At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns on the Western Front fell silent.
They had been booming and wailing, instilling fear and death for more than four years.
These guns had shot at about 70 million people and left between 10 and 13 million people dead – many with no known grave, but under the terms of the Armistice they were quietened, and the world dared to start breathing again.
The final moments for Germany had begun on October 17 when the Allies pushed toward the borders of the “Fatherland” and the resistance had begun to crumble.
Turkey, Australia’s foe from the Dardenelles, signed an armistice at the end of October, and Austria-Hungary signed one on November 3. With such capitulation, the writing was on the wall and the sailors in the German port of Kiel knew it.
They refused to go back to sea, effecting a revolt on the higher powers. Soon they had control of the city and revolution was spreading.
All the German people wanted was for the war to end, to be fed and to have their boys come home – so there was no sadness at the Kaiser abdicating on November 9 and slipping into exile; just as there had been no sadness at General Ludendorff’s resignation effected by the Kaiser two weeks earlier.
All that was left to be discussed was the terms of the surrender – and it was absolute surrender; so absolute that it became a rallying point for disaffected nationalists just a few years later.
But that was the future… and this was now.
The Tamworth Daily Observer of November 13, 1918 noted that some of these agreed terms were: “Immediate evacuation of Belgium and France, also of Alsace-Lorraine and Luxemburg… occupation by the Allied forces to keep pace with the enemy evacuation. Surrender by the German armies of 5000 guns, 30,000 machine guns… and 2000 aeroplanes… and immediate repatriation of all Allied prisoners of war”, but interestingly did not mention reparations – probably because the staggeringly big monetary figure was yet to be decided on.
The same paper also reported in a large print heading, “Recruiting Stopped in Britain and Australia” – meaning the families of both nations must have started to feel that this conflagration was really over, that their sons would be coming home, and their younger sons would not even be going.
However, despite that innate feeling of family safety, it was now time to count the costs of a modern war – and the figures, as well as the day to day realities, were astronomical.
Gunnedah counts the cost
The last person from the Gunnedah region to die “in the field” during action was Boggabri’s Hilton Vincent Self on October 5, 1918, with his service record cryptically naming his place of death as “France”.
Others from the region died in hospitals or on ships coming home after this point with most being acknowledged as war dead.
But the deaths brought about by the war, occurring after 1919, are unknown. Gas-filled lungs disintegrated over time, bullets and shrapnel moved inside frail bodies and trauma broke shattered minds, with families being left to deal with it all as best they could.
The men, who had in many ways been just boys when they had signed up so patriotically and so gloriously, were now damaged in ways that they, and the families that loved them, could not understand. Many suffered silently, shutting their families out – wives, children and parents who were desperately trying to comprehend the changes in their once smiling lads.
Back then there was nothing called PTSD – it was instead called battle fatigue or shellshock and the men who displayed the symptoms were often shamed … and, in turn, ashamed.
The end of the war, the war to end all the wars, the Great War, did not end the suffering in those men, or in their families. While many, in time, dealt with what they had been a part of, many did not, and while many remained proud of their service they also remained horrified at the carnage they had witnessed, the sounds that they had heard and the smell of cordite, mud and death.
The final balance sheet
Of the 1325 men and women who signed up for World War 1 in the Gunnedah region – 200 paid the ultimate sacrifice. Many are not memorialised locally, and many are not even remembered – but all the same, they gave their all.
We should not forget that.
This series of articles: Between the Crosses – Gunnedah and the Great War is dedicated to all those men from our district who enlisted, and in some instances, died in service. It is also dedicated to all of their families.
Lest We Forget.
Read more Between the Crosses: