On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns finally fell silent across the battlefields of Europe. It had been termed the “War to end all Wars” and until the onset of the next round of bloodletting a generation later would be referred to as “The Great War.” Today it is referred to as World War I and as the remaining handful of veterans die the horrors of this war are largely forgotten.
For more than four years the Great Powers of Europe had battered themselves bloody on the fields of Europe and the Middle East. The war outside these theaters (unlike World War II) was largely cursory. The German colonies across the globe – other than German East Africa where Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck carried on “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history” – fell fairly easily. Brilliant military victories were won along the Eastern Front, in Mesopotamia and Syria. Yet the war is largely remembered for the bloody stalemate in the trenches of Northern France.
The war saw the unrestricted use of chemical weapons (which almost claimed the life of a Corporal serving in a Bavarian regiment of the German Army), the first combat in the air and use of aerial bombardment.
After the dramatic Anglo-German naval race before the war, the war at sea was somewhat of an anti-climax. Having built a large and expensive Navy, the German Admiralty was unwilling to risk it being sent to the bottom of the ocean in a single afternoon. Likewise, the British were aware that their survival depended on control of the sea and were unwilling to risk it on the vagaries of combat. So the German Navy stayed in port and the British erected a strangling blockade that gradually starved Germany. After the tactically indecisive Battle of Jutland where the Germans failed to break through and the British passed up an opportunity to destroy the German fleet, Germany relied on a strategy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare which alienated American public opinion and contributed to America’s entry on the side of the Allies in 1917.
1917 saw great convulsions in Russia. The Tsar was forced to abdicate in March and a second revolution in November prompted by the failure to withdraw Russia from the war brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia then lunged into civil war and the Bolsheviks withdrew from the Great War under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.
Germany then made one final effort to knock France out of the War before American troops could enter the fray in earnest. They failed. By September Germany’s allies were collapsing. Bulgaria signed an armistice on September 29. The Ottoman Empire followed suit on October 30. Austria-Hungary signed an armistice on the Italian front on November 3. At the same time the German Navy mutinied and the ensuing unrest led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 9 and his flight to the Netherlands (where he remained until his death in 1941). The other German princes soon tendered their abdication and the German Republic was proclaimed.
On November 11 at 5:00 am an armistice was signed stipulating a ceasefire at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
In a fitting epitaph to the pointless deaths on the Western Front, American Henry Gunther was the last man killed in combat. He died a minute before the armistice, charging a bunch of surprised German soldiers who knew the armistice was about to take effect with his bayonet. Gunther was the last of 10 million soldiers and about 7 million civilians who died in the war.
With the guns silenced turmoil was about to be unleashed across Europe. That day the hapless Emperor Karl I of Austria issued a proclamation relinquishing “every participation in the administration of the State.”
He issued a similar proclamation for Hungary two days later. Karl was careful to avoid the term abdication and unsuccessfully tried to reclaim the Hungarian throne twice before his death in exile in 1922.
The next few days saw the re-emergence of the state of Poland with the proclamation of the Second Polish Republic. The new state would soon be embroiled in border conflicts with its neighbors and more serious war with Bolshevik Russia.
Germany, Bavaria and Hungary saw unsuccessful attempts to create Communist republics – all of which were suppressed by force.
The attention of Europe would soon turn to Versailles where the Great Powers attempted to redraw the map of Europe. Their ineptitude all but guaranteed another war.
While Western Europe gradually withdrew to an exhausted peace and America retreated into isolation, war continued elsewhere. Civil War in Russia continued for a few more years. Mustafa Kemal led a successful fight to create a Turkish state from the ash heap of the Ottoman Empire and thwarted a Greek attempt to create a Greek Empire in Asia Minor. The artificially drawn borders of the Middle East would cause turmoil (and still do today).
The map of Europe changed dramatically too. The Romanov, Hapsburg, Hohenzollern and Ottoman Empires were gone. Poland was resurrected. The Hapsburg ethic nightmare was replaced in the Balkans by the ticking time bomb of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (soon renamed Yugoslavia). Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Finland were the new independent states to grace the European map. The German colonies were divided among the victors – the Chinese possessions to Japan, East Africa to Britain, Cameroon divided among Britain and France, Togo to France. Italy (whose contributions to the war were largely inglorious) was disgruntled with its rewards (Austrian Tirol and Trieste), a state of mind that encouraged unsustainable ambitions in the future. Hungary lost 2/3rds of its territory resulting in another unhappy nation in the heart of Europe. The greatest resentment would be in Germany which was saddled with unrealistic war reparations, lost its imperial possessions along with Alsace and Lorraine and saw the Rhineland and the Saar occupied. Nationalist resentment and economic turmoil gave an opportunity to the aforementioned corporal to seize power.
These horrors were now in the future. The silencing of the guns would for now be celebrated and remembered as “Armistice Day,” “Remembrance Day” and “Veterans Day.” All was quiet on the Western Front.