For tens of thousands of soldiers, the First World War did not end with the Armistice


AIn the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the 11th month of 2018, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the "end" of the First World War. Yet this is, at best, an approximation: in the worst case, the deliberate obfuscation of a terrible truth, which is that the war has not ended all at once or even in that month. Rather, it has sputtering for months, and in some places years. Worse, even if an end was in sight, the commanders continued to send thousands of young men to death for rather shameful reasons for modern sensibilities. To gain ground a few meters. To avenge a defeat. To guarantee a medal or a promotion. To win access to a hot bath …

The modern narrative of an orderly and orderly end is the myth, along with the ordered version of History 101 of the First World War. Started in August 1914. Over Christmas. Or not. Football in no man's land. Gallipoli's unlucky campaign, 1915. Sextendia del Somme offensive, 1916. Asquith resigns. Russia crashes, while the United States enters in 1917. Ludendorff Offensive, 1918. Germany is exhausted. The end: November 1918.

Routed. A bit of confusion on the sidelines can be diverted into a solitary essay titled "Lions led by donkeys: discuss".

St Symphorien military cemetery in Mons, Belgium, where the first and the last number of victims of the western front are buried (PA)

Only did not start all at once: the main players spent the first three months or so after August 1914, deciding only who was declaring war on who – and as the war continued, the countries entered and left as guests in a cocktail party. Italy waited until May 1915 before declaring war on Austria-Hungary: a few weeks later, she followed little San Marino.

Honduras waited until July 1918, when it was now quite clear which way the wind blew. This act of solidarity with the United States, which had declared war a year earlier, was unsuccessful for the president of Honduras Francisco Bertrand. He upset the large number of Germans living in that country and in 1919 took revenge by joining his political adversaries and making him take off.

Countries have negotiated a peace at different times, ruining the war as their economies have surrendered. Governments fell. The old order, throughout Europe, has changed.

Prince Leopold of Bavaria (seated, third from left) signs an armistice with the Russians a Brest-Litovsk March 3, 1918 (Getty)

Russia was the first and most significant departure. A moderate revolution in March 1917, the result of economic collapse and rationing of food, wiped out centuries of tsarist tradition. And when the moderates failed to deliver the promised peace, a second communist revolution led to a hurried armistice and came out in December 1917.

This put Romania out of action, which had entered the war for the first time in the allied part in August 1916. But without the regional allied Russia, it had little chance of resisting Germany. In May 1918, Romania accepted the Treaty of Bucharest, in theory concluding its part in the war. However, this was never ratified, it was denounced by the Romanian government and Romania returned to war in October 1918.

Almost when he fell, the shots went out and a terrible silence prevailed

The divisional record of the private Henry Gunther

Bulgaria called the time on 30 September 1918. Turkey and Austria-Hungary concluded an armistice a few days from one on the other, respectively, on 30 October and 3 November 1918; both were exhausted and could no longer continue to pursue the war. For both, the end of the war meant the end of the historical empire: immediately in the case of the Austrian Habsburg Empire; in the next two years for the Ottoman Turkish empire.

The writing was on the wall for Germany. From the beginning, their nightmare scenario had been the possibility of having to fight on two fronts. They then devised the Schlieffen plan, which involved a quick knockout blow against France to the west before turning to Russia in the east. It almost worked: its failure meant stall on the western front and four long years of bloody wear and tear.

The collapse of Russia in 1917 was good news. This was balanced by the entry of America into the war in April of that year. However, if the Germans could deal a knockout blow to France and Britain before the Americans lined up in any number, there was still hope.

The tomb of George Ellison, the last British soldier killed in action (Getty)

Thus, in March 1918, they tried a roll of the die: their "Spring Offensive". Once again, they seemed to succeed, but the Allies resisted. In July 1918, the German advance was halted; On August 8, recorded as the "black day of the German army", he followed, and now the end was in sight. On the other hand, the allies gained ground, sometimes miles at a time, as war emerged from the trenches.

The American troops – known as "Doughboys" – were arriving in France at the rate of 10,000 a day. The insistence on working independently of their general commander John Pershing meant that they took more victims than they should have. But nothing could change the fundamental narrative.

The German army, exhausted and hungry, was starting to fall apart. Back home, the revolution was brewing. The German sailors in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel mutinied en masse. It was time to save anything that could be saved. The army must return home to prevent the dissolution of their country: peace, at any price, was imperative.

On Thursday 7 November, a number of cars with white flags approached the French front near La Capelle. This was a civil peace delegation sent by the German government and led by Matthias Erzberger. The delegation was escorted behind Allied lines to a Compiègne railway track and to the personal train carriage of Marshal Foch, the supreme commander of the Allied armies.

Foch, however, was not of the right mood to compromise. France suffered about 6 million victims, including 1.7 million killed. He himself had lost a son and a son-in-law. His first words to the delegation were acute: "What do you want from me?" He clarified that there would be no negotiation.

