When the Men Came Marching Home

Having survived the rigours of the Great War, soldiers faced the return to civilian life. For some, it presented an even greater challenge.

Armistice celebrations in London, 11 November 1918.

The Seventh Dragoon Guards made one of the last charges of the First World War at 10.30am on 11 November 1918, galloping forward and capturing the bridge at Lessines in the Picardy region of Belgium. Fighting officially ended at 11am on the same day, when the Armistice was signed. On hearing the news, the Fifth Dragoon Guards’ official war diary described the celebration as the regiment prepared for a ‘triumphal march into Germany’. While the official diary could easily be written in a celebratory tone, this was not necessarily representative of the feelings that other diaries captured. The war diary of the First West Yorkshire Regiment, for example, wrote that ‘the news was taken very quietly’. Back home, newspapers celebrated and reported that women and children were on the streets flying flags, but news of peace was often met by serving troops with quiet reflection and thanksgiving. As we look back now, over the century since the end of the war, it becomes apparent that reactions to the Armistice have changed to fit in with distinct attitudes towards the war and the years that followed it, which echoed the mood of the nation. Using the personal testimonies, diaries and memoirs of the men who served, we can see the varied reactions of soldiers to news of the Armistice, how they chose to observe the occasion and what happened when they arrived back in Britain and returned to civilian life.

Deafening silence

Scholars have studied personal testimonies and diaries in order to understand the social aspects of the First World War. Soldiers’ responses to the Armistice itself, however, were often muted and sometimes missing from the accounts altogether. Jay Winter and Michael Roper are historians who have remarked on a silence surrounding the war from veterans who returned; servicemen’s reactions to the Armistice are no exception. Captain Herman Marsden’s memoirs, finally typed up in 1976, contain an interesting discussion of his reasons for not talking about the First World War on his return; he did not want to upset families who had lost loved ones and re-open old wounds by indulging in his memories. He explains: ‘The fear of causing pain to others was perhaps a reason for my reluctance to recall experiences of World War 1914-1918.’

Marsden had been seriously wounded and sent back to England on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme and the bloodiest in the British army’s history. While many of his colleagues were killed that day, Marsden recovered and was returned to the front lines to fight again before the war was over. In his memoirs he describes his emotions on the day of the Armistice:

On the 11th November 1918 there was the Armistice. It was almost unbelievable that there was no longer a world war in progress, and Armistice Day passed by unnoticed, without rejoicing or celebration of any kind. There was not even the slightest sense of relief, but for the survivors there were sad and morbid memories of former colleagues and contemporaries. There was, for me of course, bewilderment and wonder about my survival. Indeed an Armistice to end the World War seemed too great a happening for an ordinary mortal to appreciate fully.

Although written almost 60 years after the events, Marsden’s memoirs reflect perfectly the popular and widespread feeling of the anti-war sentiment of the late 1920s and 1930s. In his memoir, Goodbye To All That, the poet Robert Graves similarly commented:

In November came the Armistice. I heard at the same time of the deaths of Frank Jones Bateman, who had gone back again just before the end and Wilfred Owen who often used to send me poems from France. Armistice night hysteria did not touch our camp much, though some of the Canadians stationed there were sent down to Rhyll to celebrate in true overseas style. The news sent me out walking alone above the marshes of Rhuddlen cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.

Graves was a Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who experienced trench warfare. His memoirs were first published in 1929. In many ways, his experiences were similar to Marsden’s – both were injured in the Battle of the Somme and recovered from their wounds and returned to the trenches. It is also interesting that Graves’ memoir was written around the time of the ‘peak’ in the publishing and consumption of war books and memoirs. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero all emerged in 1929, alongside Goodbye To All That. While the writings of Marsden and Graves are similar, it is important to remember that they were both written a considerable time after the Armistice and both may have had a multitude of reasons for revising what they had felt initially. Did their timely and considered memoirs reflect how men actually felt in November 1918 itself?

Goodbye to all that

The truth is that it is difficult to know. Not many diaries mention the Armistice. Those written at the time are much more difficult to find and interpret than memoirs written in the late 1920s and after. Many men stopped writing before 11 November 1918; others simply noted that there had been an armistice. The war diary of Chaplain Reverend J.A. Herbert Bell, for example, simply commented: ‘In the afternoon a wire came through officially that hostilities had ceased at 11am today.’ The diary offers no other comment nor any hint of response or emotion. Frustratingly, this is typical of the diaries written during this time. A few did, however, leave clues as to their thoughts and feelings at the outbreak of peace.

For many servicemen an end to the war was something that they had been dreaming of for years, but it also brought something uncertain, that was beyond the power of comprehension. The omnipresence of death is a recurring theme in the war diary of Private Thomas Reginald Warner of the West Yorkshire Regiment. Even at the beginning of his war diary, on his first posting to France, Warner was counting the death toll and wondering how long the war would last:

Standing apart, down the road that leads north about a mile from the camp is a great graveyard, running right down to the sandy shore. There the little wooden crosses, all alike in form, stand in row upon row, with the sea as a royal blue background. A lovely sight, but a sad one; I wonder how much longer it will be before this sad job is over.

Warner’s reflections remained much the same at the end of the war. If anything, the longevity of the conflict only helped to reinforce its seemingly everlasting nature. On 29 June 1918, Warner recorded in his dairy:

I wonder how long it will last now? I understand that the Germans have made their last effort and failed. It is rumoured that we shall make an offensive and drive them right back. I wonder when, and if we can.

This extract highlights an uncertainty and a weariness about winning the war. While it is not pessimistic, it shows the hearsay and rumour prevalent in the trenches, which may have affected people’s experience of the Armistice.

For others who served, it is clear that there was a strange, melancholic atmosphere regarding the end of the war. For many soldiers, conflict had become a way of life, a place where they had carved out friendships, tested their resilience and led exciting and worthwhile lives. In complete contrast to the anti-war memoirs of both Marsden and Graves, one soldier, Richard Enden, recalled:

There wasn’t any real excitement or jubilation at the news [of the Armistice]; naturally we were relieved and I’m sure that a weight was lifted from our shoulders, but that was all. The war that everyone hoped would end had ended, but so too had a way of life.

Writing of the monumentality of the moment in history, Enden also noted: ‘It seems funny now to think of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in fact many men did not know what the day was. Most were concerned to live only day by day.’

Mixed feelings

Even away from the front lines, experiences of Armistice Day were not always jubilant. Held in his prison barracks, Cecil Slack remembered the moment of the announcement:

As soon as the Armistice was declared, we ceased to answer the bugle call for parade in the barrack square. This caused considerable stamping of feet and angry remarks from our captors … We indicated that as the war was over we should no longer be treated as prisoners.

For Slack, the signing of the Armistice quickly and materially changed his circumstances; despite being a prisoner of war, he was also a victor who knew that his imprisonment was now only temporary.

The letters of Arthur George Wilson tell a different story. On his last day of leave on 11 November 1918, Arthur was heading from his home city of York to London to return to his battalion the following day:

All London streets are packed. Flags [are] out everywhere. We walked down The Mall to join crowds outside Buckingham Palace. I have never seen such excitement.

It is not obvious that he shared the crowd’s feelings of excitement. Nevertheless, the fact that he joined in suggests that he was at the very least taken along. The knowledge that he had to return to his regiment may well have muted his reaction.

The diary of another private from the West Yorkshire Regiment similarly concluded: ‘When the Colonel announced that the war was over, we all cheered, but our work was not over. Our next duty was to march to Germany.’

Crowds celebrate the Armistice in Trafalgar Square.

Although he was one of the lucky ones, the private was not actually demobilised until the second week of March 1919, five months after Armistice Day. For others, demobilisation was an even longer process. In reality, many soldiers knew that the Armistice did not signal much immediate change in their circumstances, even though hostilities had officially ended. Enden, for example, wrote how feelings of insecurity continued, as men remained on the frontlines, surrounded by the reminders of war: ‘For the next three or four days a phoney war continued with occasional gunfire and now and again the explosion of a delayed mine.’ For many, the prospect of a homecoming remained a distant reality and the process of coming home could feel very slow and protracted. It is possible, too, that the difficult conditions awaiting servicemen in Britain after the Armistice can account for some of the anti-war sentiment of the memoirs written in the late 1920s and 1930s.


The government feared the return of too many unemployed servicemen too quickly. Despite legislation ensuring that ex-servicemen would return to employment, it did not always happen. The economic depression of the interwar years did little to help relieve the problems of unemployment; those who returned home had to compete in a desperately competitive labour market. Marsden offers an insight into the problems faced by such men. His memoirs are both unusual and illuminating for the detail in which he depicts his postwar life, describing his somewhat unsuccessful attempts at finding a job and returning to normality:

A satisfactory military career with a Military Cross and a highly prized ‘mentioned in despatches’, quite correctly had not the slightest value as assets in obtaining employment with cash wherewithal on which to live. Indeed, experiences as a temporary officer was, in many respects, a definite handicap.

He recalled that ‘I was a raw recruit, a veritable “rookie” in a fiercely competitive civilian army.’ The government tried a range of tactics, including forcing women out of the workplace, to try to rectify the problem of unemployment among ex-servicemen. Demobilised soldiers received papers to document who they were and where they had been, including any suitable training they had received while in the military. Despite such schemes, however, many men struggled and they, like Marsden, often felt that they had missed out on opportunities, only for others to reap the benefits of their absence. For these men, returning home to a land fit for heroes seemed a mockery. Going to war had meant losing out on more valuable civilian experiences. The Armistice merely signalled the return home to another fight.

Unfit for work

Despite the levels of unemployment, it must be remembered that these were the lucky ones, who were fortunate that employment was still a valid option. For other soldiers, physical and mental disabilities were the lasting legacies from the war. Over its course, around two million British men suffered from disabling wounds, but survived to go back to civilian life. In 1917 a specialist body was set up to look after all the disabled and seriously wounded servicemen: the Ministry of Pensions. One of its tasks was to pay for the treatment and the pensions of men who had received either lifelong or long-term injuries because of their war service. At its peak, in 1920, there were 1,600,000 ex-servicemen receiving pensions or other forms of aid. Support was offered for those deemed to be both totally and ‘partially’ disabled. Pensions were granted on a sliding scale, depending on how disabled the recipient was judged to be. A serviceman who was considered to be fully disabled and completely incapable of work was assessed at 100 per cent.

Private John Cook of the East Yorkshire Regiment was discharged from the army on 22 September 1916 as unfit for military service, having received a bullet wound to the skull. Before the war, Cook had been a joiner, but his injuries meant there was little chance that he could return to that. His disability was assessed at 90 per cent and he was granted a pension for life. He received 32 shillings a week for himself and a 14 shillings a week allowance for his wife and child, until his death in 1950.

Other soldiers had a harder time proving their ailments and afflictions. Private Joe Bradley was only awarded a pension of five shillings and 10 pence a week for a period of 12 months for trench fever. His disability was assessed at 20 per cent and the money that he received also included an allowance for his wife and child. Like many others, even this was stopped in 1920 as the government tried to ease the financial burden of costly pensions.

The responsibility of providing proof proved too difficult for some servicemen, who were denied a pension for their disability. Private Sydney Round served as a driver for the Royal Army Engineering Corps. He was in Gallipoli, Egypt and France after 1916. He applied to the Ministry of Pensions for defective eyesight in the right eye after being gassed. His request was rejected as it was considered to be ‘not aggravated by the war’. Round had to look after himself, without any government aid.

Other men were disabled through paralysing mental conditions. While many who were diagnosed as ‘shell-shocked’ recovered quickly from their ailments, others’ mental afflictions were prolonged and some would never recover. Thomas Olive explained how his wartime experiences manifested themselves once back in civilian life:

I used to have little breakdowns now and then and my wife used to be very frightened. It more or less used to happen at night, when I was in bed. My daughter, incidentally, is terribly nervous. My wife says it’s all my fault. Well I had shell shock, you see. I got blown up and it affected my whole system.

Patients who had not recovered from their trauma could find themselves admitted to local lunatic asylums, as they were then still called. In many instances, the public were scandalised by this and the government set up a scheme in which ex-servicemen were entitled to a small pension and a separate uniform to mark them out from ‘pauper lunatics’. On 1 January 1920, less than three years after the scheme was proposed, there were already 3,739 patients classed as service patients in institutions in England and Wales. Ten years later that number had risen to 4,618. For many of these institutionalised men, the Armistice meant nothing at all. Many lived on for decades, fighting a war that would never end.

The valiant dead

It seems clear that a serviceman’s experiences of the conflict would have influenced his response to the Armistice, depending on whether he was physically or mentally disabled, or was still fighting when peace was announced. It is also important to remember that these reactions were likely to change over time, as attitudes and situations changed, and are subtly different in memoirs, often written years after the conflict, from those in contemporary diaries, written in the heat of battle. As the years passed, Armistice Day became less of an occasion for the living. By the 1920s and 1930s, commemoration had become more about remembering the valiant dead rather than the inconvenient unemployed ex-servicemen, or those who were simply trying to live with their physical and mental injuries with only a meagre pension allowance from the state.

A century on, if interest in the First World War begins to wane after the centenary of the Armistice in November 2018, we would be echoing the reactions of 100 years ago, forgetting the plight of those who returned to bear the scar of war until their deaths, whenever that might have been.

Alice Brumby teaches at York St John University.