Today is Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, originally meant to commemorate the end of World War I and the sacrifice of Americans who died in that absurd war’s last 18 months. But here’s the thing about 11/11/18: There was a period of time on the final day when, instead of quietly receding into history, The Great War rattled with even more unnecessary death.
In his excellent book on the end of World War I, historian Joseph Persico estimates conservatively that all sides on the infamous Western Front suffered 10,944 casualties in the nearly six hours between the time the armistice was signed (5:10 a.m.) and 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the agreed-upon hour of cease-fire.
Of that number, 2,738 were deaths and that was more than the average daily rate throughout the war.
This didn’t happen because of poor communications. It happened because “some men just want the fight.” (See clip from the film, 1917.) Allied commanders, fully aware of the looming peace, demanded more war. They sent orders through the trenches for troops to advance, to take towns, to root out German machine gun nests. In some cases, orders for attack were rescinded and reinstated within an hour of the war’s appointed end. Some troops thought their commanders were playing cruel jokes on them as the clock ticked toward 11.
Persico writes in 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour that Germany wanted a cease-fire as early as Nov. 8. Had that proposal been accepted, Persico estimates, nearly 7,000 more men might have survived the war. Among them: 23-year-old Henry Gunther, the son of German-American parents in the Highlandtown section of Baltimore. Instead, he died in the war’s last minute and was officially recorded as the last man to die in the so-called “War to End All Wars.”