Armistice Day

A century ago, at 5 o’clock on the morning of November 11th 1918, the armistice which marked the end of the First World War was signed in a railway carriage at Compiègne in France.  Seven hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, arms were laid down and hostilities ceased.  So ended four years of violence during which a million British servicemen had died and nearly two million had suffered permanent life-changing injuries. The excitement that had affected many at the outset, as they predicted celebrating victory “by Christmas”, had given way to exhaustion, disillusionment, trauma and grief.  What is striking about many contemporary accounts is the absence of joy – notwithstanding the noisy celebrations that erupted all over the country’s streets, the prevailing mood expressed in diaries and letters is one of weary relief haunted by loss and, often, a terrible sense of futility.

Everyone knew that the “war to end all wars” had changed the world forever, and that the Edwardian society that preceded it was now as distant as another planet.  Several ancient European empires had collapsed, including the ancien regime in Russia, swept away by revolution.  Many people clearly saw in the punitive peace terms eventually imposed on Germany the seeds of another conflict – often predicting, with uncanny accuracy, the 20 year interval that would precede it.

Things had changed enormously for women.  Two million women who statistics suggest would otherwise have married were to remain single due to the deaths of so many of their male peers, and this led to an influx of women into the professions (which generally excluded married women).  Women were soon to be granted the vote; middle class women like Vera Brittain, whose Testament of Youth is one of the most famous of First World War memoirs, had worked as nurses at the front and seen horrors their genteel upbringings would never have acknowledged possible.  They were keen to live their lives in a way that acknowledged how far their experiences had diverged from those of their mothers and grandmothers, and to participate in all arenas of politics, society and the arts.

People knew that as well as being an ending, the armistice marked the beginning of an enormous task – the rebuilding of society and the rehabilitation of individuals broken by war.

For this month’s Biography Collection display, we have a range of books which shed light on this moment of history.  We have many memoirs of combatants and nurses, poignant reminders of the scale of suffering involved.  We have memoirs of some of the doctors charged with trying to mend damaged bodies and minds, including Charles Myers, who studied “shell shock”, and Harold Gillies, who pioneered new treatments for the terrible facial injuries that the modern weapons of this modern war had caused.  We have the accounts of the politicians and military leaders who were there when the armistice was signed, and those who contemplated how to transform Britain into a “land fit for heroes”.  We have the poets and painters who revolutionised their art forms in order to describe their trench experiences.  We have those who addressed the problem of how to memorialise the massive human loss – like Edwin Lutyens, architect of the Cenotaph, and Sir Fabian Ware who founded the Imperial War Graves Commission.  To give a sense of the zeitgeist, we have portraits  of some of the leading figures of the day in both intellectual and popular culture: as the bells rang to mark the armistice, Sydney Blow’s production of “The Officers’ Mess” was the hot ticket on the West End Stage (with its rousing number, “Handsome Herbert of the Horseguards”), the hits of Al Jolson and Irving Berlin were on every fashionable phonograph, Charlie Chaplin was already beloved of cinema audiences, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians was hailed as a milestone of the biography genre (and encapsulated in its style the dismantling of the old order), and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier was one of the first novels to wrestle with the psychological legacy of war.

A century on, the scale of loss and suffering endured in the First World War still shocks.  Nothing evokes what it was actually like to live through its bloody course and traumatised aftermath more powerfully than contemporary records like diaries and letters, and the memoirs of those attempting to make sense of an event that transformed and overshadowed their lives.  We hope that they will bring to life for readers this critically important moment in our history, a hundred years ago.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart

Elin Jones (Tri-borough Stock Librarian) inspired by the poetry books available in the libraries, writes:

Some of the most moving poetry in English was written as a result of direct experience of the First World War. Here is a quick browse of some of the best-loved and most profound poetry of the era- and it is all available in the library.

Our poetry selection
Our poetry selection

Feminist author and poet Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth as a result of losing her fiancée, her brother and two of her dearest male friends before peace was declared in November 1918. Words from her poem “To My Brother” (In Memory of July 1st 1916), still move us today:

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart
Received when in that grand and tragic show
You played your part
Two years ago

“In Flanders Fields” is one of the most memorable poems from the First World War written by Canadian Officer John McCrae:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.

Poppies were everywhere on the battlefield of Ypres as they only flower in rooted-up soil, and the whole of the Western Front consisted of churned mud. McCrae, in his poem,  gave us an enduring image of war: the poppy.

Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous of the War Poets who tragically died in 1918 just one week before the end of World War I. He encapsulated the horrors of the battlefield in his writing. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is one of his best-known pieces, written by Owen who in October 1917 wrote to his mother, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday – the famous Latin tag (from Horace Odes) means Sweet! And decorous!”. The title was, of course, ironic: the intention was to shock people at home who thought war was noble and glorious.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…

Poetry of the First World War reflects the mixture of social status, class and backgrounds of the men fighting in the trenches: Isaac Rosenberg wrote some of the best poems of the First World War. His poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” had a special mention in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory.

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.

He was born into a working class Jewish family in Dvink (now Latvia) and his parents then emigrated to the East End of London.  It was thought that he might have been one of the outstanding poets of his generation had he survived the war: his work was admired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was killed at the front in April 1918.

In contrast to Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney was trained as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral and a composer as well as a poet. His lifelong friend was Herbert Howells, a director of music in St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith. Gurney wrote a collection of poetry for his first book Severn and Somme, which was published in October 1917. He suffered from a mental health condition and spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental hospital having been gassed in 1917, but it was in hospital that he returned to his wartime experiences and wrote some of his best works.

We said no word. Yet, as such comrades would,
You understood.
Such friendship is not touched by death’s disaster,
But stands the faster…

If you are interested in finding out more about the poetry of the First World War, take a look at these websites: the War Poets Website contains lots of useful information about the First World War Poets and their poems, as does the First World War Poets Digital Archive . The website Poetry by Heart incorporates a First World War Poetry Showcase. On 1st August,  to mark the centenary of the war, Cambridge University  put Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and diaries from the First World War online . They include an account of the ‘horrifying slaughter’ of the first day (

Or try some further reading, from books available on the catalogue (For a full reading list from our libraries, please click here):

Carol Ann Duffy – 1914: Poetry remembers Faber & Faber 2014 9780571302154

Tim Kendall – Poetry of the First World War: an anthology OUP 2013 9780199581443

Gaby Morgan – Poems from the First World War, Published in association with the IWM, 2013. ISBN 9781447248644

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Penguin 2006 ISBN 9780141181905

Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 Penguin 1998 9780141181035

Poems of War and Remembrance Talking Book BBC Audio, 2012 9781445896182