Reviewed by Neil Hanson / SF Chronicle – 2005-01-03 22:05:41
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour
Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax
By Joseph E. Persico / Ransom House (456 pp; $29.95)
Reviewed by Neil Hanson
(December 28, 2004) — At 5:10 on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, Germany’s military commanders signed the armistice that would at last bring four years of slaughter to an end. News spread rapidly through the ranks on both sides that the war would officially cease that morning — at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
However, celebrations in many parts of the Allied lines gave way to disbelief and then despair as it became clear that, armistice or no armistice, the attacks already scheduled for that morning were to go ahead as planned. A minority of frontline commanders allowed common sense and common humanity to prevail and called an immediate cease-fire.
As Joseph E. Persico shows in his book on those final moments, the rest, including the commanders of nine of the 16 US divisions on the Western Front, ordered their men forward in one final, futile assault.
Some did so simply because the previous orders to attack had not been rescinded and prudent soldiers did not question commands from their superiors, some because, as career officers, they saw it as their last chance for glory, medals and personal advancement before the peacetime ossification of the ranks, and some — reflecting the belief of their supreme commander, Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, that “there can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees” — from a desire to inflict the maximum possible punishment on German troops.
Dancing in the Streets while Soldiers; Dying in the Trenches
The armistice was announced on the radio in the United States as soon as it had been signed, but while late-night revelers and early risers in New York, Boston and Washington, DC, were spilling into the streets to celebrate, American soldiers were still fighting and dying on the Western Front.
At 10, 10:30 and even at 10:59, the guns were still firing and, knowing that the war was all but over, men were rising from their trenches, only to be met by a murderous hail of artillery and machine-gun fire. By the time the guns finally fell silent, 11,000 more casualties were strewn across No Man’s Land, more — as Persico points out — than fell on D-Day in Normandy in 1944.
Even in World War I’s four years of remorseless attrition, never had there been such pointless deaths. The terms of the armistice required Germany to cede all occupied territory, and every inch of ground gained at such cost that morning would have been handed over anyway within two weeks. Who could possibly have explained to that day’s fresh crop of grieving mothers, widows and fatherless children why their men’s lives had been so needlessly sacrificed?
‘Lions Lead by Donkeys
The “lions led by donkeys” view of the First World War has become unfashionable in recent years as revisionist historians have argued that the mountains of corpses were militarily justifiable, a necessary price to pay for the eventual victory.
Persico’s book is a timely antidote to that poisonous canard. He has all the attributes of a narrative historian: a sharp eye for detail, a storyteller’s gift for pace and the ability to sketch character with a few swift strokes. He also has a New Yorker’s knack for a mordant phrase: “Generals dealt with war at the wholesale level, but troops fought it retail.”
The images that he conjures are equally arresting: the English officer kicking a football toward the German lines — he was killed while the ball was still in the air; the suicide of the wife of Fritz Haber, the German progenitor of poison gas, in horror at what her husband had unleashed; troops marching to the trenches past steam saws “running day and night producing stacks of wooden crosses” for the victims of the next offensive; and while his men were floundering and drowning in Flanders mud, the English commander, Haig, having the track near his headquarters sanded to help his horse keep its footing during his morning canter.
Persico also explores the origins of barbed wire and tanks, the phrases “no-man’s-land” and “Blighty,” and the model for Churchill’s famous World War II “fight them on the beaches” speech, but this very diversity is also his weakness.
In ranging so far and wide, he comes close to burying the track of his narrative beneath a welter of extraneous detail. Nor is there much that is new in his account (he has drawn mainly on secondary sources), and he devotes much time and space to chronicling the already familiar course of the war, right from the assassination in Sarajevo that triggered the conflict.
However, he has pulled the threads together with great skill and produced an immensely readable account of a day that reflected in perfect microcosm the whole weary pointlessness of the “war to end all wars.”
As Persico concludes, “The retaking of Mons, site of the first British retreat of the war, might be seen as poetic closure. It could also symbolize futility. The British army was back where it started on the Western Front, some 700,000 lives later.”
Neil Hanson is the author of The Custom of the Sea,’ The Great Fire of London’ and The Confident Hope of a Miracle: The True History of the Spanish Armada (Knopf).
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle
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