Tuesday, 11 November 2014

ANZAC Stories - What Price Armistice?

Today is Armistice Day. I'm old enough to remember it being called Armistice Day when I was at school. My children know it as Remembrance Day. Armistice Day marks the end of fighting in the First World War. Several Armistices had been signed, first with Turkey in October, 1918 then with Austro-Hungary on 3 November. Discussions with Germany began on the 8th, although it was orchestrated by the French commander so that the Germans were forced to ask for an armistice (the American commander, General Pershing, sneered at the Germans for asking for an armistice, labelling them weak). The German government representative was then promptly told that the Germans had only three days in which to decide and they would be afforded no cease fire in the meantime. You can read a fuller account of the manouevrings here.

Negotiations on the final form of the armistice began at about 2 am on 11 November and were finalised and the document signed about 5.10 am. The Germans recognised the intent to cripple their country framed within the terms, but little ground was given, and with a revolution already in place at home there was nothing to be done. The terms of the Treaty of Versailles followed up ferociously in hobbling Germany, and so the foundations were laid for World War II.

A radio message, broadcast from the transmitter on top of the Eiffel tower, was sent out at 5.45 am, as all fighting was to stop at precisely 11 o'clock that same morning. The body of the message sent was clear and succinct:
1. Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front beginning at 11 o'clock, November 11th (French hour).

2. The Allied troops will not go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders.

Marshall Foch
Do you see that second point? Allied troops not to go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders. The consequences of that were two-fold. Firstly, that along the line bombardment actually increased dramatically throughout the morning. Secondly, that the soldiers did not feel they could really relax, did not feel that the war was really over, because it was only until further orders. Maybe the further orders would be to really stop, to really end this thing and go home. But maybe the further orders would be to resume and carry on till God knows when.

Most shelling stopped at 11 am (some continued past the hour), but right up until that time men were being thrown against machine guns nests, were having their guts blown out, were dying and for what? Numerous accounts state that the German soldiers had some weeks before lost their stomach for the war, fighting mainly rear guard actions as they retreated. But the Allied Generals, scenting blood (not their own) and glory (more certainly theirs, or so they thought) stepped up the attacks and sacrificed more young men. The shelling particularly intensified. Almost 11,000 men were killed on that last day, for no purpose and little gain, as the land the Germans were to cede was already laid out in the terms of the Armistice itself.

Toward the end of World War I Britain had developed a system of using sound to pinpoint enemy guns. The French enhanced this by inventing a means of recording sound waves on photographic film which allowed the effectiveness of the gun batteries to be measured. Photography was very expensive so this new development was not used often, but on Armistice Day everything was set and ready to record the occasion. (you can read more about this here)

Actual sound footage of the Armistice, recorded on the day and recently found again. Photo: Imperial War Museum

(I'm no technician, but there look to still be some blips after 11 am on that image. What caused those?)

This sudden cessation of the bombardment and the ambiguity of the orders caused great strain among some of the soldiers. The Germans waited in their trenches, unsure if they were about to be attacked, guns and grenades at the ready. When they finally realised it was the Armistice many were unsure what to do next. While the Allied soldiers knew what was happening, they also didn't know what it really meant. Both sides spent the day in a kind of limbo, the silence after all the roar and fury a physical, weighty thing. Soldiers on both sides cracked under the strain, their nerves shattered.

While the fighting had ceased the war had not. Technically it did not formally end until 28 June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. But the US didn't ratify Versailles until 1921 and the British government (and therefore Australia) remained technically at war with Turkey until the Treaty of Lausanne on 24 July 1923.

11 November, 1918 was the day the fighting stopped, but it wasn't the day the dying stopped. If you have followed this blog in the past you'll know of a small number of the casualties in my family from the First World War, the ones during the actual conflict and the ones after but as a result of that hell visited upon earth. Stanley Archer O'Toole, David Spence Lincoln, and his brother Frederick who died many years later but lived with lungs ravaged by gas, Arthur Leicester Kerswell and his brother John Lewis Kerswell, and their mother, Sabina and young brother Dick, who both died of Spanish Flu, unwittingly brought home by Arthur. And for the few I have written up I keep uncovering more. And beyond the people from my family there are so many others, stretching out around the world.

It was not the War to End All Wars. It was never going to be, But any hope was crushed by politicians and generals who wanted to grab and punish and boost their glory and their election prospects. It continues on. We will take time today to reflect on war and those lost, but we should also take time everyday to keep our politicians and generals in check, to stop them, particularly stop the politicians, from using war and threats of war as smokescreens, as vote-buying, as glory-boosting. What point the words if we allow the same to be done over and over? How hollow our respect and our bowed heads if we buy into that cynicism? There are just wars which should be fought, but when war is used like this it becomes just war. It is up to us how really, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

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