The hubris of war, and its irrationalities, were never more glaring than during its last days, and in the first dazed hours and days which followed its end.
Call it a great and glorious endeavour, if you will, call it a holy crusade. That might have made sense of the Allies’ firm determination to fight hard until the first stroke of eleven sounded on 11th November.
Although talk of armistice and of peace was everywhere in that final week, no quarter was given. That implacability — the Allied steamroller, pushing back the Germans as far as possible — made sense when dictating the terms of an armistice. On 5th November, the British continued the advance from the Scheldt to the Meuse, and the French managed to cross the Ardennes Canal. By the following day, the Germans were in full retreat, and the Americans entered Sedan. The day after that, the Tommies made their formal entry into Valenciennes and, at dawn on 11th November, they liberated Mons — a massive moment, given this had been the scene of their retreat and the killing ground of the old BEF over four years earlier.
Such relentless advances make these last days sound like a rout, with an entirely predictable dénouement. But, as a letter from Julian Bickersteth on 7th November illustrates, front-line subalterns and their men often felt differently:
Our battle still continues and we are pushing the enemy back step by step. He is, however, fighting a very clever rear-guard action and I do not see how we can hope to get him moving any faster… please don’t anticipate peace… We all, except perhaps the Staff Officers who don’t see anything of the fighting or of the morale of the Germans, anticipate another six months of fighting at least.
Two days later, he was more optimistic:
We have got the enemy on the run at last. The Germans have gone so fast we have practically lost touch with them. How far he will go before he puts up another fight seems doubtful. Today I have followed up the division on the move, after staying behind to bury our dead — a sad but necessary task — I buried some thirty today…
Of course, with the enemy imploding, Allied rivalries had a chance to fester. Pershing noted in his diary on 6th November:
The advance is going well on both sides of the river. The French seem to be afraid we will beat them to Sedan and are constantly making efforts to get us to go more to the east. Tonight our troops have arrived within 4km of Sedan, and they say they are going to the town tonight. According to our agreement with General Maistre, if we arrive first we can take Sedan. I think we will do it.
Perhaps these contests were an inseparable part of the stimulus of battle. Both French and American commanders were sensible of the enormity of events. When Pershing met Foch, the day after the armistice, he found the Generalissimo in high spirits and full of praise for the Americans. Both men shed tears.
Before that could happen, however, the armistice itself had to be concluded. In Germany, news that delegates had been sent to plead her case had filtered onto the streets. But this was an accessory after the fact, rather than the sponsor of the civil collapse which had been escalating dangerously in recent days. Princess Blucher’s diary noted:
8th November I wonder what the result of the meeting of the delegates for an armistice today will be…? Everyone expects that France will take her fill of revenge and make terms as hard as she can. Poor Germany is not in a position to resist any humiliation; she is completely exhausted.
The streets, as she describes them, were filled with demonstrators. Many were jubilant at the news of the Kaiser’s abdication, but it was the threat of violence which dominated:
…the dense masses of the marching throng, great military motor-lorries, packed with soldiers and sailors waving their red flags and cheering and shouting vehemently… motors packed with youths in field-grey uniform or in civil clothes, carrying loaded rifles adorned with a tiny red flag, constantly springing off their seats and forcing the soldiers and officers to tear off their insignia, or doing it for them if they refused…
Then, of course, came the drama of the armistice itself, signed in the railway carriage in the forests of Compiègne. The German delegates, led by Matthias Erzberger, had a difficult journey along blocked roads, and arrived only a couple of hours before 9 a.m. on the morning of 8th November, when the talks were scheduled to begin. They were met only by British and French representatives — Admiral Wemyss for Britain and Marshall Foch for France. The Marshall, who had lost his only son in the first months of the war, did not make it easy for them. The Germans had to go through the humiliation of asking for the armistice, and then the terms were rapped out.
These cannot have made for easy listening: the evacuation of occupied territory including Alsace-Lorraine within fourteen days was demanded; so too, the surrender of all submarines, internment in neutral or Allied ports of most of the navy, the renouncement of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty — these and much more besides. Erzberger and his colleagues pleaded for an immediate armistice while they deliberated, but Foch was having none of it. The Germans could take it or leave it, he said — but, meantime, the fighting would continue. They had until 11 a.m. on 11th November to decide.
A courier was despatched back to Germany, where the whole political and social compact was moving hourly into freefall. Revolution had spread from Kiel and Hamburg, now in the hands of “Soviets”, to Munich and Cologne, and most recently to Berlin.
