Private David Gray, US Army Co A 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, “Wolfhounds.”. He served with the 8th Division in Vladivostok, Siberia, Russia. The AEF fought the Communist Russians until returning to the US in late 1919. David was my grandmother Shannon’s younger brother and was born and raised in Santa Maria California. The photo was taken in April, 1918 at Camp Fremont which was located in Palo Alto, Menlo Park, CA
One hundred and one years ago today the “War To End All wars” ended with the signing of an armistice between the antagonists. The war officially came to an end on the 11th hour of the 11th day of November, 1918. The significance of the time on the clock may be lost to todays average person but to the more classically educated diplomats of the time, the meaning was clear. The Eleventh Hour is a phrase meaning at the last moment, it is taken from a passage in the King James Bible. The “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” is from the book of Matthew, chapters 20, verses 20 through 9.
“Time at the end, may be signified by the eleventh hour, and for the remainder of God’s elect, on that last day, time was far spent, it was almost gone, only a small portion of it remained, just an hour.”
On the seventh of November a German armistice delegation arrived at a railway junction in the Forest of Compiegne, Province of the Oise, northern France. The commander of the allied forces, French General Ferdinand Foch, met the German members for a very chilly interview and five days later the German government accepted the Allied terms. The armistice was signed at 5:15 on the morning of the 11th and went into effect at at eleven o’clock that morning. The six hour delay was to make sure all military units were properly notified. The Allied generals also wanted to send the German High Command the message that they meant business. Because of this, in those six hours there were 10,944 casualties of whom 2,738 were killed.
Sitting near each other in the St. Symphorien military cemetery, just south-east of Mons in Belgium, are the gravestones of the first and last British soldiers to be killed in the first world war. The proximity of the graves of Private John Parr, killed 17 days after Britain declared war, and Private George Ellison, who died 90 minutes before the armistice, is said to be a coincidence – a consequence of the fact that Mons was lost to the Germans at the opening of the war and regained by the allies at the very end.
Parr was born in 1898 in Chipping Barnet and grew up in North Finchley, London. He took a job as a golf caddy upon leaving school and joined the army at the age of 14, five years younger than the legal age to fight at the time. The British both lowered and raised the age requirement as the war ate up their manhood. Battles were planned around the annual graduation dates of secondary and universities when fresh soldiers would be needed.
At the battle of the Somme in 1916 the allies sent 3 million men over the top. On the first day, July 1st, 1916, the British forces suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 fatalities. They gained just three square miles of territory. Of the 120,000 Allied troops—including those from Australia, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Newfoundland and Canada—who launched the initial attack, nearly 20,000 were killed, most of them in the first 20 minutes, another 37,000 were wounded. Thirty-seven sets of British brothers lost their lives on the battle’s first day, and one man was killed every 4.4 seconds, making July 1, 1916, the bloodiest single day in the history of the British Army.
It was unbelievable,” wrote Australian soldier Edward Lynch. “We live in a world of Somme mud. We sleep in it, work in it, fight in it, wade in it and many of us die in it. We see it, feel it, eat it and curse it, but we can’t escape it, not even by dying.”
.Captain Wilfred Nevill sought to encourage the four platoons of his 8th East Surrey Battalion to continue moving forward by presenting each with a soccer ball and promising a prize to whichever was first to kick it into the German trenches. One platoon painted “The Great European Cup” and “East Surreys v. Bavarians” on its soccer ball. When the whistles blew at “zero hour,” the cheering East Surreys kicked their balls as they moved forward, They couldn’t escape the slaughter though, seven officers were killed, and the 21-year-old Nevill was shot through the head in the first minutes of the battle. Two of the soccer balls were recovered from the battlefield near his body.
