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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A World on Edge

The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age

Daniel Schönpflug

Metropolitan Books



The Beginning of the End

Whether to right or left, forward or backward, uphill or downhill—you must go on, without asking what lies before or behind you. It shall be hidden; you were allowed to forget it, you had to, in order to fulfill your task!

—Arnold Schönberg, Jacob’s Ladder, 1917

NOVEMBER 7, 1918. The sun has already set over the Belgian landscape as a column of five black government automobiles sets off from the German Supreme Army Command in Spa. Sitting inside the last car is Matthias Erzberger, a corpulent fellow of forty-three years, with metal-rimmed glasses, a carefully trimmed moustache, and hair parted fussily down the middle. The government of the German Reich has dispatched the minister without portfolio with a three-man delegation into enemy territory on a historic mission. His signature will end a war that has lasted over four years and touched nearly the entire globe.

At 9:20 p.m., amid a fine rain, the vehicles cross the German front line near the French town of Trelon. Before the lead row of German trenches, where artillerymen were subjecting French troops to deadly fire just hours before, is no man’s land. The cars crawl forward, feeling their way through the gloom, toward the enemy lines. The lead vehicle is flying a white flag, and a bugler plays calls at regular intervals. The prearranged cease-fire holds. No shots are fired as the German delegation passes through contested territory on their way to the first French trenches, a mere 150 meters away. There Erzberger is given a cool but respectful reception. The French forgo the customary blindfolds for enemy negotiators, and two officers accompany the car to the village of La Chapelle, where French soldiers and civilians rush up and greet the German representatives with applause and cries of “finie la guerre?”

Erzberger’s delegation continues his journey in cars provided by the French. Wherever the moon breaks through the clouds, its pale light falls upon an apocalyptic panorama. Picardy, for four years a major theater of war, has been transformed into a realm of death. Shattered artillery and the wreckage of military vehicles line the streets, rusting away alongside the decomposing carcasses of dead animals. Barbed wire twists its way across the fields. The ground is pockmarked by thousands of explosions, contaminated by tons of live munitions, rendered rancid by the stench of countless bodies and poison gas. Rainwater collects in the trenches and shell craters. All that remains of the forests are broken, charred tree trunks whose jagged silhouettes stand out against the night sky. The column of vehicles passes through villages and towns razed by the retreating German troops. A shaken Erzberger later writes of the village of Chauny: “Not a single house was left standing. There was one ruin next to another. In the moonlight, the remnants extended up into the air. There was no sign of life.”

The route the French leadership has chosen for the German emissary takes him through the most war-ravaged parts of northern France—a landscape that looks as though it has been blasted by a meteor and will be demarcated a “red zone” on later maps. The horrific sight is intended to soften up Erzberger for the armistice negotiations. It’s hoped that the spectacle of fields that experts doubt will ever again be arable will impress upon him how much harm the Germans have done to the French. The civilian Erzberger has likely seen images of the devastation in photographs, newspapers, postcards, and weekly newsreels—publicizing such destruction has been a central element of French war propaganda. Perhaps he’s also familiar with some of the many paintings by contemporary artists depicting this new landscape. Britain’s Paul Nash, for instance, turned his experience into an iconic work with a pallid sun rising over a forest that has been blown to bits. The title of the painting is We Are Making a New World, which can be read equally well as an expression of sarcasm or of hope. Nevertheless, seeing those desolate wastelands with Erzberger’s own eyes, witnessing this terrible legacy of the Great War, was an entirely different experience. “That drive,” Erzberger will write in his memoirs, “shook me more than the one I had taken three weeks earlier, to the deathbed of my son.”

United States Army Captain Harry S. Truman has long ago gotten used to the sight of the landscapes of war. In a letter to his sweetheart, Bess, he describes them:

Trees that were once most beautiful forest trees and stumps with naked branches sticking out making them like ghosts. The ground is simply one mass of shell holes … I am sure that this desolate country was cultivated and beautiful like the rest of France and now, why Sahara or Arizona would look like Eden beside it. When the moon rises behind those tree trunks I spoke of a while ago you can imagine that the ghosts of the half-million Frenchmen who were slaughtered here are holding a sorrowful parade over the ruins. It makes you hope that His Satanic Majesty has a particularly hot poker and warm corner for Bill Hohenzollern when his turn comes to be judged and found wanting.

