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Thought for the Day

It did not seem an unknown warrior whose body came on the gun-carriage down Whitehall where we were waiting for him. He was known to us all. It was one of “our boys,” not warriors, as we called them in the days of darkness, lit by faith.

To some women, weeping a little in the crowd after an all-night vigil, he was their boy who went missing one day and was never found till now, though their souls went searching for him through dreadful places in the night.

To many men among those packed densely on each side of the empty street, wearing ribbons and badges on civil clothes, he was a familiar figure—one of their comrades, the one they liked best, perhaps, in the old crowd, who went into the fields of death and stayed there with the great companionship.

It was the steel helmet, the old “tin hat,” lying there on the crimson of the flag which revealed him instantly, not as a mythical warrior aloof from common humanity, a shadowy type of the national pride and martial glory, but as one of those fellows, dressed in the drab of khaki, stained by mud and grease, who went into the dirty ditches with this steel hat on his head and in his heart the unspoken things, which made him one of us in courage and in fear, with some kind of faith not clear, full of perplexities, often dim in the watchwords of those years of war.

So it seemed to me, at least, as I looked down Whitehall and listened to the music which told us that the unknown was coming down the road. The band was playing the old Dead March in “Saul” with heavy drumming, but as yet the roadway was clear where it led up to that altar of sacrifice as it looked, covered by two flags, hanging in long folds of scarlet and white.

About that altar cenotaph there were little groups of strange people, all waiting for the dead soldier. Why were they there?

There were great folk to greet the dust of a simple soldier. There was the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London and other clergy in gowns and hoods. What had they to do with the body of a soldier who had gone trudging through the mud and muck like one ant in a legion of ants, unknown to fame, not more heroic, perhaps, than all his pals about him, not missed much when he fell dead between the tangled wire and shell-holes?

There were great generals and admirals, Lord Haig himself, Commander-in-Chief of our armies in France, and Admiral Beatty, who held the seas; Lord French of Ypres, with Home of the First Army and Byng of the Third, and Air-Marshal Trenchard, who commanded all the birds that flew above the lines on the mornings of enormous battles.

These were the high powers, infinitely remote, perhaps, in the imagination of the man whose dust was now being brought toward them. It was their brains that had directed his movements down the long roads which galled his feet, over ground churned up by gun-fire, up duckboards from which he slipped under his heavy pack if he were a foot-slogger, and whatever his class as a soldier, ordained at last the end of his journey, which finished in a grave marked by a metal disk—”unknown.”

In life, he had looked upon these generals as terrifying in their power “for the likes of him.” Sometimes, perhaps, he had saluted them as they rode past. Now they stood in Whitehall to salute him, to keep silence in his presence, to render him homage more wonderful, with deeper reverence, than any general of them all has had.

There were princes there about the cenotaph, not only of England but of the Indian Empire. These Indian rajahs, that old white-bearded, white-turbaned man with the face of an Eastern prophet—was it possible that they, too, were out to pay homage to an unknown British soldier?

There was something of the light of Flanders in Whitehall. The tattered ruins of Cloth Hall at Ypres used to shine white in a mist, suffused a little by wan sunlight, white as the walls and turrets of the War Office in this mist of London. The tower of Big Ben was dim through the mist like the tower of Albert Church until it fell into a heap under the fury of gun-fire.

Presently the sun shone brighter so that the picture of Whitehall was etched with deeper lines. On all the buildings flags were flying at halfmast. The people who kept moving about the cenotaph were there for mourning, not for mere pageantry. The Grenadier officers, who walked about with drawn swords, wore crape on their arms.

Presently they passed the word along, “Reverse arms,” and all along the line of route soldiers turned over their rifles and bent their heads over the butts. It was when the music of the Dead March came louder up the street.

A number of black figures stood in a separate group apart from the admirals and generals, “people of importance, to whom the eyes of the crowd turned while men and women tiptoed to get a glimpse of them.” Men foremost in the Government of the British Empire stood in that group:

The Prime Minister and Ministers and ex-Ministers of England were there—Asquith, Lord Curzon, and other statesmen who in those years of conflict were responsible for all the mighty effort of the nation, who stirred up its passion and emotions, who organized its labor and service, who won that victory and this peace. I thought the people about me stared at them as though conscious of the task that is theirs, now that peace is the test of victory.

