Posted by: michaeldaybath | November 20, 2017

“Hysterical, and un-English” — joy bells for Cambrai

“This is one of the great victories of the campaign, splendidly conceived and splendidly won, a fitting occasion for the ringing of the joy-bells which have for so long been silent.” — Army and Navy Gazette, 1 December 1917, p. 1.

“In spite of the great success near Cambrai, final victory is not definitely in sight, and it appears to us that the time for the ringing of joy bells has not yet arrived.” — Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 23 November 1917, p. 2.

St Paul's Cathedral, from Tate Modern (London)

St Paul’s Cathedral, from Tate Modern (London); the noon ringing at St Paul’s on the 23rd November 1917 was the main focus of the Cambrai victory ringing in the City of London

The Battle of Cambrai began in the early morning of the 20th November 1917.  Six infantry divisions of the British Third Army, supported by nine battalions of the Tank Corps, attacked Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) defences to the west and south-west of the city of Cambrai. The opening day was a stunning success, with some divisions advancing several miles. However, the failure to capture key objectives meant that that the advance soon became bogged down, especially at Bourlon Wood. The Germans counter-attacked in strength on the 30th November and by the 7th December, the Third Army had relinquished much of the ground that it had gained a few weeks before. The Battle of Cambrai is probably mainly remembered today for the large-scale use of tanks on the 20th November, although their overall significance in the wider battle has often been the subject of debate [1].

Almost all accounts of the Cambrai battle, however brief, mention that the initial success of the offensive on the 20 November was accompanied by the ringing of victory bells (or joy bells) back home in the UK.  A representative example might be this short extract from The Chief, Gary Sheffield’s biography of Field Marshall Haig [2]:

Cambrai was a drawn battle. Roughly 45,000 casualties were lost on each side., and the ground each army gained was just about equivalent. For the British, however, it felt like a defeat. The initial euphoria at the achievements of 20 November gave way to bitter disappointment. This did more damage to Haig’s reputation than even the losses and struggles at Ypres. When the news of the initial breakthrough had reached England, church bells were rung, for the first time in the war, to celebrate a great victory.

The ringing that followed the first stages of the Battle of Cambrai is one of the few documented examples of church bells being rung in Britain to celebrate a military victory prior to the armistice in November 1918 (although some ringing did also follow the capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, including at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 11th December [3]).

Many accounts of the Cambrai bellringing, however, go much further and argue – perhaps thinking of the even more severe restrictions on bellringing imposed during the Second World War – that the Cambrai ringing was the very first time that church bells had been rung since the beginning of the war. There are many examples of this “silent bells” myth, but the earliest unambiguous example that I have been able to find appears in the opening lines of Bryan Cooper’s well-known 1967 book The ironclads of Cambrai, a book published for the 50th anniversary of the battle [4]:

On the morning of November 21, 1917, the church bells of London rang out for the first time since the start of the Great War. They were celebrating a sudden and dramatic victory which had taken place the day before near the town of Cambrai, in northern France.
It was a stirring victory, and gave the public at home their first chance of jubilation since the early days of the war.

While he opens the book with the church bells of London, towards the end of the book the Cambrai ringing becomes a nationwide celebration of victory [5]:

The final result of the Battle of Cambrai was a cruel disappointment. What had happened to the stirring victory of November 20, which had set the church bells ringing throughout Britain.

The “silent bells” myth reappears (or is hinted at) in many accounts of the war, for example in Alan Wilkinson’s history of the Church of England during the war [6], in Paddy Griffiths account of the battle tactics of the British Army [7], and in a host of other works on the military history of the First World War [8] [9] [10]. While it seems invidious to single any one of these out, John Laffin’s British butchers and bunglers of World War I takes the myth to the extreme, stating that “when news of the success reached Britain church bells were rung for the only time in the war” [11].

In reality, while the Defence of the Realm Acts (DORA) did prescribe significant restrictions on bellringing during the First World War, especially after dark, there was far from a blanket ban on all ringing. A quick look at contemporary issues of the Bell News and the Ringing World would serve to show that bellringing did continue throughout the war, especially for church services, although it was much diminished from its pre-war level.

