In some sectors, fighting continued right up to the moment before the cease fire. The last soldier killed as an American who charged German positions only a minute to 11am, when the Armistice came into effect.
(The American, Henry Gunther, apparently had been demoted earlier, and was desperate to redeem himself, so it was a last chance at glory, but generally speaking, many officers felt that it was proper to continue fighting right up till the end. If for whatever reason the cease fire didn’t work, they wanted to be sure they were still placed well.)
Franz Ferdinand, Austria-Hungary, and the Eastern Front in general are totally disregarded when it comes to the First World War. By most popular accounts, Franz Ferdinand was shot and killed, and that’s all he was ever good for. In my opinion, however, he’s one of the most important figures in pre-War Austrian military history.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir apparent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His uncle, Franz Josef, had come to power after his uncle abdicated in 1848, among the violent social upheavals which occurred all across Europe, and certainly within Austria-Hungary. Franz Josef had risen to the throne at age 18; by the time Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated, the man was 84 years old. The Archduke was 50 himself. Franz Josef was a hard worker by all accounts, though perhaps a bit uncreative and “stuck in his ways.” Geoffrey Wawro, whose recent work on Austria-Hungary before and during the War is an excellent read, claims that Franz Josef “refused to take his job seriously.” I for one don’t buy it, but there are two sides to every coin in history, especially when dealing with personalities like those of Franzes Josef and Ferdinand. Some called for Franz Josef to abdicate in favor of his nephew, but Franz Josef refused, perhaps due to the infamous dislike he held for his newphew, the Crown Prince.
Both men were intensely involved with the military. This is important, as Austria-Hungary’s military preparedness for the First World War – from weaponry to tactics to leadership – was lacking. This is not to say that neither one tried. Franz Josef came to power in 1848, when Hungarian and Italian separatists threatened to disembowel his new Empire. The army, under the command of Feldmaraschall Radetzky, kept the Empire together. Franz Josef knew he owed his very throne to the Army and sort of took it under his wing. Indeed, for the rest of his life, Franz Josef would wear a military uniform instead of a civilian one.
Annnnyyyyways, Franz Ferdinand is appointed Army Inspector. This is where things get messy. The military high command in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a constant battle of cliques and intrigues. Both FJ, as Emperor and Commander-in-Chief, and FF, as heir-apparent and Army Inspector, had their favorite generals and their own cliques. They also disagreed widely on issues of strategy and politics. Franz Josef, like I’ve said, came to power in 1848, and subsequently lost Austria’s Italian territories, as well as it’s influence on German politics, in two wars, one against the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and one against Prussia. After two embarassing military defeats, Franz Josef was content to sit on his throne and keep the territories he still had intact – no more, no less. Franz Ferdinand, on the other and, had muuuucccchhhh bigger plans.
Necessary detour into Austro-Hungarian internal politics. Much has been made of A-H’s multi-ethnic makeup, and rightly so. Check out this map of Austria-Hungary’s many different ethnic groups. As the second largest and most powerful behind the German-Austrians, the Hungarians successfully bargained for a two-state empire united by one Emperor. This is super complex political stuff, so if you’d like more explanation, let me know in the comments and I’ll give you as much information as you’d like. Basically, from 1867 on, the Austrian Empire was formally known as Austria-Hungary and the Hungarian Parliament had massive influence on the decision-making of Austria-Hungary. They used this influence to hamper the development of the Empire’s army and keep Bosnia-Herzegovina underdeveloped (more info on that as well, if you’d like). Franz Josef was content to let the Hungarians be; Franz Ferdinand wasn’t so easily put off. He claimed that Austria-Hungary’s main foe wasn’t other Great Powers, but ““internal enemy—Jews, Freemasons, Socialists and Hungarians.” He even sat down with his uncle, the Emperor, and demanded that a plan be drawn up for an eventual invasion of Hungary aimed at putting the Hungarians back in their proper place, that is, firmly under the heel of German Austria. His favorite General was Conrad von Hotzendorf, an interesting man. Some called him an armchair general who “fought with pen and ink.” If he was an armchair general, he was certainly one of the best there ever was, writing prolifically on strategy. As an actual battlefield commander, however, he left much to be desired. Hotzendorf and Franz Ferdiand favored pre-emptive wars against the Serbs and especially the Italians.
Franz Ferdinand, tired of his uncle’s punctiliousness, established his own apparatus for army administration to parallel that of the official High Command. This was headquartered at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. It’s incredibly absurd, but he had appointed his own ministers of war, foreign deputies and internal affairs. It was basically a shadow government which often went afoul of the official bodies of government. As military inspector, however, Franz Ferdinand meant to modernize the imperial army. He replaced all of the corps commanders of the Austrian military, all without the approval of his uncle, the Emperor. By the time he was murdered, politicians in Vienna were complaining that they not only had two Parliaments (Austrian and Hungarian) but two Emperors (FJ and FF).
