Rejoicing and Mourning: Responses in Kingston to news of the Armistice in 1918

The end of the First World War brought great joy to many people in cities, towns, villages and numerous other communities across the British Isles, but at the same time there was also sadness and some poignant scenes for the thousands who had lost loved ones and close family members in the brutal conflict.

Daily Mirror Armistice celebrations

How did the people of Kingston-on-Thames and district respond to the news that an Armistice had been signed on November 11th, 1918, exactly 100 years ago? As we commemorate the end of the ‘Great War’, it is interesting to look back at the coverage of the Armistice offered by the local Surrey Comet newspaper in Kingston-on-Thames, which was the town’s main source of news at the time, and explore the details the paper gave to its readers about the events of that special Monday.

As the nation entered into the early days of the new month of November, 1918, the Surrey Comet had noted how the ‘rhythm’ of the war at the front appeared to be changing, but the paper also seemed to sense the sheer exhaustion now felt by local people at home. In an editorial in the November 2nd edition, entitled ‘A Month’s Victories’, the paper had pointed to the ‘tremendously dramatic events’ that were transpiring in the war zones, events which had left people ‘nearly breathless with interest; and yet, it must be added, that never did a great people who have waged war for upwards of four years, and in their hearts intensely desire peace, appear to be so little moved and exulted by it all’. The paper argued victory was in sight, but there could be no relaxation of effort.

Kingston on Thames

The Surrey Comet’s coverage of Monday, November 11th, 1918 (the day of the Armistice), was published on Wednesday, November 13th, in its mid-week edition, and the sense of relief at the dramatic news about the Armistice was palpable. The mid-week edition included an editorial which proclaimed: ‘The people of our country and Empire can lift up their hearts today, for the most awful war in the world’s history has come to a close…’.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

Reflecting on the previous four years, a note of triumphalism could be detected in the Comet’s stance; the paper’s editorial argued that Germany ‘had listened to false prophets who declared her people to be the Blonde Race destined to rule the world; and in pursuit of the world ambitions which thus infected the blood, has met the fate she so justly deserved’. The editorial added: ‘Marching through blood, rapine, lust and murder, she has over-reached herself and now tastes the galling bitterness of humiliation and defeat’. The Comet then praised ‘the dauntless valour and self-sacrifice’ of Naval and Military forces: ‘The Mighty Dead will live ever in the Nation’s memory…’.

On the next page, under the heading ‘Victory At Last!’, the paper then offered the Comet’s readers some fascinating detail on how the news of the Armistice was received in Kingston and the surrounding area. According to the paper, November 11th was ‘a day that dawned with new-found hope for a European peace…’.

Monday was a ‘a day of national rejoicing’, and within a few minutes of the confirmation of the official news, ‘Kingston and the surrounding neighbourhood presented quite a blaze of bunting. Flags appeared as if by magic’. Flags were put out on all public buildings in the town, and: ‘Cottage and mansion vied with each other in making the best show’, while there was also a ‘tremendous run on all the available stocks of flags at the shops’.

Kingston All Saints Church

Soon the streets ‘became thronged with people’, who were ‘bent on making holiday’. The bells of All Saint’s Church in Kingston ‘rang out merry peals, and everyone was radiant with smiles. Rich and poor rubbed shoulders with one another in the crowds which surged through the streets…’.

Interestingly, the Comet revealed that a number of operatives from Sopwith’s Aviation factory (which was a large wartime employer in the town), who ‘had downed tools in ebullient glee when the glad tidings were received’, then passed through the streets in a motor-van, with a ‘conspicuous figure’ decorating the van – an effigy of the German Kaiser.

Simultaneously, however, the Surrey Comet’s report of the events of that day also recognised that ‘it was not all rejoicing. There was a ghost at the feast. The mourning attire and the sad, set faces of many women told their own sorrowful stories, and the hearts of all who are near and dear to them went out in deep sympathy to those who have experienced the tragedy of the war in its bitterest form by being robbed of their loved ones’.

During the afternoon of November 11th, the rain set in. In the words of the Comet: ‘It was a nasty drizzle which clung to one’s clothes, but it failed to damp the ardour of the revellers, although it appreciably thinned their ranks’. Indeed, as darkness fell, many people in the town and district apparently went home, ‘preferring the comfort of their homes to the damp streets…’.

People celebrating the end of WW1

Yet, the next day (Tuesday) saw the rejoicing continue. A prominent lead was given by the employees of the Sopwith Aviation Works again, who had been given a holiday until Wednesday.

As the Surrey Comet described it: ‘A long procession was formed of motor-lorries and motor-cars crammed with men and women, with a considerable number on foot bringing up the rear’. Moreover, the ‘foremost lorry’ in the procession carried effigies of ‘the butcher of Berlin’ (the Kaiser) and his eldest son, both adorned with German Iron Crosses. Led by a big drum, with bugles blaring and flags flying from every car, the procession made its way slowly through the streets of Kingston, ‘and was greeted everywhere with vociferous cheering’.

In Kingston Market Place, in the heart of the town, the ‘processionists’ were joined by an Army motor-lorry, ‘crowded with men in Khaki’, and the effigies of the Kaiser and his son were then brunt ‘amidst tumultuous cheering’. Significantly, the Surrey Comet also noted that Kingston Barracks (near Richmond Park), the depot of the East Surrey Regiment which had trained and provided so many local men for military service in France and Belgium, also saw ‘lusty cheering’ and ‘vociferous expression of satisfaction at the cessation of hostilities’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)







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Fighting Franco: Commemorating the British volunteers in the Spanish Civil War

Eighty years ago this month, on 28th October, 1938, the volunteers of the ‘British Battalion’ joined the other volunteer Battalions of the International Brigades (IB) in Spain and held a poignant farewell parade, which included the transfer of their flags and weapons over to the main army of the Republic.

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Republic’s premier, Juan Negrin, had reluctantly decided to repatriate all the foreign volunteers in the remaining territory still under his control, in the hope that the League of Nations would be able to persuade the opposing nationalists to do the same (his gamble failed).

The IB had been formed to help defend the leftwing Spanish Republic against the nationalist and fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. General Franco, along with a number of other rightwing Spanish army generals, had – in July, 1936 – launched an illegal uprising against the leftwing Popular Front coalition government, which had won a narrow election victory in Spain earlier that year. Franco’s nationalist ‘rebels’ (backed by substantial aid from Mussolini and Hitler) plunged the country into a brutal and bloody civil war, which lasted until March, 1939, when Franco was finally able to parade his troops through Madrid and declare victory. It was the beginning of a dictatorship that would last until Franco’s death in 1975.

It has been estimated by historians that some 35,000 volunteers, mainly drawn from Europe, the United States and Canada, volunteered to serve in the IB during the Spanish Civil War.  This month will see a number of commemorative events held in Spain to celebrate the IB and their contribution to the defence of the Republic, and the efforts of the British IB volunteers will feature as part of this.

But who were the British volunteers? Although there have been memoirs and plenty of eyewitness accounts from Britons who served in the IB, together with various detailed studies from historians over the years, reliable and precise information on the British volunteers and their backgrounds has proved more problematic for scholars and surprisingly difficult to find.

The National Archives

However, declassified MI5 (Security Service) files have been helpful in recent years. The files, which became available at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, in 2011, contain the names of 4,000 British and Irish IB volunteers, although this figure appears to have included sympathisers as well as combatants.

Experts and historians of the Spanish Civil War, such as Christopher Farman and Antony Beevor, have calculated that a more likely figure is around 2,500. Interestingly, additional research work by historians, using the MI5 files and a number of other important sources (including from Spain), has also thrown further valuable light on the social background and nature of the British IB volunteers. The vast majority of volunteers in the British IB Battalion were from the working-classes, who were joined by a smaller number of middle-class intellectuals. Most of the men came from either London or the heavily industrialised areas of Britain, and many of the men were aged in their 20s.

British Volunteers in Spanish Civil War

A very large percentage were motivated by strong anti-fascist idealism and a conviction that, if Spain was not defended from fascism, then the rest of democratic Europe would succumb, and the ‘virus’ of rightwing authoritarianism would inevitably spread across the globe.

This is illustrated well from my own research with the case of local volunteer Mr. C.E. Palmer, a 29-year old from Thames Ditton, who had joined the IB in March, 1937. Palmer served for months of fighting round Madrid and returned home wounded when the volunteers were withdrawn. Speaking to the Surrey Comet in January, 1939, Palmer said he had held ‘tremendous admiration’ for members of the IB, which was made up of 57 nationalities and, he said, ‘Almost to a man, they were idealists…’.

Unsurprisingly, well over half of the British volunteers were members of the British Communist Party (CPGB), which had been founded in this country in 1920. By the late 1930s, the CPGB were pursuing a new ‘moderate’ line, which sought to build broader progressive alliances and popular ‘Fronts’. To this end, the CPGB presented the Spanish Civil War as part of a wider conflict between democracy and fascism, and this message clearly appealed to some of the younger members of the party, who were prepared to say goodbye to their families and loved ones to take the plunge.

