Written by Dr Steven Woodbridge
The end of the First World War brought great joy to many people in cities, towns, villages and numerous other communities across the British Isles, but at the same time there was also sadness and some poignant scenes for the thousands who had lost loved ones and close family members in the brutal conflict.
How did the people of Kingston-on-Thames and district respond to the news that an Armistice had been signed on November 11th, 1918, exactly 100 years ago? As we commemorate the end of the ‘Great War’, it is interesting to look back at the coverage of the Armistice offered by the local Surrey Comet newspaper in Kingston-on-Thames, which was the town’s main source of news at the time, and explore the details the paper gave to its readers about the events of that special Monday.
As the nation entered into the early days of the new month of November, 1918, the Surrey Comet had noted how the ‘rhythm’ of the war at the front appeared to be changing, but the paper also seemed to sense the sheer exhaustion now felt by local people at home. In an editorial in the November 2nd edition, entitled ‘A Month’s Victories’, the paper had pointed to the ‘tremendously dramatic events’ that were transpiring in the war zones, events which had left people ‘nearly breathless with interest; and yet, it must be added, that never did a great people who have waged war for upwards of four years, and in their hearts intensely desire peace, appear to be so little moved and exulted by it all’. The paper argued victory was in sight, but there could be no relaxation of effort.
The Surrey Comet’s coverage of Monday, November 11th, 1918 (the day of the Armistice), was published on Wednesday, November 13th, in its mid-week edition, and the sense of relief at the dramatic news about the Armistice was palpable. The mid-week edition included an editorial which proclaimed: ‘The people of our country and Empire can lift up their hearts today, for the most awful war in the world’s history has come to a close…’.
Reflecting on the previous four years, a note of triumphalism could be detected in the Comet’s stance; the paper’s editorial argued that Germany ‘had listened to false prophets who declared her people to be the Blonde Race destined to rule the world; and in pursuit of the world ambitions which thus infected the blood, has met the fate she so justly deserved’. The editorial added: ‘Marching through blood, rapine, lust and murder, she has over-reached herself and now tastes the galling bitterness of humiliation and defeat’. The Comet then praised ‘the dauntless valour and self-sacrifice’ of Naval and Military forces: ‘The Mighty Dead will live ever in the Nation’s memory…’.
On the next page, under the heading ‘Victory At Last!’, the paper then offered the Comet’s readers some fascinating detail on how the news of the Armistice was received in Kingston and the surrounding area. According to the paper, November 11th was ‘a day that dawned with new-found hope for a European peace…’.
Monday was a ‘a day of national rejoicing’, and within a few minutes of the confirmation of the official news, ‘Kingston and the surrounding neighbourhood presented quite a blaze of bunting. Flags appeared as if by magic’. Flags were put out on all public buildings in the town, and: ‘Cottage and mansion vied with each other in making the best show’, while there was also a ‘tremendous run on all the available stocks of flags at the shops’.
Soon the streets ‘became thronged with people’, who were ‘bent on making holiday’. The bells of All Saint’s Church in Kingston ‘rang out merry peals, and everyone was radiant with smiles. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders with one another in the crowds which surged through the streets…’.
Interestingly, the Comet revealed that a number of operatives from Sopwith’s Aviation factory (which was a large wartime employer in the town), who ‘had downed tools in ebullient glee when the glad tidings were received’, then passed through the streets in a motor-van, with a ‘conspicuous figure’ decorating the van – an effigy of the German Kaiser.
Simultaneously, however, the Surrey Comet’s report of the events of that day also recognised that ‘it was not all rejoicing. There was a ghost at the feast. The mourning attire and the sad, set faces of many women told their own sorrowful stories, and the hearts of all who are near and dear to them went out in deep sympathy to those who have experienced the tragedy of the war in its bitterest form by being robbed of their loved ones’.
During the afternoon of November 11th, the rain set in. In the words of the Comet: ‘It was a nasty drizzle which clung to one’s clothes, but it failed to damp the ardour of the revellers, although it appreciably thinned their ranks’. Indeed, as darkness fell, many people in the town and district apparently went home, ‘preferring the comfort of their homes to the damp streets…’.
Yet, the next day (Tuesday) saw the rejoicing continue. A prominent lead was given by the employees of the Sopwith Aviation Works again, who had been given a holiday until Wednesday.
As the Surrey Comet described it: ‘A long procession was formed of motor-lorries and motor-cars crammed with men and women, with a considerable number on foot bringing up the rear’. Moreover, the ‘foremost lorry’ in the procession carried effigies of ‘the butcher of Berlin’ (the Kaiser) and his eldest son, both adorned with German Iron Crosses. Led by a big drum, with bugles blaring and flags flying from every car, the procession made its way slowly through the streets of Kingston, ‘and was greeted everywhere with vociferous cheering’.
In Kingston Market Place, in the heart of the town, the ‘processionists’ were joined by an Army motor-lorry, ‘crowded with men in Khaki’, and the effigies of the Kaiser and his son were then brunt ‘amidst tumultuous cheering’. Significantly, the Surrey Comet also noted that Kingston Barracks (near Richmond Park), the depot of the East Surrey Regiment which had trained and provided so many local men for military service in France and Belgium, also saw ‘lusty cheering’ and ‘vociferous expression of satisfaction at the cessation of hostilities’.