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stories and histories 11TH NOVEMBER: ARMISTICE DAY

11th November: Armistice Day
The anniversary of the Armistice between Germany and the Allies on 11th November 1918, heralding the effective ending of World War One.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, surely some of the most famous words in the English language, mark the Armistice between Germany and the Allies which took effect at 11 am on 11th November 1918. (The Allies were originally Britain, France and Russia who were signatories to what was called the Triple Entente in 1907 but included Japan in 1914, Italy in 1915 and the United States in 1917).

The Armistice was famously signed at 5am in a railway carriage outside Compiègne in northern France and led to the end of the First World War, a war which saw the mobilisation of approximately sixty-five million troops, making it one of the largest known conflicts in history. The anniversary of the Armistice is usually marked by various ceremonies, including a two-minute silence at 11am, though, in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the events in Britain and elsewhere were very subdued.

Although the November 1918 Armistice with Germany was the final one of the war, earlier armistices had been signed with the other members of the Central Powers as the alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire was known. On 29th September 1918, the Armistice of Salonica was signed with Bulgaria, which had gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1908, but had entered the war on the side of the Central Powers in 1915. On 30th October 1918 the Armistice of Mudros was signed on board the HMS Agamemnon between the Allies and the Ottoman Empire while the Armistice of Villa Giusti of 3rd November 1918 ended war between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28th June 1919 between Germany and the Allies.

The casualties of the First World were huge; according to the Robert Schumann Centre there were twenty million deaths with twenty-one million wounded. Of these deaths, almost ten million (9.7) were military with about ten million civilians. The Allies lost about five million, seven hundred thousand military personnel, more than half of whom were Russian and French combatants. The Central Powers lost about four million, the majority of whom were German. Most civilian deaths were due mainly to famine and disease [i]. Just over forty-two million military personnel were mobilised on the Allied side with almost twenty-three million from the Central Powers making a total of sixty-five; a number so huge it's difficult to fully grasp [ii]. In fact, many countries do not have a population of that size.

Humans were not the only casualties of the War; it is believed that as many as sixteen million animals served in various capacities. These were mainly horses, donkeys, mules and camels which were used to carry supplies to the combatants, though horses were still used in cavalry, especially in the early days of the War. Animals such as dogs, cats and carrier pigeons were also widely used; dogs such as terriers and cats were used to hunt rats in the trenches. The casualty rate among these animals was huge; for example, according to the animal charity SPANA, over a million horses and mules left Britain and only 62,000 returned.

However, on a personal note, though the statistics of the war are horrifying, I only really started to grasp some of its horrors, when as a sixteen-year-old on a school holiday to Germany and Austria, we drove through Flanders and passed cemetery after cemetery with what looked like fields of white crosses. I remember how our coach full of forty girls between twelve and seventeen gradually became silent as we started to realise that we were driving past the final resting place of thousands of mainly young men, some of whom were not much older than we were.

Attempting to put World War One in some context, it is generally regarded as being the third largest known armed conflict in history, after the Second World War and the Manchu conquest of China in the 17th century. Trying to get accurate figures for casualties in wars, particularly civilian, in the ancient and medieval eras is notoriously difficult and in fact is not easy even in the modern age.

As is well known the post World War One did not see the permanent peace that many had hoped for when it was described as being the War to End all Wars. It is easy to understand how its ending was greeted with jubilation, at least on the Allied side and that expectations for the post-war era were high.

I can do no better than to reiterate Lest we forget and hope that we continue to remember the suffering and sacrifices of all those involved in that terrible conflict.

HG1

[i]: Figures taken from the Centre Robert Schumann
[ii]: Figures from Encyclopaedia Britannica

Background:
Encyclopaedia Britannica: World War One Killed, wounded, and missing.
SPANA: Society for the Protection on Animals Abroad.
Animal Deaths WWI: Philip Hoard, The Guardian, 8th November 2018.


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