(5 / 5)
Anyone who has ever been to school in the United States probably knows the significance of Armistice Day. If not, you’re either still in kindergarten or really weren’t paying attention in class. We all know the catchy “Eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour,” at which time the powers declared peace and World War I ended. Warfare had been taken to an all-new horrific dimension, but now it’s over. Except that it wasn’t actually decided right when all the 11s aligned.
All my US history teachers left out one little detail about Armistice Day – did yours? We know that peace was declared at 11:00, but most of us don’t know that it was decided, signed, and even announced some time before that. Peace delegates settled on a time, but military troops received the orders that all attacks would proceed until the clock struck 11:00.
For some soldiers, the peace celebration was to be short-lived. Some even sent letters to their families and girlfriends, excitedly announcing the end of the war and their impending return to civilian life. Then the weapons fire continued, and some died before the “official peace” came into effect. Joseph Persico works to personalize these stories with accounts of individual units and soldiers who died on the last day – and in some cases in the last minutes – of the World War I.
The point that stood out the most about this version of Armistice Day is that it tells the tale from the trenches, not the sanitized offices and government conference halls where high-level decisions were made. Persico collects letters, personal accounts, and combat history for a few of the men who had to live with those decisions, and ultimately die because of them. This includes the story of a man shot and killed at 11:59, the last casualty of the war.
Joseph Persico, a veteran history writer, does create a fairly easy-to-read book with tons of valuable information. That said, it does skip around a bit, and can be slow at times. Slow is okay, it picks back up relatively quickly. Skipping, on the other hand, can get a bit confusing. First he sets the stage with back stories, then goes through his “cast of characters” to describe their current positions and jubilance at hearing the peace announcement. Then the story line goes back through the entire list and describes their last moments and how soon before 11:00 they were. If you’re good with names, this shouldn’t be a problem. I’m terrible with names, so taking notes might have helped.
Some parts of the book were difficult to tell if they were based on fact or inference. These inferences are mostly about the soldier’s thoughts and feelings in the heat of battle or right after the announcement. They do help history come alive and certainly don’t hurt the factual telling, so it’s still an excellent read.
Frankly, though I love history, there’s a heck of a lot I don’t know. In the realm of United States history and big world events, most of my knowledge comes from schoolrooms and textbooks. Few will argue that that’s a tragically limited view of the world. As mentioned, I didn’t even know that the peace treaty was signed and sealed before the cease-fire, so it never even entered my head to think that people died because of an arbitrary time written on a piece of paper. Yes, it might take time for word to spread to all the troops that the war is over, but that doesn’t seem like a legitimate reason to stick a specific time on the peace and order everyone to keep shooting until then.
While soldiers must follow orders at all times in the line of duty, it can be helpful to have this critical look at the way such a key decision was made. Many scholars and military historians feel that the delayed armistice agreement is among the most misguided decisions in history. What gain did they see in waiting? They weren’t winning anything, or breaking the enemy’s will, or gaining new ground. They were just counting ticks on the clock until 11:00. For average civilians, it’s a great reminder that the government can be wrong just as easily as any other body of humans.
Overall, if you’re a student of history and love personalized accounts, you’ll want to read Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and its Violent Climax by Joseph Persico. For myself, I can’t wait to get my hands on some of the author’s other works – if this is any indication, they’re well worth the time to read.
Disclosure statement: I have no affiliation with the author or any other representative of this book. Its publishers, author, agent, or other affiliated individuals have not offered compensation for my review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.