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Remembered Today:

The Blindness Will Pass In Time


George Armstrong Custer

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This month's edition of Life and Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland, contains a short article by military historian Trevor Royle (quoted below), reflecting upon the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. The front cover, below, reproduces a detail from the large painting by Robert Hope of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig addressing the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on May 29th 1919. Seated at the left of the table at which Haig is delivering his speech is General Sir Henry Horne, who also addressed the Assembly. The painting hangs today in the Assembly Hall on The Mound in Edinburgh.

HaigGeneralAssembly.jpg

THE BLINDNESS WILL PASS IN TIME

Trevor Royle reflects on the final days of the First World War on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice

Early in the morning of 11 November 1918 the men of 5th Highland Light Infantry (HLI) made final preparations to go into the attack along the road from Mons to Jurbise as the allies swept inexorably into Belgium. After 1,564 days of warfare it was a well-rehearsed routine: weapons were checked, ammunition counted and orders finalised. Some men smoked, others folded away letters to be opened in the event of their deaths, all experienced the familiar tightening of the stomach and urge to empty their bowels as zero-hour approached.

Then a miracle of sorts happened. A runner arrived from brigade headquarters ordering the battalion to stand down as an armistice was due to come into effect at 11 am. It was a welcome respite. Only the day before six men had been killed on the battalions sector, yet as one of the HLI officers recorded at the time: "Strange to relate there was no tremendous excitement. Perhaps the philosopher spoke truly when he said that one always has a feeling of regret on doing a thing for the last time."

All along the Western Front the news of the armistice percolated through to soldiers in the trenches signalling that the greatest global war was over, that the killing was at an end and that the last salvos had been fired. For such a momentous moment it was largely greeted not with the expected wild jubilation but with quiet relief. A staff officer in the 15th (Scottish) Division listened in as two soldiers of 7/8th King's Own Scottish Borderers discussed their thoughts following the long years of war.

"I'd like fine to be in Blighty the nicht," said one. "It'll be a grand nicht this at hame; something daen' I'll bet." "Ay" said the other, "an" there'll be a guid few tears, too." Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon William Fraser, commanding 1st Gordon Highlanders, felt much the same way, experiencing great sadness leavened by a hint of optimism: 'And so ended the last day of the Great War. One has been feeling one's way through the dark for four years, and now one has come straight out in the sunlight - and behold!! One is blind, one cannot see the sun. But the blindness will pass in time."

In fact the first indication of an impending capitulation had come a week earlier with the surrender of Austria-Hungary. When the news reached the headquarters of 9th (Scottish) Division the signaller on duty exclaimed, "Well, Austria's thrown in her mitt!" As the divisional historian recorded later, "it was thus that a phlegmatic Scottish soldier announced the fall of the ancient Empire of the Hapsburgs, the oldest ruling family in Europe and the heirs of the Holy Roman Empire."

As might have been expected, the reception on the home front was rather different. In most parts of the country the news was greeted with wild scenes of enthusiasm as people took to the streets to celebrate a day which many thought might never arrive. Church bells, silent since August 1914, were rung and as winter darkness fell across Scotland's towns and cities street-lights continued burning and shop windows blazed with light in defiance of the long months of blackout. In Edinburgh search-lights played on the Scott Monument and Princes Street was thronged with excited crowds, although it was noted that 'with the public houses closed early in the evening cases of intoxication were very rare. The early retiring habits acquired during the war period began to show their sedative influence by 10 o'clock after which the city quietened down.'

On the other hand Glasgow was more boisterous: Union Flags were flown from office windows as crowds pushed through the streets dancing and cheering behind pipe bands. In Aberdeen ships' sirens sounded and in Dundee bunting decorated the ships lying in the harbour. But, inevitably perhaps the high spirits were tempered by the memory of lost loved ones and by the sobering thought that the jubilation masked much sadness in many homes. In time, and in common with all the participants, the people of Scotland were left to count the cost of the war. Of the 688,416 Scots who had volunteered or had been conscripted into the three armed forces 148,218 were later recorded as having been killed in "the service of the Crown" and few families were left untouched by the slaughter. In many cases sadness and sorrow soon gave way to anger at what was regarded as the unnecessary loss of so many young lives and it did not take long for the First World War to be written off as an exercise in futility.

In the minds of many people the key date of the war is the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916 when 21,392 men were killed in action; the most poignant motif of the war is provided by soldiers wading through the mud of Passchendaele a year later; the most tragic result of over four years of fighting are the huge numbers of casualties and the serried ranks of white tombstones in France and Flanders. Of course these are important facts, though not so terrible that they should cast a shadow over the entire war. So, let's not forget 1918: this was the decisive year of the war when two million British soldiers under the command of Field Marshal Lord Haig finally achieved victory in the last decisive hundred days of the war.

Throughout late summer and early autumn the allies made significant progress all along the Western Front and their success clearly rattled the German high command, so much so that on September 28 General Erich von Ludendorff suffered a minor breakdown at his headquarters in Spa and called for an armistice. As well he might have done. Applying relentless pressure the allied advance continued into November as the Germans withdrew steadily back from their positions on the western front. During those last hundred victorious days Haig's army captured 190,000 German prisoners and 3,000 artillery pieces and advanced over 30 miles into enemy-held territory. Those are not just dry figures but the statistics of victory. To take that view it is also necessary to revise the view that Haig was only a butcher and bungler who had sent a generation of young men to horrific deaths without even knowing or caring about the effects of his decision-making. Even the fact that he was a serious-minded Christian has been held against him, as if there were something immoral or unusual in the fact that he prayed regularly and was a committed member of the Church of Scotland.

The truth about Haig is rather different. Warfare is not an exact science and battle plans seldom survive first contact with the enemy. Like any other soldier who has been involved in the dirty business of warfare Haig knew that battles could only be won by careful planning and the determination and resolve of the men who fought them. In any case, who cannot warm to a man who commemorated the greatest day of his life, 11 November 1918, not by making a triumphal statement in his diary but by recording the very British understatement: "Fine day, but cold and dull."

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