If I’ve been a bit fixated on the US midterm elections over the past week, I’ve also been a bit fixated on WW1 for the past year or more. For we are now just three days away from the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1 on 11 November 1918.
And yesterday I found out something remarkable about that day. I knew that the war ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. But it seems that it wasn’t actually supposed to end then. It was supposed to end at 2:30 pm that day. The story of what happened is recounted at 4 minutes and 58 seconds into the video below:
King George had been one of the first in Britain to know what time the war was going to end, because he had been telephoned earlier that morning by his schoolfriend the first sea lord Admiral Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, who had just signed the armistice for Britain in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiegne.
“As everybody knows, the armistice happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and that was what Wemyss signed. That wasn’t what he’d been told to sign. He’d been told to sign by LLoyd George an armistice which would come into effect at 2:30 pm on the 11th of November 1918. And those were his instructions. But he disobeyed his instructions for two reasons. One: The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was poetry, and 2:30 pm on the 11th of November was not. And also he said if we fight on for another 3½ hours thousands of people may get killed. He then returned to Paris and rang up the King and told him what he’d done, and the King spread the word about as quickly as he could, and so by 11 am there were vast crowds in front of Buckingham Palace, and the King and Queen came out onto the balcony and were the heroes of the hour. By 2:30 pm Lloyd George was wanting to stand up in the House of Commons and announce the fact and pull his watch out of his pocket, and everybody was meant to have said Good On Lloyd George and vote him back into power at the next general election, but nobody was there at all. They were all getting wildly out of control in front of Buckingham Palace. So Lloyd George was very angry indeed, as were other members of the cabinet. And they censured Wemyss for having done this, and they were quite unpleasant to him when he got back to London on the 12th of November. He couldn’t believe that they all looked very gruff and glum and unpleasant, and he thought that was incredible pettiness. And they also didn’t give him a peerage like they gave everybody else who’d been in charge of the services. And they didn’t give him 100,000 pounds, which they gave to everybody else who’d been at that rank. A 100,000 pounds then is about 5 million pounds now. So his determination that thousands of people shouldn’t get killed between 11 am and 2:30 pm on the 11th of November, and his wish to be poetic about it, cost him 5 million pounds.”
What an extraordinary story! But I wonder if there might be yet more to it than that. When did Lloyd George instruct Wemyss to end the war at 2:30 pm? Wemyss was a friend of the King, and it seems quite likely that Wemyss told the King about the designated time of 2:30 pm almost as soon as Lloyd George had told him, and that the King and Wemyss hatched a plan to steal a march on the politicians in Westminster. Why do such a thing? Because the royal family were very worried about their popularity, given the overthrow of the tsar of Russia the previous year, and the abdication of the German Kaiser the day before (9 November). Crowned heads were toppling all over Europe, and the British royal family feared they would be next. What better way to boost their popularity than to appear before cheering crowds on the balcony of their palace to announce the end of the war? How long does it take to get hold of a large crowd?
And was it simply “incredible pettiness” on the part of Lloyd George and his cabinet? Having knowledge of important events shortly before they happen can allow people to buy and sell stocks and shares at good prices before anyone else. You might, for example, want to buy shares in arms industries just before a war starts and their value increases, and sell them just before it ends, and their value decreases. So Lloyd George and his cabinet were probably planning to sell off shares in arms industries on the morning of the 11th of November, and buy shares in peacetime industries. But when they arrived at the stock exchange they found that the armistice had already been announced. Wemyss had cost them a fortune. And that was why they were determined to cost him a fortune in his turn.
In addition, if Lloyd George and his cabinet had lost a fortune, it’s very likely that the King and his friends made themselves fortunes that day. And because Wemyss was in on the plot, he quite likely made one too. And that was another reason why Lloyd George saw no reason to award him anything.
Aside from that, I didn’t know that they’d all been awarding each other peerages and hundreds of thousands of pounds at the end of the war. Did the common soldiers, who had actually done the fighting, get given anything? Apparently not:
£19, that’s the account of that. I’d served my seven years.
And of course it was poetic for the hour to be the 11th hour, rather than 2:30 pm. Why couldn’t Lloyd George have thought of that himself? Perhaps he did, but he wanted to announce the event in Parliament, and 2:30 pm would have been the time he was scheduled to speak.
There seem to be lots of these sort of documentaries around these days. Another three part series that I watched yesterday was The Long Shadow. And this looked at the consequences of WW1 in Britain during subsequent years. All men over the age of 21 gained the vote, and so did women older than 30. And much else happened as well.
P.S. Link: The Armistice began at on 11th November 1918 at 11am (French time) – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The Armistice itself was agreed 6 hours earlier at 5am with the first term of it being that fighting would end at 11am.