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
Bombardier Norman Tennant, DCM, 97, Royal Field Artillery

AS THE Last Post dies away under the massive arches of the Menin Gate in Ypres at eleven o'clock this morning, Norman Tennant, frail and almost blind, will silently remember the relief and the disbelief that he felt 75 years ago.

Surrounded by the names of 54,358 British soldiers with no known grave inscribed on the memorial, the faces of young men he knew who were killed, frozen in time, will come back to him at a ceremony to commemorate the end of the First World War.

He will wear the Distinguished Conduct Medal which he won for continually repairing telephone wires under heavy shell fire a few miles away in the Ypres Salient, Belgium, in 1915. Ironically, the medal saved him from being sent back to the Western Front.

By 11 November 1918, Mr Tennant should have been back with the 11th West Riding Howitzer Battery of the Royal Field Artillery, after spending months recovering from his second war wound - a piece of shrapnel in his head.

Instead he was waiting at Catterick Camp, North Yorkshire, for King George V to present him with his DCM. The monarch never kept the appointment due to a riding accident and Mr Tennant was handed his medal by a general, but the delay spared him further front-line service.

Just before 11am on the 11th the word spread in the camp that the war was over. Not a glass nor a cheer was raised, not a flag waved by the soldiers awaiting their return to the Western Front and some even doubted that the news was true.

Mr Tennant, 97, a retired art teacher, from Shaftesbury, Dorset, said: 'The first thing that I remember thinking was, 'I shan't have to go back to France now'. I was relieved that I would not be blown to bits by a shell but there was also the feeling that this was only an armistice. Peace had not been signed and it could all start again.

'We didn't believe it, there had already been one false armistice. The war had been going on for over four years and we were getting tired. We just thought that if this is the end of the war we can go home now.'

Mr Tennant, a Bombardier who had spent more than three years at the front with the Territorial Force battery he had joined at Ilkley in 1913, went to Richmond, North Yorkshire, to see an old school friend. They celebrated by going out and eating fish and chips.

The contrast between the low-key reaction of a tired war veteran and that of the crowds in London remains startling. If there was no dancing in Catterick there was plenty of it in the capital and it is this image of the Armistice which has stayed with us.

At 10.55am the door of 10 Downing Street opened and David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, emerged to announce: 'We have won a great victory and we are entitled to a bit of shouting.'

People in London took him at his word as Big Ben signalled the end of the a conflict which had cost the British Empire 908,000 lives. Thousands poured into Trafalgar Square and down The Mall to Buckingham Palace where they demanded an appearance by the King.

They remained for hours singing Rule Britannia, It's a Long Way to Tipperary and Keep the Home Fires Burning, waving flags which had appeared seemingly from nowhere. The King and Queen after several balcony appearances set off in an open carriage around the capital, one of the few vehicles for which the crowds parted to make way.

The celebrations went on for three days in central London, the crowds lighting a bonfire at the foot of Nelson's Column, playing catch with policemen's helmets and drinking themselves senseless. The revellers included many soldiers but the majority were people who had never been near the front line. The City, the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England closed shortly after 11am and employees took to the streets while civil servants abandoned their desks in droves.

Osbert Sitwell, the poet and novelist, wrote that the last time he had seen such a crowd 'was when it cheered for its own death' outside the Palace after the declaration of war. He added: 'Their heirs were dancing because life had been given back to them . . . a long nightmare was over.'

(Photograph omitted)

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