The day First World War ended
The Great War, which had claimed more than 60,000 Canadian lives, ended on Nov. 11, 1918
One hundred years ago, early on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, my father entered the Belgian city of Mons to join the 42nd Battalion (Black Watch of Canada) ,which had just cleared German defenders from the city. Pte. Wilbert Beswetherick was rejoining his battalion after recovering from a severe wound. Only a constant stream of reinforcements, including recovered wounded and the first group of conscripts, kept units up to strength. He was expecting to participate in another Allied offensive, but on reporting to his battalion Pte. Beswetherick learned that Germany had just signed an armistice, which would come into effect at 11 a.m. The terms amounted to Germany’s complete surrender. The Great War, which had claimed more than 60,000 Canadian lives, was over.
In early 1918, Germany appeared on the verge of total victory. Her armies were close enough to Paris to shell it with artillery. Although her army went on the defensive after suffering one million casualties, her commanders believed a negotiated peace was possible. That illusion was crushed at Amiens on Aug. 8, 1918, when the Canadian and Australian corps drove the Germans back 11 kilometres and captured 12,000 prisoners. Amiens was followed by costly Canadian victories at the QueantDrocourt Line and the Canal du Nord. The German request for an armistice, however, was a shock to soldiers on both sides. Most Allied military commanders expected the war would last into mid or late 1919.
It was at Mons in August 1914 that British and Germans soldiers fought their first battle and was there that the last Canadian soldier was killed. Canada relied exclusively on volunteers for most of the war, but heavy losses meant fewer men enlisted. Conscription came into effect following a divisive election on the issue in December 1917. Pte. George Lawrence Price, age 25, was one of about 24,000 draftees to arrive at the front during the last weeks of the war. He was shot in the chest and died two minutes before the Great War ended. His grave is located near the first British and German soldiers killed in the first days of the war.
The cost of the final 100-day drive to victory was staggering. The Canadian Corps began Amiens with a strength of 103,000. By Mons, 11,882 had been killed and 32,750 wounded. Macintyre Hood, a British Whig (now WhigStandard) employee, wrote of Nov. 11, 1918: “Bands seemed to spring up as if by magic, hundreds of vehicles bearing flags and filled with cheering people … and amidst of it all an unforgettable incident. The triumphant parade suddenly stopped as along a side street came a solemn procession, led by a military band, playing the ‘Death March.’ Behind it was a gun carriage bearing a coffin covered by a Union Jack and a soldier’s forage cap. It was the funeral cortege of one of many who had been wounded in the war and did not see the coming of victory ... the remains of that departed soldier were laid to rest on the very day when his sacrifice was crowned with victory.”
Many Canadians who served hoped that their sacrifices would mean a better world. This soldier wrote on learning that his brother had been killed in action: “For me I cannot conceive a worse tragedy, Father, than a wasted life, and one’s life here at any rate is not wasted … it is something to have come here and done what is expected of you ... Let us hope that the world after will be the better for it.”
It is neither this soldier’s fault nor that of the hundreds of thousands of other Canadians who served during the Great War that 20 years after the armistice, many of their sons and daughters saw the need to volunteer in another world war. Maj. Bill Beswetherick is a retired Canadian Forces army communications officer who served 34 years in the military, including postings to Germany and the Netherlands and UN tours in Lebanon/Israel and El Salvador. He is currently the secretary at the Gananoque branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.
Pte. Wilbert Beswetherick, Black Watch of Canada, in a photo taken in 1916, after the Battle of the Somme.