Truman, a farmer from Missouri placed in command of an artillery battery, is stationed 150 kilometers east of the ruins of Chauny, which Matthias Erzberger will drive through on the night of November 7, 1918. In the Argonne forests, where Truman has been deployed since the end of September, the final battles are raging between the Allied forces and the German Reich. The French commander in chief, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, has chosen the tree-covered hills in the triangle between France, Germany, and Belgium as the arena for a decisive last offensive. The Siegfried Line, one section of the German Hindenburg Line, fell during the first few days of that assault, and the French army and the American Expeditionary Forces, the largest military contingent the United States has ever sent abroad, is marching with determination eastward toward the Rhine. In his dugout near Verdun, Truman writes: “The outlook I have now is a rather dreary one. There are Frenchmen buried in my front yard and Huns in the back yard and both litter up the landscape as far as you can see. Every time a Boche shell hits in a field over west of here it digs up a piece of someone. It is well I’m not troubled by spooks.”

* * *

IN CONTRAST TO the Kaiser, the heir to the throne, Wilhelm von Preussen, doesn’t sport any facial hair. In what might be an attempt to distinguish himself from the towering figure of his father, the skin under the crown prince’s nose is clean-shaven. Compared with the Kaiser’s imperious appearance, including a proud mustache shaped like an eagle diving toward its prey, Wilhelm, even when older, will look a bit boyish, even a bit naked. Still, lack of facial hair does have its advantages. Unlike thousands of German soldiers, among them a certain Adolf Hitler, the man born in Potsdam’s Marble Palace and the oldest son of the Hohenzollern dynasty doesn’t have to shave anything off when the introduction of gas warfare makes wearing gas masks a must—and facial hair a potentially deadly obstruction. At the age of thirty-six, Wilhelm von Preussen heads Army Group German Crown Prince, which at that point still consists of four armies. But that doesn’t mean he’s in command. His father, who hasn’t allowed young Wilhelm much participation in the running of the state, has scrupulously taught him to leave all decisions up to chief of the General Staff, Count Friedrich von der Schulenburg, whom the crown prince often semi-ironically refers to as “my boss.”

By the summer of 1918 the German spring offensive has stalled, the army group is in constant retreat, and in the face of unrelenting enemy attacks, the crown prince has come to doubt that Germany will emerge victorious. He will write: “We had the feeling we were taking the brunt of the enemy’s swirling offensive … and could persevere more or less by sacrificing all our strength … But for how long?” A bit later, after visiting the First Foot Guards, commanded by his brother Prince Eitel Friedrich, nicknamed Fritz, he finally concedes that Germany’s struggle against the Allied forces has been in vain. The usually cheerful Fritz looks gray and bent with care as the two greet each other. There are only five hundred men left in his regiment, the soldiers’ provisions are miserable, and the gunners have “shot themselves out.” While the German machine guns are able to fend off attacks by American infantry, carried out in mobile columns instead of long rows, that is, in “a fashion not in keeping with war,” they have enormous difficulties dealing with the Allies’ latest military hardware. American tank brigades, for instance, simply overrun the German trenches, which are manned by no more than one soldier every twenty meters, and then fire at the Germans from behind. Unlike Wilhelm and Fritz’s troops, the Americans seem to have inexhaustible reserves of manpower and heavy machinery. Each American attack is accompanied by bombardments even more intense than those at Verdun or the Somme. The brother princes grew up with stories of military heroism, of fields of honor where the fate of whole empires was decided and commanders led their troops brandishing drawn sabers while egret plumes fluttered atop their helmets. Now they find themselves surrounded by the reality of cold logistics and bloodred corpses.

Forced to acknowledge the enemy’s superiority, Wilhelm is feeling more and more helpless. Fatigued and badly equipped with worn-out weapons and dwindling ammunition, his remaining soldiers—the ones who haven’t preferred being captured to being killed—struggle to resist the enemy. But every offensive increases Wilhelm’s sense that there is nothing he can do. “The air quivered with fire,” he will recall. “There were dull sounds of impact, a yelling and rolling that never quit.” By the end of September, the crown prince knows the game is over: “The minds of these men, who had bravely risked their lives a thousandfold for the fatherland, were bewildered by hunger, pain, and deprivation—where now was the line between what they could do and what they were willing to do?”

