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Saturday 11 June 2011

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Peace Day 1919

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.

Peace postcardIn 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:

Sir,
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.

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