Bound­less joy but need­less slaugh­ter on day peace came

More men died on Novem­ber 11, 1918, in the hours be­tween the Ar­mistice be­ing signed and the cease­fire de­clared, than the Al­lies lost on D-Day at Nor­mandy, writes

The Herald on Sunday - - NEWS -

Ron McKay

THE Ar­mistice, which wasn’t an ar­mistice at all but an ab­ject sur­ren­der, should have started ear­lier – not at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – but five hours be­fore, just after 5am, when both sides signed a cease­fire agree­ment which was then ra­dioed to army com­man­ders on both sides up and down the front­lines. But the guns did not fall silent and, in the hours un­til they did, men con­tin­ued to die to cap­ture patches of earth whose fu­ture had al­ready been de­cided.

The fi­nal peace agree­ment took place deep in a for­est in north­ern France in the rail­way car­riage of Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch, the Al­lied Com­man­der-in-Chief, a diminu­tive, vi­tu­per­a­tive man with a mas­sive mous­tache and match­ing ego who had al­ready re­jected Ger­man pleas for a cease­fire five weeks be­fore and in­sisted, still, that the fight­ing would go on un­til the last sec­ond.

And, in the six hours after the ink had dried on the Ar­mistice papers, a fur­ther 2,738 men died on both sides and 8,206 were ei­ther wounded or went miss­ing. They died, or were gravely wounded, for no po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary or lo­gis­ti­cal rea­son. That day’s ca­su­alty toll was greater than the Al­lies suf­fered in Nor­mandy on D-Day, 1944.

Al­most cer­tainly the last man to die in the war was Pri­vate Henry Gun­ther, of the US Army’s 313th In­fantry Divi­sion, known as “Bal­ti­more’s own”. Iron­i­cally, he came from a Ger­man fam­ily in the city. At 10.59am, the 23-year-old, with fixed bay­o­net, charged a Ger­man ma­chine gun crew. Although the Ger­mans called at him in bro­ken English to stop as the war was over, he con­tin­ued. They shot him.

The last Bri­tish soldier to die was Pri­vate Ge­orge Ed­win El­li­son of the 5th Royal Ir­ish Lancers. A for­mer York­shire coal miner who had been re­called to the army just prior to the out­break of war, he was killed at Mons – where he had also fought in the first bat­tle – at 09.30am, just 90 min­utes be­fore the cease­fire.

Mil­i­tar­ily the war had come full cir­cle. The first ma­jor en­gage­ment had been at the Bel­gian town of Mons in 1914 which saw a Bri­tish re­treat, and there again, after the Al­lied forces had punched through Ger­man lines, it fi­nally ended, in Bel­gium’s Wal­loon re­gion, near the French bor­der, and just 65km from Brus­sels.

Five weeks ear­lier, the Ger­man high com­mand, know­ing they were rapidly los­ing the war, had ap­pealed for peace ne­go­ti­a­tions. Foch, the Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der, who had been given over­all com­mand be­cause the war had been largely fought on French soil, re­jected the over­tures. He wanted to make sure the Ger­man army was bro­ken and could pose no threat in the fu­ture.

But if the Ger­man gen­er­als knew the war was lost and sought peace at any price, the peo­ple back home had no idea the cause was lost. All news was rigidly cen­sored and only tri­umphs were pub­lished – and 1918 ap­peared to have been a very good year. Early in the year, a de­feated Rus­sia had given up and un­der the Treaty of Brest-Li­tovsk more than a mil­lion square miles of what are to­day Poland, Be­larus, Ukraine and the Baltic states were signed over to Ger­many.

Then, in spring 1918, a huge Ger­man of­fen­sive broke the trench war­fare dead­lock and ad­vanced far into France – Kaiser Wil­helm and his gen­er­als were even dream­ing of tak­ing Paris – and on one day in May the Ger­mans ad­vanced 13 miles, the largest sig­nal-day gain on the Western Front.

In Ger­many, the only sign of the war was wide­spread hunger as the Royal Navy had block­aded ports since 1914. By 1918, slow star­va­tion had claimed an es­ti­mated 24,000 Ger­man lives.

At the front, in the five weeks since the Ger­mans had sued for peace, half a mil­lion ca­su­al­ties had been added to the pile which num­bered more than nine mil­lion men killed in com­bat and a fur­ther 21 mil­lion wounded, with count­less mil­lions more civil­ians also vic­tims. By then, Ger­many had al­ready lost its two ma­jor al­lies, Ot­toman Turkey and the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire, both of which had sur­ren­dered.

Ger­many was also col­laps­ing from within. Work­ers in­spired by the 1917 Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion were form­ing sovi­ets, even within the army. Kaiser Wil­helm trav­elled to mil­i­tary head­quar­ters, in the Bel­gian town of Spa, to find soldier sovi­ets and en­listed men re­fus­ing to salute their of­fi­cers. When news came to him that the red flag had been raised over his own palace in Ber­lin he fled to neu­tral Hol­land.

Kaiser Bill wasn’t the only one. The most gar­landed and bril­liant of mil­i­tary com­man­ders, Erich Lu­den­dorff, joint leader of the Ger­man forces, had slumped into psy­chosis, drink­ing heav­ily and be­rat­ing his un­der­lings. He re­signed in Septem­ber 1918 after telling the Kaiser the war was lost and he must sue for peace. As word got out of his ap­par­ent cow­ardice and treach­ery he was re­viled and pil­lo­ried, and suf­fered a men­tal break­down. In Oc­to­ber, Lu­den­dorff slipped out of Ger­many, wear­ing a dis­guise of blue spec­ta­cles and a false

Foch had al­ready re­jected Ger­man pleas for a cease­fire five weeks be­fore and in­sisted, still, that the fight­ing would go on un­til the last sec­ond

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