At dusk on the tenth of November 1918, the battalion of which I was signal officer halted at the Mons-Maubeuge road, a little to the north of Maubeuge. We had been marching hard all day vainly trying to establish contact with the retreating enemy. At dawn the next morning the colonel ordered me to march headquarter details back to Bavay, some miles to the rear, and find billets. I was surprised and a little shocked at this order. It seemed to me that our plain duty was to pursue the enemy by forced marches and bring his rear guards to action. But I was in no sense displeased; a few days' or even one day's rest would be very welcome. Rumor had it that the fast-marching Light Infantry would take our place.
We were in complete ignorance of the real situation. Since we had entered the burning city of Cambrai in October we had seen no newspapers, our letters from home told us nothing, and life had narrowed down to marching and fighting. We all believed that another two years must elapse before we got to Berlin.
About halfway on our march a staff officer rode up, and shouted to me that an armistice had been signed and would come into effect at eleven. He waved his hand in answer to my salute and galloped off. We had been fed so long on falsely optimistic news that I didn't quite believe him, especially as there was heavy gunfire to the north, which I believe was some peppy Canadians having a last-minute show on their own. Later, round about noon, the colonel showed me the official notification. I found an abandoned hovel, lay down on the dirty floor, and slept the sleep of exhaustion. The war was over, and we could rest at last.
After dinner that night, as soon as etiquette allowed, I left the officers' mess and walked out alone. It was a mild dark November night with a few misty stars, and some of the men were using up Very lights and SOS signals as fireworks. But what impressed me was the silence. For the first time in those endless years there was no night firing. Minute after minute passed with that beautiful silence flowing by like a soundless river of peace. Yet the habits of war had become so mechanical, the idea of peace was still so new and unbelievable, that I had unconsciously taken my gas mask and steel helmet.
The feelings and reflections of that insignificant young subaltern can be of no interest or importance to the world, except that they were typical of what millions of young soldiers were feeling and thinking that night. In the capitals and great cities of the Allies the civilian populations were shrieking and dancing in an orgy of hysterical triumph and rejoicing. But in the armies there was silence. Long before the cult of the Unknown Soldier and the Two-Minute Silence, the surviving soldiers in the battle area celebrated the eleventh of November in silence. While the imagination of civilians was intoxicated by the vivid but empty word ‘victory,’ the imagination of the soldier was heavy with ghostly silent battlefields and the innumerable lines of crosses. No doubt it was right that the civilians should rejoice and the soldiers mourn. An army is a body of young men dedicated to destruction that the rest of the community may survive. How natural that it should count its losses while the community rejoices in its own safety.
So that at first my thoughts were of the Somme and Arras battlefields, where so many interminable months of my life had been passed. And in all of them I mentally revisited places (now lost to my memory) where a cross or a little cluster of crosses marked the end of men with whom I had lived and marched and fought. Then came, with a shock of surprise, a slight feeling of pride in what we had done. That invincible German army had not been so invincible after all.
Two recent memories came to mind. One was of a division of French cavalry passing through our lines in pursuit of the retreating enemy. Under their neat steel helmets I recognized types of all the historical French armies of the past. There was the lean sallow medieval man-at-arms whose ancestors had met mine at Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. There was the Renaissance soldier with trim pointed beard and intelligent eyes, the careless laughing soldier of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic grognard with heavy drooping Gaulish moustache, but above all the new hard-faced soldier of the World War. In them I saluted the imperishable vitality of France.
The other memory was also not a week old. It was of the Third British Army pouring through the square of an old French town, also in pursuit. I watched them for hours — infantry, artillery, supply transport, cavalry, passing, passing, passing. There was something almost terrible in their grim determination, in that superb demonstration of power, for they passed in silence. The songs and whistlings with which they had kept up their spirits in disappointment and defeat were gone. They kept their breath to march on. You heard nothing but the rumble of wheels and the rhythmic tramp of feet, urgent, hastening, left-right, left-right, left-right, the men's bodies bowed a little forward in the urgency of pursuit. It was quite terrific. We, who had taken that town a few hours earlier, watched them pass, not without emotion.