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 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