‘People poured into the streets decked with flags’: From Beccles to Thetford - how your town celebrated the 1918 armistice
PUBLISHED: 07:00 10 November 2018
Norfolk celebrated peace a century ago with flags, parades, bells and even impromptu flypasts and a commandeered fire engine.
At last, at 11am on November 11th, the slaughter stopped.
After more than four years of a war which had wreaked terrible devastation in lives and landscapes around the world, the fighting was over. The shelling stopped, the guns fell silent and the celebrations began - but always tempered by grief for the millions lost.
The armistice was signed at 5am – and news that it would come into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month arrived in Norwich at 10.30am that morning.
Here’s how the momentous news was received around the county – from reports in the Eastern Daily Press and its weekly local newspapers.
“The good news quickly became known throughout the town and bunting was at once displayed on public and private buildings; horns, hooters and steam whistles were sounded, and the church bells were rung.”
•CROMER and NORTH NORFOLK
“The first news of the signing of the armistice to reach North Norfolk was received by telephone at the Cromer officer of the Eastern Daily Press and was from thence passed on to Sheringham, Holt and other places in this part of the county. Everywhere it was received with relief and rejoicing. Short services of thanksgiving were held almost instantaneously, and again in the evening at most of the local churches. Shops were closed and military bands paraded the streets which were gay with flats and bunting.”
“In an incredible short space of time the whole town was adorned with bunting, flags floated from the church tower and every available flagstaff. A number of amateur bell-ringers besieged the church tower and rang a disjointed peal, which simply denoted joyous spirits but was not very edifying from a campanologist’s point of view. Band instruments were unearthed from miscellaneous quarter and soldiers adorned with red, white and blue ribbons, some even wearing German military caps paraded the town beating drums, sounding bugles and other brass instruments, even down to the penny trumpet.
The vicar, acting as town crier, paraded the town on his motor cycle, and, with a dinner gong in lieu of the historic bell, announced the holding of the service.”
“The news reached Downham at about noon. The townspeople immediately made a picturesque display of flags and bunting and the streets were paraded by wounded soldiers from the hospital, who used all manner of curious musical instruments, accompanied by a large body of youngsters.”
“The anxiously-awaited and welcome news of the signing of the armistice and of the cessation of hostilities was received with feelings of relief and joy, bunting was freely displayed, and vehicles were soon gay with tricolour, the children, with flags waving entering heartily into the rejoicing. On Monday evening there was a large assembly on Cheese Hill, where there was general enthusiasms and much shouting, singing, and cheering. For several hours there was a display of fireworks carried out by the troops. The display was visible for miles around, and attracted considerable numbers from the countryside. Processions were formed, headed by bugles and other instruments improvised for the celebration. The effigy of the Kaiser was burned on Monday evening.”
“As soon as it became known that an armistice had been signed the town was bedecked with flags, the church bells ringing a merry peal during the day and everyone was agog with excitement.”
Troops and townspeople enjoyed a dance in the evening, church bells were rung, a telegram of congratulations sent to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig and a general holiday declared for Wednesday.
“Yarmouth gave itself without stint to the rejoicing. Work was abandoned as soon as the good news was made known, first by a bulletin at our office in Regent Street at 10.30, then by joy peals from the parish church belfry, and at 11 o’clock by naval sirens from the harbour and gunfire.
The Mayor hoisted the union Jack from the roof of the Town Hall, aeroplanes made jubilant flights, circling low down, just above the housetops. Factories and works were closed. People poured into the streets decked with flags. Horses and dogs and bicycles were gay with tricolour. Ships in the harbour blazed forth into bunting, houses were beflagged and shops shut. All the children in the schools were given a half holiday and by the afternoon the inhabitants were demonstrating in the streets, carrying flags, wearing emblems shouting, singing and cheering.
A great march through the town was arranged in which the military naval and air forces all took part. A khaki band came first, then submarine men with fixed bayonets, after them a group of mounted officers, a gun camouflaged, drawn by a team of six horses, and then some thousands of our Tommies, with shouldered rifles, and more bands. As they marched aeroplanes travelled at lightning speed just over the column, dropping ribbons, fireballs, cards and what not. Crowds lined the streets, waving their flags and raising cheers, but the English temperament does not lend itself to unrestrained enthusiasm. We take our victories calmly because we have had such a succession of them.”
“Immediately flags began to appear outside the houses. Troops, headed by their band, paraded on the green, below the old stone cross, the local volunteers, convalescents from the two Red Cross hospitals and a large part of the population were also present. In the evening lights from the houses and some outside lights helped the happy cheerful feeling that was abroad.”
And on Wednesday night, for the first time since the war began, the reassuring beam of Hunstanton lighthouse shone out across the Wash.
“With very little delay the majority of shopkeepers shuttered their premises, factories and workshops closed down, and for the remainder of the day everyone gave themselves over to good humoured rejoicings. The main streets were thronged by jubilant crowds and miniature flags, together with coloured favours were extensively worn. Horses, carts, motor cars and perambulators carried decorations. Several aeroplanes came over during the day and the daring pilots contributed interesting exhibitions to the general revelry…and over all the celebrations, whether devotional or demonstrative, was the emotional relief that the appalling terror of a long drawn out nightmare had vanished.”
“Within a few seconds a bill displaying the magic word ‘Peace’ was shown. Almost simultaneously papers were on sale, setting out the official announcement, and thenceforward the glad news spread like wildfire. Our counters were besieged by crowds making hungry demands on our still restricted paper supply. The bare fact of the case had reached them but they needed to see it in cold print. All over the central parts of the city groups were seen reading and re-reading the momentous words.
