The last days of war: A bloody domestic tragedy at home, and sudden talk abroad of ‘instant and unconditional surrender’
- Credit: contributed
Peace at last – and ‘all the brag and bluster of 30 years shown to be folly and impotence’. What the EADT was reporting 100 years ago
While November 6, 1918, raised hopes ever-higher that four-plus years of war really were about to end, the residents of East Anglia woke to terribly sad and violent news.
The East Anglian Daily Times told of a horrible discovery in Stowmarket. A mother and her two sons, aged three and seven, had been butchered in their beds at a cottage in Newton Road. Leonard Sitch, 35 – husband and father of the victims – was discovered hanging in the house near the railway station. He was the head baker at Stowmarket Co-operative Stores.
There was talk the quiet man had been affected by chatter about his “somewhat foreign appearance”. The report said he’d been described “as a man of somewhat reserved disposition, with strong Socialistic tendencies.
“He cultivated but few acquaintances, and visitors to his home were few. His home life, however, is said to have been exceptionally happy, his devotion to his wife – a smart young woman – and his two children being most marked. The house, which was well furnished for the position of the occupants, was kept scrupulously clean.
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“Nothing untoward occurred in the ‘even tenor’ of the family life until recently, when the man was attacked by tonsillitis, followed at the end of last week by influenza, which also laid his wife low.”
Meanwhile, talk on the international stage was about the terms for Austria’s cessation of hostilities. Elsewhere, the fighting continued.
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The “London Letter” article in the EADT said all allied forces on the theatre of war’s western edge – British, French and American – had been “engaged on a front of nearly 70 miles in a supreme endeavour to smash the boastful pretence of the enemy that his front cannot be broken”.
“Germans in Retreat on a 70-mile front/British chasing the foe/Complete Batteries abandoned” said the headline. (Tiny and low-profile, compared to the style today.)
“All the indications… suggest that a retreat is being made on a grand scale,” read the story.
On the 7th we reported that British troops were pushing hard and had (the day before) reached the main Avesnes to Bavay road in northern France, close to Belgium.
Good progress was reported later that day along the whole battlefront, despite continuous heavy rain. There was resistance, still – there and in Flanders.
A Press Association report from the British headquarters in France said: “The Germans are retreating, all along the front… There is no question of a rout nor a pursuit. We are simply pressing them hard, and they are covering their withdrawal with a close-set screen of mobile machine-gun defences.
“We know there is confusion and demoralisation amongst the retreating foe but so strong are the engrained habits of discipline and training that the leaders manage to keep their men well in hand, and the German wireless may still boast about an unbroken front.”
A letter had gone from America to the government of Germany, saying the allies were willing to make peace – on terms set out by the US president in January. This would have to be discussed at a peace conference – and precise details of the term “freedom of the seas” would need to be clear.
Compensation must be paid for all damage done by Germany in the countries it invaded, too.
This key moment followed Bulgaria’s signing of an armistice at the end of September and the Ottoman empire throwing in the towel on October 30. An armistice with Austria was signed near Padua on November 3.
It must have been bewildering for readers back in Suffolk and Essex. No photographs in the EADT, then, to give a hint of what fathers, sons, brothers, nephews and friends were having to cope with. No maps to put some of the action into context. No world wide web to send information in real time.
Strange place-names. Vague reports about what was happening, and where. For most readers, following the progress of the campaign must have taken on an abstract air – particularly as the normal routine was being carried on at home as well as possible.
Mixed in surreally among news items about a torpedoed battleship and the latest list of East Anglian war casualties would be adverts for Madame Crowe’s bath salts, “for softening the hard water of the district”, and Cuticura soap and ointment to soothe baby’s itchy skin.
And then a war the like of which no-one had ever experienced – a conflict in its fifth year – appeared to race to an end at unreal speed.
November 8th’s edition was reporting “Active chase on the whole front” in France. But the most significant development was hidden away on the back of the paper: in the small “Latest news” section where snippets could be added after the main pages had gone to press.
Here was news that the names of the German delegation had been announced for “the conclusion of an armistice and the commencement of peace negotiations”. Not just announced: the team had left for the western front at 5pm on the 6th.
Another “Latest news” item added: “A Berlin official message says: ‘Peace and the passing of the blockade are now close at hand.’”
The end was more than a dream, though surely no-one was taking anything for granted. A telegram from The Times suggested the German delegates were expressing astonishment at the severity of the ceasefire terms.
The 8th of November was a Friday, and most local newspapers didn’t print again until Monday. Shame – because events moved fast that weekend. Fast enough for national paper The Post to trumpet, on Sunday, “Germany’s dramatic collapse. Events compel instant and unconditional surrender”.
The Post wasn’t wrong. The EADT on Monday the 11th headlined (though not on the advert-dominated front page) “Double abdication/Kaiser and Crown Prince renounce the throne/Dynasty overthrown by revolution/social democrats in power”.
News had come through on the wireless on the Saturday afternoon, via the German government stations, that Kaiser and King Wilhelm II had decided to give up his hold. There would be a new law paving the way for universal voting rights and a constitutional national assembly.
Later that day the new German People’s Government was formed; and the crown prince renounced his right of succession.
It was, effectively, all over.
“END OF THE GREAT WAR” declared the Lincolnshire Echo on Monday, November 11, in a wide headline of capital letters. The Evening Despatch carried a smudgy picture of smiling troops and civilians in Birmingham, celebrating. The Daily Mirror said “Democracy triumphs over last of the autocrats”.
The understated EADT (no photographs) allowed itself to proclaim “Victory!” in the rather smaller headline to its page four opinion column. It looked forward.
“The immensity of the task before the world is overwhelming. The great fight is won, but the triumphs of war must be replaced by the labours of peace.
“How suddenly the end came – one week, it might almost be one day, and the Kaiser was talking of ‘rallying around me; We Hohenzollerns take our crown from God alone, not Parliamentary majorities and resolutions’. A few days, a few more hammer hits, and he is deposed and abandoned by his subjects… troops in ferment and revolt, the fleet of which he said ‘The trident must be our fist’ refusing to fight and inviting the coming of the enemy, all the brag and bluster of thirty years of reign shown to be folly and impotence.”
The daily London Letter described the end’s “kaleidoscopic rapidity” – the way the old order of kings in Europe vanished into the past over the weekend. An article called the dethroned Kaiser a modern Napoleon.
It still wasn’t all over, quite. There was brief speculation that the official signing of the armistice, set for 11am on the Monday, might be delayed. Not that Parisians were worried: news of the abdication had been reported in theatres and cinemas over the weekend, “and provoked scenes of indescribable enthusiasm”.
Fighting was still going on. Romanian troops had invaded Hungary; and in France, at Mons, British troops were involved in pursuing the retreating forces. French and American soldiers were also making rapid advances in France.
The armistice with Germany was signed at 5am local time on that Monday, November 11, in a railway carriage at Compiègne in France. Troops on the Western Front started to move from their positions, though fighting carried on in many areas, as military leaders sought to ensure gains were made and held.
At 11am, the ceasefire came into effect – at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Great War that began in 1914 was, to all intents and purposes, finally over.
The London Letter written on November 12 captured the joy. “The enthusiasm over peace, which was maintained till an early hour this morning, broke out again with scarcely any appreciable loss of zeal in the course of the day.
“Great bands of soldiers and munition workers paraded the streets, waving flags and singing patriotic songs.”
The fugitive Kaiser had fled to the neutral Netherlands by train, to the village of Maarn, near Utrecht. He was staying at the castle of Count Bentinck. A news agency understood the former emperor was essentially interned there, pending developments, though the media was being diplomatic and wasn’t calling it that.