This weekend will see a host of special events commemorating the sacrifices of those made during the First World War, culminating with Remembrance Sunday on 9 November. In a series of posts leading up to this event our Director Sam Mullins takes a look at what life in London was like following the war – the beginnings of Armistice Day, the role of commemoration and the significant contribution made by London’s Transport workers.
The First World War finally ended with an armistice between the combatants on 11 November 1918. LGOC conductress Lesley Davis remembered driving past Waltham Cross depot that day; ‘the inspectors ran and out and yelled, ‘It’s been signed!’. Women came rushing forward and kissed the drivers. Others started crying because they remembered their lost sons or husbands.’[i] 1,429 Underground Group employees and 803 from the London General Omnibus Company had lost their lives. The capital was exhausted by the four years of war and recovery was slow.
From the beginning of November 1918, it had become clear that victory was in sight. The Lord Mayor’s Show on 9 November 1918 included 400 captured German guns and that evening it was announced that the Kaiser had abdicated. Although a large Victory March involving 15,000 Commonwealth troops and captured German tanks, guns and aircraft was held in May 1919, the capital’s mood shifted rapidly from celebration to commemoration. For the Victory Parade of July 1919, architect Edward Lutyens was commissioned to design a temporary Cenotaph built in wood and plaster for Whitehall as a tribute to the fallen. This temporary Centotaph formed the centrepiece of the first Armistice Day on 11 November 1919, as reported by the Manchester Guardian:
“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The train cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume and stopped dead…. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of attention. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still. The hush deepened… It was a silence which was almost pain. And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”
The outpouring of emotion generated at the first anniversary of peace led to the temporary Cenotaph being rebuilt permanently in Portland stone and dedicated at Armistice Day in November 1920. The ceremony that year, reported by the Times, has been followed every year since:
“…the great multitude bowed its head….People held their breath less they should be heard in the stillness… A woman’s shriek rose and fell and rose again, until the silence bore down once more.
The silence stretched on until, suddenly, acute, shattering, the very voice of pain itself – but pain triumphant – rose the clear notes of the bugles in The Last Post…
The ceremony of dedication of the Cenotaph was very sombre, heightened by the presence of the gun carriage bearing the coffin of an Unknown Warrior.”[ii]
Related events and exhibitions
On Saturday the Museum’s ‘Battle Bus’ will appear in the Lord Mayor’s Show, representing Transport for London. On Sunday marchers and spectators in the Remembrance Day parade will also have a chance to see the Battle Bus on display in Parliament Square from 9am to around 3pm.
Exhibition and Symposium
If you want to find out more about the First World War you can visit our current exhibition Goodbye Piccadilly: From Home Front to Western Front, on until March 2015, or attend our Symposium 1914–1918 from Home Front to Western Front on Saturday 15 November which explores the themes of the exhibition in more depth.