This year quietly marked the 90th anniversary of the end of a series of events that defined the course of the last century. The last of these will take place at 11am on Tuesday, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 2008. It will mark the moment four generations ago when the guns of World War fell silent.
11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour – subtitled Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax – looks at the end of that 1560 day-long conflict – and more particularly at the men who died in the hours (and some cases) minutes preceding the ceasefire that came into effect at 11am.
Author Joseph E Persico from prelude to epilogue takes exception to what he sees as needless losses taken by especially the American forces that morning. “According to the most conservative estimates, during the last day of the war, principally in the six hours after the armistice was signed, all sides on the western front suffered 10,944 casualties of which 2738 were deaths, more than the average daily casualties throughout the war.” (Average was 2250 dead ands about 5000 wounded a day, every day from August 14, 1914 to November 11, 1918.)
General John “Black Jack” Pershing “had known in advance the conditions that (Marshal Ferdinand) Foch would demand of the Germans. Thus, he knew that the enemy would be compelled within 14 days to withdraw from any territory they now occupied and pull back inside Germany. Consequently, any ground gained between the signing of the armistice and 11am, at whatever cost in lives, would be handed over at no cost within two weeks” … which “caused sharp criticism of the high command on the part of the troops engaged, who considered the loss of American lives that morning as useless and little short of murder”.
Now is a good time to revisit the “Great War to end all wars.” Too many of us have forgotten this dread time, as Captain Siegfried Sassoon, late of the Royal Welch Fusiliers reminds us in “Aftermath”: “Do you remember the rats; and the stench/Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench-/And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?/Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?” Others may wonder where Corporal Adolf Hitler was that day…
If 2004 had not marked the 60th anniversary of a series of important events in World War Two (D-Day, the liberation of Paris, the Warsaw uprising, etc.), the 90th anniversary of the start of that unnecessary conflict would have attracted more attention. A leading reason for this was that WW2 survivors have now had their “three score more” years after the war and are expected to start dying in massive numbers. 2004/5 thus marked the last major anniversaries of D Day and VE as well as VJ days at which large number of octogenarian survivors would be present.
It is now just six years to 2014 when the centenary of the 1914-1918 conflict will commence. Now may well be the time to start planning battlefield visits… but we digress.
In making his case, Persico also revisits every other important event in that war, remarking, bitterly, at one point that three British soldiers, who saw action in Mons in August 1914 did so again in November 1918, when they died there, scant hours before the war would be over. “The retaking of Mons, site of the first retreat, might be seen as poetic closure. It could also symbolises futility. The British Army was back where it had started on the western front—some 700,000 lives later. The implication is that each of these could have had (more) lives and wives if it had not been for this avoidable war. Although Persico focuses on the last hours of the last day of the war, he makes – and supports — a good case that stupidity compounded by arrogance and reinforced by ignorance gave the 20th Century its monuments and cemeteries along the road from Ieper (Ypres) to Menin (Messines).
“Take up our quarrel with the foe,” Lt Col John McRae, a Canadian doctor who died of the “Spanish” bird flu in 1918, wrote in his famous “In Flanders Fields”. Those fields, stretching from the sea to Switzerland are about 85km wide – “a relatively modest battleground but a rather large cemetery.”
Gavrilo Princip`s murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, in June 1914 led to – by conservative estimate – 8,364,700 deaths and 21,634,000 casualties. Of these an estimated 7 million were maimed for life. 6,276,000 civilians also perished from military causes. Another 21,640,000 soldiers and civilians died in a few short months in 1918 from bird flu that seemed to have originated in a US basic training depot and was carried to Europe by eager “doughboys.”
As an aside: Armistice Day observations were not always the solemn Remembrance Sunday events they are today. They started in the 1920s as a form of Irish wake where the survivors drank to and remembered fallen friends and celebrated that they themselves had survived. The event was subsequently hijacked. “What many proud veterans came to resent after the war was the pitying drone of handwringers and pacifists who reduced their experience to meaninglessness. ‘It appeared that dirt about the war was in demand,` one wrote. ‘Every battle a defeat, every officer a nincompoop, every soldier a coward.`”
It wasn`t so.
11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour
Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax
Joseph E Persico