The guns fell silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It has been for our nations, the victors, a sacred moment remembered each year. It might have been for Germany too, but they were caught up in their own revolutions at the time and it seemed a strange sort of peace with the sound of gunfire ever present. For the great concert of Europe though, the unthinkably brutality of this war was over.
The clean forgetfulness of the public imagination has this moment as an end to war, the war to end all wars, until the next one. Would that it had been. It was a long effort to make a peace though and the treaties were still being argued over in 1920: this year Hungary mourned the centenary of its own dismemberment at the hands of the vengeful Entente allies: three quarters of Hungary was torn away and two thirds of its population left in foreign lands, and not a single yard of its border was unencroached. That hurt has not faded in a hundred years, nor Austria’s for loss of South Tyrol. Turkey in 1920 was dissolved, and its rulers today appear vengeful for it. War did not cease: the new Mitteleuropa states fought to reverse their border losses almost from the start, and the murderous Russian Civil War ground on.
In the west the joy of victory would not be spoiled by foreigners’ tussles. It was a new era, and the revolutionary map of Europe cast a revolutionary mood into the air – only by the skin of our teeth and the common sense of the common man did Britain escape a bloody communist tyranny. The febrile atmosphere in which everything was possible and every idea hailed a revelation carried through until those ideas tumbled Europe into a war yet more bloody, more evil than imagination could have furnished even amongst those who had seen the drowned trenches. The first war gave us poetry: the second gave us films of heroism, and real heroism there was in more places than the who canon of literature can supply, and we can cheer, as long as we do not look too far below the surface of those years as that would curdle the feelings.
The remembrance is important. The names are read, the sermons and the familiar verses; we tramp to the village green, we stand silent awaiting the bugle. It is ceremony, old and familiar, and in this we remember, for it has been mercifully many decades since war came to these islands and we forget, or would forget. Politicians still like to play with soldiers, but every November they meet and remember it is not a game, and there are better men who stood what no man among them would bear, or few.