References to the Cambrai ringing often also imply that it was the spontaneous response of a grateful population to good news from the front. While this may be true up-to-a-point, a good deal of the ringing – especially that organised in in the City of London on Friday, 23rd November 1917 – was orchestrated by prominent figures in the secular and ecclesiastical establishment, and also heavily promoted by the press.

Organising the victory ringing

In London, the main drivers of the Cambrai ringing seem to have been initially the office of the Lord Mayor of London and the Bishop of London, the  Rt Rev Arthur Winnington-Ingram (a very firm supporter of the British war effort). The press also seemed to take a prominent role in both pushing for the ringing and in promoting it to the wider public. The victory ringing proposal was certainly publicised fairly widely in the press prior to the event. For example, under a heading reading, “British Victory: New Success,” the front page of the Pall Mall Gazette of 22nd November included the following report [12]:

The bells of the City of London will ring out merry peals at noon to-morrow in honour of the Cambrai victory.
Sir William Soulsby, the Lord Mayor’s private secretary conveyed the news to a “Pall Mall Gazette” representative this afternoon. It was the Bishop of London who first publicly expressed the view that the occasion was sufficiently worthy of recognition to justify the ringing of all our church bells, and he outlined to the Diocesan Conference, over which he was presiding, a scheme for carrying out this celebration.
Lord Derby, too, stated that he was altogether in favour of the idea, but thought that before any definite action was taken it would be better to wait until more detailed communiqués came to hand.
At Noon To-morrow.
“While we await this further news,” said Sir William Soulsby to a “Pall Mall Gazette” representative at the Mansion House to-day, “we are perfecting our arrangements for a celebration worthy of so grand an occasion. As things stand at present, the bells of every church in the City will ring out their happy tidings at noon to-morrow; all our public buildings will be gaily dressed with bunting; and I am sure that at the midday hour not a City man will fail to express his thanksgiving in one form or another.”
Inquiring at several of the leading banking and insurance houses, the “Pall Mall Gazette” representative learned that arrangements are being made for a special display of flags immediately an official sanction for the demonstration has been given.
Southwold bells were rung to-day in honour of the victory.

The ringing in London, therefore, had the express support of the Lord Mayor of London’s office and the Bishop of London. It was also — perhaps with some reservation — supported by Lord Derby and the War Office (Edward George Villiers Stanley, 17th Earl of Derby, was a Conservative politician and Secretary of State for War between 1916 and 1918).

Much the same information as in the Pall Mall Gazette article appeared in the Western Gazette of 23 November, but the account highlights the crucial role of the London Diocesan Conference, which just happened to be in progress when the news from Cambrai was received [13]:

The news of Sir Douglas Haig’s surprise victory when it was received on Wednesday, at once suggested an opportunity to reform our cold methods of greeting good tidings. It was the revulsion of feeling, rather than the magnitude of the success (which cannot yet be gauged), that prompted the desire for joy-bells.
In order that what is done in this matter should be done generally, a representative of the “Times” saw on Wednesday various authorities, including the Lord Mayor, the Bishop of London, the Secretary of War, the Archdeacon of St. Paul’s, and other high officers at the War Office, all of whom gave it as their opinion that there should be some popular demonstration as soon as definite news was received. Since the war began the bells of the London churches have not been rung in a joy peal, and the idea was that on this occasion such a demonstration might be made. The Bishop of London, presiding over the Diocesan Conference at Church House, Westminster, made the announcement of the victory to the Conference. It was received with keen approbation, and, as Dr. Ingram went on to explain the scheme for recognising and celebrating the victory by the ringing of church bells, he was heartily supported. He told the clergy assembled that this might be carried into effect. The Conference rose in a body, and sang the National Anthem.
Lord Derby stated on Wednesday night that he was altogether in favour of the idea, but that it would be better to wait until the more detailed communiques came to hand with the tally of prisoners and guns taken. He suggested that Friday would be the best day for the joy peals. This entirely falls in with the ideas of the clergy of the City of London and the London Diocese. Canon Holmes, the Archdeacon of St. Paul’s, is also greatly in favour of the idea, and says that it would be quite easy to arrange for the general ringing of the bells of all the churches in the City. Doubtless as the news of the project as proposed spreads throughout the country, other cities and smaller towns will also ring their bells.

Getting a band to ring at St Paul’s Cathedral on the 23rd November was an acknowledged problem. In the Daily Mirror of the 23rd November, Canon Sidney Arthur Alexander of St Paul’s was quoted as still hoping that a band could be found: “It is not yet settled, but it is possible that the bells of St. Paul’s may be rung.”

The newspaper explained [14]:

There are twelve bells to the set, and the ringers have to be summoned from different parts of London.
There is great difficulty at the present time in obtaining ringers, who are necessarily experts.

In the end, the St Paul’s ringing formed the centrepiece of the Cambrai ringing on the 23rd November.

The Liverpool Echo, quoting The Times newspaper, combined its support for the Cambrai ringing with a slightly dubious moral exhortation [15]:

The “Times” says: — As a result of a consultation of various authorities concerned, it has been decided to give expression to the feeling caused by the great British victory by the ringing of peals of joy bells in London.
Lord Derby has suggested that it would be better to await more detailed communications with the tally of prisoners and guns taken, and that to-morrow would be the best day for joy bells. This meets with the approval of the clergy of the City of London diocese, and peals will be rung throughout the City.
Following this lead, no doubt other cities and towns throughout the country will also ring bells.
Speaking with emphasis in the City Temple this morning, Dr. Fort Newton said the great victory of the British Army of yesterday ought to make us ring the joy bells in our hearts. Also it ought to make us ashamed of ourselves in the way we have been carrying on here at home the last few weeks.
“If such a victory were won by the American Army – and they will have victories after a while – the great cities of America would celebrate it. They would say so, and I think this country is of such size and significance that London might well afford to say so.”

The Echo followed this up the next day with a report on the celebrations [16]:

The distant boom of Flanders guns was heard at Ramsgate to-day as the bells rang a victory peal. Flags were waved from church towers and the drum and fife bands paraded the streets.
At noon to-day, the bells of St. Paul’s rang out a joyous peal in celebration of the British victory at Cambrai.
A crowd numbering many hundreds gathered on the steps of the cathedral, and there ensued a scene of intense enthusiasm. The National Anthem was sung with such gusto that the sound of the bells could hardly be heard, and then cheer after cheer was raised for our victorious Tommies and cries of “Vive la France” in recognition of our gallant allies.
The demonstration lasted upwards of a quarter of an hour.
Flags were flown at Southport to-day and the bells of Christ Church rang a peel [sic].
In Liverpool the Lord Mayor requested that a peal should be sounded in honour of the great victory. Notice was short, but the bellringers were summoned as soon as possible, and a salutation was rung on the municipal bells at 4 p.m.
The Union Jack was hoisted at the Town Hall. So far as one could see, however, this civic example was not generally copied by the commercial and other offices, and there was the minimum of bunting displayed in the city.

The Victory Ringing

The Ringing World of the 30th November 1917 and following weeks contained brief reports of some of the Cambrai ringing. The details of these would have mostly been sent in to the newspaper by the ringers themselves, so they are not able to provide a complete picture. They do, perhaps, give a hint at how geographically widespread the ringing actually was. The following list of towers is supplemented by those mentioned by reports in other newspapers. The ringing was clearly spread over several days, with the main “official” focus in the City of London on the 23 November.

  • Wednesday, 21 November: Keynsham, Somerset; St Lawrence, Reading (by the Caversham band)
  • Thursday, 22 November: Southwark Cathedral; Henfield, Sussex; Dorking, Surrey; Southwold, Suffolk
  • Friday, 23 November: St Paul’s Cathedral; St Martin-in-the-Fields; St Bride’s, Fleet Street; St Michael, Cornhill; York Minster; Exeter Cathedral; Peterborough Cathedral; Tunstall, Kent; Oswestry, Shropshire; Christ Church, Southport; Municipal Buildings, Liverpool
  • Saturday, 24 November: St Alfege, Greenwich; Christ Church, Ealing Broadway and Acton (by the Acton Guild); Godalming, Surrey; Finedon, Northamptonshire; Lindley, Yorkshire (peal); Leighton Buzzard, Buckinghamshire; Linslade, Bedfordshire
  • Sunday, 25 November: St John of Jerusalem, South Hackney; St Nicholas, Bristol; Selby Abbey, Yorkshire; Darlington, County Durham

The Ringing World also noted that the Bishop of Salisbury had requested parishes in the Sarum Diocese to rung on Sunday 25th, an action that the Ringing World was able to enthusiastically endorse! Originally publishing these performances under the title “Bells of victory,” by the 14th December the Ringing World was using the “joy bells” terminology used by most of the popular press.

