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Armistice Day 1918 - by an American Soldier.

This article entitled 'War is Over' a Memoir by an American Soldier,

“I was fully awake long before reveille, sleepy and unrefreshed, and when reveille came we received orders to move within two hours.

Four of us and one N.C.O. were left behind to load a lorry. And then we too packed up and set out to follow the unit.

Thinking to take a short cut across country, we ascended the hill-slope, jumping and clambering across shell-holes and striding through long grass An Australian soldier lay on a lom and weeds. Now and again we would chance upon some narrow winding track that soon lost itself again amid the tangled growth. Low clouds burdened the sky and a fine rain began to fall. The top of the hill was hidden in grey mist.

We passed a heap of broken concrete blocks from which the twisted ends of iron rods projected. A little farther on a concrete shelter stood intact except for deep vertical fissures. I peered into the narrow entrance that sloped steeply down. I slipped in the soft mud, but by stretching out my arms and clasping the outer wall I just saved myself from falling flat on to a rotting corpse that lay half-immersed in greenish-black water. I drew slowly back, sick with horror.

The devastation increased with every mile and the shell-holes came closer and closer together. Dead horses, shattered guns, wagons, and limbers lay overturned in the ditches. At one spot on the roadside the legs and buttocks of a man, all brown and shrivelled, slanted upwards from a deep, wide rut, many heavy wheels having passed across the small of his back.

Gradually the houses, trees and bushes disappeared entirely. We reached the site of a village that before the war had sheltered several thousands of people. Nothing remained except small bits of brick mingling with the bare soil, piled up and scooped and churned and tossed by shell fire.

Here, too, there were many dead. A little way off the road lay an Englishman who could not have fallen more than a few days before. His hands were clenched, his mouth wide open, his eyes fixed and staring. Near him was a tall German. He lay at full length with arms outstretched and legs crossed. His left hand, immersed in a pool, was white and puffy. His right hand was half closed and only slightly wrinkled. His side had been ripped open and fragments of entrail projected from the rent. The water beneath and around him was stained with blood. His pockets were turned inside out and papers and postcards lay scattered around in the usual manner. His cloak had been thrown across his face.

Other bodies had lain unburied for several months; others for several years, and of these only the mud-stained bones were left.

We marched in silence through this dismal land of ruin and desolation. At length, in the distance, we saw a solitary fragment of a brick wall standing in a wide hollow, a sign that we were nearing a habitable region once again.

We passed by riddled German sign-boards, and came to a litter of wreckage that had once been a village, and then we left the main road and entered a little wood, or rather an assembly of scarred tree-trunks leaning at all angles. It was crossed by a zigzag trench and all the refuse of battle lay scattered about.

An Australian soldier lay on a low mound. His head had dropped off and rolled backwards down the slope. The lower jaw had parted from the skull. His hands had been devoured by rats and two little heaps of clean bones were all that remained of them. The body was fully clothed and the legs encased in boots and puttees. One thigh-bone projected through a rent in the trousers and the rats had gnawed white grooves along it. A mouldy pocket-book lay by his side and several postcards and a soiled photograph of a woman and a child.

An attempt had been made to bury some of the dead, and several lay beneath heaps of loose earth with their boots projecting. But the rats had reached them all, and black, circular tunnels led down into the fetid depths of the rotting bodies. The stench that filled the air was so intolerable that we hastened to get out of this dreadful place.

As we walked on, the scattered houses drew closer and closer together until they formed continuous rows. A civilian passed by, pushing a wheelbarrow that clattered over the cobbles. Then there followed a woman with a bundle on her back.

We turned a corner and entered another street in which the houses had not been rifled. Several were occupied by civilians.

Before us, in an open field, lay our camp. Scribbled in chalk on a piece of board nailed across a broken window were the words:

"Der Friede wird stundlich erwartet"-Peace is expected every hour.

Ever since we had received news of the German peace offers and President Wilson's replies, rumours had multiplied enormously - the Kaiser had been assassinated, the German Fleet had surrendered, German troops were deserting in masses, German submarines were floating on the surface and flying white flags, a German Republic had been proclaimed with Liebknecht as President. One evening after a day of unusually hard labour, we were laying exhausted in our tent. Suddenly the flap was thrown open, a man pushed his head in and shouted excitedly:

"I say, you chaps, the Armistice has been signed-it's official!"

" Who says so? Did you see it in print?"

"No, I just heard it from a despatch-rider. He got it from his C.O. it's official."

"Don't believe it. We've heard that tale too often."

"All right, then, don't!" the man shouted angrily, and walked off.

No sooner had he gone when our Corporal said:

"It wouldn't surprise me if he were right. In any case, even if the Germans haven't signed yet, they'll have to do so soon. Bulgaria, Turkey, and Austria have collapsed. The Germans have decreasing resources and no reserves. The Allies have increasing resources and unlimited reserves. The longer the war goes on, the more desperate is Germany's position. She must accept our terms, she can't help herself."

"I do not think they will sign," I replied. "I think we can expect at least another year of war. I know Germany is in a bad way, but our terms mean unconditional surrender. The Germans will not be silly enough to imagine that, once they are disarmed and helpless, we shall stick to the Fourteen points or be bound by any promises of any kind. No, the Germans will fight on, they will shorten their front, and they will at least keep the Allies off German territory for an indefinite period until they can secure better terms."

"You overrate the strength of the Germans. I think the German army is becoming completely demoralized. I also think that the blockade has done its work amongst the civilian population. We shall have an armistice within the next few days. Perhaps rumour is correct for once and the war is already over. We haven't heard any guns for a long time-the front is extraordinarily quiet."

"Yes, but we would have heard officially - news like that would never be kept from us."
"That's true enough - I expect the thing is being discussed and a decision will be reached before long."

We all agreed that as soon as the fighting ceased, we would be informed. The news of the Armistice would be telegraphed to every unit and it would reach us within a few minutes from the actual signature. And then, what would we do then? How would our feelings find an outlet? It was impossible to say. Shouting, singing, dancing, would they give us relief? Speculation was useless, painfully useless. And yet what else could we think about?

It was Sunday, the 10th of November. We had no work to do and wandered restlessly round the town. An official communiqué was posted up outside the Mairie, but it contained nothing new. There was a crowd of soldiers round a Belgian boy who was selling English papers. We bought the last copies, but they were of the previous Thursday and did not add to our knowledge. The suspense was becoming unbearable. My conviction that the Germans would reject the terms of the Allies was shaken-not by any further evidence, but by the general atmosphere of excitement and hopeful expectation which communicated itself to me. I kept on repeating to myself, "They will not sign, they will not sign," and intellectually I believed my own words. And yet I was continually imagining the war already over and what I merely thought seemed unessential and irrelevant. The stress of wild hopes and mental agitation became almost a physical pain.

Darkness came on and we retired to our tents. I gradually became aware of a faint noise, so faint that I hardly knew whether it was real or not. As soon as I listened intently I could hear nothing. Then one of us said: "What's that funny noise?" There it was again, a low, hollow sound like that of a distant sea. It grew louder and then ceased. Then it became audible once more and grew louder and still louder. Suddenly we realized what it was-it was the sound of cheering. It came nearer and nearer, gathering speed. It flooded the whole town with a great rush, paused a moment, and then burst over our camp.

Everybody went mad. The men rushed out of the tents and shouted: "It's over - it's over - it's over!" I could hear one shrill voice screaming wildly: "No more bombs-no more shells-no more misery." The deafening clamor from innumerable throats was topped by the piercing blasts of whistles and the howling of cat calls. A huge bonfire was fit in the camp and sheets of flame shot skyward. The brilliant stars of signal-rockets rose and fell in tall parabolae and lit up all the neighbourhood. The Sergeant- Major blew his whistle with the intention of restoring order. He was answered by a hullabaloo of derisive hoots and yells. He gave up the attempt and instead he headed a procession that marched into the town, banging empty tins and whirling french-rattles. An anti-aircraft battery opened fire with blank charges. Aeroplanes flew overhead with all lights on.

Many of us went back into our tents and sang with all the power of our lungs.

So the war was over! The fact was too big to grasp all at once, but nevertheless I felt an extraordinarily serene satisfaction. Then someone said: "The people who've lost their sons and husbands - now's the time they'll feel it." The truth of his remark struck me with a sudden violence. My serenity was broken and looked into the blackness beneath it. I knew what I was going to see, but, nevertheless, I looked, in spite of myself ' and saw innumerable rotting dead that lay unburied in all postures on the bare, shell-tossed earth. A horror of death such as I had never known before came upon me - a crushing, annihilating horror that seemed to impart a fiendish character to the shouting and singing in the camp, as though millions of demonic spirits were howling and dancing with devilish glee over the accomplishment of the greatest iniquity every known. At the same time I felt ashamed of not joining in the general jubilation, and bitterly disappointed that my own thoughts should obsess me at this supreme hour. But I knew that the war had lasted too long and that the world's misery had been too great ever to be shaken off, I also knew that all the dead had died in vain. In order to escape from my intolerable meditations I sat up and began to talk to my neighbour: "I suppose it'll be read out officially tomorrow morning?"

"Sure - and we'll get a day off at least."

We continued to talk of commonplace things. It was several hours after midnight and the uproar was dying down a little. I felt sleepy and something like contentment was beginning to steal over me once again.

