Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The Last Day of World War One

'... Although the Armistice was signed in a railway coach in the forest of Compiegne at 5.10am on 11 November 1918, the ceasefire was timed for 11am, in order to allow time for word that the war was finally over to reach all the troops.'

This was from a fascinating article by Michael Palin in the Radio Times promoting his Timewatch programme last weekend and which should be available to watch on BBC iPlayer. In those final six hours, several hundred soldiers died and thousands more were wounded needlessly, throwing themselves into attacks that were ordered to gain ground into which, in just a short time, they could have walked unchallenged.

The American commanders were amongst the worst culprits. General Pershing did not want the ceasefire. His very prophetic view was that the Allied armies should have continued all the way to Berlin and demanded an Unconditional Surrender or find themselves having to do this all over again at another time. The brass under him continued in their search for glory, ordering countless unnecessary attacks before the 11am deadline.

General Foch himself had an opportunity to end hostilities a few days earlier, whilst talks to agree terms were underway. It was requested by the German envoy but the General would not agree until the conditions were finalised.

When the uncoded wire came from German Headquarters in Berlin to agree to any terms and stop the fighting at all costs, the Armistice was declared and announced to the World. It was in all the newspapers but, whilst civilians in London celebrated, men on the Front were still fighting... and dying.

The last British battlefield casualty was Private George Ellison at 9.30am. French messenger, Augustin Trebuchon, was shot and killed at 10.45am as he tried to deliver his message that soup would be available after the ceasefire. George Price, a Canadian, was killed by a sniper at 10.58am and American, Private Henry Gunther lost his life charging German troops at 10.59am.

Of course, these were not the last men to die as a result of the Great War. Many succumbed to injuries sustained during the conflict for years afterwards. And there were also hundreds of hideously disfigured soldiers. The pictures from Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup of Private Thomas who lost half his face and underwent extensive reconstruction were quite horrendous.

Every year I try to get my own children to watch about twenty minutes of the Remembrance Day Service at around 11am on the second Sunday in November so they can be part of the two minute silence and witness the laying of the wreaths.

Ninety years on from that day in 1918, there are only three Great War British veterans still living and it is up to those of us who owe them and their comrades from the Second World War such a huge debt to carry the burden of remembrance.

They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,


unique_stephen said...

We do, we remember them.

Polar said...

Thank you, from this side of the pond.

K4Pacific said...

Shake Hands with a Veteran and say Thank You!

When one does have to use physical force (WAR) to bring equilibrium to humanity, Pershing I think is correct, just like U.S. Grant, George Patton, and others...take the battle to the very end ...unconditioal surender...so it may not happen again. WW1?! Why the very land carve outs and gerrymandering of boundaries in the mid east have us where we are today in a 6 year war with no end. Your thoughts?

having my cake said...

Unique Stephen - There is a programme on this evening about Rolf Harris's father and uncle and how his family couldnt bear to listen to his song 'Two Little Boys' because it reminded them of their story. He talks of a town in France where above every blackboard it says 'Never forget the Australians' in French, of course, because of their bravery in battle around the town.

Polar - I suspect you guys have a similar service on this day.

k4pacific - I have to say that, with the benefit of hindsight, General Pershing was obviously correct. And, as you say, the tinkering with boundaries in the Middle East has had catastrophic effects for many decades.

I was also reading about Kristallnacht, which took place on 9/10 November 1938 and so reached its 70th anniversary this year. On this night, the Jews in Austria and Germany were systematically beaten and robbed of their possessions with up to 30,000 of them arrested and deported to concentration camps. Man's inhumanity to other men because of greed or intolerance is a horrible thing to behold but nothing seems to change.

Why can't we all live happily together?

Uncle Norman said...

Great post as always although I have to say that the whole Pershing thing was bollocks.

I dont want to disrespect those Americans who fought and suffered so the the following remarks are purely aimed at Pershing the great thinker.

The US joined the war late (April 1917) and so by the end had not suffered the same level of casualties or hardships as the Allies.

They Americans initially refused to allow the White American troops to reinforce the British and French, although they did send the Blacks and Hispanics. Consequently their effective military contribution was diminished and this probably added 12 months to the war. But we will never know.

Of course I suspect that what Pershing really wanted was for the enemy to be on the run and to chase them and glory to Berlin. He of course would have followed on behind being far too important to be near the fighting himself.

Would that have prevented world war 2? who knows, I doubt it because it is generally accepted that the "harsh" terms of the Armistice and the humiliation of Germany by President Wilson that allowed Hitler to motivate and rebuild Germany. If Pershing had his way they could have been worse. Occupying forces always go down well with the locals -NOT>

On logistical terms as well, by the time the armistice was signed allied military casualties stood at about 5 million dead and 12 million wounded. There just wasn't the where for all to do it.

As it was the Allied military were only just fed and malnutrition and disease were rife. The civilian populations of France and Germany was starving there was an epidemic of Spanish flu. If you want your troops to get to Berlin you had to feed them and supply which was a couple of little things Perhsing hadn't thought of. I could go on but you get the drift.

Do we appreciate what these people went through? I don't think we do, because if we did how do we let things like the theft of the brass plaques from a war memorial in Manchester go almost unreported or unresolved. Do these people have no shame and what about the scrap metal dealers who bought he stuff.It is a national scandal.

Fortunately we have learnt the lessons from the "war to end all wars" which is why Peace abounds and people like me are out of work!



having my cake said...

UN - Wow! Thanks for that insight taking into account more than the surface rhetoric. I think the scale of the casualties and the enormity of keeping the War going is something that is totally beyond most of us, along with the ability to actually visualise what it was like to live (and die) in the appalling conditions.

And the young people of today seem to have even less idea than the general adult population. I could harp on about the need for some sort of National Service to teach our youth about respect and the realities of life but in this educationally toothless age, it still probably wouldnt have the desired effect.

Now I sound and feel very old :(

Anonymous said...

Don't you think it's poetic justice that the last three men alive from WW1, represent different forces of the armed service. There is a soldier, a airforce man and a naval man. One to represent the land, air and sea. Uncanny....

Walker said...

That was an exellent history lesson.
It shows why ex generals shouldnt be leaders of countries.
Witht the opertunity to save lives they prefered to loose more.
Glory has its price and the cost is younr souls who do the fighting.
Great post

Can Bass 1 said...

You know, I hate to be pedantic, but it's 'grow not old'!