The history of Armistice Day

The end of the Great War is associated with the Armistice of 11 November 1918, signed in a railway carriage in the French forest of Compiègne. Professor of History at LSBU, Peter Doyle looks at the history and significance of Armistice Day.

History of Armistice Day Poppy

The first Armistice Day - 11 November 1918

This very first Armistice Day naturally followed the crumbling fortunes of the Central Powers, with Germany's weaker allies feeling the pinch of shortages and the push of the Allied offensives. Bulgaria had been first to capitulate, on 29 September; the Ottoman Empire followed on 30 October; Austria-Hungary on 3 November; and finally, Germany herself on 11 November, at exactly 11am.

The Armistice followed a succession of hammer blows that had struck the German armies since the opening of the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918 - the beginning of one hundred days of continuous advance. During this advance, the Allied armies pushed the Germans back to a line that was broadly similar to the one it had first met the British 'Old Contemptibles' at Mons four years before.

Signed in that railway carriage, the terms of the Armistice required the cessation of hostilities, the evacuation of occupied territory, the surrender of large quantities of arms and equipment, the internment of the High Seas Fleet, and the occupation of German soil. Yet, for many British soldiers, weary of war, its occurrence was almost matter of fact: 'Armistice signed with Germany' was the simple diary entry of one man who had survived his comrades.

The aftermath of World War 1

By the war's end, the British Empire had suffered some 900,000 dead and over two million wounded; the Germans with more than twice these figures. In all, at least 10-15 per cent of those who joined up were killed. While the majority returned, many were scarred in some way by their participation in World War 1. Some twenty years after the end of the war, estimates of the casualties in Britain recognised some 12,000 amputees, 10,000 blind or visually impaired and 11,000 hearing impaired. 31,000 men also suffered from shell shock. There is no wonder that the effects of the Great War lived on for decades after the Armistice.

In France and Flanders, with the war over, the people returned to find their towns destroyed, their farms devastated. The Imperial War Graves Commission, formed in 1917, worked tirelessly to bring order to the chaos of the battlefields at the war's end, and was responsible, in this region alone, for the protection of over half a million graves in more than 1,200 cemeteries. In each cemetery, each grave marked by a uniform headstone, each bearing the badge of the units within which the men and women had served - equal in death.

And then there were those who had no known grave. For the Ypres Salient, in Belgium, a monumental stone gateway was constructed at the Menin Gate, in the brick ramparts of the city. It was through this portal that every soldier had passed, so it was fitting that a monument be constructed at this place. The arch, constructed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, was inaugurated in 1927. Its panels listed the names of 54,395 servicemen who died in the Salient, but whose bodies were never recovered.

On the Somme, with its vast death toll, an immense geometric edifice of brick and stone was constructed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to mark 'the Missing of the Somme'. Inaugurated in 1932, the Thiepval Memorial towers into the sky, composed of a series of stone arches, supported by vast square pillars, with room enough for 72,246 names - the biggest such monument in the world.

Remembering the Great War

It was to these cemeteries, graves and memorials that visitors came in numbers in the early years of Peace. The establishment of Lutyens' masterpiece on Armistice Day in 1919, The Centotaph - then constructed entirely in wood - soon became the focal point for national remembrance. Its success was absolute. The structure was rendered solid in Portland stone in time for the Armistice Day a year later; a day marked also by the burial of the Unknown warrior, whose body, brought from France, was installed with great reverence in the entrance to Westminster Abbey. This simple tomb marks the nation's sacrifice.

Armistice Day 1921 saw the establishment of the first British Poppy Day, on the third anniversary of the end of the Great War. While the origin of the Remembrance Poppy springs from the words of John McCrae's 1915 poem In Flanders Fields, it was American Moïna Michael and Madame Guérin of France who first adopted the simple flower as a mark of remembrance during 1918-19. In 1921, remembrance poppies finally made their appearance in Britain, and were embraced by the British Legion. The campaign was a success, the proceeds from their sale used then - and now - to support disabled and destitute servicemen and women.

While today, for practical reasons, Remembrance Sunday is the national day of commemoration of all those lost in war; there are still those who pause on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month - on Armistice Day.

About the author

Peter Doyle is a military historian and author and is currently Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary War Heritage Group, and a Professor of History at London South Bank University.

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