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The Day - - FRONT PAGE - By ANNE CARR BING­HAM

At 11 o’clock on the morn­ing of Nov. 11, 1918, the guns along the Western Front in Europe fell silent. It was “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” Eighty-five years later, a 104-yearold Bri­tish vet­eran of the Great War re­called that not only was the un­ex­pected hush jar­ring, the sud­den re­al­iza­tion that “we had no ob­jec­tive, noth­ing what­so­ever to do!” un­nerved the stunned in­fantry­men.

With the sign­ing of an ar­mistice, four years of blood­shed were over. What re­mained was that eerie still­ness — and a land­scape of ut­ter des­o­la­tion. Af­ter the ini­tial shock, ex­hausted sol­diers crawled one fi­nal time from their re­spec­tive trenches to meet on the bat­tle­field, not as en­e­mies now but as fel­low sur­vivors.

The Great War (which, in the con­text of a sec­ond global con­flict, came to be known as World War I) broke out in late July 1914 — one of the loveli­est sum­mers in re­cent mem­ory. The death toll was stag­ger­ing: nearly 20 mil­lion civil­ians and com­bat­ants — not in­clud­ing mil­lions felled by the 1918 in­fluenza pan­demic. Count­less bat­tle­field ca­su­al­ties were never found.

It had started with a seem­ing pin­prick in the Balkans. On June 28, 1914, in Sara­jevo, Bos­nia (re­cently an­nexed by Aus­tria-Hun­gary), the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian crown prince was as­sas­si­nated by a dis­turbed Bos­nian-Serb teenager. From that un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent, pre­car­i­ously balanced in­ter­na­tional domi­noes be­gan to tum­ble, and within six weeks hos­til­i­ties erupted across the planet.

Europe had not ex­pe­ri­enced a full-blown con­ti­nen­tal war since the Congress of Vi­enna in 1815. For al­most 100 years, the “Con­cert of Europe” kept peace through bal­ance-of-power diplo­macy and strate­gic al­liances. But by 1900, these coali­tions were hard­en­ing into two hos­tile blocs: a pow­er­ful im­pe­rial Ger­many and her weaker part­ner Aus­tria-Hun­gary ver­sus Rus­sia and France (with Great Bri­tain a sym­pa­thetic as­so­ciate) — this as surg­ing in­dus­trial-mil­i­tarism swept across Europe.

An at­tack on one mem­ber of an al­liance ob­li­gated its part­ners to come to its de­fense, so when Aus­tria de­clared war on Ser­bia to avenge Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand’s mur­der, she had the as­sur­ance of Ger­many’s back­ing. Im­me­di­ately, Rus­sia mo­bi­lized to de­fend her Slavic pro­tégé Ser­bia; then Ger­many de­clared war on Rus­sia and France. Af­ter Ger­many’s il­le­gal in­va­sion of neu­tral Bel­gium to ac­cess the “soft” route into France, Eng­land de­clared war on Ger­many.

Though the con­flict en­gulfed the en­tire world — on land, on (and un­der) sea, and in the air —the prin­ci­pal killing fields were Europe’s mo­bile Eastern Front and static Western Front — pri­mar­ily the lat­ter, where a 480-mile line of en­emy trenches was sep­a­rated by open ground dubbed “No Man’s Land.”

In ar­eas of Bel­gium and France oc­cu­pied by Ger­man troops, gen­er­als on both sides ob­sti­nately in­sisted on of­fen­sive as­saults that yielded lit­tle and pro­duced stu­pe­fy­ing ca­su­al­ties. More­over, in this dead­locked theater, an area cap­tured by one’s bat­tal­ion on Tues­day might be re­taken by the en­emy’s on Wed­nes­day.

In the United States, which had re­mained (tech­ni­cally) neu­tral since 1914, Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son was re-elected in 1916 on the slo­gan, “He kept us out of war.” With Ger­many’s in­creas­ing acts of ag­gres­sion against the U.S., though, a re­luc­tant pres­i­dent on April 2, 1917, suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned Congress to de­clare war against the Ger­man Em­pire. For the ide­al­is­tic Wil­son, Amer­i­can en­gage­ment was pred­i­cated on a moral prin­ci­ple, im­mor­tal­ized in his phrase “the world must be made safe for democ­racy.” Post­war, a new par­a­digm would be estab­lished through a peace­keep­ing body to be called the League of Na­tions, so that prin­ci­pal­i­ties would hence­forth re­solve dis­putes not by arms but by ar­bi­tra­tion.

