The War's Over, But Don't Get Too Excited

Arnold Bennett
Arnold Bennett

by Ray Setterfield

November 11, 1918 — On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month the First World War officially came to an end in 1918, bringing relief, joy and ecstatic celebrations. But not for everyone. With a stiff upper lip, author Arnold Bennett, who worked for the Government, recorded his thoughts.

Bennett, who had written more than 30 books, was a figure of great influence in politics and culture at the time. He was offered – but refused – a knighthood for his service running the French propaganda department for the British government during the war.

As the lights began to come back on in a darkened and subdued London, his entry in his diary on November 12 reflected attitudes and a way of life that were to be lost forever:

Returned to London yesterday morning. In Lower Regent Street first news that armistice signed – a paper boy calling out. Maroons [fireworks] went off at 11 and excited the populace.

A large portion of the Ministry staff got very excited. Girls very excited. I had to calm them. Lunch at Wellington Club. We had driven part way up the Mall through large crowds and were then turned off from Buckingham Palace.

Raining now. An excellent thing to dampen hysteria and Bolshevism. Great struggling to cross Piccadilly Circus. No buses. It stopped raining. Vehicles passed festooned with shouting human beings. Others dark, with only one or two occupants.

Much light in Piccadilly up to Ritz corner, and in Piccadilly Circus. It seemed most brilliant.

Some theatres had lights on their facades. The enterprising Trocadero had hung a row of lights under one of its porticoes. Shouting. But nothing terrible or memorable.

This morning Brayley, my valet, said to me the usual phrases: ‘You wondered where the people came from. You could walk on their heads at Charing Cross and you couldn’t cross Piccadilly Circus at all.’

When he came in with my tea I said: ‘Well, Brayley, it’s all over.’ He smiled and said something. That was all our conversation about the end of the war. Characteristic.

Last night I thought of lonely soldiers in that crowd. No one to talk to. But fear of death lifted from them.

*From The Journals of Arnold Bennett, 1911-1921, edited by Newman Flower. Cassell & Co. 1932.

Published: September 4, 2017

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