Reveille did not sound until nine o'clock on the Monday morning. The whistle blew for parade. There would, of course, be an official announcement that the Armistice had been signed, and perhaps a letter of thanks to the "splendid troops who had won the war" (which would bore us extremely) and a holiday (which would be welcomed with loud cheers).

We paraded. The Sergeant-Major addressed us:

"I'm sorry, boys, but nothing official's come through. You must go to work as usual. It's a damned shame, I know, but I can't help it. I expect the message'll come during the day and you're sure to get to-morrow off."

There was a murmur in the ranks, but bewilderment deprived us of the power of taking concerted action. A sudden fear seized me-could last night's celebration have been the result of a false alarm? We marched off. But no one did a stroke of work the whole day. All discipline had gone. The N.C.O.'s had no vestige of authority left. Men from other units whom we met knew no more than we did. They said the Armistice had been signed, but there had been no official announcement.

We got back to the camp in the afternoon. No official news.

In the evening the celebrations were renewed. I was troubled by an intense anxiety which began to spread to the others. Still, there would certainly be an announcement the following morning.

We paraded on Tuesday. No announcement of any kind. We marched off to work as usual, but again no work was done. Suddenly I caught sight of a soldier walking along the road a long way off with a newspaper in his hand. I ran after him and caught him up.

"Any news?" I asked.

He gave me the paper. It was dated Monday, the 11th November - only a day old. The headline ran: "No Armistice yet."

So Sunday's demonstration had been a sham and a fraud!

I rejoined the others. They, too, had heard that no Armistice had been signed by Sunday midnight from a despatch-rider, who had, however, added that signature was expected every minute.

We were back in camp. Many new rumours were circulating - the Germans had rejected the terms, the Italians had renewed the offensive. In the evening some of us thought they could hear distinct gunfire. We listened carefully, but our mental tension destroyed our power of hearing very faint sounds.

Wednesday morning, and still no definite news. The suspense was becoming unbearable. No work was done. I questioned men from five other units, but none of them were any better informed than we were.

The expectation of peace had made us forget our bitterness towards the army, but it began to show itself again : "They don't want us to know!"

"They're damned sorry it's all over!"

"There's too many of 'em wi' soft jobs what wants the war to go on for ever!"

"What are you grumbling about? What has the Armistice got to do with us? The Armistice concerns the Staff, not us. It's not our business - we're only common soldiers."
When we got back to camp a boy was selling papers at the entrance.

I bought a Times. It was Tuesday's. The Armistice had been signed on the Monday morning! I went to my tent and sat down and thought it over. The terms were ominous. There was no doubt about it this time - the war had come to an end. I thought of home and of freedom. It almost seemed as though army life had been a dream. I was still in the army, but a few months more or less would make no difference, for my thoughts would be all in the future. In the evening the celebrations were resumed. They lacked the spontaneity of those that were held on the Sunday night. Nevertheless, the rejoicing was genuine, for our suspense had been followed by an immense relief.

As I lay in my tent amid the shouting and singing I again felt that bitter thoughts were gathering, but I was distracted by a man sitting two places from me, who said: "It's a bloody shame we can't get any wine or spirits and get bloody well drunk tonight."

A man lying near him, who had kept very quiet all the evening suddenly sat up erect, glaring with fury, and shouted:

"That's all you think about, getting drunk-you dirty little blackguard! You don't deserve to have peace, you don't! Bloody lot of fools-all shouting and singing and wanting to get drunk! They ought to have more respect for the dead! The war's over, and we're bloody lucky to get out of it unharmed, but it's nothing to shout about when there's hundreds of thousands of our mates dead or maimed for life."

"Don't talk bloody sentimental rot - call yourself a soldier? You ought to be a bloody parson!"

"I don't call myself a soldier - it's a bloody insult to be called a soldier. I'm not a bloody patriot either - I reckon patriotism's a bloody curse. I kept out of the army as long as I could, but they combed me out (that's their polite way of putting it), and shoved me into khaki, but they never made a soldier of me! I've never been any use to them! I only worked when they forced me to. I've been more expense and trouble to them than I'm worth. I haven’t helped to win this wicked war, and I'm proud of it too! Sentimental rot be damned - if everyone had been my way of thinking there wouldn't have been a war, no, not in any country. The war's won, I know, and I'm sorry for it. But Fritz has come off best, not us. He's lost the war, but he's found his bloody soul! I'll tell the civvies something about war when I get home - I'll tell 'em we rob the dead, I'll tell 'em
"For God's sake chuck it. . . ."

"All right, I'll chuck it - I know it's no bloody good talking to fellows like you. Go and get drunk, then, do as you bloody well please. That's all you're fit for. . . ."

He flung himself back into bed, wrapped himself up in his blanket and did not say another word.”

This post first appeared on Out Of Battle, please read the originial post: here

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Armistice Day 1918 - by an American Soldier.


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