Monday, November 10, 2008

The Greatest Day in History

Ninety years ago tomorrow, at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent along the western front. The Armistice had been signed and World War I was officially over, though fighting in the Italian Alps and the Middle East would persist for several weeks.

Popular images of that first Armistice Day depict shell-shocked combatants emerging from the trenches, stunned by the now-quiet guns and the end of the terrible carnage that had claimed millions of lives.

But those notions are deceiving. Fact is, there was a great deal of activity in the final days and hours leading up to the end of World War I. While the generals were aware that the fighting would end on 11 November, bitter--even desperate--fighting continued up to the end in many sectors. By one estimate, at least 11,000 men died on that final day of the war, more than the number that perished during the D-Day invasion a generation later.

The horror (and futility) of the conflict's final hours has been captured in a pair of recent books, Joseph Perisco's Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 (published three years ago), and the more recent The Greatest Day in History: How, on the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, the First World War Finally Came to an End, by Nicholas Best, the British journalist and critic.

Mr. Best's book was published last month, but like Perisco, he brings an eye for detail and irony to his subject. Among the millions present for the final act of World War I, he finds the already-famous (including the youngest general in the U.S. Army, one Douglas MacArthur) and the soon-to-be-infamous. Miles from the front lines, an Austrian Corporal was recuperating from his injuries in a military hospital near Berlin; his name was Adolph Hitler.

The war's end was anything but a surprise. German offensives in the spring and summer had been repulsed with terrible losses, and morale plummeted. In late September, the Army Chief of Staff, General Erich Ludendorff, warned that his forces faced not only defeat, but "annihilation." His bold gamble to achieve total victory on the western front had failed.

Meanwhile, Allied forces were on the advance, bolstered by the ever-expanding American Expeditionary Force. With the enemy in retreat, French, U.S. and British generals were anxious to press their advantage, even if an armistice was in the offing. That possibility first surfaced on the evening of 7 November, when a German delegation requested terms from Marshal Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander. "I have no proposals to make," Foch told the Germans, informing them that the war would continue while he obtained the consent of allied governments.

As Joseph Perisco writes, the senior American commander, General John J. Pershing, considered an armistice "equally repugnant." There can be "no conclusion until Germany is brought to her knees," he said. Conciliation, he claimed, would only lead to future war. Pershing wanted Germany's unconditional surrender.

So, the fighting dragged on, even when it became clear that the armistice would go into effect. The Germans didn't sign the agreement until the morning of the 11th, but radio traffic between various allied headquarters anticipated the war's end. However, few commanders issued orders aimed at limiting combat during the conflict's final hours.

So, the advance continued, with little regard for the cost. The British, still stung by their retreat from Mons, Belgium in the first year of the year, moved to recapture the city as the armistice approached. The commander of a French regiment issued two orders, for an attack to begin at 9 a.m., and to cease-fire at 11 a.m. Canadian troops also launched new assaults as the cease-fire loomed.

But it was the AEF, still a relative newcomer to the war, that launched some of the heaviest attacks in the final hours of the war. One of Pershing's Corps Commanders, Major General Charles Sumerall, ordered his Marines to cross the Meuse River under heavy fire. Hundreds were killed or wounded.

In another sector, an American division commander pressed his attack because the "unit lacked proper bathing facilities," putting (in Perisco's words) "cleanliness above survival." An artillery battery commander named Harry Truman put down one last barrage in the war's closing hours, giving his men a chance to test the "extended range" shells they had just received. In a letter to his wife, Truman expressed a desire to "scalp" a few Germans.

By various estimates, at least 300 American troops died between midnight and 11 a.m. on 11 November. But those numbers are suspect; they do not include casualties among U.S. units attached to British and French units. The actual total is believed to be much higher. Pershing's own, official report indicates that the last American died in battle at 10:59 a.m., only one minute before the armistice went into effect.

And to what end? As Perisco notes, allied troops could have easily marched into the same areas after the cease-fire, with no loss of life. But the opportunity for career advancement, or to inflict additional punishment on the enemy proved irresistible. That's one reason that the last hours of the war were an extension of the preceding years. The slaughter continued until that last moment, on day the British papers called "the greatest in history"


lgude said...

The more I come to terms with the 20th century the more important WWI looms. The deep reluctance of the West to defend itself against Islamofascism goes back to the collective trauma of WWI. Not even the 'Greatest Terror Attack in History" was able to universally arouse the West's self protective instincts. Far from it, as we know all too well.

Do you have a preference between these two books? I want to read at least one.

Unknown said...

I've read Perisco's book, and find it to be a well-researched, highly-readable effort. I plan to get to Mr. Best's book in the next month or so. Neither book is quite on the level of Stephen Ambrose, but they illuminate an important, though largely-forgotten chapter in the Great War.

I agree with your comment about the lasting impact of World War I. Many historians focus on Versailles and the flawed treaty that led directly to the rise of Facism in Europe. But the horrors of World War I were seared deep into Europe's collective psyche, and there has since been a reluctance to deal decisively with emerging threats. Hitler could have been easily stopped in 1936 or 1938, but no one had the stomach for it. Similarly, the Balkans mess festered for years until the U.S. became involved.

I'll try to post a review of the Best volume when I finish reading it.