Why did a soldier hurl a flag in the mud on ‘the greatest day in the world’s history’?
Peace at last, and the lights blaze again across Suffolk and Essex. We celebrate with bands and bunting, parades and patriotic songs, and girls dancing around a fountain
No mobile phones. No Twitter. No Snapchat or FaceTime. Not even massed ranks of TV and radio reporters back in 1918. Unimaginable now, isn’t it?
Colchester was one of the places where confirmation that the war was over came from the mayor, at the town hall. It was done with style, with military trumpeters sounding bugles just before. Mayor George Wright said: “The armistice is signed, and this is the greatest day in the world’s history. We can congratulate ourselves on this glorious victory.”
The EADT reporter was thrilled. “Remarkable scenes followed. Flags appeared as if by sleight of hand on the town hall and neighbouring buildings, and impromptu processions of soldiers, WAACs (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) and munition workers marched cheering through the streets. A huge army motor lorry, filled with soldiers and WAACs, passed along like a triumphal car, ablaze with bunting, and Union Jacks of various sizes were favourite articles of costume.”
Soldiers “at first took matters coolly, but gradually caught the infection of gaiety and started sword dances over crossed canes, in lieu of broadswords.”
One undecorated car – and there weren’t many of those on November 11 – was stopped by a soldier who unscrewed the radiator cap and inserted a big bunch of laurels in the hole. “The driver cheerfully accepted the offering, and the radiator cap was politely returned to him.”
Another driver “had the temerity to display an Irish Republican flag”. His car was stopped, “and a soldier flung the unpopular emblem in the mud”.
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Men from the corporation went round and put bulbs back in the street-lights after an absence of more than four years. Across East Anglia, there was now no need to worry about making yourself a sitting target.
The EADT learned by phone at 10.30am on November 11 that the ceasefire had been signed in France. “The news was read out to a large crowd opposite the office, and the greatest enthusiasm was displayed,” we reported. That crowd had started gathering at 9.30am, after rumours spread by word of mouth, and folk were eager for detail.
When the official notice was posted up, “round after round of cheers reverberated through the approach to the (EADT’s Ipswich) office in Carr Street and were repeated almost incessantly as the news was circulated.
“Flags appeared as if by magic, and were soon floating in the breeze, and every face seemed to be beaming with enthusiasm and delight.”
Harwich, being a maritime town, marked the armistice with the firing of guns, the bursting of rockets, and loud blasts of sirens on warships. They blew for at least 20 minutes. Work was soon suspended, and children came home from school, singing and shouting.
An effigy of the Kaiser was suspended from a tree. Pinned to its chest were the words “Coward, braggart, murderer”.
Crowds roamed the streets, singing patriotic songs – so lustily that many people shouted themselves hoarse.
In pre-texting days, it took a while for the good news to disseminate. In Sudbury, for instance, it was just after midday that an alderman announced it from the town hall. In Aldeburgh, it was 2pm when the mayor formally spoke from the balcony of the Moot Hall.
That didn’t stop the seaside town going “wild with excitement”. A smart group of Girl Guides, from Belstead House School, formed near the Moot Hall and the bugle band of the Devonshire Regiment paraded through the town. They were followed by schoolchildren waving flags.
Later, fireworks were set off, and holidaying “Tommies” sang and danced. “Never has the old borough let itself go in such hilarious fashion,” said the EADT.
Along the coast at Southwold, work came to a halt and the parish church held a short service of thanksgiving. “Impromptu processions were formed at varying intervals and the pent-up feelings of the last four years found joyful expression.”
Hooters sounded across Braintree – for half an hour at a stretch, sometimes – even before the news was confirmed. Foundries and other businesses shut early. “Hundreds of munition girls paraded (around the) town, and danced round the fountain in the Market Place. Later in the day a scratch brass band made its appearance.”
At Felixstowe, lines of flags were run up at the forts and wireless stations, guns were fired, and rockets, trench-mortars, hand-bombs and maroons were let off. Vessels in the harbour or just out at sea sounded sirens and steam whistles.
