It was 5 a.m., Paris time, Nov. 11, 1918. Sunrise was still nearly three hours away. A group of war-weary or desperate British, French and German men (no Americans) was sitting in a luxury rail car parked on a siding in the forest of Compiegne, France. They affixed their signatures to an armistice that would end the most destructive war in human history up to that point. The German delegates had driven 10 hours across war-devastated northern France to get to Compiègne on Nov. 8 and were taken to French Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private train car. The imperial and haughty Foch would only make two appearances in the next three days, leaving the negotiations to his French underlings and a British admiral.
The Germans stalled but they had no choice but to agree to the Allied terms. Their superb army and air force were still intact and slowly retreating, but their navy was in mutiny, the economy was collapsing, food was running short and civilians were rioting back home. For some reason, the Armistice set a cease-fire to take effect not immediately but on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, six hours after the document was signed. Someone’s cute idea, I suppose.
Six hours of war
Word immediately spread across both sides of the Western Front about an impending cease-fire. Most commanders told their troops to stand down. But in one of the innumerable tragedies of one of the most tragic wars in history, some zealous leaders on the Allied side ordered fresh attacks on German lines. Many of the troops attacked with gusto. Future American president Harry Truman, an artillery captain, recalled telling his boys to pour on the cannon fire as fast as they could. Dozens of American troops died between 5 a.m. and 11 a.m. Grieving family members later demanded Congressional hearings about the useless offensive. The hearings concluded nothing, of course.
Make war to make peace?
The shooting did stop promptly at 11. The German forces withdrew to behind the Rhine River and disarmed. The Armistice continued in effect until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War I. The treaty’s harsh terms were blamed for prompting the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, which led to an even worse war 20 years after the Versailles Treaty was signed.
American President Woodrow Wilson was credited with calling World War I the war to end all wars, but others before Wilson were writing about that concept. Noted author H.G. Wells, who was a marginal pacifist before the war, wrote an essay after it began arguing it was necessary to crush German militarism to guarantee future peace. In other words, war to create peace.
Other writers ridiculed the idea. British historian Margaret MacMillan’s book about the lead-up to 1914 is titled “The War That Ended Peace.” American historian David Fromkin’s study of Middle East turmoil called his book “A Peace to End All Peace” and traces the problems to the European powers imposing their version of civilization on the region after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
Armistice Day to Veterans Day
The winning Allied nations celebrated the Armistice from the beginning. A year after the war ended, in 1919, President Wilson issued a proclamation calling on Americans to mark Nov. 11. U.S. presidents began issuing annual proclamations about the day, and in 1938 Congress made “Armistice Day” an official holiday.
After WW II, an Alabama veteran named Raymond Weeks began a national campaign to rename Armistice Day as Veterans Day. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was on board with the idea as were millions of WW II veterans. When Eisenhower became president, Congress officially changed Nov. 11 to Veterans Day in 1954. It is observed on Nov. 11 no matter what day of the week it falls on although many government offices and schools will designate the Friday or Monday as a holiday if Nov. 11 falls on a weekend.
The 100th anniversary
Many pundits and commentators have used the 100th anniversary of the end of WW I to make comparisons between then and now. Specifically, the idea that people of both eras were or are complacent was too irresistible for the pundits to ignore. This idea notes the pre-WW I period was a time of tremendous technological advancement, historical prosperity, and general peace except for an occasional colonial war. The thinkers of the day postulated that no leader of an advanced nation would screw things up by starting a war between major powers. They were wrong.
Currently the world enjoys a period of rapid technological advancement and prosperity with a general peace except for some small side conflicts. Sound familiar? Who would want to mess things up? No answer as yet, but I worry there is always some leader out there who thinks they can win a war … OR has nothing to lose.
This being Divided America 2018, one commentator compared President Trump’s stubbornness and refusal to admit mistakes to President Wilson’s stubbornness and refusal to admit mistakes. Kind of a stretch. Those attributes cost Wilson his health (he suffered a stroke) and congressional failure to ratify the League of Nations. Will they cost Trump anything? Too early to tell, perhaps, or maybe those same personality traits that got Wilson in trouble will help Trump avoid a worldwide cataclysm should a diplomatic crisis arise. Who knows?
The WW I vets are all gone now. The last American was Frank W. Buckles who drove an Army ambulance in France. He died in 2011 at the age of 110 in Charles Town, West Virginia. Interestingly, Mr. Buckles was a civilian working in the Philippines when he was captured by the Japanese at the start of WW II and spent three years in a prison camp.
Thanks to all vets for their service. I think of my father, Ernest R. Peterson, who served on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during WW II, and my father-in-law, Glenn Crouse, who was on a destroyer at the same time. Both have passed on. Our country produces new veterans every day as they’re discharged from military service, often to face an uncertain future in civilian life. I realize our country can overly dramatize or even politicize “support for the troops” but remember all veterans are real people who deserve a bit of a break as payback for their service.