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11 November 2018

The 100th Anniversary of the Armistice

Tag(s): History
In last week’s blog I commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of an extraordinary series of events that took place in 1968, also a special year for me. I omitted one event that year which as it turned out was important in my world, the first and only state visit to date by a British monarch to Chile. Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh visited Chile for seven days in November 1968. The visit was a huge success and the Anglo-Chilean Society in London of which my wife is the Vice-Chair has put on an exhibition at the Chilean Embassy devoted to recollections of the visit.[i] Curated by Iberia Torres West my wife and I attended the launch of the exhibition. The newly arrived Chilean Ambassador, who has a fine feel for history, noted that the visit coincided with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice as she actually arrived in Chile on 11th November, 1968 Remembrance Day.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice bringing to a close what is often described as the most devastating war in modern history. According to historical estimates using the geometric mean there have been worse in previous history, mainly in Asia.
Dates Event Region No of deaths 
184-280 Three Kingdoms War China 37,947,332
755-763 An Lushan Rebellion China 21,633,308
1206 -1368  Mongol Conquest Eurasia 34,641,016
1370 -1405 Conquest of Timur China 12,649,111
1616 -1662 Qing conquest of the Ming  China 25,000,000
1850 -1864 Taiping Rebellion China  24,494,897
1862 -1877 Dungan Revolt China 9,797,959
1914 -1918 World War I Worldwide  13,396,335
1939 -1945 World War II Worldwide 69,069,811
However, very clearly the Second World War was far worse than any previous conflict. I do not have any particular family connections to the First World War. Both my grandfathers were in reserved occupations, one as a retailer, the other as a railway clerk. But my school lost over 500 old boys and staff in the conflict and we had our daily assembly in the Memorial Hall.

The Second World War had a far greater impact on me as my father joined up on the outbreak of war. After training in places like Yorkshire and Northern Ireland he married my mother in February 1942 and after a brief honeymoon, he sailed with his regiment to Madagascar to clean up the mess the French had made. After successfully achieving this they went to India to prepare to take back Burma and did not return until October 1945. So my parents were apart for over 3½ years and during that time they wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Here are just a few extracts:
Eric to Joan 1942-48                                                                                  Tamatave, Madagascar Nov. 27th 1942
Thursday our new Colonel came along to dinner & Smith & Cotton put on another really first class show. After dinner two naval officers popped in to see us so we had a pleasant chat, the six of us. It rained very heavily Thursday. Tonight we were to have had a cocktail party at the other mess & invited lots of French people but today has been declared a national day of mourning for the French (in Tamatave anyway) because of the sinking of the French fleet in Toulon. We started getting refusals so it became obvious that we would have to cancel the party so we’re having it on Tuesday. The sinking of those French ships with their officers on board is terribly tragic but I’m afraid we’ve lost hope for the French. That fleet should have left Toulon two years ago. They gave Indo-China to the Japs but we had to fight for this island, & our casualties at Diego cannot be considered light having regard to the nature of the operation. Losing Eric Wyatt was a blow for us[iii]. They fought at Casablanca until we sunk a brand new battleship. I don’t think we’ll be able to call their war record a glorious one when we look back at the end of the war.
Joan to Eric 1943-329                                                                     Worcester Park, Surrey   9th November, 1943
Fancy it being Armistice Day again tomorrow- I don’t think very much fuss will be made about it this year, probably a few services & I think they’ll still sell Flanders poppies, but the last war seems very remote to our generation doesn’t it
Joan to Eric 1944-428                                               Arundell Farm, Sussex June 7th 1944 (day after invasion)[iv]
My darling,
We’re still here, growing fatter, tougher, browner, dirtier, more scratched day by day, & are quite surprised & very relieved that the office has not sent violent telegrams to the War Agricultural people recalling us.[v] We heard of the invasion yesterday lunchtime on the gorse field- in fact, darling, to be perfectly crude & honest with you, Lucy, Pauline & I had all retired behind a convenient hedgerow (you can guess our mission) & the historical moment of hearing the actual words shouted by someone down in the valley, “Girls, the invasion’s started”, we were in the act of re-buttoning our slacks!! Hope you don’t think I’m being unnecessary in disclosing these intimate details, but if you can’t be intimate with your own husband- well!!! Anyway, darling, one gets very primitive in one’s small talk on the land! To return to the serious subject of the invasion- we’ve heard about one news bulletin since yesterday this morning at 8 & heard that our chaps are engaged in fighting near Caen & that losses so far are light. It’s all exciting that it’s really started & one feels a bit wound-up about things. We have heard the not-very-far distant boom of gunfire all day, presumably on the coast or in the channel & as for the bombers going over- They’ve kept us awake half the night & we’ve seen some doing the victory roll this afternoon.