After volunteers had been vetted at the CPGB’s headquarters in King Street, near Covent Garden in central London, the recruits then had to make a long journey by train, sea and bus to actually get into Spain, and this became even more difficult when, in January, 1937 (as part of their ‘non-intervention’ policy stance towards Spain) the British government made it an offence for Britons to fight on either side in the Spanish War. Moreover, when the French government also began to apply their own ‘non-intervention’ stance more rigorously, many of the British volunteers had to be smuggled across the border from France into Spain, often through rough mountain areas, which could be exhausting and highly dangerous.

Brit Volunteers in Spanish Civ War

Historians have also found that many of the British IB volunteers had very little or no direct military experience. When they finally arrived in Spain, they were often given very little time for proper military training before they were rushed off to the front-lines and put directly into battle. Furthermore, when facing the enemy, the IB volunteers were regularly dogged by severe shortages of weapons and ammunition (although Stalin’s Russia did eventually begin to supply arms to the Republican side, much of this military equipment could not match the modern weaponry supplied to Franco by Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, countries which saw the Spanish arena as a useful ‘testing ground’ for their new armaments). The situation was also made worse by some poor military decision-making by the leaders of the Republic.

In fact, in the near two years of fighting that was undertaken by the British Battalion of the IB, the best estimates are that about 500 men were killed and 1,200 wounded. When the British volunteers finally left Spain, most of them officially leaving on 6th December, 1938, there were only about 305 still alive.

It would be a mistake to think that all the British volunteers were Communists. A number of men held other leftwing loyalties (most famously George Orwell), and some of the volunteers became fed up with the rigid and unquestioning allegiance to Moscow displayed by some of the men in the British Battalion. Significantly, there were also a sprinkling of Liberals and Conservatives in the Battalion.

Spanish Civil War, c 1936-39

In my own research, for example, I came across a fascinating letter published in the local Richmond Herald from May, 1937, written by a volunteer while he was temporarily at home on leave from Madrid. Calling himself a ‘Conservative Democrat’, the East Sheen resident said he was both a Conservative and a member of the IB, and he told readers: ‘The war is solely a struggle between Democracy and Fascism, and the overwhelming majority of the people supporting the Government are Conservatives, Liberals, Progressives and Catholics, who are not connected with any political party’. A ‘generous estimate’, he observed, ‘of the proportion of the Government Forces who are Socialists, Communists and Anarchists would be 25 per cent’.

Some of the men who were repatriated from Spain to Britain in 1938 had become very disillusioned by what they had seen and experienced in the conflict, particularly in relation to the orthodox Communist line and the political factionalism and infighting within the IB. On the other hand, others (whether Communist or not) strongly retained their anti-fascist idealism and remained keen to offer their services in defence of liberal democracy in the future. When Britain declared war against Germany in September, 1939, a number of former IB volunteers were eager to join the British Forces, but found that their applications to do so were blocked by His Majesty’s Government (usually on advice from MI5) due to ‘security’ concerns, with British officials still very wary of employing anybody who had shown sympathy for Communism.

British soldier on beach 1940

This situation had been made even more complex by the fact that, in August, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet agreement had been announced to an astonished world, and Stalin’s forces had been allowed by the Nazis in September to occupy half of Poland.

A number of members of the CPGB itself, having previously fought fascism in Spain, now found it very difficult to remain loyal to the latest propaganda line coming out of Moscow and left the party in disgust. However, as the war evolved, and especially after the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, the party changed its line yet again, and ‘Uncle Stalin’ was now portrayed as a full anti-fascist and as a completely reliable partner in the Allied sttruggle.

Moreover, the British Government appears to have relaxed its rules on recruitment to the armed services, and a number of former IB Britons, provided they passed strict vetting procedures, were allowed to join up and serve their country in the World War against fascism.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History Dept. at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)




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Black History Month in Britain includes celebration of Africans who served in World War One

Black History Month (BHM) is a month of events in October which takes place annually and celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities in the country. In recent years, for example, Kingston University’s History department has used BHM to help celebrate the life of Cesar Picton.

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton (1755-1836) was brought to England from Senegal as a gift for a local family in 1761. He went on to become a coal merchant and a wealthy and respected gentleman. He remains Kingston-on-Thames’ most famous eighteenth-century Black businessman, and his previous homes in Kingston and Thames Ditton are marked by commemorative plaques.