After the ringing on the 23rd at St. Paul’s, Canon Alexander tried to universalise the message away from Cambrai, perhaps reflecting a feeling that some past events had been left unacknowledged [17]:

Canon Alexander stated that the peal [the St Paul’s ringing] might be regarded as a celebration of our recent victories not only in France, but in Flanders and the East, and, he would like to add, also of the extraordinary achievements of our Navy.

Things did not always go so well for the ringers themselves. The Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal of 30th November 1917 reported the fate of Henry Springall, a member of the Ancient Society of College Youths [18]:

While ringing the bells of St. Michael’s, Cornhill, London, on Saturday [probably Friday] in honour of the British victory, Henry Springall, a very old member of the Society of College Youths, fell dead.

The Ringing World of the 30 November 1917 contained a leading article on the Cambrai ringing entitled “The nation’s voice.” While this largely expressed (in some detail) the editor’s gratification that bells had been the chosen means to express the “spirit of the nation” following reports of the victory, it also contained some additional hints on how the ringing had actually come about and who had promoted it [19]:

Last week, with the great and smashing blow at the enemy which reconquered about forty square miles of territory, and brought in nearly ten thousand prisoners and a hundred guns, came the opportunity [to signalise the successes of the troops], and the newspapers called loudly for the bells. Needless to say, the ringers were not behindhand in doing their part, and it is gratifying to find that St. Paul’s Cathedral gave a lead. The ringing there was done at the request of the authorities, while the Bishop of London himself issued an appeal for the bells generally in his Diocese to be rung. The ringing at St. Paul’s, indeed, was something of a historical event, for we read that a huge crowd gathered round the west front to hear the pealing of this noble ring, and in an interval between the touches the National Anthem was fervently sung.

Ringing did not take place everywhere, even when it was desired. For example, there was no ringing at Manchester Town Hall [20]:

The Lord Mayor of Manchester (Sir Alexander Porter) was a disappointed man this morning. In conjunction with the decision in London to ring a peal in celebration of the great victory of the British Army, he desired that the bells of the Manchester Town Hall should play a part.
Unfortunately, the Town Hall ringers are serving at the front, and the room where the men swing the ropes is in the occupation of the military.
“I should like to have heard the bells to-day,” he stated to an “Evening News” representative. “We don’t do enough of celebration when our gallant men in the forces, on land and sea, accomplish great things like they are doing now in France.”

Mark IV tank, Ashford (Kent)

Mark IV tank, Ashford (Kent), now a war memorial

Initial Responses

Coverage of the Cambrai ringing can be found in many contemporary newspapers. Most of these supported the ringing of the bells, often adding their own justifications. For example, the Cheshire Observer pointed to the precedent of bonfires and bells from earlier wars [21]:

In other and lesser wars such a victory as that British troops won this week on the Western Front would have been the signal for ringing the joy-bells in London and in every town and hamlet in the country. Such has been the chastening influence of the long, up-hill road which we have had to travel in the present awful War that the public never seem to think of rejoicing, as they were wont to rejoice in the old Peninsular and Crimean days. This week’s magnificent success, however, has prompted many people to propose a break from our seemingly stoical attitude, by letting the church bells ring out the glad tidings of victory. The Lord Mayor of London, the Bishop of London, the Secretary of War, and other important personages have been approached on the subject, and they expressed themselves in favour of signalising this crowning success of our arms by joy-peals from the church steeples. At St Paul’s Cathedral the joy-bells were arranged to be rung yesterday (Friday) at noon. Aerial warfare and the necessity for the economy of fuel would prohibit our old-fashioned victory bonfires, which used to speed from hill-tops news of battles a generation or two ago. To the pealing of church bells, however, there can be no valid objection, and we trust the iron-tongued message will soon be spread far and wide, once the full story of the proud feat of arms has been received.