37-year-old Raymond Asquith—son of sitting British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith—was killed after being shot in the chest while leading an attack. Leading the first half of 4 Company in an attack near Ginchy on 15 September 1916, he was shot in the chest but famously stopped and lit a cigarette to hide the seriousness of his injuries so that his men would continue the attack. He died whilst being carried back to British lines. This casual disregard for danger was once considered the highest mark of a British gentleman. What might have this man been? A fellow of Balliol college, Oxford, a member of the British Bar, considered to be one of the leading intellectuals of his time. Two other members of the British Parliament also lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme, and Harold Macmillan, who would serve as Britain’s prime minister from 1957 to 1963, was wounded twice while serving as an officer in the Grenadier Guards.
In late September 1916, Bavarian Army corporal Adolf Hitler was dispatched with his unit to the Battle of the Somme, which he described as “more like hell than war.” Just days after Hitler’s deployment, a British shell exploded outside the entrance of the dugout near Bapaume, France, in which the dispatch runner was sleeping. While several of his fellow soldiers were killed, Hitler was wounded in the left thigh and, in spite of his protests, sent to convalesce in a German hospital before returning to his old regiment in early 1917. Even Fate is unaware of what the future will bring.
Private George Ellison, of the Royal Irish Lancers, was killed at 9:30 am on 11 November 1918, shot in the chest by a sniper, dying instantly. He was on a bicycle patrol on the outskirts of Mons. It sounds silly, riding a bicycle, but there is no humor in death. He was from Leeds. The age stated on his gravestone is 40. He left a wife, Hannah and a son, James Cornelius just five years old. His only brother, Frederick, of the Royal Naval Reserve was lost at sea during the naval action at Jutland. 10,000 British and German sailors died in a sea battle between the two fleets lasting about five hours.
The last Canadian, George Lawrence Price, 25, a captain in the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, was shot through the head at 10:57 am. He was the last British Empire soldier to die. He is also buried at the St Symphorien cemetery, about 50 feet from Parr and Ellison.
Augustin-Joseph Victorin Trébuchon was the last French soldier killed during World War I. He was shot 15 minutes before the Armistice came into effect, at 10:45 am on 11 November 1918. The French Army, embarrassed to have sent men into battle after the armistice with the Germans had been signed, recorded the date of his death as earlier by one day. The French withdrew without recovering his body and his remains were never found. Trebuchon certainly knew the armistice had been signed since he was a messenger or runner who hand carried communications between headquarters and front line units. In this little inconsequential action at the absolute end of the war, 91 Frenchmen died. He fell near the front line with his message still in his hand. Maréchal Foch, commander of all French forces, believed the Germans were reluctant to sign and so ordered Général Philippe Pétain to press on across the Meuse and deliver the message that the allies meant business. A small thing when you do your fighting from a Chateau outside Paris. Général Petain went on to be the puppet head of the unoccupied French state after the fall of France in 1940. He took his orders from Berlin and is reviled in France today.
The very last soldier to die was Henry Gunther. He had worked as a bookkeeper and clerk at the National Bank of Baltimore. A grandchild of German immigrants, he enlisted in Baltimore’s 313th regiment, 79th Division known as “Baltimores Own.” In his last living act, he charged alone with his bayonet at a German machine-gun post. He was shot dead at 10.59am in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers near the Meuse river, in Lorraine. Despite attempts by the enemy soldiers to fire over his head to warn him off, Gunther continued his senseless charge. His death, horribly senseless, bookmarks Private John Parr’s and perfectly illustrates the futility felt by private soldier.
There were 11 thousand casualties on November eleventh, most of which knew the war would be over in a few hours. Such is the vanity of Generals, such is the utter helplessness of the private.
Nearly 800 thousand Commonwealth and American soldiers, sailors and airmen died on the western front. They rest in more than a thousand military and two thousand civil cemeteries. More than three hundred thousand of them have no known graves, their remains were lost or destroyed and never found. They are commemorated on memorials to the missing along both sides of the battle line in France, Belgium,Germany, Russia; in Turkey, Iraq, and Africa. Those they commemorate were Regulars, Territorials, Volunteers and Draftees, aged from fourteen to sixty-eight and ranging from private soldier to lieutenant general. Most had done their duty.
