THE ELEVENTH HOUR

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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. 

Sitting opposite 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.

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, 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. His only brother, Frederick, of the Royal Naval Reserve was lost at sea.

The last Canadian, George Lawrence Price, 25, a private in the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, was shot through the head at 10.57am. 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.

The last soldier to die was Henry Gunther, an American who charged alone with his bayonet at a German machine-gun post. He was shot dead at 10.59am in Chaumont-devant-Damvillers near Meuse, in Lorraine, despite attempts by the enemy soldiers to fire over his head to warn him off.

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.

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, and are commemorated on memorials to the missing. 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. As Lieutenant Colonel John McRae, MD who was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist, soldier and a surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres, in Belgium, was to write:

.…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 at Waterloo. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battles there 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 seeds of poppy’s from 1815, generation after generation,  grew in the fields of Flanders in 1918.

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’s memory box. The letters are from her younger brother who never returned from Gallipoli. To the citizens of Europe it was a universe of death. It became the destroyer of empires. All of Europe sacrificed an entire generation of men and women to the vanities 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.

 

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