'The Last Days'
from the newspaper dispatches of Philip Gibbs


the Begining and the End

Philip Gibbs was already a well-known British journalist and author upon outbreak of the war in August 1914. He was immediately sent to the continent to cover the hostilities. Arrested upon personal orders of Lord Kitchener at least 4 times, he somehow managed to return time and again, either as a volunteer stretcher-bearer, hospital orderly or as an accredited correspondent with the French armies. He was finally officially accredited as one of 5 British war journalists in uniform by intercession of prime minister Lloyd George. Philip Gibbs spent almost the whole of the war at the front, from where he sent his daily dispatches. While detesting the horrors of modern war, he was a staunch admirer and defender of the common soldier and wrote of their tribulations at the front with heart-felt passion and conviction. After the war he was knighted and continued an acclaimed career as journalist and novelist. He died in 1960.

* see also The Soul of the War / Paris at War 1 / Paris at War 2


from November 1918 editions of 'the War Illustrated'


November 10th

The spirit of victory is in the air. Our troops are following up the retreating enemy with bands playing, and go singing down the roads with flags on their rifles and on their gun-limbers through villages from which German rear-guards have gone only an hour or two before, and where French and Flemish people cheer them as they pass with cries of "Vive les Anglais!" It is glorious autumn weather, with a sparkle of gold in the sunlight and a glint of gold on the russet leaves and shining pools along the roads, so that it seems as though Nature rejoices with men because a horror is being lifted from the world by the ending of this war, and is smiling through tears, like old men we meet and women who take our hands telling of their thankfulness. It is Sunday, and in many churches in France and Belgium, and in cathedrals which have escaped destruction by a narrow chance, only scathed a little by battles round their town, the Te Deum is being sung, and people who a week ago crept to a church close in the shadow of the walls, afraid of the noise of gun-fire around them, and who a day or two ago saw the grey wolves of the German army still prowling in their streets, though with a hang-dog look, are now singing their praises to God because of their deliverance, almost doubting even still that this miracle has happened to them, and that after four years under the hostile yoke they are free. Free to speak their minds, free to display flags of their nation, free of fines and punishments, and requisitions, and spying, and German police, and German arrogance, free in their souls and hearts after four years of servitude under hostile rule.

So it was in Tournai today. For three weeks the people there had lived in their cellars listening to the fury of the gun-fire along the Scheldt Canal and closing in about them. They were afraid of having their old city smashed above their heads and of being buried under its ruins. They were afraid of asphyxiating gas creeping down into their cellars and killing them with its poisoned fumes. The Germans said, "The English will do this to you. You will all be killed before they come." But, in spite of their fear, they would not leave, and prayed for the coming of the English. A month ago more than 10 000 went away from Tournai, but that was behind German bayonets after a roll-call for all able-bodied men, who were forced to go, while their women wept for them.

A week ago the roar of the bombardment increased, and never ceased day or night, and people became haggard in their cellars because of this awful noise above them. But they were comforted by the knowledge that this British gun-fire was not directed on Tournai, and said, "The Germans have lied again. We shall not be killed by our friends." Then two nights ago, above the noise of the guns, there were louder noises, stupendous explosions, shaking the very stones of their cellars and their vaulted roofs as by a convulsion in the bowels of the earth. Again and again through the night these explosions happened, and the people of Tournai guessed that the Germans were blowing up the bridges over the Scheldt Canal, and that it was a signal of their retreat. They crept out of their houses on Friday morning and went down to the canal, dividing one part of the town from the other, where all the houses had had their windows blown out, and were badly shattered by the blowing up of the bridges. A few German machine-gunners remained hidden in those houses. But presently the last of them came out and went away. One of them turned, and said to a woman of Tournai: "Your friends will soon be here. So much the better, because the war is ended for us. Germany is kaput."

