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Lest we forget

“At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month the guns fell silent.”

The phrase has been repeated at Remembrance ceremonies and media commentaries around the world so often that the full horror contained in those words is missed by almost everyone who hears them.  For what took place on the morning of 11th November 1918 ranks among the worst war crimes ever committed.

While military historians take issue with the characterisation of the First World War as “lions led by donkeys” (the military commanders at divisional and corps level who emerged by the end of the conflict were far more competent than the Victorian public schoolboys who had been in command at the start) something akin to donkeys ordering lions over the top is precisely what unfolded on that last morning.

The US Army alone lost half as many men again in the six hours between the signing of the Armistice and the guns falling silent than were slaughtered on the beaches of Normandy on 6th June 1944.  And unlike that later assault, on the morning of 11th November 1918, American troops were fighting and dying to capture territory that they could have walked into unhindered just hours later.  This was the murderous, senseless end to a conflict that even today historians cannot explain.

The three empires that were responsible for turning a local conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary into a world war were swept away.  Russia dissolved into revolution and civil war in 1917.  Austria-Hungary disintegrated into its constituent parts.  And, after the failure of offensives in the spring of 1918 that exhausted the last of its troops and resources, by November 1918, military collapse at the front and revolution at home threatened the German Empire with the fate that befell Russia a year earlier.

On the evening of 7th November 1918 the German government sent emissaries to France to negotiate their surrender.  Arriving at allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch’s railway car at Compiègne Forest near Paris in the early hours of 8th November, the German delegation were stunned to find that there were to be no negotiations.  Instead, they were presented with a list of allied demands that had to be agreed to within 72 hours:

“Foch’s interpreter read aloud the Allied conditions, which struck the Germans like hammer blows: All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France–plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany–were to be evacuated within fourteen days; the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometers deep; German forces had to be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Turkey; Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. Germany was also to be stripped of heavy armaments, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 airplanes. The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though the German people already faced starvation, the Allies intended to paralyze the enemy’s transportation by continuing its naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. The translator droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded it pay reparations for all damage caused.”

Although post war folklore maintains that these demands were excessive, and that the burden they placed on the German people helps to explain the rise of Hitler and the origins of the second world war, by comparison with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that the Germans had inflicted on the Russian people, the demands were reasonably generous.  Nevertheless, they were sufficiently onerous for the negotiators to need to secure agreement from the government and military authorities in Berlin; not least because the demands included that the Kaiser abdicate and go into exile before any armistice would come into force.

At that point in the war around 2,500 allied troops were dying every day; and there was no question of the Germans not signing at the end of the 72 hours.  Understandably, the head of the German delegation, Matthias Erzberger, implored Foch to agree an immediate ceasefire:

“For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal, do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.”

Foch’s motives for refusing are a matter of contention.  Officially, Foch is said to have feared that the German army would be reinforced and might continue to fight in order to secure better terms unless the allied armies continued to hold a sword to their backs.  Against this, however, Foch was fully aware that a large part of the German army had returned to Germany to restore order and quell revolution.  As a result, in the final weeks of the war the allied armies were able to recover more ground than they had in the previous four years; ironically returning to fight the last battles on the Meuse and in Belgian towns like Mons where they had first encountered the Germans in August 1914.  By early November 1918, the only German resistance to the allied armies were the relatively small rear guard units left in place to prevent a complete rout.

Critics of Foch suggest that a psychological flaw stemming from the loss of his son and son in law on the same day earlier in the war.  This tragedy, together with the damage inflicted upon France is said to have left Foch with a deep hatred of Germans (a sentiment shared by many French commanders as a result of their defeat in 1870) and a desire to slaughter as many as he could manage before the war was over.

