When the First World War finally came to an end at 11 o’clock in the morning on November 11 one Scottish soldier may not have been unduly surprised.

Earlier in the year, in July 1918, John Thomson, a young Gunner from Penicuik in Midlothian, had taken shelter in a shell-hole on the Ypres sector of the Western Front. Exhausted by the shock of battle, he had drifted into sleep and, in that curious twilit state of half-sleeping and half-dozing, an apparition dressed in black came to him to say that he would survive the war, which would end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Naively, he told his mates what had happened and they started laying bets on when the war would end. To begin with, they feared Thomson must have got something wrong because there was a false alarm when some newspapers published the glad tidings prematurely on November 7, only to retract the fake news a few hours later.

The real thing came four days later and it was not entirely unexpected. Turkey had capitulated on October 30, ending the fighting in Mesopotamia and Palestine; Austria-Hungary followed suit on November 3. When the latter news arrived in the signals room of the 9th Scottish Division the recipient commented that “Austria has thrown in her mitt”. As the divisional historian recorded, “it was thus that a phlegmatic Scottish soldier announced the fall of the ancient Empire of the Hapsburgs, the oldest ruling family in Europe and the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire”.

In Germany, things had also started to fall apart. Sailors in the Baltic and North Sea ports mutinied after the High Seas Fleet refused to put to sea for one last battle against the Royal Navy. There was civil unrest in Berlin and, with revolution looming, Kaiser Wilhelm II had no option but to yield to demands for an armistice and went into exile in the Netherlands, which had remained neutral throughout the conflict. Accordingly, on November 9 a German negotiating team arrived in the Forest of Compiegne where the terms of the armistice were decided in a French railway carriage under the direction of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch.


The demands were stark and uncompromising. All occupied territory was to be surrendered, including Alsace-Lorraine; the German army would give up huge numbers of weapons and aircraft; the left bank of the Rhine would be occupied; most of the fleet, including submarines, would be scuppered; and Germany would be forced to pay reparations. After working through the night the German delegation agreed to the terms in the early hours of morning on November 11. The armistice would begin at 11 o’clock when all hostilities would cease.

Although long anticipated, the announcement still caused surprise and some units were preparing to go into action when the order arrived. Shortly before 11am , 1/5th Highland Light Infantry was preparing to attack along the Mons-Jubise road when they received the welcome news but, as an officer recorded, it was greeted with a strange mixture of emotions, not least because, on the previous day, the 52nd Lowland Division, in which the battalion was serving, had lost six soldiers killed and 17 wounded. “Strange to relate there was no tremendous excitement,” he wrote. “Perhaps the philosopher spoke truly when he said that one always has a feeling of regret on doing a thing for the last time. Perhaps we had been fed on rumours so often that we took this for one. Perhaps we were too weary in mind or body to grasp the significance of this stupendous news.”

Another soldier in the 15th Scottish Division recorded similar sentiments later that day when he overhead two men in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers talking in subdued tones: “I’d like fine to be in Blighty the nicht. It’ll be a grand nicht this at hame; something daen’ I’ll bet.” “Aye,” said another, “an’ there’ll be a guid few tears, too.”

That set the mood. Throughout Scotland the celebrations were tempered by what the Glasgow Herald described as “a marked restraint – an inclination, while expressing heartfelt gratitude, to remember the days of suffering and loss through which the way to victory had led”. Inevitably, the high spirits were tempered by the memory of lost loved ones and by the sobering thought that the jubilation masked much sadness in many homes.


However, an inclination towards sombreness did not put a stop to licence. In most parts the news was greeted with wild scenes of joy as people took to the streets to celebrate a day many believed would never arrive. After 1,564 days the worst war in modern history had come to an end. Church bells, silent since August 1914, were rung again and, as winter darkness fell, streetlights continued burning and shop windows blazed with light in defiance of the long months of blackout.

In Edinburgh, searchlights played on the Scott Monument and Princes Street was thronged with crowds, although the Scotsman observed somewhat primly: “With the public houses closed early in the evening cases of intoxication were very rare. The early retiring habits acquired during the war period began to show their sedative influence by 10 o’clock after which the city quietened down.”

Glasgow was more boisterous: Union flags were flown from office windows as crowds pushed through the streets dancing and cheering behind pipe bands. In Aberdeen ships’ sirens sounded while, in Union Street, an impromptu procession was led by pipers.

Student Wilma Deans remembered “tremendous excitement; newsboys were shouting, apprentices from the shipyards were dashing about, all sorts of people had abandoned their work and were out of the pavements shouting and hurrahing.” There was, of course, a darker side. Many of the survivors were disabled, others could not find work or became homeless and there was an overwhelming need to tackle the problems facing them on returning to civilian life.

A few associations and ex-servicemen’s clubs catered for the veterans but, being independent of each other, they lacked political and financial cohesion and the different factions were often at loggerheads. It was not until 1920 that the first steps were taken to forge some unity and the guiding figure was the British commander-in-chief Field Marshal Earl Haig, who had retired in January 1919 and who had long insisted that the needs of former service personnel required urgent attention. His experience, and the respect in which he was held, led to the creation in 1921 of the British Legion and the British Legion Scotland. By the end of the following year the latter was able to report that it had dealt with 7,645 cases in respect of pensions, medical claims and arrears of pay, recovering some £3,500 in the process. Although this was an age when men were supposed to suffer in silence and show a stiff upper lip, the repression of war experience could not disguise the fact that many veterans were condemned to spend the rest of their lives suffering in smaller or greater measure from the effects of war.

Former soldiers continued to die in their hundreds after the Armistice as a result of war-related injuries or illnesses: the total listed as wounded in the British armed forces was 1,676,037, at least 10 per cent of whom would have been Scots, and, until 1939, the annual reports of the Registrar-General for Scotland recorded the numbers of veterans who had died as a result of their war wounds. Charitable organisations catered for the needs of the veterans but theirs was largely a hidden sorrow, out of sight and out of mind.

There was also the continuing pain of those who had lost loved ones, women made widows, children who would never know their fathers and parents denied the opportunity of seeing their teenage sons become men. For them the war would never end, a point made by the entertainer Sir Harry Lauder who had lost his only son John in December 1916.

“Everything was unreal. For a time I was quite numb,” Lauder wrote later about the day when he received the telegram announcing John’s death. “But then, as I began to realise and to visualise what it was to mean in my life that my boy was dead, there came a great pain.” Those words of anguish could have been written for thousands of other Scottish families for whom the “Great War”, as it was generally known, had been won at a terrible personal price.

Trevor Royle is a member of the Scottish Government’s Advisory Panel for Commemorating World War I.

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