Today (April 20) in London History – “the biggest story of the century”

This one’s about a service in St Paul’s held to mark America’s entry into World War I. The service took place on April 20, 1917. It’s the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


This one’s about how things work. About machinery. But not the machinery under the bonnet of your car or packaging machinery or robotic arm machinery or a sewing machine. No, this one’s 

about the machinery of the state. How it works. 

Our date is April 20th, 1917. And, yes, it’s a Today in London History event.

It has to do with the American entry into World War I.

Now we need to do a little calendar work here to get that April 20th, 1917 London event into focus. To better understand what it was all about and why it was so important.

The United States’ declaration of War came on April 6, 1917. That was a Friday. Good Friday in fact. 

That declaration of war was the snowball. It will roll along, getting bigger and bigger. And eventually it will become a kind of avalanche. An avalanche that more or less everybody in the United States and in this country and indeed in Europe and other parts of the world will be caught up in. It will be the avalanche that will bring victory to the Allies – our side – and defeat to the Quadruple Alliance – the enemy: the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria. There’ll be a lot of people and concerns that will have a good war – they will do very well out of it. There will be many others – millions, really – for whom it will be a catastrophe, a death sentence. That in fact, already was the case, as the war was in the 247th day of its 3rd year. Such was the subtitle of the Times story, on Saturday, April 7th, 1917, announcing the American entry in the war.

The story was headlined: United States at War.

The story opened – was ever a newspaper opening line more trenchant than this: The United States is at war with Germany. 

The newspapers are really the prow of the story. Remember, there was no BBC in 1917. No radio news, let alone television.

And the newspapers themselves were a very different animal. There was no news on the front page. The front page was announcements and advertisements. In fact, it will be nearly half a century – May 3, 1966 – before the Times puts news on the front page. So this huge story – the American entry into the war – is on the inside pages. Page 6 – that was the page where the news really got going. And it was the same for the Telegraph. Though the Telegraph was way ahead of the Times in breaking out of that no-news-on-the-front-page straitjacket. The Telegraph would start putting news on the front page in 1939, in the run-up to the outbreak of World War II.

Another fascinating document in this regard was the Illustrated London News. It was a weekly. It came out every Saturday. So that week it was published on April 7, 1917. America, remember, had declared war on Germany on April 6th, 1917. So on the face of it the timing was perfect for the Illustrated London News. You’d think they would have run the story on the next day, Saturday, April 7th, the day of publication.

They didn’t. The biggest story so far of the century didn’t make it into the Illustrated London News that week. The ILN was doing something pretty revolutionary with the “look” of its product – its front page was given over to big illustrations, a full-page photograph or drawing. It was very eye-catching. They were on to something. Illustrations moved the product, moved papers. People saw that image and bought. But on 

the April 7th, 1917 edition of the Illustrated London News the biggest story of the century was conspicuous by its absence. The ILN ran a story about General Sir Archibald Murray who’d won a resounding victory in Gaza over the Turkish enemy. 

How do you account for the Illustrated London News missing the biggest story of the day. The reason must have been their printing deadlines. They must have been kicking themselves.

I started this podcast by saying, “this one’s about how the machinery of state works.”

And at this point it makes a whole lot of sense to get Marshall McLuhan into the argument.

Remember, Marshal McLuhan pithily – and tantalisingly – said, “the medium is the message.”

Well, on April 7th the medium was just the newspapers. And not even all of them in the ILN’s case. A newspaper story, though – even with a big headline – that wasn’t enough. Not by a long chalk. 

There’s another pithy saying: size matters. 

They needed another medium for what was going down. The matter of the United States entering the war needed to be amplified. It needed theatre. It needed pageantry. It needed to be given the symphonic treatment. As opposed to just a piano sonata. It needed monumentality. It needed ceremony.

What was happening here was a classic instance of manufacturing consent. The declaration of war was the beachhead. It now needed to be entrenched, strengthened, advanced. 

An analogy might be the birth of a child. And what comes in the next week or two after the birth: the baptism. Ceremony. 

It’s worth bearing in mind here that there was a lot of opposition in the United States to the American declaration of war. The German American community – which was huge – was dead opposed to it. Ditto the huge Irish-American community. Ditto the sizeable Swedish-American community. All of that opposition, those were below-the-water-line chinks in this particular vessel of state. Britain was going to be the main foreign beneficiary of the American entry into the war. Whatever could be done to shore up those weaknesses, drown those voices, caulk those chinks had to be done and had to be done powerfully and overwhelmingly.

All of that can be charted in those contemporary newspapers. 

The Lord Mayor of London, Sir William Dunn, doesn’t waste any time. He flies the Stars and Stripes beside the Union Jack outside Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence. And he says the stars and stripes and the Union Jack should be flown in conjunction in every city and town in Britain. 

Street vendors are suddenly all over London, hawking toy-size American flags attached to piddling little drumsticks. Then a few days later Prime Minister David Lloyd George gets himself invited – is the guest of honour – at a gathering of the American Luncheon Club at the Savoy Hotel. The gathering is chaired by the American ambassador, Dr Walter Hines Page. Lloyd George says the needful: “I am in the happy position, I think, of being the first British Minister of the Crown, who, speaking on behalf of the people of this country, can salute the American nation as comrades in arms…I rejoice as a Democrat that the advent of the United States into this war gives the final stamp and seal to the character of the conflict as a struggle against military autocracy throughout the world.”