The sheer quantity of the loss numbs the mind. Over seventy-three thousand are commemorated at Thievpal, and almost fifty-five thousand on the Menin Gate. What called them to service or the manner of their death, they are united by the common humanity which we too share. Major John McRae, MD was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist, soldier and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres. A young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2 May, 1915 in the gun positions near Ypres. Helmer, a 22-year-old from Ottawa, had been killed by an eight-inch German shell launched from the other side of the Yser Canal. He was blown to bits, and what could be found of him was collected and placed in the shape of a body on an army blanket.The burial had to wait until night to avoid giving the Germans a target. Remarkably, the last words entered into Helmer’s diary had been: “It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep.” As the brigade doctor, John McCrae was asked to conduct the burial service for Alexis because the regimental chaplain had been called away somewhere on duty that evening. It is believed that later that evening, after the burial, John began the draft for his now famous poem “In Flanders Fields”.
.…In Flanders fields the poppies grow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The red poppies that McCrae referred to had been associated with conflict since the Napoleonic Wars, when a writer of that time first noted how the poppies grew over the graves of soldiers on the Waterloo battlefield. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battles greatly increased the lime content in the surface soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region.
In a testament to the ubiquity of war, the Napoleonic battlefield at Waterloo is just 31 miles from the memorials at Mons. Separated by one hundred and three years, the Poppy seed from 1815, generation after generation, grew in the fields of Flanders in 1918. They do the same today.
Inspired by “In Flanders Fields”, American professor Moina Michael resolved at the war’s conclusion in 1918 to wear a red poppy year-round to honor the soldiers who had died in the war. She distributed silk poppies to her peers and campaigned to have them adopted as an official symbol of remembrance by the American Legion.
This was a momentous time for her and it was the start of her journey to create a national emblem of Remembrance. She would devote her life’s work to this project. From this time and because of it she became known as “The Poppy Lady”.
At it’s 1920 convention, the Legion supported Michael’s proposal and she was inspired to sell poppies in her native France to raise money for the war’s orphans. In 1921, the Legion sent poppy sellers to London ahead of Armistice Day, attracting the attention of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. A co-founder of The Royal British Legion, Haig supported and encouraged the sale. The practice quickly spread throughout the British Empire. The wearing of poppies in the days leading up to Veterans Day in America has long been the custom. Remembrance Day remains popular in many areas of the Commonwealth of Nations, particularly Great Britain, Canada and South Africa and in the days leading up to ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. Poppies are also worn in Belgium and France.
When you wear your red poppy, pin it over your heart with the leaf positioned at eleven o’clock. My generation, whose own grandparents lived WWI, is likely the last to remember poppies sold on street corners in our small California town. It’s rare to see one anymore. The loss of historic memory, flesh and blood remembrance, becomes dry text in a book. Impossible to feel by a new generation.
All of the antagonists are now long gone, their memory faded, just old musty photographs or a bundle of letters tied up with a blue ribband and laying at the bottom of great-aunt Edith Green’s memory box. Those letters, the subject of another story are from her younger brother Edgar who never returned from the battles at Gallipoli, Turkey in 1915. He lies in the North Gate cemetery in Baghdad, Iraq, so very far from his home in Townsville, Australia. Like many families, his was destroyed by the war, he and his brother killed, two of his sisters, both nurses served in France, surviving bombs, artillery fire and machine gunning by German aircraft at Etaples. Etaples is believed to be the place where the first British victims of the Influenza epidemic were diagnosed in 1918. The Green sisters, Hilda and Edith left England forever in 1919. It was all too much to bear. They never returned.
Corporal Edgar Green, 15th Infantry, 1st AIF, 1893-1918, Lt. Percival Green, Royal Naval Reserve 1890-1917, Edith Green, Royal British Nursing Sister 1898-1988
For the citizens of Europe it was a universe of death. It brought on the destruction of empires. It destroyed Monarchies. All of Europe sacrificed an entire generation of men and women to the egos of emperors.