* * *

ALVIN C. YORK only joined the US infantry after a considerable moral struggle. A tall, red-headed, broad-shouldered country boy, York came from Pall Mall, a village in the Tennessee mountains, and was a pious Methodist who took the Bible at its word. For him, the Fifth Commandment—“Thou Shall Not Kill”—was a sacred argument against military service. When York received his draft notice, he was deeply torn between his calling as a Christian and his duty as an American. He repeatedly pored over scripture looking for guidance. He prayed and consulted with his pastor before writing “I don’t want to fight” across his draft card and mailing it back. But this rather terse application for conscientious objector status was rejected, and York ultimately accepted the inevitable, hoping he wouldn’t be assigned to a combat unit. He completed basic training in Camp Gordon, Georgia, and then traveled via New York to Boston, where at 4 a.m. on the morning of May 1, 1918, he shipped out. York, who had never been away from his mountain home, was now crossing the vast Atlantic on his way to fight in faraway Europe. Homesick, seasick, and afraid of German submarines, he found the voyage little short of torture. “It was too much water for me,” he would write in his diary.

After a stop in England, York reached the French port of Le Havre on the English Channel on May 21. Weapons and gas masks were handed out. “That brought the war a whole heap closer,” he recalled. In July, his unit was deployed on relatively quiet sections of the front so they could accustom themselves to combat conditions. York’s first battle came days after General John J. Pershing launched the St. Mihiel offensive on September 12—a bloody conflict that ended with an American victory of world-historical significance. It was the first time the American Expeditionary Forces had taken independent action; up to that point the American forces in Europe had taken orders from the French. St. Mihiel was thus emblematic of America’s new self-confidence.

In early October, ten days after the launch of Marshal Foch’s Grand Offensive, York’s unit was redeployed to the Argonne. Now he, too, saw the devastated forests, which looked to him “as if a terrible cyclone done swept through them.” York’s life was already hanging by a thread as his unit moved up to the front line in the Argonne. German artillery bombarded the roads, and German planes strafed the marching troops with machine-gun fire. The men spent the day of October 7 near the village of Chatel-Chéhéry lying in “little holes by the roadside,” and York saw his comrades “blown up by the big German shells.” Orderlies ran past with stretchers carrying wounded men who cried out in pain. The road was littered with corpses with open mouths and blank eyes, but no one bothered with them. The constant rain was beginning to fill York’s hole in the ground.

At 3 a.m. on October 8, orders are issued to commence what will be York’s most dangerous mission. At 6 a.m. they are to attack from nearby Hill 223 and take a stretch of rail tracks used by the Germans to get fresh supplies. York and his unit spring into action, don their gas masks, and set off tramping through the rain and the mud. At 6:10 a.m., slightly behind schedule, the attack begins. A trench mortar is supposed to pin the Germans back, but the valley the American soldiers are marching through turns out to be a “death trap” raked by machine-gun fire from concealed positions above, and the first waves of attackers go down “just like the long grass before the mowing machine at home.” Those who manage to survive lie as flat as possible behind every available cover, whether a swell in the ground or sometimes even their fallen comrades. The soldiers can’t lift their heads for all the bullets. When in the face of such concentrated fire it becomes apparent that a frontal attack would be suicide, York’s commanding officer comes up with a new plan. He orders the surviving soldiers from three squads—seventeen men, including York—to crawl back, then push their way through thick underbrush on the left toward the crackling barrels of the machine guns.

A stone’s throw away from those guns, the American soldiers happen upon a clearing where a dozen German soldiers are eating breakfast. They have put down their helmets and guns. Both sides are surprised by the encounter and freeze for a moment, thunderstruck. But the Americans have guns in their hands, while the Germans are sitting in their shirtsleeves chewing their food. What’s more, the latter believe they’re seeing the vanguard of a much larger American force. So they put their hands up to surrender. In the meantime, German machine gunners have spotted the Americans and swiveled their barrels toward the clearing. York watches six of his comrades die: “Corporal Savage was killed. He must have had over a hundred bullets in his body. His clothes were ’most all shot off.” The Germans and the Americans throw themselves on the ground, the US captors seeking shelter among their prisoners. York is lying barely twenty meters from the German machine-gun nest. With bullets flying all around, the hunter from the Tennessee mountains entrusts his fate to his good eye and steady hand. Every time a German sticks his head up from the concealed blind, York shoots him cleanly.

In the end, a German officer jumps from his trench with five soldiers, running at York with fixed bayonets. When they’re a few meters away, York shoots them down one after another with his pistol, starting with the ones in back. “That’s the way we shoot wild turkeys at home,” he writes. “You see we don’t want the front ones to know that we’re getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all.”

