Armistice Day

With this post time, exactly 102 years ago to the minute, the Armistice took effect ending 4 years of the bloodiest conflict – from 1914 – the world had known. The time was November 11, 1918 at 1100 CET.


The world would forever be changed.

This post details a bit about that War behind that Armistice.

As I have gotten older, I’ve noticed that I frequently reminisce about times years ago. Times that when I was living them, didn’t see any specialness to them.

Vienna fascinated me. And the heart of downtown Vienna is a walk known as “Der Ring” – The Ring – a.k.a. Ringstrasse. It is a beautiful circular walk aligned with parks about 6.5 km – 4 miles. As the name implies, you finish where you started.  I can remember one park with a stand where Johann Strauss used to serenade Viennese on warm spring days. There was the magnificent opera house. And all of those grand old buildings and palaces! With just a bit of imagination, I saw Strauss playing those waltzes in grand ballrooms and chandeliers, with 100s of formally-attired couples dancing.

But something seemed to be missing around them.


Of course, there were people but not in the numbers one would expect for such magnificent buildings.

It reminded me of Paris with the tree-lined boulevards minus most of the people.  And the atmosphere had an eerie quality. In 1900, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with the capital of Vienna, ruled over 51 million people in areas that now included Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, parts of Romania…and of course Austria.

Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by the Hapsburgs, 1914

After 1918 and the Great War, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, in existence for 100s of years, was dissolved. The Hapsburg dynasty was wiped off the map. Opulent Vienna became the capital of tiny Austria, which in 1973 (the time of my visit) had a population of about 7 million. And I was told at the time Vienna itself had actually a third fewer citizens than in 1914. So all those magnificent buildings I saw along the Ring were half empty.

After the Great War, along with the dissolution of the Hapsburgs were the dissolutions of the German monarchy, the Russian monarchy, and the Ottoman Empire. In their places came new countries, communism and the Soviet Union, and the Nazis. And a modern-day Turkey which, thanks to Mustafa  Atatürk, was a model for “secular” Islam.

Ottoman Empire, 1914

The seed for communism was implanted in Russia by the German Government in 1917, in an effort to destabilize the Tsarist regime and an enemy combatant. They spirited Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Lenin from Switzerland back to Russia.

In the case of the Nazis, it was the surrender of the German government on November 11, 1918, that a young Adolph Hitler, recuperating from a gas attack from the trenches in a Prussian hospital, had a prophetic thought:

While there on 10 November, Hitler learned of Germany’s defeat from a pastor, and—by his own account—on receiving this news he suffered a second bout of blindness. Hitler was outraged by the subsequent Treaty of Versailles, which forced Germany to state that they had started the war, deprived Germany of various territories, demilitarized the Rhineland which was occupied by the Allies, and imposed economically damaging sanctions.

Hitler later wrote: “When I was confined to bed, the idea came to me that I would liberate Germany, that I would make it great. I knew immediately that it would be realized”. Hitler wanted to remain in the army after the war, but this was impossible with the near total demilitarization of the armed forces. He returned to Munich for demobilization.

The Great War, as World War 1 was called, was a cataclysmic event, the effects of which are still felt today. Imagine a world today that hadn’t experienced both world wars, nor suffered the effects of communism in so many countries.

A frequent theme of mine in history is how such profound effects can occur from seemingly small incidents.

In the case of the start of the Great War, it was a traffic stop and an attempted  U-Turn by the chauffeur for Archduke Ferdinand and Princess Sophie in Sarajevo. This area was considered to be a “hotbed” of unrest and the Archduke was sent to hopefully bring calm and peace.

The route that was initially planned was later considered by the local police to be a dangerous route.

For security reasons, it was decided that the motor arcade should proceed out of the city via the Appel Quay, rather than take its planned route along Franz Joseph Street and into the narrow streets of Sarajevo’s bazaar district.

Unfortunately, the drivers didn’t pick up on this changed itinerary. “They’re talking about this in German, and the driver of the first car is Czech, and so is the driver of the second car,” Clark told NPR. “They don’t understand what this conversation’s about, and nobody bothers to translate for them.”

As a result, the first car turned onto Franz Joseph Street, followed by the second car, carrying Franz Ferdinand, Sophie and Potiorek. Amazingly, this wrong turn took them right to where 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip had stationed himself along the original published route for the motorcade, under the awning of a general store.

