Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. – It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. – Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace)
If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied. – Rudyard Kipling
So if you love your Uncle Sam
Bring them home, bring them home
Support our boys in Vietnam
Bring them home, bring them home – Pete Seeger
My good sir, what are you doing? Don’t you know the armistice goes into effect at 11:00 o’clock? – German officer under a white flag, to American officer
We’ll be back in twenty years. – Another German officer
Veterans Day was established in 1954 to celebrate all U.S. military veterans. In our modern memory, however, it has lost its connection with its original name, Armistice Day, which marks the anniversary of the end of World War I in 1918 and is still observed as such in Belgium, France, Brittan and many other countries. In 1938 Congress had made Armistice Day a holiday explicitly dedicated to perpetuating world peace. The shift from that stance to one praising those who fight, taken during the Cold War, should tell us much about the American psyche and the American empire. And an honest look at why so many died for so little might just compel us to consider renaming this holiday once again.
We cannot imagine the extent of the suffering. The Western Front stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea. Casualties on both sides averaged 2,250 dead and almost 5,000 wounded every day. Over four years, 3,250,000 were killed and 7,750,000 were wounded there. Total losses – including the Eastern Front, the Balkans, Austria, Italy, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa – were 8,400,000 dead and 21,400,000 wounded (of which seven million were permanently maimed), bringing total casualties to almost thirty million. Another 6,300,000 civilian deaths were attributed to the war. Then, the Spanish Flu, spreading before the end of the war and certainly exacerbated by it, killed an additional 25-50 million people.
Some soldiers refused to fight. Of 112 French divisions, 68 had mutinies. Fifty men were shot by firing squads. Three of those executions became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s antiwar masterpiece, Paths of Glory, in which a pompous general castigates his soldiers for retreating and talks of “patriotism.” Kirk Douglas, the officer who defends his men, enrages the general by quoting Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
This essay is about that last day of the war – actually, it’s about the last six hours. After arguing for three days, emissaries of the belligerents signed the armistice document at 5:00 AM on November 11th, agreeing that fighting on the Western Front would formally end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That left six hours, during which all the French and British generals and most of the Americans insisted on advancing everywhere, taking as much ground as possible (even though the armistice clearly demarcated what the new boundaries would be) and punishing the Germans until the very last moment.
I was reminded – brutally – of what happened during those last hours when I viewed Netflix’s new production of All Quiet on the Western Front. The new film departs from both Erich Maria Remarque’s book and the classic 1930 film in two significant ways:
1 – Most of the story takes place during the last three days of the war, regularly cutting back and forth between the ongoing carnage suffered by 18-year-olds in the trenches and the well-dressed, well fed diplomats and generals negotiating the precise terms of the armistice document in a finely-furnished rail car. It’s a clear contrast and an indictment of the old men who always send young men to sacrifice themselves.
2 – It depicts certain German generals as being so humiliated by the terms of the armistice and the personal loss of honor that, unwilling to surrender, they order a final, bloody attack on the allies. It ends with the protagonist dying, not from a sniper’s bullet on an “all quiet” morning (as in the 1930 film), but from wounds he suffers in those final, frenzied moments.
Both the original film and this new one are deeply anti-war and should be required viewing for all high school students. But any film presents a narrative with a point of view, and I was bothered by this one, because those last scenes invert history. It wasn’t the authoritarian Germans who flung thousands of boys at massed machine guns and artillery, knowing full well that the armistice had already been signed. It was the democratic French, British and Americans.
Hostilities on the Eastern Front had ended months before. Everyone was hearing rumors that the German Kaiser had abdicated and left the country, that Germany had become a republic, that Berlin was already a scene of revolutionary riots. German artillery had fallen silent in many places, only firing in response to Allied artillery. Some German troops were retreating toward home. Several units had mutinied. Over ten thousand had surrendered in the last week.
But the Allied generals insisted on more artillery bombardments and yet more mass infantry attacks, often uphill, over open ground – against entrenched machine guns – that should not stop until precisely 11:00 AM. They threatened to court martial any field commanders who might consider the humane decision to disobey, avoid any useless casualties and keep their men in the trenches until the shooting stopped. A few did just that, risking their careers, but the commanders of nine of the sixteen American divisions obeyed, sending their men forward. Some of the attacks began as late as 10:00 AM, and some units who had not heard the ceasefire order kept fighting (and dying) until 4:00 PM.
According to the most conservative estimates, during those last hours following the signing of the armistice, all sides on the Western Front suffered over 2,700 deaths (including at least 320 Americans) and 11,000 total casualties, 10% more than would occur on D-Day, 26 years later. “There was, however,” writes Joseph Persico, “a vast difference”:
The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided.
Why the mad, final advance and utterly unnecessary slaughter on 11/11/11? There seem to be two obvious themes here, and a third that requires a greater imagination of us.
The first is simple, understandable vindictiveness and the desire for maximum vengeance on the part of the French, whose farms, towns, forests and cities had been churned up for four years, and whose people had died in the millions.
The second, regrettably, was a final opportunity for glory and the possibility of career advancement. Accounts written by many of the senior officers such as Douglas MacArthur and George Patton make this quite clear. Patton, at least, was honest about his martial vocation:
We can but hope that e’re we drown
‘Neath treacle floods of grace,
The tuneless horns of mighty Mars
Once more shall rouse the Race.
When such times come, Oh! God of War
Grant that we pass midst strife,
Knowing once more the whitehot joy
Of taking human life.
We need to go deeper.