Category: first world war

Crowds in London observe the two-minutes silence on November 11, 1919.

How Britain dishonoured its African first world war dead:

CWGC response

The CWGC has been saddened by media articles that ran yesterday in advance of a Channel Four documentary which claims ‘Britain dishonoured its African First World War dead’. The Commission’s involvement in the programme amounted only to one interview, the subject of which was obfuscated.

…There are no names lurking in the CWGC archives awaiting commemoration, and no way now, 100 year on, the Commission can identify, or reclaim, alleged abandoned sites (which would almost certainly have contained the burials of both civilians and Carrier Corps).As the Director General acknowledged when she met David Lammy, this is a sad situation. But whilst there’s no simple fix to the past, we will be considering the programme in the coming months and discussing what more can be done to highlight the contribution and sacrifice of so many.

Passengers at Paddington Station stop and observe the first two-minutes silence on November 11, 1919.

November 11, 1919 – First Anniversary of the Armistice

Pictured – King George V lays a wreath for the fallen at the temporary Cenotaph in London.

No conflict had ever affected so many millions of Europeans as the Great War. Out of the 70 million or so people mobilized during the war, 9.5 million had died. In some nations the war had almost literally wiped out a generation – in Britain, Turkey, and Serbia, for example, 60% of men between 20 and 30 years old had perished. The scale of suffering and grief on the continent was unprecedented, and the following years ushered in a series of new rituals of commemoration as people grasped for ways to cope with the loss of their comrades and loved ones.

The victorious Entente powers had held their triumphs in the summer of 1918. The largest was on July 14, France’s fête nationale, when contingents of troops from each nation marched under the Arc de Triomphe to the thunderous applause of the Parisian crowd. But for many men and women there was a sense that it was not enough to celebrate the victory. Its price had to be remembered too. In London, the army paraded past an empty tomb known as a cenotaph, erected to commemorate the missing dead. And the French parade was led by a visible reminder of the war’s cost: a contingent of wounded veterans, the mutilés de guerre, described by an American correspondent :

“Very many of the mutiles have one leg, one arm, one eye gone. Many are on crutches… Some cannot walk; some, with both legs gone, can never walk. These are wheeled on long, low chairs by the more able-bodied wounded or by nurses. Some of the mutiles are totally blind and are led by their comrades.”


Jean Galtier-Boissière – Défilé des mutilés, 1919.

While the triumphal parade was an ancient celebration of victory, the empty cenotaph foreshadowed new rituals of mourning. Industrial war disrupted many  normal ways to cope with grief. It was impossible to hold to traditional funeral practices when so many bodies had been buried in anonymous graves at the front, or disappeared totally in mud and shellfire. The impossibility of finding solace in tradition made loss into a solitary and difficult experience for Europeans, but also led to the conception of new forms of commemoration.

The first anniversary of the armistice witnessed the inception of many such new rituals. Many were spontaneous. In London thousands gathered at the victory cenotaph, which had been left up temporarily. By serving as a substitute for absent war graves, the empty tomb satisfied the urge of Britons who wanted  some way to mourn their missing dead. The crowd was so thick that flowers and wreaths had to be passed up by hand to the memorial. The cenotaph’s architect Edwin Lutyens recalled that “it was a mass-feeling too deep to express itself more fitly than by piles of ever-fresh flowers which loving hands placed on the Cenotaph day by day.”

Another new practice was a two-minute silence held at 11:00 AM, the hour that the armistice had been signed. After witnessing a moment of silence for the war dead in Cape Town that year, the South African Sir Percy FitzPatrick wrote to King George with the idea of making it an empire-wide practice. The King approved the idea and on November 7 issued a press statement asking his subjects that at 11:00 on the eleventh, “all work, all sound, and all locomotion should cease, so that, in
perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on
reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.“

Newspapers across the British empire recorded how people stopped in silence that day. After a year spent grieving in isolation, the two minutes silence caused an outpouring of emotion. A Daily Mail correspondent wrote that “mill girls cried when the looms were stopped.” Mourning became something to be shared. The Manchester Guardian reported on the emotional public reaction.

