The Armistice Day Horror


Ninety-one years ago today, Allied and German forces adopted the armistice that ended World War I. It was the eleventh day of the eleventh month; the Germans accepted the terms at 5:10 in the morning, but the ceasefire officially went into effect at the eleventh hour. And before that hour, though it was known that the shooting would soon be over, officers kept sending soldiers into battle.

Joseph E. Persico told the story in the Winter 2005 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. "Armistice Day exceeded the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day," he writes, "with this difference: The men storming the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on November 11, 1918, lost their lives in a war that the Allies had already won."

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  1. From a literary standpoint, you couldn't ask for a more appropriate end to WW1. What a fucking disgrace.

  2. In war, one does not stop simply because one 'knows' the war will soon be over--so long as orders have not come down, and there are still enemies in that trench over there, you keep fighting.

    1. I could point out that you missed the point entirely, but you'd probably miss that point entirely as well.

      Carry on.

      1. I don't see your point.

    2. To what end? If you're on the German side, do you send soldiers to risk their lives to capture territory that you know that you'll have to give up, in accordance with the terms of the Armistice agreement? And if you're on the Allied side, do you send soldiers to risk their lives to capture territory that your side will be getting anyway? Either way is nuts. The only rational course of action is to be ready to repel attacks by enemy units who may not yet have gotten word that the war is over. (The reason it didn't go into effect until 11 am was simply to provide time for the word to get to all the soldiers.)

  3. That may be so, but ordering an advance at 10:30 when you know the Armistice goes into effect at 11 is cold. Especially when you know you're not in any personal danger from any such last-minute fighting.

  4. War is stupid. Not sure what else anyone would expect.

    Oh, 6 hours and the war is over? Let's all pick flowers and dance, hand-in-hand. right.

  5. wylie,

    That is pretty much what happened at 11, so dont see a reason it couldnt have started 6 hours earlier.

    1. Me either. my point was just that we're expecting smart results from a stupid process.

      I'm sure if me and you were in charge at the time, many lives would've been saved (and/or created? sry, couldn't resist)

      I sure as hell woulda found one of those supply or communications difficulties Umbriel suggests. Nothing that would prevent us from acting if needed, just an excuse against any last-min push BS. My eventual court martial would be totally worth it.

  6. If, at the highest levels, the commanders were truly unconvinced that the armistice would hold, I can see where they might see some advantage in trying to take advantage of enemy confusion or unwillingness to fight at such a time in order to grab some more ground. At the field command level, though, it's hard to see why the last few hours wouldn't have been a good time to experience some supply or communications difficulties -- except for the ingrained military doctrine of following orders unquestioningly, on the assumption that one's superiors understand the situation better than you.

  7. From the Persico piece:

    After the general was apprised that the signing had taken place, the order going out from him merely informed subordinate commanders of that fact. It said nothing about what they should do until 11 o'clock, when the cease-fire would go into effect. His order left his commanders in a decisional no man's land as to whether to keep fighting or spare their men in the intervening hours. The generals left in that limbo fell roughly into two categories: ambitious careerists who saw a fast-fading opportunity for glory, victories, even promotions; and those who believed it mad to send men to their deaths to take ground that they could safely walk into within days.

    For more details, read the article...

  8. It's incompetent use of resources, a violation of those soldiers trust in their command, and therefore murder.

  9. last casualty of ww1

  10. Who would have thought that less than 90 years after these senseless deaths after the armistice agreement had been reached, one of the warring nations would elect a president of African descent?

    1. FTW.

  11. It's not worth a few thousand casualties to secure a few hundred feet of peacetime farmland? Farmland that's completely saturated with unexploded ordnance?

    1. oh yea tell them that

  12. The common soldiers from both sides face several "Prisoner's Dilemma", because the pareto-optimal solution of disabling their own commanding officers and going home, isn't a Nash-equilibrium.

    1. This post was filled with so many unlinked-to buzzwords I nearly crapped my pants.

        1. I came, I crapped, I conquered?

          (better than the old version?)

