The Great War – HG Wells’ “war to end all wars”– was over. The Armistice took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, bringing an end to hostilities which had engulfed Britain and much of the rest of the world since the summer of 1914.
The Ashbourne Telegraph announced the news not with triumphalism, as might have been expected, but in an understated, measured, almost literary fashion:
“After four-and-a-quarter years of bloodshed and destruction, which at certain periods has been marked by the gravest anxiety for the destiny of our country and nation as well as that of others, the greatest struggle the world has ever known has ended.
The colossal display of might and power which Germany organised and with which she hoped to dominate the world has been vanquished, and the Kaiser has ended his career in a most ignominious and unchivalrous manner. Germany’s partners in the diabolical plot have lost their thrones and brought their nations to ruin and on the verge of famine.”
The editorial said that German militarism had been shattered beyond hope of recovery and in accepting the peace terms had practically surrendered unconditionally.
The Germans were stated to have agreed to evacuate Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, and Luxembourg, but also all territory on the left bank of the Rhine, including the cities of Coblenz, Dusseldorf and Cologne. The area was to be occupied by Allied and United States forces who would also control all crossings of the Rhine between the Dutch and Swiss borders.
The paper gave details of the surrender of arms: 5,000 field guns, 30,000 machine guns, 5,000 locomotives, 2,000 aeroplanes and all her submarines, together with the disarming of all warships; and the release for repatriation of all prisoners of war.
The reaction of the town, by contrast, was reported to have been ecstatic.
“The receipt of the news of the Signing of the Armistice under which the hostilities were to cease caused enthusiastic excitement in Ashbourne and District.
The first message was received during the morning and immediately the employees at Mssrs Nestle and Mssrs R Cooper and Co. were released from their work and given a day’s holiday.
The ‘hummer’ of the former firm gave the signal to the whole town and the engine whistles and fog signals gave additional force to the long wished for signal.
Almost immediately flags seemed to spring from nowhere and the streets were gay with bunting within a few minutes, several streamers being run across the streets at different points.”
The Urban Council was in a meeting and immediately formed a committee to arrange a ‘public meeting of thankfulness’.
The report of celebrations took on an almost cinematic detail:
“Rows of girls and children, carrying flags and singing patriotic songs were soon parading the streets and every face radiated happiness.”
Later the Urban Council gathered on the balcony of the town hall, chairman JO Woodyatt confirmed that the Armistice had been signed before Canon Morris offered a prayer of thanksgiving and the National Anthem was sung.
Similar scenes were witnessed in the outlying villages, with reports from local correspondents published under the News of the District column.
“News of the signing of the armistice was received in Rocester with great joy. Work ceased immediately at the principal places of employment and flags and emblems of loyalty and joy immediately appeared at windows of the houses. Festoons were stretched across the streets and miniature flags were carried by the children who were released from school shortly after then news was received.”
In Shirley flags and banners appeared ‘as if by magic’ and the church bells rang out joyfully. In Wetton the church rang its bells and the school flag was hoisted and saluted by children as they marched past, while in Osmaston a special church thanksgiving service was held and fresh flowers placed on the graves of loved ones.
But the celebrations were tempered by the news of more fatalities as a result of the conflict, even in its final throes.
Lance Corporal Caleb Tanner, who had just weeks earlier been awarded the Military medal for conspicuous bravery, was killed by a bullet to the chest as he led a charge on a German machine gun post.
“The deceased young soldier, who was 21 years of age, had a wide circle of friends in Ashbourne with whom he was very popular, and he carried his popularity with him to his regiment where he was highly esteemed by both officers and men.
He had been out in France two years and nine months, during which period, up to his fatal wound he had neither wound nor sickness.”
Tanner’s parents in Smith’s Yard, Church Street were told by his officer that he had died instantly.
“Your son was one of the bravest men in the company, and I believe he was really enjoying the chance of getting at the Bosche.”
