Sunday 11 November 2018

This is the Way the War Ends

Monday 11th November 1918

The War is over. At least, that is what seems to have happened. It does not come as a complete surprise as the writing has been on the wall for the German Empire for the last few weeks. Our armies' continued successful attacks, along with those of our allies, have pushed the enemy back relentlessly. It was only in August that our forces lay before Amiens. This morning they are in Mons, a distance of nearly a hundred miles. Nevertheless, the end, now it has come, has come very quickly. It was only at around 7.30 this morning that word reached the troops of the armistice which, we understand, has been under negotiation for the last few days. 

This armistice, we are told, is not a surrender by our foes, but what is termed a ceasefire. There will now be negotiations with the Germans about their inevitable surrender and what terms will be imposed. That, however, is a job for ambassadors and politicians, not for the army. Field Marshal Haig has issued the following orders to commanders:

1. Our own troops will not advance east of a line gained by them at hour when hostilities ceased. Our aeroplanes will keep a distance of not less than a mile behind this line, except for the purpose of driving back hostile aeroplanes as indicated in paragraph 3.

2. There is to be no unauthorised intercourse or fraternisation of any description with the enemy. He will not be permitted to approach our lines and any attempt to do so will be immediately stopped if necessary by fire. Any parties of enemy coming over to our lines under a white flag will be made prisoner and the fact reported.

3. No enemy aircraft will be permitted to cross the line. Should any make an attempt to do so they will be attacked by fire from ground and from the air.

4. All commanders are to pay strictest attention to discipline, smartness and well-being of their troops, so as to ensure highest state of efficiency being maintained throughout British forces. Troops will be given every opportunity for rest, training, recreation and leave.

5. Passage of civilians through our lines in either direction will be regulated in accordance with instructions which will be issued separately. In the meantime no civilians will be permitted to pass in either direction.

I am spending the morning with 2nd Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment at le Cateau. As I write these lines I can hear birds, lorries and carts on a nearby road, a man yawning and the low buzz of conversation. What I cannot hear are rifle shots, rumbling tanks, men screaming and the constant grumble of the guns. 

Speaking with officers and men I have found a surprising mixture of feelings. As may be imagined, many men are simply thankful. "Now I can sleep" one of them said to me. Some are disbelieving, especially those few who arrived in Belgium in the autumn of 1914 to be pitched straight into the fight. Some men are angry, feeling that, with the enemy on the run, the army should fight on and drive the enemy in confusion all the way to Berlin. Two men, in  particular, who have recently lost brothers, were of this opinion. A couple of officers, without families, feel they have nothing to go home for and hope to stay in the army. One expressed the intention of joining the British forces fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia. What I have not encountered is any joy. My feeling is that that emotion will come but the men are simply too tired to be capable of feeling it at the moment. 

We may look forward to victory parades, to returning to cherished homes and families, to not ducking when a loud noise is heard, to having children and to making sure they do not experience what we have experienced. For this surely must have been the great war to end all wars. 

A long line of men is waiting in front of the cookhouse for a hot meal and now your correspondent will join them.

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