There is no better way to tell the story of Marlborough’s Monday, 11 November 1918 than in the words of its local newspaper – the Marlborough Times – whose journalists claimed a part in bringing the news of the end of the war to the town so swiftly and, most importantly, before it had reached many other towns.
The newspaper’s high-flown language is of the time – and suited to the occasion: “The ancient borough of Marlborough is never seen to better advantage than when its inhabitants have an opportunity of expressing the feeling of intense patriotism which at all times pervades the whole community.”
“It so happened that this welcome intelligence became known in the ancient borough at an earlier hour than most larger towns in England. Soon after 9 o’clock, the information came to the office of this Journal from an important military centre at which it had just been received from France by wireless telegraphy.”
It is obvious that one or more of the Marlborough Times’ journalists had a close contact, or even a relative, at the ‘military centre’ – perhaps at Tidworth or at the large training camp at Chiseldon.
“The welcome news was at once posted outside, but for sometime people were almost incredulous, the stupendous importance of the event tending to daze the mind and rendering them afraid to ‘let themselves go’, lest, after all, the statement should prove to be premature.”
Confirmation came an hour later and a ‘special messenger bore the findings to the Mayor who was taking his class at the College’. Later College boys came into town and made ‘…quite a raid upon all the stock of flags and bunting to be found in the town.’
The Marlborough Times report continued: “In the meantime, the town quickly assumed an appearance of great animation, flags were displayed upon all public buildings, and from nearly every house, so that the streets from end to end were a blaze of colour.”
“All work was given up for the day except such as it was absolutely necessary to carry on, and most of the places of business were closed for the remainder of the day.”
The Mayor, Councillor George Hughes, addressed the crowds outside the Town Hall: “Four years ago, a nation, adopting Force as a god, and adopting as its creed that ‘Might is Right’, started a war, the cruellest and bloodiest war that has ever been seen since the world began.”
“During this time, Germany has violated every law of honour and humanity. But, thanks be to God, their schemes have been frustrated and brought to naught.”
“For this morning, at 5 o’clock, the Armistice was signed – (loud cheers) – and hostilities ceased at 11 o’clock – (renewed cheers).”
“Now we have got to work for unity – unity between nations so that there can be no more war (cheers); unity within the nation; unity within the town; unity within the family; so that we may work out all the problems of peace, because ‘Peace hath victories, no less than war’ (cheers).”
Later, he was congratulated by Dr Norwood, the College Master, on the fortuitous chance that his first official duty as Mayor was to ‘announce the glad tidings’. It was, after all, such a remarkable, significant and widely welcomed announcement.
The Marlborough Times War Supplement of November 16 carried a comment column by ‘Sentinel’ on the ending of the war: “The Hapsburg Monarchy, like Charles II, has been ‘an unconscionable while dying’, but it is dead now and past all resurrection.”
Not perhaps a sentiment viewed entirely favourably by those then occupying Buckingham Palace. Worse was to come. By December 11 a lady in a Punch cartoon was asking: “Don’t you think we ought to hang the Kaiser, Mrs ‘Arris?” The Kaiser was the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria. And whether or not to hang the Kaiser was argued over at some length in the General Election campaign that quite quickly followed the Armistice.
Joy was tempered, of course, by the continuing deaths of servicemen. The Marlborough Times reported: “Death from wounds of Maj E.H.Giffard – son of Mr H.R. Giffard of Lockeridge House”. He had “…died from wounds on the day preceding the signing of the Armistice.”
After leaving the College, he had taken up sheep farming in Australia. He had served throughout the war with the Guards Division of the Royal Field Artillery. At Christmas 1915 he had taken part in a ‘truce’ – ‘fraternising’ with German soldiers.
He was wounded in 1917 and returned to the Western Front in March 1918. The Marlborough Times added: “The deceased is the third son of H.R. Giffard to have lost their life in the Great War, all of them after valiant service.”
Major Giffard was the last of 749 Marlburians to be killed in the war.
Individual tragedies – such as those of the Giffard family – are often hidden beneath the weight of statistics reflecting the war’s death toll. But sometimes the statistics tell a story or pose important questions.
In the five weeks between the Germans first asking for peace talks and the Armistice, there had been half a million more casualties.
On 11 November 1918, in the eleven hours leading up to the cessation of hostilities, it has been found that 2,738 men from both sides were killed, and 8,206 were counted as wounded or missing.
The death toll was being increased by the influenza pandemic which, around the world, would kill ten times as many people as were killed by war. The Marlborough Times reported the death of Capt Eric Bury MC – an only son, he had died on November 9 at Southmead Military Hospital in Bristol aged 26 “…of pneumonia after influenza contracted on active service at the front.” He had lived in Wilcot.
Beyond that notice there was barely any mention in the newspaper of the influenza pandemic. News of its mounting death toll was heavily censored by the government for fear of undermining the nation’s morale.
Earlier in the year Savernake Hospital had still been issuing regularly the numbers of patients who were admitted, discharged, died or were ‘in the house’. By October 1918, these figures had stopped appearing in the Marlborough Times.
However, one other mention of the influenza pandemic crept into the Marlborough Times: in mid-December people in the town learned that “Owing to the epidemic and other causes the annual [fundraising] Pound Day for the Savernake Cottage Hospital will not take place till early February.”
The third article in this series addresses the simple question on people’s minds in the days after Armistice Day – how soon could things get back to normal?
FOOTNOTE: the two photographs of Marlborough crowds on Armistice Day were taken by Mr E.H. Roberts. They were printed locally for a fast turn-around Marlborough Times supplement. The poor images above were taken from microfilm of the newspaper. They have been improved as far as is possible. If any reader knows the whereabouts of original prints of these photographs please let us know.
FOOTNOTE TWO: In our previous ARMISTICE 1918 article we included the Marlborough Times report (1 November 1918) that “After a long period of suspense and anxiety”, the wife of Sapper W.T. Dobson had received news in Marlborough that he was safe and a prisoner of war in Germany.
Sadly this turned out to be false and cruelly wrong. It is believed Sapper Dobson had in fact died from wounds on 9 June 1918, aged 37. His name is inscribed on the war memorial in St Peter’s Church. There is no grave for him recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
News from German POW Camps was erratic and sometimes in error – names were often miss-spelled. Negotiations between London and Berlin about POWs had been handled by neutral American diplomats – until the USA entered the war in 1917. Some news of Allied POWs came through the Red Cross and some through more unofficial channels.