On 9th November, the Kaiser, in Spa, was still entertaining adolescent fantasies about a march on Berlin to quash the left-wing insurrection. It was left to General Groener to explain that the parallel universe in which His Majesty seemed currently to be residing bore little resemblance to the here and now:
Sire, you no longer have an army. The army will return to Germany as an organised force under the orders of its generals, but not under those of your Majesty. The army is no longer with your Majesty.
In Berlin, Prince Max — Chancellor, although only for a few hours longer — was busy sending telegrams detailing the fall of other German monarchs, including the King of Bavaria. Even Hindenburg, a Prussian devoted to the Hohenzollerns, now accepted — blubbing noisily all the while — that the Kaiser had to go.
Rivers of tears proved insufficient, however, to reconcile the Kaiser to his humiliation. In principle, he was prepared to lay down the mantle of Emperor of Germany, but only if he could be presented with evidence from the army commanders that this was necessary. A posse had already been summoned by Hindenburg, arriving in Spa on 8th November.
Their words were most definitely not the ones which Wilhelm had hoped to hear:
The troops remain loyal to His Majesty but they are tired and indifferent and want nothing except rest and peace. At the present moment they would not march against Germany even with Your Majesty at their head.
Such a brush-off might have been enough to hurt anyone, especially this stuck-up old popinjay. In the end, he reasoned, the Emperor of the German Empire was a recent creation — the child of the war against France in 1870. The more ancient title and dignity he enjoyed was that of King of Prussia, and that he would never surrender.
Yet again, events overtook him. Prince Max promptly released a statement announcing the Kaiser’s immediate abdication as both Emperor of Germany and King of Prussia. He also announced that he would resign in favour of Friedrich Ebert, leader of the SPD. The news was on the streets of Berlin by lunchtime. For a few minutes the ex-Kaiser, as he now was, moved into high camp mode : “ Treachery, treachery, shameless, outrageous treachery” — and so on, for about half an hour.
But there were bigger fish to fry. In Berlin, Karl Liebknecht was about to proclaim a republic. One of the SDP deputies, Philipp Scheidemann, foreshadowing the bitter enmity between Communists and Social Democrats, decided to pre-empt him and announced it himself to the large red-flag-waving crowd outside the Reichstag.
The prospect of a Bolshevik revolution helped to concentrate the minds of Wilhelm and his family. At 4 a.m. the following morning, 10th November, in a large motor car prudently stripped of its imperial insignia, he set off the 40-odd miles to the Dutch border where he had been promised asylum. The 500-year-long reign of the Hohenzollerns was over.
In reality, it was no more than a footnote to the dramas now unfolding. What really mattered was going on in the railway carriage drawn up in a siding at Compiègne. After an agonising delay, the German delegates received authorisation to accept the armistice terms. A few concessions were wheedled out of the Allies, but the only significant one was an agreement to supply Germany with food during the armistice period.
A few minutes after 5 a.m. on 11th November, the agreement was ready to be disseminated to commanders, and broadcast to the world.
Inside the carriage, the atmosphere was glacial. In the effort to ensure the 11 a.m. deadline could be met, only the final page of the agreement was typed and signed. The meeting ended without a handshake at 5.30 a.m. After signing the document, Erzberger read a declaration:
The German nation, which for fifty months has defied a world of enemies, will preserve, in spite of every kind of violence, its liberty and unity. A nation of seventy million suffers but does not die.
There were still six hours to go. Until then, the fighting continued. Four and a half years had made that the default position, and there were no orders to suggest otherwise. Marine Huber Trotman, Royal Marine Light Infantry, remembered:
We were still fighting hard and losing men. We knew nothing of the proposed Armistice, we didn’t know until a quarter to ten on that day. As we advanced on the village of Guiry a runner came up and told us that the Armistice would be signed at 11 o’clock that day, the 11th of November. That was the first we knew of it.
At 9 a.m. Private Robert Cude scribbled anxiously:
…I am nervous as a kitten. If only I can last out the remainder of the time, and this is everyone’s prayer. I feel awfully sorry for those of our chaps who are killed this morning, mines are still going up…
Eleven o’clock struck, and there was silence.
We were lined up on a railway bank nearby, the same railway bank that the Manchesters had lined up on in 1914. They had fought at the battle of Mons in August that year. Some of us went down to a wood in a little valley and found the skeletons of some of the Manchesters still lying there. Lying there with their boots on, very still, no helmets, no rusty rifles or equipment, just their boots.
Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin, of the Hood Battalion, found no exultation in the moment:
I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost.
Julian Bickersteth wrote:
There was a heavy bombardment all along the line this morning, but the sound of guns gradually died down and although there was some gunfire audible after the hour of 11 a.m., that has been caused by Battery Commanders being out of touch with their headquarters on the telephone — a not unusual experience.
