On November 11, 1918, at 10:59 a.m., war raged in Europe. One minute later, the guns went silent. This book is the story of that moment and that war. Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour refers to the terms of the armistice signed in France at 5 a.m. calling for fighting to cease six hours later, at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918. Since the armistice established the political and territorial results of the war, any further combat gains or losses had no bearing on the final outcome. From the point of the signing (indeed, from the moment the armistice negotiations began) military action was both superfluous and meaningless, an exercise in machismo devoid of purpose or rationale. And yet the fighting continued, right up to the final hour, egged on by generals more concerned about dubious points of honor than the lives of their men.
Best-selling author of Roosevelt's Secret War and co-author of Colin Powell's My American Journey, Joseph Persico creates more than a historical account of events or an examination of high strategy. These are in the book, but for Persico the real story of the war is told by those who lived it: the men in the trenches. Using personal letters, diaries and memoirs of men and women from all sides of the war, Persico recreates the experiences, thoughts and emotions of the common soldiers German, American, English and French. Their words and actions reveal their motivations, their fears, their proudest moments and their failings. Against these, Persico contrasts generals and politicians lost in grand delusions of empire or utopia. Through all these eyes, the reader sees the war. The result is a study in paradox, as soldiers surrounded by horror and death relish their life in the trenches, while their leaders seek an end to war, but order men into senseless slaughter for no achievable purpose.
Persico alternates between the story of the war's final hours and the progress of the war from 1914 to that last day. The result is a personal level of suspense about the fate of the soldiers whose lives Persico follows. The reader sees the end, the final futile result of years of struggle, lurking ahead for the heroes on a quest for purpose, meaning and glory that simply are not there. We read about soldiers who enter the war convinced of the grandness of the idea, steeped in traditions of parade ground marches, stirring songs and patriotic certitude, only to discover mud-filled trenches infested with vermin, disease and death.
This is not a pleasant book, but it is a superb one. Readers will not settle back to be amused by it or set it aside lightly to be picked up again when the fancy strikes. This is a book about war on its human level, at every human level, from the day laborer gone to fight because he's told to, to the aristocratic son of privilege gone to fight because the act seems glorious. Even the war's origins span the gulf of human experience, from an impoverished radical assassin to an absolute monarch. This is a story of a war begun by madness, fought without purpose, guided in folly and ended without accomplishment. It is a story worth reading.
Howard Shirley is a writer and military enthusiast in Nashville.