Today marks the ninety-sixth anniversary of the end of the First World War. For the Great War generation, Armistice Day was a yearly reminder of the war’s lasting significance for both nations and their people. Though people reflected upon the war in greatly contested ways, nearly all remembered the significance of the war on their lives.
As I was thinking about Armistice Day 2014, I had a look at some letters from Lt. Colonel Hugh J.C. Peirs, D.S.O. Peirs was the commanding officer of the 8th Battalion Queen’s West Surrey Regiment (BEF) and had survived fighting on the western front from September 1915 until the ending of the war. Peirs was a veteran commander: he survived wounds in the line of fire, witnessed many friends and comrades killed, and had been decorated for his heroism. His battalion was, by 1918, both battle-hardened and trench-weary.
Lt. Colonel H.J.C. Peirs, D.S.O. Photo courtesy of Dracopoli/Zorich Family and Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.
In early November 1918, Peirs, like many other officers, suspected that it was only a matter of time before the war ended. The abdication of the Kaiser was announced to his battalion on November 9 and word of the Armistice reached him two days later, announcing in military language that ‘defensive precautions will be maintained’ and that there would be no fraternization with the enemy.
When word of the Armistice came, Peirs’s battalion was behind the front lines in an area crowded with war refugees. The scene of weary soldiers, war detritus, material (and human) destruction, and desperate crowds of civilian refugees, would hardly have been an environment in which a victory celebration was possible or appropriate.
Peirs wrote his father on November 11. Rather than waxing meaningfully on the war’s ending he wrote simply:
‘So that’s that.’
He did not elaborate further on the moment’s significance. Instead, Peirs wrote of how difficult he expected it would be to keep the men occupied until they could be demobilized. He described his men’s weariness in a casual, but poignant, reference that ‘they never hope to touch a rifle again.’ He then asked his father to mail him some books so he could brush up on subjects such as Constitutional history and the mechanics of steam and petrol engines so he could give the men lectures to keep them occupied (and presumably out of trouble with the locals).
The day’s significance was not lost on Peirs – he saved his Armistice documents in his papers – but he was not reveling of his feelings either. He was not celebrating a gallant victory, but instead, showed a genuine concern for his men, for maintaining order, and a personal hope to get home as soon as possible. He was the consummate regimental officer – paternalistic, unsentimental, and pragmatic – character traits that had no doubt helped to keep him and his men alive for three years on the Western Front.
As historians we sometimes look for things that fit out prescribed way of thinking. When I turned to Peirs’s papers for this post, I was hoping for a detailed reflection on the war’s ending. Peirs was an elegant wartime writer – lively and humorous, but also, reflective and caring. I was hoping he would respond, to some degree, like a war memoirist would, putting the events of the time into wider perspective.
Peirs instantly washed away my prescriptive pretentions. ‘So that’s that,’ conveyed something much more significant in its simplicity; laconic resignation towards an event which had been anticipated and one he hoped for years would happen, but that was horrifically difficult to make possible. Such was his honest reflection after years of attrition; such is its legacy today. To Peirs the war’s ending was exactly that – an ending.
Letters of Lt. Col. H.J.C. Peirs, D.S.O., courtesy of the Dracopili/Zorich Family and Special Collections, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College.