The Greatest Day in History – the 11th Hour of the 11th day of the 11th Month – How the Great War Really Ended by Nicholas Best (Phoenix 2008)
I am probably being pedantic here, but I see a bit of a contradiction between this book’s title and its sub-title: either the book is about the 11th November 1918 – the day – or the 11th hour of that day, or about how the war really ended, which is infinitely more complex than just the analysis of one hour or day.
Pedantry aside, what the author has done here is actually very interesting – he has gathered together a series or memoirs and recollection of the end of the First World War, and woven them together. Sensibly he hasn’t been dogmatic about the time span, and where the narrative requires it he has gone outside the 24 hour constraints.
The book is a curious mixture of these memoirs with some genuine historical analysis, charting hour by hour how the Germans came to sign the Armistice. Armistice not of course surrender, a detail which matter significantly for the later course of European history. The Nazi version of events, whereby the undefeated German army was betrayed by the politicians, is comprehensively demolished through this detail. The last hours of the Kaiser before the abdication is also minutely described. Other scenes are more impressionistic – what various famous or to be famous people were doing at the time of the Armistice.
Many scenes from this book stayed with me, including the account of how, when the news that an armistice and ceasefire was imminent, some troops rushed to the front so they could claim they had “seen action”, not wanting to miss the last chance to have a go at the “Boche”. Some men died minutes before 11, and of course some fighting went on after 11.
I was a little surprised that this approach worked – that a deep dive into one day could tell so much about broader European historical themes such as the end of the second Reich and the Austro-Hungarian empire, instead of a traditional, broad narrative sweep across the years. The use of so much raw material, especially the diaries and letters, gives the account an immediacy and urgency – you can share the elation, the relief, and the bitterness as the war ends.
For anyone who wants to read about the Great War but doesn’t want to lose the personal stories of those involved, this is highly recommended.