Early in 1918, the Ger­man army nearly achieved vic­tory with a mas­sive of­fen­sive on the Western Front. Its gen­er­als, though, could not ex­ploit their gains, and by late au­tumn — with al­most 2 mil­lion Amer­i­can troops in the field — their gam­ble failed.

And so, as dawn broke on Nov. 11, Ger­man and Al­lied delegates signed the Ar­mistice in Com­piègne, France. Six hours later, the war was over.

Dur­ing the fol­low­ing months, Al­lied lead­ers crafted the crippling, ex­tor­tion­ate Treaty of Ver­sailles, which was forced on Ger­many on June 28, 1919. Woodrow Wil­son’s plea for more rea­son­able terms cut no ice with his French and Bri­tish col­leagues, who in­sisted that their van­quished foe pay dearly for “war guilt.” Ger­many in­deed bled for 12 years, but in 1933 she stormed back — rein­vented, rearmed, and re­sent­ful — un­der the bru­tal but pop­u­lar dic­ta­tor, Adolf Hitler. World War II be­gan six years later. Schol­ars still de­bate the legacy of the Great War. One thing is in­dis­putable: We live to­day with its con­se­quences, good, bad and un­re­solved. Count­less books have been writ­ten about it; many com­bat­ants from both sides, in­clud­ing the in­iq­ui­tous Hitler, later be­came fa­mous. In 1917, a charis­matic Russian radical, Vladimir Lenin, re­turned from Switzer­land to his na­tive land, where he started a rev­o­lu­tion that “shook the world,” and launched com­mu­nism as a global force.

Cer­tain out­comes and prin­ci­ples re­sulted from the wreck­age: demo­cratic na­tion-states were cre­ated from col­lapsed em­pires; the League of Na­tions was founded (which, though it dis­solved in 1946, was suc­ceeded by the United Na­tions); Amer­ica was in­ter­na­tion­ally pro­claimed a bea­con of hope; hu­man rights were for­mally ac­knowl­edged.

At the same time, the world be­came a more dan­ger­ous place, with es­ca­lat­ing fas­cism in Europe; ris­ing tribal and re­li­gious fa­nati­cism in global hotspots; and the emer­gence of two su­per­pow­ers whose op­pos­ing ide­olo­gies ush­ered in the 44-year Cold War.

The bat­tle­fields of Western Europe, still hal­lowed ground for many, have mostly re­cov­ered and re­verted to the time­less land­scapes they once were, though the trenches’ grass-cov­ered con­tours re­main vis­i­ble. Many cities and towns were re­stored; oth­ers were be­yond re­pair. Peo­ple en­dured — car­ried on.

Post­war, memo­ri­als were erected and tra­di­tions estab­lished to honor the fallen. But that Novem­ber morn­ing in 1918, heavy with loss, must in our own time rouse our mem­ory and our con­science. How could such car­nage have hap­pened? Had the sac­ri­fice of a gen­er­a­tion and the risk of an­other global catas­tro­phe been worth it? Those who fought are dead and can­not an­swer. To us is left in­ef­fa­ble sadness at the fu­til­ity of war — and ghostly echoes of the clash of arms and the cries of men. Anne Carr Bing­ham lives in Salem.

AP PHOTO, FILE

Mem­bers of a U.S. Army 37-mm gun crew man their po­si­tion dur­ing the Meuse-Ar­gonne of­fen­sive on Sept. 26, 1918. It was Amer­ica’s largest and dead­li­est bat­tle ever, with 26,000 U.S. sol­diers killed and tens of thou­sands wounded.

AP PHOTO

U.S. troops of the 1st Divi­sion, the first Amer­i­can troops to land on French soil, pa­rade in St. Nazaire on June 26, 1917.

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