Naturally, I typically write about financial issues, but with the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I just days away, I wanted to give an account of the final day of that conflict. The reason is simple: The men who needlessly died that morning deserve remembrance.
The First World War doesn’t get the attention of World War II. It’s understandable. WWII was a far more dynamic war with tank and air battles and swiftly moving armies. Countless movies have been made about WWII battles, giving us a sense of what it felt like to be in that war. In addition, if you take Stalin out of the equation, it also was in a sense a “clean” war in that there was a clear good side and bad side.
WWI had none of those attributes. Despite what masterful British propaganda promoted at the time, there was no real good side or bad side. It was established European Powers (Britain, France and, to a degree, Russia) against the upstart Germany that wanted its share of the colonial pie. The war itself – at least on the Western Front – was a grinding stalemate of little movement where soldiers died by the hundreds of thousands to gain less than a mile.
Not very cinematic, which is why WWI is not much remembered, particularly in the United States.
That said, I agree with many historians and writers who believe that WWI more than WWII shaped the world that we live in today. Communism took hold in Russia because of WWI. Britain and France were so weakened by the war that holding their colonies became more and more untenable. The United States emerged as a global power. And, of course, you could argue that WWII was simply an outgrowth of WWI.
Even the current wars in the Middle East were in part – maybe, in large part – created by the work of Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and Francois Georges-Picot, a French diplomat, who in 1916 carved up the dying Ottoman Empire with little regard for sectarian, tribal and ethnic distinctions on the ground. The result has been endless wars as various groups push for independence or domination.
WWI may not have been the war to end all wars, but it did change the world in ways that we’re still dealing with today.
By the fall of 1918, Germany had failed in its desperate attempt to knock Britain and France out of the war before the Americans arrived in overwhelming numbers. After days of negotiations, an armistice was signed at just after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11. The Germans had wanted it to be an immediate ceasefire, but the Allies demanded the armistice not go into effect until 11 a.m. – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
The Allied generals argued that they needed to wait six hours to start the ceasefire to give them time to inform their commanders in the field. The Germans disagreed, arguing that date of the ceasefire had unofficially been known by both sides – and had been communicated to their field commanders – for two days so there was no need to wait.
The Allied commanders won, meaning the war was effectively over, but it still had six hours until the end was official.
Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, the commander of American forces, told his field commanders that the war would end at 11 a.m.; however, Pershing, who was against the armistice, gave no order as to what they should do in the meantime, leaving it to them to decide.
The British high command actually ordered an attack on the city of Mons, site of a stinging British retreat early in the war.
Many high-ranking American officers choose to keep their men relatively safe in the trenches and wait out the artillery fire that both sides were pouring down. However, inexplicably, many commanders decided to launch one final attack.
Maj. Gen. William M. Wright, the American 89th division’s commander, ordered his troops to take the French town of Steney because the town had “proper bathing facilities” which would remain in German hands until after the ceasefire. Wright’s division suffered 365 casualties, including sixty-one dead, that morning so the general could secure bath tubs, which likely would have been available anyway.
Sporadically, up and down the Western front, American, British and French troops attacked to the astonishment of the defending Germans who assumed that both sides would stay in their trenches until 11 a.m. Indeed, many German machine gunners shot over the heads of the oncoming Allied soldiers in an attempt to warn them off without killing anyone. It didn’t work, and they lowered their aim.
By the time of the ceasefire, the needless human toll was horrendous. A conservative estimate of American casualties is 320 dead and 3,240 seriously wounded. The French had casualties – dead and wounded – of 1,170, while the British casualties totaled around 2,400. The Germans suffered 4,120 casualties that day.
In total, casualties on both sides amounted to more than 10,000 men – more than the total casualties inflicted on both sides on the D-Day invasion of Normandy in WWII!
The last soldier to die in WWI was American private Henry Gunther. With just minutes left in the war, Gunther alone charged a German embankment near the French town of Verdun. According to reports, the Germans frantically tried to wave him off, but as Gunther closed to within grenade range, the Germans were left with no choice but to open fire. Gunther died at 10:59 a.m.
The senseless and cruel killing and maiming of thousands of men on that day was a microcosm of a senseless and cruel war and should not be forgotten.