By this point, York has killed more than twenty German soldiers and is yelling at the rest to give up. A German major offers to get his comrades to surrender. He blows his whistle, and the Germans emerge from their trenches, throw down their weapons, and raise their hands. York has them line up in two rows, ordering the remaining men in his unit to keep them under guard. The group begins marching to the American lines, braving a double danger. There are other German positions nearby, and it’s possible that American troops might mistake the rows of marching German soldiers for a counterattack. But York succeeds in getting everyone, including a few more soldiers he takes prisoner along the way, back alive to where the captive enemy soldiers are counted. There are 132 of them in all, captured almost single-handedly by the former pacifist.

* * *

DURING THE FINAL offensives on the western front, which will cost more than a million soldiers their lives, health, or liberty, the wheels of international diplomacy continue to turn, exploring the possibilities of ending the war. This process has been going on for a while. On October 4, the German government sends a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson requesting negotiations for an armistice. It is a tactical maneuver designed to give the more conciliatory American head of state a leading role in the peace process. The hope is to create a counter to the European Allies, particularly France, which insists on punishing its archenemy Germany harshly for aggression. Months before, on January 8, 1918, in a speech to the US Congress, Wilson listed fourteen points formulating America’s war aims and the basis for a future peaceful world order. These included open covenants of peace, freedom of navigation upon the seas, equality of trade conditions, reductions in national armaments, and a final adjustment of all colonial claims. Borders in Europe and the Middle East were to be reestablished with the withdrawal of German troops, and a new territorial order was to be stabilized. A league of nations guaranteeing all its member states’ independence and sovereignty was to be founded. Later Wilson added that Germany would have to adopt a parliamentary system of government, which he understood to mean the Kaiser would have to abdicate his throne. The Fourteen Points initiative, for which the US president would win the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize, was never cleared with America’s European allies. Having paid a price of its own in the Great War, the United States now considered itself entitled not merely to be counted among the world’s great powers but to lead the way.

Wilson had left it up to the Allied military leadership to work out the specifics of the armistice, which is why November 1 found Marshal Foch presenting his own ideas to the representatives of Germany’s major enemies. The armistice, Foch insisted, would have to be tantamount to a capitulation. That was the only way he could accept an end to the war without the final battle to the death he had set his heart on. Otherwise the Germans, by using the protection of the Rhine, could take advantage of a cease-fire to regroup or at the very least put pressure on the negotiations. Landscapes played a central role in Foch’s thinking, though not the ghostly remnants of forests as painted by Nash, but rather what Berlin sociologist Kurt Lewin had recently called “directive landscapes.” Lewin illustrated how the strategies of military conflicts imposed boundaries and directions, zones and corridors, “fronts” and “rears” upon nature, and this was exactly how Foch saw landscapes. In his headquarters, which looked more like the central office of a large company or an engineering firm than a field command, the marshal of France managed space and allocated human and material resources to different areas. Thinking as always in terms of military logistics, Foch demanded that Allied soldiers cross the Rhine so German forces wouldn’t be able to recover. For him war was about advantages in numbers and probabilities. The question: Would the Allies be able to end a strategic and tactical war—that is, a “modern” one—with a modern, logistic peace? His answer: If they didn’t, they would imperil the future they hoped to be able to shape after so many hard-won battles.

By November 4, the Allied representatives agreed to the terms of peace they would seek to dictate. They reflected most of Foch’s ideas and were immediately relayed to Washington. That very day, the German armistice commission’s request to take up negotiations arrived in Paris. Foch issued instructions for how the German delegation was to be received. A few days later, in the night between November 6 and 7, he received a radio telegram telling him the names of the German envoys.

* * *

THE 129TH ARTILLERY Regiment, which included Truman’s battery, has been tasked with protecting advancing Allied troops from German fire. In early November he writes to his beloved Bess that in five hours he fired 1,800 shells at the “Huns.” At the start of the offensive, they had to be on their guard. As soon as they began bombarding enemy gunners, they made themselves visible and ran the risk of being shelled or gassed. It was a strange war, one determined by technology, tactics, strategy, ballistics, and logistics, in which they almost never saw the enemy face-to-face. But German resistance had begun to dwindle in late October, as an incident with two downed pilots attests. Truman writes: “[The Germans] don’t seem to have had the energy to come back yet … One of their aviators fell right behind my Battery yesterday and sprained his ankle, busted up the machine, and got completely picked by the French and Americans in the neighborhood. They even tried to take their (there were two in the machine) coats. One of our officers I’m ashamed to say, took the boots of the one with the sprained ankle and kept them.” The pilot, Truman adds, managed to save his life by shouting “La Guerre fini” (sic).

