When the Armistice was signed 100 years ago today, many took to the streets in celebration. This article was written by one of the North Devon Herald’s journalists and describes the scenes in Barnstaple on that memorable day.
“PEACE HAS BROKEN OUT!”
I was in the midst of a shorthand transcript in the reporters’ sanctum of “The North Devon Herald” office on Monday morning, and was plodding leisurely along when, borne on the winds of the morn, came the sound of unmistakable “Hurrahs” as from a hundred throats. There was no need to inquire the cause of exultation, for peace had been in the air during the past weekend, and the glorious news had arrived, and the sickening pangs of hope deferred had been relegated to the shades of oblivion. By the time I had armed myself with notebook and pencil the typographical staff had vanished – one couldn’t see them for dust. To hear the news was not sufficient; they must see it in cold print. Leaving the friendly shelter of the office doorway, I plunged into a sea of human beings swaying to and fro with the rhythm of foam-crested breakers in front of the newspaper offices. Flags and bunting galore had already made their appearance; it seemed as though the inhabitants were waiting, draperies in hand, for the signal to paint the town red, white, and blue, with a smattering of yellow in honour of brave little Belgium. His worship the Mayor, the joyful tidings reflected in his mien, thrust a telegram into my hand which he had received from London–“armistice signed 5 a.m. this morning; hostilities cease 11 a.m.” Councillor Jewel, for four-and-a-half years Barnstaple’s War Mayor, was now its Peace Mayor!
Elbowing my way through the crowd as best I could, I ran into a group of sceptics. “Was it true? We were ‘ad on Thursday by Reuter’s message issued by the Press, and we’re going to wait further particulars.” Well, they were not the only ones ‘ad on Thursday, but what did it matter if one was given the opportunity of a double celebration-even if one was in intelligent anticipation four days previously! But they would not be comforted, and the one crowing loudest of all was of the type of gentleman who never sports a copper for the newspaper, but has preferred to follow the course of the war by means of the telegrams issued gratis by the Press. It was Sheridan’s Critic in the flesh–“The newspapers, sir, they are the villainous, licentious, abominable, infernal–not that I ever read them, no, I make it a rule never to look into a newspaper.” The great majority of people, however, accepted the news with joyful hearts. They had been prepared for it during the week-end; and one minister of the gospel in Barnstaple announced to his congregation on Sunday that unless the Germans were absolutely mad the armistice would be signed. The magic word “official” duly made its appearance at the bottom of the newspaper message, and the remainder of the day in Barnstaple was given over to unrestrained gaiety and merriment. The news spread quickly. A bright-eyed youngster tearing along High-street, making for the farthermost corner, of the borough, lustily shouted as he persued his way, “Peace has broken out!” “Peace has broken out!” Barnstaple’s enterprising drapers seized the opportunity, and in an incredibly short time bunting and victory flags occupied conspicuous places in their window displays, and business was extremely brisk. With one consent shops were closed during the afternoon. The employees in the factories ceased work; the shipyard staff joined the ranks of holiday-makers; and during the day people from the county district around literally poured into the town. It was a study of human psychology to watch the variety of ways in which the message was received. Some went delirious with joy; others burst into tears. Joy and pathos were in close juxtaposition-the pent-up feelings of four-and-a-half years burst forth, some finding relief in one way or another. A soldier in khaki standing amid the throng found himself being kissed and caressed by a mother overcome with happiness at the thought that hostilities had ceased, and her own dear boy would soon be home again. “I have had three sons out there since the commencement, and thank God they have been spared,” exclaimed one lady with intense emotion. The fount of deep, strong, deathless love within a mother’s heart was filed to the brim.
Meanwhile improvised processions were formed, and the sound of singing and merry-making predominated. With trumpets also and shawns did the praise ascend. Concertinas and other musical instruments–aye, and some which were not musical–made their appearance. Each group had its different tune: the inevitable consequences can be much better be left to the imagination than described. One was forcibly reminded of the incident in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”–“I have a reasonably good ear for music; let us have the tongs and the bones.” The man in blue, charged with keeping the peace of the borough, winked the other eye, for “there’s no jollity that hath not its smack of folly,” and pardonable licence was allowed. The weather might have been more propitious, but what did it matter, rain could not dampen the spirits or ardour of Barum’s crowd gathered together on such an auspicious occasion.
The bell of the Parish Church broke forth into merry peals, and the bells of Pilton took up the echo. It is an interesting coincidence that the ringers at the latter church included Sergt. Fred Newcombe (Devons), who has been in France almost since the commencement of the war, and who happened to be home on furlough. The honour ringing the first joy-bell in the borough on Monday belongs to Mr. James, the veteran caretaker of the ancient chapel at the Penrose Almshouses.
The mutual congratulations which were offered and received in Barnstaple on Monday were not without their pathetic side, however. In a business house the assistant spoke of the glorious news to the customer she was serving. The tears welled up in the good lady’s eyes as she pathetically replied, “Yes, but it’s come too late for me. I have lost a husband and three sons in the war.” Another sad incident is reported from the Fremington district. A mother, whose only son was with the troops in France, came into Barnstaple and joined the general rejoicings. Her boy would soon be under the maternal roof again, and in the fullness of a mother’s heart she pored forth her paeans of praise. Alas! on Tuesday morning official intimation was received that her dear one had been killed within the last few days of the war. The cup of sorrow has been written that “Wave may not foam nor wild wind sweep where rest not Devon’s dead.” Even at this time of happiness and joy we reserve feelings of sympathy with those who have been bereaved; but as the fire the drosey gold refines, so we rejoice that at the sign of danger there were found men with hearts if steal who were ready to step into the breach in defence of sacred principles and the splendid heritage handed on to us by our forebears–men who in times of peace lived usefully, justly, and freely, in times of war were ready to die gloriously for England, home and beauty. They have fought the good fight, they have finished their course; and now that the victory has been won and the brute-force which characterised our foes has been finally crushed, those who remain and generations yet unborn will join in honour and praise of those brave men for whom the paths of glory led but to the grave.
The digression from the pen-picture of how Barnstaple received the news which I set out to portray, however inadequately, is pardonable, for the cessation of hostilities and the probability of an early return of the troops will awaken many sad memories in the minds of many. However, to proceed with the narrative. As soon as the boys from the Grammar School were freed from their lessons they formed themselves into an orderly procession, and marched through the streets of the town. Their approach was heralded by the sound of trumpets and the rat-a-tat-tat of the kettle drums–biscuits tins having to serve the purpose of the drums. They spent a right royal time. In the girls’ department of the secondary school the rooms were soon gaily bedecked, and with the conclusion of the school curriculum the students gave themselves up to an enjoyable dance in celebration of the auspicious occasion.
The town was soon ringing with the strains of “The Marsellaise.” Capt. Wm. Moyse, the officer in charge of the local Corps of the Salvation Army, quickly got his bandsmen together–a happy thought, for had not right triumphed over might; yea, sorrow had endured fro a night, but joy came with the morning.
The boys of Derby, did not let the grass grow under their feet, and having rigged up a suitable effigy of “The Kaiser; the Beast of Berlin” (a la Picturedrome), they carried it shoulder high through the town. Their numbers increased with the length of their journey, and when eventually they returned to Derby where there was an eager smiling throng longing with all their boyish spirit and enthusiasm to see the consummation–which was later literally witnessed–the Kaiser reduced to ashes. Derby road, dedicated by ancient usage to the youth of that part of the town was chosen for “Bill’s last gasp.” The flames spread higher and higher, and fuel was piles on until the image was no more. “How are the mighty fallen!” exclaimed a bright youth who had evidently been reading the daily Press during the past week end. Musical ditties suiting the occasion, were concocted with surprising rapidity, and sung in procession. One heard the familiar strains of “Tipperary,” but the words “It’s a long, long way to Tipperary, but my heart’s right there,” were no longer sung, having been given place to
It’s a long, long way to St Helena, But Kaiser Bill’ll go there.
The town owes a debt of gratitude, to the band of the Comrades of the Great War, for it supplied a much-felt want. Bandmaster Cox was in charge, and Bandsman Aze (Devons) and Drummer Rabbits (Hampshire, who happened to be home on leave, assisted. They gave a promenade concert in the Market Hall in the afternoon, the patriotic airs sounding most welcome. In the evening dance music constituted the programme, the familiar strains breathing the invitation “Come and trip it as you go, on the light fantastic toe,” and many a couple tripped merrily around the ring which was formed in the centre of the dense crowd. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the young ladies, male partners at the commencement were few and far between, but during the evening a party of the Royal Air Force from Westward Ho! arrived and a jolly time followed. Dancing was kept up until nearly ten o’clock.
Our neighbour, Mr. A. E. Barnes, with his usual enterprise, cleared one of his windows immediately on the receipt of news and placed in a position of honour the famous production depicting the tyrant from Berlin in the hour of his triumph, having trampled on the defenceless people of Belgium, speaking in mocking tones to King Albert–“And so you have lost everything.” the reply must have eaten into even the withered soul of the Kaiser–“Not my soul.” Belgium refugees as they gazed at the splendid figure of their beloved King, who is exalted among the nations, were unable to check their tears. In the business premises of Masion Viola, in the Square, a crown of laurels was appropriately placed over the corner of the picture–“The Unconquerable.” Mr. A. S. Hellier another tradesman adopted an ingenious device, and placed coloured pictures of our beloved King and Queen in front of a powerful electric lamp.
And so in Barnstaple everyone gave themselves up to enjoyment. The trite maxim of “All who joy would win must share it” was given a very literal interpretation, and one ventures to think that if Thackeray had lived to see the celebration of the conclusion of the world-wide struggle he would never have penned “how Hard it is to make an Englishman acknowledge that he is happy!”
Article taken from the North Devon Herald 14th November 1918 page 5 columns d-e.