WWI Centennial: Armistice

Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 323rd and final installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

NOVEMBER 11, 1918: ARMISTICE

“It isn’t true. It isn’t real. It can’t be that the war is really ended,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American woman volunteering as a canteen worker in France, in a letter home dated November 11, 1918, recalling her trepidation during the final countdown to the Armistice. “Would the guns cease? Could they? It seemed as if they must go on forever.” William Watson, a British tank commander, was also stunned: “The news was so overwhelming that I could not absorb it … I could not understand—until two of my officers started to ring the bell of the village church. The day became a smiling dream.”

For many ordinary people around the world, the news of the Armistice ending the war at 11 a.m. on the morning of November 11, 1918—“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”—was almost as much of a shock as the outbreak of war. After four years of unprecedented death and destruction, in the second half of October and early November 1918 the vast machinery of modern, “total” war ground inexorably to a now-inevitable conclusion, the shattering of the German Army on the Western Front by superior Allied forces directed by supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch. With ample food, fuel, and weaponry thanks to the fully mobilized industrial output of Britain, France, and above all the United States of America, Allied infantry supported by tanks, planes, artillery, and masses of trucks battered the German armies backwards through Belgium and northern France. In the Meuse-Argonne region the U.S. First Army battled north alongside the French Fourth Army to liberate Sedan on November 6, while the newly formed U.S. Second Army prepared to attack Metz—the Allies’s first major offensive into German territory—and a new American Third Army began forming at Ligny-en-Barrois on November 7, in preparation for another cross-border offensive (it never saw combat but served as the American occupation army in Germany).

Maps of the Western Front at the close of World War I
Erik Sass

TO THE BITTER END

Fittingly for the most violent conflict in history up to that point, fighting continued until literally the last second. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, recorded in his diary on November 11, 1918: “Fire was kept up by both sides until eleven o'clock. I fired my last shot just at 11.” Nor was combat limited to mostly symbolic artillery displays. Warner Ross, the white commander of a segregated African-American combat battalion in the 92nd (“Buffalo”) Division, remembered desperate fighting in Bois Frehaut near Pont-à-Mousson in front of the German border fortress of Metz during the night and morning hours of November 10-11, 1918:

“I might tell you how that morning during the advance, I happened to be looking at a non-com. section leader a little way to my left when there was a wicked crack and a blinding flash just above and in front of him, and how I saw his headless body—the blood gushing—actually step and lunge forward against a rock. I could tell you about strong men who went raving mad (and were still insane when I last heard) in that horrible turmoil … No wonder the men who actually, personally underwent such suffering won’t talk about it much. But the memory of those awful things, pass it off as they may, is seared deep into their very souls and will haunt them at times until their dying day.”

Both sides employed limitless brutality up to the very end of hostilities, including widespread summary execution of POWs in the field by both sides, and scorched-earth tactics by the retreating Germans. Across northern France and Belgium, advancing Allied troops had to contend with German booby-traps, which made it perilous simply to enter a structure or march across a bridge. Of course, these fiendish tactics summoned forth suitably coldblooded counter-tactics. A British soldier, Robert Cude, described a brutal means of clearing mines using German POWs in a diary entry on November 6, 1918: “All roads and houses are mined. One has to be careful, where one walks, what one touches and what one knocks against … Where we think that a house is mined, one of the Jerrys has to walk in first, and this frequently saves one or more of our chaps from visiting Kingdom Come, and means that is one less for us to feed.”

Again, typically for the war, there were also a number of false starts and rumors, including one which circulated in British ranks on November 7, 1918, related by British officer Stuart Chapman in his diary:

“There was a tremendous row this evening: It is thought the war is over—the cheering was terrific. Seemed as if there were thousands of voices. The band was playing, whistles were going, and lights were being sent up. This is supposed to be the Armistice. Everyone appears to be going mad. The canteen—expeditionary—was raided and the damage estimated at £300. In the town the French were giving away free drinks. The Colonel gave us a lecture about looting.”

Eric Evans, an Australian soldier, also noted premature celebrations in his diary entry on November 7, although many celebrants were aware the grounds were tenuous: “Germany accepts armistice terms! Such is the news, but I for one am skeptical as yet, as are most of the sergeants. Anyway, it’s an excuse for the boys to celebrate. There’s a hell of a noise in the canteen. They’re making a night of it, anyway.”

CAPITULATION AT COMPIEGNE

The rumor mill was fueled by the vague details of halting peace negotiations in October 1918, accelerating in the first week of November, when the Germans generals, facing defeat on the Western Front and revolution at home, finally caved to all Allied demands.

