Thoughts on the 100th Anniversary of the End of World War I
The majority of Americans are fully aware that Veterans Day, a day which often plays host to special events and ceremonies honoring military veterans, is observed annually in the United States on November 11th. Many more are also aware that Veterans Day in the United States, coincides with other international holidays, including Armistice Day and Remembrance Day, held in other countries on the same date.
Increasingly, it seems as if many in America’s younger generations are placing significantly less importance on the recall of vital historical events in human history. The anniversary of one of these such events will take place this Sunday, November 11th, 2018 as we mark the centenary of the end of World War I, 100 years ago.
Hopefully, the discussion surrounding the uniqueness of this specific anniversary will provide a starting-point from which we can renew a sense of import and reverence of human history in the hearts and minds of a younger generation.
Let’s take a look back at World War I, known to many at the time as ‘The Great War’ or what many had hoped would be ‘The War to End All Wars’.
It was during the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, in 1918, when an Armistice that was signed between Germany and the Allied forces went into effect, formally ceasing the majority of the fighting of World War I, and bringing an end (mostly) to the devastating war, roughly 4 years after it had begun.
The observance of this event, known as Armistice Day, would later be changed to Veterans Day in America, following World War II, with the intention of expanding the day to recognize and celebrate all veterans.
Events leading up to ‘The Great War’ began in June of 1914, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, by a Serbian nationalist. Tensions between a Russian-backed Serbia and a Germany supported Austria-Hungary quickly dissolved within only one week, Belgium, France, and Great Britain joined alongside Russia, and Serbia, lining up against Austria-Hungary, and Germany, marking the start of World War I.
The United States wouldn’t enter the war until several years later, instead opting to remain neutral, only supporting the war effort on both sides through commerce, shipping, and the provision of medical aid. America officially entered the war on April 6th, 1917 in response to German U-boats sinking commercial and passenger ships, more specifically, the Lusitania which was transporting hundreds of American passengers traveling between New York and Liverpool, England.
In the end, World War I was devastating to the geo-political power-structures and perhaps even more so to human lives, wounding some 21 million soldiers and killing nine million more. Civilian casualties totaled near 10 million. The war also impacted social norms, with women entering the workforce in support of the war effort and in order to replace the deceased who never returned to work. The global war also lead to the spread a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, and also led to the creation of many technologies of modern-warfare.
An often equally important part of analyzing any particular event in history is to look into how it affected the people, those that lived through it. Taking time to understand their personal pain, their mental processes, and triumphs. It makes it real, human, and serves as a conduit to help us to relate across time.
Below is a small sample of photos and letters collected from the time of war. Hopefully it will inspire you to search out more letters for yourself, and bring with them a fresh realism to the 100 year-old events.
Letter written by Emily Chitticks, to her Fiance Private William Martin (1916):
‘My Dearest Will, I feel I must write you again dear although there is not much news to tell you. I wonder how you are getting on. I shall be so relieved to get a letter from you. I can’t help feeling a bit anxious dear. I know how you must have felt darling when you did not get my letters for so long. Of course I know dear you will write as soon as ever you can, but the time seems so dull and weary without any news of you, if only this war was over dear and we were together again. It will be one day I suppose.
Don’t think dear I am worrying unnecessarily about you, because I know God can take care of you wherever you are and if it’s his will darling he will so are you to come back to me, that’s how I feel about it dear, if we only put our trust in Him. I am sure he will. I wonder how your Cousins are getting on dear. We are feeling very anxious about George, as no news has come from him yet. We can’t understand why his wife doesn’t write.
How are your hands now dear? Mine are very sore, so chapped, and my left hand has got several chilblains on it and they do irritate. I could scratch it to bits. Have you been receiving the books I have sent you dear. I am very pleased to say dear I am keeping very well indeed, and I trust you are the same.
There has been a bit of a fuss over Arthur this week. He has been trying to get in the Army unbeknownst to his parents, but Mrs T. thought his parents ought to be informed about it, so she wrote and told them about him and he had to go home in hot haste last night. I guess he got in a fine row, but he won’t say today. He is as miserable as anything. Really Will I never saw such a boy as he is. I am afraid he is going to the bad. I don’t know if Mrs T. will keep him on or not. He says he has to join up in a fortnight, but as he is under age I suppose his parents could stop him. I don’t know whether they will or not. For my part I hope he does go, he will be a jolly good riddance for there is nothing but rows and deceitfulness going on where he is.
Well darling I don’t know much more to say now, so will close with fondest love and kisses from your loving little girl. Emily.
P.S. Cheer up darling, and don’t worry about me. I am quite alright, only anxious to get your letters. There is good news in the papers. Love from Mum and Dad.’
Letter written by Ed (Last name unknown) to his Mother, Father and Sister (February, 22, 1919):
My dearest Mother, Father & Sister; . . .
Now we all try to be in good humor the majority of the time, and we try to look on the bright side of this featureless life. But there are so many; discouraging things, so many unnecessary causes for the “home sickness blues.” Just for instance; we are here, the war has been over for four months, and no one knows a thing about going home, or if we go at all. Naturally, we cant all go home at once, but one thing, that could be given is a schedule, when the respective divisions do go. . . . I read a “nice” little article in the paper the other day, where a “Captain”, remarked the A.E.F. were not anxious to be immediately mustered out. That the majority have more “spending” money than they did, and plenty to eat, and a nice place to sleep. Oh! Ye Gods and little fishes! Did you ever feel like you just would like to be given an opportunity to talk? Well I and 1,999,999 more here would like to. I wonder what Soda fountain he worked at, in the states? They better cut off his conyac supply. Theres coming a date – and it wont be long.
I am going on a special leave to Nice (pronounced Niece) the latter part of this month. . . . As soon as I get back I am going to put in a special leave to Paris. This time I am going to see everything that is there (and leave some things a lone, that are there. “That’s me all over, Mable”
We had a show last night (very scarce) in which featured a eight reel Metro picture titled “My own United States. In several places, the statue of liberty was shown, and I don’t know what will happen, when the boys actually see the lady herself. Why you never heard so much yelling in your life. . . .
Thanking you all for you undeserved attention I am faithfully your own devoted son
Letter written by Patrick Blundstone, a schoolboy to his father, describing in graphic detail the landing of a Zeppelin in flames close to the house (September 1916):
‘Dear Daddy, I hope you are not alarmed, you should not be, unless you know where one of the Zepps went. I have heard that it raided London (up the Strand) and caused heavy causalities. But this I know because I saw, and so did everyone else in the house.
Here is my story: I heard the clock strike 11 o’clock. I was in bed and just going to sleep. Between 2 ‘clock and 2.30 o’clock, Lily (the servant) woke Miss Willy and told her she could hear the guns. Miss Willy woke Poolman and told him to wake me. He did so. Miss Willy helped Mrs Willy downstairs. We were all awake by now, we had a Miss Blair staying with us for the weekend. We saw flashes and then heard “Bangs” and “Pops”.
Suddenly a bright yellow light appeared and died down again. “Oh! It’s alright” said Poolman. “It’s only a star shell”. That light appeared again and we Miss Blair, Poolman and I rushed to the window and looked out and there right above us was the Zepp! It had broken in half, and was like this: it was in flames, roaring, and crackling. It went slightly to the right, and crashed down into a field!! It was about a 100 yards away from the house and directly opposite us!!! It nearly burnt itself out, when it was finished by the Cheshunt Fire Brigade.
I would rather not describe the condition of the crew, of course they were dead – burnt to death. They were roasted, there is absolutely no other word for it. They were brown, like the outside of Roast Beef. One had his legs off at the knees, and you could see the joint!
The Zepp was bombed from an aeroplane above, with an incendiary bomb by a Lieutenany Robertson (Johnson?). We have some relics some wire and wood framework.
The weather is beastly but Mrs and Miss Willy are jolly people, hoping you are all well, love to all. Your loving son Patrick.
Please don’t be alarmed, all is well that ends well (and this did for us). We are all quite safe.’
Letter written Richard Gilson, to his Mother (May, 12 1915), France.
My dear Mother,
Have just come through a particularly nasty period. We went into the trenches on Wednesday night and on Sunday morning at 5am our Artillery commenced bombarding the German trenches and after 20 minutes had elapsed we went over the parapet. My goodness what a reception the Huns had in store for us, they simply swept the ground with machine gun fire and shrapnel. Poor old ‘C’ coy. caught it hot and Neuve Chapelle seemed to be a fleabite compared with this. It was found impossible to make any advance in our quarter, so I dug myself in and awaited events. It was horrible suspense, as I seemed to be the only man untouched, all around me, and being personally acquainted with each man made matters worse, in fact, it’s all wrong to call them men, as they were mostly mere boys.
About early afternoon I was hailed from the trench as to whether it was possible for me to get back. I replied in the affirmative and decided to run the risk of getting potted on the way. So I commenced crawling on my stomach until about a few yards from the parapet, then made a spring and rushed headlong over the top, nearly spoiling the features of a few who happened to be in the trench and were not expecting me. We were relieved that afternoon, but some of the fellows did not get in until nightfall and these experienced another bombardment… Billy Hastings is quite fit and the only pal left. We have been resting since and getting information about the (illegible) but by all reports we shall be up again soon. No rest for the wicked it is said, and if true we must surely be a bad lot.
What a terrible thing about the Lusitania, and with so many Americans aboard. Should imagine there will be more trouble. Have received box and letter dated 6th and am most thankful for everything you are all doing for me. (censored.)
As regards the pads, (masks of cotton pads which served as gas masks), all we were served out with were made ‘on the spot’ and consisted of a piece of gauze and tape and were steeped in a solution of bicarbonate of soda, prior to this charge. I lost all my belongings except the Gillette (razor) so should be glad of a few toilet requisites when next you are sending a parcel. Do not trouble about towel and perhaps Frank would get me a shaving brush. Must now close. Much love to all. From your affectionate son,
Letter written by Sailor Teddy Ashton, to his Sister Gertie (1916):
‘Dear Gertie, I have written two or three times recently so you may get them together. We have been very busy for the last few weeks and have got through a great amount of work. We are much better off again as regards potatoes and other food stuffs for we have had a great quantity of stores. I fancy we shall be here for a time yet anyway it looks like it with such a quantity of stores aboard. You will see I am telling you the same things over and over again. At least I know I have told you them once or twice but everything about is all of a sameness kind of thing. Ships here there and everywhere now. But soon we shall have a move that is when we can get through the White Sea. We shall have to look after all the shipping.
The snow is fast disappearing now. I came across an article in a paper the other day about this district and it said that 14 or 15 years ago bears used to roam around hear [sic], but there seems to be nothing around now excepting the wild fowl, which are very numerous. I believe salmon are numerous at certain times of the year.
The 2nd and 3rd of May we had a terrific snow blizzard. We should have left the ship to go away and do some work on another ship but we could not get away from our ship it was so rough. We have no night now, the sun goes down but it never goes dark, it is eternally daylight.
Of course I told you we have had an entire change round and I have a new job now, part of the ship. I have not half the time I used to have but I enjoy the robust work much better and I get to see much more with working away. We get up at 6.30 and work until 1.00 so we put a few hours in don’t we. That is when we are working away.
Did you get the £1-0-0 I remitted? Let me know. I have remitted another £3-0-0 this month. Let me know if you receive this also. I shall probably send a little more next month or later. Don’t hold the paper money. Bank it or keep it by you in gold until I come home.
Tell Dad I shall to him as soon as I can get enough to tell him about. Give my best love to everyone at home, I often think about you all. I am yours ever, Ted.’
Letter written by Richard James, (August, 10 1915), France:
Thanks awfully for your letter, glad to hear that you are all serene and that the G.W.R. is still flourishing without me, as a matter of fact I expect it’s better without me but still there you are.
By Jove! I had no idea that the Audit had shoved so many fellows into khaki, its fine. Well the old Brigade has had some pretty varied experiences in this land of stinks and bad beer.
We landed at Havre last March and after a freezing night under canvas on the heights behind the town we had a rather weird train journey up country. There were about 10 of us per cattle truck with a few wisps of straw to sleep on. Our horses were boxed six in a truck, three with their heads facing the ‘engine’ and three facing the rear of the train. Two men sat on corn sacks between their bottoms. If they kept the shutters closed they had a beautiful journey as it was so warm with the horses…
At about 2am the old caboodle pulled up and we thought we were in for a dreary hang about, however the order came down to bring out the dixies… and fall in for something hot. I took our one up and the liquid smelt so good that with a little judicious wangling we managed to get another one full. When we tasted it, it was simply gorgeous. Boiling hot coffee and rum as only Frenchmen can make it, you know how. Gee but it did go down a treat.
Well after many jolts and bumps we arrived at our destination. It was miles from the firing line and a fearful hole at that. At nine next morning we were off again and went up further still, riding about 23 miles before we came to anchor at a rather dirty mining village…
After about three weeks in this show we shunted up and got our baptism. It’s a funny sensation being under fire for the first time but it soon wears off. One gets a rather nasty jolt when the first casualty occurs especially as it was in our case the finest fellow we had on the staff. He got a chunk of shell in the back of his neck and was killed on the spot.
We were in action at this place for about two months and took part in several bombardments, one of them being the one in which poor old Joey was killed. We had some pretty rough times but were very fortunate as regards casualties. Two month’s action and 2½ days’ rest, it doesn’t seem much but that’s what we got, and then at it again in a different part.
This show had been occupied by the Germs and then by the French from whom we took over. The filth and stench was too awful for words, one of our batteries striking rather unlucky in coming across Germs buried just under the surface when they started digging their guns in. The air was blue for miles…
The next action we had was a hell of a show. The staff were put into a huge Chateau which was under observation and fire from three sides. And they didn’t half sling the lead about too. It’s marvelous that we didn’t get lifted skywards heaps of times, but still here we are. After a good spell in this show we came to rest again about 10 days or so ago.
We are having a good time here in the way of concerts, sports, boxing tournaments etc. The latter was great especially the bout between a Farrier Sergeant and a cook’s mate. They biffed at one another until neither could stand, it was awfully funny.
Little Seedy Ellis has got a snip job at a base. He came up today with a draught of men. He is having the time of his life and looks it by the dark circles under his eyes…
I am feeling wonderfully fit and well and would not have missed coming out for quids. I suppose you saw in the paper that two of our boys have got the Distinguished Conduct Medal. They were in Major Lord Gorell’s Battery; he is awfully bucked about it.
Well old man I must dry up. I hope you can read this disgusting scrawl, but will make that whiskered excuse ‘active service conditions’. Please remember me to all the boys and tell Long Liz that I would give anything for a barrel or two of the club bitter.
Letter written by Ernest William Bratchell, undated, France:
Was very glad indeed to get your letters although, your news in regard to Joe [Chamberlain] comes as a shock. It was the first I had heard of him since he arrived in France in spite of the fact his regiment being quite close. Am afraid the 9th and few days following were rotten days for a good many battalions, our lot as much as any. We have been “in” since the 8th and have had a fairly trying time we were reinforced during this week, not before time as we were down to our last two hundred. Can’t tell how sorry I am to hear about Joe as you say he was “one of the best”. I hope you chaps have not been annoyed at my not answering your very welcome letters. I don’t pride myself much on writing good yarns though and opportunities are also hard to find. As you know I had a bit of a knock at Neuve Chappell but have quite got over that and am now in the best of health and spirits. I came across Len Phillips and Peter Hawes in different drafts of the London Scottish while down at Rouen both of them have now had some experience on the job I expect. Thank Mr Drewe very much for making inquiries, tell him I occasionally wish heartily to be on the old job again the quiet life will do for me after this. No I did not get Dick’s magazine or letter expect it went astray while I was in hospital. Thank him very much for sending them will you. Had a game of football about two weeks ago with R.G.A.* Battery, the pitch being a serious drawback. I think it was a cabbage patch. Still we managed to get a good game in and most important of all, won. The weather here has on the whole been very good just lately only getting an occasional day’s rain. Last night we had a sharp thunderstorm, a new experience it had at least the effect of shutting all the other disturbances of our rest up so we did not grouse. Much obliged for all the information re the other fellows. Am glad most of them are getting on so well. Peacock seems to have come out top dog. The job alone from other examples seems to be a paying one, leaving out the holiday in Scotland. Well must close my epistle. Please remember me to Dick, Mr Horsley, Ransley and Drewe, Fox. Hoping both they, and yourself are, like myself O.K. [Line censored]. From yours faithfully,
Letter written by Edward Henry Cecil Stewart, undated, France:
… As long as you kept your head down you were comparatively safe, so as it went on, this was where I had my first escape. I was on sentry duty for a couple of hours, from 1am to 3am and was instructed to keep a sharp look out. I did not care for the idea of keeping my head above the trench and looking for beastly Germans, however it had to be done, it was quite uncanny to watch the enemy trench which appeared somewhat like a black wave and only sixty yards in front, then you would suddenly see the flash of their rifles and machine guns immediately after would come the report and nasty thuds on the sandbags which you might be resting against. I fired about five shots at their flashes (the only target to aim at) then another two shells which lodged in the parapet either side of my head leaving about 2 to 3 inches between me and certain death. I thought that near enough but it turned out that it was to have something nearer than that. Our casualties here amounted on the average, to about two per day killed, of course, we thought it terrible at the time at least I did.
