|The Sunday Gazette|
Arts & Entertainment
Persico book looks at tragedy, paradox of WWI's final hours|
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax by Joseph E. Persico (Random House, 460 pages, $29.95, ISBN 0-375-50825-2)
Joseph Persico's new book about World War I eloquently examines three paradoxes about the Great War and war in general.
The Germans, exhausted by four years of war, signed an armistice with the Allies at 5:10 a.m. on November 11, 1918. The Armistice set the end of the war at 11 a.m. that morning and included a German guarantee to withdraw from Belgium and France within two weeks.
Persico, a historian and biographer who lives in Guilderland, describes how nearly 11,000 American, British, French and German soldiers were killed or wounded between the signing of the Armistice and the cease-fire.
In his previous books, many of which have considered war and warriors, Persico has undertaken careful and comprehensive research. He has offered readable, balanced portrayals of people and events.
The research and readability are constants in this book. Further, the writing in Armistice Day, 1918 makes this one of Persico's best books. It is noteworthy compared to other recent titles on World War I.
However, World War I seems to have pushed Persico a bit away from his preferred position as dispassionate observer. The reader senses his controlled frustration with the generals' judgements. Sometimes, it seems Persico wants to step back in time and slap some sense into the Kaiser and Allied heads of state, along with a few of the generals.
His frustration arises from the fact that the 11,000 casualties were needless. They occurred in battles over territory that the Germans had pledged to leave and had already started to leave.
The casualties occurred because Allied battlefield commanders were reluctant to end the war. British Field Marshall Douglas Haig wanted to recapture the city of Mons to restore England's honor. Mons was the first place in 1914 where the Germans forced the British to retreat. Before meeting the Germans for armistice talks, French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch stated his objective was "to pursue the feldgrauen (Germans) with a sword at their back."
American General John "Black Jack" Pershing wanted unconditional surrender. He considered armistice a weak Allied response; rapidly arriving Americans would win the war.
Even after the Armistice was a fact, ambiguous orders and the unreliability of battlefield communications guaranteed casualties. Of 16 American divisions, for example, the generals of nine ordered or allowed their troops to attack strongly defended German positions.
Germans faced with rows of advancing soldiers fired to avoid being killed. Artillery batteries rained down shells, to avoid ending the war with unused ammunition.
Many Allied and German soldiers knew the morning of November 11th that the war was due to end shortly. Despite this knowledge, few if any soldiers, deserted or lay down their arms.
Mystique of Warfare
This experience is the basis of the second paradox. Persico found writings by many soldiers which described the pointlessness of the war. Yet, for many soldiers, survivors and casualties, "the trenches exercised a near mystical grip" over their occupants - - both Germans and Allies.
"Never," Persico continues, have so many "experienced such intensity of emotions; never had comradeship - - a sense of needing and being needed - - struck so deeply and bound prior strangers so strongly in a blood brotherhood."
"Armistice Day, 1918" is based on the personal papers of soldiers and civilians, official histories of each army and more than 100 books about the overall history of the war or particular topics.
Drawing from these sources, Persico followed the experiences of about 30 soldiers and civilians who survived the war. He includes the experiences of several dozen others who did not survive. He does a superb job in providing a cross section of all people in the war, particularly Germans, who often appear as faceless barbarians in other World War I histories.
Some of the people who Persico follows are well known, such as President Woodrow Wilson, Adolph Hitler, a corporal, and Douglas MacArthur, a young officer. Others, such as American Joe Rizzi or the German Fritz Nagel, are not well-known but have equally compelling stories.
Persico includes a vivid sketch of Henry Johnson, an African American hero from Albany. His description of Johnson's battlefield valor makes it easy to understand why, more than 80 years later, people continue to advocate that Johnson receive the Medal of Honor.
After a suspenseful opening chapter setting the stage on the morning of November 11th, the chapters in the book are arranged in chronological order. Each opens with information on November 11th and then includes background information on how battles or events earlier in the war influenced the moment under consideration.
Along with the chronological information, each chapter considers the flu epidemic, the development of new weapons such as tanks and poisonous gas, the way in which the war rapidly dehumanized its participants and the things that soldiers did to relieve the tedium and terror of trench warfare. Also included are 30 sharp black and white photographs of battlefields and people in the book.
The last paradox is that war is so terrible, yet so inevitable. "Those who instigate wars," Persico observes "are not blind to their horrors but undeterred by them. Lives lost are only a purchase price which a leader is willing to pay for objectives, noble or ignoble."