» about the day the guns fell silent...

special Armistice feature

Armistice Day,
November 11, 1918

November 11


Cecil Lewis
John McCrae
Eddie Rickenbacker
Jaques Leps
Ernst Udet
Duncan Grinnel-Milne


   in Flanders Fields
How different it all looked from the ground! We could inspect at close quarters the fury of the bombardment. It was a desolation, unimaginable from the air. Every five square yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseased, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun.

Yet (oh, the catch at the heart!) among the devastated cottages, the tumbled, twisted trees, the desecrated cemeteries, opening, candid, to the blue heaven, the poppies were growing! Clumps of crimson poppies, thrusting out from the lips of the craters, straggling in drifts between the hummocks, undaunted by the desolation, heedless of human fury and stupidity, Flanders poppies, basking in the sun!

As we stood gazing, a lark rose up from among them and mounted, shrilling over the diapason of the guns. We listened, watching, and then, I remember, trudged slowly on down the road without a word. That morning seems stranger than most to my now, for Pip is dead, twenty years dead, and I can still hear the lark over the guns, the flop and shuffle of our rubber-soled flying boots on the dusty road; I can remember, set it down, that here on this page it may remain a moment longer than his brief mortality. For what? To make an epitaph, a little literary tombstone, for a young forgotten man.

Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising (1936)

August, 1916 - the Somme

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   the original
In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McCrae, surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Ypres (1915)

written May 1915, published December that year, it became probably the best known poem of the First World War, its images becoming part of the collective memory of the war.
-- More on 'In Flanders Fields' at Heritage of the Great War

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   after the last victory; the eve of Armistice
The story of Major Kirby's sensational victory can be told in a paragraph. He had become lost the night before and had landed on the first field he saw. Not realizing the importance of telephoning us of his safety, he took off early next morning to come home. This time he got lost in the fog which surrounded our district. When he again emerged into clear air he found he was over Etain, a small town just north of Verdun. And there flying almost alongside of his Spad was another aeroplane which a second glance informed him was an enemy Fokker! Both pilots were so surprised for a moment that they simply gazed at each other. The Fokker pilot recovered his senses first and began a dive towards earth. Major Kirby immediately piqued on his tail, followed him down to within fifty feet of the ground firing all the way. The Fokker crashed head on, and Kirby zoomed up just in time to avoid the same fate. With his usual modesty Major Kirby insisted he had scared the pilot to his death. Thus ended the War in the Air on the American front.

While listening to these details that evening after mess, our spirits bubbling over with excitement and happiness, the telephone sounded and I stepped over and took it up, waving the room to silence. It was a message to bring my husky braves over across to the 95 Mess to celebrate the beginning of a new era. I demanded of the speaker, (it was Jack Mitchell, Captain of the 95th) what he was talking about.

"Peace has been declared! No more fighting!" he shouted. "C'est le finis de la Guerre!"

Without reply I dropped the phone and turned around and faced the pilots of 94 Squadron. Not a sound was heard, every eye was upon me but no one made a movement or drew a breath. It was one of those peculiar psychological moments when instinct tells every one that something big is impending.

In the midst of this uncanny silence a sudden BOOM-BOOM of our Arch battery outside was heard. And then pandemonium broke loose. Shouting like mad, tumbling over one another in their excitement the daring pilots of the Hat-in-the-Ring Squadron sensing the truth darted into trunks and kitbags, drew out revolvers, German Lugers, that some of them had found or bought as souvenirs from French poilus, Very pistols and shooting tools of all descriptions and burst out of doors.

There the sky over our old aerodrome and indeed in every direction of the compass was aglow and shivering with bursts of fire. Searchlights were madly cavorting across the heavens, paling to dimness the thousands of colored lights that shot up from every conceivable direction. Shrill yells pierced the darkness around us, punctuated with the fierce rat-tat-tat-tat-tat of a score of machine-guns which now added their noise to the clamor. Roars of laughter and hysterical whoopings came to us from the men's quarters beside the hangars. Pistol shots were fired in salvos, filled and emptied again and again until the weapon became too hot to hold.

"I've lived through the war!" I heard one whirling Dervish of a pilot shouting to himself as he pirouetted alone in the center of a mud hole. Regardless of who heard the inmost secret of his soul, now that the war was over, he had retired off to one side to repeat this fact over and over to himself until he might make himself sure of its truth.

How can one enjoy life without this highly spiced sauce of danger? What else is there left to living now that the zest and excitement of fighting aeroplanes is gone? Thoughts such as these held me entranced for the moment and were afterwards recalled to illustrate how tightly strung were the nerves of these boys of twenty who had for continuous months been living on the very peaks of mental excitement.

