Caroline: It was the bells that let lots of people in Britain know that the First World War was over. They had been silent for months on end, but on 11 November 1918 makeshift crews of ringers returned to their belfries, producing peals that made people stop in the streets and ask each other: “Is it peace at last?”
Beyond just its consequences as an unprecedented military conflict, the Great War was utterly transformative for every aspect of life in Britain, from politics to literature to work and more. It changed forever the place of women in society, for instance, and helped to create the conditions in which the golden age of detective fiction dawned in the decade to follow.
This much we know, looking back from our vantage point a century and more later. But what was the day like itself, when the bells began to ring and the future was unknown? That’s what we’re going to find out.
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton. A reminder: the Shedunnit Pledge Drive is in full swing, and I’ve been bowled over by the support so far — at the time of recording, we’re well over halfway to my goal of adding 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club before the end of 2020 already, and it’s only been two weeks! If you’re thinking about joining and haven’t already taken a look at the benefits on offer, please do head over to shedunnitbookclub.com/pledgedrive or click the link in the episode description. Members get early ad free listening, access to the secret club forum, discounts on merchandise and much more. This version of the podcast will always be free, but if you want to support my efforts to make independent murder mystery based entertainment in a sustainable way, your contributions are very much appreciated. Look out for some extra episodes on this feed in coming weeks, as an example of the kind of thing I’ll be able to make if we hit the goal. And with that, let’s get on with this episode.
I expect most of you listening will have some idea of how the end of the First World War is commemorated in Britain. At 11am on the 11th of November every year there is a two minutes’ silence, the Royal British Legion sells poppies for people to wear in memory of those who fell in Flanders Field, and on the second Sunday in November there are church services, parades and wreath laying ceremonies at war memorials all over the country. Of course, these practices have morphed and changed over the decades to incorporate the commemoration of other conflicts too, but the First World War is still very much at the fore in these solemnities.
But the way we mark this day now is very different to how things were done on that first 11th of November in 1918. For starters, it wasn’t really a silent or even a quiet day at all.
Guy: So, well, on the western front, there was, in a sense, the kind of silence that we would now associate with the 11th of November because, of course, the guns stopped back home in Britain. It was quite the opposite. And it was an outburst of noise, if you like, excitement, raucousness, bells going off, bells which had not been rung during the war on the whole. Even guns going off to celebrate the end of the war, kind of maroons, as they were sometimes known as in London, for instance, there was huge crowds forming all sorts of noise and jollity, singing songs of crowds drifting up and down the main thoroughfares in London. People did lots of kissing, of course, and taking over London buses and all of those kind of things, drinking where you could get hold of alcohol. That wasn’t always that easy due to restrictions during the war, even just the basic thing of the lights coming back on because the war had been conducted on the home front in a lot of darkness or semidarkness.
Caroline: This is Guy Cuthbertson, and he’s rather uniquely qualified to be joining us to talk about this today.
Guy: I am, as it happens, the husband of Caroline from Shedunnit. But I also happened to have written a book about the armistice at the end of the First World War, a book called Peace at Last, which was entirely about the last day of the First World War, which is also, of course, the first day of peace, the 11th of November 1918, which came out with Yale University Press in 2018.
Caroline: Yes, I did interview my own husband for my podcast, in our living room. Our dog was also present, although he slept through the whole thing. But anyway, back to 11 November 1918. Although there was definitely a carnival atmosphere to the celebrations, it wasn’t a completely happy day by any means.
Guy: So in amongst all the celebrations, there were also, of course, lots of people who are incredibly sad, or indeed those descriptions of lots of people wearing black mourning dress, women in the crowds and so on, wearing black because they had lost loved ones, but nonetheless felt that they had to be there to celebrate for other people’s good fortune, shall we say, or indeed to prove that those who died did actually not die in vain because a victory had to come in the end. Now, of course, they talked about it as victory. Then we might not use that term these days. We might not really want to dwell on the idea of we won. It’s more about remembrance now and then seeing the incredible loss. Of course, a hundred years ago or so, there was a bit of a different atmosphere.
