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Bloody Resolution to WWI Remembered on Veteran’s Day

November 11, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: It was the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, that gave us this date to honor veterans of all wars.

With me now to look at that extraordinary day is Joe Persico, author of the newly published “11th month, 11th day, 11th Hour: Armistice Day 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax.”

Joe Persico, welcome.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Good to be here.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us the story of what happened on that day 86 years ago today.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: On Nov. 11, it’s known that the war would end with a ceasefire at 11:00. In the trenches, there was just a pulsing tension as each man hopes to avoid the melancholy distinction of being killed in a war that has been decided– allied victory, German defeat.

And yet, in those final hours, final minutes, even, the generals are sending men out of the trenches into the face of the enemy with appalling losses. Some 10,900 men on this last day are killed, wounded or missing, slightly more even than D-Day.

TERENCE SMITH: More than D-Day, the assault on Normandy a generation later?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: With this vital distinction: The men who stormed D-Day and lost their lives gave them in a crusade of an allied victory. The men who died on Nov. 11, 1918, are dying in a war in which victory has already been decided.

TERENCE SMITH: Why on earth would commanders send their troops up and out of the trenches if they knew that the armistice, which I guess had been signed at 5:00 in the morning?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: 5:00 in the morning to go into effect six hours later. Well, the reasons are not very admirable, one of which was to be punitive. The head of the allied forces, Marshal Foche, had seen his country, France, laid waste, essentially, as the battlefield of World War I.

Foche instructed his people to keep the sword to the back of the Hun to the very last minute. Another reason was rather political, and that is our commander, the head of the American expeditionary forces, Gen. John J. Pershing, thought this conclusion of the war at this point was premature. He wanted to see the Germans driven back into their fatherland. He wanted an unconditional surrender. He wanted this signed in Berlin.

And he said at the time that if we stop now, the Germans will never believe they were beaten, and with rather chilling foresight, he says, “We’ll just have to do it all over again.”

TERENCE SMITH: But some commanders, you write in the book, chose not to obey that broad order.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, the only word that the commanders were given was essentially, “cease-fire at 11:00.” Not told what to do when they knew the cease-fire was approaching, which left them in kind of a decisional no-man’s- land. A

nd the commanders fall into two groups: There is the aggressive school, which see a fast-fading opportunity for victory, glory, even promotion. And they’re sending the men out of the trenches to take ground that they could walk into the next day.

And there’s a more humane group of generals who just tell their men, “hold fast. Let’s wait out the end of the war. There’s no point in any of my men dying to take territory that will be meaningless as soon as the armistice takes effect.”

TERENCE SMITH: If the armistice was signed at 5:00 in the morning, why was it made effective only at 11:00? I mean, why that gap?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, it’s a rather curious mechanical explanation. The negotiations had been going on for three days, and Marshal Foche, the allied commander, delivered an ultimatum. He gave the Germans a deadline. “You have 72 hours. And if you don’t sign and we don’t have an armistice at that point, this war will go on.” That turns out to be the 11th month, the 11th day, the 11th hour.

TERENCE SMITH: Oh, I see. Talk about the carnage in this war, which reading the book, I mean, it’s… the numbers are hard to reckon with.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, it’s very hard to see them in a sense that we can grasp. There were something like nine million deaths in World War I on all sides.

And it was a bloody conflict with very little rationality behind it to a point where you can say essentially that these casualties, whether they were Tommies in the British trenches; Wallies in the French trenches; American doughboys; German common soldiers. You can say that nine million men died essentially in vain.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, when you look at it when it’s all over, when it’s good-bye to all that, what did it accomplish?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, the legacy of these massive casualties is essentially cemeteries and the seeds of another even bloodier world war, World War II.

TERENCE SMITH: Was that the fault of the… of the soldiers on the field or the politicians at the peace table in Versailles?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, the attitude… during the war, the attitude was on each side– “if we just hang in long enough, victory will be ours; why give up at a peace table what we can win on the battlefield?”– which perpetuated this conflict for four long years.

I love the way the poor British Tommies put it. They used to sing to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” in trying to find some reason for the suffering they’re undergoing. “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.” It never gets much more sensible than that.

TERENCE SMITH: There were some major historical figures, later historical figures who were on the battlefield as soldiers.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: There was Adolf Hitler.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Who was a soldier.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: He was a corporal in the German army. Harry Truman. McArthur, who was the army’s youngest general at that point. George Patton.

I think it’s interesting that Hitler is recovering from blindness induced by gas attack at the end, and he goes hysterical when he finds that Germany is beaten, and he later writes in “Mein Kampf” that it was at this point, that he swore that the dishonor of the German surrender must be “erased, eradicated, and, therefore, I shall devote my life to that.”

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, you also tell the story of numerous ordinary soldiers. How on earth did you get their stories so many years later?

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: Well, there is a wealth of personal information or diaries. There are journals, there are memoirs. I went to our National Archives in Washington and found this stuff which is very satisfying.

I worked at the Imperial War Museum in London, and here again, you have ordinary soldiers, strikingly articulate, really placing you in those trenches, with what they’re writing about.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, Joe Persico, thank you so much for telling us about it.

JOSEPH E. PERSICO: My pleasure.