(It’s probably not true that Princip had stopped to get a sandwich, as one popular myth about the assassination goes.)

As Potiorek yelled at the driver that he had taken a wrong turn, the car slowed to a stop right in front of Princip, who fired two shots into the car, hitting Franz Ferdinand and his wife at point-blank range.

“If Princip had spent his entire life learning about human anatomy, he couldn’t have placed his shots better than he did,” Clark said. “They were both lethal.”

Gavrilo Princip had never fired a weapon before.

That stop led to the deaths of 9 million soldiers and 6 million civilians. Try to imagine a world in which the local Sarajevo police insured that a translation be given to the Czech drivers. That there was no need for the drivers to be on the original route.  Incidentally, at this time there was no country called Czechoslovakia – that would come with the dissolution of the Hapsburg dynasty.

Would something else have triggered the events subsequent to the assassination, that had the countries stacking like dominoes on each side? Or, if a subsequent action occurred, would the War have been as catastrophic? The Hapsburgs asked the Germans if they would back them when they made an ultimatum to the Slavs. “Of course we will“, Kaiser Wilhelm replied. And of course the Slavs were the “little brother” of the Russians, and the alignments started.

Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. That adage applies to governments as well as to people. A case in point is the ultimatum that Austria gave Serbia on July 23, 1914. Austrian officials were counting on Serbia to reject their demands, which would give Vienna the opportunity it was seeking to wage a swift and victorious war against its upstart neighbor. The Austrians were right on the first count, but horrifically wrong on the second. The result would be the Great War that changed the course of the twentieth century.

In the case of the German Emperor, part of his motivation was, believe it or not, resentment over a withered arm he suffered at birth. He was a grandson of Queen Victoria.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, by contrast, had an image problem. Disabled by a clumsy delivery at birth, his left arm was withered, and he wore a glove to hide his shrunken hand.

Even aged four he was a little monster — as the pageboy at Edward and Alexandra’s wedding in Westminster Abbey in 1863, he had a tantrum, bit a relative on the leg and threw his ceremonial dirk on the floor during the vows.

He grew up loathing his English mother but at the same time being sexually attracted to her. The reasons for the Great War, it suddenly seems, were more personal than any historian of diplomacy and economics has hinted before.

I don’t believe that it is farfetched to believe that the second world war was just a continuation of the first, with a lull of 21 years.

A favorite TV series of mine is Doc Martin, about a preeminent London surgeon, who is brusque to the point of rudeness with people and moves for personal reasons to a small Cornish seaside town for general practice. He is interviewing a local elderly resident suspected of having dementia, to test her mental faculties.

“When did the second world war start?”, he asks her.

“1919”, she replies.

At the instant she said that I figured a sizeable number of the viewing audience would assume that she indeed had dementia. As most likely was the intent of the screenwriters.

She then described the effects of the Treaty of Versailles, and the effects it had for the future of Germany. Which was a main cause for the second world war.

No dementia there.

Although a few days ago, oldAFSarge made a good point: That World War II really wasn’t a “World War” until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Before December 7, 1941, they were in China, and after December 7th came their march across the Pacific.

I just finished a fascinating book on the First World War. The author’s main subject is what transpired on the battlefield during the interval from when the Armistice was signed on November 11th at 0545 to the time it was to take effect at 1100.

More people were killed and wounded in that 5-hour interval – on both sides over 10,000 killed and wounded – than at D-Day 26 years later. The difference of course was on D-Day the allies struggled to seize territory that would not have been ceded 5 hours 15 minutes later.

During those hours, some allied units continued to attack the disbelieving Germans, some of whom tried to wave them back, and some allied commanders saw the stupidity of causing yet more lives lost to gain territory that would be vacated after 1100. One American Brigadier General decided to ignore his orders, knowing of a probable court martial, rather than send his soldiers “over the top” to face withering machine gun fire.  As it turned out, although it was the head of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), General John Pershing, who ordered the continuation of the attacks until 1100, no officer was prosecuted afterwards for disobeying orders. And his CO, French General Ferdinand Foch, the overall commander of the allied forces, also decreed no lull.

The last man to die in the Great War was an American, Henry Gunther, at 10:59 AM on November 11, 1918.

