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Hull in The Great War

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When I come home, and leave behind
Dark things I would not call to mind,
I’ll taste good ale and home-made bread,
And see white sheets and pillows spread.
And there is one who’ll softly creep
To kiss me ere I fall asleep,
And tuck me ‘neath the counterpane,
I shall be a boy again –
When I come home!

Poem by Hull man, Leslie Coulson, who died of wounds October 8 1916. (Known to the Night, B. S. Barnes)

In a special edition of the Hull Daily Mail, published at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918 it was proclaimed to be:

A SUPREME MOMENT It is officially announced that the armistice with Germany was signed this morning. The bloodshed is over. The strife is done. It is a moment which fills the heart with unutterable emotion, but the profoundest tendency among many of us will be to thank God for it upon our knees. Our first thoughts, after that, will go out to our sons, husbands, and brothers on the sea, and in the field. We may be sure that their joy is inexpressible. They have conquered ! They have won the war ! Britain has laid down over a million precious lives, but they have not died in vain. May the noble spirits and souls of the righteous gaze upon our flags of rejoicing – may it be sober and seemly everywhere – and of victory today. It is finished ! The “Great War” is over...the supreme task is achieved, and we are fighting an embattled people no longer.

The city of Hull, as seen throughout the whole country, was in uproar, with wild celebrations and rejoicings that the war was finally over. All those long years, all the deaths and heartbreak finally over. It was a day to remember forever. However, when news of the armistice reached the Hull battalions many sources say it was met with a surprising lack of enthusiasm, the men merely turning over in bed for more sleep. There had been so much speculation over the duration of the war, so many rumours amidst the censoring that the soldiers were not sure what they could believe, besides which, they were too exhausted and disillusioned to show much response, at first. Not to mention the fact that the war life was all they now knew.

As Gerald Dennis put it:

‘The news was too good to be true. I failed to grasp the significance of it and for a time could not adjust myself to it – I felt numbed. There didn’t seem to be an appropriate way of celebrating; there was a little hand-shaking, but no shouting or cheering. It was left to those well away from the fighting parts...to go wild with joy.’ (Reference Gerald Dennis, A Kitchener Man's Bit)

Another man wrote home, his letter dated 19 November 1918:

‘There seems to have been great excitement in Hull about the Armistice – far more than out here. We had no celebrations of any kind. The men just mentioned it casually in their letters too...on the morning of the 11th we were on the move. You could hear the guns pounding away as hard as they could until 10.59 – when they suddenly stopped. It was very weird – many of the men thought that we were pulling their legs.’ (Reference Alan Wilkinson, Destiny: War Letters of Captain Jack Oughtred)

The declaration of the end of the war was very much a bitter sweet occasion. So many had lost their lives or their loved ones. Society had been shaken to its core. Killing, the ultimate taboo, had become the norm out at the front, how could these men return to civilian life or cope with the conditions they had been subjected to. The war changed everyone and everything.

Lasting 1,566 days, the war claimed 16.5 million lives, with 21.2 million wounded.  More than 65 million men from 30 countries fought, not to mention the civilians involved and the casualties sustained. Over the four years 750,000 telegrams were sent out to notify families that their relative was dead, as Britain lost over 900,000 military personnel. Another two million Britain’s were wounded. More than 192,000 wives had lost their husbands, 400,000 children had lost their fathers and half a million children had lost at least one sibling.

Over an estimated 70,000 people from Hull served in the forces in the First World War. The Hull Pals lost 2,000 men and over 7,000 local men and women were killed, with 14,000 wounded or disabled. On average Hull received 15 casualties every day of the war, nearly 70% aged under 30, including serving 1,500 teenagers. 14,661 Merchant sailors died during the war and nearly 1,200 of them were from Hull.

At least 10 streets in Hull lost more than 50 men.

The Armistice was indeed a time for celebration, but it was a celebration that should never have had need to come about.

Extracts from Great War Britain Hull & The Humber, Remembering 1914-18 by Susanna O'Neill

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