Paris the first Armistice Day

Black and white photograph of a crowd celebrating the end of WWI in Paris.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in the year 1918, World War One, which had ravaged Europe for four years, officially stopped.  The Germans and their allies and the French and their allies finally opted for peace, though, out on the front, soldiers continued firing at one another with a peculiar intensity, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the momentous armistice that had taken effect that morning.  They were too numb, too habituated to fear and violence, to stop; and the thought that they would survive where so many had fallen was one they resisted with fury, with imperative force.  The prospect of living beyond their lost comrades filled them with dread and agony.  Only at night did the firing cease.  The exhausted warriors still unscathed sat around log fires (an unprecedented luxury), trying to absorb the fact of silence, to meditate on the implications of peace.

In Paris, crowds paused to stare up at photographers, their faces expressing many shades of emotion: jubilation, relief, fatigue, insouciance, confidence, diffidence, stoicism, distraction, perdurance, and the kind of camaraderie that victory spawns.  American troops, certain that their efforts had made all the difference, peppered the crowd with their innocent swagger.

A somber crowd in Paris on November 11, 1918, the end of WWI

On the margins of the celebration, grief and a kind of dazed stupor showed on many faces.  A woman veiled in mourning glided past a knot of blithely carefree young ladies. Four years’ combat had culled France’s population of 900 soldiers each day.  Most French citizens in this picture were likely to have lost one or several loved ones, for, of all the French forces that were mobilized, 18 percent of soldiers and 22 percent of all officers died.  At the Armistice, myriad French families remained filled with grief, pain, fear, and uncertainty.  Were their sons, brothers, lovers, husbands, and friends, who had been called to the front, still alive?  Whether the men still absent were dead, injured, missing, or alive might remain undetermined for an unbearably long time.  The unprecedented violence of this gruesome war inflicted grave wounds on European civilization.  Its poisonous consequences blighted the globe for decades, sowing grievances that outlived even World War Two.

4 responses

  1. A sobering post. Interesting about the number 11, and the fact that the shooting continued for another several hours with great intensity until the news arrived at the front. . . . I once read a piece of history about the Korean war. Just before the peace–or, I suppose, a “suspension of hostilities”–was signed, the very last days before it occurred, the fighting was horribly aggressive and awful, perhaps for the same reasons you wrote about.

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    • I didn’t know that about the Korean War, Harley. The way these wars ended was politically unsatisfactory, with no resounding “gains” even for the ostensible “victors” (in the case of WWI). So much had been lost in the war all around–how could peace bring much joy?

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  2. A sobering, well written post. I read that over 700,000 British troops were killed in WW I. The resulting gender imbalance in Britain made it hard for young women of that generation to find husbands. Although some did marry ( sometimes not until their 40s), many never did. The effect of the war on a whole generation was devastating.

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    • On Armistice Day, I read at random from a book called “14-18: Understanding the Great War.” It is written by French historians who work(ed) at a museum dedicated to the memory of WWI and tries to get at what the emotional and collective experience of the war was like, particularly for those (the French) on whose soil the war was mainly fought. Paradoxically, the grief and suffering of individuals is very elusive, and their guilt, too, over the horrid acts that all involved both witnessed and committed.
      For those interested, this essay by Neal Ascherson captures some of the emotional texture of war-traumatized France.

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