Everybody knows that World War One ended on November 11, 1918, right?
Or that World War Two came to an end when VJ Day occurred in 1945, a date still celebrated around the world on August 15 each year.
So, what's the catch?
Well, there is a pretty big one… That's because, although these dates are the commonly referred to moments in history when both wars concluded, for several significant reasons, they are not the official dates chosen by governments.
Here, is an examintion of how some dates differ from those commonly commemorated by the masses and why the anomaly exists.
When Do Most People Think WW1 And WW2 Ended?
Commonly, the conclusion of World War One is commemorated as November 11 each year. This date is also known as Armistice Day. The Armistice was called on November 11, 1918.
However, there is a clue in the name of this crucial moment in World War One history.
Armistice means truce. So already, we can see that in terms of fighting, a ceasefire is different to an all-out surrender.
In World War Two, victory in Europe was secured after Hitler's suicide and the subsequent surrender of Germany to the Allies. In the Far East, three months after Victory in Europe, Victory over Japan was achieved after the US dropped two nuclear bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was, again, a surrender, something that was formally accepted by US General Douglas MacArthur on September 2, 1945.
What Are The Actual Dates?
This is where things get complicated.
To formally end World War One, the British Government needed to pass the Termination of the Present War Act (1918), which granted discretionary powers to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
Those powers allowed the council to determine when the British Empire formally ceased being 'at war' with the different enemies it had faced throughout the Great War.
The dates decided by the Privy Council were:
- Germany: January 10, 1920
- Austria: July 16, 1920
- Bulgaria: August 9, 1920
- Hungary: July 26, 1921
- Turkey: August 6, 1921
So, although it is true the last shots fired during WW1 were on November 11, 1918, Britain's official position remained at war. In Turkey's case, it was almost six whole years after the guns fell silent before peace formally existed with the British Empire.
There was also a pressing need to set in official stone dates concerning the war formally ending due to the nature of the terms of service millions of volunteer soldiers had signed up to on the dotted line.
Under Field Marshal Kitchener's "short service" enlistment basis, many soldiers were required to serve in the Armed Forces for three years or the "duration of the war" – whichever was longer.
To release those men from their contractual commitments to Britain's military, definitive end dates were required in law. Those dates were established through the Termination of the Present War Act and meant that large swathes of soldiers could be demobbed and returned to civilian life on a theatre-by-theatre basis.
World War Two is equally interesting. Although fighting stopped in August 1945, it was not until New Year's Eve 1946 that President Truman issued a presidential proclamation declaring an end to the war.
There Was Another Very Important Reason Too
Commonwealth war graves are an unmistakable sight.
At 23,000 locations worldwide, 1.7 million men are commemorated near the place where they lost their lives fighting in either the First or Second World War.
Of that 1.7 million, 1.1 million have headstones. The other 600,000 people commemorated by the CWGC are still missing, and therefore, no headstone exists for them yet.
In both wars, although most of those killed were either in action or from injuries a short while after, many died much later. This caused administrative problems, including around pensions (for example, war widow pensions), and of course, issues around who could be commemorated by Commonwealth war grave headstones.
For commemorative purposes, the qualifying dates for each war were established as:
- World War One - August 4, 1914, to August 31, 1921.
- World War Two - September 3, 1939, to December 31, 1947.
Therefore, if a soldier died during the stipulated period, their family was entitled to a war grave (funded by the Government). Servicemen could have been killed in action or from injuries and accidents, including in the UK. However, the strict rules meant that if somebody died outside the dates, even as a result of their war injuries, they did not qualify for a CWGC grave. Naturally, this was met with some controversy.
War historian and CWGC volunteer Ewan Cuthbertson, explaining some of the issues around this, said that many families "would have felt aggrieved" if their loved ones had died of, say, smoke inhalation from the trenches in the 1920s but missed out on the dates to qualify for not just a war grave but a pension too.
Speaking in a personal capacity, Ewan explained that it was common to see headstones in graveyards around the UK that looked like Commonwealth war graves but instead are what he referred to as "mimic" graves.
Mr Cuthbertson explained that it was relatively common to see graves that, for all intents and purposes, look like Commonwealth war graves, but are in fact, private memorials where families have commissioned stonemasons to create headstones based on the style of Commonwealth war grave headstones.
This could be because those buried in the graves missed out on the qualification criteria to secure a CWGC headstone. Perhaps their families wanted to acknowledge their contribution to fighting the war, even though they went on to have long lives after the action stopped.
Mr Cuthbertson said:
"For me, mimic graves are interesting. I have no idea how many graves like this there are, but they are civilian graves made in the style of Commonwealth war graves, typically by the families of those who served in the Armed Forces.
"In Stratford-upon-Avon, there are two individuals buried in the graveyard who died well after the end of the war."
He said this included the grave of a Land Girl who died in 1993, adding: "I think it is interesting that the individuals' families identified with their service lives over 70 years ago. It is an important part of their story.
"The National Arboretum is a good example of peoples' need for commemoration post war."
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission takes no official position on the existence of "mimic" graves.
Equity In Death
Mr Cuthbertson explained that 185,000 CWGC headstones have been erected at sites in the UK.
These graves typically represent those who died while convalescing in Britain or those who died due to accidents during training or while on leave. According to the rules, these people did qualify for war graves, alongside those who died in action in places like Flanders or Normandy. However, such incidents meant that those who died in Britain were exempt from rules around non-repatriation. Explained the matter further, he said:
"There was an unfairness at the start of World War One in which wealthy families could pay for their loved ones' bodies to be returned to Britain for a private burial. Poor families could not do the same, and so it was, rightly, considered unfair.
"The non-repatriation rule was brought in, which meant that men who fell while fighting abroad were buried near to the place they lost their lives. It was an across the board rule. And it allowed equality in death.
"However, if loved ones died while in England, those bodies were not covered by the rules, and families could repatriate them for private burials in their local towns and villages."
Britain's largest CWGC site is Brookwood Military Cemetry, where over 5,000 service personnel are commemorated. There are CWGC sites worldwide, including in Chad, France, Germany, India and Iraq.