But it was one figure who stood alone as the symbol of the nation in this tribute to the spirit of our dead. As Big Ben struck three-quarters after ten the King advanced toward the cenotaph, followed by the Prince of Wales, the Prince’s two brothers, and the Duke of Connaught. And while the others stood in line looking toward the top of Whitehall the King was a few paces ahead of them alone, waiting motionless for the body of the unknown warrior who had died in his service.

It was very silent in Whitehall. Before the ordered silence the dense lines of people had kept their places without movement and only spoke little in their long time of waiting, and then, as they caught their first glimpse of the gun-carriage, were utterly quiet, all heads bared and bent.

Their emotion was as though a little cold breeze was passing. One seemed to feel the spirit of the crowd. Above all this mass of plain people something touched one with a sharp, yet softening thought.

The massed bands passed with their noble music and their drums thumping at the hearts of men and women. Guards with their reversed arms passed and then the gun-carriage with its team of horses halted in front of the cenotaph where the King stood, and every hand was raised to salute the soldier who died that we might live, chosen by fate for this honor which is in remembrance of that great army of comrades who went out with him to No Man’s Land.

The King laid a wreath on this coffin and then stepped back again. Crowded behind the gun-carriage in one long vista was an immense column of men of all branches of the navy and army moving up slowly before coming to a halt, and behind again other men in civilian clothes and everywhere among them and above them flowers in the form of wreaths and crosses.

Then all was still, and the picture was complete, framing in that coffin where the steel hat and the King’s sword lay upon the flag which draped it. The soul of the nation at its best, purified at this moment by this emotion, was there in silence about the dust of that unknown.

Guns were being fired somewhere in the distance. They were not loud, but like the distant thumping of guns on a misty day in Flanders when there was “nothing to report,” though on such a day, perhaps, this man had died.

Presently there was a far-off wailing like the cry of a banshee. It was a siren giving the warning of silence in some place by the river.

The deep notes of Big Ben struck eleven and then the King turned quickly to a lever behind him, touched it, and let fall the great flags which had draped the altar. The cenotaph stood revealed, utterly austere except for three standards with their gilt wreaths.

It was a time of silence. What thoughts were in the minds of all the people only God knows, as they stood there for those two minutes which were very long.

There was dead stillness in Whitehall, only broken here and there by the coughing of a man or woman, quickly hushed.

The unknown warrior! Was it young Jack, perhaps, who had never been found? Was it one of those fellows in the battalion that moved up through Ypres before the height of the battle in the bogs?

Men were smoking this side of Ypres. One could see the glow of their cigarette ends as they were halted around the old mill-house at Vlamertinghe. It rained after that, beating sharply on tin hats, pouring in spouts down the waterproof capes. They went out through Menin Gate….

Fellows dropped into the shell-holes full of water. They had their packs on, all their fighting-kit. Some of them lay there in pits where the water was reddish.

There were a lot of unknown warriors in the bogs by Glencorse Wood and Inverness Copse. They lay by upturned tanks and sank in slime. Queer how fellows used to drop and never give a sound, so that their pals passed on without knowing.

In all sorts of places the unknown warrior lay down and was not quickly found. In Bourlon Wood they were lying after the battle among the riven trees. On the fields of the Somme they lay in churned-up earth, in High Wood and Delville Wood, and this side of Loupart Wood. It was queer one day how the sun shone on Loupart Wood, which was red with autumn tints. Old Boche was there then, and the wood seemed to have a thousand eyes staring at our lines newly dug. An airplane came through the fleecy sky, apparently careless of the black shrapnel bursting about it. Wonderful chaps, those airmen.

For the man afoot it wasn’t good to stumble in that ground. Barbed wire tore one’s hands damnably. There was a boy lying in a tangle of barbed wire. He looked as though he were asleep, but he was dead all right. An airplane passed overhead with a loud humming song.

What is this long silence, all this crowd in London streets two years after the armistice peace? Yes, those were old dreams that have passed, old ghosts passing down Whitehall among the living.

The silence ended. Some word rang out, bugles were blowing, they were sounding the “Last Post” to the unknown warrior of the Great War in which many men died without record or renown. Farther than Whitehall sounded the “Last Post” to the dead. Did the whole army of the dead hear that call to them from the living?

In the crowd below me women were weeping quietly. It was the cry from their hearts that was heard farthest, perhaps. The men’s faces were hard, like masks, hiding all they thought and felt.

The King stepped forward again and took a wreath from Lord Haig and laid it at the base of the cenotaph. It was the first of a world of flowers, brought as the tribute of loving hearts to this altar of the dead. Admirals and generals and statesmen came with wreaths and battalions of police followed, bearing great trophies of flowers on behalf of the fighting men and all their comrades.

And presently, when the gun-carriage passed on toward the Abbey, with the King following behind it on foot with his sons and soldiers, there was a moving tide of men and women, advancing ceaselessly with floral tributes. They waited until the escort of the coffin had passed, blue-jackets and marines, air force and infantry, and then took their turn to file past the cenotaph and lay their flowers upon the bed of lilies and chrysanthemums, which rose above the base.

As the columns passed they turned eyes left or eyes right to that tall symbol of death if they had eyes to see. But there were blind men there who saw only by the light of the spirit, and saluted when their guides touched them and said, “Now.”

It is two years after the “cease fire” on the front, but in the crowds of Whitehall there were men in hospital blue, who are still casualties, not too well remembered by those in health. Two of them were legless men, but they rode on wheels and with a fine gesture gave salute as they passed the memorial of those who fought with them and suffered less, perhaps, than they now do.

Memories of old days of the war, when all the nations were mobilized for service, came back through Whitehall with figures which belong more to yesterday. In many countries the agony of peace is worse than that of war, and even in our own dominions there is not peace, but strife between class and class and between one people and another.

For a time at least, among some of us, spiritual faith has given place to jaded cynicism, but in Whitehall all day long around the cenotaph spirituality revived again, and the emotion of multitudes was stirred by remembrance so deeply, so poignantly, that the greatest pessimist must see new hope. Surely some such faith as that, some such confession of failure which may yet be turned into victory, stirred in the hearts of those crowds who, when the soldiers and sailors had passed and all the pageant of this funeral to the unknown comrade, came from many little homes to pass in ceaseless tide before the coffin in the dim light of the Abbey.

This tide of people swirled about Westminster, through Whitehall, along Charing Cross Road, not in a disorderly torrent, but as a wonderful living channel. Every man and woman and child took his place in the column and moved slowly with its movement until access could be gained to that shrine where the unknown warrior now lies among the great heroes of the nation.

At the door leading to Parliament Square Bishop Ryle,…canons and choir, met the body. It was carried shoulder high by eight tall guardsmen and on the war-worn Union Jack that covered it lay a shrapnel helmet, a crusader’s sword, and a wreath of laurel.

Through the transept lined with the statues of statesmen and past the high altar the unknown warrior was borne and then through the choir into the nave where already many famous fighting men sleep.

Just within the west door a great purple square, bordered with white, marked the site of the grave. It is in the pathway of kings, for not a monarch can ever again go up to the altar to be crowned but he must step over the resting-place of the man who died that his kingdom might endure.

Four ladies sat apart and rose to greet this great unknown—Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra of England, Queen Maud of Denmark and Queen Victoria of Spain, and behind them were grouped Princess Mary and other women of royal blood.

Waiting, too, near his grave were men of the warrior’s own kind. He passed through the ranks of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians in mufti. Strangely mixed, captains stood next to seamen, colonels by enlisted men, for all wore the Victoria Cross, and that earned them the right to attend.

The mournful strains of the Croft-Purcell setting of the funeral sentences were chanted unaccompanied as the procession passed through the Abbey. And as the grave was reached, the King, as chief mourner, stepped to its head. Behind him stood the Prince of Wales, the Duke of Connaught, and other members of the royal family, and ranked in the rear were Lloyd George and Asquith, the two war Premiers, and the members of their Cabinets; three or four Princes from India, and a score or more leaders of British life.

The pallbearers, chiefs of the army and navy—Haig, French, Beatty, and Jackson among them—took their stand on either side of the coffin and the service began.

It was as simple as in any village church in the land. The twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is My Shepherd,” was sung to the familiar chant, and then came the account read by the Dean from Revelation, of the “Great multitude which no man could number out of every nation and of all tribes and all peoples and tongues standing before the Throne.”

As the coffin was lowered into the grave, “Lead, Kindly Light” was sung, and then came the committal prayer as the Dean spoke solemnly the words: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” The King as chief mourner stepped forward and from a silver bowl sprinkled the coffin with soil brought from France. A few more prayers, “Abide with Me” and Kipling’s “Recessional” concluded the service.

And as the words of blessing died away, from far up among the pillared arches came a whisper of sound. It grew and grew and it seemed that regiments and then divisions and armies of men were on the march.

