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Armistice Day: Centenary - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 5th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lexden Lord Lexden Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:21 pm, 5th November 2018

My Lords, I will reflect a little on some of the events of Armistice Day itself, a century ago, and I begin, as is right and proper, with the monarch. Throughout his reign, King George V dutifully wrote up his diary at the end of each day. He expressed himself in terse, straightforward language, which reflected his character. Late in the evening of 11 November 1918 he wrote that:

“Today has indeed been a wonderful day, the greatest in the history of the Country”.

He had witnessed remarkable public rejoicing. Time and again, he and Queen Mary had been brought out on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at the insistence of immense crowds that stretched as far as the eye could see. It seems that the King contributed more to the events of that wonderful day than has been generally recognised.

The British representative at the Armistice negotiations in Compiègne, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the supreme allied naval commander, entrusted to his family an account of what had passed during the discussions that led up to the signing of the Armistice at 5 am, and its implementation at 11 am. According to Wemyss, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, who had contributed so much to victory, instructed him to arrange for the Armistice to come into force at 2.30 pm when the House of Commons was due to meet so that he could reveal it to striking effect. Wemyss telephoned the King, suggesting that the 11th hour would be a far better time. George V agreed and the plan was changed, much to Lloyd George’s displeasure.

Lloyd George deserved, and received, great prominence on that wonderful day. In the two years since he had become Prime Minister, the political conduct of the war had been infused with a dynamism unknown under his predecessor, Herbert Asquith, great man though he was in his way.

The wonderful day was naturally tinged with deep sorrow. Long queues formed outside cathedrals and churches, for people felt a pressing need to reflect on the enormous sacrifices that had been made over four long years, as well as to give thanks for victory. Late in the evening, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, walked home from Downing Street. In his diary, he recorded encountering an elderly woman, dressed in deep mourning, sobbing her heart out. He said to her, “You are in trouble—is there anything that I can do for you?”. She replied, “Thank you, but no. I am crying, but I am happy, for now I know that all my three sons who have been killed in the war have not died in vain”. Sorrow and joy stood side by side.

The wonderful day was wonderfully free of speeches. After reading the terms of the Armistice to a packed House of Commons, Lloyd George said:

“This is no time for words. Our hearts are too full of a gratitude to which no tongue can give adequate expression”.

He moved the immediate Adjournment of the House, suggesting that,

“we proceed, as a House of Commons, to St. Margaret’s, to give humble and reverent thanks for the deliverance of the world from its great peril”.—[Official Report, Commons, 11/11/1918; col. 2463.]

Lord Curzon moved a similar Motion in this House, of which he was the Leader.

Thereafter politics resumed. The War Cabinet met at No. 10 to discuss the general election campaign, which was to begin the following day. Should a vengeful note be struck? Churchill argued that leniency should be shown to the Kaiser. Sir Henry Wilson agreed, noting in his diary:

“My opinion is that there should be a public exposé of all his works and actions and then leave him to posterity”.

During the election campaign, the political leaders concentrated on setting out their plans for post-war reconstruction and social reform to build a better world for those who had suffered so much. The subsequent, incomplete implementation of these plans does not, in my view, detract from the sincerity with which Lloyd George and his colleagues proposed them, gaining a massive majority on 14 December 1918, one month after the Armistice when, for the first time, the whole nation voted on the same day.

Towards the end of his six volumes of war memoirs, published in 1936, Lloyd George placed a particularly fine chapter entitled, An Imperial War. In it, this remarkable Welsh radical praised the indispensable contributions made by those who came to our aid from all parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth. He noted how the arrival of Indian troops had averted disaster on the Western Front in 1914-15.

“Had they stayed at home”,

he wrote,

“the issue of the War would have been different, and the history of the world would have taken a different course”.

Nothing has been more important during these four years of commemoration than to secure a fuller recognition of the indispensable service rendered by men and women from Asian, African and American countries. I was glad to be able to introduce a debate on that hugely important aspect of the war a few months ago. I am glad that it has loomed large in today’s debate.

Will those who come after us remember for ever the terrible war which we have commemorated so thoughtfully and respectfully over the last four years? The greatest Englishman of the last century had no doubts. There were such powerful visible reminders, thanks to the wonderful work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Speaking in 1920, two years after the Armistice, Churchill said,

“there is no reason at all why, in periods as remote from our own as we ourselves are from the Tudors, the graveyards in France of this Great War shall not remain an abiding and supreme memorial”,

and,

“will still preserve the memory of a common purpose pursued by a great nation”.—[Official Report, Commons 4/5/1920; cols. 1970-71.]