Still, the offensive demands the utmost of Truman’s men, who must be constantly ready to follow the rapidly advancing front, with heavy artillery that has to be pushed and pulled through muddy terrain, in part by horses and in part by human muscle power. The night marches take their toll on the men. “Every one of us was almost a nervous wreck and we’d all lost weight until we looked like scarecrows.”

Yet the more tangible German defeat seems, and the longer Truman’s regiment advances against the invisible enemy without suffering major losses, the more the war that the United States entered in April 1917 seems to him to be “a terrific experience.” He has grown accustomed to living in makeshift quarters—as an officer he has access to a stove, a telephone, and a mobile kitchen. At one point he even remarks that he’s gotten so used to sleeping on the ground that after the war he’ll probably have to lie down in the cellar. In the final weeks of the war, with victory on the horizon, the tone of Truman’s letters becomes increasingly upbeat and his thoughts turn ever more to the United States. If he makes it back home, he writes, he’ll be happy to spend the rest of his life trotting behind a mule in a cornfield. He even finds the time to send Bess a couple of dried flowers as a souvenir, accompanied by a few gallant words.

Truman’s letters from the final days of fighting are reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin’s film about the Great War, Shoulder Arms, which premiered on Broadway on October 20, 1918. The movie, which was commissioned as part of a drive to solicit war donations, has the small man with the funny moustache clowning around in what appear to be the same trenches in northern France where Truman spends the last weeks of the conflict. By the end of the film, the hero succeeds in freeing a pretty girl from German captivity. Along the way, he encounters the Kaiser himself, takes him prisoner, and marches him off at gunpoint. The Tramp ending the Great War—a “terrific experience.”

* * *

LATE IN THE afternoon on November 7, Marshal Foch climbs aboard a special train in Senlis, northeast of Paris, accompanied by his chief of staff, General Maxime Weygand, three general staff officers, and representatives of the British fleet under Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss. It’s a short trip, with the train stopping in a forest clearing just beyond the town of Compiègne. What follows is a long night of waiting. The other train, which Erzberger and his delegation boarded after midnight at the ruined station in Tergnier, doesn’t arrive until the next morning at 7 a.m.

Two hours later, at 9 a.m. on November 8, an icy atmosphere reigns at the initial meeting in a carriage of Foch’s special train that has been repurposed as an office. The German delegation enters first, taking their designated seats at the negotiating table. The French group follows, led by Foch, whom Erzberger describes as a “small man with hard, energetic features, which immediately made it clear that he was a man accustomed to issuing commands.” In lieu of handshakes, the two sides greet each other with military salutes or, in the case of the civilians, cursory bows. The delegations introduce themselves, and Erzberger, Alfred von Oberndorff, Detlof von Winterfeldt, and Ernst Vanselow are requested to present their authorization to carry out negotiations on Germany’s behalf.

Foch opens the proceedings with feigned ignorance. “What brings you gentlemen here?” he asks. “What do you wish from me?” Erzberger answers that his delegation would like to hear what the Allies would propose to reach an armistice, to which Foch replies drily that he has no proposals to make. Oberndorff responds, saying that now is not the time to quarrel over the word “proposal,” adding that if it suits Foch better, the Germans would like to know what conditions the Allies would set for an armistice. Foch insists that he has no conditions to set, whereupon Erzberger reads out the final note from Wilson explicitly authorizing Foch to do precisely that. Finally the marshal lays his cards on the table, saying that he is only authorized to reveal the conditions if the German side first officially asks for an armistice—i.e., sues for peace. Under no circumstances does he want to spare the Germans this humiliation.

Erzberger and Oberndorff formally declare that they are in fact asking for an armistice in the name of the German Reich. Only then is Weygand allowed to read out the most important sections of the Allies’ decision of November 4. “Marshal Foch sat there at the table with stony calm,” Erzberger will write. Britain’s representative, Wemyss, tries to look similarly indifferent, but he betrays his inner turmoil by constantly playing with his monocle and his large, horn-rimmed glasses.