The whole cathedral was filled with the murmur of their footfalls until they passed and the sound grew faint in the distance.

It was a roll of drums and seemed to symbolize that host of glorious dead which has left one unknown warrior forever on guard at the entrance to England’s old Abbey.

— Sir Philip Gibbs, “The Unknown Soldier Honored By England“, November 11, 1920

100 Years On – Armistice

Negotiations that led to the end of hostilities on the Western Front began after the German military began to melt away in the face of Allied advances, as well as the abdication of both the German and Austro-Hungarian emperors.  Beginning on November 8, 1918, German representatives attempted, but failed, to soften the harsh demands the Allied Powers presented them.

After only minor changes, the armistice was signed at 5 AM on November 11, 1918.  It took effect at 11 AM that morning, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  German forces soon began the final evacuation of their remaining forces in Belgium and France.  Other terms of the armistice agreement included the occupation of the Rheinland, surrender of naval, ground, and air forces, and the continuation of the blockade of Germany.

Later, a myth that the German Army was not defeated in the field, and had been “stabbed in the back” by the civilian government became popular. This, however, was belied by the fall of the Hindenberg Line and general retreat of German forces in the face of the 100 Days Offensive.  It is possible, maybe even likely, that the German Army would have rallied had it been pushed back across the Rhein. But the inability of the German economy to sustain its armed forces, much less replace what it was abandoning on the field, would have made even that a desperate, and likely short-lived, reprieve from total collapse.

As the guns finally fell silent across Europe, Asia, and Africa and the last man died, the world could count the war’s cost.


100 Years On – Abdication

On November 9, 1918, Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert von Hohenzollern, King of Prussia and Emperor of Germany, abdicated his throne and ended monarchy in Germany.  Over the course of the war, the increased influence of the military, especially that of Ludendorf and Hindenburg, atrophied the power of the Kaiser.

Eventually, as revolution raged in the streets of Berlin and other German cities, Kaiser Wilhelm II was informed that the army would not fight to keep him on the throne.  His abdication was quickly followed by the creation of a republic in Germany.  Wilhelm lived out his days in exile.

Wilhelm had been a bombastic keystone in the arch of monarchy that stretched over pre-war Europe.  Many, including me, place at least partial blame for the initiation of the to his belicose support of Austria-Hungary during the crisis of 1914.

The Great War ended soon after the departure of Wilhelm from the stage.  The republic that replaced him was ill-fated, and it was replaced in its turn by an even worse dictatorship.



100 Years On – Mutiny!

On October 29, 1918, members of the German High Seas Fleet refused orders to prepare the fleet for one final battle against the British Navy.  Their activities ranged from work stoppages to outright mutiny and sabotage.

Initially, ringleaders were rounded up and imprisoned, and Navy leaders felt that the situation had been dealt with.  However, a growing number of sailors, allied with unions and socialist political groups, continued to conspire against the German government.

Finally, in the first week of November, an open revolt broke out in many parts of Germany.  Military units from the North Sea to Bavaria joined with civilians to overthrow the German government, eventually bringing down Kaiser Wilhelm himself.

100 Years On – Flu

In the second half of 1918, the second and largest wave of deaths caused by a worldwide flu pandemic built to a crescendo that killed more people than World War I.   While its origin is open to debate, it was soon rampant in every part of the world.

The conditions at training posts in the United States and in the battlefields of the First World War were almost tailor-made for the spread of the flu.  Soldiers on both sides of the trenches were falling to the illness in droves by the time the war ended.  When they returned home after the Armistice, the virus went with them to all the corners of the globe.

The Spanish Flu, in three waves that stretched between 1917 and 1920, killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.  To put that in perspective, if a similar outbreak were to occur now, it would kill between 230 and 380 million people.

100 Years On – End of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare

On October 20, 1918, the German Empire ended its program of unrestricted submarine warfare.  Off and on through out the war, German U-Boats had attacked shipping destined for Allied countries without warning.  This reduced the risk to the German boats and crews, but increased the loss of life on targeted ships.  The resumption of the tactic in 1917 was a calculated move to knock Great Britain out of the war before the United States could mass sufficient forces after they declared war.

In four years, German submarines sank over 4000 Allied and neutral ships, with a tonnage in excess of 8,000,000 tons.  Losses to the German fleet was 178 U-Boats and about 5000 sailors.

