Negotiating peace in autumn 1918
By 1917, most belligerents in Europe were eager to end hostilities, but peace negotiations held between 1917 and early 1918 proved unsuccessful. While Austria-Hungary wished to settle for the status quo ante bellum (the political and territorial status before the war), France and Britain could not tolerate a peace that would cement Germany’s position as a “great nation”. Likewise, U.S. President Wilson no longer believed in compromise. In April 1917, the United States joined the Allied Forces, and after Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points Speech” of January 8, 1918, German military action on the western front increased once more. It was only in October 1918 that peace began to take shape.
A Letter from Fr Francis M. Shaw to Fr Provincial Thomas V. Nolan, dated 30 October 1918, described the politico-military situation in Mesopotamia, where Father Francis served as military chaplain to the British army. His letter suggested that Austria-Hungary “wants immediate peace at any price.” The armistice between the Allied Forced and Germany was declared on November 11.
Another eyewitness of the end of the Great War was W. Keary, who also served as military chaplain on behalf of the Irish Jesuits. His letter to Fr. Provincial Thomas V. Nolan of 19th November 1918 discusses financial issues and his regiment’s “march into Germany”, knowing that “the poor boys are now out of danger”.
Yet many who had served at the front returned wounded or not at all. In his letter to Fr Provincial Thomas V. Nolan, dated 28 November 1918, Father Francis Shaw lamented the death of a fellow priest: “I can hardly believe that Father Fitzgibbon has been killed. He certainly made the best of the time given him.”
The winter of 1918 as a time of new beginnings
The end of the war was a time of mourning for the lives lost as well as a time of thanksgiving and hopes for the future. Social and political reformers as well as scientists were aware that the First World War had changed the face of the earth forever, and many took advantage of the opportunities that came with it. In the Guardian of 11 November 2008, Joanna Bourke highlighted some of the fascinating new beginnings effected by the First World War:
Her article covers censorship and the fear of spies as well as social emancipation and votes for women. The letters of November and December 1918 in our collection also offer new insights into the last days of the Great War and into the first days of peace.
Irish nationalists in the US, for instance, anticipated that the end of the war would finally permit the American government to openly support Irish independence. On 5th November 1918, a letter circulated by the Irish-American “Friends of Irish Freedom” exhorted society members and sympathisers to make the best of “the present international situation”.
Two days later, on 7th December 1918, Irish physician Thomas Kirkpatrick wrote to his colleague Alfred Miller that he wished to engage former British soldiers in medical studies at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
As more letters relating to the First World War will be transcribed for our collection, more of those stories beyond the battle fields will come to light. We are deeply grateful to our volunteers who are contributing to the growth of the Letters 1916-1923 project. If you are also interested in transcribing wartime correspondence, register for a personal account and go to our transcription desk.
Commemorating the end of the Great War in 2018
Every year in November, the end of the First World War is commemorated across the world. In 2018, November 11 marks the centenary of Armistice Day. Many public and private organisations have prepared for this special occasion. Visit the websites below and find out about ceremonies, exhibitions and talks in your area.
UK-based events in 2018: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/events/ww1-uk-events.htm
WW1 Centenary Northern Ireland Commemoration Committee on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ww1centenaryni