He has also been commemorated at Kingston University’s main campus through the Picton Room, which was named after him. But Picton was just one of a growing community of Black Africans in Georgian London. Other well known Black contemporaries included people such as Dido Belle, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, and – via new avenues of important research on Black British history – it has been estimated that some 10-15,000 Africans lived in Georgian London alone. BHM has been instrumental in raising more awareness of this fascinating and relatively neglected dimension to our national history.

Indeed, BHM, which has been marked in the UK now for more than 30 years, has helped contribute to much more research on general Black British history, an approach to the past which explores how Black history is part of national, local and community histories, as well as identifying and celebrating the many ways in which Black individuals have impacted on economic, social, political and cultural histories.

Unsurprisingly, with numerous events in 2018 commemorating the end of the First World War, various exciting pieces of research have appeared this year on the contribution of the African and Caribbean communities to Britain’s war effort in 1914-1918. And BHM has been instrumental in raising public awareness of this scholarship. A good example I came across recently is a nicely thoughtful piece in BHM 2018 magazine, the official guide to Black History Month, a publication which is available in many public libraries and archives in the UK this month.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

Entitled ‘Africans fight for Britain’, this short but important article concentrates on how the enduring images of the Great War arguably excluded Africans from the ‘official’ British story of the war. Great War propaganda posters are a case in point. Posters of British General Lord Kitchener and John Bull pointing their finger and saying ‘Your Country Needs You’ exuded Anglo-superiority and, according to the magazine, ‘excluded any idea of an African inclusion in the war’.

Yet, as recent research is now beginning to show, there were many people of African descent who fought for ‘their’ country and empire during the war. As BHM 2018 magazine notes, one of these people, for example, was Walter Tull: ‘Both he and his brother served in the military. Tull fought in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed in the second Battle of the Somme on 25 March, 1918, near Favreuil, France. By then, Tull had become an officer in command’.

Another example was David Clemetson, who was born in Jamaica and became a student at Cambridge University. In the war, he became an officer in the British Yeomanry Regiment on 27 October, 1915, a full year before Tull. Moreover, there were many other individuals of African descent from Britain and from across the Dominions and Colonies who fought in integrated British units on the Western Front and in other arenas of the conflict elsewhere across the globe.

Black soldiers fighting for Britain

In fact, as the BHM 2018 magazine points out, the African contribution to the war effort ‘provided Africans with a legitimacy through past actions for a political voice in the future’. Following the Great War, various organisations were established in Britain to petition against inequality and to campaign for the improvement of the lives of people of African descent.

Significantly, as BHM 2018 magazine also reminds us, it was the contribution and sacrifice of soldiers of African descent during World War I ‘that helped shape the experience, identity and purpose of African people in Britain in the 20th century’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History dept. at Kingston University

(Images: Hayward and WikiMedia Commons)







Posted in African History, Black History, British history, European History, Events, Local History, Public History, Research, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

1918: A New World? Upcoming series of British Library talks

The British Library (BL), located near Euston in central London, in order to commemorate the end of the First World War and the signing of the Armistice, has announced a series of talks and events based on the theme of ‘1918: A New World?’

British Library

The end of the War and signing of the Armistice saw a rocky transition from war to peace, a process that was both exhilarating and frightening. Nationalism, anti-colonialism and the collapse of Empires all presented new challenges for leaders and peoples across Europe and the world.

At the same time, new forms of music became embedded in post-war culture, greater awareness of civil rights began to emerge, and women made some real progress with suffrage and rights in countries such as Britain. However, historians are now beginning to recognise how the rapid spread of Spanish Influenza exerted a truly devastating impact across nations in many parts of the globe at this time.

The exciting BL programme explores these and other topics, and includes the following events:

On Friday, 26th October, there will be an all-day event entitled ‘Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment: 1918-19’, sponsored by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the BL. Attendees will be able to explore the connections between Black intellectual thought, military presence, and Jazz cultures at the critical juncture of Paris in the immediate post-1918 period. The day will also culminate in the evening with a performance from composer and musician Jason Moran, who will be reflecting on the practice of writing and performing forgotten Black histories through Jazz.

On Saturday, 27th October, the BL will have a study day entitled ‘1918: A New Europe on Film’, which will bring together experts on Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, and the Baltic and Nordic regions to discuss how 1918 and the foundation of numerous new nations has been interpreted in a century of feature films, documentaries and archive footage.


On Thursday, 1st November, Patricia Fara will give an illustrated lecture entitled A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War’, which will be inspired by her fascinating book A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War. She will commemorate the anniversaries of the Armistice and women’s suffrage by revealing the untold lives of female scientists, doctors and engineers who helped to win the War.

