The armistice on 11 November 1918 was met with relief and rejoicing, coupled with, for many, an enduring sense of sorrow and loss. In Guildford the news that an armistice would come into force at 11am was received at 5am and immediately posted up outside the Surrey Advertiser offices. Crowds gathered, flags came out and soldiers from local war hospitals took to the streets. At noon, from the Guildhall, the mayor made the official proclamation and declared the rest of the day a holiday. As the shops and factories emptied, an effigy of the Kaiser was burnt in the High Street. Evening services of thanksgiving were held in Holy Trinity Church and the Congregational Church.
The vicar of Witley had gone into London for shopping: ‘As I steamed into Waterloo at 11am, the news was out. Windows and roofs were full of cheering men and women. As I emerged from the tube at Trafalgar Square, I was in the midst of a joyous frolicking crowd who were trying to realise that the nightmare of war was lifted. My shopping expedition of course came to nought and after seeing the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace I came back to arrange a Thanksgiving Service. It was 5pm and a wet night when I returned. Messages were sent and a team of willing bellringers were gathered. The Bells rang out at 7pm and by 7.30pm the Church was nearly full for a most hearty and spontaneous thanksgiving’ (SHC ref WIT16/37).
The news of the armistice was, surprisingly, met with some ambivalence by the men on the Western Front. Franklin Lushington, serving with the Royal Artillery, wrote of ‘a most mouldy time. In fact I’ve seldom spent a more depressing day than November 11th, and everybody I’ve met from other units says the same‘: he bemoaned a sense of anticlimax, ‘nothing but water to celebrate with‘ and missing out on a chance to have ‘a whack at the Hun in his own country‘. He felt that ‘this period between peace and demobilisation is going to be much the most trying one for the soldier, more trying than any battle‘ (SHC ref 7854/4/7/26).
On 2 July 1919, after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, peace was proclaimed from the Guildhall. Services of thanksgiving followed on Sunday 6 July, including a united service in the Great Quarry. Saturday 19 July was decreed a public holiday for the official peace celebrations: the day was filled with processions, bands, a children’s party, dancing and fireworks; a tree was planted in the Castle grounds and a medal struck for the borough’s children. Similar festivities took place in towns and villages across the county.
What we recognize as Remembrance began to take shape on the first anniversary of the signing of the armistice. In a letter published in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919, an Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, argued that the anniversary should not be greeted with jubilation but a respectful silence. On 7 November 1919, the King issued a proclamation calling for a two minute silence during which ‘all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.’ On the day itself, the Manchester Guardian reported ‘The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all’ (Manchester Guardian).
Interestingly the first two minutes silence had been staged in Farnham in 1916 as part of a May Day Agricultural Jumble Sale and General Fair to raise funds for the Red Cross. It was felt that as a counterpoint to the fun, it would be appropriate to stage a silence ‘as a token of respect to the memory of those who have fallen in the War, to the Wounded, to the Prisoners and to those who are fighting for their Country’.
The Remembrance Day symbol of the poppy also has a connection to Surrey in the shape of the famous Poppy Factory in Richmond. In 1918, an American academic, Moina Michael, was inspired by John McCrae’s famous 1915 poem ‘In Flanders Field’ to make and sell red silk poppies in support of ex-servicemen. The idea caught on in Europe, tirelessly promoted by Madame Anne Guerin, and in 1921 the newly formed British Legion ordered 9 million poppies made by women and children in devastated areas of France to be sold on 11 November, the proceeds to be used to help veterans with employment and housing. In 1922, Major George Howson of the Disabled Society set up the Poppy Factory off the Old Kent Road to supply the demand for poppies. The factory employed disabled ex-servicemen and in 1925 moved to the Lansdown Brewery site on Petersham Road in Richmond, a new factory being built in 1932. It continues to this day.
As memorials were erected across the country, they provided sites for individual and collectives acts of remembering and mourning, with annual ceremonies at the memorial, distinguished by poppies and a period of absolute silence, providing a simple but potent ritual language to help people come to terms with the enormity of what had happened.
The image above, showing a 1930s Remembrance Day window display in the British Legion shop in Woking, comes from a collection of glass plate negatives, thought to be the work of Sidney Francis. Click here to find out more about Sidney Francis’s work and to see other examples of his photographs.