At long last, French and German representatives led by Foch and Matthias Erzberger, a civilian Catholic politician who had been a vocal critic of the war in the Reichstag, signed the armistice at 5:10 a.m. in a converted wagon-lit (rail sleeping car) at Compiegne, France [PDF]. The armistice, providing for the cessation of hostilities five hours after the signing, required:

  • German evacuation of all occupied territory in northern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany’s own province of Alsace-Lorraine within 15 days
  • Repatriation of all hostages and forced laborers deported by Germany during the war
  • Immediate surrender of all the vessels of the German Navy as well as 5000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, 1700 planes, 5000 locomotives, 150,000 rail wagons, and 5000 trucks
  • Continuation of the Allied naval blockade
  • Evacuation of all German home territory west of the Rhine for occupation by Allied troops, centered on the main bridgeheads at Mainz, Cologne and Coblenz.

The armistice also annulled the draconian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and required all German forces be withdrawn from its short-lived military empire in Eastern Europe, including vassal states in Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia.

The front page of The New York Times, November 11, 1918 announcing WWI armistice
The New York Times, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The agreement set a minimum term of 36 days, which could be renewed until the signing of a “permanent” peace treaty. Seven months later, on June 28, 1919, at the palatial headquarters of the Allied Supreme War Council, German representatives led by Foreign Minister Herman Müller signed the Versailles Peace Treaty [PDF]. It included punitive reparation payments lasting for decades, a meaningless “war guilt” clause assigning blame to Germany, and the partial dismemberment of Germany. (Most historians believe the provisions planted the seeds of the cataclysmic Second World War from 1939-1945.) Not coincidentally, following the collapse of the German Army and the toppling of the Hohenzollern monarchy, the job of signing the humiliating treaty would fall to Germany’s new socialist government under Friedrich Ebert, first chancellor of the new Weimar Republic—providing a convenient scapegoat for German ultranationalists and reactionaries, who claimed that Germany’s undefeated armies were “stabbed in the back” by an evil socialist cabal (easily expanded to include anti-Semitic tropes).

“LIKE A GALE, BUT FROM ALL SIDES”

Whatever the future held, November 11, 1918 was understandably a day of jubilation for most people, whatever their status or degree of involvement in the war. Winston Churchill (who had made a remarkable political comeback after Gallipoli and a stint in the trenches, serving as British Minister of Munitions in David Lloyd George’s cabinet) recalled the flood of celebrating humanity on the streets of London as Big Ben tolled 11 times, signaling the end of the war:

“And then suddenly the first stroke of the chime. I looked again at the broad street beneath me. It was deserted. From the portals of one of the large hotels absorbed by Government departments darted the slight figure of a girl clerk, distractedly gesticulating while another stroke resounded. Then from all sides men and women came scurrying into the street. Streams of people poured out of all the buildings. The bells of London began to clash. Northumberland Avenue was now crowded with people in hundreds, nay, thousands, rushing hither and thither in a frantic manner, shouting and screaming with joy. I could see that Trafalgar Square was already swarming. Around me in our very headquarters, the Hotel Metropole, disorder had broken out. Doors banged. Feet clattered down corridors … The tumult grew. It grew like a gale, but from all sides simultaneously. The street was now a seething mass of humanity. Flags appeared as if by magic … At any rate it was clear no more work would be done that day.”

Elsie Janis, an American star of vaudeville and silent film who was taking a break from entertaining the troops in France, left her own account of the peaceful upheaval in London (below, crowds in Philadelphia):

“At that moment London went mad … The Earth suddenly opened and the millions of human ants swarmed the streets, buildings, trams, and even flagpoles. From the fourth floor of the Carlton where we lived we hung out the windows dazed. I could not yell, I was numb. Those ants had horns, whistles, flags, balloons. I counted 15 people clinging to one taxi. Airplanes appeared from nowhere … I closed the window and tried to shut it all out. It seemed so unbelievable!”

Americans celebrate the World War I Armistice on November 11, 1918 in Philadelphia
U.S. National Archives, Flickr // No Known Copyright Restrictions

Clifton Cate, an American soldier, tied one on in the British base camp at Etaples, France, where a cosmopolitan crowd celebrated peacefully, aside from a few drunken fist fights:

“In the town, all was wildest confusion, representing celebration. The civilians had gone wild, and they were joined in impromptu parades by uniformed “Frogs,” “Limeys,” “Jocks,” “Canucks,” “Aussies,” “Anzacs,” “Southies,” “Yanks,” sailors, nurses, “WAACs,” and all manner of servicemen and girls. Even the dogs yelped with the shouting humanity. Men, women, wine, song, all joined in one great jubilee … Coming back to my senses inside the restaurant I found my head resting in one ma’mselle’s lap, while another was pouring champagne in the general direction of my mouth.”