On Friday, 2nd November, the novelist and science journalist Laura Spinney, in a lecture entitled ‘The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World’, will explain how the Spanish flu catastrophe was arguably as significant as the War in shaping the post-1918 world. Did you know that the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic led to an estimated 100 million deaths, more than both the World Wars combined?

For further details of these and various other BL events this autumn, you can go to:

The BL is located in Euston Road, within easy reach of King’s Cross and Euston train stations.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History Dept. at Kingston University

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in Black History, British history, British Library, European History, Events, French History, Gender History, History of Medicine, Museums, Public History, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From War to Peace: National Archives announces ‘Great War’ events for last quarter of 2018

The National Archives (TNA), located at Kew in in south-west London, which is the repository of all British government historical records, has just announced its latest exciting round of talks and activities as part of its ongoing centenary programme First World War 100.

BEF commanders and chiefs of staff 1918

The months of October-December, 2018, will thus see a particular focus on the 1918 Armistice, which will include a unique public display of the Treaty of Versailles, together with a Special Event to mark the close of TNA’s four-year First World War programme. A number of other talks will also be very useful to those historians and members of the public who have an ongoing interest in the Great War.

The Special Event, entitled ‘The Eve of Peace’, will take place at TNA on Saturday, 10th November, 2018. This will be a (free) day of talks and activities to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. According to TNA, visitors will be able to view ‘some of the most iconic documents associated with the conflict’, with TNA military historians on hand to explain their significance and how they changed the world. The day-long Special Event will include a series of short drop-in talks about the legacy of the conflict, including its impact on society, war memorials and battlefield tourism. Experts will also be on hand to help with any research or queries that visitors to TNA may have about their First World War ancestors or family history.

From 8th November to 7th December there will be a special display on the ‘Words of Peace’, which will be held in TNA’s Keeper’s Gallery located on the ground floor. Two iconic documents from TNA’s collection will be brought together and put on public display for the first time: Britain’s copies of the Armistice Agreement, signed in November, 2018, and the Treaty of Versailles, agreed at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, which ‘officially’ ended the long and bloody conflict. Both of TNA’s copies of these documents will be accompanied by an eyewitness account of the Armistice negotiations from an interpreter for the British delegation.

Other fascinating First World War 100 events at TNA this autumn will include a talk on 16th October by Mary Horlock about her book Joseph Gray’s Camouflage, which is the truly beguiling story of how Joseph Gray pioneered the development of camouflage painting. Mary Horlock, who is Gray’s granddaughter, will be in conversation about Gray’s memoirs, the role these played in her own book about him, and the influence of war on one man’s life.

Another talk to look out for takes place on 1st November, which will be on ‘Iconic Landscapes: Botany, Design and the Western Front’, delivered by Dr James Wearn. This will help attendees understand the role that the nearby and famous Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew played in the development of the Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries across the Western Front and beyond. Dr. Wearn will explore the important input of botanists, horticulturalists and gardeners.

British recruitment poster Lord Kitchener

December, 2018, will also see two further events at TNA on the Great War. On 11th December, a round-table talk event, entitled ‘Journey From Home’, will convey the findings of the ‘Journey from Home’ project, a community heritage project in the UK that explores the experiences, feelings and stories of South Asian soldiers during the First World War.

Working with young people and local communities in both London and Birmingham, the project has helped reveal stories that are not often told about those from Britain’s Empire who served in the forces in World War One. The speakers will focus on the theme of ‘sacrifice and remembrance’, and will include Amandeep Madra, Paula Kitching, Amit and Naroop, and Kiran Sahota.

And for those who are fascinated by the role of archaeology in helping us to further understand the nature of the Western Front in the 1914-18 conflict, 15th December will see a Special Event at TNA entitled ‘Dig Hill 80: Secrets of the Front Line’, where the entire Dig Hill 80 team will give a debrief on their recent excavations and a detailed presentation of their main findings.  The team will share artefacts, videos and key information about Dig Hill 80, which is a crowd-funded archaeological dig of a First World War fortification.

The National Archives

For both the academic historian and members of the public, The National Archives’ repositories are a fantastic gem sitting on our doorstep in south-west London, located close to the very popular and beautiful Kew Gardens and also just a stone’s throw to the River Thames. There are great public transport links.

A steady flow of Kingston University history students have made use of TNA over the years, and it offers an excellent research opportunity to make use of Britain’s huge collection of State papers, files and other unique historical documents that have been produced over the centuries. It also offers opportunities to intermingle with a range of other scholars and students, both from this country and from many other corners of the globe.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History in the History Department at Kingston University

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)





Posted in British history, European History, Events, Museums, Public History, Research, Study Skills, Teaching, The National Archives, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment