WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

WWI Centennial: Armistice

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 323rd and final installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

NOVEMBER 11, 1918: ARMISTICE

“It isn’t true. It isn’t real. It can’t be that the war is really ended,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering as a canteen worker in France, in a letter home dated November 11, 1918, recalling her trepidation during the final countdown to the Armistice. “Would the guns cease? Could they? It seemed as if they must go on forever.” William Watson, a British tank commander, was also stunned: “The news was so overwhelming that I could not absorb it … I could not understand—until two of my officers started to ring the bell of the village church. The day became a smiling dream.”

For many ordinary people around the world, the news of the Armistice ending the war at 11 a.m. on the morning of November 11, 1918—“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”—was almost as much of a shock as the outbreak of war. After four years of unprecedented death and destruction, in the second half of October and early November 1918 the vast machinery of modern, “total” war ground inexorably to a now-inevitable conclusion, the shattering of the German Army on the Western Front by superior Allied forces directed by supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch. With ample food, fuel, and weaponry thanks to the fully mobilized industrial output of Britain, France, and above all the United States of America, Allied infantry supported by tanks, planes, artillery, and masses of trucks battered the German armies backwards through Belgium and northern France. In the Meuse-Argonne region the U.S. First Army battled north alongside the French Fourth Army to liberate Sedan on November 6, while the newly formed U.S. Second Army prepared to attack Metz—the Allies’s first major offensive into German territory—and a new American Third Army began forming at Ligny-en-Barrois on November 7, in preparation for another cross-border offensive (it never saw combat but served as the American occupation army in Germany).

Maps of the Western Front at the close of World War I
Erik Sass

TO THE BITTER END

Fittingly for the most violent conflict in history up to that point, fighting continued until literally the last second. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, recorded in his diary on November 11, 1918: “Fire was kept up by both sides until eleven o'clock. I fired my last shot just at 11.” Nor was combat limited to mostly symbolic artillery displays. Warner Ross, the white commander of a segregated African-American combat battalion in the 92nd (“Buffalo”) Division, remembered desperate fighting in Bois Frehaut near Pont-à-Mousson in front of the German border fortress of Metz during the night and morning hours of November 10-11, 1918:

“I might tell you how that morning during the advance, I happened to be looking at a non-com. section leader a little way to my left when there was a wicked crack and a blinding flash just above and in front of him, and how I saw his headless body—the blood gushing—actually step and lunge forward against a rock. I could tell you about strong men who went raving mad (and were still insane when I last heard) in that horrible turmoil … No wonder the men who actually, personally underwent such suffering won’t talk about it much. But the memory of those awful things, pass it off as they may, is seared deep into their very souls and will haunt them at times until their dying day.”

Both sides employed limitless brutality up to the very end of hostilities, including widespread summary execution of POWs in the field by both sides, and scorched-earth tactics by the retreating Germans. Across northern France and Belgium, advancing Allied troops had to contend with German booby-traps, which made it perilous simply to enter a structure or march across a bridge. Of course, these fiendish tactics summoned forth suitably coldblooded counter-tactics. A British soldier, Robert Cude, described a brutal means of clearing mines using German POWs in a diary entry on November 6, 1918: “All roads and houses are mined. One has to be careful, where one walks, what one touches and what one knocks against … Where we think that a house is mined, one of the Jerrys has to walk in first, and this frequently saves one or more of our chaps from visiting Kingdom Come, and means that is one less for us to feed.”

Again, typically for the war, there were also a number of false starts and rumors, including one which circulated in British ranks on November 7, 1918, related by British officer Stuart Chapman in his diary:

“There was a tremendous row this evening: It is thought the war is over—the cheering was terrific. Seemed as if there were thousands of voices. The band was playing, whistles were going, and lights were being sent up. This is supposed to be the Armistice. Everyone appears to be going mad. The canteen—expeditionary—was raided and the damage estimated at £300. In the town the French were giving away free drinks. The Colonel gave us a lecture about looting.”

Eric Evans, an Australian soldier, also noted premature celebrations in his diary entry on November 7, although many celebrants were aware the grounds were tenuous: “Germany accepts armistice terms! Such is the news, but I for one am skeptical as yet, as are most of the sergeants. Anyway, it’s an excuse for the boys to celebrate. There’s a hell of a noise in the canteen. They’re making a night of it, anyway.”

CAPITULATION AT COMPIEGNE

The rumor mill was fueled by the vague details of halting peace negotiations in October 1918, accelerating in the first week of November, when the Germans generals, facing defeat on the Western Front and revolution at home, finally caved to all Allied demands.

At long last, French and German representatives led by Foch and Matthias Erzberger, a civilian Catholic politician who had been a vocal critic of the war in the Reichstag, signed the armistice at 5:10 a.m. in a converted wagon-lit (rail sleeping car) at Compiegne, France [PDF]. The armistice, providing for the cessation of hostilities five hours after the signing, required:

  • German evacuation of all occupied territory in northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany’s own province of Alsace-Lorraine within 15 days
  • Repatriation of all hostages and forced laborers deported by Germany during the war
  • Immediate surrender of all the vessels of the German Navy as well as 5000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, 1700 planes, 5000 locomotives, 150,000 rail wagons, and 5000 trucks
  • Continuation of the Allied naval blockade
  • Evacuation of all German home territory west of the Rhine for occupation by Allied troops, centered on the main bridgeheads at Mainz, Cologne and Coblenz.

