World War I: Flashback to how St Albans district marked the Armistice

PUBLISHED: 11:00 09 November 2018

The Clock Tower, painted by Harry Mitton Wilson in winter 1918, is on display in St Albans Museum + Gallery’s ‘Lasting Peace?’ exhibition, until 25 November. © St Albans Museums.

The Clock Tower, painted by Harry Mitton Wilson in winter 1918, is on display in St Albans Museum + Gallery’s ‘Lasting Peace?’ exhibition, until 25 November. © St Albans Museums.

Archant

November 11 1918 was a cold, wet day in St Albans but this did not deter a large crowd from gathering in front of the town hall to await confirmation that the Great War was finally over.

The official word came from the Rt. Hon. T.F. Halsey, chairman of Hertfordshire County Council, who stepped out onto the town hall balcony to proclaim in a loud voice the “brave news” that the armistice had been signed and hostilities had ceased as a consequence.

There were cheers and the waving of many flags as the “great news” was received with sincere and heartfelt rejoicing.

The peace treaty had been anticipated for some weeks and many enterprising shopkeepers had stocked up on bunting.

They were soon inundated with customers so that it seemed as if every man, woman and child either waved a flag or sported a patriotic ribbon of red, white and blue, creating a scene of colour and decoration on that drab November day.

Huge flags were quickly raised above roofs and church towers. ‘Mournful Mary’ the air raid siren, atop the town hall, shrieked her prolonged delight with ear-splitting thoroughness, and ‘the bells pealed out the joyous news so that even the remotest streets, with astonishing alacrity, became beflagged and eloquent of rejoicing’.

Later that day troops stationed in St Albans paraded along Beaconsfield Road, Hatfield Road and St Peter’s Street, assembling in front of the Town Hall.

After an address by their commanding officer and prayers for the peace, the soldiers sang the National Anthem.

Market Place was again the centre of activities in the evening when the city band played popular tunes and there was much singing, dancing and flag-waving.

Hertfordshire is reported to have celebrated victory in a “befitting spirit with an absence of many of those excesses that have sometimes been associated with national rejoicings”. This was a reference to the patriotic demonstrations that turned into violent anti-Boer riots following the news that the siege at Mafeking had been broken in 1899 – an event presumably still fresh in the memory.

Harpenden celebrated in similar style to St Albans with “bunting poking itself out of windows”, bell ringing and many people seen carrying flags.

The elementary schools were closed due to the influenza outbreak and this gave local children the opportunity to take part in the celebrations. They organised themselves into bands of pot and pan instrumentalists and “perambulated the thoroughfares, adding much to the genuine and spontaneous demonstration”.

The news reached Wheathampstead a little before noon and flags were hung out of the windows and songs were sung in the streets, “...an animation and joyousness prevailed that had not been known for years [and] to give brightness to the dull, rainy day, the fine village church bells rang out a merry peal”.

For local men held as prisoners of war the armistice meant freedom and more hardship. Private John Frederick Cull of Grange Street, St Albans, walked over a hundred miles in bare feet to reach the Allied lines.

Hollow-eyed and worn out, the 20 year-old finally reached home and said that much of the misery of his captivity of seven and a half months had been wiped out by the cordiality and sincerity of his welcome home.

A week after the signing of the armistice, the Herts Advertiser predicted that ‘Monday will ever remain a day of superlative importance for the nation’.

In the meantime the country was in the grip of an influenza pandemic, faced crippling war debts and an imminent recession.

Sue Mann is a member of the St Albans & Hertfordshire Architectural & Archaeological Society and co-editor of St Albans: Life on the Home Front, 1914-1918.

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