Our numbers are terribly low. We had a sergeant and private killed only a few minutes before 11 o’clock on Monday, the day of the Armistice.
Robert Cude had survived. But:
I have a keen sense of loneliness come over me, for in my four years out here almost, I have missed hundreds of the very best chaps that have ever breathed.
His bitterness was focused upon the enemy:
[At 11 a.m.] … A good many Germans come over, with the idea of fraternising, but meet with the best surprise of their life. The hatred of the Boche is much more pronounced, since the armistice was called. They are taken prisoner, for we shall need them to locate the mines that are still about in their thousands…
As the minutes after 11 a.m. passed, and the guns remained silent, who was to say how one should react? In the afternoon, Lloyd George spoke emotionally in the House of Commons:
Thus at eleven o’clock this morning came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, this fateful morning, came to an end all wars. This is no time for words. Our hearts are too full of gratitude to which no tongue can give adequate expression.
He then moved that the House proceed in a body to St Margaret’s “to give humble and reverent thanks for the deliverance of the world from its great peril”.
Haig greeted the news with the same absence of histrionics, the characteristic phlegm, which has made him so irritatingly unreadable to those chroniclers who confuse the absence of outward emotion with a dearth of inner feeling.
Having informed his army commanders of the procedure for the advance to the German frontier, he then
pointed out the importance of looking after the troops during the period following the cessation of hostilities — very often the best soldiers are the most difficult to deal with in periods of quiet!
…It is as much the duty of all Officers to keep their men amused, as it is to train them for war. Staff Officers must attend to this.
Most of the other fronts imploded with more of a whimper than a bang. The fragmentation of the Habsburg Empire and the descent into revolution in Germany were both optimistic portents for Lenin and the other Bolshevik ideologues, who saw events unfolding in conformity with the precepts of Marxist determinism. The fact that Russians were dying daily — hourly — by their hundreds in the civil war was not a matter which would ever disturb their sleep patterns.
The expulsion of the Ottomans from the Middle East was, of course, part of Allied strategy. The ethnic and religious conflicts which lay ahead in consequence of this were beyond the reckoning of those Allied soldiers who had fought through the dusty plains and mountains. T.E. Lawrence, who credited to himself a huge part in the victory, took pains to shed the burden of blame when he came to write his memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the likeness of the world they knew.
The book is monstrously vain and virtually unreadable. What is true, undeniably, is that the Allies had little idea of the scorpions’ nest which they had stirred up.
The war at sea was fought vigorously to the last. On 9th November, the battleship, HMS Britannia, was torpedoed by UB-50 whilst on patrol near the Straits of Gibraltar. Luckily, the vessel stayed afloat for over two hours before sinking, enabling most of the crew to abandon ship, but 50 crew members were killed, either in the explosion or by toxic fumes. The following day, the minesweeper, HMS Ascot, was torpedoed and sunk by UB-67 off the Faroes. It was the last British Royal Naval ship lost in the war — no consolation to the families of the 53 souls who lost their lives on it that day.
For the moment, anyway, it was the soldiers who were the focus of public attention — perhaps especially in Britain. Since 18th July, when the great Allied counter-offensive had begun, Britain’s armies had taken 188,700 prisoners, a total which exceeded that of the French (139,000) and American (43,000). In the same period, the BEF sustained around 375,000 casualties.
Foch paid tribute to British steadfastness and, in particular, to Haig:
Never at any time in history has the British Army achieved greater results in attack than in this unbroken offensive… The victory gained was indeed complete… thanks above all to the unselfishness, to the wise, loyal and energetic policy of their Commander-in-Chief.
These were not ritual thanks. Haig was equally determined to lavish praise on his soldiers. In a despatch written six weeks after the armistice, he referred to:
the long years of patient and heroic struggle by which the strength and spirit of the enemy were gradually broken down…
Yet throughout all those years, and amid the hopes and disappointments they brought with them, the confidence of our troops in final victory never waivred. Their courage and resolution rose superior to every test, their cheerfulness never failing, however terrible the conditions in which they lived and fought… today they have their reward.
“…their reward”. What a fanciful notion! For it lay within no earthly power to restore to these young men four years of their lives, the full function of their mutilated limbs and shattered minds, let alone to bring back to life the millions who had been sacrificed.