The armistice also annulled the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and required all German forces be withdrawn from its short-lived military empire in Eastern Europe, including vassal states in Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia.

The front page of The New York Times, November 11, 1918 announcing WWI armistice
The New York Times, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The agreement set a minimum term of 36 days, which could be renewed until the signing of a “permanent” peace treaty. Seven months later, on June 28, 1919, at the palatial headquarters of the Allied Supreme War Council, German representatives led by Foreign Minister Herman Müller signed the Versailles Peace Treaty [PDF]. It included punitive reparation payments lasting for decades, a meaningless “war guilt” clause assigning blame to Germany, and the partial dismemberment of Germany. (Most historians believe the provisions planted the seeds of the cataclysmic Second World War from 1939-1945.) Not coincidentally, following the collapse of the German Army and the toppling of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the job of signing the humiliating treaty would fall to Germany’s new socialist government under Friedrich Ebert, first chancellor of the new Weimar Republic—providing a convenient scapegoat for German ultranationalists and reactionaries, who claimed that Germany’s undefeated armies were “stabbed in the back” by an evil socialist cabal (easily expanded to include anti-Semitic tropes).

“LIKE A GALE, BUT FROM ALL SIDES”

Whatever the future held, November 11, 1918 was understandably a day of jubilation for most people, whatever their status or degree of involvement in the war. Winston Churchill (who had made a remarkable political comeback after Gallipoli and a stint in the trenches, serving as British Minister of Munitions in David Lloyd George’s cabinet) recalled the flood of celebrating humanity on the streets of London as Big Ben tolled 11 times, signaling the end of the war:

“And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay, thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy. I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me in our very headquarters, the Hotel Metropole, disorder had broken out. Doors banged. Feet clattered down corridors … The tumult grew. It grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic … At any rate it was clear no more work would be done that day.”

Elsie Janis, an American star of vaudeville and silent film who was taking a break from entertaining the troops in France, left her own account of the peaceful upheaval in London (below, crowds in Philadelphia):

“At that moment London went mad … The Earth suddenly opened and the millions of human ants swarmed the streets, buildings, trams, and even flagpoles. From the fourth floor of the Carlton where we lived we hung out the windows dazed. I could not yell, I was numb. Those ants had horns, whistles, flags, balloons. I counted 15 people clinging to one taxi. Airplanes appeared from nowhere … I closed the window and tried to shut it all out. It seemed so unbelievable!”

Americans celebrate the World War I Armistice on November 11, 1918 in Philadelphia
U.S. National Archives, Flickr // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, tied one on in the British base camp at Etaples, France, where a cosmopolitan crowd celebrated peacefully, aside from a few drunken fist fights:

“In the town, all was wildest confusion, representing celebration. The civilians had gone wild, and they were joined in impromptu parades by uniformed “Frogs,” “Limeys,” “Jocks,” “Canucks,” “Aussies,” “Anzacs,” “Southies,” “Yanks,” sailors, nurses, “WAACs,” and all manner of servicemen and girls. Even the dogs yelped with the shouting humanity. Men, women, wine, song, all joined in one great jubilee … Coming back to my senses inside the restaurant I found my head resting in one ma’mselle’s lap, while another was pouring champagne in the general direction of my mouth.”

Armistice celebrations reflected changing social mores during the war, including more open displays of affection and female assertiveness. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel in France, described seeing a group of young female factory workers descend on Scottish soldiers during an impromptu parade:

“It was such a spontaneous demonstration of the life-force as I never saw in public before … It was highly amusing to see a Highlander-musician holding his bagpipes under one arm, whilst with the other he attempted to embrace in an one-sided way the dainty midinette hanging around his neck!”

People celebrate the end of World War I on Wall Street in New York City
The New York Times, Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

At the front, the first instinct of many men on both sides was to fraternize, renewing the good will and common humanity displayed during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, wrote in his diary:

“It seems that when the end came our men waited a bit, somewhat dazed and astounded. Then one and then another began calling and standing up, where standing meant death but minutes before. Then 300 yards off—500—700—they saw other figures standing—Boche soldiers. Our men trickled over to ‘see.’ The Boche men were already coming over to ‘see.’ Our men gave them cigarettes and received knives, souvenirs, even Iron Cross ribbons. Fritz stayed in our trenches—or rather shell-holes and foxholes—awhile and had coffee. When officers approached, both Boches and Americans would make off to their own lines.”

Warner, commanding an African-American battalion, recorded similar events:

“Soon after the buglers had sounded ‘cease firing,’ the Huns rushed out of their positions and our men met them between the lines. They actually shook hands and slapped each others’ backs. They traded trinkets and were holding a veritable reception until our officers succeeded in getting the men back into the lines. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Robert Hanes, the American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on November 12: “We passed the German sentry with the pretext that we had official business, talked to the German soldiers and then called on the German officers. We chatted with them a half hour, drank a glass of Schnapps with them, and returned home.”

REMEMBRANCE, REFLECTION, RESPITE

Of course, for millions of ordinary people, the celebrations were tempered by grief. For the diarist Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé in 1915 and her brother in early 1918, and for millions of other bereaved family members, the Armistice was a day of remembrance and regret:

“I thought, ‘It’s come too late for me. Somehow I knew, even at Oxford, that it would. Why couldn’t it have ended rationally, as it might have ended, in 1916, instead of all that trumpet-blowing against a negotiated peace, and the ferocious talk of secure civilians about marching to Berlin? It’s come five months too late—or is it three years? It might have ended last June, and let Edward, at least, be saved!’”

Celebrations in the trenches tended to be more subdued, according to John Jackson, a British soldier:

“The long nerve-wracking suspense was at last ended, and we were glad, but there were too many saddened memories to think of, too many old pals to mourn, friends who gave their all in brave sacrifice for their country, which was sufficient to keep us from going wild with excitement. Instead, there were just quiet congratulations and a good hand-grip, pregnant with well-meaning, between old friends, still to the fore, who had battled side by side in many a fierce fight, and many a stirring escapade.”

U.S. 64th Regiment celebrates the World War I armistice
U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Along with joy and grief, many participants reported understandable feelings of confusion and disorientation with the sudden end of an event which had defined their lives and the lives of everyone they knew. This loomed large especially for young people: In November 1918, a 20-year-old soldier or volunteer nurse would have spent fully a fifth of their lives with the world at war. Among other things the war had provided employment and structured the daily routines of millions of people, all of which was about to end.

Katharine Morse, the American canteen worker, wrote in a letter home: “I think we are all a little dazed. I for one have a curious feeling as if I had come up suddenly against a blank wall.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, remembered: “It was incredible that what had come to be our everyday life was thus suddenly to end.”

Similarly Charles Biddle, an American pilot, wrote in his diary:

“It is a wonderful relief to have it over, but it does leave you with a very much ‘let down’ feeling, as though one had suddenly lost one’s job. Having been at it so long it almost seems as though one had never done anything else and that one’s reason for existing had suddenly ceased.”

H.M.S. Vindictive float on Peace Celebration Day, Brisbane, 1918. The young men on the float are wearing navy uniforms.
State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The end of the war was just as jarring and disconcerting for leaders as ordinary people, according to Churchill, who also faced the heavy responsibility of helping manage the postwar economic transition in Britain:

“The material purposes on which one’s work had been centered, every process of thought on which one had lived, crumbled into nothing. The whole vast business of supply, the growing outputs, the careful hoards, the secret future plans—but yesterday the whole duty of life—all at a stroke vanished like a nightmare dream, leaving a void behind. My mind mechanically persisted in exploring the problems of demobilization. What was to happen to our 3 million munition workers? What would they make now? How would the roaring factories be converted? How in fact are swords beaten into ploughshares?”

REVOLUTION IN GERMANY

For many German soldiers and civilians, the end of the war was accompanied by a sense of humiliation and even deeper disorientation, with failure on the battlefield accompanied by the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy under Wilhelm II in the brief but traumatic German Revolution. Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, recorded the sense of rupture in his diary on November 11:

“The war is over … How we looked forward to this moment; how we used to picture it as the most splendid event of our lives; and here we are now, humbled, our souls torn and bleeding, and know that we’ve surrendered. Germany has surrendered to the Entente! Apart from the Kaiser and the Crown Prince, all ruling princes of the German Federation have abdicated. Our Kaiser has transferred all his powers over the German Army to General-field-marshal von Hindenburg.”

Historical debate continues about how widespread revolutionary sentiment was in the German ranks. Fritz Nagel, a German officer with an antiaircraft artillery unit, believed that the German mutinies were the work of a relatively small number of disaffected soldiers, who nonetheless were able to guide events given the disillusionment and apathy prevailing among the majority of German troops:

“Suddenly, men who had been disciplined soldiers and seamen became an unruly and dangerous mob armed to the teeth, and were willing to murder anyone resisting them. For the orderly mass of German soldiers, all this was shocking and dangerous. Should we now fight these revolutionaries and start a civil war? Nobody seemed to know and there was no overall leadership. The Kaiser fled to Holland. General Ludendorff, the chief of staff, had fled to Sweden. Everyone for himself seemed to be the motto. That was the situation on November 11, 1918. What worried me most was the terrible news reaching us from home. Drunken soldiers roamed the streets. Even the police were exaggerated were reported to have joined the revolution. Some of these reports were exaggerated, but we did not know it then. The people at home were terrified.”

Sulzbach described the same sense of radical disorientation in his diary entry on November 9, 1918:

“Workers’ councils and soldiers’ councils have been set up. The Kaiser and the Crown Prince are supposed to have abdicated. We are sitting at the bottom of the abyss, and our splendid Germany has fallen to pieces! In the evening a mounted messenger arrives, bringing hard facts to confirm the rumor that a genuine revolution has broken out at home … Germany is a Republic. The new Government has been formed, with Ebert as Chancellor. You don’t know whether you are dreaming or stumbling through reality. The events have tumbled past in such a rush that you can’t grasp them at all.”

German civilians were curious about the causes of defeat, according to Nagel, who maintained—rather implausibly—that the uprising was due to collapse of authority within a minority of the German Army’s ranks:

“Often, they asked me what had caused the revolt in the army. Why had discipline collapsed all of a sudden, without warning? To begin with, it must be said that not all of the army was in revolt. Most of the men simply wanted to get home. They had no ambitions as revolutionaries whatever. There was no political leadership anyway; it simply was a revolt against authority be a small part of the army … My opinion always has been that only a small proportion of the army had gone berserk.”

The question of military support is only one half of the question, however, as soldiers and civilians existed under different regimes, and the latter—relatively free from military compulsion—seem to have favored the revolution by a large margin. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recorded widespread revolutionary sentiment, along with her own sense of disorientation as a member of the old social elite, in her diary:

“There could hardly have been a greater air of rejoicing had Germany gained a great victory. More and more people came hurrying by, thousands of them densely packed together—men, women, soldiers, sailors, and strangely enough, a never-ceasing fringe of children playing on the edges of this dangerous maelstrom, and enjoying it seemingly very much, as if it had been some public fete-day … A characteristic feature of the mob was the motors packed with youths in field-gray uniform or in civil clothes, carrying loaded rifles adorned with a tiny red flag, constantly springing off their seats and forcing the soldiers and officers to tear off their insignia, or doing it for them if they refused … The strangest and most disagreeable feeling of all was that nobody knew definitely what was happening and what was the meaning of it all.”

In addition to their own questions, younger people had to deal with confusion, disagreements, and violent conflict among their elders. Piete Kuhr, a German teenager living in East Prussia, wrote in her diary on November 8, 1918:

“Revolution is everywhere. It has just been reported that the Supreme High Command wanted to use front-line troops against the rebel sailors, workers and citizens, but it came to nothing. The soldiers refused to fire. Soldiers all over are gathering together, kissing and embracing. Everyone shouts: ‘No more war!’ … I feel as if I am on a merry-go-round spinning faster and faster.”

By the same token, compared to the “charnel house” of Russia under the Bolsheviks, the German Revolution was relatively short and bloodless. Blucher speculated that exhaustion and defeat also helped shorten the revolutionary disorder, but recognized the essentially German nature of the upheaval: “Our general impression is that the people are much too weak and starved to be really bloodthirsty unless goaded on by fanatics like Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and one cannot help admiring the disciplined and orderly way in which a revolution of such dimensions had been organized.”

LINGERING WOUNDS

In addition to the vast death toll, including around 12 million soldiers and 8 million civilians, the Great War left an even larger number of wounded, with around 21 million men suffering the lingering physical pain and trauma resulting from prolonged exposure to death, destruction, terror, and loss. Ernst Jünger, a German stormtrooper and author of the memoir Storm of Steel, tallied an impressive number of wounds collected over four years of fighting while recuperating in a hospital from his last combat injury:

“During the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; Once, I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least 14 times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even 20 scars.”

Emotional wounds were less visible, but just as painful and sometimes lasting longer. Beyond the extreme, high visibility cases of shellshock, there is no question that the war also left millions of people, the majority young men and women, with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, undiagnosed and untreated except for self-medication with drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and other compulsive behaviors. (PTSD wasn’t recognized as a mental health condition until 1980.) According to Vera Brittain, the hidden fears led to neuroses that sometimes appeared decades later: “However, there was nothing to do in the midst of one’s family but practice that concealment of fear which the long years of war had instilled, thrusting it inward until one’s subconscious became a regular prison-house of apprehensions and inhibitions which were later to take their revenge.”

The psychological effects of frontline service set veterans apart from civilians forever, an existential chasm of which civilians often seemed to be unaware, but which soldiers felt acutely. Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, wrote in his diary on November 11, 1918:

“As I have said before, after our first few months in the war we had so far identified with war that we were as men who have had a lapse of memory. The old life was gone forever and each succeeding day and each succeeding horror drove the peaceful part farther behind us till at last it was gone completely from our ken. Here we were, men made for war, men born to war, men whose life is filled from beginning to end with war, and we felt secretly in our hearts that there could be no other life.”

A British officer, Coningsby Dawson, fretted in a letter home dated August 30, 1918: “It’s two years tomorrow since I first saw the Front—two centuries it seems. I’m different inside. I don’t know whether my outside has changed much—but I wish sometimes that I could be back again. I begin to be a little afraid that I shan’t be recognizable when I return.”

Of course, soldiers who had been absent for years often were literally unrecognizable on their return, as millions of soldiers experienced weight loss from chronic hunger, skin disorders caused by lice and exposure, and bouts of deadly disease including typhus and malaria. After the collapse of Serbia in fall 1915, for example, most Serbian soldiers wouldn’t see their homes or families for three more years, spent first as starving refugees on the island of Corfu and then as the Serbian First and Second Armies serving with the Allies on the Macedonian Front. A Serbian soldier, Milorad Markovic, recorded a common occurrence for soldiers returning home after years of separation, on the occasion of his own homecoming on November 19, 1918: “My children are there, but they don’t recognize me! They get scared and run away from me.”