The intimacy of the Sherwood Foresters is conveyed in a letter from Sergeant Percy Beardsley:
“I don’t know how to start my letter to you to offer you my deepest sympathy in the great loss you have had. I am sure it will be a great blow to you as he was always his mother’s lad, but I pray that God will help you bear it bravely.”
The personal tone of the letter continues:
“He was a great favourite with all he came in contact with – same as he always was at home. Knowing him as I did as a baby, I feel his death very much, and he was always one of the best lads I had.
He had just got a gun in action when he was killed by a bullet – instantaneously. He had still his old smile on his face when we buried him yesterday.”
Just two days after the town received news of the Armistice one of the first soldiers to march off to war, former Territorial Private Fred Chell, died after a lengthy illness due to the effects of being gassed by the Germans.
Chell, who was 26 and had a wife and two young children, had been mobilised with the Territorials and marched out of Ashbourne Market Place with the cheers of townsfolk ringing in his ears.
Having served his time he returned home and took up work at Nestle, but in 1915 he was recalled and sailed to Ireland to suppress the Irish Rebellion, before being drafted to France.
“He was present at many of the engagements in which the Sherwoods gained distinction, but later he was severely gassed, as a result of which he was invalided out of the army, since when he has been under treatment, succumbing ultimately on Wednesday evening.”
Chell had lost two brothers, Joseph, killed in action, and Sam, also from the effects of gas poisoning.
Chell was the son in law of Mrs Fowell of the Coach and Horses, Dig Street, whose only son, his ‘inseparable chum’ Lance Corporal S Barker, was killed in 1917.
Mr and Mrs Burrows of Cauldron Lowe had received official news that their only son, had been killed in action, aged just 21.
Captain PE Burrows, who had previously been awarded the Military Cross, had been killed while serving with the Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles in the Indian Army.
Burrows, had been commissioned into the Sherwood Foresters in 1915 while still at Denstone College and saw action in France before transferring and sailing to India in April 1918, then volunteering for service in Palestine.
A message of condolence had been received by his parents from the King and Queen, together with a number of tributes.
His commanding officer, Major Ashmore of the Gurkha Rifles wrote:
“In action I consider him to have been one of the bravest officers it has been my lot to meet. He was killed on September 19th during the big attack on the Turkish lines on the plain. He led his company on a bayonet charge on a strong point in the Turkish second line through uncut wire. He was struck by a bullet in the body and died a very few minutes later.”
Other families to receive bad news included Mr and Mrs Beresford of King Street who were notified their son Isaac, serving with the Sherwood Foresters had been posted as missing on October 5, after four years out in France. Pte Beresford had been one of the first Ashbourne men to receive the Military Medal for holding a post under heavy bombardment when all his comrades had either been killed or wounded, then counter attacking killing several of the enemy and capturing one.
Mr and Mrs T Gilman of Shirley had lost their younger son George, serving with the Sherwoods, killed by a shot to the head by a sniper on September 24. He had been in Canada at the outbreak of war and had twice volunteered but been rejected by doctors. He returned to England in 1916 and again volunteered and was on that occasion declared fit to serve.
Another Shirley soldier, 23-year-old Rifleman Beresford Maskery, was reported to have died of pneumonia on November 2. He had joined the Kings Royal Rifles in 1915 and twice been wounded and invalided home, returning to the front in February 1918.
Also victim of pneumonia was Private Frank Foxon, 23, of the Royal Army Medical Corps who had died on October 30 in Gibraltar where he was serving as company cook
Private Frank Millward of Shirley Park Farm, formerly with the Durham Light infantry and latterly with the Machine Gun Corps had been severely wounded in France and repatriated where he had been dangerously ill in hospital in Liverpool. His parents had since been told that he had had a leg amputated and was no progressing well.
- My fellow researcher and former De Montfort University colleague John Dilley is conducting a similar real-time project with the Market Harborough Advertiser. Check out his Newspapers and the Great War blog