In this series of 12 articles, Rugby historian Nigel Stanley traces the part played by thousands of Rugby’s men, women and children in the Great War, saluting over 1,400 local men and Rugby School old boys who lost their lives in the war.
Part 11: The end of the War: November 1918
Monday 11th November 1918: Rugby celebrates the Armistice
“The news that the Germans had signed the armistice was received with great jubilation in Rugby and district on Monday morning,” reported the Advertiser on 16th November, under the heading “Local Celebrations”. At the due time, the BTH factory on Mill Road, which had lost 200 men in the war, sounded four blasts on its whistle, accompanied by steam-trains on the railway line. Rugby was a hive of industry, and employees poured out of their work-places, quickly filling the streets in the town centre to exchange congratulations. The Advertiser reported how delighted wives and mothers could be heard exclaiming emotionally, “Thank God, I shall soon have my boy home again”, and how “groups of soldiers on leave, wounded soldiers, young men who were just approaching the military age, and munition workers, carrying miniature flags, paraded the streets singing patriotic songs.” Flags appeared in most windows, and motor-cars were driven around in celebration. Peels of bells were rung from St Andrew’s and St Marie’s, and from nearby village churches. Most shops in Rugby closed for the rest of the day.
The General Election of December 1918
The Rugby Advertiser was soon covering the General Election campaign. The anti-German mood was strong, in a nation clamouring for reparation. The Tory candidate was Major John Baird, Rugby’s MP since 1910 and a minister in Lloyd George’s coalition government. One Advertiser advert claimed, “Major Baird fought Germany in the field during the dark days of 1914-15. He is not going to allow Germans, Kaiser or Kultured, to escape punishment for their crimes. He will make them pay with their money and, when justice demands, with their lives.” Liberal candidate O F McClagan addressed a poorly-attended election meeting in Hillmorton. In some ways, it was back to business as usual after the war. In other ways, politics had changed. Split by the war, the Liberal Party never fully recovered in Rugby or nationally, and was eventually overtaken by the Labour Party. Rewarded for their war-work, around a third of women gained the vote in 1918, and voted for the first time in December. Major Baird, who lived at Bilton House, was re-elected as Rugby’s MP.
A long march to freedom
Thousands of Rugby’s men had fought in the war, and most had survived the war, though many with terrible injuries. After the Armistice, most units were de-mobilised, and troops gradually made their way home. For some the journey was particularly hard. Around 150 Rugby men were prisoners-of-war in Germany. At the end of the war they were amongst 180,000 British P-o-W’s released from prison camps. Transport was not provided. Most had to walk through Germany and Holland to the Dutch coast, where Royal Navy ships awaited. Germany was starving and in revolution following the Kaiser’s abdication. The long march, often hundreds of miles, was a miracle of endurance, calling on all the mental and physical reserves of P-o-W’s weakened by malnutrition, some with injuries, in winter-time, and with little food or shelter.
A war with no clear end
In reality, the war was not entirely over. The peace-treaty with Germany was not signed until June 1919, and most war-memorials around Rugby give the dates of the war as 1914-1919. Moreover, during 1919 British troops were still fighting the Communist government in the Russian Civil War, an extension of the Great War. Corporal F A Bosworth of Rugby died in Murmansk on 30th June 1919, two days after the signing of the Versailles Treaty. British troops withdrew from Russia soon after. In July 1919, Rugby finally celebrated peace in a formal ceremony, attended by large crowds. However, losses continued during 1919 and thereafter, as many injured troops succumbed to their war-wounds.
Many who died at home from war-injuries are buried in Rugby’s cemeteries such as Clifton Road and Croop Hill, ‘under an English heaven’ in the words of Rupert Brooke. In 1919, these included HD Barrows in February (wounded on 1st July 1916 on the Somme), W Davis of New Bilton in April, and HAJ Barnett in May. Others were buried in the churchyards of nearby villages. The Rugby area had lost over 700 men, including at least 20 pairs of brothers. The Hardman and Reynolds families in Rugby had each lost three sons. Many war memorials in the Rugby area were dedicated in 1920 or 1921, and Rugby’s war memorial gates on Whitehall Road were dedicated in 1922 by Earl French, whose orders as BEF commander in 1914-1915 had led to many of the deaths commemorated on the gates. Rugby School’s Memorial Chapel on Dunchurch Road, designed to commemorate the loss of 687 old boys of the school, was opened in 1922. The purpose of British loss in the Great War remains a matter of debate. On the Dunchurch war memorial, the war was for “faith and freedom”; on the Hillmorton memorial, it was for “justice and liberty”, which had seemed under threat from Germany in 1914. On the Bilton memorial, the war was simply “for England”. Rupert Brooke might have agreed, but he, and millions of patriots from many lands, now lay silent in a corner of a foreign field.