Troops and bands, along with civilians, paraded through the town, singing and waving flags. Business was essentially suspended.
Up the coast, Lowestoft “properly let itself go”, the streets thronged with flag-bearing crowds. At the harbour, sirens “were let loose” and boats hoisted bunting. The afternoon saw a parade of the band of the Queen’s Regiment in Belle Vue Park.
Trade was halted at the herring market and schools shut for the afternoon.
Back in Ipswich, the striking of the town hall clock at 11am had hooters and sirens sounding. Tramcars, filled with folk waving flags, took the news to outlying neighbourhoods such as St Clement’s and Stoke.
“The shops soon joined in the general outpour, and the bells of St Mary-le-Tower fired jubilant peals, the ringing continuing during the day. Here and there, in quiet places in the silent church, mothers… indulged in dear memories of those who had gone before.”
EADT editor Sir Frederick Wilson had taken the notice of the armistice to the mayor and magistrates at the town hall, and the court sitting was immediately adjourned.
The telegraph counter of Ipswich Post Office was busy, with a high number of messages handed in – many celebratory telegraphs being sent to relatives in France.
Telegraphists sang the doxology (a short hymn of praise to God) and the National Anthem.
By noon the Cornhill was jam-packed, with dignitaries such as the mayor (who had taken office only about 48 hours earlier!) giving speeches. Edward Ransome pointed out the army had lost hundreds of thousands of the very best of Britain’s youth.
There were cheers when he announced the Orwell Works had been closed, and he suggested the rest of the day should be taken as a general holiday.
During the afternoon, the Cornhill witnessed “extravagant scenes of joy”. A crowd estimated at 4,000 “gave free rein to their sense of jubilation”. Fireworks appeared from somewhere – giving a fine display of rockets, Roman candles and squibs.
When dusk fell, the town hall clock that had stood dark for many long months was illuminated again. A light also shone from the top of the Picture House in Tavern Street. The gathering on the Cornhill was lit by multi-coloured flares, and windows that had long been masked could be uncovered again.
“The lights which shone so brightly on the people of Ipswich spoke to them of hope – hope of the future triumphing over the darkness that has passed.”
At night, a stream of family groups headed for the town centre, with “a general expectation of pleasure in seeing the town lighted up”.
There was some disappointment because an anticipated parade by military volunteers was cancelled, apparently by the chief constable.
The EADT reporter wrote: “Whether he was alone responsible for this strange decision or was merely the mouthpiece of others in authority we do not know, but the public, we are sure, will agree with us when we express the opinion that the abandonment of this march-out by the Volunteers was quite unwarrantable.”
Men did march to the Cornhill and then back to their drill halls, “but of a proper and fitting procession there was none”.
Instead, the band of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment played lively tunes for about an hour near the bottom of the town hall steps – “a sight never to be forgotten… the choruses of the popular patriotic songs, which the war has made familiar to all, were sung with gusto”.
Monday also saw a service of thanksgiving at St Mary-le-Tower. The church had never been so crowded, said the report, and several hundred people couldn’t get in.
The Bishop of Suffolk said that in coming days people needed the same qualities as displayed by the nation’s fighting men: courage, faith, cheerfulness and brotherhood. To drift back to narrow, indulgent, selfish living would be treacherous to the memories of those who gave their lives for England, as well as their families.
There were cheers at the start of a West Suffolk County Council meeting when chairman Lord Bristol confirmed the armistice had been signed. It would, he said, “give freedom to the world”.
As well as thanking the army and navy, we also had to thank the women of the country for their work in tending the sick and wounded, while the civil population had helped with munitions and agricultural work.
The King (who had put up with inconveniences and difficulties) had done all that mortal man could do in encouraging all sections of the community to pull together.
Through his unceasing work for the good of the country, the King had shown how necessary it was to have a hereditary constitutional monarchy.
