Reactions to War's End from the Front
Reactions to War's Endfrom the Front
Excerpt from Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I
Edited by Margaret R. Higonnet.
Translated by Trudi Nicholas from Schwesterndienst im Weltkriege:
Feldpostbriefe und Tagebuchblatter
Published in 1936
Excerpt from The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front
By Ernst Jünger
Published in 1929
Excerpts from 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War
Edited by Lyn Macdonald
Published in 1988
"I believe [history] will be completely unable to gauge the unspeakable suffering this war has brought. It will pass by without noticing those who became cripples in their prime…without noticing those thousands of women whose lives from now on are filled with loneliness. World history will roll on."
Kathe Russner German surgical sister, Red Cross
World War I ended when the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The most tragic and devastating loss during the war was the loss of life. Millions of soldiers died in battle, and countless civilians were killed by the side effects of the war: starvation, disease, or—in the case of the Armenians in Turkey—genocide (see page 32). But the war also took something from the living: It snatched the youth of many men and women. In Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis sums up an experience shared by many World War I soldiers: The war, Lewis remarks, "took me from school at sixteen, it destroyed all hope of University training or apprenticeship to a trade, it deprived me of the only carefree years, and washed me up, inequipped for any serious career, with a Military Cross, a Royal handshake, a six-hundred-pound gratuity, and—I almost forgot to say—my life." Speaking for all those who had only ever been trained to fight, Lewis continues, "[W]hen [the war] was over we had to start again."
Although some calculated that an entire generation was "lost" to the war, those who survived to put down their weapons on November 11 did return to lives of peace—for a
while. The hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were on the front that November had different reactions to the end of the war. The following excerpts provide a glimpse of what it felt like to realize the end of the war. A German officer gains new appreciation for his fatherland; a German nurse laments the tremendous loss of life; a British soldier and his comrades are stunned; a French couple can only weep; a British prisoner of war walks freely again; and an American soldier celebrates.
Things to remember while reading the personal stories about the end of the war:
- Millions of people survived the war with terrible injuries. All told, the Allied forces had a casualty rate of about 52 percent—22 million of the 42 million men sent to war. The Central Powers lost 15 million of the 23 million men they mobilized, a 65 percent casualty rate. Austria-Hungary had the highest casualty rate—90 percent—followed by Russia at 76 percent and France at 73 percent.
- The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. All fighting stopped on the Western Front.
- German troops left Belgium on November 26, 1918.
- On December 1, 1918, British and American troops entered German territories to begin the peacetime occupation.
- On June 28, 1919, the peace treaty was signed at Versailles, France.
Excerpt from Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I
German surgical sister, Red Cross, serving
on the Western Front
Diary Pages and a Field Letter
October 9, 1918
Today, Germany allegedly made a peace offer; it will surrender Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine. TheAlsatian nurse who is now sharing a room with me and nurse J.G. wept bitterly at the thought of becoming French. J. and I ran to the railway station in hope of hearing some new reports. This uncertainty about the way things are brewing is almost unbearable. There were no new telegrams but we arrived just as a hospital train was being unloaded. A stretcher with a corpse was also laid on the platform. It lay there a long, long while before anyone had time to see to it. The living have priority! On the way back we picked up a few men with minor injuries who were walking around, searching for their assigned hospital. We showed them the way and took their heavy luggage from them. They looked pale and exhausted. When a railway official on the other side of the street saw our little troop, he came over and took the rest of their baggage.
In the meantime the first admissions have arrived at our hospital. The room intended for the Reception is far too small. The great
entrance hall of the industrial school is already full: stretcher after stretcher crammed side by side. They wait to be deloused, bathed, and transferred to beds. Pale, haggard faces with hollow, feverish eyes. When they spot us, there are beseeching cries from all sides: "A drink, nurse, a drink!" We can barely fill the beakers and pass along the rows fast enough, so parched are their burning lips. And lots and lots of grateful looks and many a "thousand, thousand thanks" repay a little drop of water…
October 11, 1918
My dear Father, I must write you a few lines, even though we have our hands completely full and I could drop with weariness. But I'd like to thank you for writing to me so regularly. Longingly I await your Sunday letters and would be bitterly disappointed if one did not arrive.
I can understand only too well how strongly you feel about the fate of our fatherland. It weighs on us too, like a ton. Only our charges, in their awful agony and in recollection of those horrors theyleft behind, which probably none of us can imagine, yearn for just one thing, peace, peace at home. Why, then, the sacrifice of all these lives? Thinking about it could drive one insane. Will posterity find an answer?