The dynamic of alienation worked both ways, as many returning soldiers reported feeling out of place at home and inwardly removed from their once-familiar surroundings. On returning home after the war, the British soldier Roland Skirth realized he had been changed forever by the war:

“I found this ‘coming home’ to be most strange. Once again I felt like a stranger in an unfamiliar country, and the sensation persisted as I walked up to the house. Everything around me looked so different: the town, my road, the people I passed, even our front door. My parents were of course delighted to see me home safe and sound. I ought to have been equally happy, but I wasn’t. Somehow I didn’t seem to belong.”

Perhaps the single greatest psychic legacy of the First World War was the commonplace nature of death, which became a daily occurrence for millions of young people, who attempted to protect themselves psychologically by withdrawing inwardly from their unbearable environment. Others affected total indifference, prompting some commenters from older generations to observe that life was held “cheaply” by the younger set. William Orpen, a British painter and war correspondent, remembered one ghoulishly incongruous scene:

“In one spot in the mud at the side of the road lay two British Tommies who had evidently just been killed. They had been laid out ready for something to take them away. Standing beside them were three French girls, all dressed up, silk stockings and crimped hair. There they were, standing over the dead Tommies, asking if you would not like “a little love.” What a place to choose! Death all round, and they themselves might be blown into eternity at any moment. Death and the dead had become as nothing to the young generation.”

Similarly, Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, wrote in September 1918:

“I saw a group of gunners, who had just come up and were waiting for orders for a new barrage-fire, spread out a blanket and take their places for a game of cards. Two dead horses were a few yards away and other bodies were nearby, but these men paid no heed to the tragedy of the war … and settled down to a jolly game before they had to work again.”

Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote of two disturbing encounters in April 1918:

“While in conversation with a Canadian colonel, he spoke of how cheaply human life is held. Every English noble house has lost its eldest son. All look upon the body as simply a box temporarily inhabited, and death as a perfectly natural occurrence to be expected … A French captain whom I met at dinner at the Duke of Montmorency’s, who had been wounded three times, told of killing 1500 Germans in one afternoon (official estimate) at Verdun the day he was wounded, with his machine company.”

Even more disturbing, the coarsening effects of war were clearly visible in children, especially those living close to the frontlines (countless French peasant families chose to remain in their homes behind the trenches). Bowerman, the American ambulance driver, recorded this disturbing incident in Belgium:

“While I stood studying the body … three little Belgian children, two boys and a girl all about 7 years old, came in the doorway and espied the German. Instead of being frightened or awed by the presence of death in a rather hideous form, they laughed clapped their hands and danced about the corpse only stopping occasionally to exclaim ‘Ah le sale boche’ (Oh the dirty German). I watch[ed] in amazement and a realization of what this scene meant. Surely Belgium has suffered when her little children can laugh at a sight like this.”

Children’s anger and resentment was just as ingrained as adults, and potentially longer lasting. Yves Congar, a French 14-year-old whose father had been deported for forced labor, wrote ominously in his diary on October 17, 1918: “The Boches’ behavior in France is scandalous. The loot they are taking back to Germany is unbelievable: They’ll have enough to refurbish every one of their towns! But one day soon it will be our turn: We will go out there and we will steal, burn, and ransack! They had better watch out!”

NEW RIGHTS, NEW SOUNDS

The war’s impact wasn’t entirely bad. The rapid spread of women’s suffrage, according women the right to vote in recognition of their crucial role maintaining industrial production and basic services during the war, represented undeniable progress, albeit bought at an enormous price. Heber Blankenhorn, the American intelligence officer, noted the completely changed appearance of wartime London in a diary entry on August 5, 1918:

“London instead is full of women in uniforms—'W.A.AC’s,’ ‘Wrens,’ ‘V.A.D.’s’ and scores of kinds of munition and war-service uniforms. Columns of “land women,” girls in breeches, leggings, coats, and felt hats, stride through the streets, marching orderly to stations for outbound trains … They will never go back to skirts and tatting, one is sure … These girls mean business.”

The enfranchisement of women across the West was broadly supported by their male contemporaries (indeed, they were often the ones who voted for it, indirectly or in referenda), but the economic and political rise of the “weaker,” “fairer” sex undoubtedly stoked men’s anxieties about social status and changing gender roles. An American soldier, Clarence Bush, wrote in a letter to his wife dated October 22, 1918: “Where will all of us boys fit when we get back with the girls in all the jobs making more than we ever did?”

For the most part the men had nothing to worry about in economic terms. After the war millions of women left factory work to start families or return to traditional female employment, including working in textile mills and domestic service. Employers generally laid off women who tried to stay in their jobs, encouraged by governments eager to find employment for returning soldiers to ensure social stability—a real cause of anxiety in an era of violent revolution. However, more and more young women also rejoined the workforce or simply never left, occupying an array of new positions including business secretaries, telephone switchboard operators, shop assistants, cigarette vendors, and so on—a trend which continued despite the extremely challenging social conditions of the Great Depression.