Other commentators wanted to distinguish the Cambrai ringing from that undertaken elsewhere, especially overseas. For example, the “London Letter” in the Bucks Herald made direct comparisons with German victory ringing [22]:

Knowing how greatly the practice is abused on the other side of the North Sea, it takes a lot to make the average Londoner enthuse in the matter of church bell ringing for the victories of our Service men. Nevertheless, the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and one of two other London Churches, were joyously pealed the other day in honour of the undoubted victory of Sir Julian Byng before Cambrai, when great enthusiasm was shown, the crowds in the churchyard singing with much heartiness the National Anthem. Such a joy day has not been seen in the City of London since the war began, though many thrilling sights connected with the war have often been witnessed within its walls. That such a celebration was possible is entirely due to the Press, which gave expression to the widely-expressed feeling here that something of the kind should be done, after it was ascertained beyond all doubt that we had done something to enthuse about. The suggestion, once started, was quickly acclaimed by the Lord Mayor, the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s, and other civic authorities, and the splendid doings of “the Byng boys” were celebrated accordingly.

Dissenting voices

Other commentators took a different view of the Cambrai ringing. One strand of criticism focused on the idea that victory ringing was a fundamentally alien concept. Another highlighted the practical difficulties on deciding which particular victories should be celebrated. These are combined in this long opinion piece in the Leeds Mercury of the 23th November, an early example of such dissent [23]:

Joy Bells.
The great victory in front of Cambrai has set all manner of people discussing the proper means of celebrating occasions of this sort. It seems to be a primitive phase of human nature to want to “make a joyful sound” whenever it is specially pleased about anything; and, in obedience to that instinct, some people have rushed forward with the suggestion that we should ring what they are pleased to call “joy bells” whenever news of a great victory is received. For ourselves, we fervently pray to be spared the horrors of any such infliction. We do not suggest that the idea is inspired by the ubiquitous Bolo as another manifestation of frightfulness; but the notion is essentially German.
On any and every occasion the Germans rejoice in this way. Even when there are no victories to celebrate the people of Berlin “rejoice” to order, and the bells that have still escaped being melted down for cannon are rung on every conceivable occasion. No wonder the Germans have become a people of gloomy countenance. We can imagine few things more depressing than rejoicing to order, and celebrating the occasion, whatever it may be, by the harsh, monotonous clanging of the iron [sic] bells, which for the most are all that we possess, and which as rule, are unspeakably inharmonious. In Belgium, the land of bells, something might be said for “joy bells”; but how few of the towns and villages of England possess a peal of bells of any sort, and how few, even of these, are worth listening to? There are, of course, other means of rejoicing; and if a plebiscite were to be taken it would probably be found that the old-fashioned custom of opening a hogshead of good ale on every village green, and some modification of this practice to suit the towns, would be much more likely to meet popular favour.
But the great objection to the ringing of joy bells, apart from its being a somewhat hysterical, and un-English performance, lies in the difficulty of deciding what are the proper occasions for such reprisals. Countless acts of heroism and countless little successes are the unnoted but daily achievements of our troops. How great must a victory be for the bells to be rung? Is the sudden success at Cambrai more to be rejoiced over than the long, toilsome labours that conquered the Flanders Ridges? Moreover, when must an operation be regarded as successful? Should the bells be rung when the first official message comes to hand, about mid-day, or when the last is received, about midnight; and what should we do if an air raid happened to be in progress, and we were forbidden to make a noise? Or should we wait until we see how the counter-attacks develop? With our new passion for Ministries and bureaucrats, should we set up a new Department for Bell Ringing, which, after due consideration, would issue orders, either through its own officials of through the Home Secretary, for the ringing of joy bells?
What could be more awful than these rejoicings to order some days behind the fair! Far better that we should save our bell ringing until the Germans have been driven out of Belgium, or the soil of France and Italy is freed, or until the enemy at last accepts the Allies’ terms of peace. There are other ways in which we can honour our troops, and some special act of self-denial for the sake of wounded might well give us scope for expressing all our emotional exuberance.

The author was obviously not a fan of English-style bells or bellringing. It is possible, however, that he may have liked his ale!

