When the guns stopped, but the future kept happening

At 11 am on the 11th day of 1918’s 11th month, all of the guns fell silent.

They had been firing for more than four years without pause. From August 1914 Western Europe had been mutilated and shattered by continuous industrial warfare. Millions had died in what seemed like a science fiction war, with new and horrifying weapons (poison gas, submarines, flamethrowers, tanks, aircraft) ravaging lands that had just recently congratulated themselves on being the acme of human civilization. A generation was gutted in mud and futility.

And then it all stopped, at a single minute, from the North Sea to Switzerland.

A desperate German embassy, crossing over the war’s hellscape, had met with victorious French and British (but not American nor Italian) leaders in a railway car parked in the woods around Compiègne.   The German representatives, low-ranking enough to be insulting by their very selection, had sought a cease-fire.  But faced with fierce Allied demands, escalating military defeat, previously unthinkable mutinies, and then the sudden implosion of their Reich, they were forced to agree to much more.  (There had been a false peace alarm four days earlier: a touch of fake news.)

For the tens of millions of soldiers fighting in and east of terrifying trenches, the onset of peace was something miraculous.

At that moment, the Times correspondent Edwin L. James wrote from the front, “four years’ killing and massacre stopped, as if God had swept His omnipotent finger across the scene of world carnage and cried, ‘Enough!’”

US troops cheer WWI end

American troops celebrate

Thomas Hardy responded in verse:

Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars lank and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years’ dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;
And murmured, ‘Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?’
Aye; all was hushed.

Miraculous could also mean unsettling, weird: “a thick white mist over the whole district, which hid everything over a distance of twenty yards from you”:

In one way this dense white shroud, though not in keeping with the joyfulness of the occasion, agreed with what was by far the most striking feature about the cessation of hostilities—uncanny silence. After what I have known of the front for the last four years or more, it seems incredible to be standing here with all the paraphernalia of war lying about, and the air to be absolutely still, and the silence unbroken by a single shot.

WWI endYou can even listen to it.

It’s an astonishing moment.  It fills our imagination.  I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak to it – twice.  The symbolism amazes.

And yet.  Such periods are rarely what they seem.  They simplify.  They attract our attention, drawing it away from other stories.  Clean breaks are a known problem for historiography; they should also be a caution for futurists.

How can I say this?  Because at 11 am on 11/11/18 the Great War’s bloodshed and and the forces it unleashed didn’t end.  The violence and political turmoil surged on, even on November 11th itself.

For example, the East African front saw fighting for two more weeks, as von Lettow-Vorbeck continued his guerrilla campaign against the British empire.

In the former Russian empire civil war raged in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. Fighting would include not only battles between Reds and anti-government Whites, but an anarchist uprising, a revolt in Petrograd itself, and  a Soviet invasion of Poland aimed at Berlin.  The victorious Allies actually invaded the USSR, preferring in the end to call the doomed failure an intervention instead. In fact, on November 11th itself, British, Canadian, and American troops invading the USSR fought a small battle with Bolsheviks.

Elsewhere in eastern Europe Latvia would successfully fight for its independence, a war which ended in 1920. Hungary would experience a short-lived Communist government in 1919, as would part of the new state of Czechoslovakia.  Finland, an independent nation for the very first time, still bled from its horrible 1918 civil war.

Post-Ottoman Turkey would revolt against an Allied-imposed treaty (“signed on 10 August 1920, in an exhibition room at the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres porcelain factory”) and go on to successfully fight Armenia, France, Britain, and especially Greece through 1922, culminating in the forced resettlement of 1.6 million people and the creation of today’s Turkish Republic.

Elsewhere in former Ottoman lands now “administered” by the Allies, Egyptians would revolt against British occupation in 1919, as would Iraqis in 1920.

After signing the November 11th armistice, German civilians would continue to suffer the Allied naval blockade for another half year. Germany’s new republic would be wracked by civil disturbances for years. Fighting broke out around Berlin in December. A Spartacist uprising occurred in January 1919, along with a Bremen Soviet. Bavaria formed a Soviet Republic in April 1919. Freebooting militias, Freikorps, would fight left-wing movements and assassinate people, like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in January 1919. Ruhr workers revolted in 1920. Poles and Silesians would rebel against Wiemar for three years.

Spain would go through civil unrest and revolts (“Three Bolshevik Years“) culminating in a military dictatorship in 1923.

Italy would experience escalating unrest from left and right. In 1919-1920 Gabriele d’Annunzio led WWI veterans in seizing the city of Fiume, which has just been assigned to the new Yugoslav Republic. Italy would experience the first anti-fascist local revolt in 1921 then the imposition of Europe’s first fascist national state in 1922.

Ireland, in the wake of the war’s Easter Rising, would wage a war of independence from Britain (1919-1921), then fight a bitter civil war in 1922-23. During Cogadh na Saoirse Limerick created its own Soviet in 1919.

The United States, a power that arrived very late to the war, was already undergoing its first red scare in November 1918.  Race riots in 1919 – i.e., white people attacking blacks, including veterans – would build into the Red Summer.  The Battle of Blair Mountain between capital and insurgent labor would occur in 1921.

Meanwhile, “the Spanish flu” – also known as the Great Influenza continued to kill millions more.  That ultimately took 50 to 100 million lives, on top of World War I’s butcher’s bill of 15-19 million.

