The Armistice to end the First World War with Germany was signed on 11th November 1918. However this was merely a ceasefire until the peace had been negotiated and a peace treaty was signed. Transporting people home often caused problems, resulting in many not seeing their loved ones until 1919 or even later. The peace was not properly celebrated until everyone was home and the peace treaty was signed.
Negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles took six months, and it was not signed until the end of June 1919. When it became clear that the treaty was going to be signed, attention turned to celebrating victory. A committee was set up to organise a national celebration.
The 19th July 1919 was decided as Peace Day, and 15,000 troops took part in a victory parade in London and there were many more local celebrations across cities, towns and villages. The parade was led by important Allied Commanders Pershing (Head of the American Expeditionary Force), Foch (Allied supreme commander) and Haig (British Commander in Chief). At the end of the parade a monument, the Cenotaph, was unveiled in Whitehall.
British architect Edwin Landseer Lutyens was commissioned by the British Government to design a catafalque – a raised platform to hold a casket or tomb – to be erected on Peace Day. The Cenotaph was dedicated to the losses suffered during the First World War and is now a symbol of remembrance for those who have died in all conflicts since.
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The original Cenotaph structure was made from wood and plaster and only intended to stay for one week. However it was so popular that a permanent replacement was commissioned.
For those who returned from the war, adjusting to life at home was often difficult. The war had impacted them physically and mentally, and life back on the home front was not easy with unemployment high and demobilisation proving to be complicated.
Plans for demobilisation were discussed as early as 1917 but it was Winston Churchill as War Secretary in January 1919 who introduced the scheme to be implemented. The demobilisation scheme was based on a serviceman’s age, length of service and the number of times they had been in battle or wounded. This ensured that the longest-serving servicemen were usually released from service first. In November 1918, the British army consisted of 3.8 million men. The year after it was reduced to 900,000, and by 1922 there were 230,000 men.
An unusually severe form of influenza broke out in the summer of 1918. It infected around 500 million people and killed an estimated 20 million to 50 million victims worldwide! The war promoted travel for all involved, from labourers, to nurses and servicemen. As the virus was extremely contagious it was carried across the world, infecting and killing more people!
Victims often died within hours of realising they were affected, their skin would turn blue and their lungs would fill up, causing suffocation! The virus disappeared by the summer of 1919 claiming more lives than the First World War.
The Iolaire Disaster
One of the worst peacetime shipping disasters to befall British coastal waters occurred in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Built as a luxury yacht in 1881, HMY Iolaire was ordered to bring returning servicemen home to the Isle of Lewis in time for the New Year, the first time for four years that some families would be together. However tragedy hit; in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919, HMY Iolaire sank at the entrance of Stornoway Harbour, with the loss of 205 servicemen. There were only 79 survivors.
Every village in Lewis lost fathers, sons, brothers and were left with scores of widows and fatherless children.