Early April saw us relieved by another division and we were sent a few miles back for a well-earned rest, which consisted of physical drill and a run before breakfast. The remainder of the morning being spent in platoon drill musketry drills. After dinner we put the “cap on” our rest (why so called I do not know) by having a route march for two hours. We spent a few days like this and were dispatched with all possible speed to Ypres, here we went in to support the Canadians and spent a most unpleasant eight days, during which time we lost several hundred men, nearly all my friends who came out in the same draft and were killed or wounded, we had to retire, the best part being that the Germans did not find this out until two days after when we were more or less safely bivouacking in a very pretty wood. We stayed here for about a week; then we got to work again, digging reserve trenches just behind the front line, building up parapets which had been demolished by the enemy’s high explosive shells and such like, working all night and getting what sleep we could in the daytime. One morning we were awakened by the most awful din, it seemed as though hell had broken loose, shells were falling like summer rain. And people have often told me in the course of conversation it was raining shells and I admit I took it with a grain of salt, could not be possible I thought, but such I was surprised to find was possible and actually taking place there about 3.30am. This bombardment started and about half an hour later, I, with three others, were ordered to start reinforcing. We went up in fours, it being considered safer that way, half a mile over open ground we had to do, this being swept continually with shells, to give you a slight idea I can say the previous night, just in front of our reserve trenches was a beautifully green field, and the next morning it was as much as one could do to see any grass at all, simply one mass of craters, varying in diameter from ten to twelve paces.
I had gone about half the required distance when a shell fell only a yard from where I was, the force of the concussion [explosion] pitched me several yards to my left and I came down rather heavily, however I reached the first line without any further mishap, where we had to stay until midnight when we had to be relieved again owing to not having enough me to hold the trench. Our honours were one V.C. (Victoria Cross), two D.S.O. (Distinguished Service Orders), one Military Cross and one or two D.C.M. (Distinguished Conduct Medals).
The next day I paraded sick, my back paining me so much that I could not stand straight for a week after. I am now back with the regiment who are on the line of communications. We are having leave shortly and if possible will pay a visit to the Audit office. Have you any news of Chichester?
(Rifleman) E.H.C. Stewart
One of the lessons learned as a result of World War I, and subsequently, World War II, is that world history, more-so human history, should be remembered. It is of great value to us, for understanding responsibilities of leadership, in revealing our past mistakes and miscalculations, and for teaching lessons about how consequences of our decisions can effect more than just those immediately around us.
Since 1945, the major world powers have not gone to war with one another, certainly not on anything of a similar scale, even during the peak of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. That’s quite an accomplishment! It’s the type of accomplishment that we shouldn’t allow to be diminished as memories of the consequences of a century ago begin to fade away.
We are approaching a moment in time where the voices are almost gone, a time when no veterans of World War I remain living, and more and more veterans of the second World War are lost everyday. As younger generations become less concerned with a history that is becoming more abstract in their minds, we need a return to regarding our shared human history as vital. Very shortly it will be the only thing that we can rely on to tell the stories.
We need history to be real, to be gritty, it needs to be un-edited, and sometimes offensive, that is after all the point. History in it’s purest form allows us to gain knowledge and understanding, whether uncomfortable or not, in order to prevent our past mistakes from becoming our future problems all over again. It can also help us to learn how we can improve our societies and enrich our human relationships.
We can only spread the word of this milestone anniversary and strive to improve our telling of it, determined to renew the value in lessons taught by our past. It has been said that human history is one filled with lessons unlearned. If we can keep alive the stories of those who lived through the hell and despair, while honoring and respecting their sacrifices, perhaps we might be able use events like these as a remedy and not simply a memorial.
For us to collectively assume that an event like a global war could not happen again, simply because we are better educated, or better connected, or more diplomatic, is unreasonable, and dangerous!
Our future will always depend on the mindset of our world’s leaders, the posture of its citizens, and a grounded, healthy understanding and respect for where we have been, how we got here, and what it cost those generations before us.
Ultimately our history determines our fate, perhaps if we show it respect, it will show us favor.
May God bless those who so bravely served, with honor and dignity; May God bless those who continue to serve in the same steadfast spirit. Thank you could never say enough.
To all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, may we always remember your sacrifices, treating them with the respect they deserve, both now and in the future.