The members of the German delegation listen to the terms being read out with pale, solemn faces, as Weygand will later remember, while tears run down the cheeks of the young navy captain Vanselow. In return for a cease-fire, they are told, the Allies demand not just the immediate withdrawal of German troops from all occupied parts of Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Alsace and Lorraine. They also want a French occupation (at Foch’s insistence) of the left bank of the Rhine and the establishment of demilitarized zones around Mainz, Koblenz, and Cologne. Furthermore, they stipulate that Germany hand over most of its weaponry, aircraft, warships and trains, and that the peace treaty the Reich concluded with defeated Russia in 1917 be annulled.

“A heartbreaking moment,” Weygand will recall. After the conditions are read out, General von Winterfeldt tries to get the other side to soften its stance. The Allies could at least extend the deadline for signing the agreement so that he could consult with his government, and they could surely agree to a temporary cease-fire while the German side evaluated the terms. Foch refuses on both counts and issues an ultimatum. Germany has until 11 a.m. on November 11 to sign the armistice agreement, after which, and only after which, a cease-fire would be declared. That same day, Foch sends orders by telegram to all of his field commanders instructing them to keep up the intensity of their offensives. The idea is to achieve “decisive results” while the cease-fire negotiations are still in progress. There is nothing to negotiate, he stresses to Erzberger. The Germans can take the offer as it stands or leave it. The only concession he makes is to allow “private” conversations between ranking members of both delegations. Erzberger hopes that he can at least persuade the Allies to make concessions regarding deadlines and the amount of military hardware Germany will be required to hand over with the argument that he’s trying to prevent mass starvation and a complete breakdown of social order in the Reich.

At the end of the meeting, a Captain von Helldorf is sent with the list of Allied demands back to the German headquarters in Spa. The private conversations begin that afternoon and last two days, while the hours set by the ultimatum tick away. At 9 p.m. on the evening of November 10, fourteen hours before the deadline, encoded telegraphic orders from the Reich chancellor reach the forest clearing. They authorize Erzberger to accept all Allied conditions. Nonetheless, the German delegation seems to have convinced the other side on at least a few isolated issues. They succeed in getting the Allies to agree to a final round of negotiations. Between 2 and 5 a.m. on November 11, six hours before the ultimatum expires, a few last changes to the settlement are agreed to. They don’t actually soften the final document, but neither are they merely cosmetic. Germany will have to hand over only 1,700 airplanes instead of 2,000, and only 25,000 machine guns instead of 30,000. Germany needs the guns, Erzberger proposes, to keep revolutionary forces at bay—an argument that Foch scoffs at. The demilitarized zone on the right bank of the Rhine is also reduced from forty to ten kilometers, and German troops will have thirty-one days and not twenty-five to withdraw from the river’s left bank. In response to the threat of starvation in Germany, the Allies promise that for the duration of the cease-fire, initially set at thirty-six days, they will keep their adversary supplied with food.

At 5:20 a.m. on November 11, 1918, shortly before the pale, late-autumn morning has broken, the two sides put their signatures to the final page of the armistice. The ultimate version with all of the last-minute changes is still being drawn up. After screwing the top back on his fountain pen, Erzberger points out that some of the provisions of the agreement he has just signed will be nearly impossible to put into practice. He concludes with the pathetic declaration: “A people of 70,000,000 suffers but does not die.” Foch’s only comment is a dry “très bien!” The two delegations then go their separate ways, again without handshakes.

* * *

TOLD LIKE THIS, the end of the Great War seems almost like a chamber play, as if in the autumn of 1918 world history had been shrunk to pocket size and concentrated on a handful of actors and settings in the small area between Paris, Spa, and Strasbourg, which at that point was still a German city. In reality, of course, the great global war didn’t fit quite so neatly inside a single train carriage.

Between 1914 and 1918, the European contest of strength between the Entente powers of France, Great Britain, and Russia, and the Triple Alliance of the German Reich, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and (until 1915) Italy, had grown into a global confrontation. It was fought out not just in Europe, but in the Middle East, Africa, East Asia, and on the world’s oceans. Seventy million soldiers from five continents fought in the war, and the ten million who lost their lives weren’t all Europeans. Eight hundred thousand Turks, 116,000 Americans, 74,000 Indians, 65,000 Canadians, 62,000 Australians, 26,000 Algerians, 20,000 Africans from German East Africa (Tanzania), 18,000 New Zealanders, 12,000 Indochinese, 10,000 Africans from German Southwest Africa (Namibia), 9,000 South Africans, and 415 Japanese also died in the Great War.

