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Armistice Day

February 7, 2011

As I mentioned recently, my bookcase is filled with books about men in dire circumstances. Many of these books take place in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I find this time intriguing because it represents the end of the age of “chivalry” and the beginning of the modern era. When Roal Amundsen beat Robert F. Scott to the South Pole, Scott was incensed the Amundsen would sneak off to the Antarctica (while Scott went with the great fanfare) that Amundsen took such a short route (while he took the longer “scientific” route) and that Amundsen used dogs (while Scott used the utterly unsuitable pony – which is almost a horse, a much more gentlemanly animal.) In other words, Amundsen was coldly utilitarian (modern) when Scott attempted to get to the South Pole in the old fashioned, gentlemanly, chivalrous way.
World War I truly was the nail in the coffin (or the million of nails in the millions of coffins) of the age of chivalry. The first winter of the war, despite the atrocious losses of the world’s first industrial mechanized war, the men in the trenches were still able to stop hostilities long enough for an impromptu Christmas truce during which the men came out of their trenches and exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played soccer. The generals on both sides considered this fraternization a very dangerous precedent. They needn’t have worried. It never happened again. And this utterly unnecessary war went on slaughtering men for more than four more years. And then came the Armistice. And that brings me to the point of this post.
I just finished the best non-fiction book I have read about WWI (the best book I have read is All Quiet on the Western Front, but more on that another time.) The book I just finished is, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, by Joseph E. Pesico, (Random House, 2004) The title, of course, refers to the moment when the Armistice was to go into force and the Allied generals intended that it not go into effect one minute early. Although the Germans had agreed to return all the land they had captured during the war and more, although the treaty was signed at five in the morning and all the parties knew it, and although the battle plans drawn up for the day were merely preparatory for attacks on territory that was all going to belong to the Allies in the afternoon, the Allied leaders did not call for an end to hostilities until 11 a.m. of that day. Commanders called superiors and asked for clarification. Did they really mean for the attacks to be carried out under the circumstances? The reply was always, “Hostilities are to cease precisely at 11 a.m.” There was no word on what to do in the meantime. About half the local commanders called off their attacks. But half (fearing courts marshal, or failing to support another attack, or because they wanted to punish the Germans right up until the last minute) carried out the their attacks as planned. The Germans, with the exception of the artillery who figured it was easier to fire their ordnance than to carry it, had packed it in. They were pulling out or making plans to, when to their utter shock and disbelief saw the Allies attacking. Rather than being overrun, they fired from their fortifications and killed thousands.
Joseph E. Pesico’s prose is clear. He intersperses the stories of soldiers on both sides, introducing them on the final day and then describing their experiences from the time they joined the war effort. About half the words are his own, but he brilliantly allows the men and women involved to tell their stories or describe the action as they saw it. He even introduces us to an oddly determined and fearless little corporal in the German army named Adolph Hitler. This presentation of individuals is poignant and effective. One finds oneself rooting mightily for these men to survive that final day (except for the little corporal, of course.) Some do, but obviously many don’t and their deaths are powerful felt.
In the last six hours, after the Armistice had been signed, both sides suffered 10,944 casualties of which 2,738 were killed. This was more that the daily average for the rest of the war and nearly 1,000 more casualties than were suffered by both sides on D-Day. This most useless of all wars ended on a note of perfect insanity with thousand killed and maimed attacking or defending land which had already been lost.

Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen

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