Armistice celebrations reflected changing social mores during the war, including more open displays of affection and female assertiveness. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel in France, described seeing a group of young female factory workers descend on Scottish soldiers during an impromptu parade:

“It was such a spontaneous demonstration of the life-force as I never saw in public before … It was highly amusing to see a Highlander-musician holding his bagpipes under one arm, whilst with the other he attempted to embrace in an one-sided way the dainty midinette hanging around his neck!”

People celebrate the end of World War I on Wall Street in New York City
The New York Times, Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

At the front, the first instinct of many men on both sides was to fraternize, renewing the good will and common humanity displayed during the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, wrote in his diary:

“It seems that when the end came our men waited a bit, somewhat dazed and astounded. Then one and then another began calling and standing up, where standing meant death but minutes before. Then 300 yards off—500—700—they saw other figures standing—Boche soldiers. Our men trickled over to ‘see.’ The Boche men were already coming over to ‘see.’ Our men gave them cigarettes and received knives, souvenirs, even Iron Cross ribbons. Fritz stayed in our trenches—or rather shell-holes and foxholes—awhile and had coffee. When officers approached, both Boches and Americans would make off to their own lines.”

Warner, commanding an African-American battalion, recorded similar events:

“Soon after the buglers had sounded ‘cease firing,’ the Huns rushed out of their positions and our men met them between the lines. They actually shook hands and slapped each others’ backs. They traded trinkets and were holding a veritable reception until our officers succeeded in getting the men back into the lines. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.”

Robert Hanes, the American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on November 12: “We passed the German sentry with the pretext that we had official business, talked to the German soldiers and then called on the German officers. We chatted with them a half hour, drank a glass of Schnapps with them, and returned home.”

REMEMBRANCE, REFLECTION, RESPITE

Of course, for millions of ordinary people, the celebrations were tempered by grief. For the diarist Vera Brittain, who had lost her fiancé in 1915 and her brother in early 1918, and for millions of other bereaved family members, the Armistice was a day of remembrance and regret:

“I thought, ‘It’s come too late for me. Somehow I knew, even at Oxford, that it would. Why couldn’t it have ended rationally, as it might have ended, in 1916, instead of all that trumpet-blowing against a negotiated peace, and the ferocious talk of secure civilians about marching to Berlin? It’s come five months too late—or is it three years? It might have ended last June, and let Edward, at least, be saved!’”

Celebrations in the trenches tended to be more subdued, according to John Jackson, a British soldier:

“The long nerve-wracking suspense was at last ended, and we were glad, but there were too many saddened memories to think of, too many old pals to mourn, friends who gave their all in brave sacrifice for their country, which was sufficient to keep us from going wild with excitement. Instead, there were just quiet congratulations and a good hand-grip, pregnant with well-meaning, between old friends, still to the fore, who had battled side by side in many a fierce fight, and many a stirring escapade.”

U.S. 64th Regiment celebrates the World War I armistice
U.S. National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Along with joy and grief, many participants reported understandable feelings of confusion and disorientation with the sudden end of an event which had defined their lives and the lives of everyone they knew. This loomed large especially for young people: In November 1918, a 20-year-old soldier or volunteer nurse would have spent fully a fifth of their lives with the world at war. Among other things the war had provided employment and structured the daily routines of millions of people, all of which was about to end.

Katharine Morse, the American canteen worker, wrote in a letter home: “I think we are all a little dazed. I for one have a curious feeling as if I had come up suddenly against a blank wall.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, remembered: “It was incredible that what had come to be our everyday life was thus suddenly to end.”

Similarly Charles Biddle, an American pilot, wrote in his diary:

“It is a wonderful relief to have it over, but it does leave you with a very much ‘let down’ feeling, as though one had suddenly lost one’s job. Having been at it so long it almost seems as though one had never done anything else and that one’s reason for existing had suddenly ceased.”

H.M.S. Vindictive float on Peace Celebration Day, Brisbane, 1918. The young men on the float are wearing navy uniforms.
State Library of Queensland, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The end of the war was just as jarring and disconcerting for leaders as ordinary people, according to Churchill, who also faced the heavy responsibility of helping manage the postwar economic transition in Britain:

“The material purposes on which one’s work had been centered, every process of thought on which one had lived, crumbled into nothing. The whole vast business of supply, the growing outputs, the careful hoards, the secret future plans—but yesterday the whole duty of life—all at a stroke vanished like a nightmare dream, leaving a void behind. My mind mechanically persisted in exploring the problems of demobilization. What was to happen to our 3 million munition workers? What would they make now? How would the roaring factories be converted? How in fact are swords beaten into ploughshares?”

