The Armistice Ghost
November 10, 2018
Armistice Day is commemorated every year, at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”, to mark the formal agreement signed between the Allies and Germany that effectively ended the First World War.
This year’s memorial had particular poignance because it marked the passing of a century since that singular event.
On Sunday 11th November, just as on every other day, Veterans Aid was caring for veterans in crisis.
On this most sombre of days, when we honoured those who gave their lives to secure out country’s freedom VA was proud to host a poem, dedicated to the charity and its work, by a serving soldier who is no stranger to ceremonial duties and who has never failed to be moved by the Cenotaph ceremony. On his behalf we were proud to host The Armistice Ghost, composed by Colour Sergeant Darren Hardy, Coldstream Guards.
Veterans Aid, initially known as The Embankment Fellowship Centre, was born in the aftermath of the First World War. Although not established for 14 years after hostilities ceased, the charity, from its inception, dealt with the conflict’s legacy.
Europe, Africa, Asia and even countries not directly involved in the Great War were affected by the wave of change that it generated. Four empires collapsed and entire countries disappeared from the map.
The socio-economic landscape of Britain was very different from the one its servicemen had left. The cost of the war was crippling. Britain was seriously in debt; inflation had doubled between 1914 -1920 and in 1926 there was a General Strike. Three years later the Wall Street Crash caused the USA to call in loans and in 1933, just one year after our charity was established, 25% of Britain’s workforce was unemployed.
The impact of poor housing on health and strength had been noted by Army chiefs at the start of the war and prompted the provision of what was later to become known as ‘council housing’. Against this background Lloyd George’s promise that troops would return to ‘homes fit for heroes’ was a meaningful one. The Addison Act of 1919 pledged subsidies to build half a million new houses, but funding was cut – and cut again – and only around 200,000 were ever built.
In 1932 when our charity’s founder Mrs Gwen Huggins returned to London after her seemingly miraculous escape from drowning in the Bay of Malta, she found a city she barely recognised. Homelessness was rife and many of the men sleeping on the Thames Embankment were veterans. For them the ‘War to end all wars’ had simply been the springboard to another war – a battle for survival.
In 1939 VA’s first film was made by director Michael Powell. Its eponymous jobless veteran Smith played by Ralph Richardson, is shown watching helplessly while his ‘wireless’ is repossessed. An icon for ‘Everyman’ Smith is shamed and despairing by his inability to support his wife. The ‘hand-up’ that enables him to get back on track comes from our charity.
More than 8.5 million men served in the British Army, at some time, between 1914-18. It came to include troops from the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the Australian Imperial Force, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the South African forces, the Indian Army, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the British West Indies Regiment and the Chinese and Egyptian Labour Corps. Some of these men were British, many were recent emigrants and some even enlisted in Britain. One hundred years later Veterans Aid is still helping Foreign & Commonwealth veterans – nearly 700 men and women, from 67 countries, since 2007.
EFC started what Veterans Aid continues to do today – then, as now, the charity acted to address humanitarian needs – not to reward heroism or because ‘veterans’ were somehow different. It extended the hand of friendship to people who were hungry, needed clothing, shelter, employment, and recognition as human beings.
VA’s founder was moved by compassion and a desire to restore dignity to suffering human beings; 86 years later, nothing has changed.
Veterans Aid continues to provide immediate practical support to all ex-servicemen and women who seek its help – regardless of age, ethnicity, rank, gender or length of service.
The year 2018 marks the Centenary of the Armistice – the ‘war to end all wars’ that claimed the lives of over 16 million people across the globe.
The First World War was a turning point in world history – it was a global struggle, the old world order was irreparably damaged and nothing was ever the same again. The power unleashed by modern war resulted in previously unimagined losses on all sides. One hundred years on, many still feel connected to the First World War because of its long term impact on society and the world we live in today. In 2018 hardly any of those directly involved are still alive, but all who were involved in that terrible conflict they will live on and be honoured in tributes like The Armistice Ghost.