Andy Thompson commemorates the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI
‘The War That Will End War’ wrote the famous Surrey-based writer HG Wells in October 1914 as he reflected on the opening weeks of what was to become known as the Great War. The chiming bells at 11 o’clock on 11th November 1918 suggested his prescience to be very accurate. The First World War cost over 10 million young men their lives, 20 million were wounded and millions more traumatised and simply sent back to pick up the pieces of civilian life. Britain was bankrupt, the class system seriously eroded and, for a great many, any thought of a loving God became a difficult concept and the role of women in Britain was changed forever.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month this year the bells across the length and breadth of Britain rang again to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the armistice that caused the guns to fall silent, ending the war that had engulfed the world with 89 countries being directly involved in the conflict. The 11th November was a Sunday this year and across Surrey and Sussex local communities joined the nation in remembering those who made the ‘supreme sacrifice’ for their country. You only have to walk to your local war memorial to reflect on the men from your village or town who are remembered ‘In Perpetuity’ by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at one of their 23,000 sites in 150 countries.
The men who returned to Surrey and Sussex after the war were promised ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ but reality proved to be far harsher, as the collapse in the world economy led to hardship and widespread discontent. Wages were cut, the working week lengthened as war time contracts were ended. The millions of women who had responded to the call of ‘total war’ found themselves thrown out of work as the men returned. Whilst those over 30 and who owned property were given the vote in the Khaki election held in December 1918, most women returned to their role as homemakers and mothers.
As with counties across the UK, the war brought out the best of the men and women of Surrey and Sussex. Thousands of men volunteered or were conscripted to fight for King and Country and joined their local regiments – The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), The East Surreys or The Royal Sussex Regiment. All three regiments fought proudly with bravery and discipline fashioned in their distinguished histories.
The East Surrey Regiment was deployed in August with the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) and became part of the legendary ‘Old Contemptibles’ (so called when the British army was described as ‘a contemptible little army’ by Kaiser Wilhelm II). They fought in most of the major battles of the war. Seven of their number were awarded the Victoria Cross – the highest medal for ‘bravery in the face of the enemy’ and Captain Billy Neville entered the history books when he gave footballs to his attacking companies with a promise of a bottle of champagne for the first to get their ball into the German front line trench. As with 446 of his men, Captain Neville didn’t survive the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In total the regiment lost 6,223 officers and men killed during the war.
The Queen’s list of Battle Honours is equally impressive with their involvement in the bitter fighting of the autumn of 1914, Loos in 1915, High Wood on the Somme, the taking of the Messines Ridge in June 1917 and the final 100 Days in 1918 which saw the German army driven out of France and Belgium. Their casualties impacted on the communities and families around Surrey. 7,399 officers and men being killed, and 4 Queen’s being awarded the VC.
The men of Sussex would have, in the main, joined The Royal Sussex, another regiment with a proud history. They too were deployed along the Western Front and served in the ill-fated attempt to defeat the Turks in Gallipoli during 1915. On 30th June 1916, the day before Haig launched his attack on the Somme, the men from Sussex led a diversionary attack on the Germans at The Boars Head. Commanded by Lieut Col Lowther they suffered appalling casualties with over 1000 of ‘Lowther’s Lambs’ being killed or wounded. The action became known as The Day Sussex Died.
Undertones of War, the autobiography of Edmund Blunden, who fought with the regiment during most of the war, became a set text for those trying to understand and comprehend the enormity of the slaughter.
Whilst the men were fighting bravely in the front line, the women they left behind rose to the challenge of winning the war on the home front. Initially some became nurses whilst every village formed committees of women to make bandages and sandbags. By 1916 with the move towards ‘total war’, where every man or woman was directly or indirectly involved in the war effort, the women took to the plough by joining the Women’s Land Army to help feed the nation. Others moved into the factories manufacturing the weapons of war – the guns, ships, tanks and munitions to keep the men fighting. This work was dangerous and dirty – in January 1917 an explosion at the Silvertown munition factory in London killed 73 workers who were mainly women. The explosion damaged 70,000 houses and the bang was heard in Norwich and Salisbury!
When the men came home, many women became untrained counsellors offering comfort and healing to the men damaged and ravaged by their experiences in the trenches. Many were to remain unmarried as 1 million men were no longer available to become husbands and fathers. The 1921 census revealed that there were 1.7 million more women than men in the UK and they must have been very comforted when the Daily Mail called them ‘The surplus generation’.
On Sunday 11th November at 11 o’clock the nation fell silent as collectively we pause for two minutes of reflection. In 1920, the body of the Unknown Warrior was returned from the battlefields of the Western Front and was received at the Cenotaph in Whitehall by King George V. He asked the committee organising the event that as the clock of Big Ben struck 11 the nation should fall silent for two minutes – the first minute to remember the dead and the past, the second to be thankful for those who had survived and the future. In 1920 the nation did indeed fall silent – trains, traffic and factories all stopped and the populace across the land stood still.
I’m glad we did the same this year.
Andy Thompson is Chair of the Surrey Branch of the Western Front Association and a battlefield guide.