Caroline: This was a day of unprecedented celebration then, and collectively people weren’t really sure how to act. Feelings were unfettered, expressed in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Guy: At Berkhamstead school, for instance, where Graham Greene, the novelist, his father was the headmaster, drunken soldiers barged their way into the school looking to throw their headmaster into the canal. The headmaster escapes, but soldiers where school boys charged through the town. There’s all sorts of chaos then. And they take over a cinema and all sorts of mischief takes place, which then gets refashioned by the headmaster as being Bolshevism and revolutionary behaviour.
Caroline: There was also a harking-back to traditions of bygone eras, as people reached for some structure with which to frame events.
Guy: There’s always a kind of pagan kind of almost kind of folk tradition element in a lot of these celebrations is a moment when local traditions, local old dances or festivities or songs re-emerge in the celebrations, partly because people don’t know exactly how to celebrate. So they turn to familiar old dances and songs and merrymaking for which they would be prepared. A.L. Rowse, the historian, talked about how he was in Cornwall at the time and they start doing a floral dance. He talks about it as a momentary return to the old ways, how most people don’t actually know how to do the dance properly, but it seemed almost instinctively like the thing they should be doing. Well, there’s plenty of examples of people doing ring a ring, a roses, actually, lots of grown adults going back to doing things they would have known from the playground and from childhood. In Kent, children danced around the old oak tree on the green, very kind of folky kind of way of responding to what would otherwise have been a very modern war and a very new thing, peace at the end of the First World War. They go back to the ancient, the rural. This kind of strangely organic Merrie England as a way of celebrating.
Caroline: It was the same in the cities, at least in terms of the unbridled, chaotic spirit of the day.
Guy: The way that restaurants get taken over, all the dancing on tables. The smashing of crockery. The fact simply that the crowds were so vast that, you know, in a motor car or in a bus would have been just stuck in the crowd anyway. And so everything becomes a kind of outdoor theatre where people are watching other people. People are dancing and other entertaining other people with their dances. Lots of strange fancy dress. There’s people putting on military uniform, even if they’re not in the military, even children dressing up as soldiers, women putting on men’s military uniform, men dressing up as women, all sorts of topsy turvy ness, which is what a lot of people talked about in terms of the last day of the war. The day the world turned upside down, as one newspaper put it.
Caroline: The day the world turned upside down. That’s the point from which everything afterwards grows, the moment of chaos that the following decade will react to. The critic Alison Light has famously characterised detective fiction as a “literature of convalescence”, the idea being that people were so traumatised and exhausted by the events of the First World War that they were naturally drawn to the ordered, black and white world of the murder mystery where the detective has everything under control and in the end justice is done. After the horrors of war and then the emotional release of the first Armistice Day, it makes complete sense that a form of literature in which the violence was controlled and largely bloodless and the guilty were punished for their crimes would be popular.
After the break: what was Agatha Christie up to?
Agatha Christie was 23 when the First World War broke out in July 1914. As I’ve covered previously on the podcast, she worked as a voluntary nurse and eventually trained as a dispensing chemist, a period of study that would go on to have a great influence on her use of poisons in her novels. She had married Archie Christie on Christmas Eve 1914, while her fiancé had a brief period of leave from his service in France, but spent the first years of her married life largely apart from her husband. In the autumn of 1918, though, Archive was posted back to Britain to work in the Air Ministry, and while they were in London Agatha was doing a course in book keeping and shorthand. She was sent home early from the college on Armistice Day, and on her way, she saw a sight that stayed with her always.