American commander John Pershing was more mercenary, correctly seeing the request for an armistice as proof that the German army was defeated.  A late arrival to the war, Pershing’s army was in a far better state than the exhausted British and mutinous French Armies that had been bled white by four years of slaughter.  Pershing – correctly as it turned out – argued that unless Germany was completely defeated (which would involve the complete collapse of its army and the occupation of Berlin) the allied armies would eventually have to come back and fight the war all over again.  The decision, however, was not Pershing’s to make.  The best he and his commanders could do was to capture as much ground and slaughter and maim as many Germans as was possible in the remaining three days of the war.

And so the slaughter continued until, at ten past five in the morning of 11th November 1918, the German delegation finally signed the armistice instrument which brought an end to the fighting.  News of the armistice was telegraphed to the allied capitals; and within the hour people took to the streets to celebrate the end of the conflict.  Except, of course, the guns did not fall silent at 5.10am (the official record later amended the time of the signing to 5.00am).  Another six hours of wanton slaughter were to pass before the fighting was finally over.

Not that the senior commanders took responsibility for what happened during those last six hours.  From Foch down through the chain of command, the order to cease firing at 11.00am was passed to the frontline troops.  But no direction was given as to what action officers and men should take prior to the start of the ceasefire.  Instead, individual front commanders were left to decide whether to stick to orders issued prior to the signing of the armistice or whether to wait out the final hours in the comparative safety of their dugouts.

The commanders of a war-weary French Army that had mutinied the year before, and included many divisions unofficially considered unfit for major offensive operations appear to have tried to restore their honour by attacking the already defeated Germans.  Augustin Trebuchon was the last of more than 1,000 French empire troops to die in the final six hours of the war.  A messenger, running across open ground, Trebuchon died from a single headshot at 10.50am.

British Generals too appear to have regarded the capture of Mons as a matter of honour too great to overlook in order to preserve the lives of their troops.  Mons was the Belgian city where the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force had encountered and been defeated by the massed German armies in August 1914.  Following their defeat, the BEF commander, Sir John French was all for running away to the Channel ports and home to England; and was only persuaded to retreat toward Paris instead as a result of a face-to-face order from Field Marshall Kitchener, the then head of the British Army.  Even then, the French high command had to beg French to stop running when he got to Paris so that the French army might counterattack on the Marne.

Perhaps wanting to expunge this disgraceful cowardice by the commander in the field, the British commanders in 1918 decided to capture Mons in the final hours of the war, even though they could have safely strolled into the city after eleven o’clock.  As historian C N Trueman notes:

“In a cemetery just outside of Mons in the village of Nouvelle, there are nine graves of British soldiers. Five are from August 1914 while four are dated November 11th 1918.”

After the 1914 battle of Mons, special medals were awarded to those troops whose actions held up the German advance.  Among the bodies found outside Mons when the fighting had come to an end were men like George Edwin Ellison, the last British soldier to die, and who had also fought in the 1914 Battle of Mons.

The British Commonwealth as a whole lost some 2,400 troops in those last six hours fighting over ground that would be theirs anyway after 11.00am.  Canadian George Lawrence Price was killed at 10.58am, also at Mons; and officially became the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the war.

American commanders were even more reckless in slaughtering their men in the last hours of the conflict.  Even in today’s hi-tech armed forces, carrying out an opposed crossing of a major river is considered one of the most dangerous types of military operations.  Any commander ordering such an attack understands full well that the casualty rate is going to be high.  Nevertheless, on the morning of 11th November 1918, American commanders ordered the 89th Division to cross the River Meuse in an operation designed to support a larger offensive scheduled for 14th November – an offensive that all concerned knew would never take place.  The American troops fought hard and eventually took their assigned objectives; but only after more than 1,100 of their comrades had been killed.

Henry Gunter was the last of more than 3,200 American troops to die in the final six hours of the war.  As Gunter advanced alone upon a German machine gun position, just minutes before 11.00am, German troops implored him not to advance any further.  After a moment when it appeared Gunter had come to his senses, he continued toward the German position.  Gunter was mown down at 10.59am; officially the last allied soldier to die in World War One.

