Remembering November 11, 1918
In 1918, at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the guns were supposed to fall silent across the European continent and the "War to end all wars" was over.
Did they? The armistice was signed at 5:10 AM local time in the personal rail car of Marshal Foch. And while the news flashed to every capital in Europe by 5:40, most of the soldiers on the front lines began the day as if it were just another day of combat.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) states that their records show that 863 Commonwealth soldiers died on November 11th 1918 - though this figure also includes those who died on that day but of wounds received prior to November 11th.
In particular, the Americans took heavy casualties on the last day of the war. This was because their commander, General John Pershing, believed that the Germans had to be severely defeated at a military level to effectively 'teach them a lesson'. Pershing saw the terms of the Armistice as being soft on the Germans. Therefore, he supported those commanders who wanted to be pro-active in attacking German positions - even though he knew that an Armistice had been signed. In particular, the Americans suffered heavy casualties attempting to cross the River Meuse on the night of the 10th/11th with the US Marines taking over 1,100 casualties alone. However, if they had waited until 11.00, they could have crossed the river unhindered and with no casualties. The 89th US Division was ordered to attack and take the town of Stenay on the morning of November 11th. Stenay was the last town captured on the Western Front but at a cost of 300 casualties.
Madness. For the victors, casualties that day are particularly poignant:
The last American soldier killed was Private Henry Gunter who was killed at 10.59. Officially, Gunter was the last man to die in World War One. His unit had been ordered to advance and take a German machine gun post. It is said that even the Germans - who knew that they were literally minutes away from a ceasefire - tried to stop the Americans attacking. But when it became obvious that this had failed, they fired on their attackers and Gunter was killed. His divisional record stated:
"Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed."
Information about German casualties is more difficult to ascertain. However, it may well be the case that the last casualty of World War One was a junior German officer called Tomas who approached some Americans to tell them that the war was over and that they could have the house he and his men were just vacating. However, no one had told the Americans that the war had finished because of a communications breakdown and Tomas was shot as he approached them after 11.00.
Officially over 10,000 men were killed, wounded or went missing on November 11th 1918. The Americans alone suffered over 3,000 casualties. When these losses became public knowledge, such was the anger at home that Congress held a hearing regarding the matter. In November 1919, Pershing faced a House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs that examined whether senior army commanders had acted accordingly in the last few days of the war. However, no one was ever charged with negligence and Pershing remained unapologetic...
There is something about the waste, the futility, and the stupidity of war that lends itself to poetry. Perhaps only through metaphor, meter, and rhyme can we glimpse the truth of war - a colossal blunder and man's biggest failing. Following every conflict, men who suffered and lived to tell the story took up their pens and tried to bring sense to the senseless; order to chaos; pathos to tragedy.
A reader emails us with a request to post perhaps the most famous poem from World War I. Lt. Col. John McCrae, a doctor who served in the Canadian Army, had served in the Boer War and was sickened by the carnage he witnessed first hand at his dressing station during the battle of the Ypres salient in 1915. This short, eerie tribute to the fallen is as powerful to us today as it was nearly 100 years ago:
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.
While McCrae's verses are mournful, Wilfred Owen wrote "Anthem for a Doomed Youth" in a rage:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Each successive generation learns of the horrors of war all over again. And as much as we wish for and pray for peace, perhaps by remembering the bloody sacrifices of our veterans we can make Veterans Day meaningful once again.