by Warren Sommer/Special to the Langley Times
A century after its welcome conclusion, Langley historian and author Warren Sommer recounts how men and women from Langley observed the end of the First World War, both at home and overseas.
It was the news that millions had waited for throughout four and one-half years of the bitterest and bloodiest warfare the world had ever seen.
Early in the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, Sir Douglas Haig, the British Empire’s commander-in-chief issued the following order:
“Eleven o’clock today, November 11, troops will stand fast on the positions reached at the hour named. The line of outposts will be established, and reported to Army Headquarters. The remainder of the troops will be collected ready to meet any emergency. All military precautions will be preserved, and there will be no communication with the enemy.”
The Allies and their German foes had agreed to an armistice.
The Great War, as the First World War was then known, was finally at an end.
Its impact defied imagination – 43 million men and women had enlisted or been conscripted into their respective nation’s forces.
Many had joined up out of a sense of patriotism, while others – ignorant of the horrors they would face in the trenches – simply sought adventure.
Still others enlisted to secure a job and a steady income.
Death, however, was indiscriminate in selecting its victims, and few families escaped the war unscathed.
By the time of the armistice, the conflict had claimed the lives of more than 10 million soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses – as well as the lives of an even larger number of civilians.
The majority of the military dead were naïve and unsuspecting young men full of promise but whose dreams and potential would never be fulfilled.
For many, the legacy of the conflict would continue long after the guns fell silent. Untold numbers would die of wounds in the months and years that followed the armistice, their deaths not recorded in official statistics.
Many others would face severe mental torment as they struggled with the unsettling memories of what they had witnessed overseas.
Thousands of these would end their own lives rather than prolong their inner torment.
Canadians had been in the forefront of the war almost from its beginning, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry having arrived on the European mainland in December 1914.
Additional battalions of what would eventually become the 600,000-man-strong Canadian Corps would serve in Flanders and France throughout the next four years.
Of these, close to 60,000 would never return, being killed in action, dying of wounds, or falling victim to the periodic epidemics that swept through their trenches and barracks.
Canadians had fought valiantly throughout the lengthy conflict: holding the line at the Belgian city of Ypres during the first gas attack in history in early 1915, enduring the misery of the Somme in 1916, capturing the seemingly impregnable heights of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in 1917, attacking near Amiens in the summer of 1918, and pursuing the still defiant German army as it retreated homeward during the conflict’s three final months.
It was at Amiens, in August 1918, that the British Empire’s armies had been led into battle by the Australian and Canadian forces.
The Canadians would continue to spearhead the Empire’s advance toward Germany, smashing through the formidable Hindenburg Line, crossing the Canal du Nord, capturing the French city of Cambrai, and finally pursuing the enemy to Mons, the Belgian city where the British Army had suffered a humiliating defeat in the war’s early months.
For some, the armistice came tragically late, the “Hundred Days” that ended the war claiming the lives of 6,800 Canadian soldiers.
These included George Timms, grandson of Langley Prairie entrepreneurs George and Harriet Timms; Langley school teacher Benjamin Howell; Fort Langley engineer and land agent George Sellers; Langley Prairie carpenter John Henderson; and Murrayville lumberman Eddie Hayes.
With peace, many families erroneously believed that their loved ones overseas would now be safe from harm.
On the morning of Nov. 11, Susan Owen, mother of the war poet Wilfred Owen, was handed a telegram advising her of her son’s death even as the local church bells were tolling out news of the armistice.
On Canada’s West Coast, Alexander Bates received a similar notice informing him that his son, 20-year-old Langley Prairie farmer Sandy Bates, had been killed the same day as Owen, exactly one week before the armistice.
Sandy’s grief-stricken father would later lament to a friend, “You have so many good boys to appreciate… I have none, neither has my two brothers and when we go our name is wiped off the slate forever.”
On Nov. 11, soldiers at the front greeted the news of the armistice in a variety of ways.
Long-serving men, who had suffered years of horror in the trenches, often accepted the information with remarkable restraint – their thoughts turning to the many chums they had lost as the war had drawn to its close.
As Brigade Major Lancelot Spicer observed: “The men cannot grasp it – they have become so used to this soldier life, so numbed to endurance that they find it hard to believe that they can live otherwise. At 11 o’clock, under orders (and for that reason only!) the troops are halted and give three cheers – but there is no enthusiasm. Of course, they are glad that it is all over – but they do not realize it.”
Seasoned soldiers who did release their feelings sometimes mourned rather than rejoiced.
News of the Armistice found Lt. Robert Graves, later to become famous as the author of I Claudius and other novels, on leave in Wales “out walking alone along the dike above the marshes of Rhuddlan, cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”
As the day wore on, however, soldiers and civilians both began to celebrate.
Residents of the recently liberated city of Mons – captured by Canadian troops a couple of hours before the Armistice took effect – were understandably euphoric.