Franz Ferdinand was hugely important because he was a “heartbeat away” as they say, from being the Emperor of Austria-Hungary. He was set on policies of “putting the Hungarians in their place” and modernizing the army, which he attempted, but was often hampered by Austria’s poor finances and muddled internal politics. Franz Ferdinand and his pet, von Hotzendorf, were huge proponents of using the army as a tool of internal politics as well as external aggrandizement. Franz Ferdinand never got to the throne, as he was murdered, but if he had, the entire history of Europe might have been different. He didn’t do much but he held and propagated ideas which were opposite or different than those the Empire ultimately took under Franz Josef. Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he made his fatal final visit, was to be “Austrianized” and serve as an outpost from which to unite Europe’s southern Slavic population against Germany, Russia, Hungary, etc. This would have been at the expense of the other state eyeing Bosnia,: the new Kingdom of Serbia. Gavrilo Princip shot and killed not only the visiting Habsburg prince, but the leading proponent of an active and aggressive policy against Serbian expansion in the Balkans.
As for the man he was and how well people of his time knew him… By most accounts he wasn’t a very likeable guy. His wife was very religious and this made him somewhat “preachy” – the opposite of the quietly devout Franz Josef. He was brusque and didn’t laugh a lot. But he was energetic and had big plans for the Empire.
He also caused a stir by marrying out of royalty. He begged his uncle, the Emperor, to allow him to marry Sophie Chotek, a Czech aristocrat who was, nevertheless, far below the rank of a Habsburg Emperor-to-be. Franz Josef eventually allowed them to have a Morganatic marriage, in which he acknowledged that she would never be styled “Empress of Austria-Hungary” and that his children by her would never inherit the title of Emperor.
Wawro, Geoffrey. A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Habsburg Empire.
Rothenberg, The Army of Francis Joseph
Deak, Beyond Nationalism, A Social and Political History of the Habsburg Officer Corps.
Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War
A self-firing rifle improvised by the Anzacs during their evacuation from Gallipoli, used to deceive the Ottomans into thinking that the Anzacs still occupied their trenches; ca. 1915
Fire was maintained from the trenches after the withdrawal of the last men, by rifles arranged to fire automatically. This was done by a weight being released which pulled the trigger. Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.
Such devices provided sporadic firing which helped convince the Turks that the Anzac front line was occupied long after thousands of men had crept down to the beaches and escaped. British generals estimated that half the force would be lost in any attempt to withdraw because the Turks could not fail to notice as the trenches were so close. In the event, the Turks were so deceived that 80,000 men were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.
Nearly a full third of the initial invasion force, over 300 men, were cut down within 30 seconds of landing on the beaches. Most died even before they could get off the boats. Cut down by sniper and machine gun fire.
The planning of the invasion was done on flawed drawings of what the captains “thought” the terrain would be. In reality, the ANZACS faced an almost sheer cliff that was riddled with emplaced Turkish machine guns and snipers. Add that to the fact that the initial landing forces were over 1km north of where they should have been and that is already a recipe for disaster.
The fleet conducted a shelling campaign ON THE WRONG BEACH. The beach the invasion force landed at was untouched by artillery fire.
Even if they had correct information, and had landed at the correct site, they still would have been fighting desperate men and women who knew every centimeter of that peninsula, led by a fearless and frankly brilliant commander who was able to push them further than anyone thought.
The lack of forward momentum meant that the trenches were dug, and no one could move. Supply lines were nearly non-existent, and the re-use of latrine pits meant dysentery and other diseases wreaked havoc on the invasion forces, decimating both people and morale.
The ANZACs were not just fighting the Turks, they were fighting disease, they were fighting the very land itself. An insufficiently planned and researched operation with frankly idiotic execution that cost thousands of lives, both ANZAC and Turkish, simply so Churchill could garner himself some kudos. It could never have worked, it was never going to work, and with a little more care and planning, it could have easily been avoided.
Dulce et decorum est. Pro patria mori.
“Those heroes that shed their blood, And lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies, And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side, Here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, Who sent their sons from far away countries, Wipe away your tears, Your sons are now lying in our bosom, And are in peace, After having lost their lives on this land they have, Become our sons as well.”
— The Enemy Commander, Founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Three German soldiers demonstrate operating a 2cm Becker-Flugzeugkanone, an anti-aircraft gun, Western Front, circa 1918.
