One hundred years ago today, on 11 November 1918, guns on the Western Front and other theatres of war fell silent. Fighting continued right up to the agreed ceasefire at 11.00 GMT, and it is estimated that over 10,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing on the last day of conflict, some succumbing to injuries sustained earlier – perhaps the most grotesque of all the grim statistics of the ‘Great War’. Countless thousands more would die of their wounds, both physical and mental, in the months and years ahead.
The papers of the Manchester historian T. F. Tout are an important source for the history of the First World War. Many of his former students joined the forces and corresponded regularly with Professor Tout, describing their experiences in the war. Thomas Seymour Hurrell matriculated at the University of Manchester in 1914, and completed part one of the history degree in 1916. He then enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until the summer of 1918, when he was transferred to Catterick in Yorkshire for officer training. A week after the Armistice, on 18 November, Hurrell wrote to Tout describing the celebrations: ‘The armistice was welcomed here with the usual ceremonies bonfires, volleys of blank ammunition, rockets, maroons and so on, and the bugle band and the Power Station siren had a competition as to which made the most noise.’
The Armistice resulted in an easing – in some cases a breakdown – of the rigid military discipline that had prevailed during the conflict. Hurrell reported that the armistice ‘has had the immediate effect of turning our affairs into absolute chaos’ (letter to T. F. Tout, 23 November 1918, TFT/1/560/45). A Staff Officer told the cadets at Catterick that no further officer commissions were to be issued and that on discharge they would not receive an officer’s gratuity, worth £200. Unsurprisingly, the ‘brass hat’ got ‘what might be mildly described as a most unsympathetic hearing by a frankly hostile audience’.
Tragically, having survived the war, Hurrell died in the influenza pandemic in December 1918. He was buried in Manchester’s Southern Cemetery and is commemorated on the Victoria University of Manchester’s war memorial in the Main Quad, alongside 510 other students and staff members.
Another student was more fortunate. Walter William Spedding from Bolton won a scholar to read history at the University in June 1915 and completed just a year of his degree course before enlisting in 1916. He served as a wireless operator in the Royal Air Force, but was attached to the 3rd Canadian Heavy Artillery Brigade to facilitate liaison between the artillery and reconnaissance aircraft. After the Armistice, censorship of letters was lifted and on 18 November Spedding was able to report to Tout that he was billeted at Boussu, ten kilometres from Mons:
I have been on the Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes advances, or rather sectors, and it has been extremely difficult for heavies [heavy artillery] to keep within range of the Hun, so fast has he retired. We pulled into Boussu on the Sunday morning (10th) after the Hun left on the previous Friday afternoon, and our reception was extremely cordial. As the armistice was signed the following day (11th) that has ended our pursuit, and as we are still here and likely to remain, I fancy we are forgotten, or else we are not mobile enough to follow on.
Letter from W. W. Spedding to T. F. Tout, 18 November 1918, TFT/1/1132/2.
Spedding’s then directs thoughts towards his return to civilian life. He told Tout that he wished to resume his studies at Manchester, and wanted to know whether his Hulme Scholarship would continue. Spedding was demobilized in early 1919, and he did indeed return to his studies, graduating in history from the University of Manchester in 1921. The details of his subsequent career are unknown.
The events leading up to the signing of the Armistice at Compiègne are of course well known. However, the Library holds a fascinating and rare published account of the circumstances of Germany’s defeat. This was originally issued by the German Chancellor in 1919, as Vorgeschichte des Waffenstillstandes, and was translated into English by the director of military intelligence at the War Office in London. A History of Events Immediately Preceding the Armistice reproduces documents and discussions between the German Government and the military headquarters, after the generals had concluded that ‘it was no longer possible, in spite of the mighty achievements of our armies, to obtain a victory over the enemy and compel him to make peace’. The History was intended to counter the many ‘legends’ and ‘misrepresentations’ surrounding the events, in particular the accusation of defeatism. The History argues that by Autumn 1918 the military situation was hopeless, and that the Armistice saved the remnants of the German army from complete disaster. It also reveals Germany’s resentment at the Allies’ broken promises, presaging the later rise of Nazism: ‘These promises are thus broken; but they remain as a legal foundation for the immutable demand for a revision of the peace treaty.’