People caught up in a momentous event dont always realise its historical significance at the time. Not so the 1918 armistice. Ive just read every edition of The Times for the week beginning November 11, 1918. The overwhelming feeling its articles convey is of people hugely aware of their responsibility to create a happier world.
Among those articles are substantial essays by the papers music and theatre critics on the directions their art forms might take in peace time. They are fascinating, because so many of their points strike a chord today.
The First World War ended 100 years ago this month on November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m. Nearly 20 million people had perished since the war began on July 28, 1914.
In early 1918, it looked as if the Central Powers — Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire — would win.
Czarist Russia gave up in December 1917. Tens of thousands of German and Austrian soldiers were freed to redeploy to the Western Front and finish off the exhausted French and British armies.
The late-entering United States did not declare war on Germany and Austria-Hungary until April 1917. Six months later, America had still not begun to deploy troops in any great number.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. By summer 1918, hordes of American soldiers began arriving in France in unimaginable numbers of up to 10,000 doughboys a day. Anglo-American convoys began devastating German submarines. The German high commands tactical blunders stalled the German offensives of spring 1918 — the last chance before growing Allied numbers overran German lines.
Nonetheless, World War I strangely ended with an armistice — with German troops still well inside France and Belgium. Revolution was brewing in German cities back home.
The three major Allied victors squabbled over peace terms. Americas idealist president, Woodrow Wilson, opposed an Allied invasion of German and Austria to occupy both countries and enforce their surrenders.
By the time the formal Versailles Peace Conference began in January 1919, millions of soldiers had gone home. German politicians and veterans were already blaming their capitulation on “stab-in-the-back” traitors and spreading the lie that their armies lost only because they ran out of supplies while on the verge of victory in enemy territory.
The Allied victors were in disarray. Wilson was idolized when he arrived in France for peace talks in December 1918 — and was hated for being self-righteous when he left six months later.
The Treaty of Versailles proved a disaster, at once too harsh and too soft. Its terms were far less punitive than those the victorious Allies would later dictate to Germany after World War II. Earlier, Germany itself had demanded tougher concessions from a defeated France in 1871 and Russia in 1918.
In the end, the Allies proved unforgiving to a defeated Germany in the abstract but not tough enough in the concrete.
One ironic result was that the victorious but exhausted Allies announced to the world that they never wished to go to war again. Meanwhile, the defeated and humiliated Germans seemed all too eager to fight again soon to overturn the verdict of 1918.
The consequence was a far bloodier war that followed just two decades later. Eventually, “the war to end all wars” was rebranded “World War I” after World War II engulfed the planet and wiped out some 60 million lives.