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In 1918, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. For the first time in more than four years, in this part of Europe, men stopped killing one another. Fighting had officially continued throughout that morning, however. Some, like American General Pershing, had been keen to carry on with the war. East of Verdun, artilleryman and future President Harry Truman fired his last shell at 1045 hours. Canadian Private George Price was waiting the end of war with his pals in the Belgian village of Ville-sur-Haine. At 1058, a shot rang out from the German line; Price was killed instantly, one of the last to die in action on the Western Front. Australian, South African and British troops all tell of a German machine-gun firing off a belt of a thousand rounds in an almost ceaseless burst just before the armistice; then, at precisely 1100 hours, the machine-gunner stood up, faced his former enemies, removed his helmet, bowed and walked away.
News of the armistice precipitated an eruption of emotion and visible elation in Allied towns and cities. There was grief too, of course. As the bells rang out in the English town of Shrewsbury, the parents of poet Wilfred Owen received the telegram informing them of their son’s death in action on 4th November. At their stations in the line, on the high seas, at aerodromes, or in barracks, many servicemen joyously celebrated the end of fighting with whatever means at their disposal. Equally, many were dazed; grateful to have survived, yet guilty that they had; profoundly happy at the end of the slaughter; profoundly sad at the waste and friends lost. In places, there was just silence: some wondered what on earth they would do next; for so long, they had only known war.
There’s a nine foot five inch welded metal statue on Terrace Green in the small seaside town of Seaham, County Durham. It depicts a soldier of the First World War sitting on an ammunition box, rifle in hand, head bowed. Named ‘Eleven O One’ by its creator, artist Ray Lonsdale, the locals know it, simply, as ‘Tommy’, the universal nickname for a British soldier – particularly of the First World War. He was placed on temporary display in Seaham in the summer of 2014, but Tommy attracted so much affection that a campaign was launched to buy him and keep him in the town. The necessary £85,000 was raised surprisingly quickly and Tommy will remain in Seaham permanently. Practically speaking, it has been estimated that he won’t need to be moved for repair for at least 200 years; a time capsule has been buried beneath him. Seaham, an attractive place but with too many boarded-up windows, does not strike you as a town with cash to spare; paying for this remarkable sculpture is a powerful achievement.
So – Eleven O One represents a soldier in the first moments of peace after the armistice. The artist took a chance – no one commissioned the work; he was inspired by the story of a local man, and by what he had heard of shell-shock – the severe mental condition that many soldiers suffered from, and from which many never recovered, that we would recognise today as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The detail is amazing. All the soldier’s equipment is there – his puttees, belt, pouches and Lee Enfield rifle. There is a curiously appealing quality to the texture of the metal that makes you want to touch it, just to be sure it isn’t real. ‘Tommy’ gives the impression he could could very easily come to life. His face is so familiar, like a thousand photographs you have seen. Though full of sorrow and etched with weariness, it is also a proud, dependable, trustworthy, face. Tommy is a reminder from the past of man’s potential for foolishness and contempt for sweet life.
As I gazed up at him, a family approached. Dad stood his two children in front of Eleven O One to take their picture. They were dwarfed – course. But then it hit me: of course, the children were what Tommy, and millions like him, went through it all for.
Ray Lonsdale’s a very talented man. He’s written a poem to go with his statue, which is etched onto a plate at the back:
“Now in the wake of this glorious slaughter,
He’d seen many a soul cleansed in filthy water,
Seen godless men reach out for the Bible,
As lead tore the flesh from both friend and rival,
Soon home to the joy and celebration of kin,
Drunken slaps on the back at a favourite inn,
But heavy in his pocket lies a small piece of card,
And the note written on it will break a mother’s heart”.
I was working in Newcastle with Davey Taylor, who mentioned that I should take a look at Tommy. Thanks, Davey – I hope you’ve visited him yourself by now.
The origin of ‘Tommy’ as a nickname for an ordinary British soldier is uncertain. Allegedly, in 1815, the War Office (now the Ministry of Defence) produced a soldiers’ pocket book that every man had to carry and ‘Thomas Atkins’ was the name used as a specimen example showing how the details needed to be completed. A further part of the popular story is that the Duke of Wellington was asked for a name which, in his view, summed up the characteristics of a British soldier. The Iron Duke recalled the Battle of Boxtel in 1794, when he came across one his most reliable men, Private Thomas Atkins, a huge man, lying mortally wounded. Atkins looked up from the mud and said, “It’s alright sir; all in a day’s work”. The Imperial War Museum says that ‘Tommy Atkins’ was a term in use as early as 1743, however, and that British soldiers were also known as ‘Thomas Lobsters’, because of their red coats. In any event, ‘Tommy’ was in widespread use by the mid-19th century and further popularised by Rudyard Kipling.