The World had seen nothing like it before. At least nine million men had died in combat and more than twice that number had been wounded. Untold and often uncounted millions of civilians had perished in the conflict itself and its many Ugly Sisters, such as the Armenian Massacre and the Russian Revolution. Sadly the ‘war to end all wars’, didn’t, and the process was repeated twenty years later with even more tragic and disastrous results.
But it had to come to an end at some point and eventually it did. Germany was in no position to fight on. The Generals did what they often do, made sure the blame was passed to politicians and then retired, or waited to get the whole thing started all over again.
Three days of intense negotiations in a forest near Compiegne in France yielded little more than an abject, unconditional surrender for Germany after one thousand five hundred and sixty-six days of fighting. Hostilities were to cease at 11.00 am on the 11th November, entirely coincidentally but poetically and memorably, the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month.
For the British Army it was a clear case of déjà vu. Their war ended where it had begun, outside the Belgian city of Mons. Which is why five of the first and four of the final British fatalities of the war are buried in St. Symphorien Cemetery a few yards, and nine million lives, apart.
The last British soldier to die did so at 9.30 am on the morning of the 11th. George Ellison from Leeds was serving in the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers when he met his end. He is buried facing the grave of John Parr, the first British fatality of the conflict.
You might expect a spirit of ‘live and let live’ on the last day of such an obscene war. But actually it was mostly business as usual. The American General Pershing decided his army had not lost nearly enough men and ordered vigorous actions to be conducted against the Germans right up to the 11th hour. More than 10,000 men were killed, wounded or were taken prisoner on the ultimate day. 3000 of those were American.
Irishmen responded in various ways, some with rapture, others with indifference and apathy. One Dublin Fusilier, the unrepentant southern unionist Captain Noel Drury wrote in his diary that ..
it’s like when one heard of the death of a friend – a sort of forlorn feeling. I went along and read the order to the men, but they just stared at me and showed no enthusiasm at all. One or two muttered “We were just getting a bit of our own back” They all had the look of hounds whipped off just as they were about to kill.
Another veteran, Frank Hitchcock of the Leinster Regiment, brother of the Hollywood director Rex Ingram recalled that …
The Brigadier had galloped up and yelled out: “The War is over! The Kaiser has abdicated!” We were typically Irish, and never cheered except under adverse conditions, such as shell-fire and rain. Somewhat crestfallen the Brigadier rode slowly off to communicate his glad tidings to an English battalion, who, no doubt took the news in a different way.
Terence Poulter, another Dublin Fusilier, who survived into old age, was more excited at the end of hostilities.
Approaching eleven o’clock in our sector you could have heard a pin drop. When eleven o’clock came there were loud cheers. The war was over as far as we were concerned.
Back in London Big Ben was rung for the first time since August 1914 while in Paris, gas lamps were lit for the first time in four years as the Great War finally came to an end ninety eight years ago, on this day.