January 1, 1970

Dr Warren Dockter writes on Churchill’s response to the end of the war.

‘As Remembrance Day approaches, its gives one cause to stop and think about the end of one of the most terrible and destructive conflicts humanity has ever known. It is impossible not to mourn all the lives lost or the bereft generations who knew all too well the hateful vices of war and the ache of loss. It is difficult to imagine the sense of relief and joy that the first day of Armistice brought to Britain. For his part, Winston Churchill, himself a veteran of the Western Front, saw the reaction first-hand from his office window in 1918. In his memoirs of the First World War, The World Crisis, Churchill recalled that when Big Ben chimed to mark the war was over, ‘the streets were deserted’ and then as the bells chimed, people began to wander out until ‘men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings.’ From his office overlooking Northumberland Avenue, Churchill witnessed the street become crowded with joyous people until it became ‘a seething mass of humanity.’ He recalled that ‘Flags appeared as if by magic’ and how ‘almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium.’ Of course, even in such a jubilant moment the elation must have been punctuated by an overwhelming sense of bereavement. In Churchill’s words, ‘too much blood had been spilt. Too much life-essence had been consumed. The gaps in every home were too wide and empty. The shock of an awakening and the sense of disillusion followed swiftly upon the poor rejoicings with which hundreds of millions saluted the achievement of their hearts’ desire.’

That day, after Big Ben signalled the end of the war, Clementine joined Churchill and together they walked to Downing Street to congratulate the Prime Minster, David Lloyd George. Later that evening, as Churchill dined with Lloyd George, F.E. Smith and Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of Imperial General Staff at number 10, one of the most remarkable aspects of Churchill’s personality shone through. During the meal news had come to light about how the German people were starving. Although Lloyd George was predisposed to leave the fallen German state in ruins, Churchill countered that Britain should immediately send over ships with provisions. Churchill continued to speak on ‘the great qualities of the German people, the tremendous fight they made against three quarters of the world and the impossibility of rebuilding Europe without them.’ He recalled that his mood was ‘divided between anxiety for the future and desire to help the fallen foe.’ Lloyd George was content to keep an eye on the situation but refused to commit any further. Later Wilson wryly recorded in his diary that ‘Lloyd George wants to shoot the Kaiser, Winston does not.’

It is exactly Churchill’s ‘desire to help the fallen foe’ which differentiates him from other leaders. Churchill’s magnanimity is probably most known to readers of his memoirs of the Second World War, in which he says one of the morals of his six volume opus is ‘In Victory: Magnanimity.’ The word ‘magnanimity’ is the Latinization of the Greek term ‘megalopsuchia’ or ‘the greatness of soul.’ This moment at the close of the First World War required a man of great soul. A man who could look on what ravages war had wrought in Europe and see a fallen foe who had laboured to destroy his home and his way of life; a foe who had attempted to be the architect of his demise, and yet in this moment, think of their welfare and speak of their qualities. It was a moment which required Winston Churchill.’

National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City

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Read an extract from Churchill’s memoirs in The World Crisis Volume IV by clicking on Churchill on the Armistice below.

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