The men and women waited, and presently they saw an English soldier make his way across the broken girders of the bridge, He was a tall, gallant-looking fellow, and as he stepped on to the inner side of the canal he drew his revolver, and held it ready, looking about keenly for any enemy. But they were friends who rushed at him, shouting, "English, English," and women flung their arms about his neck, and kissed him, and led him into the town, with seething crowds about him, and one family took him into their house and gave him wine, which they had hidden for this day, and, raising their glasses, said, "Vive les Anglais!" As today, another family brought out their wine for me, and touched my glass with all their glasses, and said, "Vive I'Angleterre!" After the first soldier had come there came in a small patrol, while the enemy fired some shells into the town and killed some civilians, and after that other British soldiers and staff officers arrived, and today there came marching through long columns of troops, with their guns and field-cookers and transport, and they had a welcome of heroes and liked it, with the laughter of British soldiers for hero-worship.


from November 1918 editions of 'the War Illustrated'


November 11th

Our troops knew early this morning that the Armistice had been signed. I stopped on my way to Mons outside brigade headquarters, and an officer said, "Hostilities will cease at eleven o'clock." Then he added, as all men add in their hearts, "Thank God for that!" All the way to Mons there were columns of troops on the march, and their bands played ahead of them, and almost every man had a flag on his rifle, the red, white and blue of France, the red, yellow and black of Belgium. They wore flowers in their caps and in their tunics, red and white chrysanthemums given them by crowds of people who cheered them on their way, people who in many of these villages had been only one day liberated from the German yoke. Our men marched singing, with a smiling light in their eyes. They had done their job, and it was finished with the greatest victory in the world.

The war ended for us at Mons, as it had begun there. When I went into this town this morning it seemed to me a most miraculous coincidence and a joyful one. Last night there was a fight outside the town before our men forced their way in at ten o'clock. The Germans left many of their guns in the gardens before they ran. This morning Mons was full of English cavalry and Canadian troops, about whom there were crowds of townspeople, cheering them and embracing them. One old man told me of all they had suffered in Mons, but he wept only when he told me of the sufferings of our prisoners. "What shame for Germany," he said. "What shame when these things are known about your poor men starving to death. Our women tried to give them food, but were beaten for it, and fifteen days ago down there by the canal one of your English was killed because a woman gave him a bit of bread." Little children came up to me and described the fighting the night before, and many people narrated the first fighting in Mons in August of 1914, when the "Old Contemptibles" were there and fought their battle through the town, and then on their way of retreat outside.

All that is now a memory of the past. The war belongs to the past. There will be no flash of gun-fire in the sky tonight. The fires of hell have been put out, and I have written my last


from a December 1918 edition of 'the War Illustrated'

November 12th

Last night for the first time since August in the first year of the war there was no light of gun-fire in the sky, no sudden stabs of flame through the darkness, no long spreading flow above the black trees, where for four years of nights human beings were being smashed to death. The fires of hell had been put out. It was silent all along the front with the beautiful silence of the nights of peace. We did not stand listening to the dull rumbling of artillery at work, which has been the undertone of all closer sounds for fifteen hundred nights, nor have sudden heart-beats at explosions shaking the earth and the air, nor say in whisper to oneself, "Curse those guns!" At eleven o'clock in the morning the order had gone to all the batteries to cease fire. No more men were to be killed, no more to be mangled, no more to be blinded. The last of the boyhood of the world was reprieved. On the way back from Mons I listened to this silence which followed the going down of the sun, and heard the rustling of the russet leaves and the little sounds of night in peace, and it seemed as though God gave a benediction to the wounded soul of the world. Other sounds rose from the towns and fields in the yellowing twilight, and in the deepening shadow-world of the day of Armistice. They were sounds of human joy. Men were singing somewhere on the roads, and their voices rang out gladly. Bands were playing, as all day on the way to Mons I had heard their music ahead of the marching columns. Bugles were blowing. In the villages from which the enemy had gone out that morning round about Mons crowds of figures surged in the narrow streets, and English laughter rose above the silvery chatter of women and children.

The British soldiers were still on the march with their guns and their transport and their old field-cookers, and all along their lines I heard these men talking to each other gaily, as though something had loosened their tongues and made them garrulous. Motor cars streaked through the Belgian streets, dodging the traffic, and now and then when night fell rockets were fired from them, and there were gusts of laughter from young officers shooting off Very pistols into the darkness to celebrate the end of hostilities by this symbol of rising stars, which did not soar so high as their spirits. From dark towns like Tournai and Lille these rockets rose and burned a little while with white light. Our aviators flew like bats in the dusk, skimming the treetops and gables, doing Puck-like gambols above the tawny sun-set, looping and spiralling and falling in steep dives which looked like death for them until they flattened out and rose again, and they, too, these boys who have been reprieved from the menace which was close to them on every flight, fired flares and rockets which dropped down to the crowds of French and Flemish people waving to them from below.


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