“Hostilities will cease on the whole front at 11 hours today, French time. Until that hour, the operations previously ordered will be pressed with vigor. At 11 hours our line will halt in place, and no man will move one step forward or backward.” Those were the orders released just before 9:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918 in an address to the U. S. Army’s 79th Division. That order announced the end of “The War to End All Wars,” now known as World War I. Yet in one of the most bitter ironies of this bitter conflict, thousands would die between the time the armistice was signed and hostilities ceased.
November 11, 1918 is now separated from us by the space of 87 years. We can all too easily lose sight of World War I and its significance. This cultural amnesia is both tragic and dangerous, for the lessons of World War I were learned only through the senseless sacrifice of millions of lives.
Looking back at the twentieth century, historians now generally agree that we should not think of two great world wars in the first half of that century, but rather of one long war interrupted by a brief and awkward span of relative peace. A German soldier headed back through the lines on Armistice Day warned an American soldier that the war was not really over. “You didn’t lick us,” he said. “We knew when to quit. We’ll be back in twenty years.” As we now know, they were.
The principal causes of the war are still subject to historical debate. The fuse that detonated the bomb was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The archduke, heir to the imperial throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by a young anarchist named Gavrilo Princip. Within days, the world was at war. Of course, the actual casus belli of the war was more complicated. Rivalry between the Austrians, Germans, Russians, French, and British had been building for decades. The French remained bitter in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War, in which they had lost precious territory. The Germans remained dissatisfied, and the German emperor, Wilhelm II, was convinced that Germany’s glory would be revealed in a great military resurgence under his Kaiser Reich. The Hapsburg dynasty in Austria-Hungary was losing its grip, even as the Romanov dynasty in Russia was losing credibility.
Still, no one knew exactly why the war had begun. Nevertheless, as diplomatic efforts failed and hostilities began, Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, accurately assessed the situation: “The lamps are going out all over Europe,” he observed. “We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
America came into the war only in 1917, driven into the conflict by Germany’s resumption of unrestricted warfare on the high seas and by the discovery of the infamous “Zimmerman telegram,” in which the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman proposed to Mexico’s president, Venustiano Carranza, that Mexico should enter the war as Germany’s ally and, in return, would be allowed “to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.”
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before the U. S. Congress to ask for a declaration of war. “We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion,” Wilson asserted. “We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifice we shall freely make.” Famously, Wilson declared that America would go to war only for the purpose of “keeping the world safe for democracy.”
In military terms, World War I was an unmitigated disaster. In essence, the war was pointlessly murderous. Joseph Persico, author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 summarizes the gruesome death toll, noting that “Graveyards were the chief legacy of World War I.”
On the Western front alone, the total losses amounted to 11,004,530 men, with fully 3,258,610 killed. On all fronts, the casualties exceeded 29,800,000. Beyond this, there were millions of civilian deaths directly attributable to the war. The conflict left 600,000 widows in France and over 1 million French children fatherless. England lost three men in World War I for every man killed in World War II. The 26,000 Americans killed in the battle at the Meuse-Argonne “represented the greatest loss in a single battle to that point in the nation’s history,” Persico explains. Further, “One out of every five West Pointers in action in France was killed.”
The battlefields associated with the war are now etched in the human memory as reminders of senseless slaughter. Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres, and the Marne became the graveyards for millions, many of whom were never found and never formally buried.
The murderous character of the war was amplified by several factors. In the first place, World War I represented the widespread use of mechanical weapons with awesome killing capacity, such as the machine gun. Early versions of the tank were invented, even as some soldiers carried weapons hardly advanced over those of wars that had occurred a hundred years earlier. Both sides in the war resorted to weapons of unthinkable horror, such as the use of poisonous gas.
Furthermore, the war on the Western front was a series of senseless infantry charges in which the Allied general staff threw millions of British, French, and American soldiers against the meat grinder of entrenched German forces. Throughout the war, the generals appeared to learn very little. For months, the forces would face each other from trenches separated by mere yards, murderously killing each other in the mud, the snow, and the carnage.