Of course all of this was all over the press. But the Lord Mayor, the flag vendors, the Savoy gathering, they were just the warm-up acts for what happened on April 20th, 1917. The setting was the nation’s cathedral: St Paul’s. The day was dubbed America Day. The event was billed as a solemn service to almighty God on the occasion of the entry of America into the great war for freedom. Britain played its highest face cards: the monarch King George V, Queen Mary, 

Queen Alexandra the Princess Royal and Princess Mary. Representing America: The American Ambassador of course but also Admiral Sims from the U.S. Navy and the Reverend Henry Brent, Bishop of the Philippine Islands. The dominant visuals – they were like having Everest and K9 directly in front of you – were the countries’ two flags hanging side by side from a rope strung across the apse from the Corinthian capitals crowning the great soaring piers that flank the apse. The flags were huge. About half the height of those great soaring piers. Together they were like a huge billboard, a huge billboard nearly filling the top half of the apse.

And consider the prayer that was sent up to God: “Oh almighty god, we humbly thank thee that Thou hast put it into the hearts of the President and people of the United States of America to join with the Allied nations in this great war in defence of Liberty, Humanity and Justice; and we pray Thee to grant victory to our forces that we may be brought through strife to a lasting peace, to the good of all mankind, and the glory of Thy Holy Name.” The service closed with the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and verses from the Star-Spangled Banner and the British National anthem. 

The medium is the message. When your medium is the national cathedral and your king and a ceremony in which another country’s flag is flying beside your flag in your national cathedral and you are privy to what the Almighty has done – namely put it into the hearts of the American leadership that America should get into the war on the side of Britain…that’s a message that’s got overwhelming irresistibility and monumentality. A message that carries all before it, that brooks no opposition. To put it very starkly, the Rubicon had been crossed. Britain’s manpower needs were over. The very real danger that Britain was going to be defeated – them days was over. That fear was not going to be realised. Family members on both sides would go on losing sons and fathers and husbands and brothers and lovers by the tens of thousands but Britain and France and America would win the war, whatever win means. 

Just nine months before the declaration of War the British army had suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

And a personal story, it is literally impossible for me to think about that Good Friday Declaration of War and the rollout that followed – those well-fed, having a great time, middle-aged male faces at the Savoy and that extraordinary scene – those flags – at St Paul’s Cathedral without thinking about – at the same time – a terrified young King’s Cross Cockney soldier at a place called Arras. The great battle of Arras would begin on that Easter Sunday. That terrified young Cockney soldier was named Charles Chilton. He was Mary’s grandfather.  He was killed during that push. He was vaporised by a high explosive. There was nothing to identify. Vaporised along with 36,500 other British sons and husbands and fathers and brothers and lovers. There were no remains to find, nothing to identify, nothing to bury. Charles Chilton is one of the 36,500 names on the huge war memorial at Arras. He never saw his infant son. His son never saw his dad. Mary’s dad – also Charles Chilton – found a way though of not letting his dad be just a name – one of the 36,500 names on a wall in France. Mary’s dad wrote Oh What a Lovely War in response to what had happened to his father and the rest of the British cannon fodder at Arras and other World War I battlefields.

Today, when Mary and her colleagues guide St Paul’s they always take people into the American Memorial Chapel at the east end of the Cathedral, just beyond the High Altar. 

The St Paul’s website proudly states that “the UK has had a long relationship with the American people, formed largely after the Second World War, a conflict in which thousands of Americans based within the UK were to give their lives.”
The American Memorial chapel is the most visible striking reminder of that sacrifice and subsequent deep friendship. It’s a space rebuilt after being destroyed in the Blitz and dedicated in its entirety to the American dead of WWII.

At the heart of the chapel sits a huge, 500-page, leather-bound book; a roll of honor to the 28,000 Americans – from Aaberg to Zingale – stationed in the UK who gave their lives throughout the War. The book opens:

Defending freedom from the fierce assault of tyranny

they shared the honor and the sacrifice.

Though they died before the dawn of victory their names and deed

will long be remembered where ever free men live.

Thousands of the men named in the roll of honor died on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, as well as in training operations in the lead up to the campaign and in the subsequent battles on the European mainland, right up until the day on which the Allies celebrated Victory in Europe.

That’s all well and good. But my recommendation would be to take a slightly longer perspective. The American Memorial Chapel in St Paul’s is the culmination of something that got started on this day, April 20th, 1917.

Now, the usual Today in London recommendation. One is of course go on the St Paul’s Cathedral tour. And look, if you’d like, drop me an email at [email protected]. I’ll send you the link to that extraordinary image of the interior of the cathedral, those two flags hanging there side by side

And recommendation number two is to go to the Cenotaph. And when you’re there perhaps bear in mind what the War Graves Commission said in 1931 – in an attempt to give people an idea of the scale of the losses. They said, “were the dead of the empire to form up in Trafalgar Square and march four abreast, down Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, to Parliament Square, it would take that ghostly columns three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph.”

Every other Thursday I guide the Old Westminster Walk. Depending on the route I plump for on any given Thursday, the Cenotaph looms large on that tour. Trust me, you’ll never see it the same again once you’ve seen it with my eyes.

Ok, sign-off time.

You’ve been listening to the daily London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company – indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

In the lapidary introductory remarks at that American convention of walking tour guides a few years ago: 

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” 

The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The calibre of the guiding. As that distinguished American filmmaker and journalist put it, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

Building on that just for a minute – and at no little risk of belabouring the obvious – with London Walks, uniquely, you get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new. Welcome back to London everybody. It’s so good to have you back.

See ya tomorrow. 

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