Armistice Day


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Today is Armistice Day here in the UK. At 11am on the 11th November (the 11th month) the country acknowledges two minutes silence in memory of all those who have died in combat. Today is particularly special as it marks the 90th anniversary of the First World War, said to be “the war to end all wars”. Over 20 million people died and 21 million were injured in WW1. How could we ever forget it?

I’ve been thinking a lot about our link back to the World Wars recently. The loss of an elderly friend set me thinking about the lost stories and memories he took with him. I was lucky enough to interview my Grandmother for a history project before she died – somewhere I have an audio tape of her memories, and I know where my written report is safely stored. But so many personal accounts, important recollections, are falling by the wayside – it makes me want to collect them all together for posterity’s sake. When I imagine doing this I do not see written tales in a volume, but shelves and shelves of jars containing “living memories” – much like the dreams in The BFG.

I have been reading a book called Singled Out: How two million women survived without men after the First World War. The author, Virginia Nicholson, interviewed hundreds of women who suffered an irreplacable loss during the war years, and whose stories are often heart-wrenching to read. These women were part of the “two million surplus” for whom the high death toll had dashed the dream of marriage – whether by taking their sweethearts and husbands from them or by leaving too few men for the number of women. These women shaped our lives as we know them, seeking satisfaction in other aspects of life, proving their worth in the workplace and in society, and enabling women as a body to live fulfilled lives alone. Before the horror of war forced change upon us, a woman who did not marry was seen, quite simply, as a failure. For these women marriage was not even an option. They had no choice but to get on with it, alone.

A couple of weeks ago I helped my Mum clear out a couple of rooms at home. In a tin in a wardrobe, buried amongst old fur coats and forgotten toys, we found hand written letters from France, sent from my Granddad, Harry, to my Gran, Joan. Joan lost her first husband, my Uncle’s father, in the Second World War. His name was Morris, he was a paratrouper, and he asked his friend Harry to look after his wife and son if anything should happen to him. Harry and Joan fell in love, and after the war were married. The letters we found were the most beautiful, moving words of genuine affection I have ever read. They were so honest and so personal – true “love letters”, professing the kind of love only utter tragedy can inspire.

They also represent an authentic history, the history of individuals, the history of a family and the history of a country all at once. There are so few British families without a link to the World Wars, but simple discoveries such as ours suddenly make that link so much more alive.


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7 thoughts on “Armistice Day

  1. Thanks so much for your insightful post. My grandfather served in France during WWI. It must have been total culture shock for a guy from a tiny town in Florida. I’ve got a lace handkerchief a French woman (not my grandmother, a-hem!) gave him. Today in the States it is Veteran’s Day. Our local elementary school is having a special program to honor Veterans and a 9 yr old friend has invited my husband (former US Marine)as his guest. Our Memorial Day to honor all those who died in the wars falls at the end of May and has become more of the first holiday of summer…more vacations & picnics, not so much rememberance. I wonder if in the future 9/11 will just be another day when furniture stores have super sales.

  2. I finished reading that book a couple of weeks ago and I have to say it completely changed my view of the world. I think we have forgotten how completely devastating the war was and the impact it had on everyone – those who fought and those left behind; how our stereotype of the spinster is based on these 2 million women who were left alone without hope of meeting a mate; how we should be thankful it was not our generation.

  3. Emily – isn’t it lovely to own a little piece of history like that? I know what you mean about furniture store sale days though – it’s like Boxing Day, now symbolising the start of the sales. What happened to spending the holidays with family?!

    Ruby – it’s incredible isn’t it, just trying to imagine the struggles they went through and the impact they made on our lives. We should indeed be very grateful.

    FV – you’re welcome! 🙂

  4. My mother and father were both teenagers in WW2, and they were both very open to sharing their experiences from that time. My uncle, who is still alive, was a D-Day veteran who was wounded on the beaches. Another uncle fought in Burma but was captured and tortured. He told us the experiments that ere carried on him and other prisoners. He went into very graphic detail which was very upsetting. We should NEVER forget what that brave generation went through, and how, today, our lives would be very different if they hadn’t.

  5. Ebabystore – how awful that your family had to go through such things, and how wonderful that they felt able to share them with you. I know a lot of people who suffered through the war find themselves unable to share their experiences – my own Grandfather never told his family what he won his medal for, and took his bravery to the grave. Thank you for leaving such an informative comment.

  6. I think it very important that we never forget what people do or did for our freedom. My great uncle was a Japanese prisoner of war and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for him or the memories he must have carried. A few minutes silence once a year is the least we can do.

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