So at the very least we can track these WWI continuations and echoes for five more horrendous years.  Indeed, Robert Gerwarth argues that we should date the war’s end as 1923.

Why, then, are our eyes drawn to 11/11/18?  I think a major reason is the long-standing* divide between eastern and western Europe.  People in the latter usually avoid paying attention to the former.  This is especially true in the United States, where “Europe” usually means “Britain and France and maybe Germany.”  The former Ottoman lands are even more neglected.  The armistice we celebrate today was only for one of WWI’s fronts.

A great deal of the violence follows from Allied mistakes and disasters, from the stupid invasion of the Soviet Union to the failed attempts to manage Turkey.  The armistice lets us avoid all of that unpleasantness in favor of celebrating a clear victory instead.

Moreover, much of the chaos stems from left-wing revolution, both from Soviet-inspired movements and their rising right-wing opposition, which rapidly develops into fascism.  Seeing 11/11 as a clean break neatly sidesteps the left-wing political challenge, while avoiding acknowledging the right’s rise even at the moment of Allied victory.

Finally, the settlement of WWI famously (or notoriously) led straight to the even greater disaster of WWII.  Focusing on November 11th, 1918, lets our attention pause without looking ahead.

Please don’t interpret this post as an argument for not recognizing the armistice.  Quite the opposite.  As many of my readers and friends know, I’m keen to increase our awareness of World War I.  I also recognize the date as a way to commemorate the unspeakable suffering that war entailed.

But I want us to think more carefully about that date.  We need to be careful about such clear punctuations and understand their limitations.  Especially when we look ahead in forecasting, we have to keep our eyes open for all stories, not just the ones with such astonishing endings.

*I date the split to the 11th century.

(thanks to lharmon for the audio link)

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11 Responses to When the guns stopped, but the future kept happening

  1. Ann Anderson says:

    Thank you very much for this. It’s good to keep in mind the greater story of that war and not just the Western European part.

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the Armistice Centennial - Strigiforms

  3. Tom Haymes says:

    As you know, I’ve always subscribed to Tolstoy’s view of history as waves of forces transforming the landscape of humanity.

    On another note, it’s interesting how far these things extended. There is a cemetery in Terlingua, Texas in the Big Bend of the Rio Grande, about as remote a place as you can imagine. The town was born out of a mercury mine, which is about as dangerous an occupation as you can imagine. There is a really cool cemetery there. But is it filled with casualties of the mine? No. Most of its inhabitants are there from the Influenza Epidemic of 1919.



  4. Malcolm Brown says:

    Thanks, Bryan, good column!

    I think one of the most fascinating events of this war occurred at the beginning: the so-called Christmas ceasefire of 1914. Soldiers from the opposing sides sang carols, traded cigarettes, played soccer, etc. Interesting contrast: the big political agendas that Bryan describes re-channeled the war’s violence, but this spontaneous grass-roots event engendered peace.

  5. Peter Hess says:

    Great history lesson. Not a lovely story, but one we need to face up to.
    Thanks Bryan.

  6. the Sykes Picot fallout is still with us

  7. mkt42 says:

    That recording of the cease-fire was interesting. Eddie Rickenbacker, the American fighter ace, in his autobiography wrote that the American commanders grounded all planes that morning, but Rickenbacker disobeyed orders because he “wanted to see the war end”. So he flew over the trenches and said that just before 11 both sides were firing madly at each other but when the 11th hour arrived they abruptly stopped, cautiously emerged from the trenches, and then started relaxing and fraternizing with each other.

    A nice story but I’ve often wondered how authentic it was. With the 11th hour looming, wouldn’t it make more sense to just sit quietly instead of taking potshots at the enemy? The recording suggests that things happened much as Rickenbacker described — assuming that the recording is authentic. I’m not sure if I buy the birds tweeting after the shooting stopped. Would birds even be around the front?

    • Ton Zijlstra says:

      It’s not an authentic recording. It is a reconstruction of the image you see in Bryan’s posting. Those type of images are ‘sound ranging’ where sound waves were recorded on photographic paper, and used to determine the location of enemy guns. The sound waves depicted on that image of around 11:00 on Nov 11th 1918 have been interpreted from that image, by Coda to Coda in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum (who have the original image). So those birds likely are a romantic embellishment.

      • mkt42 says:

        Thanks. Fascinating on several fronts: the notion of taking a picture of sound (yes the idea had been around for decades and even put into practice prior to Thomas Edison but it is still intriguing to see practical use being made of the concept); using it for location and ranging and counter-battery fire; recovering actual sounds from those “photos”; and evidently the big guns were indeed firing until 11am.

        I heard a story on the radio yesterday that one Allied commander had told his troops to keep advancing as far as they could until 11am, so one could imagine that the Germans in reaction might’ve been firing as fast as they could until 11am.

        So despite the various inauthenticities of the recording, it has some fascinating authentic history behind it. And maybe Rickenbacker’s story does check out. (I still don’t believe the birds though.)

  8. Peter Shea says:

    Some great resources on WWI.

    “A global guide to the first world war” (interactive documentary)

    “They Shall Not Grow Old” (Colorized footage of WWI)

    “A Street Near You” (Interactive map showing where soldiers once lived)

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