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At the beginning of each year, no one knows what lies ahead. For some who expect happiness there comes sadness. For some who feel well, there is sickness. And for some who are rich comes an unwelcome descent into poverty. By the same token, not all who fear the worst in life are unlucky enough to see it come to pass. Reversals of fortune are what existence is made of.

Few years in history have seen such great reversals as 1914. It deteriorated into the world’s first total war, bringing literally unimaginable carnage to millions of lives, and changing forever mankind’s conception of the harm it could do itself. The Great War is an event that will be commemorated exhaustively between now and the 11 November 2018. In many ways the people of Europe during the 1900s and early 1910s had seen this conflict coming. There had been an arms race, and British society, among others, had been peculiarly susceptible to invasion scares in the years running up to 1914. Yet people had little idea of what this war would actually be like and its arrival still came as a huge surprise.

Below are some contemporary descriptions of New Year 1914. Many of the revellers described in them seem blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. But there are at least a few signs that some had glimpsed the coming conflict, which would take them hostage so completely and for so long.

“Seeing in the New Year… Elaborate Programmes”, The Times, 1 January 1914.

‘In the London celebrations of the passing of the old year and the coming of the new the large hotels and restaurants formed, as usual, the centre of attraction, and most of them were so crowded last night that late comers were unable to find accommodation […] The Tango figured largely in the celebrations and there were Tango competitions and exhibitions in various forms, while the “Farandole“, which last year proved such a success at the Hotel Metropole, was again introduced. The Savoy had the greatest number of guests, some 2,000 being present for supper. The Piccadilly (where 500 applications for tables had to be refused) accommodated 1,400; Prince’s and the Waldorf between them about 1,600; the Cecil 900 […]

‘The demand for scenic effects at these entertainments grows each year, and although lowered lights with a fanfare of trumpets are still used at midnight, some striking tableau or other novelty is usually added. The Hotel Metropole usually shows enterprise on such occasions, and last night proved no exception. A very varied programme was begun after 9 o’clock, including dances of every description, to say nothing of the farandole. The grand tableau at midnight showed a Dreadnought leaving Malta Harbour. Twelve reports were heard, after which the two guns in the forward barbette were seen to be in action, and thousands of crackers were thrown out to the assembled guests. As the lights were turned on, a girl in sailor costume ran up to the bridge and unfurled the Union Jack. Rows of flags were then broken and the vessel was gaily illuminated from stern to stern. This was followed by the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” […]

‘The decorations at the Ritz included an avenue of festoons of foliage, scarlet flowers, and chrysanthemums intertwined, while from the ceiling of the foyer hung a giant illuminated cracker in red and green bearing the figures “1914”. Midnight was heralded by a fanfare sounded by trumpeters of the Royal Artillery and the chiming of bells. […]

‘At the Waldorf the tables were decorated with miniature dirigible airships on one side of which was printed “The Waldorf Hotel” and on the other “1913”. These were released and sailed away into space as the lights went out at the stroke of 12. On the lights being turned on once more an enormous pie embellished with swans, pheasants, and mangel wurzels was carried in on the shoulders of four men. From the middle of the pie a lady appeared, who started the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and afterwards distributed the hundreds of crackers with which the pie was filled […]

‘Long before midnight last night a large and enthusiastic crowd, of which Scotsmen formed the greater part, assembled, according to custom, outside St Paul’s Cathedral, to welcome the New Year. Crowds of young men in fantastic headgear marched up and down Ludgate-hill and Fleet-street playing tin whistles and other instruments while the church bells were “ringing out the old”. Silence was observed as the hour of midnight approached, and when the clock had struck loud cheers were raised, and hats, handkerchiefs, and sticks were waved in the air. The cheering lasted for several minutes, and subsequently the crowd dispersed.’

“New Year’s Eve in Manchester. Scenes in Albert Square.”, The Guardian, 1 January 1914.