Eric to Joan 1944-202a                    Capt. E.C.Pearson RA 9th Fld. Regt. RA. South East Asia  August 8th 1944
However darling, we can wait, & everything will be all the lovelier for our waiting. We shall feel that we have earned & are entitled to all the happiness we have. In the meantime darling there’s a job to be done & we’re getting on with it fairly well at the moment. It’s difficult darling to give you a clear idea of what I’ve been doing during the past few weeks. I told you before we were chasing the Japs & I hoped we would have a rest.
The rest didn’t materialise & we were whipped straight off somewhere else to chase them. It was good fun in a way & very satisfying to recapture lost ground & to come across abandoned lorries & guns etc but on the other hand it was a bit of a strain & hard going, particularly as we had a lot of rain. Again the regiment distinguished itself considerably & again my troop was the farthest advanced. It was good to chase the Japs back into Burma & my troop was the first to fire on Burmese territory. Good show.

Joan to Eric 1944-508                                                                                                                   November 1st 1944
My own Darling,
Yes, I’m still very well & glad you are. I’ve no idea, darling if I look pretty or not but I hope you’ll still think so when you come home. Sometimes I feel that I look nicer than other times & then I wish you were there! I’m sorry to report that flying bombs are still coming over in odd ones & twos, usually in the early morning. They aren’t quite the same as the summer ones & sometimes there are weird explosions in various suburbs which are believed to be some sort of rocket.[vi] Nobody knows & the papers don’t say anything- all sorts of weird rumours get about but it’s a bit unsettling. I heard a distant one about 6.30 p.m. - it even sounded above the rattle of the train. Still, I think we must expect these odd little bits of noisy stuff until the finish of Germany.

Eric to Joan 1945 – 269                                                                           Capt. E. C. Pearson, RA.  17th May 1945  
Darling, I do hope you’re keeping well and happy. Believe me I’m looking forward to the days when I won’t have to hope that. It gets a bit depressing at times, just sitting and thinking & not knowing whether she is happy or not. I shouldn’t be depressed I know but I just can’t help it at times. With the war in Europe over the Japs should be brought down pretty rapidly now. I hope so anyway.
I suppose you have been wondering how I spent VE day. It didn’t really mean a lot to us out here except we had a very great feeling of relief and thankfulness that peace had at last come to England & that you at home would no longer be subject to V bomb raids and air attacks & that the blackout ceased and many restrictions would be ended. In a way we faced it with a rather selfish attitude & wondered just exactly how the finish of the war in Europe will affect our regiment.  We listened to Churchill’s statement, & the King’s speech & the descriptions of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, Edinburgh and elsewhere & realised what it meant to England. We realised too that there are thousands of families at home who will leave their celebrating till later.

[iii] Eric Wyatt was a superior officer to Eric Pearson who commandeered the vehicle that Lt Pearson was driving. He drove it off into the jungle where it was blown up. Joan’s maiden name was Wyatt!
[iv] The Allied invasion of Normandy started on 6th June, 1944. D Day
[v] She was working as a Land Girl.
[vi] These were V2s.
Eric did not get back home until October as after the Japanese surrender in August 1945 the sick, the wounded and the prisoners-of-war were all repatriated first and, of course, they went back by a long sea voyage. Eric was then called up again on Boxing Day to join the occupational British Army of the Rhine where he served for another six months. There is still a brigade of this force as part of the NATO force in Germany. All this pre-dates the European Union and I must confess to being upset whenever I hear enthusiasts for the EU say that it has kept the peace. My father is no longer alive, but he would see things differently.

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