The First World War also saw the first truly global musical craze, with the sudden popularity of jazz, brought to Europe from the United States by African-American soldiers and musicians during the war years, with white musicians soon adopting the new sound. Jazz apparently originated in New Orleans in the decade before the war, before spreading quickly throughout the American South and Midwest via the Mississippi River and its network of towns, with itinerant African-American musicians providing entertainment on riverboats and dance halls for both white and black audiences. As with the blues and ragtime before it, regional jazz styles soon developed in major musical hubs along the river network including Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, and Kansas City.

Some of the most successful American musical emissaries were regimental bands attached to African-American military units serving in France, which normally played marches and classical fare but were also able to drop into syncopated ragtime and “wild” improvisational jazz without missing a beat. One African-American military bandleader, the appropriately named James Reese Europe, remembered giving a series of concerts in France in summer 1918, beginning in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees:

“Before we had played two numbers the audience went wild. We had conquered Paris. General Bliss and French officers who had heard us insisted that we should stay in Paris, and there we stayed for eight weeks. Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot, but the supreme moment came in the Tuileries Gardens when we gave a concert in conjunction with the greatest bands in the world: The British Grenadiers’ Band, the band of the Garde Republicain, and the Royal Italian Band. My band, of course, could not compare with any of these, yet the crowd … deserted them for us. We played to 50,000 people at least.”

The effect of jazz on audiences was electric and polarizing, with most listeners either loving or hating the strange new sound. Many first-time hearers professed to be overwhelmed by the bizarre sounds and eccentric improvisations, part symphony, part cacophony. In August 1919 a British music critic, Francesco Burger, described hearing jazz for the first time:

“It was one of the strongest and strangest experiences I have undergone in an extended life, during which I have listened to much that was good, to more that was bad, and to most that was indifferent. It produced an impression that was not quite pleasant, but not entirely unpleasant, a sort of comical mixture of both… Pleasurable though staggering, making it difficult to recover one’s breath, defying analysis, repellent at the outset, but magnetically fascinating.”

Unsurprisingly, young African-American jazz musicians were favorably impressed by life in Europe, with its relative lack of official racial discrimination, compared to the naked oppression of the Jim Crow regime in the American South along with the spread of informal prejudice and de facto segregation stoked by the Great Migration. Although informal discrimination was also coming to Europe, it was never enshrined in law, and the first visit to Europe was eye opening for many young Americans of color.

One jazz musician, Dan Kildare, raved about Britain in a letter home in 1915: “Words couldn’t give you an idea of the way we are treated here … Hallmen, chauffeurs, porters, and employees in general of the different establishments all stand and salute you as you pass by. In other words, you are treated as a gentleman and an artist.” Another musician, Louis Mitchell, wrote home from France in August 1918: “Hubie, this is the finest country in the world and if you once get over here you will never want to go back to N.Y. again. I intend to stay here the rest of my life, as you can go where you want too [sic] and have the time of your life.”

For ordinary African-American soldiers, however, the First World War was a paradoxical experience, contrasting the personal liberty of Europe with the Jim Crow rules applied to the U.S. Army. Addie Hunton, an African-American woman who volunteered with the YMCA serving American troops in France, noted the incongruous site of African-American troops guarding white prisoners of war: “But it did seem passing strange that we should see them guarding German prisoners! Somehow we felt that colored soldiers found it rather refreshing—even enjoyable for a change—having come from a country where it seemed everybody’s business to guard them.” Hunton remembered examples of the Southern Jim Crow regime exported to Europe:

Our soldiers often told us of signs on Y.M.C.A. huts which read, “No Negroes Allowed”; and sometimes other signs would designate the hours when colored men could be served … signs prohibiting the entrance of colored men were frequently seen during the beginning of the work in that section … Sometimes, even, when there were no such signs, services to colored soldiers would be refused.

However, Hunton also recorded instances of white officers standing up for African-American soldiers under their command:

One secretary had a colored band come to his hut to entertain his men. Several colored soldiers followed the band into the hut. The secretary got up and announced that no colored men would be admitted. The leader of the band, a white man, by the way, immediately informed his men that they not play; whereupon all departed and there was no entertainment.

DISILLUSIONMENT, IRONY, AND CYNICISM

In his foundational work The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell (a veteran of the Second World War) convincingly argued that the absurd horror and dashed expectations of the First World War had a lasting impact on the psychology of an entire generation of people, in the form of an enduring sense of irony surrounding all aspects of human affairs, from personal to the political. Fussell noted many sources of this ironic mode in the war, including the gross mismatch between the stated aims (preserving liberty, protecting German high culture) and the barbarous means by which they were pursued. The endless stream of official communiqués and government propaganda unleashed on the people of Europe, which were often revealed to have no bearing on reality, could only serve to further undermine ordinary people’s trust in authority, not to mention confidence in their own ability to discern truth from falsehood.