Guy: She actually says “I came upon one of the most curious sights I had ever seen. Indeed, I still remember it almost, I think, with a sense of fear.” And eventually they won’t because it’s actually about a woman confronting other women. It’s very kind of female experience, if you like, of the last day of the war. And she says: “Everywhere there were women dancing in the street. English women. I’m not given to dancing in public. It is a reaction, a more suitable to Paris and the French. But there they were, laughing, shouting, shuffling, leaping, even in in a sort of wild orgy of pleasure and almost brutal enjoyment. It was frightening. One felt that if there had been any Germans around, the women would have advanced upon them and torn them to pieces. Some of them, I suppose, were drunk. But all of them looked at the real lurched and shouted, I got home to find out you’re already home from his ministry. Well, that’s that, he said in his usual calm and unemotional fashion.”
Caroline: This sight obviously stuck with Christie, and Guy thinks it foreshadows some of the themes about the power of repressed emotions that she would go on to explore in her fiction.
Guy: An orgy of evil, perhaps almost in terms of the description, that kind of a sense of people losing their rationality, losing their normal sense of propriety, women dancing in the street, women drinking in public, women, as was often pointed out, letting their hair down or women not wearing hats. All of those ideas of how women should behave suddenly go out the window. Women, you know, grabbing strange men and snogging them in the street or even worse, in alleyways. There’s all sorts of descriptions of people just losing all sorts of normal propriety. So the Agatha Christie, a little anecdotal memory there. It’s a very interesting one, combining the sense of London crowds with also the sense of being a married woman recently married and also the idea of education here. She was taking some courses trying to improve herself and then the women out in the streets. In a kind of orgy and also then a sense of the potential perhaps for evil, for badness that might linger beneath the surface of normal English civilisation. So even in a little paragraph, you might get a sense of the world of Miss Marple or something that sense that, yes, we’re all nicely well brought up people, that we behave nicely, but we all have that ability within us to suddenly go strange and for things to turn upside down.
Caroline: Christie had actually already written her first detective novel in 1916, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, although it wasn’t published until 1920. It does incorporate several aspects of her own wartime experience, from the inclusion of a character who works as a hospital dispenser, to the appearance of Hercule Poirot as a Belgian refugee recently arrived in Britain. But it’s actually in a Poirot short story that we see her tackle the end of the war in more detail. “The Affair of the Victory Ball” was first published in 1923 and subsequently collected in the anthology Poirot’s Early Cases. In it, Hercule Poirot investigates a murder that took place in an archetype social event of the post 1918 world: a victory ball.
Guy: Here is a sense that the celebrations went on beyond the 11th of November. Indeed, for the subsequent days, there was all sorts of things going on in London with different costumes and different forms of weirdness going on on the streets. But then on the twenty seventh of November, there was an event called the Victory Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, which received a lot of coverage. It was a chance for the bright young things if you like to dress up and show themselves off for the press. And then that was copied and followed by a number of other balls, which also called themselves victory balls in subsequent months and in subsequent years, it’s noted in the affair at the Victory Ball, the Poirot story, that after the war, every dance seemed to be calling itself a victory ball. But there was a sense that there was a proper one and then all these other copycat ones.
Caroline: Costumes were a big part of the post war celebrations, and of course that is a central feature of Christie’s story, as much as dressing up for a night of unbridled revelry might seem like a strange way of celebrating the end of a war to us now.
Guy: If we think about Remembrance Sunday and the solemnity of services and go into war memorials and so on, the idea of somebody dressing up as a donkey or as a court jester or as Britannia herself or a knight in shining armour and celebrating the end of the war, in those terms, it seems a million miles away. But that was often the common way of going about it. So there’s plenty of fancy dress on the day itself. As they said. But also at these balls, you get descriptions of court jesters dancing with backhands. Chinaman waltzing with Shepherdess is the comic cast with the elephant and the kangaroo.
Caroline: The setting of that short story, then, would have been very recognisable to the reading public of the early 1920s. In writing about the victory balls in this way, Christie unites the post Armistice obsession with masquerade with the murder mystery’s ongoing preoccupation with disguise.