From the perspective of the actors whose voices have thus far been heard in this book, the caesura of November 1918 was an all-too-clear divide between war and peace. But in fact the machinery of war, once it had reached running temperature, could not be halted by a single document. The signatures at Compiègne sealed only one of four cease-fire agreements in 1918 between various warring parties. And these were but a first step in establishing the peace. It would take a series of further agreements, the last of which was signed in 1923, for the war to finally end; until then military actions and confrontations continued in a number of places. On the western front, the cease-fire was followed by Allied troops advancing to the Rhine and occupying not just its left but its right bank in 1923. Hungary and Romania continued to do battle in the Balkans. On the Baltic coast, Latvia fought for its independence from the newly formed Soviet Union. And if that weren’t bad enough, huge numbers of people died in a global epidemic of the Spanish flu, which cost more lives than all the battles in all the theaters of war combined.

Over the course of this period new wars would break out between Ireland and England, Poland and Lithuania, Turkey and the Armenian Republic, and Turkey and Greece. In Eastern Europe and Asia, moreover, the Russian Revolution unleashed a bloody civil war between supporters and enemies of the Bolsheviks, which would last until 1922.

* * *

MARINA YURLOVA CAME from a family of Cossacks and grew up in a village in the Caucasus Mountains. At the age of only fourteen, she cut her hair and disguised herself as a man to fight by her father’s side in the tsar’s army. By age seventeen, she was lying in a hospital bed in Baku. She had been shelled while driving an army truck, and all she remembered afterward were fragmentary scenes of detonations, shrapnel and screams. She spent months in the hospital in a semicoma. Her physical injuries soon healed, but the psychological aftereffects of the explosion refused to subside. Her entire body trembled, her head twitched uncontrollably from side to side, and when she opened her mouth, all that came out was unintelligible stammering. She kept reliving the devastating images of the moment that could have been her final one, when she could have gone from being a warrior to a casualty of war.

It was in Baku that Marina learned that the tsar for whom she had risked her life had abdicated, and as the months passed, she saw for herself that the October Revolution had ushered in a new age. While being transported to a different hospital, she observed a group of rebel soldiers massacre a gray-haired general of the old Russian army. One after another, the uniformed men stabbed the officer in the belly with bayonets, even though he had probably collapsed dead after the first thrust. Marina had seen a lot of violence and death in three years of war but “nothing … could equal a murder like this.” Later, she watched from the window of a Moscow ward as revolutionary soldiers assembled and heard enraged speeches against the tsar, and it dawned on her that the old order had ceased to exist. “I had a vague feeling that the end of the world had come,” she recalled. “My old nurse used to tell me that according to some prophesy she had heard, the world was due to finish within two thousand years after Christ.” Apparently the old woman was right, Marina thought, finding the idea strangely comforting.

As a war invalid, Marina didn’t immediately have to choose a side in the battle for the future that began in Russia in 1917. But in her heart she had no doubts as to where she stood. Her family had served the tsars for generations. That thought at least was clear in her head, even though it continued to twitch. The electric shock therapy she received in Moscow improved her condition somewhat. But aside from the thrice-daily sessions, no one paid any attention to a woman injured in the war with the German Reich, which had concluded anyway with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918. Emotionally numb, Marina accepted the fact that her bedsheets were growing grayer by the day from dust and cigarette smoke. Through grimy windowpanes, she saw the outlines of a new regime forming in Moscow. She was horrified when she heard that Tsar Nicholas II and his family had been executed that July. Did she also hear the news that on November 3, the Bolsheviks had unveiled a statue of Robespierre in Alexander Gardens, or that it had collapsed four days later because it was made of such poor-quality concrete?

* * *

ON OCTOBER 23, 1918, Thomas E. Lawrence left Damascus—at least this is what he claims in his autobiography. His entry into the Syrian metropolis through the imposing city gate on the first day of that month had possessed all the trappings of a victory parade. At around 9 a.m., in the glittering morning sun, he had ridden through the town clad in the white vestments of a prince of Mecca. Dervishes whirled before his horse, while Arabian warriors trailed behind him, crying shrilly and firing rifles in the air. The entire city had turned out to glimpse the man who embodied the Arab revolts against the Ottoman Empire: Lawrence of Arabia. The defeat of the Turkish troops and their German allies in the Middle East was sealed.

But by late October, the British officer Lawrence no longer sees the taking of Damascus as a day of victory. He’s utterly exhausted from his superhuman efforts and has seen horrible massacres, but what weighs down his soul more than such blood-drenched memories is the knowledge that the freedom for which he and his Arab friends have fought is an illusion. European statesmen, military leaders, and diplomats have long since drawn up plans for the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to divvy up the region among themselves. The Arab people play only a marginal role in their plans.