Major Leland Garretson, an American soldier, brilliantly encapsulated the wistfulness felt by so many soldiers at this moment:
We all realise that our Division is not an old campaigning Division when compared to the French and British veterans, but during the short time we were at it we were made to pay our precious toll and came to the thorough realisation that modern warfare is the most wholly awful thing ever conceived by the mind of man…
The young Ernest Whitmore, of the 5th Division, who went home on a stretcher, with shrapnel in his legs and his lungs scorched by gas, considered that the Doughboys had paid a heavy price for America’s involvement:
There was no glory. Instead, it brought to him a wounded body, and memories of sights that will always cause heartache and tears. It brought him hardship and exposure, almost beyond man’s conception — hunger, cold, and sleepless nights, the sight of mangled bodies of friends and buddies; the knowledge of desolation; and the sorrow and anger that is the aftermath of war. It left him with memories that can never be erased — memories that bring, again and again, visions of an eternity spent in a hell on earth.
American nurses would never forgot the horrific wounds by which they had been confronted. One volunteer nurse, Shirley Millard, jerkily recalled:
Gashes from bayonets. Flesh torn by shrapnel. Faces half shot away. Eyes seared by gas; one here with no eyes at all. I can see down into the back of his head… A chest ripped open exposes lungs working feebly and slowing down under my very eyes.
Thousands upon thousands of young men went home without arms or legs. Some were incontinent, and many impotent. A few had faces so mutilated by bullets and shells that a young American sculptor, Anna Coleman Ladd, set up her studio in Paris where, inspired by the work by Derwent Wood in England, she began making sculpted masks. Only when they had donned these might they step into daylight.
In those first hours and days of peace, civilians tended to celebrate more noisily than those in uniforms. At their crassest, the scenes in London and Manchester, in Bristol and in Birmingham, resembled an oversized and unruly works outing. They were not intentionally insensitive: frenetic jollity came more naturally to those who had been least touched by the war.
Margot Asquith wrote:
While reading the newspapers, odd noises from the streets broke upon my ears. Faint sounds of unfinished music; a medley of guns, maroons, cheering, and voices shouting ‘The British Grenadiers’ and ‘God Save the King’. I looked out of the window and saw elderly nurses in uniform and stray men and women clasping each other round the waist, laughing and dancing in the centre of the street. It was a brilliant day and the sky was light… Flags, big and little, of every colour and nationality were flying from roofs, balconies and windows. The men who were putting them up were waving their caps at each other from the top of high ladders and conventional pedestrians were whistling or dancing breakdowns on the pavement; a more spontaneous outbreak of simple gaiety could hardly have been imagined, and I have sometimes wondered if any of the Allies on that day gave way to such harmless explosions of innocent joy.
Nor, to be fair, were young soldiers slow to accept consolation when it was on hand. Edith Appleton, breaking off from her nursing at Le Tréport, recalled the rejoicing on 11th November:
In the afternoon I think many had drunk the good health of the occasion and the spirit of entente was well to the fore, with French soldiers, Tommies and French girls walking about in long lines, locked in each other’s arms.
Grief, however, was unassailable, even in victory. That same day, as the bells rang out in Shrewsbury celebrating the armistice, a telegram was delivered notifying Wilfred Owen’s family that he had been killed in action a week before. Duff Cooper, the future cabinet minister and husband of the socialite Lady Diana Manners, recalled that:
It was past eleven o’clock when we reached Liverpool Street, the armistice had been signed and the town was in an uproar. As we drove from the station I felt unable to take part in their enthusiasm. This was the moment to which I had looked forward for four years, and now that it had arrived I was overcome by melancholy. Amid the dancing, the cheering, the waving of flags, I could think only of my friends who were dead.
Those most directly bereaved understandably tended to hang back from the more demonstrative outpourings of gladness. Monica Grenfell, the sister of Julian and Billy Grenfell, wrote to her mother, Lady Ettie Desborough, from the military hospital where she was nursing at Avon Tyrrell:
Here it was just so right, no hysteria & such depths of thankfulness and brimming hearts. The patients and staff built a huge gorse bonfire, Lord Manners made a speech, during which his eyes filled with tears for his dead son, & then we all sat round & there was wonderful deep-voiced singing by the troops — so calm & lovely — all the wartime songs. It was really very moving.
At dinner they drank a thousand and one toasts ‘To our fallen comrades’… Oh Mummie there is agonising sadness in this calm after strife.
German soldiers often found that the sense of national humiliation complicated and confounded their own emotions. One diary entry for 11th November came from the artillery officer Herbert Sulzbach:
The war is over… here we are now, humbled, our souls torn and bleeding, and know that we’ve surrendered. Germany has surrendered to the Entente!
In spite of it all, we can be proud of the performance we have put up, and we shall always be proud of it… We protected our homeland from our enemies — they never pushed as far as German territory.