"The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.  The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.  Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … 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.”


Road workers in London bare their heads for a moment of silence on the first Armistice Day.

November 1 1919, London–The British had had numerous code-breaking successes during the war against Germany, most notably with the decryption of the Zimmermann Telegram by the Royal Navy’s “Room 40.”  After the war, it was unclear what would become of these efforts.  To ensure that the hard-won knowledge and techniques gained during the war would not be dispersed and lost, Lord Curzon recommended that a small effort continue during peacetime, combining the Army’s and Navy’s efforts.

On November 1, the Government Code & Cypher School was officially founded, merging Room 40 with its British Army equivalent, M1b.  The “school” name was chosen as a cover term by the Foreign Office, which would take charge of GC&CS within a few years.  Military intelligence operations having been considerably reduced since the Armistice, the organization initially employed less than 100 people.  GC&CS  is well-known today for its successes against Enigma in World War II, when it was based out of Bletchley Park.  After the war, it was renamed to the even more anodyne “Government Communications Headquarters” (GCHQ), and its efforts continue to this day.

Sources: Patrick Beesly, Room 40; Wikipedia.

First world war in Google Street View:

Attorney General Palmer’s house, at 2312 R St NW, pictured after the bombing.

June 2 1919, Washington–On the night of June 2, followers of the anarchist Luigi Galleani detonated bombs in eight cities across the United States.  Two were injured and two were killed, one of whom was one of the bombers, Carlo Valdinoci.  Valdinoci was “blown to butcher’s meat” by the bomb he had planted in front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s house near Dupont Circle.  Palmer and his family escaped the blast with no more than a few cuts, but Palmer was clearly shaken by the event.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt rushed from his house across the street to help Palmer, finding that he had reverted to using the thees and thous of his Quaker upbringing.

That Quaker past had heretofore tempered his enforcement of the Espionage Act.  After the bombing, however, he saw it as his duty to root out anarchists, Bolsheviks, and other subversives.  Together with his eager young subordinate J. Edgar Hoover, he would instigate America’s first Red Scare.  Galleani himself would be deported by the end of the month.

Sources include: Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer.

Ulrich von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Germany’s Foreign Minister for much of the first half of 1919, pictured the year before.

May 7 1919, Versailles–The Germans had been summoned to the peace conference in late April.  They had hoped, as had originally been anticipated by all parties, that the last few months had been the Allies preparing their peace terms, and now would come the time for the actual peace negotiations.  The German delegation brought with it crates upon crates of material to back up these negotiations that they were never to have.

On May 7, the German delegation was brought to the Trianon Palace Hotel.  Clemenceau told them: “The hour has struck for the weighty settlement of oura account.  You asked us for peace.  We are disposed to grant it to you,” before outlining the major features of the peace deal: Germany would lose her colonies, parts of Silesia, and the Polish Corridor.  Danzig would become a free city, the Saar would be effectively a French protectorate, the Rhineland would be occupied for over a decade, Germany would owe a large reparations bill, the League of Nations would not include Germany among her initial members, and that the war had been “imposed upon [the Allies] by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

The head of the German delegation, German Foreign Minister Brockdorff-Rantzau, gave an angry speech during which he insisted on remaining seated; it did not help that his interpreters did a poor job of translating his words.  In particular, he rankled at “the demand…that we shall acknowledge that we alone are guilty of having caused the war….Such a confession in my mouth would be a lie.”  His words misrepresented the treaty (which never used the word “guilt”), and had almost certainly been prepared before he had even seen the text of the treaty. Lloyd George snapped an ivory letter-opener in two during the speech; Wilson called it “the most tactless speech I have ever heard.  The Germans really are a stupid people. They always do the wrong thing.”  Balfour was more generous, saying merely that “I make it a rule never to stare at people when they are in obvious distress.”

