One hundred years ago this month, when the end of the First World War was announced, people in Britain rang bells, lit bonfires and set off fireworks. Such activities were all the more enjoyable, having been banned by the Home Office during the war. The fireworks still were illegal, but never mind.
Black out masking was removed from street lamps, though there was still only enough fuel to light half of them, and the face of Big Ben was lit again. London crowds celebrated with a din of hooters and whistles (whistling for taxis had been banned during the war) and by destroying an air raid shelter in Piccadilly. Edinburgh residents restricted themselves to waving small flags and singing the national anthem, with ‘no outburst of unbridled demonstration’, according to The Scotsman.
The Daily Mirror called this the most glorious day in history, insisting that ‘military victory alone brought peace.’ The celebrated architect Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to design a shrine in Hyde Park to ‘symbolise the victory of right over might and the triumph of justice’, which eventually became the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
But then what do you do? Three million British families had lost someone in the war. They had suffered food shortages and rationing – white flour was another thing banned by the government. Everyone blamed German militarism for starting the war and for dragging it out over four hellish years.
What do you do with all that resentment? You can enjoy peace, but that wasn’t enough. You can enjoy victory, but even that wasn’t enough. In the UK general election, five weeks after armistice, candidates won with slogans like ‘Make Germany pay and hang the Kaiser’. The prime minister promised to ‘demand the whole cost of the war from Germany’.
The victorious powers humiliated Germans, making them accept the blame for the war and agree to pay a devastating 100,000 tonnes of gold in compensation. The Treaty of Versailles required the Kaiser to face a show trial, though this never happened. Germany lost territory and military forces.
The winners had not learned from history. A century before, when Britain and its allies finally defeated France’s 23-year campaign of conquest, they behaved quite differently. They decided, in the words of the historian Dan Snow, ‘to take our foot off the trachea of the French monarchy’. No devastation, no compensation. The French were included in the conversation and the final agreement reflected their needs as well as the victors’.
This 1815 agreement led to unprecedented peace between European nations: apart from sending troops to a couple of civil wars, the Crimean War was Britain’s only European conflict until 1914. But after the First World War, the victors’ quest for vengeance led to turmoil in Germany that put Hitler in power and brought us another world war in just 20 years. How hard it can be to let go of the injuries we nurse, but how badly they hurt us when we do not.
This article was published in the November 2018 edition of Reform