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The World War One Armistice — a Christian officer’s experience

November 2018 | by Ian Dobbie

Over the last three months, the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA) has helped Evangelical Times look back on the closing months of World War One with the work of ‘front line’ mission in mind. In this final article, SASRA now points us to the Armistice — that took effect 100 years ago, on 11 November 1918 — and shares historical fact that surprises and informs in equal measure.

In January 1918, Lieutenant Colonel William Dobbie was appointed to British General Headquarters as ‘GSO1 Movements’. From here he was able to see the progress of the war.

Critically, he will have known that a massive German offensive was in preparation, as Lord Haig went to London to warn Prime Minister David Lloyd George that his forces were too depleted to cope with the impending blow, unless some of the 400,000 men kept in England were deployed to the Continent.

Hammer blow

In March the blow fell. Forty-six German divisions attacked at the weakest point, where the British and French lines joined. Within a few days most of the hard-won gains of three years were lost. The Germans advanced on Amiens, the railway centre which would control much of the area.

The atmosphere at General Head Quarters (GHQ) was understandably anxious and Lieutenant Colonel Dobbie was aware of the now desperate situation for the Allies. There came a terrible day when, for an hour or two, contact between the British and French armies was broken.

If the Germans had realised this, they could have pushed on through to Amiens forcing the British army back towards the Channel and thereby allowing them to deal with the French separately, as they did in 1940. William realised the disastrous gravity of the situation, but the Germans did not exploit their success and the lines joined again.

General Ludendorff continued his hammer blows but the British nation, sensing impending disaster, nerved itself for another effort. 80,000 men on leave were sent back and boys under 19 were drafted overseas.

By the end of April, the tide began to turn. There was British success on the Somme and by May 1918, American troops were arriving at the rate of 50,000 a week.

As the pressure built up for Marshal Foch’s great offensive in August, necessitating enormous troop movements at night, and concealments by day, William Dobbie’s work became ever more important.

Day of prayer

On 4 August, the fourth anniversary of the beginning of the war, there was an official day of prayer all over Britain and among the Forces. At GHQ there was a special parade service, attended by everyone from the Commander-in-Chief downwards. The reading desk was made of drums and William wrote that it was ‘a public acknowledgement of God and as such, I hope will be blessed by Him’.

Four days later, on 8 August, the most serious break-through occurred — what General Ludendorff called ‘The Black Day of the German Army’ — and the Allied armies rolled forward once more.

Curiously, William Dobbie, despite being right at the centre of things, did not appear to have realised how close the end was until 9 November. With the German collapse now apparent, he wrote home: ‘It looks as if hostilities must cease any old time now. The whole thing seems like a dream, the German army inevitably defeated and the German menace lifted once for all. God has been wonderfully good, far more so than we have deserved or could have expected’.

Historic order

Early on the morning of 11 November, a message came through to GHQ to be disseminated through all units of the British army. It read as follows:

‘Hostilities will cease at 1100 hours today, November 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour, which will be reported to Advanced GHQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse with the enemy until the receipt of instructions from GHQ. Further instructions will follow.’

This historic message had to be signed by the Lieutenant Colonel who happened to be on duty at the time, 06.30 hours. This privilege fell to an evangelical Christian, Lt. Col. William Dobbie!

This article is based on the biography of Lt. Gen. Sir William Dobbie entitled Faith and Fortitude, written by his daughter, Sybil Johnston. General Dobbie later became Governor of Malta (1940-1942) during the siege when the island’s population was awarded the George Cross. In his retirement he became President of the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association (SASRA) and Chairman of the London City Mission (LCM).

Brigadier Ian Dobbie, OBE is Vice President of SASRA