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This post is late in coming, but then so was the Armistice Day I’m writing about. Last Wednesday was indeed Veterans’ Day, but it was also the 91st anniversary of what the Commonwealth countries have long called Armistice Day. November 11 marks the end of what I suggest may be the most self-conscious war ever fought. The First World War took on the characteristics of a narrative, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that the experience of its murderous new technologies, mixed with the banal cruelty of mud, was so difficult for civilians to comprehend.
From the very beginning, this war was invested with literary qualities. It had more than one title—the Great War, the War to End All Wars. It had its writers —Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, Blunden, among many others, sending prose and mostly poetry home from the trenches. These poets gave the war its own graphic: the poppy, an emblem movingly used to this day as a symbol of remembrance.
Most importantly, the war had an ending date and time that were consciously chosen for their symbolic resonance. The ending dates of other wars before and since have become symbolic for us after the fact. In the Great War, the Allies identified a symbol and fit the war to match it. The Great War came to an end precisely at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Has there been another war whose history was shaped to conform to an English idiom?
Among all the blunders and worse committed by the military in the prosecution of the Great War, the manner of its ending might have been one more. Might a few more lives have been saved if the German, French, and British leaders had met at Compiégne on even November 10th or 9th? In one respect, though, the Allies knew what they were doing. They were ensuring that, though their war turned out to be neither Great nor final, it would never be forgotten. And that is as it should be.
More WWI narratives:
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong
What would you add to the list?