How World-Wide Was the World War That Stopped 100 Years Ago?
What with all the nations that joined in the fighting over the years of the war, and their colonies and close allies, and the major nation of Russia that fell apart during the war, and its associated nations and peoples, and Romania which came and went and came back again for the last day of the war, there is not a simple answer to how many nations were fighting the war.
There is a Wikipedia article that was downgraded to a draft for lack of references, and it is worth looking through just to get a feel for the difficulty in creating (or even defining) a complete list of WWI participants. The best-known battles may have been in Europe, but World War I was world-wide without question.
Shouting and Shooting
When the 94th Aero Squadron heard that the fighting was over (sounds like that word may have come down late on 10 November, though the Armistice was not actually signed till 5AM on 11 November) the rejoicing, according to Eddie Rickenbacker in Fighting the Flying Circus, involved much shouting and shooting, including yells, roars of laughter, hysterical whoopings, revolvers, Lugers, Very pistols, and machine guns. "Searchlights were madly cavorting across the heavens, paling to dimness the thousands of colored lights that shot up from every conceivable direction." Tanks of gasoline were rolled out and set on fire, and they danced around "burning tanks of good United States gasoline that would never more carry fighting aeroplanes over enemy's lines."
Greatest Show Ever Presented
Pilots were supposed to stay on the ground on the morning of November 11th, but pilots had their own minds and Eddie Rickenbacker tended to ask forgiveness rather than permission about lots of things. In this case, the result was such an iconic view of the end of the first war in the third dimension that it is still the best description of the Armistice 100 years later.
About 10:00 I sauntered out to the hangar and casually told my mechanics to take the plane out on the line and warm it up to test the engines. Without announcing my plans to anyone, I climbed into the plane and took off. Under the low ceiling I hedge-hopped towards the front. I arrived over Verdun at 10:45 and proceeded on toward Conflans, flying over no-man's-land. I was at less than five hundred feet. I could see both Germans and Americans crouching in their trenches, peering over with every intention of killing any man who revealed himself on the other side. From time to time ahead of me on the German side I saw a burst of flame, and I knew that they were firing at me. Back at the field later I found bullet holes in my ship.
I glanced at my watch. One minute to 11:00, thirty seconds, fifteen. And then it was 11:00 A.M., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man's-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer's seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man's-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.
Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.
Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.
But Was It Real?
The bullet holes in Rickenbacker's plane, as well as the Allied victory the previous day, and Roy Holtz having been taken prisoner three days previously, testified to the fact that it really was war up to 11:00. Naturally most soldiers (as in, other than new arrivals like Kirby who wanted to see some action) didn't want to take unnecessary risks when peace might mean such sacrifices would be made in vain, but on the other hand how much could you trust someone who had been your enemy for four years? Though the front-line troops had been friendly enough for a Christmas truce in 1914, the next three Christmases were not so peaceful. One could imagine all kinds of alternative histories happening at 11:00 on November 11th:
- Everybody is waiting for the other guy to stop, so nobody actually stops.
- One side's watches are wrong and they come out of the trenches only to be tragically mown down, and their countrymen fire back in revenge.
- Both sides stop until some unexploded ordnance goes off and scares everyone back into the trenches.
- The Prussians refuse to honor the agreement, insisting on national suicide rather than defeat.
- Maverick Americans refuse to honor the agreement because they just got here.
- Romanians, who just re-declared war yesterday, decide to get in some war stories of their own.
- Frenchmen refuse to let Germans go home alive.
- The British appoint themselves as Continental policemen, refusing to lay down their arms.
So the drama of the Armistice was real; the world was not at peace at 10:59 AM. Even though peace was expected, it could well have been delayed after "one last attack" and one retribution for that, and so forth. The amazing thing about the Armistice is that an agreement to stop fighting, so simplistic it could only ever work in a movie script, really did happen.
What an Awful Way to End the War
Another appropriate quote for this day is from Colorado cowboy ace Frederick Libby, back in the US in San Diego and like so many others, sick with the flu. Unlike many others, he has recently faced death in many forms and has something to which to compare influenza as a way to die.
On the night of the crisis where I either go over the hill or remain around, with a nurse fighting a strong battle to pull me through, I am conscious of a lot of whistles blowing, cans rattling and a continuous noise like a New Year’s celebration. I am too sick to mind, but my nurse goes to the front office to see what is happening. In a voice filled with emotion, she tells me it’s the Armistice. What an awful way to end the war, flat on my back, after more than four years of service, with the big show ended. I am in a room far away from all of my comrades. I have overheard whispers, which indicate that they expect to carry me out – feet first. It seems I’m the only one who doesn’t believe their whispers. I just couldn’t die in this bed this way. True, it might be better than going down in flames on the last day of war, so I pass out or go to sleep. In the morning I am very weak, with no fever and not quite sure about the noises, but my nurse assures me there is an Armistice and that I am out of danger. The war is over!