The Huddersfield Daily Examiner of the same date made some of the same points, but was mainly concerned that the ringing was premature and probably insensitive to those who had lost family or friends during the war [24]:

The decision that the bells of London should ring to-day in honour of the great victory gained under Sir Julian Byng by the officers and men of the Third Army will be received with mingled feelings by the community at large. Those who question the advisability of the proposal are no whit behind others in their appreciation of an achievement which, according to one London correspondent, has resulted in the most striking gain of ground since trench warfare began except “on the day, April 22nd, 1915, when the Germans for ever disgraced their arms by the first use of poison gas.” Other victories gained by our arms have been allowed to pass without demonstrative expression of national jubilation. In this case fighting is still proceeding, and this morning it is officially recorded that one of the villages gained by us has been recaptured by the Germans in a counterattack. This is, no doubt, only a minor incident in a great movement. But it indicates that the final outcome of the battle has not been reached. The intimation in the official communique that our casualties were “very light” would be read with thankfulness. But the phrase here is used only in a comparative sense. Great victories in a war like this cannot be gained except at the price of considerable sacrifices and of many individual sorrows. This point of view will appeal especially to the people of this district, in view of the fact that the battalions raised here are in all probability in the thick of the fighting. The nation has thus far restrained admirably from public expression of its feeling. In spite of the great success near Cambrai, final victory is not definitely in sight, and it appears to us that the time for the ringing of joy bells has not yet arrived.

Proving that journalistic contrarians existed a century ago, other objections were based less on the ringing of bells per se, but on the idea that the response had been organised rather than being completely spontaneous. For example, the London correspondent of the Western Morning News (Plymouth) obviously had no idea how to organise anything spontaneous (let alone organising multiple groups of bellringers) when he wrote the following on the 23rd November [25]:

Suggested Joy Bells.
Joy bells for a British victory is a natural expression of national exultation. But it must be a spontaneous ebullition of rejoicing. To call upon the bellringers to chime the bells, to appoint a day for the clanging of the bells, is a confession that silent people have to be bidden to jubilate. It stultifies the whole meaning of joy bells. Our men and women will not be backward in giving expression to their real feelings when the spirit moves them. One would have been pleased if suddenly a peal of bells had burst upon the City, in harmony with the heartfelt thankfulness, for so great a victory secured by British troops. But when opinion has to be canvassed, and a day is arranged for the joy bells or flag-wagging, the Englishman feels that modesty impels him to ignore the idea. Not that he thinks the occasion is not worthy of such symbols of gratitude to our soldiers. In words and thoughts rejoicing bubbles over, but apparently the man in the street thinks that the time has not come for these manifestations. At the back of his mind, probably, he thinks that the Berliners have made such fools of themselves with joy bells that he has no wish to imitate their premature impetuosity. Yet it is patent that the world in general, and Germany in particular, would be more impressed with the magnitude and completeness of our victory on the Hindenburg line if joy bells were heard in this country. If it comes to pass that enthusiasm is organized, church bells rung, buildings dressed in bunting, school children given a holiday, there will be no protest, but there will also be no mafficking.

The historian Professor Albert Frederick Pollard of University College London worried about the expectations raised by victory ringing. The Hull Daily Mail of the 7th December reported on some of his comments [26]

Professor Pollard, speaking at University College, London, on Thursday night criticised the recent agitation to ring the joybells of London when the Hindenburg line was broken through.
“The British secured a fine victory in the neighbourhood of Cambrai,” he said, “but the expectations which some people had formed of the operations were hardly realised. There was no need to copy the German method of ringing the joybells. It is perfectly certain that when there is real cause for rejoicing there will be no need for any newspaper agitation or Government action to bring it about.”
The disappointment of some people was with regard to the Hindenburg line. We broke through, but it does not consist of human material, but concrete. It was almost as difficult to widen the breach as it was to make the original breach itself.


The reverses at Cambrai in early December resulted in even more recrimination. This example of criticism appeared in the People’s Journal (Dundee) of 8th December [27]:

Developing events opposite Cambrai must make those Londoners feel very foolish who a fortnight ago set the bells ringing for victory. What we have to recognise to-day is that the remarkable victory of the 20th November just fell short of being enough of a victory to secure great and permanent results.