…Sergeant Powell would never understand what compelled Henry Gunther to rise up and charge the enemy. Gunther had never been seduced by dreams of battlefield glory. He had lost his sergeant’s stripes and been broken to private for urging a friend, in a censored letter, to stay out of the war. His pointless gesture might have been a last desperate effort to eradicate the stain. Whatever the impulse, Gunther kept advancing, bayonet fixed. The German gunner reluctantly fired a five-round burst. Gunther was struck in the left temple and died instantly. The time was 10:59 A.M. General Pershing’s order of the day would record Gunther as the last American killed in the war.

Not that more didn’t die after 11:00 AM that day. In one tragic instance a German officer approaching an allied line was shot. His unit was leaving, and he wanted to offer their facilities to his former foe.

And because communication was so slow in those days, a German commander in Africa, presumably in one of the former colonies of Germany, did not get the word for some weeks later.

…Of sixteen American divisions engaged on the western front on armistice morning, the commanders of seven judged the war essentially over upon receiving word of the signing and stopped; but the commanders of nine divisions decided that the war must go on until the last minute, with predictable results to the lives entrusted to them.

Although General Pershing made what would become a prediction – that the Germans, in simply leaving their lines and going back home, would not believe that “they had been licked”. Pershing wanted another week of fighting. He lamented that because the treaty wasn’t signed in Berlin, “we would have to come back and do it again“.

In wars, you read of numbers and statistics of the killed and wounded and they remain distant. They are just numbers. Except to the families.

Persico in his book made the following analogy of the dead – of the British, French and the Germans in the “war to end all wars”.

“Numbers are lifeless…Throughout four years of war, causalities on both sides of the western front averaged 2,250 dead and almost 5,000 wounded every day…The dimensions of loss can perhaps be appreciated visually. If one were to stand on a street corner at 9AM and watch the spirits of the British dead march by 4 abreast, the column would be 97 miles long and would take 20 hours, or until five the next morning, to pass. The French dead would take an additional fifty-one hours and the Germans another fifty-nine hours. Considering all of the dead on the western front, this parade would last from 9AM Monday to 4PM Saturday and stretch 386 miles.“

For every British serviceman killed in the second world war, 3 were killed in the Great War. I believe that there were a lot of British servicemen and women in the second world war who grew up fatherless.

On both sides, more were killed by gas than rifles, pistols and grenades combined. One gas attack on an American unit lasted 16 hours.

 Other interesting things I learned from that book?

It was a training ground for many who would become central players in the second world war. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, “Wild Bill” Donovan, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and of course, Adolph Hitler. Undoubtedly their experiences in the Great War affected their leadership qualities in the second world war. The author brought up a time when Anthony Eden was to meet Adolph Hitler just before the outbreak of the second world war. Over dinner they learned that they were in opposing trenches during a battle.

So indelible were their experiences that even natural adversaries Adolph Hitler and Anthony Eden, the latter having lost two of his brothers during the war, found common ground during a dinner just before World War II. The British foreign minister and the German dictator discovered that they had faced each other across the lines at Villers-Bretonneux in France. Issues of state were set aside while the two old soldiers sketched maps on the backs of menus and swapped accounts of long-ago days in the trenches.

Both MacArthur and Patton were “soldier’s soldiers” who, despite their high rank at the time ( Colonel and Major, respectively), led from the front. Before the end of the war, both would be promoted to Brigadier General and Lt Colonel respectively. 

 I was surprised to learn that Hitler was highly decorated. For most of the War, he was a runner, whose job was to go through “no man’s land” to deliver messages both to and from his CO. He would be awarded the Iron Cross First Class, very unusual for a low-ranking enlisted man, recommended by his CO, Hugo Gutmann, who was Jewish.

Gutmann would be later thanked by Hitler by being arrested by the Gestapo in 1937, but he was able to emigrate to the US.

For his actions in that war, Douglas Macarthur earned seven Silver Stars, two Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, two wounded chevrons, two Croix de Guerre, and was appointed commandeur of the Legion d’honeur.

Unlike the second European War, the fighting never varied more than 85 miles back and forth, on a front that went from the Swiss border to the coast of the North Sea, a distance of about 700 km, or 420 miles. And for contesting those 85 miles, millions died.  

When the Americans came over, Pershing had a tremendous battle with both Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander, and the overall commander, French General Ferdinand Foch. They simply wanted the incoming Americans to integrate into British and French units, while Pershing fought bitterly for a separate American entity.

Over 2 million “doughboys” eventually came to Europe to aid the allies.