Many of the soldiers hardly knew why they were there. Others resorted to poetry. The most famous poem of the war was inspired by the fields of Flanders blooming with red poppies. As Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McRae famously worded his poem: “In Flanders field the poppies blow, Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place, and in the sky, The larks, still bravely singing, fly, Scarce heard amid the guns below.” The wasted young lives were commemorated with these words: “We are the dead. Short days ago, We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow . . . .” Siegfried Sassoon considered the plight of the common British soldier. “Tonight he’s in the pink; but soon he’ll die. And still the war goes on; he don’t know why.” Arthur Jensen, an American survivor of the war, considered what the German dead would say to their American victors: “We are the dividends of war; We’re what you came to Europe for. Our cause is lost; we died in vain, And now we’re rotting in the rain.”
By the time the war came to an end, the European forces were largely reduced to old men and young boys. An entire generation had seemingly been destroyed on the fields of war. In Britain, the “missing generation” continues to haunt the nation’s consciousness. Persico describes the tragic logic of the war: “One side would not give up its gains; the other would not accept its losses. Thus both sides came to the same solution: that the way to stop the killing was to win. And both believed God was on their side.”
The war made some reputations and destroyed others. America’s leading general, John “Black Jack” Pershing, emerged from the war as a hero, at least among common Americans. Britain’s field marshal Douglas Haig saw his reputation largely destroyed. The war saw the end of three great monarchial dynasties–the Romanovs in Russia, the Hapsburgs in Austria, and the Hohenzollerns in Germany.
The carnage of the war demands an explanation–as does the fact that thousands died even after the armistice was signed. Why did the Allies determine that the armistice should come into effect hours after it was signed? Furthermore, why did British, French, and American generals send their forces into battle, knowing that many men would die in order to gain territory they would have received by surrender in just hours and minutes?
The last day of World War I saw Allied forces take more casualties than would be taken on D-Day in 1944. As Persico explains, “According to the most conservative estimates, during the last day of the war, principally in the six hours after the armistice was signed, all sides on the Western front suffered 10,944 casualties, of which 2,738 were deaths, more than the average daily casualties throughout the war.” Those casualties included at least 320 Americans who gave their lives after the war had been won and the armistice had been signed.
In the end, the delay in ceasing hostilities was due to the fact that the British, American, and French military leaders wanted to seize yet more territory in order to score political points. Units ordered to rush into the face of murderous enemy fire could not believe that their own leaders were causing men to die by the hundreds, just in order to make a point. The other factor that played into the delay was perhaps even worse–someone’s idea that the number eleven (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) would end the war on a poetic and memorable note. Were men to be slaughtered for the sake of a poetically-packaged ending?
Looking back at the war, Winston Churchill would observe: “It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century of the Christian Era that war began to enter into its kingdom as the potential destroyer of the human race. The organization of mankind in the great states and empires, and the rise of nations to full collective consciousness, enabled enterprises of slaughter to be planned and executed upon a scale and with a perseverance never before imagined . . .” And for what?
Within a single generation, the world would once again be at war–and over much of the same territory. Persico recalls that when a celebrating French soldier yelled out to an American, “Finie la guerre!,” the American soldier–a Southerner–responded: “Well, . . . don’t start another one unless you can finish it yourself!” The Americans were back all too soon.
Armistice Day, now known as Veterans Day, is seen by far too many Americans as simply another legal holiday. It’s much more than that, of course. Even as the last veterans of World War I pass from our midst, we must remember that this great and awful conflict serves to remind humanity of the horror of war and the insanity of senseless violence. Many lessons unlearned in World War I were learned far more expensively in World War II. The “War to End All Wars” reminds us that war, though sometimes necessary, is never to be celebrated. The war may have come to an end at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month on 1918, but its lessons must not be forgotten.