REVOLUTION IN GERMANY

For many German soldiers and civilians, the end of the war was accompanied by a sense of humiliation and even deeper disorientation, with failure on the battlefield accompanied by the collapse of the Hohenzollern monarchy under Wilhelm II in the brief but traumatic German Revolution. Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, recorded the sense of rupture in his diary on November 11:

“The war is over … How we looked forward to this moment; how we used to picture it as the most splendid event of our lives; and here we are now, humbled, our souls torn and bleeding, and know that we’ve surrendered. Germany has surrendered to the Entente! Apart from the Kaiser and the Crown Prince, all ruling princes of the German Federation have abdicated. Our Kaiser has transferred all his powers over the German Army to General-field-marshal von Hindenburg.”

Historical debate continues about how widespread revolutionary sentiment was in the German ranks. Fritz Nagel, a German officer with an antiaircraft artillery unit, believed that the German mutinies were the work of a relatively small number of disaffected soldiers, who nonetheless were able to guide events given the disillusionment and apathy prevailing among the majority of German troops:

“Suddenly, men who had been disciplined soldiers and seamen became an unruly and dangerous mob armed to the teeth, and were willing to murder anyone resisting them. For the orderly mass of German soldiers, all this was shocking and dangerous. Should we now fight these revolutionaries and start a civil war? Nobody seemed to know and there was no overall leadership. The Kaiser fled to Holland. General Ludendorff, the chief of staff, had fled to Sweden. Everyone for himself seemed to be the motto. That was the situation on November 11, 1918. What worried me most was the terrible news reaching us from home. Drunken soldiers roamed the streets. Even the police were exaggerated were reported to have joined the revolution. Some of these reports were exaggerated, but we did not know it then. The people at home were terrified.”

Sulzbach described the same sense of radical disorientation in his diary entry on November 9, 1918:

“Workers’ councils and soldiers’ councils have been set up. The Kaiser and the Crown Prince are supposed to have abdicated. We are sitting at the bottom of the abyss, and our splendid Germany has fallen to pieces! In the evening a mounted messenger arrives, bringing hard facts to confirm the rumor that a genuine revolution has broken out at home … Germany is a Republic. The new Government has been formed, with Ebert as Chancellor. You don’t know whether you are dreaming or stumbling through reality. The events have tumbled past in such a rush that you can’t grasp them at all.”

German civilians were curious about the causes of defeat, according to Nagel, who maintained—rather implausibly—that the uprising was due to collapse of authority within a minority of the German Army’s ranks:

“Often, they asked me what had caused the revolt in the army. Why had discipline collapsed all of a sudden, without warning? To begin with, it must be said that not all of the army was in revolt. Most of the men simply wanted to get home. They had no ambitions as revolutionaries whatever. There was no political leadership anyway; it simply was a revolt against authority be a small part of the army … My opinion always has been that only a small proportion of the army had gone berserk.”

The question of military support is only one half of the question, however, as soldiers and civilians existed under different regimes, and the latter—relatively free from military compulsion—seem to have favored the revolution by a large margin. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recorded widespread revolutionary sentiment, along with her own sense of disorientation as a member of the old social elite, in her diary:

“There could hardly have been a greater air of rejoicing had Germany gained a great victory. More and more people came hurrying by, thousands of them densely packed together—men, women, soldiers, sailors, and strangely enough, a never-ceasing fringe of children playing on the edges of this dangerous maelstrom, and enjoying it seemingly very much, as if it had been some public fete-day … A characteristic feature of the mob was the motors packed with youths in field-gray uniform or in civil clothes, carrying loaded rifles adorned with a tiny red flag, constantly springing off their seats and forcing the soldiers and officers to tear off their insignia, or doing it for them if they refused … The strangest and most disagreeable feeling of all was that nobody knew definitely what was happening and what was the meaning of it all.”

In addition to their own questions, younger people had to deal with confusion, disagreements, and violent conflict among their elders. Piete Kuhr, a German teenager living in East Prussia, wrote in her diary on November 8, 1918:

“Revolution is everywhere. It has just been reported that the Supreme High Command wanted to use front-line troops against the rebel sailors, workers and citizens, but it came to nothing. The soldiers refused to fire. Soldiers all over are gathering together, kissing and embracing. Everyone shouts: ‘No more war!’ … I feel as if I am on a merry-go-round spinning faster and faster.”

