At 2.05am, Monday 11 November 1918, a document emerged from a railway carriage stationed in the Forest of Compiegne. It was the Armistice Agreement and Germany's delegates were close to accepting the terms. After three days of talks, the German delegation stated they were ready for a fresh round of discussions. At 2.15am, thirty-four terms were read out by Maxime Weygand on behalf of the Allied Commander-in-Chief Marshal Ferdinand Foch and at 5.12am, the armistice agreement was signed and ammended to read 5am. The first of the terms was "Cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing of the armistice." The signatures set the timer ticking for the end of the war.
Most people in Britain were asleep when this important document was signed and even when they woke and went to work, they were unaware that their lives were about to change. Gradually, the news began to spread, both on the western front and the home front and soldiers were cheering around 8.30am when they received the news, although not everyone could quite believe it at first.
Sadly, on the western front, many more men died in the cold and the fog as the fighting continued until 11am. One victim was George Edwin Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, a middle-aged man who served right from the start of the war. He died at Mons where he started the fight in August 1914, returning to die where the war had begun for him. Sadly, he did not hear the strange silence that suddenly reigned at 11am.
Where the western front saw a sudden transition from noise to silence, at home it was the opposite. Many places deployed sirens and factory whistles and some people in London thought it was an air-raid warning and rushed for shelter and cover. Only an 'All clear' signal on the bugle would convince some Londoners that there was no danger. Crowds cried tears of joy, dancing and cheering in the streets energetically with a wild and wonderful carnival feel about it, rather than the day of mournful seriousness that Armistice Day has become.
But with the death of 10 million men and women, the question has always been asked , "Was it worth it?" At Passchendaele alone, there were between 240,000 and 260,000 British casualities and barely a foot of territory was won to justify it. They lived in holes in the ground. They were cold, wet and hungry as bombs, artillery, gas and air missiles fell around them with nothing in front of them except barbed wire and machine guns. And they barely survived in a world of pain, mentally unprepared to face the gas attacks, the extensive trenches with their unsanitary conditions and diseases and the shrapnel that blew bodies, faces and limbs apart. The very nature of trench warfare (where soldiers could and did look over the edge of the trench) was conducive to massive disfiguring facial injuries.
Society today struggles to grasp why our predecessors let it get to this stage but 100 years ago, most realised it was a terrible instance of Queen Victoria's three grandsons failing to understand each other. There was a very complicated and tangled German connection that ran through Victoria's veins. With both sets of parents and grandparents being German, it is understandable that she felt German despite being born in Britain. As such, it is easy to understand that Britain and Germany were the best of friends for a long time. The failure for her grandchildren, King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, to understand one another destined the world to expode on the battlefields as the biggest family squabble of all time.
None of us have forgotten the first cousin’s war, the War of the Roses. We have not forgotten the cruel battles, the harvest of heads that followed and we have certainly not forgotten the sight of wounded and defeated soldiers returning from the battlefields. There was nothing noble about those battles. Nothing like the romantic ballads depicting quixotic knights. During the first cousin’s war, heads were cleaved open by battle-axes and bellies were ripped open by swords. Men swinging great swords, war axes and pikes defended themselves against family members who only a decade before had been regarded as friends. It was a savage mess of brutish men killing each other for power. This time it would be more civilised. This time they would use guns and cannons and trench warfare as they scrambled in the mud over barbed wire towards enemy lines in an attempt to thrust a bayonet into the armpit or chest of the enemy. But the meadows would still be littered with corpses and the rivers would still run red as the snow fell softly on everything like frozen tears. Men would still hack and stab at each other. This time, instead of white and red roses, there would be blood-red poppies bobbing their heads knowingly.
As we know, the postwar world was not the promised land the soldiers longed for. While almost everyone dreamed of peace and normality, the war left too many unhealed wounds and unsettled debts. World War I saw the spilling of precious blood and the squandering of resources on a colossal scale and for four years, European powers put one-third of their national incomes into the fighting. Some said there would never be another war such as this. Sadly, they were wrong.
Sometimes we learn. Sometimes we don’t.