Aldershot and the end of the First World War

By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum

On the morning of 11 November 1918 rumours swept through Aldershot that a ceasefire had been signed. The first sign that the story was true was when cheering and singing was heard from the Army camp, where soldiers had gathered on the parade ground in front of the Headquarters building. The General Officer Commanding, Sir Archibald Murray, came out onto the balcony and announced that the ceasefire had been declared. The rest of his speech was inaudible as the soldiers cheered and a military band led an impromptu march around the parade ground, the men singing popular songs as they marched.

In Aldershot town centre crowds were gathering. At 11.00 the Town Clerk was notified by Army HQ that a ceasefire had just come into effect and the Camp sirens were sounded. As the townspeople realised that the rumours were true and the war was over, many more flooded onto the streets and work came to a halt. By 2.00 p.m. the town centre was thronged with people singing, dancing and waving flags, while more flags appeared on buildings. The schools joined in, pupils sang the national anthem and patriotic songs before being given a half day off.

An unofficial march through the town was led by the Army Gymnastic Staff, followed by the Guards, American troops, Boy Scouts and anyone else who wanted to join in. The Wellington Works’ siren sounded for ten minutes along with church bells, the railway fog signal and railway engine whistles joining in a cacophony of noise not heard for many years. Light rain was no deterrent to the rejoicing crowds, who stripped several delivery vans of their goods, especially any carrying alcohol or cakes. A Service of Thanksgiving was quickly arranged for the Municipal Gardens in the afternoon. At night fireworks were set off, whilst the Camp loosed off Very lights, star shells and signal rockets. It was described in the local newspaper as “the most delirious outburst of happiness ever, the most amazing scenes that Aldershot has ever witnessed”.

On Wednesday 13 November the Aldershot Volunteers continued the celebrations when their meeting at the Drill Hall quickly turned into a concert and ended with the men marching around town, cheering as they passed the houses of any of their comrades. On 15 November Farnborough hosted its first ever carnival, organised by employees of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, which brought out large crowds and raised much money for charity. In a parade were mock ups of a tank, a huge barrel on wheels marked “Government beer”, two submarines, an airship, a German tank and a plane, HMS Victory, and finally Britannia showing off a caged Kaiser. It was such a success that the whole event was staged again in Aldershot on Saturday 30 November, culminating in a fireworks display at the Recreation Ground. The models of the Kaiser, a German airship, submarine and plane all ended up on the bonfire. The crowd enjoyed the spectacle so much that the other models followed, and only HMS Victory and a fire engine provided by Wrecclesham Boy Scouts survived.

Despite this spontaneous outpouring of joy at the end of the war, life remained difficult for the people of Aldershot. The terrible Spanish Flu pandemic was at its height with hundreds of cases being admitted to hospital (most of the Army cases being treated at the Connaught Hospital in North Camp) and sadly many did not survive. Food shortages continued and rationing, which began voluntarily in November 1917 but was made compulsory in the spring of 1918, lasted in to 1919 for meat and 1920 for butter and sugar, although for Christmas 1918 double meat rations were issued.

Many families suffered the pain and grief of bereavement for loved ones who fell during the fighting, and for many veterans there was the long struggle to recover from wounds or learn to cope with permanent disabilities. Men still serving in the Army did not return home immediately, as it inevitably took time to demobilise the huge numbers who were serving at the end of the war. Typical was the local Territorial battalion, 1st/4th Hampshire Regiment, who finished the war in Mesopotamia and Persia. The first soldiers to be released on compassionate grounds began to come home in February 1919, the main demobilisation began in March, and the last detachment did not arrive back in the UK until December 1919.

On 31 March 1919 the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment arrived by train at Aldershot Station, sent to the garrison to re-form and re-fit. They had been travelling all day and did not get to Aldershot until 11.00 at night, but even so they were greeted on the station platform by General Murray, Mr Harry Baker (Chairman of Aldershot Urban District Council), and associated local dignitaries. The battalion marched through the town, along streets decorated with flags and lined with cheering crowds, to the Fire Station in Grosvenor Road, where they were given a “welcome home” dinner before finally leaving for their barracks. The battalion at full wartime strength would have been around 1,000 men, but only 72 men remained to enjoy Aldershot’s reception.

Aldershot Council voted to honour its citizens who had served in the war with an official “Welcome Home” event, which was held on Saturday 24 May 1919, a date celebrated at the time as “Empire Day”. The guests of honour were 730 returned ex-soldiers, but it was recognised that a similar number were still awaiting demobilisation and would come back later in the year. The event began in Municipal Gardens, where the guests marched in to music from the band of the 13th Hussars. Mr Samuel Friend, the new Chairman of the Council, expressed the town’s gratitude for their service, followed by a speech of appreciation by Lord Woolmer, MP for Aldershot. Reverend Hawkes, Vicar of Aldershot, offered a prayer of thanksgiving, and in remembrance of those who did not return, the trumpeters of the 13th Hussars played the “Last Post”. Miss Dorothy Gill sang “Land of hope and glory”, with the huge audience joining in the chorus “with the greatest fervour”, and finally Mr Friend called for three hearty cheers for the ex-servicemen.