Posterity? I believe it will be completely unable to gauge the unspeakable suffering this war has brought. It will lead its own life, it will pass by without noticing those who became cripples in their prime, it will pass by without noticing those thousands of women whose lives from now on are filled with loneliness. World history will roll on.
And yet one thing we may not and must not forget: Germany is not yet a heap of rubble; German men and women must not yet work for the enemy. What that means we see here with our own eyes; or rather we can only suspect but cannot fathom it in all its harshness and tragedy. And that it has not yet come that far for us, we thank those who, in pain and agony, groan here that it is deplorable. Yesterday a parcel for our charges arrived from schoolgirls in Dresden, arranged through one of our nurses on leave. Little bags with five cigarettes or candies or the like, and most important, a charming little letter for each. For example, one wrote at the end, "You must not address me formally as 'Sie' when you write to me, because I am only eleven years old." You have no idea what joy this parcel brought. Not everyone by any means could receive something—every tenth man at best—but the little letters were passed around and faces brightened for a few hours. Indeed, it is truly startling how grateful the people are for the slightest relief from their lot, so grateful that one is ashamed. For what is it that we can do for them? Give them a little light and love and sunshine. What is that in comparison to what they have done for us, what they have surrendered in youth, strength, and future in order to protect us against the enemy? That we can never, never repay.
Is it not so, Father? And is it not terrible that there are so many now who have completely forgotten or else never fully grasped its magnitude? The poor fellows are immeasurably embittered by this. AnN.C.O. from Baden, one of my charges, a profound and tender soul, tells me that people sometimes avoid soldiers on leave at home, or even mock them for 'shirking their duties,' etc. It is painful to hear and there are no words of comfort. I could only give him my hand— with tears in my eyes, I assure you—and say, "D., there are still those who know they have much to thank you for."
And now I have to ask you a huge favor. Recruit some friends and relatives for a collection of alms. If each contributes just a small trifleand a kind word—a little can amount to a great deal! Tell them how bitterness gnaws at them all; how it makes them incapable of further sacrifice. Tell them how, even in feverish dreams, the thought of "Germany, home" pursues them; how responsive they are to an encouraging line from home. Tell them that, were it not for these fine, brave men, we would have a pile of rubble for a homeland and would have to serve the enemy.
Oh, if you were to see them here in their hundreds and thousands, young, once sturdy, merry fellows who now lie there as helpless as little children, who for weeks and months are unable to move one centimeter by themselves, for whom day after day, endless sleepless nights, week after week passes with grim and wretched thoughts about their future and that of their family. If you were to see them in their agony, if you heard the groans and lamentations that do not cease day or night, you would find the words to soften the coldest and most stubborn heart and to stir the indifferent. [Higonnet, pp. 225–27]
Excerpt from The Storm of Steel:From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front
… Why should I conceal that tears smarted in my eyes when I thought of the end of the enterprise in which I had borne my share? I had set out to the war gaily enough, thinking we were to hold a festival on which all the pride of youth was lavished, and I had thought little, once I was in the thick of it, about the ideal that I had to stand for. Now I looked back—four years of development in the midst of a generation predestined to death, spent in caves, smoke-filled trenches, and shell-illumined wastes; years enlivened only by the pleasures of amercenary , and nights of guard after guard in an endless perspective; in short, a monotonous calendar full of hardships and privation, divided by the red-letter days of battles. And almost without any thought of mine, the idea of the Fatherland had been distilled from all these afflictions in a clearer and brighter essence. That was the final winnings in a game on which so often all had been staked: the nation was no longer for me an empty thought veiled in symbols; and how could it have been otherwise when I had seen so many diefor its sake, and been schooled myself to stake my life for its credit every minute, day and night, without a thought? And so, strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years' schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight. And though the aim for which I fought as an individual, as an atom in the whole body of the army, was not to be achieved, though material force cast us, apparently, to the earth, yet we learned once and for all to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.
Hardened as scarcely another generation ever was in fire and flame, we could go into life as though from the anvil; into friendship, love, politics, professions, into all that destiny had in store. It is not every generation that is so favoured.
…Germany lives and Germany shall never go under! [Jünger, pp. 317–19]
Excerpt from 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War
A. D. Pankhurst
British Corporal, 56th Division, Royal Field Artillery
We were working towards Mons when the war finished, and moving about so we had trouble getting fed. On the night of 10 November we'd had no rations and our last food had been the midday meal of the day before, so I went off to try to find a source of supply. I walked for about an hour until I came to a small village where there was a chateau that was Divisional Headquarters and I went in and saw a staff officer and told him the position. He said, 'Right, I'll see to it.'
While I was waiting I saw a noticeboard nailed to a tree on a patch of grass outside the chateau and I struck a match to read it— for it was dark by now—and I read that an Armistice would be declared at 11 o'clock next day. This officer was as good as his word, because soon aGS wagon drove up, laden with food, and I got on it and off we went. We got back to the ammunition dump in the early hours of the morning and when they'd unloaded the food I roused the cook and said, 'I've got some food. Get up and make a meal.' He set to and made a bully beef stew, and when we sat down to our dinner
it was breaking dawn. When we'd nearly finished the food I said to them casually, 'The war's over at 11 o'clock this morning.' Somebody said, 'Yeah?' Somebody else said, 'Go on!' They just went on eating! There was no jumping for joy or dancing around. We were so war weary that we were just ready to accept whatever came. When I read of the dancing in the fountains in Trafalgar Square and men riding on top of taxi-cabs going down the Strand and theMaficking that went on inBlighty, my mind always goes back to us few men and the quiet way we took the news.
It was different in France. Near the dump there was an old couple in a small farm, and we'd been there to try and get something to eat and they didn't have a thing in the house—not a crumb! So later that morning I took them a share of our rations—a tin of milk, a tin of butter, a tin ofbully beef, some bread, some tea. Someone had got hold of a copy of the Continental Daily Mail and on the front page was the announcement of the Armistice. I showed it to them and they just sat rocking back and forwards in their chairs with tears rolling down their faces. They'd been in occupied territory for practically thewhole of the war and they were virtually beaten, just resigned to whatever would happen to them. I shall always remember that old couple. They must have suffered so much, not to have shown some glimmer of happiness. [Macdonald, p. 308]
What happened next …
In the aftermath of the war, the lives of the world's young men and women were destroyed and many people could not see what had been gained. Europe was in worse shape than it had been when the war began. Empires were shattered, governments fell, and violent and destructive regimes came to power in several of the combatant countries. Perhaps the only country to truly benefit from the war was the United States, which emerged as the world's greatest power. Almost every other country was drained nearly to destruction by the conflict. In the end, World War I settled nothing. It merely set the stage for a war that would surpass it in its measures of death and destruction—World War II.
Did you know …
- The Allies, who emerged victorious, saw 5,100,000 men die in battle or from wounds received in battle.
- The losing Central Powers lost 3,500,000 men.
- In War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century, historian Arthur Marwick estimates that the war produced 5 million widowed women, 9 million orphaned children, and 10 million refugees, people who fled from their homes because of the war.
For More Information
Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Higonnet, Margaret, ed. Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I. New York: Plume, 1999.
Jünger, Ernst. The Storm of Steel: From the Diary of a German Storm-Troop Officer on the Western Front. London: Chatto and Windus, 1929.
Kirchberger, Joe H. The First World War: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Lewis, Cecil. Sagittarius Rising. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1936.
Macdonald, Lyn. 1914–1918: Voices and Images of the Great War. London: Michael Joseph, 1988.
Marwick, Arthur. War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century: A Comparative Study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.
Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of World War I. New York: William Morrow, 1981.
Winter, Jay, and Blain Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.
Armistice. [Online] http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWarmistice.htm (accessed March 2001).
The Armistice Demands. [Online]http://www.lib.byu.edu/~rdh/wwi/1918/armistice.html (accessed March 2001).
The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. [Online]http://www.pbs.org/greatwar (accessed October 2000).
The 1918 Influenza. [Online] http://www.library.utoronto.ca/spanishflu/1918.html (accessed December 2000).
World War I: Trenches on the Web. [Online]http://www.worldwar1.com (accessed October 2000).
Alsatian: An inhabitant of Alsace, a region between France, ermany, Belgium, and Switzerland.
N.C.O.: Noncommissioned officer, such as a sergeant or corporal.
GS Wagon: A General Service military truck.
Mafficking: Boisterous celebrating. Blighty: Britain.
Bully beef: Corned or canned beef, an important source of protein for the British army.
Red place: Slang for a Communist area.