

After being brought ashore, the coffin was placed inside South-East Railways Passenger Luggage Van Number 132. This was the same van that in May 1919 had been used to carry the body of Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed by the Germans for helping Allied prisoners escape from occupied Belgium.

Now the walls of the luggage van had been draped in purple cloth, while the roof had been painted white so that people could see it more easily. With some difficulty – they wouldn't fit through the doors – the four enormous wreaths were loaded into another luggage van.

As the train made its way to London, every station it passed through was filled to overflowing. People stood in silence and bowed their heads as the white-roofed luggage van went by.

By now it must have been apparent to the most hardened sceptic that Railton's idea had caught the public imagination to a degree that not even he had dared dream of. The whole country, it seemed, was eager for a sight of the coffin – eager to project onto its anonymous occupant the features of loved ones they would never see again, who would never come home.

When the train arrived at Victoria Station, thousands of people tried to push aside temporary barriers and extra police had to be drafted in to deal with the crowds. That night, the luggage van stood in darkness on one of the platforms. Inside, four guards stood watch – they were relieved at 30 minute intervals.

Having been rather slow to pick up on the mood of the country, the British press – or sections of it anyway – now began speculating feverishly about the identity of the body. Since the soldier in question had been killed in the early days of the war, could he have been a member of the original Expeditionary Force? In truth, of course, no one had a clue who he was. There were no clues – Brig Wyatt had seen to that. Naturally, this did nothing to dampen speculation. The Daily Express went so far as to claim that it had thought up the whole idea.

Shortly after nine o'clock the next morning, 11 November, a bearer party of eight guardsmen entered the luggage van. The coffin was placed on a gun carriage. Behind it, already assembled in line, were the heads of the Armed Forces and 400 former servicemen, standing four abreast.

At 9.40, in pale winter sunlight, the parade moved off. An enormous crowd – the largest seen in the capital – watched as the coffin was borne through the streets. There was no sound except for people sobbing and the clop of horses' hooves. As an outpouring of public grief, only the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales nearly 80 years later has ever matched it.

An hour after it left Victoria Station, the coffin arrived at the Cenotaph. There it was met by the King, who placed his own wreath on top.

As the chimes of Big Ben sounded 11 o'clock, the coffin was carried through the north transept door of Westminster Abbey. There, the aisle was lined with 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross. The congregation was made up of 1,000 widows and mothers of the fallen. No representatives of any foreign government had been invited.

According to The Times, the service that followed was, 'The most beautiful, the most touching and the most impressive... this island has ever seen.' Recordings of the service, believed to be the first ever made inside the abbey, went on sale several days later at 7s 6d each.

After the coffin had been lowered into the grave, the six barrels of Flanders earth were poured over it. A large slab of Tournai marble was then placed on top – it was replaced by a more elaborately inscribed slab in 1921. By the end of the day, more than 200,000 people had visited the tomb. Writing in his diary that evening, George V noted, 'The whole ceremony was most moving and impressive... Got home at 12 everything was most beautifully arranged and carried out.'

Within five days, more than a million people had paid their respects – the population of inner London at the time was four-and-a-half million. As for the Cenotaph, this was all but buried beneath 100,000 wreaths.

A sad and moving story - but not the whole story. It seems the contempt of the authorities for the sacrifice of the common soldier had not been extinguished. The story ends:

Amid all the public anguish, no one thought to wonder what had become of the other three bodies that had been disinterred from their unmarked graves. A rather less exalted fate awaited them.

After Brig Wyatt had made his choice, the Union flags were folded away. Then the three bodies were loaded onto the back of a truck, tipped into a shell hole beside the road near the town of Albert – and promptly forgotten.

May God have mercy on their - and our - souls . . . and may we remember all fallen veterans, and pray for them.



Anonymous said...

We owe our veterans more than we could repay. We must never forget what they have done for us and for our freedom.

Old NFO said...

Thank you for remembering Peter, thanks too for a very educational post. I had never heard that story.