Murrayville soldier Elmo Clifford Wilkinson was in the thick of the city’s celebrations: “On the morning of the 11th, Mons was taken and that afternoon we went up there to take part in a celebration of the city’s deliverance… The streets along the route were hung with flags… and signs of ‘Vive les Allies,’ ‘Vive les Canadiens,’ ‘Honeurs aux Canadiens,’ etc.
“The streets were thronged with people cheering, dancing, and shouting, Vive les Canadiens etc. We presented arms and the bands played the national anthems of France, Belgium and our own. The people singing them sounded grand. All of Mons was there, apparently. They cheered every move. We marched past Gen. Currie and went home amid the same enthusiastic crowds.
“Here and there through the twilight, lights twinkled and [the] huge slag heaps of the mines loomed through the mist. Far off the chimes of some church reached the ear. It was a scene of peace and one felt glad to know that the land was at peace and that he had helped to bring it about.”
In London, a city then familiar to thousands of Canadian and other colonial troops on leave, people went wild on hearing the news, parading and dancing through the streets before gathering to cheer the King as he appeared with his family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
Murrayville farm boy Harry Cassidy had recently been discovered to be an underage soldier. Banished from the trenches to a base in England, Cassidy reported: “In Folkestone on Monday and Tuesday nights there were big crowds of shouting, cheering people in the streets. The crowd around the townhall was so thick that all traffic was stopped for hours. All the stores and houses had flags out and one of the most noticeable changes is that the streets are lighted again and blinds do not have to be drawn. There have been bonfires and fireworks nearly every night this week.”
Ticker tape and streamers fell from the office towers of skyscrapers in New York while, according to a letter sent to Murrayville soldier Sam Lee, Torontonians lit bonfires, rang bells, blew factory whistles until people could no longer hear themselves speaking.
Canada’s West Coast was equally euphoric.
A report in the Victoria Colonist described the scene in Vancouver, where residents “turned out in full force to celebrate peace… thousands of motor cars and tens of thousands of pedestrians were on the main streets, while every whistle and every bell in the city added to the uproar. There is nobody in bed in Vancouver tonight!”
The scene was repeated in communities throughout the province.
Langley residents appear to have been among the most enthusiastic.
As Langley Prairie resident Greta (Harrison) Nettleton, then aged 13, recalled: “One night we were awakened by a great clanging of drums, metal pans, and noise makers, as people marched up the Yale Road shouting, ‘The War is Over, the War is Over’!”
Writing from Murrayville, Harry Cassidy’s sister Florence noted how returned soldier Quint Gosling had “stuffed a ‘Kaiser’ and dressed him up and strung him up on the telephone wires so everyone could have a look at him.”
Later that night the community gathered to make “a bonfire and all the girls sang songs and blew our whistles and rang cow bells and then they burned the Kaiser. Hip, hip, hurrah!”
Not content with their own celebrations, Murrayville residents then piled into cars – in one of which, according to the press – “a returned soldier waved a monster Union Jack while in another a big drum occupied nearly the whole of the car and was beaten loudly as the crowd sang Rule, Britannia!, The Maple Leaf, God Save the King, and many other patriotic songs.”
The growing procession then made its way to Langley Prairie before proceeding on to Milner where local residents were torching a Kaiser of their own.
On reaching Fort Langley, the increasingly boisterous revellers found the village deserted, all of its inhabitants having gathered at the old fort site for a celebration of their own.
This was the second night during which Fort Langley residents had observed the end of hostilities, having received erroneous information regarding the armistice the previous day.
Undeterred, the village prepared a second stuffed Kaiser and consigned it to the flames.
Residents sang, drank hot chocolate and consumed hundreds of sandwiches. Normally staid matrons lost their inhibitions, sang boisterously, and danced around the fire.
According to Harry Cassidy’s mother, Dr. Marr’s wife Drew “was radiant with joy,” with “flags all on her head and carrying one. Everybody was out!”
At the foot of the fort hill, parishioners at St. George’s Anglican Church attempted to ring out armistice on a bell previously wrested from Baron Carl von Mackensen’s Port Kells mansion.
Local folklore states that the rope to the belfry snapped, the German bell refusing to sound the Allied victory.
When the festivities ended, many predicted that the armistice would augur in a golden age of peace.
Young Florence Cassidy went so far as to predict that Nov. 11 would become a day of annual revelry: “We really did have a bear of [a] time and I guess we will always be having a big time on the 11th of November every year.”
But Nov. 11 observances quickly assumed a sombre rather than celebratory tone.
The dedication of London’s cenotaph and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey on the second anniversary of the armistice ensured that Nov. 11 would become a day of mourning and reflection throughout the English-speaking world.
An act of Canada’s parliament in 1931 established Nov. 11 as the country’s official day of remembrance.
Now, following a gradual decline in participation toward the end of the 20th century, communities across Canada have recently shown a remarkable renewal of interest in Remembrance Day. And, like other communities, Langley turns out in immense congregations to show their respect on Nov. 11.
– Contributor Warren Sommer is the author of Canucks in Khaki: Langley, the Lower Mainland, and the Great War of 1914 to 1918, available at the Langley Centennial Museum or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org