Friday, November 10, 2017

Stunned by the quiet

The Sentry by Harvey Dunn, National Archives P3752 
After 1,567 days, the Great War ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. And yet on the last morning of the war, over 2,700 men died on the Western Front.

As early as August of 1918, German General Ludendorff had told his staff that Germany could not win the war, and in late September, Generals Lundendorff and Hindenberg agreed that they must seek an armistice.  The Kaiser was informed on September 30th, and on October 4th Germany contacted American president Woodrow Wilson, asking for terms based on his Fourteen Points.  Turkey agreed to peace terms on October 30th, and Austria-Hungary sought an armistice on November 3rd, but the German delegation didn’t meet to discuss an armistice with the French until late in the evening of November 7th.  By now, rumors of peace were everywhere.
Armistice celebration in London

Many of the Allies’ generals were not in favor of a negotiated peace; their armies were finally making gains, and they wished to pursue the fight, pushing their advantage to force Germany’s unconditional surrender. In a railway carriage at Compiègne, the German delegation had very little room to negotiate and were forced to accept nearly all terms imposed by the Allies, including the provision that within 14 days, they would evacuate and return all occupied territory and cede their rights to Alsace-Lorraine. The Armistice was finally signed at 5:10 am on the morning of November 11th and took effect less than six hours later. 

Along the Western Front, German troops celebrated the night of November 10th, shooting off flares and rockets.  On the morning of November 11th, a radio broadcast from the Eiffel Tower at 5:40 am announced the upcoming peace, and London received the news before 6:00 that morning.  

Although nearly everyone knew in advance that the war was over, even the most conservative estimates acknowledge that the casualties from both sides on the war’s last day reached nearly 11,000.  At least 2,738 men died on November 11th trying to take German positions that had already been ceded to the Allies. As historian Joseph E. Persico explains,
Putting these losses into perspective, in the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were reported at 10,000 for all sides. Thus the total Armistice Day casualties were nearly 10 percent higher than those on D-Day.  There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided.”*

It is nearly impossible to imagine the anxiety of the men who had survived and knew the end was only hours away. German soldier Georg Bücher had fought on the Western Front since 1914.  He recalled,
It was all the harder for us since we knew the end could not be far off.  We ducked at the sound of every explosion—which we had never bothered to do before.  The old hands fought for the deepest, safest dug-outs and did not scruple to leave to the young recruits the hundred and one things which were risky….The thought of an attack was more terrifying to them than to the young soldiers who were still so inexperienced, so touchingly helpless, yet in spite of everything, so willing.**

American Lieutenant Harry Rennagel, writing to his family, remembered his unit’s astonishment at learning they were to attack on that last morning. When a shell exploded near him at 10:55 a.m., he was spared, but discovered five of his “best men” had been hit:
One fatally injured, hole near heart, two seriously injured and the other two badly hurt. We took care of the injured men and then I knelt beside the lad whose eyes had such a look of sorrow that my eyes filled with tears.
“What is it old man?” I asked.
“Lieutenant, I'm going fast. Don't say I'll get better, you know different and this is a pretty unhappy time for me. You know we all expected things to cease to-day, so I wrote my girl, we were to be married when I returned, and my folks that I was safe and well and about my plans, and now by some order I am not going home.”
A glance at my watch, 11.05. I looked away and when I looked back — he had gone for The Highest Reward. I can honestly tell you I cried and so did the rest.***

American General Robert Lee Bullard, commander of the Second Army, also remembered Armistice Day in his memoir:
I went early, with an aide, to near the front, to see the last of it, to hear the crack of the last guns in the greatest war of all ages. I stayed until 11:00 a.m., when, all being over, I returned to my headquarters, thoughtful and feeling lost.†

American Lieutenant Hilmar Baukhauge’s poem “November Eleventh” describes, from the perspective of the men in the trenches, the moment the guns stopped firing.

November Eleventh

We stood up and we didn’t say a word,
It felt just like when you have dropped your pack
After a hike, and straightened out your back
And seem just twice as light as any bird.
Soldiers on Armistice Day, 1918

We stood up straight and, God! but it was good!
When you have crouched like that for months, to stand
Straight up and look right out toward No-Man’s-Land
And feel the way you never thought you could.

We saw the trenches on the other side
And Jerry, too, not making any fuss,
But prob’ly stupid-happy, just like us,
Nobody shot and no one tried to hide.

If you had listened then I guess you’d heard
A sort of sigh from everybody there,
But all we did was stand and stare and stare,
Just stare and stand and never say a word.
            —Hilmar R. Baukhage

Bells rang, fireworks exploded, whistles blew, and crowds cheered the news of peace in cities, towns, and villages around the world.  Siegfried Sassoon, invalided out of the war, captures those celebrations of peace in his poem “Everyone Sang.” But in the trenches, it was the silence that deafened after years of exploding shells and rattling machine guns. American artillery officer Captain Bob Casey wrote,
The silence is oppressive. It weighs in on one’s eardrums. We have lived and had our being in din since we left the Forêt de la Reine. There seems to be something uncanny—unnatural in the all-enveloping lack of sound…. The air is full of half-forgotten sounds: the rustling of dead leaves, the organ tone of wind in the tree tops, whispers through the underbrush, lazy echoes of voices in the road…. it can’t be true…We cannot comprehend the stillness.††
His Bunkie by WJ Aylward
Smithsonian AF25661

Captain Harry Truman (the future U.S. president) said, “It was so quiet it made me feel as I’d suddenly been deprived of my ability to hear,”° while Connell Albertine of the 26th Yankee Division remembered, “We ran out into No-Man’s Land and stood there, stunned by the quiet, a quietness we had never before experienced.”°°

Soldiers found it hard to celebrate the peace without remembering those who would never return home. British Lieutenant Patrick Campbell wrote,
I felt excited, and happy, but in an uncertain subdued way. I did not want to shout or to drink; there was nothing to drink anyway. I wanted to be with my friends, but none of those of my age were left in the brigade.°°°

It had been an indescribable war, and words were inadequate to describe its end. For many soldiers at the front, when the eleventh hour finally arrived, they could do nothing but stand and stare.
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* Joseph E. Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour. Random House, 2004, pp 378-379.
** Persico, Eleventh Month, p. 322.
*** Quoted in History of Buffalo and Erie County, 1914-1919.  Edited by Daniel J. Sweeney.
† Robert Lee Bullard, Personalities and reminiscences of war. Doubleday, 1925, p. 304.
†† Robert J. Casey, The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears, J.H. Sears, 1927, pp. 329-330.
° Persico, Eleventh Month, p. 352.
°° Connell Albertine, Yankee Doughboy, Branden Press, 1968, p. 234.
°°° Quoted in John Toland’s No Man’s Land, Doubleday, 1980, p. 577.