100 Years On – Attention to Orders

After having previously destroyed a number of enemy aircraft within 17 days he (Second Lieutenant Frank Luke, Jr.) voluntarily started on a patrol after German observation balloons. Though pursued by 8 German planes which were protecting the enemy balloon line, he unhesitatingly attacked and shot down in flames 3 German balloons, being himself under heavy fire from ground batteries and the hostile planes. Severely wounded, he descended to within 50 meters of the ground, and flying at this low altitude near the town of Murvaux opened fire upon enemy troops, killing 6 and wounding as many more. Forced to make a landing and surrounded on all sides by the enemy, who called upon him to surrender, he drew his automatic pistol and defended himself gallantly until he fell dead from a wound in the chest.


100 Years On – Megiddo

From 19 to 25 September, 1918, British, Indian, and allied Arab forces routed Ottoman forces in what was the last major campaign in the Middle East.  While this was an offensive that ranged across vast sections of modern-day Israel, Syria, and Jordan, it has been christened The Battle of Megiddo. Ottoman forces were routed at Nablus, Amman, and Sharon.

The lessons of four hard years of fighting are evident in how British General Allenby fought this campaign.  The coordinated use of artillery and infantry, along with armored cars, aircraft, and cavalry, penned in and overwhelmed the Turks.  Out of almost 35,000 Ottoman troops assembled at the beginning of the campaign, only 6,000 escaped death or capture.  In contrast, British and allied forces lost about 1,100 dead and missing, and less than 5,000 wounded, out of a force of over 70,000 soldiers and irregular troops.

The impact of this campaign, and the Middle Eastern front it was a part of, on the modern world cannot be overstated.  Immediately after Megiddo, Damascus and the other Ottoman strong points in the area collapsed.  The loss of so much territory and its resources hastened the eventual collapse of Ottoman Turkey itself.  The lines drawn and the countries formed in the war’s aftermath led to almost a century of conflict.

100 Years On – 100 Days Offensive

After stopping the Germans at the Second Battle of the Marne and pushing them back, the Allies unleashed the final offensive on the Western Front, the 100 Days.  Starting on August 8, 1918, British, French, and American divisions threw themselves at German lines, tearing wide breaches in long-held trench lines and capturing thousands of prisoners and hundreds of guns.

The first battle, Amiens, opened with 30,000 German casualties on its first day, compared to about 6,500 for the Allied forces.  German forces were pushed back and began to withdraw to the Hindenburg Line, giving up the gains they had made in the spring.

Other titanic battles met with similar success, causing the veritable collapse of German forces in France and Belgium.

Over the coming weeks, German lines slowly drew back, until the final climax of the Armistice on November 11.  By then, over a million men on the Allied side were killed, wounded, or missing, while the Germans lost almost 1.2 million, in the final onslaught on the Western Front.

100 Years On – End of the Romanovs

On the night of 16 to 17 July, 1918, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who had abdicated his throne following the first Russian revolution in 1917, was executed by Communist forces in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Additionally, his wife, children, and several servants were also shot, clubbed, and stabbed to death by their Communist guards.  Their bodies were looted, stripped, disfigured, and buried in a concealed grave.

Since his abdication, Romanov and his family had been kept in increasingly harsh and isolated conditions.  In the end, their world had shrunk to several rooms and a small courtyard.  Under constant guard, they were even forbidden to speak with their guards or look out the window.

Communist Red Army leaders feared that the Romanovs would be a rallying point for opposing White Forces in the burgeoning Russian Civil War.  At the time of the execution, White elements were drawing near to Ekaterinburg, and the Communists moved to prevent the Tsar’s liberation.

After consulting with authorities in Moscow, including Lenin and Dzerzhinsky, the local Communist leader replaced the guards surrounding the Romanovs with men who swore to kill the tsar, if ordered.   A site outside the city was carefully prepared so that the family’s remains could be hidden.

The Romanovs were taken to small cellar room, were informed of the decision to execute them, and killed.  After the family was murdered, their bodies were burned and buried.  At first, the Communists announced only that Nicholas was dead, leaving many to hope that the rest of his family, including his son, had survived.  Soviet leaders suppressed any discussion of the Romanovs for decades.  It was not until the 1970’s that their bodies were discovered, and not until afte the turn of the next century that they were given a decent burial.

The death of Nicholas and his heirs brought the end of a 300 year dynasty.  It was only one of the first atrocities committed by the Soviets, but it is a stain on their history that will live forever.

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