Other Thoughts on the Armistice
John Hedley, the "luckiest man alive" was alive but not feeling very lucky in a German prison camp. on November 11th. The prisoners assumed they would be released with the news of the Armistice, but the German officers in charge of the camp fled and the enlisted took over and started negotiating with the prisoners. Feeling that they were getting nowhere, the prisoners set fire to the camp, which caused a great uproar; "dogs howled and barked, church bells pealed in villages, and fire alarms went off all around." The guards, fearing a riot, agreed to the prisoners' demands for immediate release. The prisoners helped put out the fire, then walked out of the camp. Hedley arrived home in time for Christmas.
Ernst Udet's terse description in Ace of the Iron Cross shows the German understanding of the Armistice as a cease-fire, not a surrender:
And then comes the end, unbelievable for us who fought to the last. A peace none of us understand.
One day I hold in my hand a small piece of paper, my discharge.
In Black Swallow of Death, Eugene Bullard, still over there but not being allowed to fly as an American pilot, mourned his mascot monkey Jimmy, in one of the few (compared to its scope at the time) mentions of the flu.
When one is not at the front, time seems to pass fast, and the eleventh of November, 1918, was there in no time at all.
As I had enlisted for the duration of the war, I was very soon demobilized. Poor little Jimmy was dead then, a victim of the terrible influenza epidemic.
James H. Doolittle, not yet famous for his raid, was stuck in the US being an instructor in 1918. and kept sending requests through his commander to go to France. In his autobiography I Could Never Be So Lucky Again, he said, "When the armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918, I think he was grateful that he wouldn't have to sign those letters back to me anymore."
Recording the experience of a representative squadron of American aviators, Jack Stokes Ballard and James John Parks mentioned in The 147th Aero Squadron in World War I: A Training and Combat History of the "Who Said Rats" Squadron, "November 11th was not only the joyful date of the Armistice - it also was the first birthday of the 147th Aero Squadron. A party took place that evening, which lasted well into the early hours of the 12th."
Captain W. E. Johns, an RFC pilot in WWI who escaped from a German prison camp in 1918, in 1932 wrote Biggles: The Camels Are Coming as a fictional account for "a younger generation of air-fighters." However, he said, many of the adventures were actually true, since "in the air at least, truth is stranger than fiction." The book ends with the following conversation after the main character, Bigglesworth, crashes behind German lines:
Biggles looked up to see an officer of about his own age, in a tight-fitting pale-grey uniform, regarding him compassionately. He noted the Pour-le-Merite Order at his throat, and the Iron Cross of the First Class below.
'So you have had bad luck,' he said, in English, with scarcely a trace of an accent.
'Yes,' replied Biggles with an effort, forcing a smile and trying to get on to his feet. 'And I am sorry it happened this morning.'
'Because I particularly wanted to see a raid this afternoon,' he answered.
'Yes? But there will be no raid this afternoon,' replied the German smiling.
The German laughed softly. 'An armistice was signed half an hour ago - but of course, you didn't know.'
L. M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables series, said in Rilla of Ingleside, which was published in 1921:
Did I ever say November was an ugly month? Why it’s the most beautiful month in the whole year. Listen to the bells ringing in Rainbow Valley! I never heard them so clearly. They’re ringing for peace – and new happiness – and all the dear, sweet, sane, homeythings that we can have again now, Miss Oliver. Not that I am sane just now – I don’t pretend to be. The whole world is having its little crazy spell today. Soon we’ll sober down – and ‘keep faith’ – and begin to build up our new world. But just for today let’s be mad and glad.
Alvin York, in Sergeant York and the Great War:
The Armistice was signed. And they sure was a time in that city that day and night. Yes. say did you think that the armistice was sign on 11th month on the 11th day and the 11th hour of 1918. And a nother thing did you ever know that the war just lasted 585 days from the time that the President declared war against Germany until the armistice was signed and did you ever know that in this little short time of 585 days that the Americans was over here in France a holding a 77 mile frount in the Argonne forest.
I don't know that I can jes exactly tell my feelings at that time. It was awful noisy, all the French were drunk, whooping and hollering. The Americans were drinking with them, all of them. I never done anything much. Jes went to church and wrote home and read a little. I did not go out that night. I had jes gotten back there and were all tired. I was glad the armistice was signed, glad it were all over. There had been enough fighting and killing. And my feelings were like most all of the American boys. It was all over. And we were ready to go home. I felt that they had done the thing they should have done, signing the armistice.