Eddie Rickenbacker, Fighting the Flying Circus (1919)

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   the bonfire of regret
It was lowering, heavy winter weather. We had to fly at 300 ft over the devastated areas, and I shall never forget the sight. The Somme, after the bombardment, had been pretty well wrecked, but it was nothing to Ypres. For square miles in all directions there was nothing but a featureless landscape of continuous shell-holes. Now, with the winter, they were mostly filled with water, and in the evening light looked dun, rancid, slimy - an abomination of desolation.

On the 9th of November we did a patrol, the last of the war. It was a gorgeous starlit night. Next day, the 10th, came orders for us to cease operations. We heard vague rumours of the German High Command coming through the lines to sign the Armistice. The next day it was confirmed. The war was over.

We were cut off in this little village miles from anywhere, and though we felt the occasion demanded some celebration, it was impossible to hold one. There was nothing to drink in the whole village and nowhere to go to. All we could find was a dump of Hun Very Lights, of all colours, left behind in their retreat. With the help of the Chinese we made a bonfire of them. This pyrotechnical display was all we could contribute to the gaiety of Armistice night.

So it was over. I confess to a feeling of anticlimax, even to a momentary sense of regret. When you have been living a certain kind of life for four years, living as part of a single-minded and united effort, its sudden cessation leaves your roots in the air, baffled and, for the moment, disgruntled.

Cecil Lewis, Sagittarius Rising (1936)

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    finish line
On that November 11, 1918, morning, another flier, Capitaine Jacques Leps, commander of the French 18th Squadron, sat in his Spad. He was about to take off with his fliers and their planes, all marked with the insignia of a leaping hare chased by a greyhound. The engines were turning over, the props spinning silver.

It was time to get into the air, to escort a major bombing raid on Metz. As Leps raised his arm to signal the take-off, someone came running from the airdrome's communication room, running agitatedly, arms waving.
"La guerre!! C'est finie, la guerre!"

Jaques Leps took in the heart-bursting news. He switched off the Spad's engine. The engines of the rest of his fliers went silent, one by one, as the cry "C'est finie, la guerre!" spread throughout the field. Capitaine Leps unfastened his safety belt and slowly got out of his cockpit. Finie.

Stephen Longstreet, the Canvas Falcons (1970)

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   not understood
I cut the ignition and land. Comrades gather round me. They have seen every phase of the battle from the airfield. They chatter excitedly: "Man, Udet, haven't you been the lucky one... the fist show of the enemy in four weeks... just back from leave today and then such a chance..."

I climb out of my crate and look at my wound. The shot has gone clean through my thigh; there's only a slight trinkle of blood. The others step aside, for Göring has come too. I report: "sixty-first and sixty-second enemy shot down. Myself am slightly wounded - shot through left leg, face unhurt!"

Göring laughs, shakes my hand. "Good of me, is it not, to sit down here and reserve the victories in the air for you!" ...A real comrade.
Then comes the end. Unthinkablefor us, that have fought to the last; a peace, that no one of us understands.

Ernst Udet, My life as a flier (1935)

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    and There Was a Great Calm
We had survived. It was all over in France, thank God! And yet...

The place was very silent now, too silent. The lack of gunfire was positively startling at first. All through the old war areas, from Albert to st. Quentin, from Arras to Cambrai and on to Le Cateau, from Lens to Lille, the land was desolate; deserted too, for the armies had already moved on, the French civilians not yet returned.

Sometimes at the end of a misty autumn afternoon the silence would become appaling -- like the grave, like being buried alive. Amid the wreckage of a war that was over, with the litter of equipment, the shell-holes, the scattered crosses all about one, there seemed to be more than just silence in the air. It was as though from each day of the Four Years some ghostly event were rising to call to us, to remind us of the dead past; as though the dead themselves were calling us back, for to be a survivor is a doubtful privilege...

We made a great deal of noise in the Mess to drown such mournful sounds, and spent as much time as possible in the air.

One morning, when the snow lay thick upon the old battlefields and grey clouds hung low in a windless sky, I said good-bye to Johnny. He looked slowly over to the whitened hills towards the little village where his friend Larry now slept beneath the cross of his own propeller. "Funny, after a rotten war like this, how hard it is to leave."
I watched the lorries rumble away down the long straight road to Cambrai. And with the final break-up of the Squadron everything that had made life worth living seemed to have gone too. The deep rumble of the lorries died away, and in the wintry silence which then fell, the only sound I could hear was the faint humming of telegraph wires - an echo of past endeavor.

Duncan Grinnel-Milne, Wind in the Wires (1926)

giving a different meaning to the official poem by Thomas Hardy, 'and There Was a Great Calm': on the signing of the Armistice, November 11th, 1918

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