Armistice Centennial

The allied military commanders were interested in symbolism and poetry. It was clear by the end of September 1918 that the German army was in a hopeless situation. The victory by the allies was not only clear, but the German command was aware that this was the case. On September 29 the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling at Imperial Army Headquarters that the defeat of Germany was inevitable. But the war didn’t end suddenly. The allied commanders liked the symmetry of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and set that day and time as the place for the cessation of fighting.

President Wilson of the United States had demanded the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and the Kaiser’s abdication. In addition to his insistence on complete surrender, he outlined fourteen philosophical commitments. His carefully thought-thought-through position was less popular among the leaders of Europe. The entire social structure of many areas of Europe was seriously crumbled. People were hungry and systems of food distribution had been destroyed. Winter was approaching and there was a general weariness of a war that, when started four years earlier has been seen as a six-month enterprise.

The armistice calling for the end of the war to take place at 11 am was signed at 5 am. Actually the signatures were made between 5:12 and 5:20 am Paris time. The fighting continued and was especially brutal in the six hours that followed. The actual negotiation of the Armistice was hurried and desperate. There was no real negotiation, though it took three days to draft the document. The Germans had no ability to make demands.

It has been reported that there were more casualties on both sides during the hours between the signing and the actual cease fire than occurred during the D Day Normandy invasion. It is a bit hard to know for sure because when the fighting ceased, many combatants simply walked away from the lines. The number who went missing and were presumed dead skyrocketed on both sides that day. Nonetheless actual casualties were exceedingly high.

There are reports of German gunners emptying the last belts of ammunition as the hour approached. Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railways guns fired its last shot at 10:57:30 from the Verdun area, timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled Armistice.

American Henry Gunther is generally recognized as the last soldier killed in action in World War I. He was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while charging German troops who were aware that the armistice was nearly upon them. He had been despondent over his recent reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation. His death brought the US casualties to 116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded out of the 4.7 million Americans who served. During the war the USA lost more personnel to disease than combat largely due to the influenza epidemic.

The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was the end of active hostilities, but it took quite a while for the official treaty to be negotiated and signed. Troops were kept on the ready in case fighting resumed until the official treaty. The Treaty of Versailles, negotiated in Paris and Versailles was the results of talks that needed to be extended three times. It was finally signed on June 28, 1919 and took effect on January 10, 1920.

Today, however, we take note of the centennial of the end of the war. Since that war, November 11 has been recognized as a national holiday in the United States, first as Armistice Day and later as Veteran’s Day. It is a day to pause and recognize the high cost of war, the sacrifice of soldiers and their families, and to honor all who have served in the military. The risks and sacrifices of veterans deserves a life-long commitment from the entire nation. We have all benefited from their service and sacrifice.

In the spring of 1915, while the War was still raging, a Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was driving the loss of a friend in Ypres. He was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in the battle-scarred fields. His now famous poem is called “In Flanders Fields.”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The poppy has become a symbol of remembrance for this day. But a century has passed and the pain of the losses is not felt with the same intensity as was the case in the early years following the war. In the years that have passed there have been so many other wars. It didn’t take long before Europe erupted in a second World War, this one with much broader involvement as the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbor resulted in the United States fighting on two fronts at once. For the United States Korea, Vietnam and the Balkans were added before the end of the century. Iraq and Afghanistan have followed. War continues. Young people continue to die. Grief continues to unfold us.

The paper poppies that are distributed for Veterans Day fade and are thrown away. In Flanders the poppies wither and die and reappear the following spring. Life goes on.

But today we pause. We remember. We try to comprehend the size of the loss. And we offer our prayers for peace to combine with the prayers of generations who have gone before. May we learn the true cost of war and discover alternative ways of setting our conflicts

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!