By the same token, compared to the “charnel house” of Russia under the Bolsheviks, the German Revolution was relatively short and bloodless. Blucher speculated that exhaustion and defeat also helped shorten the revolutionary disorder, but recognized the essentially German nature of the upheaval: “Our general impression is that the people are much too weak and starved to be really bloodthirsty unless goaded on by fanatics like Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, and one cannot help admiring the disciplined and orderly way in which a revolution of such dimensions had been organized.”

LINGERING WOUNDS

In addition to the vast death toll, including around 12 million soldiers and 8 million civilians, the Great War left an even larger number of wounded, with around 21 million men suffering the lingering physical pain and trauma resulting from prolonged exposure to death, destruction, terror, and loss. Ernst Jünger, a German stormtrooper and author of the memoir Storm of Steel, tallied an impressive number of wounds collected over four years of fighting while recuperating in a hospital from his last combat injury:

“During the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; Once, I reckoned up my wounds. Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least 14 times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand-grenade splinters and two bullet splinters, which, with entry and exit wounds, left me an even 20 scars.”

Emotional wounds were less visible, but just as painful and sometimes lasting longer. Beyond the extreme, high visibility cases of shellshock, there is no question that the war also left millions of people, the majority young men and women, with what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, undiagnosed and untreated except for self-medication with drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and other compulsive behaviors. (PTSD wasn’t recognized as a mental health condition until 1980.) According to Vera Brittain, the hidden fears led to neuroses that sometimes appeared decades later: “However, there was nothing to do in the midst of one’s family but practice that concealment of fear which the long years of war had instilled, thrusting it inward until one’s subconscious became a regular prison-house of apprehensions and inhibitions which were later to take their revenge.”

The psychological effects of frontline service set veterans apart from civilians forever, an existential chasm of which civilians often seemed to be unaware, but which soldiers felt acutely. Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, wrote in his diary on November 11, 1918:

“As I have said before, after our first few months in the war we had so far identified with war that we were as men who have had a lapse of memory. The old life was gone forever and each succeeding day and each succeeding horror drove the peaceful part farther behind us till at last it was gone completely from our ken. Here we were, men made for war, men born to war, men whose life is filled from beginning to end with war, and we felt secretly in our hearts that there could be no other life.”

A British officer, Coningsby Dawson, fretted in a letter home dated August 30, 1918: “It’s two years tomorrow since I first saw the Front—two centuries it seems. I’m different inside. I don’t know whether my outside has changed much—but I wish sometimes that I could be back again. I begin to be a little afraid that I shan’t be recognizable when I return.”

Of course, soldiers who had been absent for years often were literally unrecognizable on their return, as millions of soldiers experienced weight loss from chronic hunger, skin disorders caused by lice and exposure, and bouts of deadly disease including typhus and malaria. After the collapse of Serbia in fall 1915, for example, most Serbian soldiers wouldn’t see their homes or families for three more years, spent first as starving refugees on the island of Corfu and then as the Serbian First and Second Armies serving with the Allies on the Macedonian Front. A Serbian soldier, Milorad Markovic, recorded a common occurrence for soldiers returning home after years of separation, on the occasion of his own homecoming on November 19, 1918: “My children are there, but they don’t recognize me! They get scared and run away from me.”

The dynamic of alienation worked both ways, as many returning soldiers reported feeling out of place at home and inwardly removed from their once-familiar surroundings. On returning home after the war, the British soldier Roland Skirth realized he had been changed forever by the war:

“I found this ‘coming home’ to be most strange. Once again I felt like a stranger in an unfamiliar country, and the sensation persisted as I walked up to the house. Everything around me looked so different: the town, my road, the people I passed, even our front door. My parents were of course delighted to see me home safe and sound. I ought to have been equally happy, but I wasn’t. Somehow I didn’t seem to belong.”

Perhaps the single greatest psychic legacy of the First World War was the commonplace nature of death, which became a daily occurrence for millions of young people, who attempted to protect themselves psychologically by withdrawing inwardly from their unbearable environment. Others affected total indifference, prompting some commenters from older generations to observe that life was held “cheaply” by the younger set. William Orpen, a British painter and war correspondent, remembered one ghoulishly incongruous scene:

“In one spot in the mud at the side of the road lay two British Tommies who had evidently just been killed. They had been laid out ready for something to take them away. Standing beside them were three French girls, all dressed up, silk stockings and crimped hair. There they were, standing over the dead Tommies, asking if you would not like “a little love.” What a place to choose! Death all round, and they themselves might be blown into eternity at any moment. Death and the dead had become as nothing to the young generation.”

