(GERMAN OFFENSIVES and an ARMISTICE – continued)
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 of celebration 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, U. S. 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 overjoyed German soldiers, who cheered and fired flares in celebration through the night.
The influenza epidemic was now 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 fire power, 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.
People in the Allied nations were joyously claiming that a great victory had been won. God was thanked for having brought victory. In Germany and Austria-Hungary, God could at least be thanked that the war was over – the war that God was supposed to have sanctioned. The killing was over, but a lot of prayers had gone unanswered. 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 the Habsburg Empire, and the rule of Habsburg monarchs, King Karl abdicating on November 10. The war Nicholas had launched by mobilizing against Germany and Austria-Hungary had left him and his family dead. Wilhelm, who had recklessly given Austria-Hungary a blank check in responding to the assassination of the Archduke, was now in exile in Holland.
Germany would have been better off had it not tied itself to the Habsburgs. Germany had led in science and manufacturing, and what brought it down was not the stab in the back in 1918 imagined by so many Germans. What brought it down was an unwillingness to make a compromise settlement during the stalemate of 1914-15. The Russians, of course, as well as the Serbs, would have been better off if Tsar Nicholas had merely sent advisors and equipment to the Serbs and let the Serbs and the Habsburg forces fight it out – as the Italians and Franz Joseph 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 © 1998-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.