A hundred years ago this Sunday, Nov. 11, the cataclysmic "Great War" (the "war to end all wars," aka, The First World War or World War I) came to a close as the warring powers signed an armistice at 5 a.m. However, the armistice would not take effect until 11 a.m., which meant life or death for thousands of soldiers. (A formal peace treaty, the Treaty of Versaille, would not be signed until June 28, 1919.)
Until another even greater war occurred barely 20 years later, the First World War was likely the bloodiest war in human history. The slaughter took place on an industrial scale never before experienced by humanity. Unfortunately, many generals were tied to the past and failed to recognize the revolutionary effect technology was to play during war in the 20th century.
WWI introduced not just the field telephone but wireless radio communications that outpaced the ability of any "runner" or military aide's ability to send or receive messages from a commander to subordinates. It also introduced not only the airplane, but its use as "flying artillery" capable of bombing or strafing enemy positions far to the rear of front lines. It also introduced the use of poison gas, tanks, and the submarine. Most importantly for war on land, it introduced the machine gun, which was, next to rapid-firing artillery, the greatest innovation for killing on the battlefield. When integrated into defensive or offensive operations, the effect of these weapons was decisive on the battlefield.
World War I began in the first week of August 1914; by the end of October 1914, more than 325,000 combatants from all sides had been killed in action with three times that number wounded. Instead of a war of maneuvering, vast armies with hundreds of divisions of troops (an average division consists of 10,000 to 15,000 men) had been mobilized, bogged down in a 600-mile-long trench system across western and central Europe and fed into a grinder that crushed men's souls. The generals failed to learn and insisted that old tactics need not change, just urge the men forward. Disaster upon disaster became names associated with needless loss of life, such as Gallipoli, the 1915 amphibious invasion of the Dardanelle's (300,000 casualties); the Somme in July 1916, where the British Army lost 60,000 men in a single morning between 8 and 11 a.m.; and Verdun in 1916, where virtually every French division served at one time or another and the souls of more than 600,000 French and German soldiers were lost. On the Russian front, casualties mounted into the millions as the Russian czar's generals herded Russian peasants into murderous machine-gun fire without regard for common sense, let alone strategy. On the southern front, Italian generals employed brutal discipline against their own troops, who were fighting Austrian troops in the Alps, hauling disassembled cannons up sheer mountain cliffs to create avalanches to bury their Austrian counterparts.
The war was truly global, with 200,000 Vietnamese troops providing battalions to the French on the Western Front and colonial troops fighting on behalf of their colonial masters in East Africa and the Arabian Desert. A Vietnamese soldier of note with the French on the Western Front was the future Ho Chi Minh, who led his people to drive out the French from his homeland in Indochina and would later wage a 10-year war against America and South Vietnam.
As America mobilized for war in 1917, we also fought a hidden enemy in the form of the 1918 influenza epidemic, a pandemic that eventually killed more than 200 million people worldwide. American troops were especially susceptible. Of the 116,000 American fatalities in WWI, 53,513 were battle deaths but 63,195 succumbed to disease, mostly influenza. It was so virulent that a soldier would show symptoms at 6 p.m. and be dead before 6 a.m. the next morning. At Fort Devens in Massachusetts, soldiers in training died at the rate of 100 per day during the pandemic's peak. The German Army was also affected; their March 1918 offensive ground to a halt when they exhausted their reserve divisions, which had been decimated by influenza, allowing the Allies to regain the initiative and launch a counter-offensive.
Although the armistice was signed at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, no order was given to cease combat operations before it was to take effect at 11 a.m. As a result, for the next six hours, every gun on the Western Front continued to fire, (literally millions of rounds) as hundreds of thousands of soldiers continued to fight and "go over the top" in last-minute offensives ordered by the military high command. America lost another 3,200 soldiers during the last six hours of WWI with the last American soldier killed at 10:59 a.m.
Remember the sacrifices made by those soldiers of the Great War and all the ones that followed this Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, at the many memorials throughout the county. Join us and help keep their memory alive and remember the terrible cost of war. Δ
Al Fonzi is an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor firstname.lastname@example.org.