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A Taste of Ashes

Jay Winter describes the mixed emotions of combatants and non-combatants at the moment the Great War ended.

Of the 70 million men who put on a uniform in the 1914-18 war, over nine million were dead by the Armistice of November 11th, 1918. Today, nearly all the veterans of the Great War have passed away, and with them has gone a sense of direct experience, an immediacy of retrieval of a unique moment in history. But how did contemporaries feel on that grey November day? If one word sums up a constellation of reactions in a myriad of towns, villages and cities at the end of the war, it is lassitude. Exhaustion was the prevailing feeling after four-and-a-half years of carnage. Fatigue marked the faces of the crowds in the celebrating Allied capitals, just as it did in the somber streets of Berlin and Vienna. Exuberance in some urban crowds was real enough, but it was superficial. It was a passing mood, thinly veiling too many sacrifices, too many wounds, too many losses.

One - at least - of that army of the dead almost made it. He was the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire. The story of his November 1918, and its aftermath, tells us much about the gloomy mixture of celebration and sorrow that infused the moment the Armistice took effect.

Born Wilhelm de Kostrowitsky, of traditional Polish Catholic Ancestry, Apollinaire (as he became known) was one of the great avant-garde poets of the pre-war years. He introduced Braque to Picasso in 1907, and spent years proclaiming the virtues of Cubism. A volunteer in 1914 – rewarded with French citizenship – he was wounded in the head two years later. After surviving a trepanning operation at the hands of military surgeons, Apollinaire was struck down in the last days of the war with the dreaded ‘Spanish flu’.

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