103 years ago this June, the Great War began with the assassination of an Archduke, the heir apparent to the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The resulting conflict could have remained little more than a regional squabble, a police action in the Balkans.
It became anything but.
Many of the soldiers who went off in the early days, viewed the war as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains. Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “pal’s battalions”, to fight for King and country.
Four years later, an entire generation had been chewed up and spit out in pieces.
Any single day’s fighting in the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.
6,503 Americans lost their lives during the month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day of fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.
Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally torn to shreds. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.
Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood of the trenches during the New Year of 1916-’17, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and the frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.
We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.
Starvation and malnutrition stalked the countryside, with riots on the home front and mutiny in the trenches. Nearly every combatant saw the collapse of its national economy, or teetering on the verge of collapse.
A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.
Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home, had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old German politician Matthias Erzberger.
The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned out of a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.
The Germans were shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The German believed that they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.
Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.
Foch now produced 34 demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. They were to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railroad cars, and 5,000 trucks.
Foch informed Ertzberger that he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”. By this time, 2,250 were dying every day on the Western Front, yet the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute of the last day.
The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th, as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.
The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.
Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground that they could walk over in a few hours?
Others continued the attack, many believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until minutes before 11:00.
English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…”
At least 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, 3,240 seriously wounded.
Still smarting from their disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.
The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120 casualties.
All sides combined suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour on that final day of the “Great War”, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.
Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”. Maybe it was his recent reduction in rank, or maybe this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove. Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers yelled for him to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland, was the last man to die in the Great War. The time was 10:59am.
Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.
AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave mistake. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, he said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.
He got it wrong, by 36 days.