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Joy in the Streets

News of the armistice brought cheering that exceeded that at the beginning of the war. People in England stopped work. Crowds there surged through the streets. Sirens screamed, church bells rang, factories blew their whistles, and those few with cars honked their horns. In Trafalgar Square a vast bonfire was lit. An elated King George V sent messages to the heads of state of Britain's allies referring to a "triumph of right and justice" and "a glorious chapter of the history of freedom."

In Paris the celebrations were as intense, with guns firing and so much other noise that people could not hear one another talk. People walked arm in arm, American soldiers among them, and the celebrations in the streets went into a second day. People also celebrated in Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and in Palestine.

News of the armistice reached New York at three in the morning, and immediately church bells began ringing. After daybreak people paraded joyously in the streets. President Wilson went before Congress, where he was heartily cheered, and to Congress he said: "The victorious nations will set up a just peace throughout the world."

In the trenches, US troops fought to the last minute. General Pershing was disappointed because he wanted to take the war into Germany. But at eleven p.m., when the armistice officially began, the frontline troops, officers and enlisted men, were overjoyed. They cheered. Officers and enlisted men fraternized, and enlisted men crossed over to Germans in their trenches a short distance away. And to the surprise of the Americans, they found the German soldiers joyous.

People in the Allied nations were joyously claiming as had King George V that a great victory had been won. God was thanked for having brought victory.

The influenza epidemic had been winding down. It had spread from Europe to every corner of the United States. In previous times, influenza had been killing five persons per thousand people per year, but recently it had been killing four per thousand per week. More American soldiers had died from the flu than from enemy firepower, and thousands of wounded had died because they were weakened by the disease. In the winter of 1918-19, over 500,000 Americans died from the flu and its complications. The development of a vaccine to combat the virus would not occur for another fifteen years.

The British Empire had lost over 908,000 – to be described in a London Times headline as the glorious dead. Many more were maimed and disfigured. Britain's young aristocratic males, who had become lieutenants and had led the vain charges against German lines early in the war, had been wiped out.

France had suffered 1,357,000 dead – around 10.5 percent of the entire male population. Germany had suffered an equal number of military deaths in proportion to its greater population, deaths numbering 1,773,000. Austria-Hungary had suffered 1,200,000 dead, Italy 650,000, the Ottoman Empire 325,000, the United States 126,000, and Japan 300. Civilian deaths were not counted, but they must have numbered in the millions. Russia's population alone was 39 million less than the 171 million it had been in 1914.

The war Franz Joseph had started in order to preserve his empire, was ending with the breakup of that empire. Franz Joseph's successor, Charles, abdicated on November 10.

Wilhelm, who had recklessly given Austria-Hungary a blank check in responding to the assassination of the Archduke, was now in exile in Holland.

What brought disaster for German was not its army "stabbed in the back" in 1918 imagined by many Germans. The German nation was brought down by poor leadership and a bad public attitude: Germany's unwillingness to hold or to pull back to defensive positions and negotiate its withdrawal from the war – the "rotten peace" that many German patriots wanted to avoid.

The war Nicholas had launched by mobilizing against Germany and Austria-Hungary had left him and his family dead. His subjects the Russian people, and the Serbs he wanted to help, might have been better off if he had merely sent the Serbs some material assistance and let the Serbs and the Habsburg forces fight it out – as the Italians and Austrians had in the mid-1800s.

And the answer to the question whether the United States accomplished their goal in entering the war – to make the world safe for democracy or to end all war – was about to unfold on the world stage.


No Man's Land: 1918 the Last Year of the Great War, by John Toland, 1980

Tormented Warrior, by Robert Parkison, 1979 (a biography on Ludendorff)

The First World War: A Complete History, by Martin Gilbert, 1996

To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the quest for a New World Order, by Thomas J. Knock, Oxford U. Press, 1992

The First World War: an Illustrated History, by A J P Taylor, 1963

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.