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.


The 1914 Christmas Truce

December 10
The 1914 Christmas Truce

In August, 1914, the world went to war. The Great War, they called it, or the War to End All Wars, before they knew enough to number them. World War I was a new kind of war. At first it was fought like men had fought wars for millennia, massed armies of men facing each other across a battlefield, then marching, row on row, toward each other to decide the outcome in bloody, hand to hand combat. But the dawn of the 20th Century brought with it more fearsome weaponry than the world had ever seen. Armored tanks crushed everything in their path, trees, stones and even men. Machine guns cut down soldiers faster and more efficiently than had ever been dreamed possible. The commanders on both sides soon learned that to march into battle as was the custom was nothing short of suicide. So a new kind of warfare, trench warfare, developed. Opposing armies dug trenches where the soldiers could hide. This led to a stalemate as neither side dared venture out of its respective trenches.
By December, the German and English/French armies faced each other in Flanders Fields and a dozen other places in France. Here, separated by about the length of a football field, the opposing forces ground to a halt. The land between the trenches was a no-man’s land. Anyone foolish enough to enter risked being shot by either side. As the weather turned colder, the trenches became miserable places. The men had little shelter from the elements. The trenches filled with water. Lice and rats infested their living quarters. Snipers on both sides took a dreadful toll on anyone whose head came above ground level. Another, silent killer, influenza, mercilessly cut down thousands more. Supply wagons couldn’t get through the mud and the troops on both sides were frequently hungry to the point of starvation.
As December dragged on toward a cheerless Christmas, a most strange and wonderful thing occurred. At several places along the Western Front, hostilities suddenly and inexplicably stopped. At one point along the lines, an English soldier wrote home that his group intended to bombard the Germans with all sorts of Christmas carols. Soon the sounds of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and others rang out across No-Man’s Land. The Germans responded with “O Tannenbaum”. First one side would sing, then the other. The Brits began singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”. The Germans joined in, singing the Latin words, “Adeste Fidelis”. One soldier wrote of this “Well this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”
One by one heads poked out and tenative calls to meet were made. Singly at first, then in small groups, and finally in droves men on both sides poured out, meeting in the middle, exchanging cigarettes, whiskey, cookies, dry socks, whatever they had that the others did not.

Lieutenant Edward Hulse wrote in his diary:

A scout named Murker went out and met a German patrol and was given a glass of whisky and some cigars, and a message was sent back saying that if we didn’t fire at them, they would not fire at us.

Lieutenant Bruce Barinsather also took part, and described it this way:

A voice in the darkness shouted in English, with a strong German accent “Come over here!” A ripple of mirth swept along our trench, followed by a rude outburst of mouth organs and laughter. Presently, in a lull, one of our sergeants repeated the request, “Come over here!”
“You come half-way – I come half-way” floated out of the darkness.
“Come on then,” shouted the sergeant. “I’m coming along the hedge.”
Presently the sergeant returned. He had with him a few German cigars and cigarettes which he had exchanged for a couple of Machonochies and a tin of Capstan, which he had taken with him.
On Christmas morning I awoke very early and emerged from my dug-out into the trench. It was a perfect day. A beautiful, cloudless blue sky. The ground hard and white fading off towards the wood in a thin low-lying mist.
“Fancy all this hate, war and discomfort on a day like this!” I thought to myself. The whole spirit of Christmas seemed to be there, so much so that I remember thinking, “This indescribable something in the air, this Peach and Goodwill feeling, surely will have some effect on the situation here to-day!”
Walking about the trenches a little later, discussing the curious affair of the night before, we suddenly became aware of the fact that we were seeing a lot of evidences of Germans. Heads were bobbing about and showing over the parapet in a most reckless way and, as we looked, this phenomenon became more and more pronounced!
A complete Boche figure suddenly appeared on the parapet and looked about. This became infectious. It didn’t take our Bert (the sergeant who exchanged goods with the Germans the day before) long to be up on the skyline. This was the signal for more Boche anatomy to be disclosed, and this was replied by our men, until in less time than it takes to tell, half a dozen or so of each of the belligerents were outside their trenches and were advancing toward each other in no-man’s land.
This was my first real look at them at close quarters. Here they were – the actual practical soldiers of the German army. There was not an atom of hate on either side that day; and yet, on our side, not for a moment was the will to beat them relaxed. It was just like the interval between rounds in a friendly boxing match.

One of the Germans, Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch, wrote in his diary:

Mockel from my company, who had lived in England for several years, called to the British in English, and soon a lively conversation developed between us. . . Afterwards we placed even more candles than before on our kilometre long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination – the British expresssed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.

In perhaps the most famous demonstration of brotherhood, German and British forces met in No-Man’s Land for an impromptu soccer (football) game. This was not an isolated incident, but was repeated at many places along the front. Lacking a ball, they used whatever was available, a lump of straw tied with string or an empty jam tin.
The informal cease fire stretched all across the 500-mile Western Front where more than a million men were encamped, from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border. This strange truce lasted for several days. One observer, Oswald Tilley, wrote, “This experience has been the most practical demonstration I have ever seen of ‘Peace on earth and goodwill towards men.’” It was never repeated again.