Maybe that failure to drive all the way into Germany was the greatest error of them all. In a Pomeranian military hospital, Gefreiter Adolf Hitler, recovering from temporary blindness caused by a gas attack, recorded his reaction to news of the armistice in Mein Kampf:
As my eyes once again went dark, I fumbled and felt my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on the bed, and buried my burning head on the pillow and the duvet. I had not cried since the day I had stood at my mother’s grave. Now I couldn’t do anything else… The great vacillation of my life, whether I should enter politics or remain an architect, came to an end. That night I resolved that, if I recovered my sight, I would enter politics.
Hitler was, as usual, tampering with the truth. He had no qualifications of any kind, and there was no career in architecture open to him. As for politics, his exposure to politics had so far been confined to those of a loudmouth in dosshouses of Munich and Vienna.
For those disposed to introspection, a sense of bewilderment often came to the fore. Piete Kuhr, the extraordinary schoolgirl diarist from Schneidemuhl, wrote wonderingly:
Revolution is everywhere. It has just been reported that the Supreme High Command wanted to use front-line troops against the rebel sailors, workers and citizens, but it came to nothing. The soldiers refused to fire. Soldiers all over are gathering together, kissing and embracing. Everyone shouts: ‘no more war!’
Her words point incontrovertibly to a world turned upside down. The impact of its changing contours upon a young girl, brought up in a rural backwater, is unimaginable.
In a letter to his father, Lieutenant Colonel William Murray, who had been in France since 1914 and was now commanding the 15th Brigade, Royal Horse Artillery, tried to puzzle out the meaning of a world without war.
Now we are sitting down wondering what we shall do next. Europe is in the melting pot. I pray England won’t follow suit. If we can only keep our heads and show we are a great nation at peace as well as war all will be well but I am a shade doubtful.
…No more danger no more wars and no more mud and misery. Just everlasting peace it is a great world.
The great lie — that the war which had just ended was the war to end all wars — is well known. Yet the sense of betrayal this engendered has often diverted attention from the fact that four years of shattering terror had, whatever else, offered an antidote to the ennui and complacency of nineteenth and early twentieth century societies. The greatest follies of class, of empire, and the most egregious crudities of capitalism had been challenged — not in debating societies, or in the mother of parliaments, but in the heat of battle, and in the constraints forced upon civilians who waited at home.
There is no lexicography which can begin to describe the tragedy, but also none which can adequately salute the men who were its chief victims. A century later, we have no right to seek to discount the pity of war, nor any business attempting to mitigate the bitterness of loss. But there was a quality to the men of all nations who returned from war in 1918. However individually flawed, or traumatised, they were marked out by what they had seen, had been, and had known.
Writing in 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Rowland Feilding showed that he understood that as well as anyone:
After all, there was a good deal to be said in favour of the old trench life. There were none of the mean haunting fears of poverty here, and the next meal — if you were alive to take it — was as certain as the rising sun. The rations were the same for the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots,’ and the shells fell, without favour, upon both.
In a life where no money passes, the ownership of money counts for nothing. Rich and poor alike stand solely upon their individual merits, without discrimination. You can have no idea, till you have tried it, how much pleasanter life is under such circumstances.
In spite — or partly perhaps because of the gloominess of the surroundings, there was an atmosphere of selflessness and a spirit of camaraderie the like of which has probably not been seen in the world before — at least on so grand a scale. Such is the influence of shells!
The life was a curious blend of discipline and good-fellowship; wherein men were easily pleased; where there was no gossip; where even a shell when it had just missed you produced a sort of exultation; — a life in the course of which you actually got used to the taste of chloride of lime in tea.
In short, there was no humbug in the trenches, and that is why — with all their disadvantages — the better kind of men who have lived in them will look back upon them hereafter with something like affection.
Now, of course, they are all gone — a whole generation of young men whose youth and vitality were claimed by rulers, in pursuit of causes which have proved elusive to later generations. How should we understand the men and women of this time?
As patriots? Perhaps that is right. Patriotism was a medium through which, in those days, people often demonstrated their seriousness of mind.
As bravehearts? Many — most — were astonishingly valorous. Time and again, they rose to the appalling challenges by which they were faced.
Beyond everything, however, we should know them as ordinary — much more like ourselves than not – but placed by fate into extraordinary circumstances. And the great legacy of the war is that it proved the human spirit could rise, time and again, beyond every reasonable expectation. We see it, week in and week out, in the letters and diaries through which serving men and women and their families poured out their love and longing; we see it in the intensity and loyalty of rough comradeship.
This was their gift, and it is one by which each succeeding generation has been blessed: in the face of bestiality and terror, common humanity and love still prevailed.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.