Fussell’s work endures as one of the great studies of the Great War’s cultural impact, so it suffices to say that there was indeed evidence of widespread disillusionment, skepticism, and ironic distance in the aftermath of the conflict. William Bell, the British architect employed in scavenging war materiel in France, wrote about an encounter with an American soldier in his diary on November 2, 1918, whose scathing views on the war showed that the gung-ho patriotism attributed to “Yanks,” like their European peers, was at least partly propaganda puffery:

“I fell into conversation with an American soldier today, and he called the supporters of war all the epithets he could think of! He said he was one of the first draft to come over to France, and that he was ‘fed-up to the goldarned’ neck with the ‘god-dam war’—and so was every American who had been ‘over the top.’ He came to Europe full of enthusiasm for the fight for freedom, and thirsting for vengeance against the ‘Hun.’ But he had discovered, from personal experience with the German prisoners, that the ‘Hun’ was ‘not so god-dam bad’ as the papers would have us believe; and he had seen what a money-making game is being played by the French civilian profiteers … My friend went on to say that at first the Americans were always keen to go ‘over the top’; but those who had tasted of the bitter fruit of experience on ‘No-Man’s-Land’ were not such ‘god-dam fools’ as to wish to go back … It was instructive to hear this disillusioned old-young man snap out like pistol shots the grim philosophy of his war experience. He jocularly remarked that he supposed it would be considered ‘mighty unpatriotic’ by most civilians if he talked to them the way he was doing to me; but the word ‘patriotism’ had a different meaning for him now from that it had six months ago.”

Similarly, on hearing of the end of the war, Elmer Harden, an American volunteer in the French Army, wrote bitterly: “Four years of war, 4 million dead only to uproot an ambitious family! Peace—it almost sounds like a joke. And the dead around Verdun, and the ruins of northern France! How preposterous it all is—even Peace. And the thousands of cripples here in Rennes—how do they pronounce the word ‘Peace’?”

Civilians shared the feelings of waning idealism giving way to angry endurance, with special scorn for convoluted religious explanations of the horror. Vera Brittain reacted to a senior Anglican cleric’s spiritual bloviating about the war:

“At this stage of the war, I decided indignantly, I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. The voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I valued most in life … My only hope now was to become the complete automaton, working mechanically and no longer even pretending to be animated by ideals. Thought was too dangerous; If once I begin to think out exactly why my friends had died and I was working, quite dreadful things might suddenly happen.”

Similarly, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, expressed disbelief about a distinguished cleric’s claim that God favored the Allies in June 1918, echoing growing skepticism on that score dating back at least to 1915: “Personally, I am puzzled by a few things. For instance, the Germans also claim God to be on their side and he most certainly cannot be on both sides. What if he is not on either?”

Sometimes the disillusionment of war fueled the formation of new national identities, for example in the sprawling British empire, where a common sentiment in the dominions held that the snobbish Brits had callously sacrificed Australians and Canadians at places like Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge in part because they didn’t think of them as “true” Englishmen. Eric Evans, the Australian officer, remembered a humiliating snub by a British officer addressing wounded men at the dock in Southampton:

“‘All British wounded this way.’ Of course we Australians came forward. ‘British wounded, I said, not Australian.’ This from a Tommy officer. ‘What are we then?’ I asked. ‘Oh, you’re Australians.’ I felt like running amok. Are we not British, then, are we spilling our blood and fighting for a country of which we are not yet a part? Are we a bastard lot not to deserve the name British? I felt damn wild and very nearly said things.”

THE VIOLENCE VIRUS

Perhaps the greatest irony of the conflict concerns the slogan coined by H.G. Wells and popularized by President Woodrow Wilson, “The war to end war,” or later “the war to end all wars,” which proved so sadly mistaken. In fact, some historians have argued persuasively that the First World War unleashed a chain reaction of violence that is still rippling around the globe a century later, pointing to a long lineage of almost continuous conflict to the present day.

The Middle East, under French and British domination following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was already riven by ethnic and religious conflict, of which the Armenian Genocide from 1915-1917 provided a fitting harbinger. Already in November 1918 the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, Conde de Ballobar, recorded anti-Semitic violence following a Jewish celebration in British-occupied Palestine, prophetically adding that the British would never be able to reconcile their conflicting promises to the Arabs and Jews:

“Some young Muslims and Christians gave a beating to various Jews, which was followed on Monday by a demonstration by those religious groups before the military governor, whom they asked to telegraph their protest against the Jews to the British government. The aggressors were condemned to several months in prison … Yesterday, it was announced that they were inclined to let them go free if they asked the Jews for forgiveness, to which the detainees or their families answered that they preferred to rot in jail before doing that. From which one can see that my forecasts are coming true about Lord Balfour’s promises being well beyond his grasp.”

In fact, the 20th century would prove to be one long, extraordinarily violent sequel to the First World War, starting in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. The Russian Civil War, already raging, would leave around 7 million dead by the time it ended in 1922. It was soon joined by a spasm of fighting across the multiethnic jigsaw puzzle of Eastern Europe, including the Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1921; the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917-1921; the Polish-Ukrainian War, 1918-1919; the Hungarian-Romanian War, 1919; the Polish-Czechoslovakian War January 1919; the Armenian-Azerbaijani War, 1918-1920 the Georgia-Soviet War 1921; the Lithuania-Soviet War of 1918-1919, the Polish-Lithuania war of August-November 1920; and the Latvian War of Independence, fought against German freikorps (rightwing paramilitaries formed by recently demobilized soldiers) and Russian White and Red forces, 1918-1920.

