The so-called Great War has an awful fascination for me. Yes, so many men responded heroically under inhuman conditions. But many of these conditions were created by (in Sting's phrase) "corpulent generals, safe behind lines", who gave orders that brutally disregarded the lives of the men who served under them, and were often made regardless of the actual conditions, but based more on tradition and limited understanding of modern warfare.
And so Gallipoli, Passchendaele, the Somme and many other names have become part of our history and folklore, and testimony to military and political folly as well as human resilience and bravery, as millions died for no real gain.
That much I already knew. But I only learned of the even greater folly of the last days of the war in a recent BBC documentary, The Last Day of World War One.
The Allies and the Germans had been negotiating a cease-fire, virtually a German surrender, for several days. On the morning of the 11th November, 1918, between 5:00 and 6:00 am, the cease-fire was signed by both parties, to come into effect at 11:00 am - presumably to allow time for all field units to be notified. The generals knew about the imminent cease-fire hours beforehand.
Most field commanders stood their troops down, resting until the cease-fire, when they could safely leave their trenches. But, inexplicably, in a war characterised by enormous loss of life for very little gain in ground, some generals ordered their men to continue fighting, with continued loss of life. Incredibly, a total of 11,000 casualties (killed, wounded or missing) were sustained on Armistice Day, more than the casualties on D-Day in WW2.
Some of the stories are poignant, most show disregard for human life, all induce anger and grief.
- The last British soldier to die was Private George Ellison, aged 40, who had survived more than 4 years of trench warfare, artillery bombardments, gas attacks, tanks, machine guns and snipers that had killed more than a million of his fellow Britishers, only to miss out on returning to his waiting wife and child by less than ninety minutes.
- The last French soldier to die was Augustin Trebuchon, a runner bringing the message of the cease-fire to troops on the front line, just 15 minutes before it took effect.
- Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was still fighting, needlessly chasing German soldiers from houses that they would be vacating after the cease-fire, and was shot with just 2 minutes of the remaining. (It may be that Price's death was the result, not of orders, but of reckless action by his patrol.)
- And US soldier Henry Gunther participated in a charge on entrenched German positions. The Germans, knowing the cease-fire was imminent, waved the charging soldiers back, but they kept coming, and Gunther was shot just 1 minute before the end.
- It appears that the last German soldier to die was shot after the armistice came into effect. Leutnant Tomas approached US soldiers after 11:00 to arrange the evacuation of his troops, but was shot because the US soldiers had not been informed of the cease-fire.
After the war, the reckless disregard of some US generals for the lives of their men was questioned:
- General Wright's troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves (a few hours earlier than could have occurred after the cease-fire). That "lunatic decision" cost something like 300 casualties.
- Maj Gen Sumerall sent his troops out on one last attack across the Meuse River with these words: "I don’t expect to see any of you again, but that doesn’t matter. You have the honor of a definitive success–give yourself to that."
- General Pershing, the US commander, thought the Allies should have pursued the Germans all the way to Berlin, to utterly defeat them, believing the Armistice would only pave the way for further conflict in the future as the Germans would not believe they were defeated. History suggests that it was the ignominy of the defeat that led in part to World war 2, suggesting Pershing's bellicose judgment was in error. But, ironically, one of the German soldiers who survived the war but may have been killed if Pershing had his way, was Corporal Adolf Hitler. Pershing was later questioned by a US Government committee about his decision to keep fighting right up to the Armistice, and he defended it on the grounds that he did not trust the Germans to surrender. (One would have thought that he could have waited to see, and dealt with that situation if it occurred.)
And so the terrible "war to end all wars" claimed its last unnecessary lives, truly a monument to human folly.