German prisoners arrive in a prison camp near Amiens, in August 1918: the battle for the city was an allied victory that helped end the war

A meeting was organized for the following day: after that the Germans had 72 hours to agree terms, which were extremely strict. Erzberger's proposal for an immediate ceasefire was rejected. Foch gave little: yet his government was so desperate that Erzberger was ordered to accept any term.

For the modern sensibility, this refusal to observe the ceasefire with the speeches seems cruel. On 3 November, the Austrians agreed a cease-fire to enter into force the following day. But the Austro-Hungarian high command instructed all forces to stop fighting on the same day.


Number of troops dying per day on the western front

On the western front, 2250 soldiers died, on average, every day. On 9 November the Canadian forces, under the command of General Sir Arthur Curry, launched an attack on Mons, which continued until the capture of the city on 11 November. The victims were light: only 280 dead and wounded. However, the suspicion remains that this action was motivated less by strategic considerations than by the fact that Mons was the site of one of the first major defeats of the war of the Allies.

Curry was not alone. Many, including the American general Charles Summerall, who ordered his men across the river Meuse against machine guns at midnight on November 11, were determined to continue the fight at the last moment.

If this voluntary contempt for human life is difficult to understand, what followed, in the hours following the signing of the armistice, can not do anything but offend. The armistice document was signed at 5 am on November 11 (or 5.03 or 5.10 depending on the source) and should come into force at 11.00 am.

This is to allow the news to spend time on the front and inform people at home. At 5.40 am the celebrations had begun in the capitals of the whole world. In London, Big Ben was called for the first time since the war: in Paris, gas lamps were on; and in New York people took to the streets to beat pots and pans and celebrate.

Yet for tens of thousands of soldiers on the western front, it was normal as usual for a few hours. Local commanders were informed that the fighting would stop at 11: but it was their job to decide what to do next. Some decided not to risk their lives for the territory they would enter tomorrow. Others continued until the last second.

Crowds celebrating the signing of the armistice on November 11: the news had yet to reach parts of the western front (Getty)

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) 863 Commonwealth soldiers died on November 11, 1918. As with all the figures cited here, this includes those who died on that day from wounds received in previous actions – but not those who died subsequently as a result of actions on that day. The CWGC records the last British soldier to die in World War I as soldier George Edwin Ellison of the fifth Royal Irish Lancers, killed in Mons at 9.30, just 90 minutes before the ceasefire.

The last French soldier to die was Augustin Trebuchon of the 415th infantry regiment. He was a runner, killed by a single blow at 10.50 in the morning while delivering a message to his war comrades informing them of the ceasefire. At least 75 French soldiers died on 11 November, although for unknown reasons – perhaps to save the politicians' scandal – their graves declare on 10 November.

The last Canadian soldier and the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the First World War was the soldier George Lawrence Price of the Canadian infantry, killed in Mons at 10.58am.

The American victims of the last day of the war were particularly high: at least 3,000, which exceeded the total losses of the United States in the D-Day of 1944. This can be attributed both to their recent arrival and to the fighting spirit not yet blunted by the The horror of the war, as well as the much publicized vision of their commander, General John Pershing, that only a serious military defeat of the Germans would "teach them a lesson".

Pershing considered the terms of the soft armistice on the Germans. Therefore, he supported those commanders who wanted to be proactive in attacking the German positions – even after the armistice was signed.

The decision of General Summerall to order his troops through the Meuse has led the US Marines to suffer more than 1,100 victims when, a few hours later, they could have crossed without obstacles and without incidents. After the fighting was over, it was recorded, Summerall visited the sight of the battle to be photographed and then promptly left.

General Charles Summerall (left) led his men over the Meuse river at midnight on November 11, resulting in 10,000 useless casualites (US National Archives)

A disturbing episode was the commitment to fight in the last hours of the 92nd America war. This was a unit of black draftees run mostly by white officers. Just another bad decision? Perhaps: except that racism within the United States Army was legendary. Black units were rarely used when white units were available, reflecting feelings such as those of General Robert Bullard, who wrote in his memoirs in 1925: "Poor Negroes! They are irredeemably inferior."

Whatever the reasons, the 92nd has done well, bringing 190 (useless) losses in the last hours of the war. Out of sheer shame, however, nothing touches General Wright's decision to order the 89th striker to take the city of Stenay on the morning of November 11th. Because, he explained, he had heard that there were baths in the city and he wanted his men to have access to hot water.

It is a pity that we can not enter and ravage Germany and cut some hands and feet of German children and scratch some of their old ones

Harry S Truman, in a letter to his girlfriend

Stenay was the last city captured on the western front, with a cost of over 300 victims. Then there was the fate of the 81st. A regimental commander ordered his men to take shelter during the last hours. His orders were canceled and, with 40 minutes of war to complete, they were ordered to "move forward". Result: 461 victims, including 66 killed.

