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By Jim Rhodes
Just before dawn on November 11, 1918, the British high command in France sent a message to all field commanders: “Hostilities will cease at 11 hours today.” Similar messages went out to the other Allied and German armies in the field.
The messages were released just before 7:00 am. That meant there were still four hours of killing to be done before the armistice went into effect. It wasn’t easy to stop the slaughter.
More than 2,700 soldiers were killed and 8,000 wounded that morning prior to the 11 o’clock hour cease-fire.
A few cases in point …
On the morning of the 11th, a British battalion occupied a small French hamlet near Valenciennes, which they were told had been evacuated by the enemy forces. But when they entered the streets, hidden machine guns opened fire on them, killing over a hundred before the Tommies successfully counterattacked and silenced the German guns. When the naked body of a raped and mutilated young French woman – just recently dead – was discovered in a barn, they coldly shot their German prisoners on the spot.
On the American front, the Germans launched one of the heaviest sustained artillery barrages of the war, presumably to use up all their stocks of ammunition before the cease-fire. The soldiers on the receiving end suffered greatly in their poorly protected shallow rifle pits (the established deep trench lines were by this time many miles in their rear, left behind by their recent rapid advances).
There was a macabre competition among the American gun teams vying for the honor of firing the last shot of the war. As a result, the firing continued sporadically past the deadline before their superior officers intervened to silence the weapons.
The final flourish on the British front was an old-fashioned cavalry charge. At 10:50 am, a squadron of British 7th Dragoons galloped out in perfect formation to capture a meaningless bridge at Lessines. They were fired on by rifles and machine guns. The horsemen’s momentum carried them across the bridge just at 11 o’clock, when the Germans dutifully ceased fire in accordance with the armistice agreement.
The last American casualty was a soldier named Henry Gunther of Baltimore, who was killed trying to assault a German machine gun position single-handedly 60 seconds before the cease-fire.
The guns fell silent across the battlefields on the Western Front. After a while, dazed and battle-weary men on both sides began to emerge from their rifle pits, standing erect for the first time in over four years. Although fraternization was strictly forbidden, small groups of men from both sides approached each other cautiously. In some cases, bottles of wine were produced, and soldiers exchanged cigarettes and souvenirs with men who just a few hours ago had been trying their best to kill them.
That night there were displays of fireworks on both sides of the line, and the sound of male voices singing could be heard in the cold night air.
In London, Big Ben chimed, and church bells rang. The streets quickly filled with dancing and singing crowds. Pubs did a brisk business. The massive joyful celebration was said to be tempered only by the steady progression of hearses wending through the streets carrying victims of the Spanish flu epidemic.
It was reported that London pickpockets had the best haul of the century.
It was 2:45 am in New York when the Armistice was announced, but as morning dawned the streets filled with celebrators and ticker tape. Even the New York Irish temporarily forget their traditional hatred of the English to join the fun. Department stores announced Victory Sales.
Two months later New York ratified the Prohibition Amendment.
In Berlin, there was only gloom. Germany had lost the war. The government had collapsed, and the Kaiser had gone into exile. Wild talk of revolution was in the air. Over the next few weeks and months, dispirited German soldiers returned to a cold and hungry country, where thousands were dying daily from pestilence and famine. Anarchy, despair and weary hopelessness ruled.
A young lance corporal named Adolf Hitler was in a military hospital recovering from partial blindness induced by a mustard gas attack at Ypres.
When the numbers were counted up, the grisly toll of the Great War defied imagination. Nearly 10 million soldiers had been killed and a similar number wounded, many of them permanently disabled. And that didn’t include the more than 10 million civilian deaths directly or indirectly attributed to the war. Doing the arithmetic, that adds up to an average of more than 12,000 deaths per day over the four years of war.
The peace in Europe lasted two decades, just enough time to repopulate the ranks of young men who marched off to another world war in 1939.
The U.S. Congress adopted a resolution in 1926 recognizing November 11 as Armistice Day. It was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.
When I was a child growing up in the early 1950s, at 11 o’clock on Armistice Day, we would rise dutifully from our seats in our classrooms and stand beside our desks with bowed heads for one minute of silence – not an easy task for a roomful of pre-teens. Before the 60 seconds elapsed, there would inevitably be breakouts of muffled giggling, and one of the class clowns would loudly sneeze or fart, creating a wave of snickers that even the sternest teacher could not control.