Armistice day: the end of hell on earth

The First World War destroyed more than just lives. It was an assault on the mind. Today it’s Armistice Day – 99 years since the moment when the guns fell silent across Europe after four years of warfare driven by all the power that the industrialised economies of the west could muster. The moment – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – became legend.

A New Zealand 18 pound gun in action at Beaussart, France, during World War I. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association 1/2-013221-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22371427

Today it’s when many countries remember all their war-dead. But it was not pre-destined. The likelihood of Germany seeking an armistice grew during October 1918 as the German government steadily collapsed in the face of Communist agitation. Still, nobody quite knew whether it would happen: the German army was retreating but had yet to be decisively defeated in the field. In this edited extract from my book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front (Oratia, Auckland 2017) we pick up the New Zealand side of the story.

The New Zealand forces were pulled out of the line on 9 November and were on their way back to the reserve positions next day when news came that the Germans had agreed to an armistice. It was a salutary moment. As James Evans put it, the ‘Huns have until 11 am tomorrow to decide whether they will accept the Allies armistice terms or not . . . Great joy amongst troops.’

Harry Glass, then in Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain, wrote joyfully to his wife that it had been a week ‘full of glorious good news . . . we are expecting word at any moment that the Hun has accepted our armistice terms, and of course that means the end.’ The next day, 11 November, dawned cold in northwestern Europe with ‘every appearance of snow’. There was a sense of hopeful anticipation. Nobody quite knew whether the German delegation would sign the armistice – but they did, at 5 am, committing themselves to a total cessation of hostilities in just six hours. After four and a half years, the most intense war yet seen in the history of the world was in its final moments – and it was unbelievable. There was a sudden scrabble for tactical position, and with reason. The rank and file certainly believed the armistice was – as Glass put it – ‘the end’. But the armistice still had to be ratified by Germany on a 72-hour deadline, and could be cancelled in any event at 48 hours’ notice. The British had no intention of being caught on the back foot if fighting broke out again.

My photo of soldiers' graves at Tyne Cot, Flanders.
My photo of soldiers’ graves at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres.

The result was a sudden eruption of action along the front – and the last effort of the war was led by a New Zealander. By 1918 Bernard Freyberg was a Brigadier-General in command of the British 88 Brigade. With just 90 minutes to go, he was ordered to secure a bridge over the Denre River at Lessines – a vital tactical crossing which the British did not want the Germans to demolish. Freyberg was ten miles distant when the order came, and personally led a detachment of 7 Dragoon Guards down the road to the town at a gallop. They came under sniper fire as they arrived, and captured the bridge – by Freyberg’s watch – at 10.59 am. The Germans argued otherwise; but their protest fell on deaf ears, and the British awarded Freyberg a second bar to his DSO.

At 11.00 the guns fell silent.

By this time the New Zealand Division was in the rest area behind the lines near Beauvois, ‘more or less . . . wilting away on leave’. Russell welcomed the moment: ‘Thank God!’ Yet for most the news brought only a sense of stunned disbelief. ‘It is hard to realise that it is really here,’ Evans confided to his diary. N. E. Hassall realised that some of the New Zealanders did not ‘know quite what to do’, and ‘we just wandered aimlessly about doing nothing’.The men were, as Hugh Stewart put it, emotionless; and this was not restricted to the division. Glass found the men in Sling Camp ‘taking things a bit quieter than I expected’, though they were all ‘beastly glad’ at the news. Nurse Fanny Speedy heard the bells of London ring out around her. ‘Peace, blessed peace,’ she told her diary; but then admitted that the moment seemed ‘too big to realise and too sad to understand’.

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The fact was that the war had destroyed more than just lives; it was an assault on the mind. It filled souls with its intensity, and the end of the torment provoked only a void. Nobody could believe that their seemingly endless life of horror-filled darkness, snipers, flares, whiz-bangs, mortars, artillery, wire, gas, death and all the visceral horrors of the front was finally over. The sudden end – although trumpeted, announced and long anticipated – was too much for minds battered by months and years of terror to take in. As the guns fell silent, men all along the front felt only a vacuum, a sudden emptiness as the strength they had been using to withstand the strains faded – but they could find nothing, at first, to replace it. The mood persisted, certainly among the New Zealanders. ‘There has been little, if any, exuberant display of enthusiasm over the armistice here,’ Russell remarked a few days later. ‘I am only exercised as to how to keep the men amused, interested and occupied.’

If you want to read more of the New Zealand story, check out my book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front, available from all good New Zealand bookshops or directly online.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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7 thoughts on “Armistice day: the end of hell on earth

    1. Thanks! They are poignant words indeed. And to me they sum up the key dissonance of the First World War; the enormity of it on a human scale contrasted with the intensity of the personal experience. Fanny Speedy wrote an extensive diary – later in the book I cite her return to New Zealand and how she felt rather flat. This was a common experience and, to me, underscores the sheer scale of that war on a human and emotional level.

    1. I think they did. What struck me – over and again in the diaries and letters I read through when researching this book – was the sense of emotional emptiness as the guns fell silent. The war had been so encompassing, so intense as an emotional experience, and so persistent, that when it was over nobody in the field could quite believe it.

  1. One day your are, in effect, something larger (or perhaps “other”) than life, and the next day you go back to being a clerk in a shop. Glad of it, sure. But the sense of being part of something larger than yourself (and one could indeed argue the absurdity of it) means part of you keeps that, when it’s gone, with nostalgia and even a sense of loss.

    1. Too true. One of the issues I tackled in that book was the fact that most of the Kiwi soldiers were, indeed, everyday people – drawn from all walks of life (I found the specific data which, naturally, the army collected and collated…). As a citizen army, none had been properly trained as soldiers; yet they were expected to do things that were unthinkable in normal civilian life. The ways in which they coped were integral to the emotional depth of the whole experience of that war. This was true, I am sure, for all the combatant nations – and true again in the Second World War, and so on. The nearest I could come to it – which became a major theme of the book – was a kind of Bilbo Baggins/Luke Skywalker ‘hero’ journey: there and back again, and while ‘there’ they were transformed in ways they could not imagine. Inevitably, being the real world, the war experience did not necessarily transform them in the positive ways of fiction.

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