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I REMEMBER WHEN Armistice Day was commemorated spontaneously, reverently and universally.

As a kid at state (primary) school we were taught about the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in the war to end all wars and assembled at 11.00am to salute the flag, the Union Jack, and have 2 minutes silence with heads bowed. That was in the 1940’s when there were many veterans of WW1 still among us.

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was instilled into us with the utmost reverence and seriousness.

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Armistice Day Sydney 1918

While I was at state school WW2 was also in progress. WW1 was never referred to as that. It was always “the last war” and usually in hushed tones. Its influence permeated everyday life in one way or another because we were still surrounded by it in the form of spinsters of advanced age and TPI men doing limited types of work. All of my teachers from Bubs to Grade 5 were spinsters with one exception and she was a widow.

When I started work in the 1950’s it was still commemorated spontaneously. I worked in the Melbourne CBD in those days and at the stroke of 11.00am all traffic stopped, people stood still, men wearing hats took them off and there was silence everywhere. It was impromptu inthe sense that there was no official master of ceremonies, sirens or other alerting action. It just happened and everybody took part. After two minutes things resumed where they had left off.

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By the time the 1970’s arrived there was noticeably less adherence to these past practices. By then we had received an influx of migrants from all points of the compass. Armistice Day was an exclusive event to native born Australians and Englishmen. Everybody in the country was affected by it but not so the migrant population. That is no criticism of the migrants, they were just not involved, never experienced any connection with WW1 and obviously had no relatives who were directly affected. At the same time many people continued to observe the rituals of 11.00am on November 11th.

Today, I doubt if the significance of the hour and the day is something of which the general population is aware. Sure, the media will acknowledge some lip service to it prompted by the RSL but nobody will notice. Traffic will continue, people will go about their business as usual and there will be the odd church service where “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” is sung. There will be very, very few people now who have a direct connection with the event. Time has progressed and they are all dead now.

The scenario in Britain is much different. Busloads of mourners still proceed to France and Belgium to pay their respects at the memorials like the Menin Gate and Thiepval and the 1,000 or so cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission or the 2,000 civilian cemeteries where soldiers of the Great War are buried. Australian lost 47,000 killed in Northern France and Belgium, out of a total of 62,149 in all theatres of the war; a significant proportion of our then population. Great Britain lost 887,858 as listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but in addition to that there are another 95,000 names listed on the memorials at Menin Gat and Thiepval of men who were lost and have no known grave.

It is not surprising therefore that with the diminishing number of native born Australians with ties to WW1, the diminishing number of our people from British backgrounds and Australia’s remoteness from the battlefields, that interest in and consciousness of the date has waned.

Back in the days when I was at school many kids wore their father’s and grandfather’s medals just like they do on ANZAC Day. Any WW1 medals still in existence are relics and curios not worn by serving soldiers. The reason is that these events happened over 100 years ago now and really are relics of the past. When my generation passes I expect that Armistice Day will no longer be commemorated anywhere in Australia. It will be merely part of history.

 

The significance of the hour and day is that this was the moment when all the guns fell silent in the war to end all wars. Right up until that moment men were still firing at each other and being killed. The war was not ended with a victory on the battlefield where the vanquished surrendered then and there. It was ended by negotiation when Germany realised that it had no more reserves of men, mutiny had broken out in some divisions, there was significant suffering among the civilian population and there was increasing sympathy and support for the Bolshevik ethic which had spread from Russia when the German Army was no longer required there after the 1917 revolution.

The scale of the whole Western Front remains mind boggling even today. The entire battlefield was only about 85 miles wide. The military casualties were at three times the rate of those in WW2. The totality of all sides was that there were 3,258,610 killed and 7,745,920 wounded. The total deaths on all fronts was 8,364,700, 21,436,000 were wounded and there were 6,276,000 civilian casualties now described as “collateral damage”. Given the scale of casualties Australia’s burden of 47,000 on the Western Front is miniscule.

 

The casualties suffered on the morning of 11th November before 11.00am were no different than those on any other morning in the previous four years. Peace negotiations were started on 8th November and on that day Matthais Erzberger, the German chief negotiator, asked General Foch to call a cease fire while negotiations were in progress. Foch refused because there were still some minor territorial claims to be settled and the Americans in particular were not agreeable to a cease fire. They had played a disappointingly small part in the final battles and Pershing was still anxious to prove his worth. Captain Harry Trueman, commander of an artillery unit was adamantly opposed to a ceasefire as was the majority of the American high command. The Americans also had copious supplies of unspent ammunition so the battles continued right up to the last second. The last American casualty was recorded as having been killed at 10.59amon November 11th. Between the time of agreement to surrender and the appointed hour for hostilities to cease, 6,660 men were killed

After the war ended the US Senate launched an investigation into Pershing’s actions in the closing stages. Pershing had powerful allies and nothing came of it. The closing stages of the war were a catalogue of intrigue and indecision. It is a topic in itself far beyond the range of Armistice Day in isolation.

 

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