The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day

November 11, 1918. Armistice Day. The day the Great War, the War to End All Wars, the war that was named World War I only after we realized it didn’t end all wars, only after we had to start numbering them, ended.

Beginning in September 1918 the Central Powers started to surrender, one by one. First Bulgaria, then the Ottoman Empire. Next the Austro-Hungarian army suffered a crushing defeat that effectively ended that country’s ability to continue fighting.  On October 29 the Italians capitulated, leaving only Germany.

On November 11, 1918, at 5:00 a.m. in a railroad car Germany signed an armistice. According to its terms, a cease fire would go into effect six hours later, at 11:00, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. World War I came to an end.

It wasn’t officially over until the Treaty of Versailles, which was finally negotiated and signed on June 28, 1919. The terms of that treaty were so onerous to Germany that World War II was inevitable. But for the time being, there was peace.

America Enters the War

Pershing arrives in Paris

When World War I began, the United States adopted a policy of neutrality. The majority of Americans favored staying out of foreign wars, which is what they considered World War I to be. However, Germany itself provoked the United States with its policy of unrestricted attacks on ships in the North Atlantic.

In 1915 a German cruiser sunk a private American vessel. The Germans apologized, calling it a mistake, and the U.S. was mollified for a time. Later in 1915 a German U-boat sank a British passenger ship, the Lusitania, off the Irish coast. Of 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans. The attitudes of Americans began to turn against Germany, especially since Great Britain was one of the United States’s biggest trade partners.

Still, Woodrow Wilson, Congress and most of American sentiment was against entering this war that really didn’t threaten citizens in the United States. But, in 1917, Germany became desperate to break the stalemate of the Western Front and announced that it was resuming unrestricted warfare in what it termed “war zone waters,” meaning the North Atlantic. Three days later the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany.  In late March 1917 Germany sank four U.S. merchant ships. On April 2, 1917, President Wilson asked for a declaration of war from Congress. Four days later that request was granted.

In June 1917 some 14,000 American troops arrived in France, led by General John Pershing. Pershing made a visit to a site sacred to the French, the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, who had come to the aid of the new American republic during the Revolutionary War. Pershing is reported to have said, “Lafayette, nous voila!”   (“Lafayette we are here!”). By this gesture, America said it was joining the war for the same reason Lafayette had come to the aid of the Americans: a hatred of autocracy and a desire to make the world a better, safer place.

The entrance of the United States proved to be a turning point in World War I. With fresh troops and the wealth of materiel available from the United States, the tide shifted in the Allies’ favor, leading to the end a year and five months later. It also marked a fundamental shift in America’s role on the world stage. By raising the American flag over French soil, the United States signaled it would bring its standard to the defense of liberty wherever necessary, and all but guaranteed its participation in World War II, still over 20 years in the future at that time.

This entry into World War I also positioned the United States as a world player who would ultimately engage in a long ideological battle with another country that was transformed by World War I: Russia, in its incarnation as the Soviet Union.

The 1914 Christmas Truce

Illustrated London Times

Between the start of World War I in August 1914, and the end of November 1914, a number of large battles were fought as the Imperial German Army first advanced into France on a strict timetable under the Schlieffen Plan, and then was beaten back by the strong defenses of Belgium, France and the BEF (British Expeditionary Force). In August 1914, alone, four large battles, Lorraine, Ardennes, Charleroi and Mons, had occurred. On August 29 the Allied forces counterattacked at Guise, but eventually retreated. August 1914 left 300,000 casualties on both sides, the start of the 16 million who would eventually lose their lives in World War I. The Great War has the distinction of being the first war in history where more lives were lost in battle than to the various diseases that inevitably accompany war.