Throughout the morning as the appalling face-to-face slaughter unfolded, the artillery – which was famously to fall silent at 11.00am – continued to fire shells indiscriminately in one of the biggest artillery barrages of the entire war; apparently for the sole reason that it was easier to dispose of the ammunition by firing it than it would be to take it home… a convenience that will have been lost on the unfortunate souls on the receiving end of the barrage.

Arguably, the slaughter on 11th November 1918 was no more than an extension of the insanity of the entire war.  The politicians and generals who led the world into the conflict in July and August 1914 had almost all anticipated something akin to the Battle of Waterloo 99 years previously.  Each expected the conflict to be over within weeks.  Instead, the mass armies that only an industrialised economy can sustain became locked into a stalemate that could not be undone militarily; and that instead depended upon economic and societal collapse at home to bring it to an end.  The end, when it came, had the added cruelty that not a single one of the troops who fell in the six hours after the armistice was signed needed to have died.  Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that if the allied armies had been led by more level headed commanders; the fighting might have ended on 8th November 1918.  These were not, it seems, “lions led by donkeys” so much as lions led by psychopaths.

All of the Empires that began the war in 1914 were shattered by four years of industrial conflict.  The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires disappeared.  Serbia – the country that bears the greatest blame for the war – realised its aim of a “Greater Serbia” via the creation of Yugoslavia in the peace treaty.  On paper, the British and French Empires grew after the war as they took possession of Germany’s overseas territories.  They were, however, Potemkin Empires merely biding their time for the next conflict to confine them to the history books.  France, its economy bankrupted and its army broken at Verdun was only able to continue the fight with British gold and American munitions.  Britain spent the accumulated wealth and manpower of its Empire defeating Germany, leaving it facing economic and social decline little different to that experienced by the defeated states.

In the aftermath there was little appetite for a post mortem into the war; still less into the unnecessary slaughter that was permitted in the hours after the armistice was signed.  Only in the USA – the one country that can be said to have gained from the conflict – were politicians prepared at least to attempt to hold the generals to account.

Bombarded with letters of complaint from parents and spouses of men who had died in those final hours, a sub-committee of the House of Representatives began an investigation.  Republican Oscar Bland from Indiana got to the crux of the issue, as Joseph E. Persico records:

“‘How many generals did you lose on that day?’

“‘None,’ Conner replied. ‘How many colonels did you lose on that day?’ Conner: ‘I do not know how many were lost.’ ‘How many lieutenant colonels did you lose on that day?’ Conner: ‘I do not know the details of any of that.’ ‘I am convinced,’ Bland continued, ‘that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life….’

“Conner, visibly seething, retorted, ‘The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.’

“Bland shot back, ‘I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost; and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.’”

While the investigation was taking place inside Congress, the American commanders were being feted as they toured the country as returning heroes.  Towns and cities across the USA were putting up statues and monuments to honour them.  The highly critical Johnson report was never officially adopted.  And as one of the commanders who gave evidence, General Sherburne had told the investigators would happen, soon after only the families of those who died remembered their unnecessary passing on the last morning of the war.

In Armistice Day ceremonies in towns and cities around the world – which this year mark 100 years since the end of the war – the two minute silence symbolising the silencing of the guns will be followed by a reading of a verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen:

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.  At the going down of the sun and in the morning

“We will remember them.”

The tragedy, though, is that in the act of remembering those who fell between the German invasion of Luxembourg on 1st August 1914 and the signing of the armistice at 5.10am on 11th November 1918 we turn our backs on some 10,000 men whose lives were cut short unnecessarily in the six hours between the document being signed and the guns falling silent.

It is hard not to conclude that events in those final hours of the war constitute a major war crime.  And yet by commemorating the silencing of the guns at 11.00am we brush over the fact that the allied commanders could have silenced those guns within an hour of the armistice being signed at 5.10am.  Indeed, had the allied armies not been under the command of a man who was psychologically tortured both by personal tragedy and the breaking of his army after Verdun, tens of thousands of lives could have been saved by an immediate ceasefire on the morning of 8th November 1918…

Lest we forget.

As you made it to the end…

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