“A Soundless River of Peace”

When the armistice ending the Great War was signed on November 11, 1918, the victorious capitals erupted in celebration. On the battlefront, the soldiers fell silent.

French soldiers read the terms of the armistice. (Associated Press)

At dusk on November 10, 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 …

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 11. 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 … 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.

Originally titled "For Armistice Day, 1939"