Similarly, Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, wrote in September 1918:

“I saw a group of gunners, who had just come up and were waiting for orders for a new barrage-fire, spread out a blanket and take their places for a game of cards. Two dead horses were a few yards away and other bodies were nearby, but these men paid no heed to the tragedy of the war … and settled down to a jolly game before they had to work again.”

Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote of two disturbing encounters in April 1918:

“While in conversation with a Canadian colonel, he spoke of how cheaply human life is held. Every English noble house has lost its eldest son. All look upon the body as simply a box temporarily inhabited, and death as a perfectly natural occurrence to be expected … A French captain whom I met at dinner at the Duke of Montmorency’s, who had been wounded three times, told of killing 1500 Germans in one afternoon (official estimate) at Verdun the day he was wounded, with his machine company.”

Even more disturbing, the coarsening effects of war were clearly visible in children, especially those living close to the frontlines (countless French peasant families chose to remain in their homes behind the trenches). Bowerman, the American ambulance driver, recorded this disturbing incident in Belgium:

“While I stood studying the body … three little Belgian children, two boys and a girl all about 7 years old, came in the doorway and espied the German. Instead of being frightened or awed by the presence of death in a rather hideous form, they laughed clapped their hands and danced about the corpse only stopping occasionally to exclaim ‘Ah le sale boche’ (Oh the dirty German). I watch[ed] in amazement and a realization of what this scene meant. Surely Belgium has suffered when her little children can laugh at a sight like this.”

Children’s anger and resentment was just as ingrained as adults, and potentially longer lasting. Yves Congar, a French 14-year-old whose father had been deported for forced labor, wrote ominously in his diary on October 17, 1918: “The Boches’ behavior in France is scandalous. The loot they are taking back to Germany is unbelievable: They’ll have enough to refurbish every one of their towns! But one day soon it will be our turn: We will go out there and we will steal, burn, and ransack! They had better watch out!”

NEW RIGHTS, NEW SOUNDS

The war’s impact wasn’t entirely bad. The rapid spread of women’s suffrage, according women the right to vote in recognition of their crucial role maintaining industrial production and basic services during the war, represented undeniable progress, albeit bought at an enormous price. Heber Blankenhorn, the American intelligence officer, noted the completely changed appearance of wartime London in a diary entry on August 5, 1918:

“London instead is full of women in uniforms—'W.A.AC’s,’ ‘Wrens,’ ‘V.A.D.’s’ and scores of kinds of munition and war-service uniforms. Columns of “land women,” girls in breeches, leggings, coats, and felt hats, stride through the streets, marching orderly to stations for outbound trains … They will never go back to skirts and tatting, one is sure … These girls mean business.”

The enfranchisement of women across the West was broadly supported by their male contemporaries (indeed, they were often the ones who voted for it, indirectly or in referenda), but the economic and political rise of the “weaker,” “fairer” sex undoubtedly stoked men’s anxieties about social status and changing gender roles. An American soldier, Clarence Bush, wrote in a letter to his wife dated October 22, 1918: “Where will all of us boys fit when we get back with the girls in all the jobs making more than we ever did?”

For the most part the men had nothing to worry about in economic terms. After the war millions of women left factory work to start families or return to traditional female employment, including working in textile mills and domestic service. Employers generally laid off women who tried to stay in their jobs, encouraged by governments eager to find employment for returning soldiers to ensure social stability—a real cause of anxiety in an era of violent revolution. However, more and more young women also rejoined the workforce or simply never left, occupying an array of new positions including business secretaries, telephone switchboard operators, shop assistants, cigarette vendors, and so on—a trend which continued despite the extremely challenging social conditions of the Great Depression.

The First World War also saw the first truly global musical craze, with the sudden popularity of jazz, brought to Europe from the United States by African-American soldiers and musicians during the war years, with white musicians soon adopting the new sound. Jazz apparently originated in New Orleans in the decade before the war, before spreading quickly throughout the American South and Midwest via the Mississippi River and its network of towns, with itinerant African-American musicians providing entertainment on riverboats and dance halls for both white and black audiences. As with the blues and ragtime before it, regional jazz styles soon developed in major musical hubs along the river network including Chicago, St. Louis, Louisville, and Kansas City.