Lord Bristol asked for three cheers for the nation, which was “given with great heartiness and the singing of the National Anthem”.
At Bury St Edmunds, the news spread like wildfire. Flags of the allied nations flew from homes and businesses, and the Union Flag fluttered on public buildings. St John’s Church held an afternoon thanksgiving service, as did the cathedral church in the evening. There was a torchlight procession, led by a band, through the main streets.
In Newmarket, virtually all business premises and many homes were flying flags before midday. The town band marched down the High Street in the afternoon, playing patriotic songs, and most pedestrians wore red, white and blue rosettes. In the evening, many street-lamps were lit for the first time since the early days of the conflict.
Sudbury saw a rush to the shops to buy flags, with crowds outside the town hall singing the National Anthem. At Hadleigh, a party of buglers cycled around the town and district, sounding “All clear”.
Word reached Stowmarket at about 11am, and was posted at the EADT’s branch office. Bunting and flags soon filled the main streets, and the band of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment paraded. Most shops shut, and Preston Bros gave soldiers miniature flags of the allied nations.
Eye was also full of flags and bunting, and there was a service of thanksgiving. It was the same in Halesworth, where there was a military parade, with a band.
Workers at engineering firm Elliott and Garroods in Beccles were able to leave once news broke. Horns, hooters and steam whistles showed how happy people were, and youngsters with flags paraded through town.
Diss did well on the flag front – they were hoisted on the church steeple, as well as the main hotels and in other parts of town. A group of ringers rang the church bells and parties of aerodrome employees drove through Diss, waving flags and cheering. They got a half-day holiday, too.
There was a military procession through Woodbridge, with church bells ringing out. Many churches held services.
Clacton soon had the bunting up, the streets full, and bands playing. One of the clearest signs that things had changed was the cleaning of exterior lamps by tradesmen, “and as darkness fell the town resumed an old-time appearance, though only to some extent, for the public lamps could not be lighted, and many of the business establishments closed extra early in celebration of the happy day”.
The council opened the band pavilion, and the bands of the Gloucesters and the London Regiment played throughout the afternoon.
The town band paraded and played in Halstead. Shops and factories generally closed at noon, “and the whole town wore a holiday aspect”.
Workers at the big factories in Chelmsford downed tools at the news and factory sirens hooted loud and long. The streets were soon crowded, “but on the whole there was a sober restraint befitting the occasion, amid all the enthusiasm”.
As well as reflecting the local celebrations the day before, the EADT of Tuesday, November 12, 1918, reported the finer details of the armistice agreement. “Four Years’ War Ended” read the main, not-that-big, headline. “Allied terms signed at five a.m. Rhinelands to be occupied.”
There would be dark days to come; but, for now, the Great War was over.
For some, it was too late
Amid talk of celebrations, we shouldn’t forget those who failed to return – nor the friends and relatives whose emotions must have been all over the place a century ago.
We told the stories of First World War soldiers and sailors, airmen and civilians each weekend in 2014. Here are a couple about men honoured on the Layham war memorial near Hadleigh – the details uncovered and collated by Michael Woods.
Private Arthur Rolfe was born in 1882. He became an agricultural labourer and jobbing gardener, before joining The Suffolk Regiment.
Arthur was killed in 1916, during the Salonika Campaign, and is buried in Greece.
Younger brother William (Willie) was born in 1884. The horseman joined the West Suffolk Militia in 1902, married Ethel Skinner late in 1913, had daughter Joan in 1915, and then served with The Suffolk Regiment in France.
William died in 1917 – out with a working party and killed instantaneously by a shell. He was 33 and has no known grave.
Another soldier was Private Arthur Steward, a horseman’s son born at Elmsett in 1893.
In 1911 he married Lily Crisp, 17, in Shelley Church. They had two sons. Soon after the outbreak of war, Arthur volunteered for The Suffolk Regiment and his battalion was sent to France in 1915. He was killed on the Somme early in 1916.