It was another of the Queens of Crime, though, who most directly tackled Armistice Day in her fiction. In her 1928 novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L. Sayers actually sets the story around Remembrance Day, complete with ceremony at the new cenotaph. It is a story in which precise timings are very important, and so it’s fitting that the two minutes’ silence features heavily.
In the central characters of the two Fentiman brothers, too, Sayers shows two different outcomes of military service during the First World War. Robert still loves the army, and indeed is still working as a soldier well into the 1920s, while his brother George has been disabled by the lingering after effects of the gas attacks he experienced in the trenches that now prevent him from working full time. Today, we would probably say that George is also suffering from PTSD, because he suffers from depressive episodes and is prone to nervous breakdowns, although at the time his condition would probably have come under the general heading of shell shock. This would also have been very recognisable to the contemporary reader, and reflects the less celebratory aftermath of the Armistice Day celebrations, Guy says.
Guy: There’s a great sense of bitterness that very quickly emerges from people who think we’ve done all of that. We’ve gone through all of that. And actually we can’t even get a job when we come home or our wives can’t even put bread on the table for our children. After all the hardship. And you can get a sense of that coming through, I presume, then into a lot of the writing of the 20s and 30s, including detective novels. The war obviously lingering in the background and, you know, probably far more about that than I do. But there’s that sense of it being a justification in some cases for what people are about to do, but also providing a sense of bitterness, a sense the life has not worked out as you think it should be, and that you are, in effect, shaking your fist at God, really feel for the unfairness of things.
Caroline: The antics of the public on the first Armistice Day in 1918 weren’t all about celebrating victory and shaking off the hardship of the war years. There’s was a substantial segment of the population who wanted to see some kind of retribution for all the losses they had suffered. They wanted vengeance, and this too feeds into to the fascination with justice and punishment represented by detective fiction, I think.
Guy: There was plenty of effigy burning on the 11th November and indeed on subsequent days. Now, of course, this is around the time of bonfire night, whereas it would be in Britain. American listeners might not know about that, but the 5th November when we traditionally used to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. So there is a sense that the bonfires that take place on the 11th November and the effigies they get burned on them are a kind of alternative for Guy Fawkes. But beyond that, though, there is a real desire for revenge and for justice. It’s not just no, it’s not just a bitter need for revenge, but a sense that this is only fair. So actually, if you look at the effigies, a lot of them are of the Kaiser and sometimes actually the kind of it’s quite like Guy Fawkes in terms of how a child might be represented in a kind of rushed way, using bits of old clothing and sacks and all sorts. Well, the effigies then represent this need to see that the person who was accused really of causing all of this, being responsible for millions of deaths, the Kaiser, the leader of Germany, should end up being punished. He should be hanged. Hang the Kaiser being something of a phrase that will be uttered not just on that day, but over the next weeks up to a general election. The sense of burning people might seem incredibly dark and a very strange thing to do when you’re celebrating the end of the war to immediately talk about causing pain or misery or hanging people and so on. Have we just done enough killing? Why do you need to start focussing on more of it? And indeed, some of it comes through the exuberance of schoolchildren who might not really be open to the nuances of political political circumstances or the idea of international law courts or any of that business. But it does actually fit in with detective novels here. In what context is murder justified in one context? In what context could killing or need for revenge be explained by things that you’ve gone through?
Caroline: The writers who were at the forefront of the golden age of detective fiction, like Christie, Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, Josephine Tey, Gladys Mitchell and others, were all shaped by the First World War in some way, either via their direct service or because of how it altered their life and education. It became part of their writing in the decades that followed, as they explored competing themes of good and evil, light and dark, victory and injustice.
Disguise, evil, passion, and closure. It was all there on that first Armistice Day.
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/peaceatlast, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
A reminder that the Shedunnit Pledge Drive is still running, and we are over halfway there already. This podcast will always be free to listen to, but if you’d like to support my efforts to make independent entertainment, you can do that now at shedunnitbookclub.com/pledgedrive.
I’ll be back on 25 November with another episode.