Eventually, this criticism was raised in Parliament. This House of Lords reply was reported in the Ulster paper, the Northern Whig of 14th December [28]:

Lord Beresford complained that Ministers’ speeches were sometimes optimistic and sometimes pessimistic. But the incidents of war varied. See what happened at Cambrai. Anyone speaking on the day of that victory would naturally deliver a speech full of pride and encouragement. He himself greatly regretted there should have been such premature congratulations. Nothing distressed him more that to hear the joy bells ringing for the Cambrai victory, because he felt that very soon the joy bells must be turned into bells of sorrow and mourning, and so it turned out.

A few weeks later Andrew Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons, had to make it clear in Parliament that the Cambrai victory ringing had not been undertaken on the authority of the War Cabinet [29]

In his self-serving War memoirs published after the end of the war, the former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, characteristically placed the blame for the Cambrai ringing firmly on the War Office [30]:

When the first news of our great triumph reached London, the War Office ordered that all the church bells of the metropolis should be set a-ringing. A few days after the chimes had ceased to thrill the hearts of Londoners, the counter-attack came, and our troops were driven back pell-mell – such of them as escaped capture. The Staff who were responsible for the joy-bells were ashamed to publish the news of the reverse.

Replica Mark IV tank, Horse Guards (London)

Replica Mark IV tank, Horse Guards (London)


Since I started writing this piece, the Ringing World has also published a centenary account of the Cambrai bellringing. See: Charlie Hunt, “Centenary of the ‘joy bells’ for Cambrai,” The Ringing World, 17 November 2017, pp. 1130-31.


[1] Bryn Hammond, Cambrai 1917: the myth of the first great tank battle (London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008).

[2] Gary Sheffield, The Chief: Douglas Haig and the British Army (London: Aurum, 2011), p. 256.

[3] Daily Mirror, 11 December 1917, p. 3, via British Newspaper Archive; for other reports of ringing for the capture of Jerusalem see: Ringing World, 21 December 1917, p. 406, and Ringing World, 28 December 1917, p. 410.

[4] Bryan Cooper, The ironclads of Cambrai: the first tank battle (London: Cassell, 2002), p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 217.

[6] Alan Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War (London: SPCK, 1978), p. 61: “… church bells were rung in London, the only time during the war, to celebrate the victory.”

[7] Paddy Griffith, Battle tactics of the Western Front: the British Army’s art of attack, 1916-18 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 164: “One can readily understand the psychological boost it [Cambrai] gave to the British public, who fell to ringing their church bells for the first time in the war.

[8] Charles Messenger, The day we won the war: turning point at Amiens, 8 August 1918 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), chapter 1: After Cambrai, “church bells in Britain, which had been silent since the outbreak of war, were rung in celebration.”

[9] Jack Horsfall and Nigel Cave, Cambrai: the right hook (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1999), p. 35: “On the other hand, the remarkable success of the tank, which enabled the infantry to advance ten thousand yards on a front of eleven thousand men, was simply too awe-inspiring to be stopped. It was enough to cause the war time silence of church bells in Britain to be broken by exuberant joy; it was enough for some over enthusiastic souls to read, perhaps, too much into the capability of the tank.”

[10] Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk, Famous, 1914-1918 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2008), p. 286: “The news of this success caused the hitherto silent church bells of England to ring nationwide in a celebratory peel [sic].” (from the chapter on Henry Moore)

[11] John Laffin, British butchers and bunglers of World War I (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1988), p. 128.

[12] Pall Mall Gazette, 22 November 1917, p. 1, via British Newspaper Archive.

[13] Western Gazette, 23 November 1917, p. 8, via British Newspaper Archive.

[14] Daily Mirror, 23 November 1917, p. 2, via British Newspaper Archive.

[15] Liverpool Echo, 22 November 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[16] Liverpool Echo, 23 November 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[17] Aberdeen Daily Journal, 24 November 1917, p 3, via British Newspaper Archive.

[18] Diss Express and Norfolk and Suffolk Journal, 30 December 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[19] Ringing World, 30 November 1917.

