Lest we forget . . .: Veterans of the First World War will gather in Ypres, western Belgium, today to mark the Armistice which ended hostilities 75 years ago and pay tribute to lost comrades on both sides

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The Independent Online
IN THE front line soldiers who had conditioned themselves to the likelihood of being killed at any moment and who had seen so many of their comrades die began to get used to the idea of living.

Some thought it through, others were simply too exhausted, almost everywhere the mood was sober and cautious. For many British troops the war had already ended as Bulgaria, Turkey and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had surrendered before Germany.

Maj Gen Ashton Wade, then a lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery serving in Italy against the Austrians, had expected that the Germans would follow suit. Although he was a regular soldier he felt the same as wartime volunteers and conscripts.

'I was relieved that it was over because war is a frightful existence, it is horrible,' said Maj Gen Wade, 95, from Norwich, who was badly wounded on the Western Front before winning the Military Cross for bravery in Italy.

Within hours of the Austrian surrender his unit, the 74th Heavy Artillery Brigade Signal Section, was warned that it would be sent north by train to prepare for an advance into southern Germany.

But Germany collapsed before the move went ahead and by 11 November the British gunners had been struck by an epidemic of Spanish 'flu, which killed 21 million people throughout the world. Half of Maj Gen Wade's men went down with it and, although only one died, November 1918 was not much of a time for celebration.

On the Western Front many soldiers had no warning that the war was about to end, although they knew that the Germans were retreating fast. The men of the 6th Battalion The King's Liverpool Regiment were so exhausted that they had no energy to celebrate.

Among them was Cpl Tom Brown, a veteran of the Somme and Passchendaele, who had survived three years of war without a scratch. Even on the last day there was danger for the British from enemy soldiers who either did not know or care that the war was about to end and one man was killed by a sniper on the morning of the 11th.

Mr Brown, 97, from Bookham, Surrey, said: 'We had no idea that the Armistice was coming that day. At two minutes to eleven we started the usual 10 minutes break from marching that we got every hour.

'The colonel called over the battalion buglers and we heard the sweetest sound we had heard for years. They blew the ceasefire call. Nearly every man was so tired that, unlike the celebrations in London, almost all of us lay down and went to sleep.

'We had been marching for days, There was no rejoicing. The silence, that was the extraordinary thing, the silence. We were just so relieved. But all we wanted was several hours good sleep.'

Fred Hodges, a corporal with the 10th Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, had more warning and more time to think through what the Armistice meant. He was still only 19 and since arriving in France in April 1918 had grown used to the idea of death.

On the night of 10 November, the Fusiliers advanced cautiously into the village of Beaufort, near Berlaimont, northern France. As Mr Hodges and the others moved down the main street a door opened. They paused and almost opened fire when they realised that the figures by the door were French civilians who greeted them joyously after four years of German occupation and an impromptu party began.

In the dawn light of 11 November a British despatch rider rode into Beaufort and told Mr Hodges, now 94, from Northampton, that he had just been to Brigade headquarters and heard that the war would end at 11am.

Mr Hodges said: 'I thought, 'I'm going to live'. I had survived from day to day but I suddenly realised that I had got a life ahead of me. I walked across a field near the village to the guns in a British battery. The gunners were very philosophical about the Armistice, there was no excitement.'

In the field were the graves of German soldiers killed in the final fighting, hastily dug by their comrades before they retreated from the village. Each one was marked by a rifle plunged bayonet down into the soil.

Just before 11am every British artillery gun in that sector opened up, a last symbolic salvo, the final performance of a terrifying symphony that had dominated the Western Front. Then there was absolute silence.

Mr Hodges said: 'I was silent too, feeling no desire for any conversation with the gunners who began to clean their guns and tidy up the gun sites. The occasion was too big, too poignant for words and I walked slowly back to the village, mind and spirit strangely numbed.'

On the way he thought of the teenagers who had come out to France with him that spring who had not survived. Fox, White and Willard had been killed in the early days in the trenches on the Somme. Two other friends, Dunmore and Whitehead, died later on. Wally Beale had been killed in the last serious fighting the 10th Battalion had been involved in just a week before the Armistice. He and Mr Hodges had joined together, been billeted together, laughed together and been frightened together.

The sense of loss has never left the survivors of the war, nor has the feeling that they were the lucky ones in a huge lottery. Only chance separated men who died young from those who would live into their nineties.

While Mr Hodges was away on a course learning how to deal with gas attacks his platoon was almost wiped out. Maj Gen Wade remembers cowering as a massive shell which left him with a few scratches blew another soldier, who was near by, into pieces.

Tom Brown went sick and was sent back to headquarters on 30 June 1916. The next day the 18th Battalion The King's Liverpool Regiment, with which he originally served, went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Five hundred of them were mown down mostly by one well-concealed German machine gun. In less than half an hour the Pals Battalion, men who had joined up together on Merseyside in 1914, was decimated.

Mr Brown said: 'I was lucky, I was very lucky. So many of my schoolfriends' names are on the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. I can see their names now. I don't think it was worthwhile when you think what we all went through.'