...THAT THE ARMISTICE ENDING WORLD WAR ONE WAS NOT SIGNED AT 11aM (and was written only in French)
Every year on the 11th November at 11am, silence falls across many parts of the world as the people of the present remember the sacrifices made in the line of duty by people of the past. Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day in the US) emerged out of an Armistice Day tradition begun by King George V in 1919 while hosting the President of France, Émile Loubet, at Buckingham Palace. The Armistice that King George was celebrating was that which was signed the previous year on the 11th November, 1918 and which signalled the end to hostilities on the Western Front.
What is well known is this: we choose to signal the start of remembrance and reflection at 11am every year on the 11th November. There are different traditions and norms, but usually the signal is followed immediately by a minute or more of silence. What is slightly less known is that the timing of 11am should, technically, be observed by the French clock. What is, perhaps, even less well known is that the 11am ‘signal’ for remembrance was chosen not because the Armistice was signed at 11am on 11th November, 1918 - it was no such thing - but because that is when the Armistice came into ‘effect’. The Armistice that helped draw fighting on the Western Front to a close was signed nearly six hours earlier, in a railway carriage deep in the Forest of Compiègne`, approximately 60km north of Paris.
In his 1996 book, Armistice 1918, the rather appropriately named Bullitt Lowry explained how on the 6th November 1918, members of the German High Command sent a late night radio message asking for permission from the Allies to send a delegation through the front lines to sue for peace. The man to whom this message was directed was Frenchman, Marshal Ferdinand Foch - the Supreme Allied Commander on the Western Front. According to Lowry, a delegation from Germany crossed No-Man’s Land in three cars, as one German soldier waved a white flag and another sounded a bugle - both indicating a temporary truce that would allow for their unmolested transit. Once they were safely across, the delegation switched cars - to ones of French heritage - and then boarded a train. The train would take them through the night to the Forest of Compiègne - where they would arrive on the morning of November 8th. Awaiting them in a railway siding was the carriage of Foch. It was in this carriage that, over the next four days, the fate of Europe would be decided.
Foch is second from the right. He stands next to his carriage - the carriage in which the Armistice was signed.
Regardless of the nature and contents of the Armistice that was eventually agreed to by this German delegation, it was, ultimately, signed at just after 5am (some put it as late as 5.45am) on the 11th November. At 6.01am on that same morning, a directive from Marshall Foch was broadcast on Official Radio from Paris which stipulated the following:
The last page of the Armistice document (Emeric84 [CC0])
Henry Nicholas John Gunther was, according to most accounts, the last soldier killed during World War One. An American soldier desperately looking to regain a rank he had recently lost*, Gunther ran headfirst into a hail of German machine-gun fire at 10.59am. Even the German soldiers at which Gunther was running and firing, cognisant of the fact that the war had only one minute left to run, tried to wave the American soldier away.
The last soldier to be killed: Henry Nicholas John Gunther.
(User:Concord [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)])
And so, when we commemorate the fallen at 11am, remember that the Armistice was signed as the sun rose above a beautiful forest in northern France, but also that the soldiers on the front lines who had to fight on that final morning, knew full well that the war was over for them - provided that they could avoid death until the clocks of Paris struck 11am.
Elliott L. Watson
*A letter that Gunther sent home to the US contained criticisms of the conditions on the front. It was intercepted and he was demoted from Sergeant to Private.
...Most of the time no one died in a gladiator fight
If you were to watch Hollywood you would be left with the impression that every gladiator fight ended in the death of the loser. We’ve all seen it. The triumphant gladiator looms over his vanquished foe and waits for the decision of the Emperor. Listening to the crowd, the Emperor pauses before dramatically putting his thumb down, at which the victor finishes off his opponent to the roar of the crowd.
Without even going into the questionable thumbs down gesture, the overriding problem with this is that actually only a small proportion of gladiator fights ended in death. It is true that the fate of the defeated was left to the ambitious politician who put on the games, but, as with all entertainment today, it was also a business; gladiators were quite an investment. Gladiators were far from amateurs. Training a good quality fighter could take years of training, feeding and clothing them from their owners, not to mention the time and fights required to gain a reputation. Therefore, summarily executing them meant an instantaneous wiping out of this investment; as such the gladiator’s trainer would often receive compensation from the show’s sponsor were they to be killed.
Naturally this is not to say that gladiator fights were not a dangerous business. Death could come either in the course of the fight or as a result of the patron's decision. However, Professor Mary Beard in her book Pompeii: the life of a Roman Town puts the chances of a bout resulting in a death, by either route, somewhere around 13%. Such a rate means that a gladiator's life expectancy was rather short, with the average age of those recorded with tombstones being in their late twenties. However, the fact remains, most of the time that Hollywood scene has it wrong. The vanquished gladiator was far more likely to be spared than skewered.
...the black death was actually a good thing
If you know anything about the Black Death, it is most likely that it was a horrible disease that killed huge numbers of people right across Europe a long time ago. This is certainly true, but did you know that (so long as you escaped the illness) it actually hugely improved life for most people in Britain?
In the year 1348 a terrible condition began to strike people in England and rampaged through the nation for the next four years. A contemporary description by Giovanni Boccaccio gives us a graphic view of the horrors of the disease which
“began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained”
To catch the disease was clearly extremely painful and unpleasant, but also fatal in most cases. Estimates of the casualty rate in England range from one third of the population to roughly half. On a national level it was a disaster. This was perhaps most obvious for those who caught the disease. However, with such a high mortality rate everybody would have close family and friends struck down and been affected in the most harrowing way.
Yet, the survivors of the disease actually found their lives materially improved in the second half of the fourteenth century. With such a high proportion of the population removed, and therefore the available pool of labour shrunk radically, peasants, as the majority of the population were, found themselves in demand. Statistical data is inevitably patchy, but the laws passed by the government in the wake of the Black Death reveal the increased value in peasants’ labour.
The Ordinance of Labourers, a law of 1349, stated that when hiring workers
“no man pay, or promise to pay, any servant any more wages, liveries, meed, or salary than was wont, as afore” (before the plague)
As well as attempting to freeze wages the Ordinance also placed a price freeze on staple foodstuffs such as meat, fish and bread as well as the price that could be charged by skilled craftsmen such as smiths.
Fortunately for the labourers of England, evidence suggests this law was unsuccessful. It was followed up by another legal attempt to restrain prices in 1351 called the Statute of Labourers, but neither of these seem to have had a large impact; as many economists will tell you, market forces can be hard to control. In his seminal work Making a Living in the Middle Ages, Chris Dyer states that “the rise in wages was at first modest, and striking improvement often came in the last quarter of the fourteenth century”.
So there it is. If you were an agricultural labourer, as most Englishmen were, and you survived the Black Death, you could gain a little more coin for your hard labours and perhaps find it a little easier to put food on the table for yourself and your family.
New Book Release: