Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Last Day of World War One

That was the title of an excellent documentary shown on Monday night, presented by Michael Palin, about the men who died - and continued to die - after the 1918 Armistice.

It's been on before and I saw it first time round. But it still makes fascinating viewing. It's this hinterland of Great War history - the margins, peripheries and hidden corners - that fascinates me. It's what led me to research and write about the great forgotten army, the men who continued to serve their King and country on the Western Front for up to three years after the 1918 armistice... finding and burying bodies. And slowly rebuilding their own lives. 

It's a little-known fact that a further 863 Commonwealth soldiers died on the last day of the Great War, many of them hours after the Armistice had been signed - but before, of course, the hour at which it was decreed that the fighting should be stopped.

The hopelessness of the German cause - following the failure of the Spring offensive - had probably been apparent for four or five months, from when the tide turned in July on the River Marne. Subsequent Allied offensives, starting with the British attack at Amiens on August 8th, virtually destroyed the German army. Back home, the Allied naval blockade was slowly destroying Germany. And then, of course, the Americans arrived. Although US involvement wasn't altogether effective (due to failures by their commanding officers - where have we heard that before?) the writing, for the 14-18 conflict, was already on the wall. 

So why did so many men still have to die? Why did the fighting go on for so long?

The answer is depressingly familiar and has a very topical ring - politics, specifically the wrangling of politicians failing to agree the terms of what they knew was coming.

But even when the ink was eventually dry and the document was sealed, the killing continued. On the morning of November 11th itself, news of the Armistice reached Britain in time for the late editions of the daily newspapers. There was cheering in the streets and bells were rung hours before the eleventh hour. But men were still being sent over the top and into battle. 

For what?

It's no secret that the US General John Pershing was unhappy with the terms of the Armistice, believing that the Germans wouldn't regard themselves as beaten and that 'we'll have to do it all again someday...' Prophetic words. And there are tales of newly-liberated Belgian civilians urging Allied soldiers on with shouts of 'Berlin! Berlin! La guerre ne pas finis!' 

But by then the damage was done, the Armistice signed and the clock was ticking.

But the guns kept firing. 

You can watch the programme for the next 28 days on BBC iPlayer. If, like me, what interests you about military history - or history in general - in not the highways but the by-ways, I'm sure you'll enjoy it. If what interests you is reading about a long-neglected by-way of history brought to life through fiction, then you might even like to consider pledging for my book, The Glorious Dead. You can find out all about it here: https://unbound.com/books/the-glorious-dead


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