Peaceday 19 July 1919

Peaceday 1919

Victory parade passes the temporary Cenotaph

The First World War did not officially end with the Armistice on 11 November 1918. The treaty negotiations at Versailles continued long into the following year, with the Germans desperately battling with the allies’ desire to turn the screw as tight as possible in the matter of war reparations. But clearly the Treaty would be signed sooner or later, and governments started to turn their minds to the matter of marking the official end of the war.

In Britain, Lord Curzon – who loved pomp and ceremony – was in charge of the Peace Committee and despite opposition from Prime Minister Lloyd George, planning began for a four day celebration including a Victory March through London, a day of Thanksgiving services, a river pageant, and a day of popular festivities.

With the treaty signed at the end of June, the Peaceday event was fixed for Saturday 19 July 1919. Lloyd George was taken with the French plan for their Victory March in Paris on Bastille Day, 14 July, which involved Allied troops marching past a great catafalque and saluting in honour of the dead. The architect Edwin Lutyens was asked to come up with a design for a suitable structure. Within hours he came up with a set of full-size working drawings of a “cenotaph” (meaning literally “empty tomb”), and plans for the London Victory Parade and associated Peace Day celebrations went ahead.

In some ways it was never entirely clear what message Peace Day was intended to put across. A letter in the Manchester Evening News put one view of the matter: “I am sure the title Peace Day will send a cold shiver through the bodies of thousands of ‘demobbed’ men who are walking about the streets of Manchester looking for a job” and suggested that local councils would do better to spend the money on relieving the distress of jobless – often disabled – war veterans.

A branch of the ex-serviceman’s federation in Norfolk decided to boycott the event: “Our pals died to kill militarism, not to establish that here. We have had militarism burned into us, and we hate it… The Norwich branch … which consists of nearer 4,000 men than 3,000, has decided that they will take no part in the celebration of this mock peace.”

But despite the reservations of many there was also a genuine sense that the actual end of the war should be marked in a fitting way. A huge military camp grew up in Kensington Gardens, with large numbers of Allied troops bivouacking there in readiness for the Victory Parade.

Thousands of people arrived in capital on Friday’s overnight trains. Hundreds of people spent the night in the parks or streets to be sure of a good place. Women climbed on top of the high wall round the Victoria memorial gardens and sat there for fifteen or sixteen hours. The rush for places on the processional route was in full swing by six in the morning, and by eight o’clock it was almost impossible to cross Trafalgar Square.

Those crowded along Whitehall, were greatly impressed by Lutyens’ Cenotaph where the troops were to march past and salute the “glorious dead”:

The following day the Sunday Times reported “a very pathetic instance” just before the arrival of the procession. The watchers went silent as a lady, ‘richly attired in the deepest mourning’ came out of the crowd and reverently laid a wreath at the base of the Cenotaph. She remained for a few moments with head bowed in sorrow and pride before again disappearing among the people. This was a foreshadowing of the scenes witnessed at the Ceremony of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November the following year.

The Victory parade itself was a massive success. Nearly 15,000 troops took part in the march, led by the victorious Allied commanders. The salutes of Pershing, Foch, Haig and Beatty to dead comrades as they passed the Cenotaph were captured in unforgettable photographs which appeared in newspapers throughout the country.

Victory tableau on Peaceday in Preston marketplace

Round the country celebrations took a host of different forms: convicts at Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight were were given a holiday and extra rations including plum pudding. Birmingham laid on entertainment in its municipal parks for all the city’s children who were also presented with a commemorative medal. In Tisbury, Wiltshire there was a children’s procession followed by a tea-party, and dancing.

Cakes and ale were added to the meals at some of the workhouses – and at Shoreditch old married couples were allowed to sit together but only “if they wanted to.” In Reading the Lady Mayoress planted trees grown from seeds picked up on the Verdun battlefield.

Not everyone joined in with the spirit of things: in Leamington ex-servicemen refused to take part in a procession but declined the honour of being “ornaments for one day” and in Merthyr Tydfil, 25,000 people attended a thanksgiving service in Penydarron Park, then passed a unanimous resolution calling for higher pensions for ex-servicemen and their dependants. In the afternoon Manchester city centre saw a procession of unemployed and demobilised soldiers carrying banners demanding “work not charity”, and the Manchester Evening News remarked “the printed invocation to the crowds to ‘Honour the dead – remember the living’ was a depressing note to sound in the midst of the jubilation.”

The burnt out Luton Town Hall

The most serious disruption of the celebrations came in Luton, where there was already bad feeling over the town council’s refusal to allow discharged soldiers to hold their own memorial service in a park.

The town clerk’s office was broken into and a bonfire was made of papers and documents. The fire brigade was prevented from approaching the fire, and police and special constables were driven hack. The Town Hall was burnt out before a detachment of soldiers arrived, who dispersed the remaining rioters who were by that time staging an impromptu sing-song on a stolen piano. For days, Luton was under military occupation.

Peace has brought disaster to Luton. They are now without a town hall, half of the police force of the town is on the sick list, nearly all the members of the fire brigade are down with injuries, more or less serious, and there is a bill of damages estimated at more than £200,000.

reported in Daily Express, 21 July 1919

In the final analysis of course, the terms of that Peace signed at Versailles were to prove even more disastrous for Europe, with the festering resentment over reparations playing a significant part in the rise of the Nazi party, and the subsequent horrors of yet another war to end wars.

NOTE: The Cenotaph referred to in this article was a temporary structure, which quickly began to deteriorate. Lutyens designed its permanent replacement which was the centrepiece of the ceremony on 11 November 1920 when the body of the Unknown Warrior was returned to Britain for a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.