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.

A war with an end

Massive crowds gathered around a replica of the Statue of Liberty near Philadelphia's city hall to celebrate news of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.
On this day, many nations pause to remember their war dead, the soldiers who have served and fallen, especially those who served in World War One.

What the US celebrates as Veterans Day began as a peace celebration on November 11, 1918, with the end of the pitiless conflict known as World War One.  The announcement that the war had ended with the signing of a multinational peace agreement, or Armistice, triggered massive spontaneous jubilees in many places worldwide.  In Europe, the States, Canada, even New Zealand and Australia, vast crowds gathered in the ceremonial centers of cities to cheer the end of a struggle that had cost the warring nations many millions of lives.

This marvelous photograph shows Philadelphians celebrating the word of peace that day.  Horrible as the war was, the photograph conveys a feeling of pride, even as it commemorates a sort of war unfamiliar to us today.  For World War One had a definite beginning and end.  When the United States entered the war on 4 April 1917, it was with a formal declaration of war from Congress.  President Woodrow Wilson had struggled to maintain a stance of neutrality toward the war for the previous two-and-a-half years, during which time public sentiment in favor of the war had gradually built.

Once the US had entered the war, there was a draft.  Over a million men were mobilized.  By the end of the war, 18 months later, American forces had suffered some 320,000 casualties, the majority being wounded, with tens of thousands being lost to death and disease.  Being at war demanded something from all society, taxing the economy to its limits and requiring sacrifice on the part of civilians, as the signs around the Philadelphia square suggest.

Hence the massive outpouring of joy when the war reached a definite end, and the blessed condition known as peace was attained for a time.

Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.  Click on the image to go to the source.

Christening the Quistconck

The SS Quistconck launched (Courtesy of the NARA via Wikimedia Commons)

5 August 1918

There were no speeches, it being a hot day.  So, with a minimum of ceremony, and before a crowd of some 60,000 people, the new First Lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, clumsily christened the new cargo ship, the champagne splashing off its hull and all over her lovely dress of lavender voile.  A small detail lost in the excitement of the moment, as the enormous freighter slid down the ways under the gaze of dignitaries, the tens of thousands of shipyard workers who built her, and their families.  Meanwhile Edith’s husband, the President Woodrow, suddenly boylike, waved his hat in the air and led the crowd in a riotous patriotic cheer.  Bands played tinny airs, almost drowned out, while flags flapped in a sultry breeze.

It was a curious phase of WWI, with the long war nearly over and America’s concomitant shipbuilding effort only just then hitting its stride.  After years of maintaining its neutrality, the United States had entered the war in the spring of 1917, partly in response to Germany’s relentless U-Boat attacks upon all trans-Atlantic shipping.  It was another year before the US had embarked on an ambitious breakneck program to build a whole fleet of ships to replace the many US vessels that German submarines had destroyed.  (Germany sank some 6.2 million tons of Allied and neutral ships in 1917 alone.)

One result of this determination was the overnight creation of the vast Hog Island shipyard on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  Built on swampy outlying land (where the Philadelphia airport stands today), the shipyard consisted of 50 enormous bays.  Covering 1.25 miles of land along the Delaware River, the yard, which 30,000 workers labored in harsh winter conditions to build, was the largest of any in the world.  Though something of a boondoggle (the $50-million shipyard was essentially defunct by 1921), Hog Island was at the same time a source of great national pride, a proof of what American industry and a common sense of mission could together accomplish.

(Some scholars also credit Hog Island workers, who lived in an instant city and represented many food traditions, with giving the bulky sandwich known as the hoagie to the world.)

The Quistconck was the first vessel to be launched, of the hundreds that Hog Island was expected to produce.  Though some of the ships were never built (the end of the war made them unnecessary), the Hog Island shipyard produced 248 5500-ton steel vessels over a two-year period, at the unprecedented rate of one every three to four days.  The shipyard was innovative in applying standardized assembly-line techniques to shipbuilding, helping to restore and modernize the nation’s inadequate and sadly decimated merchant marine.  Essential to any military effort abroad, many of these ugly supply vessels saw service in WWII.

Mrs Wilson, who had been married to the president for less than a year, was given the privilege of naming many of the vessels.  Believing she was descended from Pocahontas and therefore a living representative of America’s indigenous nobility, Edith Wilson gave the ships Indian names.  Quistconck was Hog Island’s native Delaware name.

The ships are coming (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)The Quistconck’s christening celebrated the mobilization of a whole society around the national interests perceived to be in play during WWI.  Whether or not this was the whole story of the shipyard, art and photography record the vigor of patriotic sentiment that kept the crowds cheering on that hot August day.

Top image from this source.
Poster by James Henry Daughetry, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Click here to see other WWI shipbuilding posters on the website
of the American Merchant Marine at War.