The mood among the German delegation, and back in Germany, was that of shock and anger, especially at the Americans, whom they had hoped would spare them.  In the final weeks before the terms of the treaty were published, an American observer noted: 

The Germans have little left but Hope.  But having only that I think they have clung to it–the Hope that the Americans would do something, the Hope that the final terms would not be so severe as the Armistice indicated and so on.  Subconsciously, I think the Germans have been more optimistic than they realized….When they see the terms in cold print, there will be intense bitterness, hate and desperation.

Sources include: Gregor Dallas, 1918: War and Peace; Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

The Japanese delegation at the peace conference; Makino, whose speech approving of the League Covenant revealed that some sort of deal had been made, is seated on the left.

April 28 1919, Paris–Japan entered the war to secure German territories in China and the Central Pacific, which they had done swiftly by the end of 1914.  Her participation in the war afterwards had been limited mainly to her navy and the Allied intervention in Siberia.  In the years since 1914, Japan had attempted to gain Germany’s concession around Tsingtao by demanding it directly from the Chinese, though this ultimately had not worked, and now she was hoping to gain it at the peace conference, where she was one “Big Five” nations.  The Chinese, also one of the Allies, wanted their own territory back, however, and they had plenty of sympathizers, especially among the American delegation.  The Americans were suspicious of Japanese motives in China and the Pacific, and Wilson’s principle of self-determination would favor China’s claim to Tsingtao.

However, this ideal ran up against both the political realities of the conference, and, more fundamentally, deep-seated American racism.  Another one of Japan’s goals at the peace conference was the insertion of a clause on racial equality into the covenant of the League of Nations–that all member nations treat citizens of other member nations equally, regardless of race.  The United States, fearing that this would force them to accept Japanese and Chinese immigration, rejected the proposal on April 11.

The rejection of the racial equality clause, however, meant the Japanese needed to be given some other concession to stay in the peace conference.  With the Italians having just walked out, a Japanese departure could threaten to kill the peace conference altogether.  In late April, the Big Three and Japan came to an agreement: Japan would take over Germany’s economic rights around Tsingtao, but would pull out their occupation forces, let other nations use the port, and hand over political authority to the Chinese government “soon.”

On April 28, while a freak snowstorm was raging outside, Japanese delegate Makino gave a milquetoast speech approving of the final ratification of the League of Nations charter, without any mention of the racial equality clause.  The Chinese immediately realized they had been sold out; Wellington Koo told Wilson’s translator that he would only sign the treaty if given a direct order to do so by his government.  Also in the dark had been the rest of the American delegation, who had not been informed of the deal by Wilson.  Gen. Bliss nearly resigned when he found out, sending Wilson a stern note with the backing of the rest of the American delegation:

If it be right for a policeman, who recovers your purse, to keep the contents and claim that he has fulfilled his duty in returning the empty purse, then Japan’s conduct may be tolerated….Peace is desirable, but there are things dearer than peace, justice and freedom.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.

The Saar basin.  Another French claim to the area was from the founding of Saarlouis by Louis XIV in the 17th century.

April 13 1919, Paris–The French, who had seen much of their country occupied by the Germans for four years, wanted compensation for their losses and assurance that Germany could not threaten them again.  One of their demands was for the coal-rich Saar basin, just north of Alsace-Lorraine.  The area had been French before Napoleon’s Hundred Days, but was now entirely populated by Germans.  Wilson told Clemenceau: “You base your claim on what took place 104 years ago.  We cannot readjust Europe on the basis of conditions that existed in such a remote period.”  He was, however, more receptive to the argument that France needed compensation for the German destruction of its coalfields in Flanders.

Ultimately, Lloyd George suggested a compromise: the French would get ownership of the coal mines, and the League of Nations would technically administer the area.  France would get their coal without annexing any German-populated land.  Eventually, after Wilson threatened to returned to America, the French agreed and the details were finalized on April 13.  In fifteen years, a plebiscite would be held to determine the area’s future; ultimately, over 90% voted to join Nazi Germany in 1935.

Sources include: Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919.  Image Credit: By Original uploader was User:Splee at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0