Armistice Day - Harpenden 1918
Two people met in Harpenden on Armistice Day and both left a record of the event.
Edwin Grey was supervising men in the fields at Rothamsted Experimental Station. The group included some German Prisoners of War from the camp at Hatfield who, he recorded, got on well with the regular staff, communicating by sign language.
On the day of the Armistice, he noted that everyone was quiet until he saw one of the church bell-ringers who shouted that the Armistice was signed. “Our men turned to the Germans, saying “It’s all over.” They cried out “Fini, Fini” and began to caper around; one threw his hat up a tree, whilst the guard threw down his rifle and danced the hornpipe“. Edwin asked the men to lay down their tools and they, and the Germans, formed a ring and sang the National Anthem.[i]
Theodora Wilson noted in her diary that: “The armistice was signed by the delegates of a Socialist Chancellor at 5am on Monday 11th and by 11 o’clock the order went round “Cease fire” on all fronts and the flags were run up and the bells rang out everywhere“.[ii]
She heard the excitement and recorded that: “and even the German prisoners working close by here on the Rothamsted mangol field threw up their caps and sang God save the King with our workmen. Poor fellows I expect they were as glad as we are that the war is over“.
Edwin continued the story: “Miss Wilson, of River’s Lodge, came and after talking to me a bit asked if she could be allowed to speak a few words to the prisoners“. Theodora recorded that ” I ran up to shake hands with them and speak a few halting words in their own tongue – Father would have done that I am sure and it was the simplest act of sympathy and thanksgiving“. This impressed the men and Edwin noted one saying “Well, I’m blowed, why she is talking to ’em in their own country like“.
Dr Russell, Director at Rothamsted, allowed the rest of the day to be a holiday and so the men went their separate ways with Edwin leaving the POWs in charge of their guard with some odd jobs, knowing that they would not go wrong.
Theodora and her sister went “to the splendid spontaneous service in the parish church which was packed from end to end. When it was dusk we put out our old hoarded fairy lights and lit every gas and lamp we could and drew up the blinds – the Laboratory [Rothamsted] turned on all their electric lights for half an hour …. Old Harpenden had illuminated right loyally for the peace as we did long ago at the close of the Boer war“.
Rothamsted Experimental Station was founded by John Bennet Lawes (1814 – 1900). More information can be found in the Wittewronge collection held at HALS. Sir John Wittewronge’s Weather Diary has been published by the Hertfordshire Record Society – link here.
The collection was the inspiration for the “Threads of Time” project in 2014.
[i] Edwin Grey, “Rothamsted Experimental Station” is available at HALS and St Albans library (reference only). Call number 633.072.
[ii] HALS/DE/X1032/8. Journal 1911 – 1918 by Theodora Wilson of Harpenden.