‘After the fog had lifted crowds of young people began to parade Market Street and other central highways, and towards midnight everybody seemed to be eddying towards Albert Square. The gutter merchants who had striped hooters to sell did brisk business, and as twelve o’clock drew near the girls and young men, who romped and danced along the streets converging upon the Town Hall, grew noisier and more merry. The revelry in the Square was boisterous enough, but entirely aimless. Ragtime songs gave the gathering its special note, for 1913 has been a year of ragtime. The crowd, however, was never knit together by a common purpose. If one group had a fancy for “I want to be in Dixie” another score of the younger generation a dozen yards away raised their voices in “You made me love you”. The raucous scream of the toy trumpets sounded above all the singing. […]

‘As the old year passed a riotous score of lads and lasses danced a bumping way in cake walk fashion along the tramlines and shouted their glee as couple collided with couple. When the last note of midnight had died away there was some kissing, more laughter, and here and there an attempt at a cheer. Where a group of Scotsmen had assembled “Auld Lang Syne” was sung, and good stiff draughts were taken from the bottles of whisky which had been brought for the occasion. The bottles emptied, they were hurled to the pavement. […]

‘By ten minutes past twelve the streams were flowing outwards from the Square. The noisier element trooped along Mount Street or Cross Street in linked lines of a dozen together. […] Before half-past twelve, the police were urging the few hundreds who still lingered about the pavements to “move along”.’

“The Old and the New: An Appeal for Self-Confidence”, The Times, 1 January 1914. From a correspondent.

‘At this season of greeting and new resolutions, the message which I should like to deliver, through The Times, to the British people here at home and in all parts of the world is one of self-confidence and hope; an exhortation to believe in themselves, in their fellows, and in the future of the Empire […] Let us rejoice in the greatness of England in the past, and rejoice still more in the conviction that England and the Empire were never greater than they are today […] “Blessed be the towers that crown England so fair!”‘

“The Outlook for 1914”, The Times, 1 January 1914. Editorial. 

‘It may be permissible at least once a year, and with special fitness to-day, to own that we have long stood, still stand, and may continue to stand, in the full sunshine.’

“New Year Receptions At the Elysee”, The Times, 2 January 1914.

‘New Year’s Day, from the ceremonial and social point of view, is, perhaps, the busiest day of the whole year in Paris. Yet the pavements are almost deserted, for all shops and places of business are closed, and the population, of all classes, is engaged in paying and receiving formal visits or in leaving cards. […] There is only one place where the pavement is crowded with sightseers in spite of the – for Paris – unusually cold wintry weather, and that is opposite the Elysee, in the Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore […] At 10am today the President began the course of receiving and handshaking which, with a brief interval for luncheon, continued till early darkness fell and the street lamps were lit. […]

‘At 2 o’clock the members of the Diplomatic Corps, headed by the foreign Ambassadors and Ministers in full uniform, were received. They formed a wide circle in the great Salle des Fetes, and their doyen, the British Ambassador, advanced and read his New Year’s address to the President. Sir Francis Bertie said:- ‘Monsieur le President,- At the beginning of the New Year my colleagues of the Diplomatic Corps and I address to France and to her President our most sincere congratulations and good wishes. The year which has just closed has seen peace re-established and everything permits us to hope that peace will not be disturbed in the year that is beginning. […]’

‘President Poincare replied:- ‘Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, I thank you and your colleagues of the Diplomatic Corps for the good wishes […] The wishes which you entertain for the maintenance of peace are in consonance with the constant preoccupation of the Government of the Republic. In the course of the events which throughout these long months have absorbed the attention of Europe, France has never ceased to cooperate actively with the other Powers in the endeavour, first, to prevent the hostilities, then to limit their extent, and finally to shorten their duration. Now that, after such an expenditure of courage and so much bloodshed, tranquility has happily been re-established, she would hope that nothing will again arise to disturb it and that all the nations, delivered from the anxiety which beset them, are about to recover, with freedom from apprehension for the morrow, the liberty to work in their own individual interests and in the general interest for the development of their economic relations for the growth of their own prosperity and for the progress of civilization.”

“New Year’s Eve, 1913”, Gordon Bottomley.

O, Cartmel bells ring soft to-night,
And Cartmel bells ring clear,
But I lie far away to-night,
Listening with my dear;
Listening in a frosty land
Where all the bells are still
And the small-windowed bell-towers stand
Dark under heath and hill.
I thought that, with each dying year,
As long as life should last
The bells of Cartmel I should hear
Ring out an aged past:
The plunging, mingling sounds increase
Darkness’s depth and height,
The hollow valley gains more peace
And ancientness to-night:
The loveliness, the fruitfulness,
The power of life lived there
Return, revive, more closely press
Upon that midnight air.
But many depths have place in men
Before they come to die;
Joys must be used and spent, and then
Abandoned and passed by.
Earth is not ours; no cherished space
Can hold us from life’s flow,
That bears us thither and thence by ways
We knew not we should go.’