Today (November 11) in London History – Armistice Day

Armistice Day 1920. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Date-wise today – November 11th – is surely the richest seam of all of the 365. 

And I have to admit that form of words – that way of putting it – gave pause.

I felt like I’d come to the edge of a cliff – maybe a cliff overlooking an ocean – and I was going to dive off that cliff – along with everybody else. And to go off that cliff, to dive – well, what I would be diving into would be an incomparably important historical event. But it would also be the deaths of millions of people, most of them young men. And can you – would you – is it right to use those words – “the richest seam of all” – to describe ten million corpses?

And then I remembered that the official form of wording that was used over and over – it still is – was “the glorious dead.” So under the cover fire of that official nomenclature, I went ahead, went off the cliff, took the plunge – advanced and abided by the phrase, “today, November 11th this is the richest seam of all.”

The rhyme we all know is from the previous week, Guy Fawkes Day, “Remember, remember the 5th of November.” But really it should be “remember, remember the 11th of November.”

And trying to find one word that can stand as a diamond formed by the whole crushing, horrific weight of what went before November 11th, for me that word would be harrowing.

Everything about November 11th is harrowing. Beginning with the official name the day, the event was wrapped up in.

Armistice Day. If you actually stop and think about it – instead of just skipping along over that word as if it were a direct, jolly, harmless approach to something striking and eventful – a gymnastic floor exercise, say – well, it too is horrible, harrowing.

An Armistice is a temporary cessation of hostilities, an agreement by opposing sides in a war to stop fighting for a certain time; a truce.

And in the event – as we all know only too well – the war to end all wars, as American President Wilson deemed it, was anything but. It was just the opening act. Armistice was a right word. It wasn’t peace. It was a truce. A truce that lasted just over 20 years. And come the renewal of hostilities in 1939, the glorious dead of the Great War would be multiplied five fold. And so we come to the statistics. Which are also harrowing. Ten million dead in the Great War. Fifty million dead in its resumption, the 2nd World War – when the armistice ended.

I note in passing – from the old newspapers of just over a century ago – that there was also a Peace Day. It’s day was July 19th. Needless to say, Peace Day died a death.

But, yes, statistics. And here I’ve learned so much from so many different writers I’m afraid I can no longer source them. One statistic after another put in a very telling way and basically I just absorbed them, they weathered into my mind. So I’m afraid with the exception of Iain Dale – his book is new – I can’t credit my sources. 

But let’s append those statistics – they’re like pieces of black crepe hanging from a funeral wreath – to the two events of this day in history, November 11th, 1920.

One of the events was King George V unveiling the Cenotaph – the word means “empty tomb” – in Whitehall. 

The War Graves Commission would later do its best to quantify. It said that were the dead of the empire to form up in Trafalgar Square and march, four abreast down Whitehall to Parliament Square, it would take that ghostly column three and a half days to pass the Cenotaph. 

The figures are beyond counting. The one I’ve fastened – not least because it’s easy to remember – is 888,000 dead British soldiers. Broadcaster Iain Dale’s figure is 800,000 British males. But what’s 88,000 sons, fathers, husbands, brothers? Iain Dale’s figures translates into 12.8 percent of those who fought, six percent of the adult male population. If my round figure – easier for me to remember figure – is closer to the mark – 12.8 percent of those who fought is closer to 14 percent. And six percent of the adult male population is closer to six and a half percent. It’s a world of the night of the living dead – and rightly so that they should be coming after us, and especially after statesmen and politicians who lead the entities they represent – entities, that mealy-mouthed word – let’s rephrase, who lead the people they represent into the horror shows – except they’re not shows – of modern warfare. 

Iain Dale has another horrifying statistic: 2,738 men lost their lives on the last day of fighting. My god. How hideously cruel is that? Imagine being a mother and father and getting the telegram on the very day that everybody else was rejoicing, dancing in the streets, ecstatic with relief.

Another measure of all of this is to think about the Boer War. The daily casualty list was put up on a bulletin board of sorts, outside the War Office. And the names were published in the newspapers. Whereas, the Great War, they would have had to wall paper the entire front of the War Office. And change it every day. 60,000 British casualties on July 1st, 1916 – the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Somebody once counted the words on the front page of an issue of the New York Times – there were just under 13,000 words. The British casualty figures for the first day of the Battle of the Somme would have filled ten pages of that newspaper. Ten pages of just names. 

Another way of getting this into perspective is to measure the gulf between Thomas Hardy’s great poem Drummer Hodge and what the Cenotaph meant for the people of this country.

Drummer Hodge was a nobody, a west country British farm boy who was killed in the Boer War. Here’s the poem. It’s very beautiful

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined – just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew –
Fresh from his Wessex home –
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain

Will Hodge for ever be;

His homely Northern breast and brain

Grow to some Southern tree,

And strange-eyed constellations reign

His stars eternally.

That was standard British practice. Bury them where they fell. Another euphemism, that word fell. 

Or even just leave them there. Little or no expenditure of time and effort. It made sense in a practical sense. 

And they could get away with it in the  Boer War and wars that preceded it. Get away with it, I think, because the death of a soldier was an individual, isolated to one family tragedy. But World War I, those deaths were national. The thousands of telegrams that went out every day – they were like a mourning shawl thrown over the whole country.

And of course the Drummer Hodge treatment – leaving them or burying them where they fell – made the loss back home even more unbearable. There was no grave. No place where the loved ones could go and mourn, go and lay down their grief. The Cenotaph went some way toward putting balm on that terrible wound. It became the national grave. 

The other November 11th, 1920 event – it was two events, really – was the two burials. Of two unknown soldiers.  One in Paris, under the Arc de Triomphe. And ours here, in Westminster Abbey.

The one grave in the Abbey you must never set foot on. I don’t know why you would want to but I suppose if you wanted to you could do a tap dance on Charles Dickens’ grave. You do not set foot on the grave of the Unknown Warrior. He’s buried in a coffin of English oak. The stone is Belgian marble. The inscription on the stone is made from shell casings that were melted down and recast.

The most moving thing of all though, is the soil he’s buried in. It’s a composite of the soils of the great French and Belgian battlefields of World War I – the Sommer, Passchendale, Arras, Ypres and so on. 

If you think about it, that is a precise reversal of the terms of Rupert Brooke’s Great World War I poem, “if I should die, think only this of me, that there’s some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England.”

Well, there, just inside the great west door of Westminster Abbey is a corner of England that is, forever, a foreign field. 

And on that note, well, I know I recommended the Abbey’s Evensong Service just a couple of days ago. 

But let’s go back to the Abbey today. Go on Mary’s or Brian’s or Tom’s Westminster Abbey Tour. Go and pay our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. And here’s a tip, the next time you’re in Victoria Station see if you can find the tiny plaque that almost no one sees. It’s very moving. It reads:


The plaque is affixed to a pillar between platforms 8 and 9 of Victoria Station.

On Armistice Day men were asked to remove their caps and hats for the two minute silence at 11 am, women to bow their heads. A gesture like that when you find the plaque doesn’t come amiss.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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