Maps of Europe and 1914 borders
Erik Sass

In Ireland the long overdue War of Independence boiled over in 1919-22, followed by the Irish civil war from 1922-23. Further afield, the Turks under Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, fought the Turkish War of Independence to end European occupation of Anatolia and Istanbul, including the Greco-Turkish and Franco-Turkish Wars from 1919-22. Meanwhile, the European colonial powers faced any number of resistance movements in their newly acquired territories, including the Iraqi Revolt against British rule in 1920, the Rif War in Spanish Morocco from 1920-27, the Great Syrian Revolt against French rule in 1925-27, the 1931 Greek Cypriot revolt against British rule, and the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-1939.

Map of new states in Europe after World War I
Erik Sass

The world got a terrifying taste of what the new weaponry invented during the First World War could really do during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the rape of Nanking in 1937, and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, which set new lows with pioneering methods of terror including mass aerial bombardment of civilian populations on a scale not contemplated during the First World War. The incredibly brutal Italian conquest of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, in 1935-7, showed that the specter of poison gas was still very much alive, despite international agreements banning it. Extreme violence also erupted in places far removed from the battlefields of the First World War, for example in South America with the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935, which left up to 130,000 people dead in the two sparsely populated countries. Sadly, the League of Nations—crippled by the absence of the United States of America, after Republican senators voted the treaty down—proved powerless to stop the bloodshed, wherever it took place.

MONSTERS IN WAITING

Even more tragically, all of these conflicts would merely serve as a preamble to the epochal catastrophe of the Second World War, when Germany joined with two disaffected members of the Entente alliance, Italy and Japan, in a breathtakingly ambitious bid to overturn the postwar order. These countries would be led to their doom by men who had participated in the First World War like millions of their peers—but rather than recoiling in horror from the violence, openly embraced the camaraderie, simplicity and community of trench life, clinging to the comforting moral clarity of a world divided into friend and foe, organized around intoxicating hatred for the latter.

In yet another irony, many contemporaries clearly understood that another war was bound to come, even as the current one came to an end. Elizabeth Ashe, an American volunteering with the Red Cross in France, wrote home on Bastille Day, July 14, 1918: “Someday we will all be celebrating the final victory—will it bring the world peace? I doubt it. It will just bring about a long, exhausted period of rest when strength will be stored for a future combat. This sounds pessimistic, but I begin to believe that it is inherent in man to fight.” Hanes, the American artillery officer, wrote about reading a remarkably prescient story published in a popular magazine in a letter home on October 28, 1918:

“I have just been reading in Everybody’s for September a piece called “The War of 1938,” in which is depicted what will happen if Germany isn’t beaten completely before the Allies let up this time. Lots of it is very much overdrawn but I think there is a lot of truth in it. Germany will certainly start war again if she isn’t beaten entirely before peace is made this time. She must be whipped until she can't possibly come back again for another scrap, at least not for many years.”

The risk was especially great because of the belief, already growing among German conservatives, that the country’s armed forces were never really defeated on the battlefield, but instead betrayed by the left-wing socialists at home—a popular delusion summoned to explain the inexplicable, Germany’s defeat. Sulzbach, the German officer, recorded General Oskar von Hutier’s farewell order to the German Eighteenth Army in November 1918:

“Even if the war is lost … you can be proud of your achievements! Undefeated by the enemy but forced to this by external circumstances, we have to abandon the territory which we occupied after so fierce a contest. Even if the armistice conditions prescribed by the enemy constitute a monstrous hardship for our nation, we can nevertheless march back to our beloved country with heads held high.”

Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess, the future stenographer and personal aid to Adolf Hitler, blamed the socialists for accepting humiliating armistice terms a letter to his parents dated November 14, 1918:

“I can’t tell you what was going through my mind. It was the hardest hour of my life. Now I read this note to America in which we grovel for moderation in the terms. Who would have thought that our compatriots could be so base, so mean, so shameless? I shan’t waste my breath talking about the events in Germany, the collapse of the monarchy and the secession of Bavaria. The enemy’s terms are so humiliating.”

When the war ended, Hitler himself was recuperating in a military hospital in Pasewalk, Pomerania, after being gassed along with the rest of his battalion by attacking British forces in the Ypres Salient on October 13-14, 1918, causing Hitler to temporarily lose his vision. Supposedly, the shock caused by hearing of Germany’s defeat triggered a brief relapse of this blindness.

In the months to come, Hitler (who had never held a steady job before the war, and always referred to himself as a “simple frontline soldier of the Great War”) would become involved in politics, in part at the behest of German military intelligence, which employed the former corporal and regimental messenger as a low-level informer, keeping tabs on a hodgepodge of radical movements in the ranks of demobilizing soldiers. Occasionally, Hitler would also address small groups of soldiers himself, parroting anti-socialist political messages handed down from the military high command. But he soon discovered that his unusual talents extended far beyond these petty tasks: “For all at once I was offered an opportunity of speaking before a larger audience; and the thing that I had always presumed from pure feeling without knowing it was now corroborated: I could ‘speak.’”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war. And finally, our sincere gratitude to all our loyal readers!

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard". Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

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