The End? The final days before Armistice 1918

“In war, truth is the first casualty”, so said Aeschylus.  It is not surprising, therefore, that the news of the impending end of the war was greeted, as Cheltenham’s Rector of the Parish Church Rev H.A. Wilson said, “…with dazzling suddenness”.  Who knew what to believe from newspaper reports in the Echo?  Local and national news was heavily censored to keep up morale on the home front of those who were heartily tired of the war and its effects.  But townspeople knew that, having heard stories from the soldiers home on leave, contradicting what they read in the papers. 

Friday 1st November 1918 Turkey was out of the war.  At home, there was further optimism as the Cheltenham Medical Officer of Health reported that, as far as Cheltenham is concerned, there appears to be a remission from the influenza epidemic as the number of deaths was half the previous two week’s total.  Norah Bessie Billings of Southwood Lodge, the youngest daughter of A.C. Billings the well-known Cheltenham builder, and sister-in-law of Cheltenham’s first lady GP, Dr. Grace Billings, died of influenza on Tuesday 5th November 1918.  A week later the disease didn’t spare one of the “Leckhampton Stalwarts” who fought for the right to walk over the hill.  Tailor “Jack” Price of Great Norwood Street died leaving a widow and eight children – his youngest son having been killed in action a year ago. 

Saturday 2nd November 1918 it was reported that Austria-Hungary, the last of Germany’s props, had collapsed and their army was in revolt.  In the Echo that day the Editor wrote “…the forecasts published in certain newspapers this week have been dismissed as purely imaginative and ridiculous at that…the German armies have not yet been broken.”

Monday November 4th 1918 Of the state of the enemy monarchs -the German Kaiser was on the brink, the monarchs of Bulgaria had abdicated, Tino of Greece had been dethroned, Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria had been “removed by death” as had the Sultan of Turkey and Emperor Charles of Austria was in flight.  Germany was in a vice and had no hope but to surrender.  The Echo Editor was more optimistic and reported “There are times when bare statements of occurrence are far more eloquent than any combat.”  The next day Lloyd George, the Prime Minister said “…this is the last and decisive phase of the war.” And Mr. Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the same day wrote “There should be no slackening…the final victory is not yet won…our armies are still fighting.”

Thursday 7th November 1918  “The Famous”, the men’s outfitters in the High Street, heralded on the Echo’s front page advertisement “Peace in Sight!”  and on page 4 of the Echo it was reported:

“Reuters Agency is informed that, according to official American information, the Armistice with Germany was signed at 2.30 today.” 

“The End?” was how the Echo’s Leader was headed and the Editor considered it was a wonderful thought that at the moment at which he was writing, the war may be really ended.  No, it was not the end!   The paper then had to explain what had happened.  “The above message from Reuters was received at the ‘Echo’ office at 4.45 p.m. today and a special stop-press edition was at once circulated widely throughout Cheltenham.  Later, however we received another message.  ‘Suppress message of signing an armistice.’  The reason for the order to suppress was not given.”  The premature announcement had caused wild excitement in Cheltenham and the newspaper reported that once the special edition had hit the streets it was absolutely impossible to overtake tidings for which everyone was waiting with so much anxiety.  However, at the time of the false announcement the German delegates had not even reached the French lines, having not left Berlin until Wednesday afternoon, 500 miles from the French meeting place.

Friday 8th November 1918 The Echo’s Leader reads “We may take advantage of the breathing space before the dramatic news which it is devoutly to be hoped will be real news and not unfounded rumour.”  It was reported that Marshall Foch, representing the Allies, had sent a telegram informing the German High Command where to send their delegates.  To allow the delegates the swiftest path, the German lines were given orders to cease fire on the front from 3p.m. Thursday.  The ten Germans were escorted at 9 a.m. on the Friday morning to the place where they received the terms of the Armistice, at which they expressed astonishment at the severity of the terms, to be accepted or refused within 72 hours, expiring on Monday morning at 11 o/clock, French time.  The German delegation asked for a provisional suspension of hostilities which was refused.  Their courier, Captain von Helldorf, with the text of the conditions, was to take the terms to Spa in Belgium where the Kaiser was waiting but he had not been able to leave the French lines by Saturday 9th owing to the German fire.

Saturday 9th November 1918.  The Kaiser abdicates.  The people of Cheltenham read the following report, which had arrived at the Echo offices at 4.45p.m.:  “News transmitted through the wireless stations of the German Government states that the Kaiser and King has decided to renounce the throne.”  At the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London Lloyd George announced “The issue is settled…the German Empire is Headless and Helpless.”  At the same time the five German rulers and their heirs either abdicated or were deposed. 

Sunday 10th November 1918  The Kaiser reached the Dutch frontier at Eysden at 7.30 a.m. where the imperial train took him and his entourage to Arnhem in Holland.  His new home was to be a castle offered for his use by Count Bentinck. Whilst in Germany, all the 26 ports of the German seaboard were in the hands of the revolutionaries as was most of the country including cities such as Kiel, Hamburg, Bremen and Hanover.  The next day a general strike was proclaimed in Berlin and in Munich a Bavarian republic was proclaimed by the local Workers’ Council.

To be continued…

From “Cheltenham in the Great War” by Neela Mann (2016, The History Press)

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