Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day
[For information on the US giveaway of Justice Hall, scroll down to the bottom of this post.]
100 years ago today, one minute before the 11/11/11:00 Armistice officially began, American Henry Gunther set off on a one-man charge of a German machine gun guarding a road block in France, and became the Great War’s final casualty. Gunther had recently been demoted from Sergeant to Private, after a critical letter home was intercepted by a censor.
Because the French Commander-in-Chief, Marsha Foch, had refused to accept Germany’s proposal for an immediate cease-fire, some 11,000 men were killed or wounded in the hours after Armistice was signed, but before the ceremonial Eleventh Hour end of the War.
How must it have felt, to know that your son was killed during those last, pointless hours of fighting?
From the War journal of Lt. Gabriel Hughenfort
Writing this by the Very lights that Jerry’s been shooting up over our heads for a week now, one generation of which scarcely fades before the next comes up. I never want to see another display of fireworks as long as I live.
Our howitzers are going now, pounding our bones as we trade death with the men 150 feet away, in their holes, behind their wire. Did I say men? The last group of prisoners I saw might have been thirteen or fourteen. Two of them were crying for their mothers. One of them fell asleep with his thumb in his mouth, for Christ’s sake. I saw him. His boots had holes worn through the soles.The shells are getting closer. Time to choose whether to stay in the open trenches and risk shell fragments, or to get into the dugout and chance being buried.
The sergeant’s brewing tea on the fire step, a nonchalant Woodbine hanging off his lip.
He reminds me of old man Bloom, who kept a hut in the woods to keep an eye for poachers. The gamekeeper had a cough, too, like the sergeant has, though I suppose his came from the cigarettes and wood smoke instead of mustard gas like Sergeant West’s. What I’d give for a nice lungful of wood smoke now, clean and honest. I’d not even mind if
Three weeks of quiet, broken only by the stray shell and the ever-present snipers, and then it all came down on us, hell breaking out anew just after mid-night on Monday last. It had been such a lovely holiday, too, with actual fields instead of pitted mud as far as the eyes could see.
The trees had branches and delicate spring leaves, there were birds nesting in the church’s steeple, the people were still capable of smiling. Birdsong—nightingales—animals other than rats! And one night I heard what I’d have sworn was a dog fox. Then at one in the morning the earth heaved and the sky turned to flame with their guns, and it was back to Hades for us.
Except that this time they’ve got us out of our trenches and running for our lives. God knows how much equipment we’ve shed between here and where the front line was 72 hours ago. I managed to hang on to my pack, running through fields with the bullets going zip, zip over my head, although some Jerry’s got himself two pair of nice new French stockings that I’d left drying in the dugout along with my mess kit and entrenching tool.
I gave one old pair of stockings to a man who’d run five miles in bare feet, which leaves me with one of Aunt Iris’s pairs on my feet and another in my kit that’s more holes than yarn. I know what the next letter home’s going to ask for!
Lost only one man—head wound, but he’ll live to see Dover.
Holiday’s over; we’re back in the thick of it. I wonder if Jerry’s listening to the nightingales right now. There certainly aren’t any around here, just rats.
Shelling heavy tonight, damn them. Makes my nerves jumpy, can’t help it.
Had a man go bad on us yesterday—not one of mine, thank God, but about a hundred yards up the line. His nerves just crumbled and he downed his rifle and ran.
Took a bullet in the shoulder, with luck it’ll see him out of trouble, and nobody’s saying anything about the fact that he took it in the back. But he’ll have to live with knowing he deserted his mates in a pinch. Don’t know about him, whether that would trouble him or not, but I know that, once or twice, it’s been the only thing that’s kept me facing forward, knowing I’d have to live with the shame of abandoning men who counted on me.
Word is, we’ll be home by Christmas. They’ve been saying that since the first winter, I know, but this time it may be true. One way or another.
Beautiful full moon tonight, brighter than the Very lights. Anyone with nerve enough to peep over the top will catch a glimpse of our own version of the moon, all pitted and lifeless. I watch the real thing pass through the sky over the trench, and think about showing Hélène the lawns under a summer moon. The time Uncle Alistair took me out to Abbot’s Clump in the full moon to watch the hares dance. I couldn’t have been more than four at the time. Damn the Kaiser.
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