[20] Manchester Evening News, 22 November 1917, p. 3, via British Newspaper Archive.

[21] Cheshire Observer, 24 November 1917, p. 5, via British Newspaper Archive.

[22] Bucks Herald, 1 December 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[23] Leeds Mercury, 23 November 1917, p. 2, via British Newspaper Archive.

[24] Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 23 November 1917, p. 2, via British Newspaper Archive.

[25] Western Morning News, 23 November 1917, p. 4, via British Newspaper Archive.

[26] Hull Daily Mail, 7 December 1917, p. 3, via British Newspaper Archive.

[27] Dundee People’s Journal, 8 December 1917, p. 4, via British Newspaper Archive.

[28] Northern Whig, 14 December 1917, p. 6, via British Newspaper Archive.

[29] Western Gazette, 21 December 1917, p. 5, via British Newspaper Archive.

[30] David Lloyd George, War memoirs, Vol. IV (London: Ivor Nicholon & Watson, 1934), p. 2256.





  1. I suspect the press criticism of the lack of ringing following Broodseinde played quite a big part too. From my letter to The Ringing World earlier in the year (6 January):

    [quote]There seems to have been some adverse press comment that there was not earlier victory ringing following some of the gains at the Battle of Broodseinde towards the end of the Third Battle of Ypres (more commonly known as Passchendaele). The editorial column of the 19th October 1917 Ringing World includes: “A popular writer in the London Evening News devoted nearly a column to the subject. One extract here will suffice: ‘We are of the blood of people who, when they were in a jolly mood, when good news was in, loved to hear all the bells ring with a jolly noise. They should have rung for Broodseinde.’” The column opens by pointing out earlier victory ringing, for Jutland (1916) and Messines (1917), and closes by mentioning ringing for Broodseinde at York Minster (rather ironically in the current circumstances) and at Gillingham. The Ringing World of 12th October 1917, p.322, had carried the full report of the peal at Gillingham on Saturday, 6th October 1917, “Rung to commemorate our great victory in Flanders”; the band included Royal Marines Sergt Fred Holden and Musician Victor A. Jarrett (who had both rung in the first armed forces peal in early 1914) plus Corpl Edwin G. Buesden (his 150th peal), and Privates George Luff (Chiddingfold) and Herbert Tompsett (Lindfield). Further extracts from the press reports decrying the lack of ringing after Broodseinde were included later in the 19th October edition (p.333).
    Unexpectedly, the 9th November 1917 edition reports (p.358): “Essex Association
    – Members decide against ringing for victories”, the membership being of the view that victory ringing should be saved for the end of the war.[/quote]

    • David, Many thanks for your comment (and for sharing the additional information).

      I think that you are right. Canon Alexander’s comments on the 23 November ringing hint at this. He was reported saying that the ringing at St Paul’s, “might be regarded as a celebration of our recent victories not only in France, but in Flanders and the East, and, he would like to add, also of the extraordinary achievements of our Navy.” The question of which particular victories merited ringing was also a matter raised by some critics, e.g. the Leeds Mercury, which asked: “How great must a victory be for the bells to be rung?”

      However, I think that it may be possible to distinguish between individual bands or churches choosing to honour a particular victory, and the more orchestrated, semi-official attempt to promote “joy bells” for Cambrai.

      I know that the victory ringing is a very small part of the Cambrai story, but it is still interesting to see how strongly (some) people felt about it at the time.

      • Clearly there was a great effort to get the bells rung (and it’s an interesting foreshadowing of arrangements for Armistice ringing a year later, again not perhaps purely spontaneous). Peterborough Cathedral is a particular case in point, the bells were barely rung at all at that point due to fears of the effect of tower movement on the fabric of the west front. It wasn’t long no before ringing ceased altogether, and was only restarted with the installation of the current twelve in the mid-80s.

      • (Coincidentally written while stopped at Peterborough Station)

  2. Reblogged this on halfmuffled and commented:
    A good account of how the bells came to be rung for Cambrai

  3. […] covered briefly in the previous post, the Battle of Cambrai began in the early morning of the 20th November 1917, when six Infantry […]

  4. […] the Battle of Cambrai drew to a close in November 1917, the winter was a time for consolidation and reorganisation on […]

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