The men then moved to the Maida Drill Hall, which had been decorated with flags, bunting, and a banner with the simple message: “We welcome you”. After a dinner provided by the Council, each veteran was presented with an illuminated scroll “From the Citizens of Aldershot ... to express their heartfelt thanks and gratitude for the devotion and self-sacrifice which made possible the glorious victory”. The remainder of the evening was given over to music and entertainment: singing from Bert Sims; Bessie Jones “from the Covent Garden Opera”; dancing by the Falconer Sisters; comedy from Wally Trevelo, Bert Sidney, and Sear and Scott; with music throughout by the Royal Artillery Mounted Band.

Farnborough’s “Welcome Home” was a little later, on Wednesday 14 April 1920, when 283 ex-servicemen were entertained at Farnborough Town Hall to a five-course dinner, after which each man was presented with an illuminated address of appreciation. The formal speeches were followed by a variety concert of music, songs, dancing, acrobats and a conjuror.

To remember and honour those who did not return from the war, a number of memorials were erected during the 1920s. In the garrison, the Somme Cross, first erected at High Wood in December 1916 to remember the men of the 1st Division who fell during the Battle of the Somme, was brought to Aldershot and set up outside the 1st Division Headquarters in Pennefather’s Road, where it was re-dedicated in a ceremony on 3 May 1927. In 1939 it was moved into the south porchway of the Royal Garrison Church, where it remains today. The 2nd Division Memorial took the form of a stone cross, which was unveiled on 1 December 1923 on the knoll at the junction of Knollys Road and Hospital Hill. The 8th Division memorial, the “Lion monument”, was erected in Queen’s Avenue and dedicated on 10 April 1924.

Attempts by Aldershot Council to create a suitable civic memorial to the citizens of Aldershot who died in the war had a difficult start. Six options were put forward in January 1919: a new town hall; an extension of Aldershot Hospital; a free library; a children’s home for orphans of servicemen; a new park and memorial cross; or a monument in Municipal Gardens. The public were asked to vote for their preferred scheme in a town referendum, but when the results were announced in March only 691 votes had been cast. As this could not be taken as representative of the town, the matter was referred back to the Council.

Meanwhile, Farnborough quickly reached a decision on its memorial. In April 1919 a public meeting attended by over 600 citizens voted unanimously for a memorial hospital, with the names of the fallen to be inscribed inside the main entrance. The townspeople bought a house in Albert Road which was converted in 1921 into the Farnborough and Cove Cottage Hospital. When Frimley Park Hospital was opened it was no longer needed as a hospital and it is now Devereux House care home.

In order to make progress in Aldershot, in January 1924 the Mayor, Alderman Henry Ainger, called a public meeting to discuss what should be done. The meeting resolved that part of Manor Park should be dedicated as a memorial and that a monument should be erected, its form “yet to be determined”. In February the War Memorial Committee recommended the creation of a “Heroes’ Garden” in Manor Park, but that the main memorial should be in Municipal Gardens, funded by a public subscription. By July £1,155 had been raised (worth around £63,200 in present day value), the fund was closed and the committee chose their preferred design, a cenotaph made of Cornish granite.

The memorial was unveiled on Wednesday 18 March 1925 by His Royal Highness Prince Henry, and dedicated by the Lord Bishop of Winchester, in a ceremony attended by huge crowds. Unusually, the memorial had no list of names of the fallen, but the simple inscription: “This memorial was erected in grateful memory to those who gave their lives for their country in the Great War 1914 - 1919”. The reason for this may be seen in the programme for the unveiling ceremony, which comments that: “It is impossible to estimate the total and exact number of Aldershot men who joined the Colours. The military nature of our town must of necessity have rendered it a unique percentage.”

For the centenary of the First World War the Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum attempted to compile a list of all the residents of Aldershot, Farnborough and Cove who died in the war, and the resulting Rushmoor Roll of Honour is available via the Rushmoor Borough Council website, in Aldershot and Farnborough Libraries and at the Aldershot Military Museum. Since the Rushmoor Roll of Honour was first published in 2014, two updates have been issues, the latest in August this year, bring the total number remembered in the Roll to 681.

As we mark 100 years since the Armistice, it is appropriate that we honour all who served in the First World War, and remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country.


Credits

Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 022, October 2018/November 2018

Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.