On the morning of November 11, 1918, everyone from all sides of the conflict understood that the “war to end all wars” was itself in the process of ending.  At 7 a.m. that morning, France’s Marshal Foch was heading for Paris with the Armistice document in his breast pocket.   At that same moment, in Mons, Belgium, Canadian soldiers were enjoying being hugged by locals who understood that the war would end likely before the end of the day.

The problem was that there was no one person in charge of how it would all come to a close.  Worse, communications in 1918 left a lot to be desired, and although everyone knew the end was nigh, there was no way to get the news out to everyone at the same time.  The lack of those two important components of war – leadership and communication – would result in the great tragedy of Armistice Day.

While everyone began wondering when exactly the deal to end hostilities would be signed, the killings began.  Soldiers on all sides remained unsure how to carry out their last day.  Some hid out but others felt they had to fight until ordered to stop.  So, they kept at it, even though 10 million combatants across a 400-mile Western Front know they are entering the final hours of war, the fighting continued because … well … that’s just what people had been doing for the past four years, barely yielding any ground.

While villages began celebrating, bullets and bombs still flew.  At 6:50 a.m. on the morning of the 11th, the British Army used telegraph and messengers to broadcast far and wide that hostilities would end at 11 a.m. – just over 4 hours away.  Sadly, it would take longer than that for the good news to reach everyone.

In those fatal few hours, 2,738 died on Armistice morning, within the reach of peace.  To put that in perspective, that is more than the Allies lost on D-Day in the next war.  Even though the New York Timesran published the headline: “ARMISTICE SIGNED, END OF THE WAR” at 9a.m., news didn’t reach many regions in time.

In Mors, where the Canadians were being fêted,  Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers has heard the rumours of the Armistice and talks of home.  On his horse, as part of his final reconnaissance patrol, he is shot and falls from his horse.  In an event of poignant and tragic irony, the last British casualty of World War I lands on the ground a few feet from where Private John Parr became the first British soldier killed four years earlier.

With twenty minutes until the Armistice cease-fire, bombs dropped on American positions, killing hundreds.  Not far away, Private Augustin Trebuchon is carrying a happy message for his comrades when he is shot dead by a sniper.  He becomes the last French soldier killed in the war.  The message he was carrying: “Assemble for food and festivities at 11:30 a.m.”  He was to die 35 minutes before and miss the celebrations.

At 10:58 – two minutes until cessation – back at Mons, Canadian private George Price is shot and killed, as the bullet pierced his heart – the final Canadian killing.  The last casualty of World War I – a private Henry Gunther is shot and killed at 10:59 a.m.

Painting of poppies by Jane Roy

It’s over, and the shooting ends.  But at 11:30, at a hospital near Berlin, a 29-year-old corporal is recovering from a mustard gas attack which has left him temporarily blind. When the hospital chaplain tells him of the Armistice. he flings himself on his bed and weeps with anger. He is distraught and swears revenge.  His name is Adolf Hitler.

That evening, in his Paris apartment, Marshall Foch sits in a rocking chair and is smoking a cigarette. He suspects that the Armistice is merely a kind of ceasefire until the next war.  He was correct, as 20 years later they did it all over again.

This Remembrance Day we remember not only those who died in conflict, but those who died needlessly in the last few moments before it ended.  They were the first casualties of peace.  If we are to learn from their senseless deaths, we would do well to remember the words of Albert Schweitzer: “The soldiers graves are the greatest preachers of peace.”  May it be so, lest we forget.  We Shall Remember Them.

 

Details from this post are from the excellent book D-Day, Minute by Minute, by Jonathan Mayo