World War I: because the "indecent" armistice day parties are over

American Armistice Anniversary Ball, Charing Cross, LondonAuthor's image
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While the United Kingdom recalls the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, commemorations will focus on those who fought and died. But Armistice Day was not always so gloomy.

At 11am on Tuesday November 11th 1919, former service personnel, relatives and friends of the dead and millions of others thanked for the sacrifices of the Great War.

A year after the end of the conflict, villages, towns and cities held parades, religious services and observed a two-minute silence.

This was during the day. On the evening of November 11th, it was different. Thousands of people – most young people – wanted to have fun.

"Victory Spheres" – charity fundraising events involving costumes, dancing, singing and drinking in abundance – have been organized to meet this need.

The film Pathé of the biggest dance of that year, held at the Royal Albert Hall in London, shows the costumed participants, including turbans, doublets and hoses, and a dress with stars and stripes. A woman with an imperious appearance is posing for Britannia.

"These events often had a celebratory air about them, as the soldiers wanted to emphasize the fact that they had lived through the war," says Chris Kempshall, a professor of modern European history at the University of Sussex.

"They celebrated with their companions and marked the sacrifices of their companions by living and enjoying their lives".

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The Armistice of 1918 saw mass celebrations in the United Kingdom

The balls continued, collecting money for veterans and charities.

Victory Dance, a poem by the writer and academician Alfred Noyes published in the 1920s, showed disgust for the frivolity on display:

Shadows of dead men

Stay close to the wall,

Watch the fun

Of the Victory Ball.

But every criticism remained silent until, on October 19, 1925, the Times newspaper published a letter from Richard "Dick" Sheppard, vicar of the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields, in central London.

He requested that the annual Albert Hall ball be canceled.

"Dancing is often the obvious and appropriate form of gratefully commemorating a happy event," he wrote, "but a large-scale masked ball as a tribute to the Great Liberation that followed in the unspeakable agony of 1914-1918 seems to me not so much irreligious as indecent ".

Sheppard, who had been a chaplain in a military hospital in France during the war, claimed that balls and similar "ill-conceived and ill-conceived" celebrations in hotels and restaurants "should not be encouraged, at least while this generation retains the pain of a competitive race. 39, tender and grateful remembrance ".

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Alfred Noyes was one of the first critics of the Armistice balls

The Times was inundated with letters that accepted or denounced Sheppard as a spoilsport.

A contributor, described as "company commander", claimed that, as the only survivor of four brothers, "the last thing they would like is that they should not hinder our enjoyment".

But another contributor, Roger Lawrence, agrees with Sheppard, saying that a masquerade ball was "grotesque" and a "piece of vulgarity".

The popular press, sensing the value of the controversy, took it further. The Daily Mail campaigned to have the balls finished for fear of offending mourning. He claimed that high-class socialites, some of whom had not served, were enjoying themselves at the expense of the fallen.

However, the Daily Express, engaged in a sales war with its rival, supported the rights of veterans to have fun and revive their camaraderie, risking their lives in war.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York took the same position as the Mail.

In the end, Albert Hall's Victory Ball organizer, Lord Northampton, yielded to the appeals, postponing him to November 12. On November 11th, existing ticket holders could participate in a commemoration service – directed by Sheppard.


Who was Richard "Dick" Sheppard?

  • Born in Windsor in 1880, Sheppard volunteered for service in the Second Boer War, but was wounded on his way to the railway station, leaving him unable to serve and disabled for life
  • He took part in the first religious broadcast of the BBC, in 1924, but had to stop working on the radio in 1926 because of problems related to asthma
  • In 1927, he announced his conversion to pacifism
  • After Sheppard died in 1937, 100,000 people passed in front of his coffin

Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


The number of balls decreased during the late 1920s, when Armistice Day began to take on the more or less completely understated character it has today.

A former officer has stopped taking part in the commemorations, describing them as "too similar to participate in their own funeral".

"Against the grim nature of these moments is the fact that, in reality, 88% of British soldiers survived the First World War," says Dr. Kempshall, "and they wanted to be able to undertake their commemoration and activity in light of this fact."

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VE Day is remembered for its party atmosphere

The debate of the '20s must be seen in the context of society at that time, says Elisabeth Shipton, author of Female Tommies: The Frontline Women of the First World War.

"With the increase in pacifism and increasing austerity, parties with alcohol, dance and excess felt more and more inopportune," he says.

"Besides, was it a" victory "given such a great loss of life?"

Approximately 750,000 British soldiers died during the First World War. But while nearly 400,000 people of service personnel in the United Kingdom died during the Second World War, the commemorations of the Victory in Europe (VE) Day have a very cheerful tone, dancers and actors reconstructing famous scenes of the celebrations of the May 8, 1945.

What is sometimes forgotten is that even the cities of the United Kingdom have seen spontaneous parts when the Armistice was announced on 11 November 1918. Thousands of people gathered outside Buckingham Palace, as in 1945.

However, the differences in the commemoration continue.

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"The two world wars set the tone to understand and rationalize the wars in this country", says dr. Kempshall.

The crimes of the Nazi Reich make it easier to see the adversary as "clearly" wicked "", while much of the popular memory of the First World War is "mud, blood, trenches and incompetent generals," he adds.

The First World War "seemed to have been resolved in a less conclusive way", which means that "it has a huge impact on the way we talk about modern wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan that have conflicting outcomes and, times, limited popular support ".

Charity dances, held around November 11, are making a slight return to the United Kingdom, the United States and around the Commonwealth, Ms. Shipton notes.

But Sheppard's vision of the Armistice Day, shaped by his time tending to the wounded and dying soldiers on the Western Front, continues to dominate.

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