Throughout Britain it had been a magical day, repeatedly described as ‘wonderful beyond words’... Guy Cuthbertson’s book aims to retrieve something of the excitement and pandemonium — as well as the sheer strangeness —of the British experience of the Armistice. Reading it is a bit like watching a day unfold in slow motion... Cuthbertson has worked hard in assembling his impressionistic picture from scores of first-hand manuscript and published accounts (it may be invidious to mention one major collection he’s missed, but it seems distinctly odd that he didn’t apparently consult the Liddle archive in Leeds). The result is often memorable and moving, though sometimes his more interesting conclusions — for example of the revolution-defying impact of George V being driven through the London drizzle on 11 November in an open carriage, ‘without cops’, as Ezra Pound put it — are lost in the monotony of the flag-waving. One can take only so much yelling and shrieking.
Newspapers rushed out special editions, but rather than proclaiming victory most carried the headline “Peace at last”. This gives Guy Cuthbertson the title of his brilliant portrayal of Britain on the day that peace broke out; when people could believe there was an end to the war to end all wars. He weaves a wonderful tapestry of the mood and events across the country, drawing on a wide range of local and regional newspapers. It is accessible history at its best.
Cuthbertson has not merely trawled memoirs, diaries and letters in which personal experiences of the day were recorded; he also seems to have been through just about every local newspaper in Britain – a much underappreciated source – to describe the ‘mafficking’ that went on when the news arrived from Compiègne. This can at times give his book the feel of being something of a list, or a round-Britain round-up, which is its only shortcoming. But the extensive context and understanding he provides more than compensate for this... Cuthbertson sets the scene expertly... If the balance in the book, though, is weighted towards the exuberance and relief felt on Armistice Day, that can hardly be considered surprising. There are just two assertions in the book with which I would take issue... Those caveats aside, this is as definitive a work as one could wish for about the day that saw the end of what was supposedly the war to end all wars.