As we now are, so they once were: as they are now, so must we be. Let us remember them, each one, not with bravado, but with the respect that their sacrifice demands. That sacrifice included 40 million casualties which included 21 million dead. It was called “The War to End All Wars.” It wasn’t. The number of dead more than doubled in the second one.
What is the matter with us? We have learned nothing. Nothing.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Siegfried Sassoon February 23, 1918.
NOTE; The majority of the reading and research for this story was from first hand accounts, diaries and letters of which there are a vast amount. Relying on accounts of those who are far removed from the time and subject is not something I would encourage. Below is a partial listing of available sources in your libraries. The various War Museums in Britian, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Et Al contain a vast treasure trove of personal diaries and letters which are accessible.
Vera Mary Brittain was an English Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, writer, feminist, socialist and pacifist. Her best-selling 1933 memoir Testament of Youth recounted her experiences during the First World War and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism. Born: December 29, 1893, Newcastle-under-Lyme, United Kingdom, Died: March 29, 1970, Wimbledon, London, United Kingdom. (Testament of Youth.)
Rupert Chawner Brooke was an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War, especially The Soldier. He was also known for his boyish good looks, which were said to have prompted the Irish poet W. B. Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England”. Born: August 3, 1887, Rugby, England. Died; April 23, 1915, Tris BoukesBay, Greece
Robert von Ranke Graves was a British poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist. His father was Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and figure in the Gaelic revival; they were both Celticists and students of Irish mythology. Graves produced more than 140 works in his lifetime. Born: July 24, 1895, Municipal Borough of Wimbledon, Died: December 7, 1985, Deià, Spain. (Goodbye to all that.)
Alfred Joyce Kilmer was an American writer and poet mainly remembered for a short poem titled “Trees”, which was published in the collection Trees and Other Poems in 1914. December 6, 1886, New Brunswick, NJ, Killed: July 30, 1918, Seringes-et-Nesles, 2nd battle of the Marne, France.
Erich Maria Remarque was a German novelist. His landmark novel Im Westen nichts Neues, (All Quiet on the Western Front.) about the German military experience of World War I, was an international best-seller which created a new literary genre, and was adapted into a film in 1930. Born: June 22, 1898, Osnabrück, Germany, Died: September 25, 1970, Locarno, Switzerland
Isaac Rosenberg was an English poet and artist. His Poems from the Trenches are recognized as some of the most outstanding poetry written during the First World War. Born: November 25, 1890, Bristol, United Kingdom Killed: April 1, 1918, Battle of the Somme, France
Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC was an English poet and soldier. He was one of the leading poets of the First World War. Born: March 18, 1893, Oswestry, United Kingdom, Killed: November 4, 1918, Sambre-Oise Canal, Battle of the Somme, France
Alan Seeger was an American war poet who fought and died in World War I during the Battle of the Somme, serving in the French Foreign Legion. Seeger was the brother of Charles Seeger, a noted American pacifist and musicologist and the uncle of folk musician, Pete Seeger, Born: June 22, 1888, New York, NY, Killed: July 4, 1916, Belloy-en-Santerre, Battle of the Somme, France.
Siegfried Loraine Sassoon CBE MC was an English war poet, writer, and soldier. Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, he became one of the leading poets of the First World War. Born: September 8, 1886, Matfield, United Kingdom, Died: September 1, 1967, Heytesbury, United (Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man)
*Photograph of the tombstone at the beginning of the article is of Private Edgar Green, #1705, 2nd battalion, 15th infantry Australian Infantry Force from Townsville, Queensland, Australia. He died on October 10th 1918 while in a prisoner of war camp in Yozghad, Central Turkey. He is buried in the North Gate Memorial Cemetery in Baghdad, Iraq. “Forever a little part of England.” Edgar was my wife’s great-uncle. The little box of letters actually exist as do his letters and post cards from Gallipoli and Turkey.