Exactly 100 years ago today, the signing of the Armistice in a railway carriage in France’s Compiegne Forest, by the Allied Commander-in-Chief Marshall Foch and Germany’s representative Matthias Erzberger, signaled the end of World War One and the complete defeat of Germany, whose puzzled armies – returning from their French trenches – discovered a bankrupt homeland facing starvation through Allied blockades. Rejoicing in Britain was also muted due to the destruction of whole communities of young men, who’d often enlisted – a whole village at a time – then given their lives in the fury and insanity of battle without even glimpsing an enemy soldier. For this war-to-end-all-wars was above all a scientific war, a war fought with maps by commanders often several miles behind their own troops, pitting new and untried technologies such as mustard gas and tanks, against an unsuspecting enemy but often resulting – through carelessness or sheer bloody-mindedness – in death through friendly fire. Britain’s first deployment of mustard gas killed hundreds of our own troops merely because the commanders refused to postpone the attack until the wind was blowing in the Germans’ direction. Passing the site of the infamous Battle of Passchendaele, one British commander broke down in tears, unable to believe that they’d insisted men fight in such conditions. Such was the gulf between commanders and their soldiers on the Front.
But the greatest tragedy of World War One is that the Armistice was – with hindsight – the end of that war in name only. For the brooding Germans were left to question how on earth they could have been considered ‘the defeated’ whilst still fighting on French soil. Exhausted from the struggle they undoubtedly felt. But a beaten people? No. Nevertheless, the victorious Allies immediately demanded the payment of hefty war reparations from the already bankrupt Germans, so many reparations that tremendous resentment began to build in the German population. What the German public would never be told was that the army commander-in-chief General Ludendorff was to blame for having called the ceasefire that ended the war, having been suffering a temporary crisis of confidence. When Ludendorff learned how poor were the Peace Terms being offered by the Allies, he was both incensed and inspired to resume hostilities. By that time, however, his armies had lost the will to fight and had even begun to return home. At no time, however, would Ludendorff allow the army to take the blame publically for Germany’s defeat. To the new liberal government, therefore, fell the onerous task of signing the surrender papers. So to the German public, it was on the heads of these liberal politicians that the blame for the surrender was heaped. To future generations these politicians became disparaged as ‘The November Criminals’, betrayers of Germany. And it would be this fudged, scheming and somehow illegitimate conclusion to Germany’s role in World War One which would create the festering and brooding conditions of the 1920s that would facilitate the political rise of Adolf Hitler.
[Written by Julian Cope]
An excellent and insightful piece. I know I can sound a bit like a broken record with my “Gregory Bateson this…” and “Gregory Bateson that…” but if you ever get hold of a copy of his Steps To An Ecology of Mind, turn to one of the last essays — “From Versailles to Cybernetics”. In it he places blame for much of the horror of the 20th century directly onto the shoulders of the Treaty of Versailles and the short-sighted, vindictive manner in which the “victorious” powers treated the Germans. Bateson sees it not only in terms of the direct repercussions (the humiliation of Germany, the economic hardship and subsequent rise of Hitler) but in terms of the precedent it set for future international relations.
“The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. Even now, we are suffering from that disastrous decision.
Oooh… I’ve just realised the essay is online at: From Versailles To Cybernetics. Well worth a read.
I’ve been watching the BBC documentary narrated by Michael Redgrave lately on the good old youtube. It’s not quite clear how the ending really came about. America’s entry into the war seemed to swing it though, as we all know, but just before that it seemed that everyone had had enough. The promise of going beyond exhaustion to voctory on the back of overwhelming numbers arriving one day seemed to tip some psychological balance and by 1917 and 18 the English and French had become fanatical it seems. They had lost too much and gone through too much simply to call it quits. Retribution was called for. The wheels had come off, the ruling class had lost the plot.
Have a look at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rj40Pb-Igo especially the last 15 minutes.
Apart from the military / strategic reasons for the collapse of Germany – don’t forget the political. For all the German armies in France still willing to fight – there were mutinous soldiers, sailors and striking workers on the home front. The German revolution actually began before the end of the war – and a section of the ruling class decided that peace was preferable if it meant they could concentrate on preventing revolution and civil war. It’s an important lesson that we don’t have to be passive observers of our own fate.
Today being the 93rd anniversary of the signing of the Armistice , in the railway carriage at Compiegne; it seems appropriate to remember the terrible sacrifices made by the combatants, ‘ the flower of the youth’. My grandfather was an officer in the Durham Light Infantry, at the Battle of Passchendaele, that unbelievable hell on earth, where the men of Tyneside endured the most appalling horrors of death and destruction. But my chief recollection of my grandfather is that he would never speak about it. As Francis Thompson put it in his poem : “The Hound of Heaven”, ‘they speak by silences’. It is therefore perhaps in the great Silence, that those victims of the Great War still speak to us. As the Toc H prayer puts it, quoting A E Houseman : “At the going down of the sun; and in the morning, we shall remember them : Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn…’
A few years ago, my wife and I visited the magnificent memorial To The Missing, at Thiepval, site of a terrible battle and a vanished village, captured after a protracted battle, at a terrible price. Today, as at Delville Wood, the birds sing in the trees, which have grown, phoenix-like, from the shattered ground of the battlefield; and there, presiding over this most awful battlefield of the Somme, is Sir Edwin Lutyens’ great memorial arch, commemorating 73 000 ‘missing’, who have no known grave.
On either side of the Cross of Sacrifice, on the central axis of the great arch, are the respective cemeteries of 300 French and 300 British soldiers, most of whom have no name. the French inscriptions on their crosses say, simply ‘Inconnu’-‘unknown’; on the British headstones to the unknown, is written : ‘Known unto God’.
Most moving of all, is the inscription on the Cross of Sacrifice which records, in French and in English:’the eternal brotherhood’ of the Fallen of both nations. May they all rest in eternal peace, after the maelstrom of war.