In September the German advance began again, but was blocked at Nancy. Other attacks on major cities failed and by late September the German army was digging in on the north side of the river Aisne. Thereafter, both sides began a race to the sea in an attempt to outflank each other’s northern flank, circle behind enemy lines and be in position to attack from the rear. Both sides failed to outflank the other and by the end of November 1914 the Western Front was established and trench warfare began and would last for four years, until the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

On Christmas Eve 1914 a remarkable and unique thing occurred. At various places all along the 500-mile Western Front hostilities spontaneously stopped, Allied and German soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other, met in no man’s land, exchanged gifts, and played soccer. I have previously written in more detail about this strange incident in 2014 and you can read that post here.  The informal truce lasted for several days. The only report of disapproval of this cease-fire was lodged by a petulant German corporal named Adolph Hitler.


Trench Warfare

Popular images of the Great War are generally two. The first is the neat, clean image of bi-planes piloted by aviators in leather helmets with scarves flying behind them. The other is life in the trenches.

Trench warfare, where opposing infantry forces lived in trenches, long, deep ditches, that faced the opposing forces across an open area called “no man’s land,” was a result of the stalemate that occurred when Germany’s Schlieffin plan ground to a halt. Under that plan, Germany expected to move quickly through Belgium and then France. During August 1914 the Germans had success with this plan, winning several battles. However the German army ran into fierce resistance from Belgian and French forces at the Battle of Marne in September. The Germans had forced the British Expeditionary Force to retreat across the Marne River, only 30 miles from Paris. However the German commander deviated from the Schlieffin plan and attacked Paris from the east instead of the north. The Allied forces held; the Germans retreated back across the Marne and the stalemate began.

Life in the trenches was deplorable to say the least. Trenches filled with water so soldiers spent their days in miserably wet conditions. Disease was rampant. Constant bombardment from the other side’s artillery left many with “shell shock,” what we call now Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Going over the top” was a dreaded order. It meant storming out of the trenches, bayonets fixed to rifles, in an attempt to rush the enemy across no man’s land. Casualties were high and the tactic rarely worked.

The Schlieffin plan called for two fronts for Germany. The first was in Germany’s west, against France. Because Russia was France’s ally, the Plan also called for an invasion of Russia in the east. The battle against France and its Allies became known as the Western Front and gave rise to what is widely considered one of the greatest war novels ever written, All Quiet on the Western Front. The book was a gritty, no-holds-barred look at the horrors of the Western Front. Soldiers lost limbs and eyes. Horses blew up, showering men with blood and gore.  Men rooted through garbage for food. It was an international best seller that tapped into the sorrow following the War to End All Wars. Amazingly, only a few months after its publication, it was banned in Germany by the Nazi party.

The Great War


This November 11 will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. The United States entered into world prominence when it joined WW I on the side of the Allies in 1918. To commemorate and remember that war, I’m going to make a few posts, lest we forget.

The causes of World War I are debated by historians. It’s commonly said that the war began when the Austrian archduke Ferdinand and his wife were shot by a Bosnian revolutionary in the summer of 1914. But that was just the match laid to the tinder and kindling that had been set in Europe for decades.

Some historians point to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as a main cause. That war, won by Prussia, re-unified Germany. For decades France, it is speculated, was looking for an excuse to take on the Germans and get revenge for what was a terrible defeat. The re-unification of Germany also led to a number of alliances, two between Germany and Austria-Hungary, on one hand; and one among France, Britain and Russia and several between France and Russia, both of whom wanted to protect themselves against what they viewed as increasing German militarism.

For its part, Germany had been planning another expansion of its borders, with the development of the Schlieffen Plan in 1905-06. This plan, named after Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, head of the German Imperial Army, was developed as an offensive against the French Third Republic.

With the Schlieffen Plan for an invasion of France in place for over a decade, growing alliances between nations, rising imperialsim and nationalism, the fire was laid. All that was required was a match. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand provided that. Outraged by the deed, Austria-Hungary declared war on the tiny and all-but defenseless Serbia. It offered terms that were completely unreasonable. Serbia looked to its ally, Russia, with whom it had a pact. Austria-Hungary looked to its ally, Germany, in the face of Russian intervention. With Germany potentially entering the war, Russia turned to its ally, France. That provided all the incentive the Germans needed to implement the Schlieffen plan and invade France. France, in turn, sought Britain’s help.

World War I had begun.