11/11/11: 11 am, 11 November 1918: The Armistice is signed, ceasing hostilities ahead of the Versailles Treaty the following year (the ’20 year armistice’, which paved the way for further hostilities*).
In August 2014, after ceaseless manoeuvring, the War broke out. History records that most of the players thought the engagement would be short, sharp, and decisive. The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, told his officers, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” Less optimistic predictions had it all over by Christmas (1914). But Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, got closer to the mark when he observed, looking out of a Whitehall window at the gathering dusk, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
The (First) Battle of the Marne, in early September 1914, stopped the German army’s push west but it led to a horrible 4 year stalemate of almost mindless war, described by historian Norman Stone as a “frenzy of overconfidence.” “When every autumn people said it could not last through another winter and every spring there was still no end in sight, only the hope that out of it all some good would accrue to mankind, kept men and nations fighting…After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve…there was no turning back.”**
By Christmas 1914, the highly professional British army units were pretty much obliterated; hastily-trained replacements largely went-under at the Somme. Australian General John Monash’s Total War strategy, using a coordinated salad of offensive weapons and tactics to overcome the nightmarish stasis of trench warfare, was regarded by his ‘superiors’ as rather bad form (though highly effective). In 1918, after being on the back foot for some time, the German Army launched a Spring offensive that was almost decisive: but then the Australians re-took Villers Bretonneux, and won at Amiens – that snuffed-out further success for an enemy fatally weakened by attrition from naval blockades and too many opponents.
But the four years of to-and-fro, in the West and in the East, took a dreadful toll. Conventional efforts to break the deadlock were catastrophic, often attended by a sense of insane derring-do. (A good film version of this type of thing is Paths of Glory.) See also Alan Clark’s book, The Donkeys, where he quotes the following exchange: “General Rawlinson: This is most unsatisfactory. Where are the Sherwood Foresters? Where are the East Lancashires on the right? Brigadier-General Oxley: They are lying out in No-Man’s-Land, sir, and most of them will never stand again.”
In the concluding part of his big book on the First World War, Churchill wrote: “It was a few minutes before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I stood at the window of my room looking up Northumberland Avenue towards Trafalgar Square, waiting for Big Ben to tell that the War was over….I was conscious of reaction rather than elation. The material purposes on which one’s work had been centred, every process of thought on which one had lived, crumbled into nothing…And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by the Government Departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings…I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming…Almost before the last stroke of the clock had died away, the strict, war-straitened, regulated streets of London had become a triumphant pandemonium.”^
“On 11 November 1918 the Allied peoples burst into rejoicing. All work stopped for the day. Crowds blocked the streets, dancing and cheering. In Trafalgar Square Canadian soldiers lit a bonfire at the plinth of Nelson’s column, the marks of which can be seen to this day. As evening fell, the crowds grew more riotous. Total strangers copulated in public – a symbol that life had triumphed over death…Things were quieter in Paris after the first day. The death roll of the French was too great to be forgotten even in victory…In the age of mass warfare, nations had to be told that they were fighting for some noble cause. Perhaps they were.”^^
Estimate of the total cost: 20 million deaths and 21 million wounded and about 200 billion 1913 dollars.
As we wrote in Tranquillity, the first casualty of war is not truth, but music. This includes poetry. There were several fine poets to fall in this tragic folly; one of the better known, Wilfred Owen (who in excrutiating fact, was killed in action 7 days before the War’s end) was not in truth a very good poet, but we don’t think it out of place to quote him thus:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-[* At Versailles, there were many examples of a Bad Peace. States were made and unmade; territory, and war powers, were either horse-traded or swiped. President Wilson and co. demanded that German New Guinea become a trustee territory of the proposed League of Nations. Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes demurred. “Am I to understand that Australia is prepared to defy the opinion of the whole civilised world, Mr Hughes?” Wilson asked, twice. “That’s about the size of it, Mr. President” came the reply. Australia got New Guinea.] [** Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (1962)] [^ Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918, Volume IV (1938)] [^^ A. J. P. Taylor, The First World War (1963)] [Apologies to John McCrae for the extemporised grab of “In Flanders Fields“]