Even though this photo was taken almost a century ago, it somehow strikes me as something post-apocalyptic from the future.
“War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder”
Harry Patch was the last Tommy to survive the horror of the trenches of WWI. He died aged 111 in 2009.
He never forgot those lost and always made sure to remember lost Germans as well as Allied troops. A quote from Harry: “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”
We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.
We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.
Life in the trenches was dirty, lousy, unsanitary. The barrages that preceded battle were one long nightmare. And when you went over the top, it was just mud, mud and more mud. Mixed with blood. You struggled through it, with dead bodies all around you. Any one of them could have been me.
Yet 90 years on, I’m still here, now 109 years old. It’s incredible to think that of the millions who fought in the trenches in the First World War, I’m the only one left – the last Tommy.
So now, on Remembrance Sunday, it is up to me to speak out for all those fallen or forgotten comrades. But today isn’t just about my generation. It is about all the servicemen who have risked or given their lives, and the soldiers who are still doing so.
My comrades died long ago and it’s easy for us to feel emotional about them. But the nation should honour what we did by helping the young soldiers of today feel worthwhile, by making them feel that their sacrifice has been worth it.
Remember the men in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t make them wait eight decades, like my generation had to wait, to feel appreciated.
The time for really remembering our Forces is while they are at war or in the years immediately after they return, when they are coping with the shock and distress or just the problems of returning to civilian life.
That is what upsets me now. It is as if we have not learned the lessons of the war of 90 years ago.
Last year, the politicians suggested holding a commemoration service at Westminster Abbey to honour the remaining First World War veterans. But why? What for? It was too, too late.
Why didn’t they think about doing something when the boys came back from the war bloodied and broken? And why didn’t they do more for the veterans and the widows in later life?
It was easy to forget about them because for years afterwards they never spoke out about the horrors they had experienced. I was the same. For 80 years I bottled it up, never mentioning my time in the trenches, not even to my wife or sons.
I never watched a war film either. It would have brought back too many bad memories.
And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.
Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.
He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.
Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.
He told me: “I fought you because I was told to and you did the same.” It’s sad but true.
When Charles and I met, we’d both had a long time to think about the war and all that had happened. We both agreed it had been a pointless exercise. We didn’t know each other, we’d never met before, so why would we want to kill each other?
Charles has died now, but after our meeting he wrote me a letter. It said: “Shaking your hand was an honour and with that handshake we said more about peace than anything else ever could. On Sunday, I shall think of you, old comrade.”
Now, finally, I feel I can talk about those times. I’ve even written a book about my life and they say that makes me the oldest ever first-time author. Isn’t that something? I hope it helps people understand how the young men of my generation suffered.
I was conscripted into the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1916, by which time enthusiasm for the war had fallen away. I knew when I watched the White Cliffs receding as I sailed for France that I might never see England again.
I was put in a Lewis gun crew with three others and we became a very close team by the time we were ordered up to the front line during the Battle of Passchendaele. It was August 16, 1917, and just a couple of months after my 19th birthday.
It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, you can’t prepare for the reality of the front line – the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties, the call for stretcher-bearers.
Exactly 90 years later, in July this year, I returned to that very spot with The Mail on Sunday. There, in the sleepy Flanders countryside, I stared out at what was once No Man’s Land and it all came back to me.
The bombardment like non-stop claps of thunder, the ground we had to cover, the stench of rotting bodies who would never be buried.
You lived in fear and counted the hours. You saw the sun rise, hopefully you’d see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped to see it rise. Some men would, some wouldn’t.
Then the war, for me, suddenly came to an end. We were crossing open ground at Pilckem Ridge on September 22. In my mind, I can still see the shell explosion that took three of my pals and nearly did for me too.
I wasn’t told until later that the three behind me had been blown to pieces. My reaction was terrible and it’s still difficult to explain. It was like losing part of my life. The friendship you have during a war, it’s almost like love.
It was because of those three men that I did not speak about the war for most of my life. It was too painful. Today I have forgiven the men who killed them – they were in the same position as us. I find it harder, though, to forgive the politicians.
Somebody told me the other day that at homecoming parades for our men in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely anyone turns up. I was shocked. Even in our day there would at least be some kind of welcome.
I hope that today people will take the time to remember not just those who have died but those who are alive and fighting for our country. Please don’t forget them – or leave your thanks until it is too late.
(Harry Patch was talking to Nigel Blundell.)
- From The Last Fighting Tommy, by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden (Bloomsbury). Britain’s Last Tommies, also by Richard van Emden (Pen & Sword).