Official figures suggest 10.944 victims on the last morning of the war, including 2,738 deaths. Yet the horror – and pity – of those hours does not lie only in the main figures, but also in the intensity of the individual stories.

The last American soldier killed was soldier Henry Gunther of the United States 313th. At 16 minutes from the end, his unit was ordered to take a German machine gun: their commander was of the opinion that there would be no slowdown until 11:00. Gunther followed the orders. The machine-gunners made him come back. But Gunther went on. The machine-gunners fired: Gunther died – at 10.59. According to his division record: "Almost as the gun fell, it became extinct and a frightening silence prevailed".

A memorial plaque to commemorate Henry Gunther, the last American soldier killed (Concord)

A last note from a private German in his diary expresses amazement that after 50 months on the front line he would return home without a job. He did not survive the assault of US troops who attacked a few minutes later. Another, an American soldier, wrote home of his love to say that they would get married on his return. He never did it.

The last victim of the war was, probably, a German who approached a group of Americans shortly after 11 to tell them that his troops were retiring and that they could have the house that he and his men they were freeing. But nobody had told them that the war was over. So they fired at Tomas as he walked towards them. Inevitably, people have asked why.

The reasons were mixed. In part, the desire to continue fighting reflected the strategic vision of some commanders. With a calculation, a ceasefire on November 8 would have saved 6,624 lives and 14,895 wounded, burned and disfigured injuries. Yet there was a widespread belief, shared by Pershing, that Germany should not just lose, but be seen for losing or another war could follow.

As he himself said at the time: "If only they had given us another 10 days". The same sentiment is expressed even more graphically by an artillery captain, a certain Harry S Truman, who wrote home to his girlfriend: "It is a pity that we can not enter and ravage Germany and cut some hands and feet of German children and scratch some of their old men ".

As unpleasant as it may seem, there was some justice to Pershing. Almost as soon as the war ended, the myth of the "stab back" began to spread – and it constituted an important axis of the rise to the power of Adolf Hitler.

The Irish guards stand in their place near Maubeuge five minutes before the armistice was signed (Getty)

There were reasons to continue the fight until the conclusion of the armistice. However, the idea that the Allies could march on Berlin was rejected by the post-war account of General Sir Frederick Maurice of the period of the end of the war, The last four months, published in 1919.

Yes, note: there was a willingness to move forward. However, he also claims that the Allied supply lines were excessively extensive and that, combined with the fact that almost all transport infrastructure between the front lines and Berlin had been destroyed or sabotaged by the Germans, meant that significant progress would not it was more possible.

The inability of Pershing to issue any order directed at generals to stop fighting is another matter. There was no benefit to be had from six more hours in combat: and thousands paid for that abandonment with their lives.

Beyond the strategy, there was a greater insensitivity, indifference, rudeness, summarized by the words of a British body commander against the Somme two years earlier: "Men are too eager to save their skin. to be taught that I am here to do their job, whether they survive or not is a matter of total indifference. "

In the United States, public opinion has asked for explanations. There was a congressional inquiry into why so many died after peace was agreed: despite Pershing's claim that he had done nothing but follow Foch's orders, an initial conclusion claimed that it had occurred a useless massacre, and that decisions had been made by men whose lives had never been put at risk. But then politicians condemned the relationship as unpatriotic: it fell into disgrace in party politics and in March 1920 any suggestion of useless loss was removed.

And after all this, the war did not end on November 11th. On the western front, the fighting stopped. And the conditions of the armistice made it very unlikely they could ever resume. But the armistice was re-enacted several times in the following months. Moreover, the war (with Germany) did not officially end until the Treaty of Versaille, signed on June 28, 1919, the official date of the end of the First World War.

The official count of the First World War, at the end of the conflict, was 40 million civilian and military casualties: 20 million dead and 21 million injured. But this only tells a part of the story.

Elsewhere, the Great War resulted in further wars, especially in Eastern Europe, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and injured. The total destruction of the infrastructure has left entire populations vulnerable to further natural attrition from disease and hunger. 1918 was also marked by the outbreak of "Spanish influence", which eventually killed more than 50 million people worldwide: and while War's exact contribution to this result remains immeasurable, he undoubtedly played a role.

For those injured in the last day – and before – there would still be weeks and months of suffering. Many would bring scars to life, such as disfigurement or permanent disability. As for Matthias Erzberger, who signed the Armistice and helped to end so much suffering: he was denounced as a traitor and in August 1921, while walking in the Black Forest, he was murdered by two former naval officers.

If you want to know more about the events of the last day of the First World War, read: Eleventh month, Eleventh day, Eleventh hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World war and its violent climate, in paperback, by Joseph E Persico



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