The French and the British were exhausted after 4 years of the “meat grinder”. In Britain, they raised the age of conscription to 50 years old. For that matter, the Germans were exhausted and depleted, too. It was the Americans who tipped the balance. I have remembered something one of our own Lexicans told me some time ago about the British PAL program. At the beginning of the War in 1914, this was a program Lord Kitchener instituted to encourage local young men in various regions and villages to enlist together. They would be guaranteed to all serve in the same units. After the Armistice, some villages were completely devoid of those young men. An entire male generation was gone from many towns and villages.

Persico gave another example of a British unit sent “over the top” with 600 men and 50 officers. They came back with 50 men and 1 officer. That was not unusual. The dead from the Somme (1915) alone was for the British, almost incomprehensible.  

By nightfall, the British Army had suffered its most disastrous day in history. At the deepest point in penetration, the enemy had been driven back less than 2 miles. The first day causalities on the Somme totaled 57,470. More than 19,240 men – young, healthy and alive at 7:30 that morning – were now dead.

The Germans had in many places 10 rows of barbed wire before their trenches, that the initial artillery bombardment (which with thousands of guns, could be heard 100 miles away in England), simply made into a tangled mess.

Most were killed on that day by machine gun fire.

The author was disdainful of the British commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), Sir Douglas Haig. He quoted a biographer saying that he was “a good general for a man without genius”.

“Haig looked every inch the soldier – erect in posture, stern in demeanor, handsome, with a strong nose above a well-trimmed mustache, a square chine, with a mouth set in a resolute line. His uniforms were always tailored and immaculate. Haig was ambitious but not unobtrusively so, self-righteous but not priggish. Exposed continually to new ideas, he remained essentially rigid and lacking in imagination. He had at various points in his career rated tank warfare as “a minor factor”, found bombing munitions factories from the air “unsound”, and dismissed the machine gun , before which tens of thousands of his men would die [Ed. – far more than that!] , as a “much overrated weapon”.

 Winston Churchill was more specific. He described Haig as “a great surgeon before the days of anesthetics, versed in every detail of such science as was known to him, sure of himself, steady of poise, knife in hand, intent upon the operation entirely removed in his professional capacity from the agony of the patient, the anguish of relations, or the doctrines of rival schools, the devices of quacks, or the first fruits of new learning. He would operate without excitement, or he would depart without being affronted; and if the patient died, he would not reproach himself.”

So why didn’t P.M. David Lloyd George fire him? He was popular with the British public, and George was afraid of the repercussions. Or perhaps a phrase I learned from a friend years ago, a fellow small business owner, who said of one of his employees – “He wasn’t bad enough to fire and not good enough to keep“.

The Spanish flu had a tremendous influence on the war. More would die from this disease world-wide into the early 1920s than even the Great War. I have read from several sources that it is thought that it started at Ft Riley, Kansas. According to the author, it started when “a dust storm whipping about tons of incinerated manure had sent 100s of coughing stumbling doughboys diagnosed with influenza into the post hospital, where many died”.

Troopships crammed with men (bunks were stacked 6 high) became floating incubators, and thousands came ashore to France with this flu. On one troop ship, 200 died and were buried at sea.

It was argued in the Wilson administration to stop the troop shipments for awhile, but Pershing was in desperate need of more troops, and had they been stopped, it would have alerted the Germans, who were having their own problems with the disease.

German commander and strategist Erich Ludendorff blamed the failure of his final offensives in 1918 in part on the numbers of men lost to the flu.

Just among the Americans in France, 150,000 were afflicted.

Of course, both sides kept their troubles with this disease a secret.

So why was it called the “Spanish flu”?

To maintain morale, World War I censors minimized these early reports. Newspapers were free to report the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain, such as the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII, and these stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit. This gave rise to the name “Spanish” flu.

The Armistice on the 11th of November at 1100 did not officially end this war, but did cause a cessation of hostilities, to the great relief of all parties.

It was the Treaty of Versailles signed 7 months later at the Palace of Versailles on June 28, 1919, that officially ended the War.

In November 1919, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day with the following words: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

From Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day in the U.S.…

…An Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a) approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday—a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.” Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but in 1954, after World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in the Nation’s history; after American forces had fought aggression in Korea, the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) on June 1, 1954, November 11th became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

All italicized sections not linked were taken from the book 11th Month 11th Day 11th Hour – Armistice Day, 1918  – World War 1 and Its Violent Climax by Joseph E Persico, Random House 2004

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