Assistants streamed out of the shops and offices to share in the chorus of general congratulations and an added chirrup was given to it by thousands of school children who, because of the influenza epidemic, are still at liberty. The Royal Standard was flown from the Guildhall and at noon the bells of St Peter Mancroft sent up a paean all the more delightful because of its rarity during the last four and a half years.
As the morning wore on the streets gained in liveliness. Men and women, boys and girls streamed out of the shops and factories by thousands and paraded the roadways. The vendors of victory-favours appeared; and the more demonstrative folks were soon sporting colours, wearing them in their hats, flourishing them at the end of sticks.”
By the afternoon massed bands led a parade of 5,000 soldiers through the city and churches were packed for hastily arranged services of thanksgiving. And in the evening came the fireworks, “As if to atone for the circumstance that there have been for four Novembers no Guy Fawkes celebrations.”
“The first news of the signing of the armistice was received shortly after 12 o’clock. The ringers at once ‘fired’ the church bells. A number of young soldiers in high glee led the rejoicing and in their excess of spirits purloined the fire engine, turned it into a triumphal car and headed by a band composed of impromptu instruments paraded the streets. Maroons were fired and the day was given over to genuine and hearty rejoicing.”
“Monday was given over in Thetford and district to great outbursts of national patriotic feeling. The tidings of the signing of the armistice was received in the town about noon, and the news quickly spread to the surrounding villages. Most of the business premises took a spontaneous holiday, and amongst the many demonstrations held was one in the Market Place during the afternoon amongst the ‘works’ employees. Flags were quickly hoisted all over the town, and merry parties of soldiers, munitions workers, etc linked arms and paraded the streets with waving flags. Improvised bands were a feature of the rejoicings. As the evening drew on the spirit of carnival increased, when several enthusiastic and patriotic demonstrations took place amongst soldiers on the Market Place and elsewhere. Torches were carried, and many in the disguise made merriment amongst the crowd. Some made patriotic addresses, and at times the cheering literally rent the air. The church bells pealed forth merrily throughout the evening, and in most of the places of worship services of thanksgiving were held.
“A huge bonfire was lighted and an effigy of the Kaiser was burnt, to the delight of crowds of spectators.”
Peace at last
On November 11th itself the front page of the Eastern Daily Press was crammed, as always, with advertisements – for auctions of everything from cattle to furniture, and businesses selling anything from pianos and pit-props to pills.
Readers had to turn to page three for the main headline: “Armistice not yet signed.” But there were many hints that peace was on its way, with other headlines on the page including: Kaiser Abdicates, Awaiting the end, The Great Retreat, Hurrying Home and Unchecked French Progress.
The front page of the Eastern Evening News that day was dedicated to classified ads – for servants (“good clean girl wanted”), rooms to rent (“billets for officers near barracks”) and everything from boots to bonnets for sale.
But even on the evening of Monday November 11, there was no late news in the front page Stop Press box. All the armistice news was on page three.
There were already reports of how the news had been received across the region – and how swiftly some of the wartime restrictions were being repealed.
There were details of blackouts lifted and military call-ups suspended. Streetlights could be lit once more and blackouts removed from homes and shops. Celebrations could include fireworks too – if authorised by the military. Restrictions on the ringing of bells and striking of public clocks at night were withdrawn and many families would have been relieved to read: “The Government has decided that all recruiting under the Military Service Acts to be suspended. All outstanding calling up notices, whether for medical examination or service are cancelled. All cases pending before tribunals should be suspended.”
But tucked away at the bottom of page two on armistice Monday is a paragraph headed Our Losses – with the weekend
lists revealing that another 1,446 men had not lived to see peace.
The following day’s EDP was packed with the international news of kings, kaisers and dukes deposed, the full terms of the armistice and how the news of the end of the war to end all wars was received in Norwich, Yarmouth, King’s Lynn, Lowestoft, Dereham, Diss, Fakenham, Beccles and beyond.
By November 14 the front page advertisements in the EDP included a special peace offer from tailors Batterbee and Son of Magdalen Street, Norwich, offering discounts for all discharged soldiers.
But there were still adverts advising people how to save coal – and the terrible toll from the flu epidemic was mounting at home and abroad.
In Norwich the Lord Mayor George Chamberlin spoke to the rejoicing crowds saying: “We cannot make good the awful sacrifice of human lives, nor can they at once repair the fearful damage which has been done in Belgium and France. Let us hope that we have done with war for ever, and that we shall now come into peace and prosperity.”
A strange story of a priest celebrating peace eight days too early was reported in the Norfolk News of November 9.
The Rev Edgar Reeves, vicar of Little Walsingham, near Fakenham, appeared at Walsingham magistrates courts, accused of allowing the church bells to ring from 6-6.30pm and 7.40-7.55pm the previous Sunday, and “allowing the church clock to strike throughout the night as to be audible at such a distance as to be capable of serving as a guide for hostile aircraft.”
He was also accused of allowing the lights of the parish church to show, and having an unshaded lamp on the church steps, on a night the previous month.
The vicar pleaded guilty and told the court the bells were rung because he had heard that Germany had surrendered. At first he wouldn’t say who had told him, but when the clerk of the court assured him that the whole village already knew, he admitted his source. The chairman of the bench said: “The postmistress had no right to divulge the news without having known for a certainty that peace had been proclaimed. The defendant should know that the Germans did not settle such points in five minutes and he should have been more careful.” A small fine was imposed.