Churchill on Armistice Day: War, Peace and Foreboding

Churchill on Armistice Day: War, Peace and Foreboding

Armistice Day November 11th

My Ger­man grand­moth­er, Con­necti­cut-born, was as patri­ot­ic an Amer­i­can as George Wash­ing­ton. She always referred to Novem­ber 11th as Armistice Day, which has always been good enough for me these many years. But numer­ous sol­diers have died since 1918. Accord­ing­ly, the hol­i­day was rebrand­ed Remem­brance Day in Cana­da, and then in Britain and the rest of the Com­mon­wealth. In the USA, Armistice Day was renamed Vet­er­ans Day in 1954.

Armistice day
Prime Min­is­ter of India Naren­dra Modi, cen­ter, lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Sol­dier at Arling­ton Nation­al Ceme­tery, 6 June 2016. I like this pho­to because the flag of my ser­vice branch, the U.S. Coast Guard, is promi­nent. (U.S. Army pho­to by Rachel Larue/Arlington Nation­al Cemetery/released)

The teach­ing of his­to­ry is very uneven now. I fear not enough know what Armistice Day was about. Wikipedia records the truce signed at 5:45 am between the Allies of World War I and Ger­many  in the for­est of Com­piègne. It took effect at 11:00 am—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” But both sides fought on for the rest of the day, end­ing only at night­fall. “The Armistice expired after a peri­od of 36 days and had to be extend­ed sev­er­al times. A for­mal peace agree­ment was only reached when the Treaty of Ver­sailles was signed the fol­low­ing year.”

In The World Cri­sis, his mem­oir of the Great War, Win­ston Churchill pon­dered that eleventh hour. He was then Min­is­ter of Muni­tions—relieved sud­den­ly from the quandary of arm­ing the forces for yet anoth­er year of grim battle.

It was one of Churchill’s most ring­ing pas­sages and, on this day of Remem­brance, it seems appro­pri­ate. From The World Cri­sis, Vol. 3, Part 2 (Lon­don: Thorn­ton But­ter­worth, 1927), pages 541-44:

Armistice Day 1918

It was a few min­utes before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I stood at the win­dow of my room look­ing up Northum­ber­land Avenue towards Trafal­gar Square, wait­ing for Big Ben to tell that the War was over. My mind strayed back across the scar­ring years to the scene and emo­tions of the night at the Admi­ral­ty when I lis­tened for these same chimes in order to give the sig­nal of war against Ger­many to our Fleets and squadrons across the world. And now all was over!….

The min­utes passed. I was con­scious of reac­tion rather than ela­tion. The mate­r­i­al pur­pos­es on which one’s work had been cen­tred, every process of thought on which one had lived, crum­bled into noth­ing. The whole vast busi­ness of sup­ply, the grow­ing out­puts, the care­ful hoards, the secret future plans—but yes­ter­day the whole duty of life—all at a stroke van­ished like a night­mare dream, leav­ing a void behind…

“Triumphant pandemonium”

Armistice Day
Buck­ing­ham Palace, Armistice Day, 1918. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

And then sud­den­ly the first strokes of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was desert­ed. From the por­tals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Gov­ern­ment Depart­ments dart­ed the slight fig­ure of a girl clerk, dis­tract­ed­ly ges­tic­u­lat­ing while anoth­er stroke resounded.

Then from all sides men and women came scur­ry­ing into the street. Streams of peo­ple poured out of all the build­ings. The bells of Lon­don began to clash. Northum­ber­land Avenue was now crowd­ed with peo­ple in hun­dreds, nay, thou­sands, rush­ing hith­er and thith­er in a fran­tic man­ner, shout­ing and scream­ing with joy….

The street was now a seething mass of human­i­ty. Flags appeared as if by mag­ic. Streams of men and women flowed from the Embank­ment. They min­gled with tor­rents pour­ing down the Strand on their way to acclaim the King. Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-strait­ened, reg­u­lat­ed streets of Lon­don had become a tri­umphant pandemonium….

It was with feel­ings which do not lend them­selves to words that I heard the cheers of the brave peo­ple who had borne so much and giv­en all, who had nev­er wavered, who had nev­er lost faith in their coun­try or its des­tiny, and who could be indul­gent to the faults of their ser­vants when the hour of deliv­er­ance had come.

“Is this the end?”

The cur­tain falls upon the long front in France and Flan­ders. The sooth­ing hands of time and nature, the swift repair of peace­ful indus­try, have already almost effaced the crater fields and the bat­tle lines which in a broad belt from the Vos­ges to the sea late­ly black­ened the smil­ing fields of France….

Only the ceme­ter­ies, the mon­u­ments and stunt­ed steeples, with here and there a moul­der­ing trench or huge mine-crater lake, assail the trav­eller with the fact that 25 mil­lions of sol­diers fought here and 12 mil­lions shed their blood or per­ished in the great­est of all human con­tentions less than ten years ago. Mer­ci­ful obliv­ion draws its veils; the crip­pled limp away; the mourn­ers fall back into the sad twi­light of mem­o­ry. New youth is here to claim its rights, and the peren­ni­al stream flows for­ward even in the bat­tle zone, as if the tale were all a dream.

Is this the end? Is it to be mere­ly a chap­ter in a cru­el and sense­less sto­ry? Will a new gen­er­a­tion in their turn be immo­lat­ed to square the black accounts of Teu­ton and Gaul? Will our chil­dren bleed and gasp again in dev­as­tat­ed lands? Or will there spring from the very fires of con­flict that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of the three giant com­bat­ants, which would unite their genius and secure to each in safe­ty and free­dom a share in rebuild­ing the glo­ry of Europe?

Further reading

Churchill Clair­voy­ant, 1891: Con­fi­dence or Real­ism?

Wikipedia: Churchill’s World War Accounts: His­to­ry of Mem­oirs?

One thought on “Churchill on Armistice Day: War, Peace and Foreboding

  1. Thank you Richard.A fit­ting piece on Vet­er­ans Day as an impor­tant remem­brance of what it means which is now being for­got­ten among a gen­er­a­tion of his­tor­i­cal­ly illit­er­ate people.

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