Some of the most successful American musical emissaries were regimental bands attached to African-American military units serving in France, which normally played marches and classical fare but were also able to drop into syncopated ragtime and “wild” improvisational jazz without missing a beat. One African-American military bandleader, the appropriately named James Reese Europe, remembered giving a series of concerts in France in summer 1918, beginning in the Theatre des Champs-Elysees:

“Before we had played two numbers the audience went wild. We had conquered Paris. General Bliss and French officers who had heard us insisted that we should stay in Paris, and there we stayed for eight weeks. Everywhere we gave a concert it was a riot, but the supreme moment came in the Tuileries Gardens when we gave a concert in conjunction with the greatest bands in the world: The British Grenadiers’ Band, the band of the Garde Republicain, and the Royal Italian Band. My band, of course, could not compare with any of these, yet the crowd … deserted them for us. We played to 50,000 people at least.”

The effect of jazz on audiences was electric and polarizing, with most listeners either loving or hating the strange new sound. Many first-time hearers professed to be overwhelmed by the bizarre sounds and eccentric improvisations, part symphony, part cacophony. In August 1919 a British music critic, Francesco Burger, described hearing jazz for the first time:

“It was one of the strongest and strangest experiences I have undergone in an extended life, during which I have listened to much that was good, to more that was bad, and to most that was indifferent. It produced an impression that was not quite pleasant, but not entirely unpleasant, a sort of comical mixture of both… Pleasurable though staggering, making it difficult to recover one’s breath, defying analysis, repellent at the outset, but magnetically fascinating.”

Unsurprisingly, young African-American jazz musicians were favorably impressed by life in Europe, with its relative lack of official racial discrimination, compared to the naked oppression of the Jim Crow regime in the American South along with the spread of informal prejudice and de facto segregation stoked by the Great Migration. Although informal discrimination was also coming to Europe, it was never enshrined in law, and the first visit to Europe was eye opening for many young Americans of color.

One jazz musician, Dan Kildare, raved about Britain in a letter home in 1915: “Words couldn’t give you an idea of the way we are treated here … Hallmen, chauffeurs, porters, and employees in general of the different establishments all stand and salute you as you pass by. In other words, you are treated as a gentleman and an artist.” Another musician, Louis Mitchell, wrote home from France in August 1918: “Hubie, this is the finest country in the world and if you once get over here you will never want to go back to N.Y. again. I intend to stay here the rest of my life, as you can go where you want too [sic] and have the time of your life.”

For ordinary African-American soldiers, however, the First World War was a paradoxical experience, contrasting the personal liberty of Europe with the Jim Crow rules applied to the U.S. Army. Addie Hunton, an African-American woman who volunteered with the YMCA serving American troops in France, noted the incongruous site of African-American troops guarding white prisoners of war: “But it did seem passing strange that we should see them guarding German prisoners! Somehow we felt that colored soldiers found it rather refreshing—even enjoyable for a change—having come from a country where it seemed everybody’s business to guard them.” Hunton remembered examples of the Southern Jim Crow regime exported to Europe:

Our soldiers often told us of signs on Y.M.C.A. huts which read, “No Negroes Allowed”; and sometimes other signs would designate the hours when colored men could be served … signs prohibiting the entrance of colored men were frequently seen during the beginning of the work in that section … Sometimes, even, when there were no such signs, services to colored soldiers would be refused.

However, Hunton also recorded instances of white officers standing up for African-American soldiers under their command:

One secretary had a colored band come to his hut to entertain his men. Several colored soldiers followed the band into the hut. The secretary got up and announced that no colored men would be admitted. The leader of the band, a white man, by the way, immediately informed his men that they not play; whereupon all departed and there was no entertainment.

DISILLUSIONMENT, IRONY, AND CYNICISM

In his foundational work The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell (a veteran of the Second World War) convincingly argued that the absurd horror and dashed expectations of the First World War had a lasting impact on the psychology of an entire generation of people, in the form of an enduring sense of irony surrounding all aspects of human affairs, from personal to the political. Fussell noted many sources of this ironic mode in the war, including the gross mismatch between the stated aims (preserving liberty, protecting German high culture) and the barbarous means by which they were pursued. The endless stream of official communiqués and government propaganda unleashed on the people of Europe, which were often revealed to have no bearing on reality, could only serve to further undermine ordinary people’s trust in authority, not to mention confidence in their own ability to discern truth from falsehood.

