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Sunday 11 November 2018

A Hundred Years From Compiègne

A century ago, in a railway car in the forest of Compiègne in Picardy, Northern France, an armistice was signed by several high-ranking members of the German military.

It was known as the Armistice of Compiègne, and one of its conditions was a termination of hostilities across the Western Front within six hours of the signing of the document; and as it was signed at around 5am local time, that meant that the fighting should end at 11am.

The negotiation process took days. Although Germany had precious little in the way of collateral with which it could force renegotiation, there were problems with the document - at one stage it demanded that they surrender to the Allied forces more submarines than they had actually ever manufactured.

Notable is the fact that such an Armistice could have been signed sooner. As early as the fifth of October, a clear thirty-seven days earlier, the new Chancellor of Germany communicated with President Woodrow Wilson a willingness to end the conflict, based around his famous Fourteen Points - a set of demands for German surrender.

Several governments - ours, one of them - thought the Fourteen Points weren't harsh enough. They disputed Point IV: Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety. They wanted that point to apply exclusively to Germany. No climbdown of the immense military machines they had made, no sir - only for the enemy.

Germany itself was falling apart, at the time. Two days before the signing, the country had become a republic, and Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated - though there was some confusion about that.

In the six hours between signing and ceasefire, 2,783 soldiers were killed. The last soldier to die, it is believed, was an American named Henry Gunther. He was shot while rushing a German position in the literal last sixty seconds of the war - apparently those German soldiers were astonished that the man had not heard of the Armistice, and was still willing to attack them.

That happened a hundred years ago. All these facts, all these notable facts, many of which aren't very widely known. While the fighting stopped, the actual war didn't officially end until the Treaty of Versailles came into force, on the 10th of January 1920.

We know how the war started, of course. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, 28th June 1914. A lot of people don't know why, or precisely, by who.

The Archduke's killers were members of the Black Hand - also known as Unification or Death - a secret military society attached to the Serbian Kingdom's own official army. While we can quibble over how effective the assassination would have been in achieving their goal, the stated goal of the Black Hand was to achieve a unification of the South Slav people under a single government.

What followed that, was a series of escalating aggressive postures between various nations, beginning with the Austro-Hungarian Empire deciding that it had played nice with Serbia for too long. In the course of two months, a man and his wife being shot leads to a significant swathe of the world rolling out the guns against each other in naked aggression.

Every year, we say the words, Lest We Forget. I agree. We shouldn't forget. We shouldn't forget that the reason why so many died - seventeen million is an approximation, more than that wounded - is because of politics, and empires doing what empires do. A lot of them died not because they chose to but because they had to - out of the 5.4 million soldiers in the British army, over half of them were conscripts. Almost an eighth of the male population were rounded up and forced to fight. One in eight. Imagine eight of your friends - one of them decided to go and fight for whatever reason, and one of them had to, no choice whatsoever.

We shouldn't forget, either, what the end of the First World War led to.

The economies of almost every nation involved were in absolute ruin. Those that weren't undergoing literal political meltdown exacerbated by the mass sacrifice of an entire generation had nigh bankrupted themselves in order to fight. Those that had been declared to be responsible, it was decided, would have to pay for the rebuilding of a continent.

The sum of money that Germany alone was asked to pay was eye-watering. Adjusted for current inflation, the total Germany was meant to pay - given that it was, as previously stated, an economic ruin - over $176 billion dollars. That's almost £136 billion. That's the entire economic output of the country of Algeria in 2017. That sum, it bears mention, is less than half of what it had been actually demanded to pay - there were concerns that public opinion would be against Germany paying anything less than $400 billion dollars, in approximation.

We should also not forget that, two days before the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne, an event occurred in Germany that showed us that we had, already, forgotten. That event was known as Kristallnacht - or Pogromnacht, depending on who you asked. Kristallnacht, after the broken glass that littered the streets of Nazi Germany, when over 250 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were destroyed. Homes were ransacked, people were beaten in the street.

The sequence of events between the Armistice and Kristallnacht - the things that tie the two together in causality - get forgotten, too. To economically punish a country is to punish its citizens directly, and those who would use that punishment to further their own agenda will thank you for it, even if they scream about a betrayal at Versailles, or spread the lie promulgated by Erich Ludendorf that the army were stabbed in the back by elements at home.

And eighty years after that, we see synagogues attacked now. We see neo-nazis marching in the street, nationalists kicking in doors and assaulting people, ignored by police. We see arms and armaments being sold by domestic companies to aggressor nations, and we watch as they are used to kill and maim helpless civilians, causing a literal humanitarian crisis.

We still isolate ourselves. We still sink back behind our own borders, and point fingers, and distrust those outside. We still pose and posture and flex and frown. We still ignore the wants and needs of the actual people who end up fighting our wars. We leave veterans homeless and alone, lacking mental and physical healthcare. We disenfranchise people and care little about the repercussions..

My family - on both sides of the Levant - have had members in the military for generations. On the British side, my Granddad, his Grandad, almost all of their friends and relatives - they served in the Royal Navy. I respect the dedication it takes to put on the uniform and do the job. I respect the work it takes to do that job well.

And I resent that so many people were killed, for so little reason; and I resent the fact that we have still, apparently, not learned our lesson.

We say Lest We Forget.

I say that we have forgotten, and that we aggressively continue to forget.

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