The Greatest Day in History

How, on the Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month, the First World War Finally Cam


By Nicholas Best

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World War I did not end neatly with the Germans’ surrender. After a dramatic week of negotiations, military offensives, and the beginning of a Communist revolution, the German Imperial regime collapsed. The Allies eventually granted an armistice to a new German government, and at 11:00 on November 11, the guns officially ceased fire — but only after 11,000 more casualties had been sustained. The London Daily Express proclaimed it “the greatest day in history.”

Nicholas Best tells the story in sweeping, cinematic style, following a set of key participants through the twists and turns of these climactic events, and sharing the impressions of eyewitnesses including Adolf Hitler, Charles de Gaulle, Harry S. Truman, Anthony Eden, and future famous generals MacArthur, Patton, and Montgomery.


For my grandfathers,
both of whom fought on the Western Front,
and for my grandmother,
whose brothers are still there somewhere.

The Germans were within sight of the Eiffel Tower when their final offensive petered out. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
German gunner, killed at Villers Devy Dun Sassey on 4 November 1918. (Corbis)
Captain Charles de Gaulle. (Bridgeman Art Library/Archives de Gaulle, Paris)
Harry Truman. (Getty Images)
Sergeant-Major Flora Sandes, a British clergyman’s daughter serving in the Serbian infantry. (TopFoto)
Herbert Sulzbach. (Weidenfeld Archive)
After a scratch supper at Homblières, the German Armistice delegates returned to their car for the journey to Compiègne. (Imperial War Museum)
Matthias Erzberger, leader of the German delegation. (Getty Images)
Prince Max von Baden, Chancellor of Germany for only a few weeks. (AKG-Images, London)
General Wilhelm Gröner. (Getty Images)
Philipp Scheidemann at the window of the Chancellery in Berlin. (AKG-Images, London)
View from the top of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate during the revolution. (AKG-Images, London)
Princess Blücher. (Weidenfeld Archive)
Soldiers on the Brandenburg Gate. (AKG-Images, London)
Corporal Teilhard de Chardin. (Editions Grasset)
Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Getty Images)
2nd Lieutenant George Coles. (Imperial War Museum)
The Kaiser waits for his train to arrive at Eisden, 10 November. (AKG-Images, London)
Lady Susan Townley, wife of the British ambassador at the Hague. (National Portrait Gallery, London)
Marshal Foch signs the Armistice for France soon after 5 a.m. on 11 November. (TopFoto)
The Canadians relax in Mons’s main square on Armistice morning. (National Archives of Canada)
The Irish Guards at Maubeuge, five minutes before the Armistice. (Getty Images)
Patricia Carver. (Private collection)
Crowds at Buckingham Palace on Armistice morning. (Getty Images)
Crowds at the White House, 1918. (Getty Images)
Newspaperman Roy Howard. (Getty Images/Time & Life Pictures)
Australians in Sydney’s Martin Place on Armistice day. (Australian War Memorial)
American Troops dance through the streets of Paris on Armistice day. (Bridgeman Art Library/Archives Larrousse, Paris)
Henry Gunther, officially the last US soldier to die in the war. (Baltimore Sun)
US air ace Eddie Rickenbacker. (Getty Images)
Bogart Rogers. (Weidenfeld Archive)
Ernest Hemingway in uniform. (Weidenfeld Archive)
Agatha Christie. (Bridgeman Art Library: Illustrated London News)
John Maynard Keynes. (Bridgeman Art Library)
Mahatma Gandhi. (Getty Images)
T. E. Lawrence. (Imperial War Museum)
Marlene Dietrich and Erich Maria Remarque. (Getty Images)
Paris showgirl Mistinguett and Maurice Chevalier. (Bridgeman Art Library/Bibliotheque de L’Arsenal, Paris)
André Maurois. (Getty Images)
Chancellor Friedrich Ebert Greets ‘undefeated’ troops at the Brandenburg Gate on 10 December. (AKG-Images, London)

‘The biggest news in the history of newspapers,
perhaps in the history of humanity. A scrap of news that
two thousand million people - the whole world -
awaited breathlessly. News that would mean to tens of
millions that their sons, husbands or sweethearts would
come home alive and unmaimed . . . News that had never
before and could never again mean so much to so many
people. The Armistice!’
Webb Miller, United Press
‘The greatest day in history.’
London Daily Express

Monday, 4 November 1918
The New Zealanders were on a roll. For weeks they had been chasing the Germans across France, forcing them steadily back towards the frontier with Belgium. Ahead of them now lay the ancient citadel of Le Quesnoy, straddling the road to the frontier beyond. One final push and the German army would be out of France altogether.
Le Quesnoy stood on high ground amid rolling countryside. It had been a fortress for eight hundred years, its thick walls long familiar to the English, who had had their first taste of cannon fire there in 1346. The walls had later been strengthened by Marshal Vauban, who had remodelled the ramparts in the seventeenth century to withstand a long siege. They stood sixty feet high now, topped with gun emplacements, heavily defended by the German garrison of the town.
The New Zealanders came out of the mist in the early morning of Monday, 4 November 1918. They bypassed the town first, clearing the surrounding fields of Germans before turning their attention to the citadel. It was an easy target with modern artillery. The New Zealanders could have reduced it to rubble in no time if they had wished. But there were five thousand French civilians in Le Quesnoy, as well as the German garrison. The New Zealanders didn’t want to use artillery if they could avoid it.
Some prisoners were sent in instead, to explain to the garrison that their position was hopeless. The Germans didn’t doubt it, but their garrison commander was reluctant to surrender without a fight. When the prisoners failed to return, a message was dropped by aeroplane urging the garrison commander to capitulate, promising that his men would be honourably treated if they raised the white flag. When the commander still refused to parley, the New Zealanders decided to capture Le Quesnoy the old-fashioned way, by storming the bastion and climbing the walls with scaling ladders.
They cleared the walls of the enemy first, putting down a heavy barrage on the outer rampart while the storming party advanced behind a smokescreen. After some fierce fighting, the New Zealanders breached the outer walls and forced a way across to the moat. German troops threw stick grenades down on them as they circled the inner rampart, looking for a way up. The only feasible route was via a bridge across the moat. They estimated that a thirty-foot ladder on the bridge would just reach the top of the inner wall surrounding the town.
While Lewis guns swept the parapet to keep the Germans’ heads down, a party of the New Zealanders’ 4th battalion doubled forward with a scaling ladder. Keeping an eye out for grenades, they raised the ladder precariously against the wall. The place was ominously quiet as Lieutenant Leslie Averill began to climb. The only sound he could hear was the water gurgling in the moat as he reached the grass bank on top of the wall and peered over it into the faces of two startled Germans, who promptly ran away.
Averill fired his revolver after them and scrambled down the bank into the town, closely followed by Second Lieutenant H. W. Kerr and the rest of the battalion. Within minutes, they had gained a foothold in Le Quesnoy and were chasing the Germans along the street, egged on by the townspeople cheering wildly from their windows.
While the 4th battalion scaled the walls, the New Zealanders’ 2nd and 3rd battalions were attacking from the other side of the town. Private James Nimmo and two others had been sent forward to find out what had happened to a reconnaissance patrol that had gone missing. They approached the walls cautiously, but could see no Germans as they made their way round to the gate. But the Germans were still there, as Nimmo recalled in a letter home:
‘How I am alive to write this today I don’t know, or at the very least I should have been in Blighty. We got into the town and were simply overwhelmed by civvies. Laughing, crying, and just about mad with joy. It was ten minutes before we could get away from them. Then two of us searched everywhere near the gate but found no Jerries. We then found out by the aid of a word or two of French and by signs that one of our boys was down the street wounded. The civvies reckoned there were no Jerries round that part so we decided to go and get him.’
The French pressed food and drink on the New Zealanders before they went. Nimmo grabbed a pancake to eat on the way as a civilian led them to the wounded man:
‘Had just got a mouthful when the old boy opened out from fifty yards down the street. The civvy got one through the hand. One of my mates got one through the leg and one in the arm. There was no shelter and there was nothing for us to do but run for it. A good hundred yards. Could see the bullets hitting the cobbles in front of us, and were getting pieces of brick from behind, but neither of us got hit. Halfway along I saw a doorway and decided on a spell. I bounced into it in such a hurry that I bounced out again like a ball. I took it gently next attempt and had a few minutes in which to get my wind. Then it was a case of go again, and he opened as soon as I appeared and helped me along the final stretch. One poor little dog ran after us barking like blazes and had his leg blown clean off.’
But the fighting did not last long. The garrison quickly surrendered, knowing when it was beaten. By nightfall the town was free of Germans at last, almost a thousand of them marching meekly out of the gate as prisoners of war. Private Nimmo was sorry to see them go, because he hadn’t had a chance to collect any souvenirs before they left. The New Zealanders liked wristwatches best, although revolvers and field glasses were useful too, or an Iron Cross at a pinch. Even pornography, if there wasn’t anything else. The Germans always had good pornography.
Still, there would be plenty more where that came from. The Germans were giving up in thousands now, not just hundreds any more. The British army had attacked along a thirty-mile front that Monday morning, pushing forward in a vast sweep from Valenciennes to the river Sambre. Men, tanks and artillery had been in action since well before dawn. The French army was advancing too, and so were the Americans in the Argonne. All along the line the Germans were in retreat, either falling back in disarray or else running across the fields with their hands in the air, determined to surrender while they still could.
Some were still fighting, clinging tenaciously to their foxholes, but most had no more fight in them or any further stomach for the war. They just wanted the shooting to stop so that they could go home. As the day progressed and the reports came in to British headquarters, it became increasingly apparent that the German army was disintegrating at last, defeated in all but name. The Germans were ready to lay down their arms and stop fighting once and for all. It was the breakthrough everyone had been waiting for.
While the New Zealanders triumphed at Le Quesnoy, Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment was leading his men forward at Ors, ten miles to the south. The Manchesters’ orders were to cross the Sambre-Oise canal just above the town and dislodge the Germans from the far side. It was no easy task, with the bridges destroyed and the enemy unmoved by a preliminary bombardment which had been intended to knock them out. Owen’s men reached the canal without mishap, but then came under heavy fire from the opposite bank. They returned it with interest, keeping the Germans’ heads down while a party of Royal Engineers dragged a pontoon bridge of duckboards and cork floats to the water and assembled it for the crossing.
The bridge was almost ready when it was hit by shellfire. The engineers struggled to repair the damage, but were steadily picked off by the German machine guns. In response, Second Lieutenant James Kirk of the Manchesters grabbed a Lewis gun and paddled towards the enemy on one of the cork floats. He opened up from ten yards away, pinning the Germans down while the engineers completed their repairs. Kirk was wounded in the face and arm, but kept on firing until the engineers had floated the bridge across the water and reached the other side.
The Manchesters sprinted across. Two platoons made it to the far bank and flung themselves down on the German side. A third was about to follow when another shell ripped into the bridge and tore it apart again. The damage was worse this time, difficult to repair in a hurry. But if the bridge couldn’t be repaired quickly, the duckboard floats could still be used as rafts for the crossing. The Manchesters launched them at once.
Owen was in the thick of the action, yelling encouragement at his men, walking up and down and patting them on the shoulder as they grappled with the makeshift rafts. None of his men knew it, but he wrote poetry in his spare time, dark little stanzas about the horrors of the war they were fighting. Owen hated the war and everything about it. He was particularly scathing about the civilians at home who justified the slaughter with absurd Latin tags about the honour of dying for one’s country. Owen had seen men die in gas attacks and knew the reality:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs . . .
You would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The Germans kept up a withering fire as the Manchesters struggled. James Kirk was shot through the head and fell dead over his Lewis gun. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery. Owen was down by the canal bank when he too was killed, although no one saw him die. The last anyone remembered, he was with his men, saying ‘Well done’ to one and ‘You’re doing very well, my boy’ to another. Several people thought he had boarded one of the rafts when he was hit, but nobody could say for certain. There were too many bullets flying around for anything to be certain.
‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?’ Certainly there were no bells for Wilfred Owen as he died. The attack was called off soon afterwards and the Manchesters withdrew from the canal, taking Owen’s body with them for burial in the municipal cemetery at Ors. It was a rare failure for the British on a day of outstanding success everywhere else.
While the Manchester Regiment mourned Wilfred Owen, Lieutenant Bogart Rogers of the newly formed Royal Air Force was grieving for his friend Alvin Callender, shot down a few days ago by a German Fokker. The two American pilots had been part of the British advance for the past few weeks, strafing the retreating Germans and attacking their railways and airfields whenever the weather permitted. But Callender’s luck had run out at last and he had died of wounds in a Canadian field hospital. Rogers had been appointed to succeed him as a flight leader in 32 Squadron, a promotion he would have been much happier about if the circumstances had been different.
Rogers had been with 32 Squadron since May. He was a society boy from California, one of several hundred Americans who had volunteered for the Royal Air Force rather than wait for their own country to join the war. Rogers had thought it a great adventure at first, until the realities of combat had hit home. He had seen an American troopship torpedoed on the way over, with the loss of hundreds of lives. In London, he had been shaken to find women wearing khaki and British soldiers arriving at the railway stations straight from the fighting:
‘You see Tommies coming in covered with Flanders mud, rifles over their shoulders and iron hats strapped to their backs, and you realise that maybe less than twenty-four hours ago they were in the front-line trenches . . . I had no idea of what a tremendous affair the war is, how terrible it all is, and how the English people have worked and sacrificed.’
After a few weeks in England, Rogers had crossed to Boulogne, where he had had another shock as he watched a trainload of wounded being unloaded from the front. He had soon gone up to the front himself, and for the past six months had been flying two patrols a day over enemy territory as the British fought off the Germans’ spring offensive and then attacked in their turn. He had been credited with six confirmed kills of enemy aircraft, although the real figure was undoubtedly much higher.
Rogers had almost been killed himself once when he was flying along in a daydream, thinking about England and what a nice place it was. A burst of machine-gun fire from a German plane had brought him to his senses and he had quickly taken evasive action. He found the war in the air a lonely business, with no one else to talk to and nothing audible above the sound of his own engine.
Rogers liked the English so much that he joked to his friends that he was becoming a regular Britisher, enjoying afternoon tea and drinking a toast to the king at dinner nights in the mess. He had even tried to sing the British national anthem once, until he remembered that he didn’t know the words. But he remained American at heart, celebrating the Fourth of July with other Americans in the squadron and doing his best to teach the English baseball with a cricket bat.
Since 2 November, the squadron had been at La Brayelle, an airfield near Douai recently captured from the Germans. Baron von Richthofen had flown from there, his private cottage an object of fascination to the newcomers. Rogers himself was billeted in an old French chateau that the Germans had converted into a hospital. Apart from a few shell holes in one wing, it was very comfortable, much better than the officers’ previous base. Rogers’s room was intact except for one broken window and a cluster of bullet holes in the wall. He hoped he and his two room mates would remain there some time.
As for 32 Squadron, it had been reduced to just nine pilots and seven aircraft as the advance continued, less than half what it was supposed to be. ‘There are only three flying officers in the squadron who were here when I came,’ Rogers had commented in September. ‘Makes one feel pretty old and experienced. It surely is hell to see them pass by. But the only way to do it is simply to forget that you ever possessed such a thing as an emotion or a nerve and carry on just as if nothing had happened. Is it any wonder that fellows go to pieces?’
By 4 November, the situation had deteriorated further with even more deaths: ‘We’ve been having a rotten time of it, another awful scrap a couple of days ago. We were lucky to get back at all. A couple didn’t. I managed to get another Hun. I’m pretty sure he was done for, but then five more chased me all over the shop. Too many!’
Afterwards, Rogers had been driven over to the aircraft depot to take delivery of a replacement aircraft and fly it back to La Brayelle. He had returned in a rainstorm, the clouds so low that he had had to fly all the way at treetop level to get the plane home. But replacement aircraft were no use without pilots, and there were far too few of those. At the present rate of attrition, Rogers was afraid that there would be no pilots left at all if the war didn’t come to an end pretty soon.
On the other side of the line, Lieutenant Herbert Sulzbach of Germany’s 63rd Field Artillery had been under fire all day from the French guns along the Oise-Aisne canal. The barrage had begun before dawn and had continued without let-up ever since, thousands of heavy calibre shells churning the earth around the Germans into a quagmire until it seemed to Sulzbach that there wasn’t a square centimetre left untouched.
He and his men had found a cellar to hide in and were taking it in turns to man the observation post up above, but smoke from the French guns had reduced visibility to fifty yards, which was making their life very difficult. The telephone lines to the rear had been cut as well, leaving Sulzbach with no idea of what was happening anywhere else. He was worried that the French had already infiltrated the German lines and were about to overrun his position:
‘What’s the situation with the infantry? Nobody has any idea, and nobody knows either if the enemy aren’t already behind us, because it’s impossible to see anything in this mist. Are our lines collapsing, has everyone been captured and will we be too in a minute? The situation is hopeless! My batteries are still firing like mad and so far at least we have come across no retreating infantry. Now come the remaining gunners of No. 1 and No. 3 batteries carrying their firing mechanisms in their hands. The guns themselves have had to be abandoned after being overrun by the enemy. I remain at my post. Hauptmann Knigge attempts to reconnoitre new positions to the rear.’
The situation was as bad as any Sulzbach had known in more than four years of war. A civilised man from a Jewish banking family, he had enlisted in August 1914 and had been sent to the front four weeks later. As an admirer of the British, he had been horrified at the sight of his first dead Tommies in Flanders. Since then, he had seen plenty more bodies and had won the Iron Cross fighting for the Fatherland. His aim now was to keep his men in the field until the politicians could negotiate a decent peace, one that allowed the Germans to lay down their arms with honour.
During the afternoon, his batteries provided covering fire while a Bavarian regiment launched a counter-attack to recapture the 1st battalion’s guns. The attack was a success and the guns were taken to the rear. Towards evening, a runner arrived with orders for Sulzbach’s men to follow under cover of darkness.
They began to withdraw at 10 p.m., moving along hedges and fields to avoid the fire on the roads. Even so, they had to hit the ground every so often to escape a passing shell. Their nerves were in shreds after being bombarded all day. To add to their discomfort, the night was pitch black and raining, so dark that by midnight they were hopelessly lost.
Fortunately, they saw a light soon afterwards. It belonged to an artillery battery from a neighbouring division. Sulzbach’s men were way out of position, but they were too exhausted to go any further that night. Borrowing blankets from their hosts, they lay down in a hay barn instead. Tomorrow, they had orders to continue the withdrawal towards the river Meuse, the last natural barrier available to the Germans along this part of the line. They might just make it to the Meuse if the French gunners left them alone. For now, though, Sulzbach and his men got themselves out of the rain and snatched a few hours’ sleep while they had the chance.
At his flat in Berlin, General Erich Ludendorff was sitting at his desk, sunk in despair. He had been in despair for days, ever since the Kaiser had dismissed him from his command on the Western Front. Ludendorff had been sent home in disgrace, so unpopular after the failure of his strategy for winning the war that cinema audiences had cheered when his dismissal was announced on the screen. He was still trying to come to terms with his sudden fall from grace.
Until recently, it had been a good war for Ludendorff. A master of military logistics, he had made his name against the Russians as chief of staff to Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. Together, they had become the most powerful duo in Germany, responsible for a policy of total war on all fronts. Overruling the political objections, Ludendorff had dictated a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare at sea, an illegal torpedoing of civilian ships without regard for their crews, which had done much to turn American opinion against the Germans. He had been responsible, too, for the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, forcing the defeated Russians to accept peace terms so draconian that Germany’s remaining enemies had seen no option but to fight on regardless.
In the spring of 1918, Ludendorff had launched a major offensive on the Western Front, aimed at capturing Paris and putting an end to the war before the Americans arrived to avenge the sinking of their ships. It had very nearly succeeded. The Germans had been able to see the Eiffel Tower through their field glasses before the tide had turned and they had been forced to pull back. Since August, however, they had been in continual retreat, with no more manpower to replenish their losses and the Americans shipping troops to France at a rate of 150,000 every month. Ludendorff’s last great gamble had failed.
He himself had collapsed under the strain. For months before his dismissal he had sought consolation in the prayer book of the Moravian Brethren, thumbing through his dog-eared copy to see if the religious text for the day offered any military guidance. He had suffered a severe nervous breakdown, alternating between panic attacks and bursts of increasingly irrational optimism.
His staff had been so worried that they had arranged for a psychiatrist to visit Ludendorff’s headquarters and secretly observe him at work. The psychiatrist had diagnosed overwork, prescribing a course of treatment that included the regular singing of German folk songs. But none of it had done any good. Ludendorff’s nerves had gone and nothing could be done about it.
On the morning of 26 October, the Kaiser had summoned Hindenburg and Ludendorff to a meeting in Berlin to discuss the situation. Ludendorff had offered his resignation, something he had often done without expecting it to be accepted. This time, though, the Kaiser had accepted it at once and Ludendorff had found himself out of a job.
Hindenburg had half-heartedly offered his resignation as well, but the Kaiser had refused to consider it. As the two men left, Hindenburg had tried to console his old friend, only to be angrily rebuffed. ‘I refuse to have any more dealings with you,’ Ludendorff had hissed, adamant that Hindenburg should have insisted on resigning in sympathy. ‘You have treated me very shabbily.’


On Sale
Oct 13, 2009
Page Count
336 pages

Nicholas Best

About the Author

Nicholas Best grew up in Kenya and was educated there, in England, and at Trinity College, Dublin. He served in the Grenadier Guards and worked in London as a journalist before becoming a full-time author. His many other books include Happy Valley: The Story of the English in Kenya, Tennis and the Masai, and the widely praised Trafalgar. Best was the Financial Times‘s fiction critic for ten years. He lives in Cambridge, England.

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