    2. A Pareto-optimal solution is one that makes somebody better off, but nobody worse off. I would think that disabling the commanding officer would make him worse off, and thus not qualify as Pareto-optimal. (Though it could still be the solution that makes everybody, considered collectively, better off.)

  13. It is worth pointing out that an armistice is not the same thing as a surrender. The armistice is merely a sensation of fighting, it was followed by months of protracted negotiations. Therefore, the territories gained and lost, by either side in the last hours, would not have been totally pointless, they could be used a bargaining chips. We have the benefit of hindsight to know that no further fighting took place after the armistice, but at the time it was not know whether or not it would hold and peace would prevail, or if fighting would continue.

    1. This is not actually true. Under the terms of the Armistice, the Germans agreed to withdraw not only from their frontline in northern France and Belgium, but way back across the Rhine. The scraps of land captured on 11/11/1918 were quite worthless as bargaining chips.

      1. Not way back across the Rhine, but to the Rhine itself, except at Koblenz, Mainz, and Cologne, where 30-km radii were drawn from bridgeheads at those cities, and the German army required to withdraw behind those lines.

        But your bigger point is correct. While the Armistice was technically only a cease-fire agreement, its terms were such as to ensure that the Germans wouldn't be able to resume the war with any hope of success.

        1. But I think DM88's point, and what I alluded to less clearly further above, is that the commanders being informed of an impending armistice did not know for sure whether it would only be a temporary cease fire, and thus whether their efforts might have value going forward.

          This would seem to have been an opportune time for foot-dragging on the part of the field commanders, but training and tradition would dictate that they defer to the judgement of their superiors. Moreover, to the extent that the Germans were already in retreat, it's understandable that many Allied commanders might have gotten caught up in the chase, so to speak, and not wanted to relent until ordered to do so.

          1. Clearly my understanding of the terms of the 1914Armistice was limited; if the withdrawal terms were generally know by the Generals/line officers, then there was no real justification for the last hour charges over the top

          2. Actually, the Armistice *was* only a temporary cease fire (but one whose expiration date got extended several times). Nevertheless, it was one whose terms made it impossible for the Germans ever to have any hope of success if the war ever started up again.

    2. The only "protracted negotiations" were between the Allies themselves at the Paris Peace Conference. Once they had finally decided among themselves what the peace terms should be, the Allies presented those terms to the German delegation, saying "take it or leave it," and threatening that if the Germans rejected those terms, the Allies would resume the war. Since the Armistice terms had left the Germans incapable of defending themselves, the Germans caved in to the Allied demand and signed the Versailles treaty on June 28, 1919.

  14. Thank you for sharing this tragic story of these senseless deaths in what one appropriately could term 'the eleventh hour'.

    I often feel that WWI more than any other event in the 20th century has been underexplored in social thought, particularly in sociology, as the most lucid and perfect example of how imperialism and militarism can impact and destroy innocent lives beyond repair. History as a discipline has scrutinized the event, but other disciplines need to follow up with their own insights and expertise.

    Let us honour the brave veterans who fought and died for their country and their freedom, but also never forget the utter disgrace that was the political leadership on all sides which led to The Great War.

  15. Great article. Reading it, I couldn't help but think of the film Paths of Glory.

  16. I couldn't help but think of the film Paths of Glory.

    Me too. I thought about appending this to the post, but decided I didn't want to weigh down the entry with a spoiler warning.

  17. Did you know Veteran's day was celebrated in October?
    How do you feel about all the fallen soldiers.I just read it in this article and found it most informative.

  18. For a shattering literary account of this "war gap," see Pat Barker's excellent "Regeneration" trilogy, which culminates in "The Ghost Road." (The last book deals specifically with the gap, but the trilogy as a whole gives those events even more of an impact.)

  19. Thanks for pointing to this great final scene in "PofG". This is the kind of transformation we need in America, I think. Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel as if the Bush admin. spent 8 years driving us down into our base, fearful, vengeful selves. We must find a way up from that pit.

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