Disquiet on the Western front
Guilderland's Joseph Persico puts readers on the battlefields of the bloody final day of World War I

By C. J. LAIS, Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, November 7, 2004

When Guilderland's Joseph Persico started the research on his latest historical work, "11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour: Armistice Day, 1918, World War I and Its Violent Climax" (Random House; 480 pages; $29.95), he hoped to find an answer to his decades-old question: "Knowing that the war was going to end at a precise hour, why are men still being hurled against the enemy?"

"The initial impetus was just the curiosity," he says. "What I expected to find was a sensible, rational reason. The shocker was to find out what the motives were."

Armistice Day -- Nov. 11, 1918 -- marked the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Germany during World War I. It resulted in a 1926 Congressional proclamation that created a legal holiday to honor those lost in what was then the most destructive and far-reaching conflict in history -- the War to End All Wars. After World War II proved that designation inaccurate, it was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to pay tribute to all American veterans of war.

World War I's final day resulted in more loss of life than occurred in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. But although more than 13,000 men died, nothing was gained except for some small areas of land that would end up back in German possession anyway.

"The thing that I concluded to explain this pointless sacrifice of lives in the final days was that it was a punitive exercise by the Allies, and vainglorious," Persico says. He points to the attitude of Gen. Ferdinand Foch, the French field marshal and commander of Allied forces in World War I: "Keep the sword to the back of the Hun to the very last minute."

Indeed, the book takes Allied leaders to task for being more interested in personal gain than proper wartime etiquette. Among the reasons to keep up the carnage: promotions, retribution and even a chance to bathe.

But Persico doesn't focus on the conflict's final day as an event unto itself. "This sacrifice is the perfect expression of the whole of World War I; what happens on the last day was actually what happened throughout -- the squandering of human life."

Sowing seeds

Persico argues that World War II can be looked upon as a second battle of the first war, as its seeds were sown during that earlier fight. "What happened subsequently made a mockery of this final rallying cry," he says.

As the 86th anniversary of Armistice Day approaches -- and while the United States is again tossed by tides of patriotism and protest due to war overseas -- Persico isn't concerned about voicing his contention that "the Great War" could be renamed "the Unnecessary War."

"I can't change that; the judgment is rendered on that," he says. After the bloody battle was fought, the author notes, there was enough of a public outcry -- spearheaded by the families who had lost their sons and fathers -- to lead to a federal investigation.

The 74-year-old writer has a history of good timing ("It's strictly fortuitous.") when it comes to releasing his books. He worked with Colin Powell on the bestseller "My American Journey," which came out between the original Gulf War and Powell's current tenure as Secretary of State. Weeks after 9/11, "Roosevelt's Secret War: FDR and World War II Espionage" was published, and brought to light 50-year-old intelligence failures, successes and miscommunications.

Now, "11th Month" is unveiled to coincide with this year's observance of Veterans Day. The book's official publication date was Nov. 2, Election Day -- apt for a season in which one of the most contentious issues was a war seen by many as avoidable.

"We're in a war again, and one of the issues is the number of casualties," Persico says. "But the issue is -- in any conflict -- does the objective justify the bloodshed?" he says. "As you study our history, when war is involved the one lesson learned is that nothing is learned."

In the trenches

Those who read "11th Month" might be able to do better, thanks to Persico's prodigious research. The Imperial War Museum in London and a Pennsylvania army history office were just two of the stops he made as he dove into the journals, diaries and letters of the battle's participants. "There is a repository of firsthand accounts. You almost feel as if you're in the trenches," he says.

It's this very style that Persico adopted in bringing this tragic tale to print. Instead of a technical recitation of dates and weaponry, the book tells personal stories of the soldiers involved, giving a "doughboy's-eye view" of the climactic day. It brings an immediacy and poignancy to the story, which is rare for a work of historical nonfiction.

"This is a very clear prejudice: I object to reading about military history that reads like a chess game," Persico says. "It's bloodless."

A similar strategy has worked well in Persico's earlier biographies of newsman Edward R. Murrow, CIA director William Casey and New York Governor and U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Persico's sense of Rockefeller benefited from special access: The writer served as the politico's chief speechwriter from 1966 to 1977.

"If you finish one of my biographies, I want the reader to feel as if he has walked alongside the person," Persico says.

Persico won't offer any hints as to the subject of his next book, but its inspiration might be found in "11th Month": "Most of my books have been like chain-smoking; you light one off the other one."

A busy time

Any literary puffing might have to be set aside for the next few weeks as the one-two punch of the book's release and Veterans Day keeps Persico very busy. On Monday, he'll have a reading and signing at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany; Tuesday, he'll head to the University at Albany for an afternoon seminar and evening reading as part of the New York State Writers Institute.

These local readings are gratifying for Persico on several levels. "These are friends, these are neighbors. I don't want them to think I've been sitting on my duff," he says.

A speech at the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., is slated for Veterans Day; on Friday, it's a talk before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. And at 8 p.m. Thursday night, the History Channel presents "The Last Day of World War I," a documentary based on the book.

Persico's 1994 book "Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial" was made into a 2000 TNT miniseries starring Alec Baldwin. The author is cautiously optimistic about his latest release's chances in Hollywood. "There is discussion of a movie option," he says.

Before the movie deals, though, there is the words, and before that the research. And before that, nothing but the itch of curiosity. "It's akin to gold mining," Persico says. "You have a historical gold nugget, and it's tremendously satisfying."

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Joseph Persico