WW1: The Final Hours

Every school kid knows how the First World War started (or at least that it had something to do with an Archduke called Franz Ferdinand), but the story of how it ended is no less remarkable.

On 8 November, 1918, three men gathered in a railway carriage in the woods of northern France, tasked with agreeing a way of concluding a conflict that had claimed up to 19 million lives.

The German negotiator, Matthias Erzberger, survived a car crash on the way to the meeting, before being taken by the French on a tour of the Western Front. What the mild-mannered former schoolteacher saw shocked him so much, he declared it worse than being at the dead bed of his son, who had died three weeks earlier of Spanish flu.

France’s Marshall Ferdinand Foch had also lost his only son – this time on the battlefield, after which he had allowed himself 30 minutes to grieve, before getting back to work. He arrived at the negotiations looking, according to one of the historians contributing to this gripping, semi-dramatised film, ‘like a statue of himself’. He and Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, First Sea Lord of the British Royal Navy, were implacable in the face of requests from Germany’s civilian negotiator, Matthias Erzberger, for an immediate ceasefire, and for the lifting of the naval blockade that was causing widespread starvation in his country.

Erzberger – a mild-mannered former schoolteacher who described the summit as his ‘walk of the cross’ - was given 72 hours to agree to the Allies’ demands. Agonisingly, the document had to be physically sent the 200+ miles to German High Command, and was delayed as the messenger struggled to find a route through No Man’s Land. As the clock ticked, the slaughter continued.

The terms of the armistice were finally agreed at 5.15am on the 11th. Astonishingly, though, units were ordered to stop shooting at 11am, leaving several hours during which a further 11,000 soldiers died for a cause that was already won and lost. Why not an immediate ceasefire? It’s almost as if they found the symmetry of 11:11:11 too good to resist.

Sadly, the peace would prove short-lived, with the harsh terms of the reparation – and the continued naval blockade, which killed 300,000 Germans long after the guns had fallen silent – ultimately fuelling the rise of the Nazis. (Foch, with astonishing prescience, declared it ‘merely an armistice for 20 years’).

In a dramatic example of cold revenge, Hitler would later demand the French surrender in the exact same railway carriage. Erzberger, meanwhile, paid for his part in his country’s humiliation when he was assassinated three years after the armistice – one more grave among 19 million.

TV extra:


People Just Do Nothing

BBC2, Monday

Back for a fifth and final series, the cult mockumentary about Brentford’s least essential pirate radio station may be a bit edgy (and very sweary), but at heart, it sticks to the classic sitcom model of self-deluded dreamers – in this case the hapless emcees of Kurupt FM – waiting for a payday that never comes. This week’s episode, in particular – shuttling between tower block and car boot stall – was basically Only Fools and Horses with a UK garage soundtrack.


We Are Amused and Amazed

ITV, Tuesday

This variety show, staged at the London Palladium in honour of The Prince of Wales’ 70thbirthday, was somewhat lacking in… well, variety, with only comedians and magic acts on the bill (maybe they triple-booked the birthday magician?). But it did boast the world’s starriest sketch show, with pre-filmed skits from Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi, Joanna Lumley, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Freeman and Wallace & Gromit. HRH looked suitably amused, and plenty of money was raised for The Prince’s Trust.

Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 15, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend