Armageddon Ended at the Eleventh Hour; Peace in Their Time: British War Workers Celebrate the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Not Everyone Shared in the Jubilation

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Lewis

THE GREATEST DAY IN HISTORY: How The Great War Really Ended by NicholasBest (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, [pounds sterling]20)

AS THE first of many books to commemorate the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day1918, this volume sets an example that will be hard to equal.

Arranged as a diary of the seven days leading up to November 11, it covers theevents and the thoughts and feelings of all kinds of people throughout WesternEurope, the United States and beyond, mostly in their own words, skilfullyorganised into a narrative.

Reading it is like looking into a photograph album full of vivid snaps of theworld taken during a week of high tension, crisis, celebration, tragedy andillusion.

Of course, we know now that it was not 'the war to end war'which makes the relief and rejoicing of so many here all the more piquant toread. There was little celebration along the frontline itself. Men who hadendured so much and seen so many comrades obliterated could scarcely raise acheer.

As the shelling eased off like rain, they listened incredulously to thesilence.

'It made you feel as if you had been suddenly deprived of the ability to hear,'wrote Captain Harry S. Truman, the future U.S. President. He and the men of hisartillery battery settled down all afternoon for a party, forgetting about thepoor observer, who had been sent up to direct their fire, sitting in a balloonabove their heads.

NOBODY wanted to die on the last morning while waiting for the 11 o'clockcease-fire, but more than 2,500 did. The Americans were especially keen tocarry on to the last minute, having arrived so late.

Officers who had not yet seen action hurried to the front to be in at the kill.Colonel George Patton in hospital wrote a poem looking forward to the next timewhen they 'would know once more the white hot joy of taking human life'.

The American commander, General Pershing, opposed the Armistice. He wanted tofight on at the is rich in humour until the German army was thoroughly routedand he could lead a victory parade in Berlin.

President Wilson told Congress that it was 'America's privilege' to have endedit all. 'Armed imperialism is at an end. Who will now seek to revive it?' hedemanded. Well, now we know.

Symbolically for the British, the last engagement of note was the recapture ofMons, where the first the eleventh humour battle of 1914 had forced theirarmy's first retreat. So, for all the boundless casualties, they ended upexactly where they began.

The war had begun with atrocity stories of Germans raping Belgian women andskewering their babies.

So it ended, with stories of a German trainload of corpses being sent to aBelgian factory to be melted down for soapor so a Belgian railway porter reported. eleventh hour People believed anythingof the Germans.

Unsurprisingly, there was no fraternising in No Man's Land in November 1918, asthere had been at Christmas 1914.

Some of the most intriguing diary entries deal with the build-up to theArmistice on the German side. …