According to the history books, the Great War ended on November 11th 1918. We commemorate this every year on Armistice Day, which has become a focal point for remembrance of all people killed in war. However, the Long Way Home has a scene taking place at the point of the armistice. This is a deliberate inclusion of a piece of history showing that a lot of things took place before, during and after that single event.
At the beginning of 1918, the western front had seen four years of fighting with limited gains of ground by either side.
The entente of France and Britain with their Commonwealth allies, had stood firm. Germany in contrast was in a difficult situation. The blockade by the Royal navy had caused diffculties to the German supply of food and raw materials. The agitation that had helped the Russian Revolution (such as smuggling Lenin into the country) had meant they no longer had to commit large resources to conflict in the East. However, this gain was negated by the imminent arrival of the USA into the war, adding millions of men, plus ordinance to the cause.
Germany was sitting on a ticking bomb and launched ‘Operation Michael’ on 21 March 1918 at Saint Quentin. This ‘Big Push’ was their last throw of the dice – to make so many significant gains as to force the allies to negotiate a ceasefire before the Americans arrived and tilted the balance irrecoverably.. The plan was to break through to the Channel ports, to cut off supply from the UK and drive a wedge between the two entente armies.
At first, there was success. The Germans made forty miles and forced the allies to withdraw from ground they had held for years. However, the offensive was stopped at Ancre on 5th April. The Germans tried to breakthrough in other parts of the line from then on. In April, they attacked Messines (the high land area surrounding Ypres) and Hazebrouck, (one of the railway hubs for the Ypres area). However, the writing was on the wall. By August, the British Army was launching its own attacks and the German Army was decidedly on the retreat.
Germany had seen its allies fall by the wayside. Bulgaria (29/9/18),Turkey (30/10/18) and finally the Austro-Hungarian empire (3/11/18). The world saw the inevitable end and a rush of countries began to declare war on Germany. Many Central American countries in May for example. Czechoslovakia, a country born from the collapse of Austro-Hungary had added their name by August. Friendless and facing unrest at home, Germany had to sue for peace.
The German delegates crossed the lines on the 8th November, but did not reach the negotiating table at Versailles immediately. They were treated to a ten hour round trip to show them the damage that had been created to France and its countryside. On arrival, the exhausted Germans faced three days of negotiations against a side now holding all the cards and in no mood to compromise.
The abdication of the Kaiser on November 10th paved the way. A coded message from president von Hindenburg on November 11th, told the delegates to get whatever they could, leading to the armistice being signed at 5am that morning. The Armistice was not a peace treaty (that was not signed until 1919), but an agreement to end fighting via a ceasefire. The German delegation asked for it to come into effect immediately, but the allies demanded a six hour window to get the message out to all.
With the benefit of hindsight, you would have expected everyone to stand down and relax, . This did not happen and in many parts of the front line, attacks were continued right up to the last second. There were many reasons for this. It was a ceasefire, not an ending. There still remained time to gain strategic ground, to destroy your enemy, to make your name for yourself and gain that promotion you desired. General Pershing is reported not to have approved and to have not informed his officers to suspend any planned assaults by the American forces.
On the eleven hours of conflict of that day, 11,000 men died needlessly. George Ellison was the last Britain who died, scouting at Mons. Augustin Trébuchon was the last French soldier to die at 10.45, conveying word that the men were to get hot soup at 11.00. George Lawrence Price was the last Canadian to die at 10.58, near Mons. The last American, Henry Gunther died at 10.59, as part of an assault that had their foes waving them back yelling at them to stop.
Even then, the killing did not end. Lt Tomas was a German officer killed after 11.00 by American soldiers who apparently had not been told about the ceasefire. Many fledgling countries in the East had various conflicts, as they sought to affirm their independence. The Allies had already begun encircling Russia to destroy the communists. Britain took Murmansk, Japan and Britain took Vladivostock. America would in time invade, with the Czech army carving a path through to Siberia. In 1920, the Royal Navy took up residence in Tallinn and Riga, watching the backs of the fledgling states, as they fought for independence against both Russiand and German armies.
This also did not lead to a mass demob or withdrawal of troops. The infrastructure in France, Germany and Belgium had been shattered. There was a shortage of manpower and the British and French Armies were involved in normalising logistics – keeping the peace and organising transport for example. The soldiers of the Railway Operating Division were not demobbed until 1920. One driver, Jim Hill recalled running trains in Belgium and Germany. Demobbing was a haphazard affair and the logistics of first in first out was either not possible or ignored. Thus longstanding servicemen could only watch as people who had been in the war for a shorter period go home.
It is quite easy to look at these events with the benefit of hindsight, looking at the circumstances from the benefit of a cozy chair in a warm house, with a full belly and no worries about conflict. The computer age has made information easier to gather and disseminate. We are in a better place now, because of the actions of our ancestors then. Whether it was necessary to go to war, whether actions during that war were necessary are left for others to discuss. But we should never forget the fallen.
This link is to an audio recording of the last two minutes of war. Many artillery had ordinance that they decided to use rather than take back. many were told to keep fifing. Please listen to the whole excerpt. The birdsong made me cry.