History

In Peace and War : St John After the Armistice

Museum of the Order of St John Isobel MacAuslan, Museum Assistant

Although the fighting ceased at 11am on 11th November 1918, the work of the Order of St John did not. The founders of St John Ambulance had been adamant that the organisation should provide aid in times of peace as well as war. With victory celebrations underway and the Spanish Influenza epidemic rife, St John remained active.

Today, 11th November, is a poignant day of reflection and commemoration. It is a time to pay tribute to those who have died in conflict since the First World War. However, on 11th November 1918, whilst many mourned the loss of their relatives, others took to the streets to celebrate.  As an article published in the August 1919 edition of First Aid alludes to, these celebrations meant that St John Ambulance was immediately thrust back into an intense calendar of peacetime duties.

St John Ambulance’s No. 1 Division, based in London, was particularly inundated with work supporting the peace celebrations. In the first few days following the signing of the Armistice, members of St John Ambulance did shifts in Trafalgar Square every night to care for revelling Londoners who came into difficulty. A Thanksgiving service at St Pauls Cathedral also required extensive assistance from St John volunteers.

The First World War not did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28th June 1919. The Peace Day Parade of 19th July 1919, included a Victory March of Allied Forces. At this event the Cenotaph was unveiled, a memorial in Whitehall resembling an empty tomb. The temporary structure was later replaced by the stone monument that remains the focus of remembrance today. Entertainment for the crowds was laid on in the five Royal Parks. St John Ambulance No. 1 Division manned eighteen stations along the route of the parade to treat casualties. The Office of Works arranged that all civilian casualties would be treated by the Prince of Wales’s Corps of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Members based in the six tents at Hyde Park were particularly busy dealing with crowds, who had gathered to watch fireworks and other entertainment after the parade had finished. In total, those on duty treated more than seven-thousand casualties, working from the early morning until well past midnight.

Crowds around the Cenotaph
Spectators after the parade at the newly unveiled Cenotaph, Whitehall, 19th July 1919. © IWM (Q 28769)
Photograph of many Gurka soldiers marching with crowds watching
The Gurkas marching up the Mall during the Victory Parade on 19th July 1919. © IWM (Q 14955)

In addition to this large event, St John helped at Royal Visits, at demonstrations and at the Water Pageant that took place on 4th August 1919, rounding off the celebrations. For more details of St John’s service in the aftermath of the First World War, have a look at the digitised First Aid magazines from 1918 to 1920. The events outlined above are detailed on page 238.

In addition to working with the celebrating public, St John people were also occupied with assisting hospitals to deal with the Spanish Flu Epidemic, which was seriously depleting the Force itself. In January 1918, the matron of Charing Cross Hospital asked for eighty additional nurses from St John to assist at the hospital, followed by thirty more in September. Such scenes were repeated across the country.

It is important to remember that for many, their war did not end on 11th November. For many members of St John who were deployed abroad during the First World War, it took months to be sent home. For example, the Hospital at Étaples remained in operation until 1st February 1919, after which it had to be packed down.  Indeed, some members of St John Ambulance did not return home until 1920.

Although the fighting had finished, the work of St John continued in times of peace as the founders had intended.

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