With the treaty negotiations at Versailles finally complete and peace signed at the end of June 1919, a national celebration – ‘Peace Day’ – was fixed for the 19th of July 1919. Plans were announced to light a chain of bonfires down the country (nodding back to the beacons that were lit to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada on 19 July 1588) and a grand Victory Parade was being prepared for in London.
From the outset, though, there seems to have been some disquiet and confusion as to what ‘Peace Day’ was meant to represent – and whether it ought to be a jubilant celebration or a solemn commemoration. Its reporting in the Manchester papers reflects this ambiguity and the mixed enthusiasm for the project. ‘Anyone who goes outside his house and garden ought to be able to see by this time that the country as a whole is not in the mood for a huge bout of dear and noisy merry-making,’ a Manchester Guardian editorial considered. It went on:
Men and women are learning, each with his own measure of bitterness, the element of disillusion that there is in nearly all success. You fight the good fight, and, lo! the prize itself has changed while you fought, and alloy has crept into the gold. You finish the long race, and only then you find that the “you” who has won it is not the same “you” who once had it to win. Everywhere, in all classes, you find a vague disappointment that the victorious England is not the same England of August 4, 1914, simply with her desire attained… something seems to be lost in the spirit which fired us then, and we cannot get it back any more than the parents can get back their sons.[i]
In some parts of the country veteran’s associations took a decision to boycott Peace Day and it appears that there wasn’t much enthusiasm for it in Manchester either. The ‘apathetic’ response from ex-servicemen in Manchester seemed to surprise and disappoint the City Council. Advertisements had been issued in May, inviting ex-combatants to participate in a civic reception, but, by 5 June, only 3,000 men had accepted.[ii] A letter to the Manchester Evening News reflects why enthusiasm might have been somewhat lacking:
I am sure the title Peace Day will send a cold shiver through the bodies of thousands of ‘demobbed’ men who are walking about the streets of Manchester looking for a job. Could a term be found that would be more ironical for such men? Perhaps, after the Manchester and Salford Corporations have celebrated this ‘Peace’ and incidentally will have wasted the thousands of pounds which it will cost, they will devote their spare time to alleviating the ‘bitterness’ and ‘misery’ which exist in the body and mind of the unemployed ex-soldier.
It is high time some very forcible and active measures were taken. Many Manchester businessmen refuse to employ the ex-soldier on the grounds that he has lost four years of experience in this line or that line of business through being in the army. What a splendid and patriotic retort to make to the men who were chiefly instrumental in saving their business from being in the possession of the Hun.[iii]
The programme caused Manchester City Council some consternation and, in the end, official arrangements were low-key: a dozen bands were engaged to play in the parks, the Town Hall bells were rung and the Lord Mayor and the City Council travelled through the city in an illuminated tramcar. There was no official scheme of street decoration – though companies and individuals ultimately took on that task and the streets were accordingly ‘gay with bunting and flags’.[iv]
As it was, the people of Manchester themselves seem to have determined the character of the city’s ‘Peace Day’ celebration. While young people enjoyed boisterous festivities (already by the night of 18 July they were spilling out into the streets, playing instruments and dancing ‘the latest American “jazzes” and “cake walks”’ in Albert Square), gangs of children gleefully banged on tin drums and begged coins from the crowds and ‘hundreds of skylarking mill girls romped about the streets in khaki’. The Manchester Guardian observed, though, that the festivities lacked the ‘sparkle of spontaneity’. The city couldn’t recapture the delirious joy of 11 November 1918. ‘That was the sudden release of a long confined effervescence of feeling. It burst with explosive force without any official drawing of the cork.’ The Guardian reported:
Thousands of people collected in the streets and walked about aimlessly inspecting the unsatisfying decorations and looking for something more exciting to happen. This constrained and awkward situation was saved by the youthful and (if a plain word may be used) the rowdy elements in the population, whose sportive activities in public are usually regarded by the police with an unfriendly and repressive eye.
There’s an implication that, in the evening, the tone of the celebrations was, here and there, tinged with something darker.
The “mafficking” in the streets reached its highest pitch of extravagance after sundown. Albert Square, which is always a focussing point for any unusual agitation of public feeling, was filled with a merrily turbulent crowd – dancing, singing, blowing paper horns, beating drums and tin cans, and occasionally letting off fireworks with a high power of detonation. The restraints usually imposed on public life in the streets were swept away, with results not always pleasant. There were many signs of a liberal use of intoxicants. Occasional fighting marred the prevalent merriment and good humour.[v]
‘Honour the dead, remember the living’
19 July 1919 wasn’t just a day of giddy (or rowdy) mafficking; in Manchester it was also marked by a protest march. In the afternoon a procession of unemployed ex-servicemen moved through the streets of the city centre. It was reported that the column of men, walking four abreast, many of them wearing their medal ribbons, stretched nearly the whole length of Oxford Street. They carried banners which bore the words “Justice”, “Employment”, “Work, not charity” and “Honour the dead, remember the living”.
The demonstrators marched to Platt Fields, where a meeting had been convoked. By the time that the procession reached that locality its numbers had swelled and the men were ‘a battalion strong and more’. Before the speeches began the Last Post was sounded.
The Chairman of the meeting, Mr Fred Cox, told the crowd that ‘they had fought for freedom, but the freedom they had won was the freedom to starve.’ He went on:
To give a man 29s. a week was destructive work. It resulted in the breaking up of homes, in the under-nourishment of children, and the loss of efficiency in all directions. Employment ought to be found immediately on housing, roads, and every kind of public work, and the Government dole of 29s. could be paid to municipalities to help them to bear the cost of the schemes. It was work they wanted, not doles. They had been asked to save the country; now they asked the country to save them from poverty and degradation.
Mr. W. Richards, who had organised the meeting, proposed that ‘failing a reasonable reply from the Government within a reasonable time’ the unemployed ex-service men of Lancashire should march to London. ‘Winter was coming,’ he threatened, ‘and winter, with its cold and hunger, meant riots. That was why something must be done soon.’[vi]
[i] Manchester Guardian, 27th June 1919.
[ii] It was finally decided that this official ‘Welcome Home’ for the troops should take the form of a series of receptions (‘treats’) to be held in Belle Vue Gardens. Men were to be given ‘a suitable meal’ and an address from the Lord Mayor. Manchester Guardian, 5th June, 4th and 19th July 1919.
[iii] Manchester Evening News, 10th July 1919.
[iv] Manchester Guardian, 19th July 1919.
[v] Manchester Guardian, 21st July 1919.
[vi] Manchester Guardian, 21st July 1919.