Insanity of World War I summed up in conflict’s final hours

Saint Symphorien Cemetery

Today is recognized as Veterans Day in the United States. Decades ago, it was known as Armistice Day, in remembrance of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

Given the inane nature of the First World War, it’s not surprising that fully 11,000 men were killed or wounded during the final few hours of fighting on the last day, even though it was known by nearly all in positions of command that the war would, at a minimum, be suspended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

Germany, after four-plus years of fighting and being subjected to a naval blockade that left it on the brink of starvation, was in chaos and nearing internal collapse. Following days of intense negotiations with the Allies just outside of Compiegne, France, the German government had ordered its representatives to sign any terms put on the table by the Allies.

The armistice was signed shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, but the actual ceasefire would not start until 11 a.m., to allow word of the agreement to travel throughout the Western Front.

“Technology allowed the news to go to capital cities by 5:40 a.m. and celebrations began before very many soldiers knew about the Armistice,” according to the History Learning Site webpage. “In London, Big Ben was rung for the first time since the start of the war in August 1914. In Paris, gas lamps were lit for the first time in four years. But on the Western Front, many tens of thousands of soldiers assumed that it was just another day in the war and officers ordered their men into combat.”

But it wasn’t mere accident that the lives of thousands of men were forfeit on the morning of Nov. 11. Many generals actually ordered their troops to fight on, even knowing the war was likely over.

Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the ceasefire didn’t hold, while others, such as American Gen. John Pershing, wanted to further punish the enemy.

Callously, a number of artillery units ordered barrages that morning for no other reason than to avoid having to haul crates of unused ordnance back to the rear once the guns were silent

American troops took particularly heavy casualties on the last day of the war.

Grave of Pvt. George Lawrence Price, Co. A, 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Price is recognized as the last British Empire soldier to be killed during WWI.

Grave of Pvt. George Lawrence Price, Co. A, 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. Price is recognized as the last British Empire soldier to be killed during WWI.

Pershing, who believed the terms of the Armistice were soft on the Germans, believed he needed to teach his foe a lesson. He supported commanders who wanted to be proactive in attacking German positions, even if there were but a few hours left before the ceasefire went into effect.

American attacks were launched as late as 10:30 a.m.

In particular, the Americans suffered heavy losses attempting to cross the River Meuse in the hours leading up to 11 a.m., with the Marines taking more than 1,100 casualties alone. Tragically, if they had been allowed to wait until 11 a.m. they could have crossed the river unhindered.

The 89th US Infantry Division was ordered to attack and take the town of Stenay on the morning of Nov. 11. The attack was successful, with Stenay being the last town captured on the Western Front, but it came at a cost of 300 casualties, according to the History Learning Site

The Americans weren’t the only Allied force who tossed away the lives of their soldiers in the conflict’s final hours.

Rather surprisingly given the casualties the French had taken during the 1914-18 war, some French units were ordered to attack at 9 a.m. and continue until 11 a.m.

The British got into the late action, too, seeking to recapture Mons, the Belgium town which was the site of one of the first major battles of the war in 1914.

Evidence of the Britain’s early losses and final casualties can be found in a cemetery just outside of Mons in the village of Nouvelle, where rest the graves of nine British soldiers. Five are from August 1914 while four are dated Nov. 11, 1918.

(Top: Saint Symphorien Cemetery, near Mons, Belgium, where some of World War I’s first and last casualties are buried.)

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6 thoughts on “Insanity of World War I summed up in conflict’s final hours

  1. I’m always amazed and so impressed at the beautiful way the war cemeteries are tended in Europe – both First and Second World War. It shows real respect that these brave souls have not been forgotten.

    • I was able to view several in 2009 and was also very impressed. It was staggering to see thousands of crosses laid out in neat row after row, in some places for as far as they eye could see, it seemed. Seems like the least the governments of the different nations could do.

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