* * *

IN THE FINAL days of the war, Rudolf Höss is also in Damascus—at least that’s what he’ll later claim in his autobiography. The eighteen-year-old soldier hails from Mannheim in southern Germany. His strictly Catholic father wanted him to go into the priesthood, but Herr Höss died during the second year of the war, and then his son lost his bearings and his interest in school. Wanting to get away from home, he volunteered to serve. The war took the young Catholic to the Promised Land. Amid the sacred sites of Palestine, which he knew from the Bible, Höss experienced the pitiless warfare the German Reich waged together with the Turks against the British Empire and its Arab allies.

Höss underwent his “baptism by fire” in the desert sands when his unit encountered enemy groups of English, Arab, Indian, and New Zealand fighters. For the first time he experienced the power that comes from holding a weapon in one’s hands and deciding whether others live or die. He didn’t dare look his first kill in the eye, but soon he got used to killing. He felt at home in his strictly regimented unit and enjoyed the bond that fighting created between the men. “Strangely, I had immense trust in and deep respect for my cavalry captain, my military father,” Höss will write. “It was a much more profound relationship than to my real father.”

What Höss will also later remember, along with the violence and the camaraderie, is an experience that shook his religious faith. In the Valley of Jordan, he and his comrades chanced upon a long row of peasant carts full of grayish-white moss with bright red spots. The German soldiers searched the carts thoroughly to make sure that they didn’t contain concealed deliveries of weapons for the English. Through an interpreter, Höss asked what the peasants were doing with all the moss and learned that they were taking it to Jerusalem. Later someone confided that the plants were sold there as “moss of Golgotha” to souvenir-seeking Christian pilgrims who believed the red spots were the blood of Jesus. Höss is revolted by this example of commerce. It’s the beginning of his turn away from the Catholic Church.

* * *

BY THE TIME Marina Yurlova is transferred to Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, far to the east of Moscow, the Romanov dynasty has fallen, the Great War has grown into a new, all-encompassing conflict, and civil war has broken out across Russia. At a train station in Moscow, the invalids witness a gunfight between the Bolshevik Red Army and the “White Army” of troops loyal to the royal family. The Red soldiers who defend the station against an attack by the tsarists are so underfed, and their uniforms so ragged, that they don’t resemble a regular army at all. But for Marina, their grim determination to win or die trying makes these “yellow ghosts” the epitome of the revolution. She can’t help but respect them.

The train to Kazan on which Marina is put in November 1918 makes slow progress. Waiting for her at the end of the journey is another hospital ward with hard beds and threadbare sheets. The bed next to hers is occupied by a handsome young man who has just turned twenty. His face is rosy, and his gray eyes sparkle under his dark curls. It takes Marina a second to notice what is unusual about him. His body doesn’t move. He doesn’t have any arms or legs. All he can do is turn his head. His eyes follow Marina with a mixture of pain and pride in his one remaining capability.

The revolution arrives in Kazan as well. The Bolsheviks are determined to mobilize all the forces at their disposal against the tsarists. Marina is horrified to discover her name on a list of hospital patients to be drafted into the service of the Red Army. She’s supposed to go back to war despite her twitching head, her shot nerves? An order publicly posted by the Red Army instructs her to report to the University of Kazan.

This is the moment when the logic of the revolution imposes itself on Marina. There is no room in the Bolsheviks’ principles for people to be exempt from the battle between the great ideologies solely because they’ve been badly injured. One is either a passionate supporter of the new Russia or an enemy to be liquidated. That’s how the newly minted Red Army soldier who is haranguing the patients sees the world. Neutrality, he proclaims, is “an inexcusable position.” Nor does he have any time for the notion that soldiers shouldn’t get mixed up in politics. “Whom do you stand for?” he bellows at the pathetic little group of the wounded. “What government do you believe in?” He turns to Marina. “What do you believe in?” Before she can speak up, the man answers his own question. “A Cossack…! In the Tsar’s name, the Cossacks terrorized the peasants and workers!” Marina begins what she hopes will be an impassioned refutation. “Brothers!” she exclaims and extends her arm to underscore her words. But before she can make a plea to come together to fight in the name of the motherland, her shell-shocked nerves fail her. Marina collapses, unconscious.

Copyright © 2017 by S. Fischer Verlag GmbH

Translation copyright © 2018 by Jefferson Chase