World War I Centenary: The Morning of November 11, 1918

Nice piece by T. Hunt Hooley (teaches History at Austin College).  He is the author of The Great War: Western Front and Home Front.

On the morning of November 11, 1918, fighter pilot and leading American ace Eddie Rickenbacker quietly ambled to the hangar of his aerodrome in France. The night before, in anticipation of the Armistice, all Allied flights were grounded. But Rickenbacker was not known as a rule-follower. He told his crew to roll out his SPAD XIII fighter plane “and warm it up to test the engines.” He climbed into the cockpit, took off, and headed to the trenches of the Western Front. Low clouds kept him low, around five hundred feet. He could see flashes of rifle and machine gun fire from the German trenches.

And then it was 11:00 A.M., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man’s-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer’s seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man’s-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.

Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.

Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.

In memoirs, diary entries, and letters, we find that for the fighters of the First World War, the Great thing about the War was its end. In victorious countries, schools let out, impromptu parades and rallies erupted. These outbursts recognized victory, to be sure, but they chiefly celebrated the end of the war. My own grandmother recounted to me, more than once and each time luminously, the ecstatic celebration in her little town of Murray, Kentucky, where school was cancelled and virtually everyone in town gathered in the courthouse square to celebrate. In my recollection, she never mentioned the word “victory” once. In Rickenbacker’s squadron, everyone from pilot to cook joined in a mad celebration, but not of victory, “many of them shouting ‘I survived the war! I survived the war!”

 

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