Fussell’s work endures as one of the great studies of the Great War’s cultural impact, so it suffices to say that there was indeed evidence of widespread disillusionment, skepticism, and ironic distance in the aftermath of the conflict. William Bell, the British architect employed in scavenging war materiel in France, wrote about an encounter with an American soldier in his diary on November 2, 1918, whose scathing views on the war showed that the gung-ho patriotism attributed to “Yanks,” like their European peers, was at least partly propaganda puffery:

“I fell into conversation with an American soldier today, and he called the supporters of war all the epithets he could think of! He said he was one of the first draft to come over to France, and that he was ‘fed-up to the goldarned’ neck with the ‘god-dam war’—and so was every American who had been ‘over the top.’ He came to Europe full of enthusiasm for the fight for freedom, and thirsting for vengeance against the ‘Hun.’ But he had discovered, from personal experience with the German prisoners, that the ‘Hun’ was ‘not so god-dam bad’ as the papers would have us believe; and he had seen what a money-making game is being played by the French civilian profiteers … My friend went on to say that at first the Americans were always keen to go ‘over the top’; but those who had tasted of the bitter fruit of experience on ‘No-Man’s-Land’ were not such ‘god-dam fools’ as to wish to go back … It was instructive to hear this disillusioned old-young man snap out like pistol shots the grim philosophy of his war experience. He jocularly remarked that he supposed it would be considered ‘mighty unpatriotic’ by most civilians if he talked to them the way he was doing to me; but the word ‘patriotism’ had a different meaning for him now from that it had six months ago.”

Similarly, on hearing of the end of the war, Elmer Harden, an American volunteer in the French Army, wrote bitterly: “Four years of war, 4 million dead only to uproot an ambitious family! Peace—it almost sounds like a joke. And the dead around Verdun, and the ruins of northern France! How preposterous it all is—even Peace. And the thousands of cripples here in Rennes—how do they pronounce the word ‘Peace’?”

Civilians shared the feelings of waning idealism giving way to angry endurance, with special scorn for convoluted religious explanations of the horror. Vera Brittain reacted to a senior Anglican cleric’s spiritual bloviating about the war:

“At this stage of the war, I decided indignantly, I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. The voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I valued most in life … My only hope now was to become the complete automaton, working mechanically and no longer even pretending to be animated by ideals. Thought was too dangerous; If once I begin to think out exactly why my friends had died and I was working, quite dreadful things might suddenly happen.”

Similarly, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, expressed disbelief about a distinguished cleric’s claim that God favored the Allies in June 1918, echoing growing skepticism on that score dating back at least to 1915: “Personally, I am puzzled by a few things. For instance, the Germans also claim God to be on their side and he most certainly cannot be on both sides. What if he is not on either?”

Sometimes the disillusionment of war fueled the formation of new national identities, for example in the sprawling British empire, where a common sentiment in the dominions held that the snobbish Brits had callously sacrificed Australians and Canadians at places like Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge in part because they didn’t think of them as “true” Englishmen. Eric Evans, the Australian officer, remembered a humiliating snub by a British officer addressing wounded men at the dock in Southampton:

“‘All British wounded this way.’ Of course we Australians came forward. ‘British wounded, I said, not Australian.’ This from a Tommy officer. ‘What are we then?’ I asked. ‘Oh, you’re Australians.’ I felt like running amok. Are we not British, then, are we spilling our blood and fighting for a country of which we are not yet a part? Are we a bastard lot not to deserve the name British? I felt damn wild and very nearly said things.”

THE VIOLENCE VIRUS

Perhaps the greatest irony of the conflict concerns the slogan coined by H.G. Wells and popularized by President Woodrow Wilson, “The war to end war,” or later “the war to end all wars,” which proved so sadly mistaken. In fact, some historians have argued persuasively that the First World War unleashed a chain reaction of violence that is still rippling around the globe a century later, pointing to a long lineage of almost continuous conflict to the present day.

The Middle East, under French and British domination following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was already riven by ethnic and religious conflict, of which the Armenian Genocide from 1915-1917 provided a fitting harbinger. Already in November 1918 the Spanish consul in Jerusalem, Conde de Ballobar, recorded anti-Semitic violence following a Jewish celebration in British-occupied Palestine, prophetically adding that the British would never be able to reconcile their conflicting promises to the Arabs and Jews:

“Some young Muslims and Christians gave a beating to various Jews, which was followed on Monday by a demonstration by those religious groups before the military governor, whom they asked to telegraph their protest against the Jews to the British government. The aggressors were condemned to several months in prison … Yesterday, it was announced that they were inclined to let them go free if they asked the Jews for forgiveness, to which the detainees or their families answered that they preferred to rot in jail before doing that. From which one can see that my forecasts are coming true about Lord Balfour’s promises being well beyond his grasp.”

In fact, the 20th century would prove to be one long, extraordinarily violent sequel to the First World War, starting in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. The Russian Civil War, already raging, would leave around 7 million dead by the time it ended in 1922. It was soon joined by a spasm of fighting across the multiethnic jigsaw puzzle of Eastern Europe, including the Polish-Soviet War, 1919-1921; the Ukrainian-Soviet War, 1917-1921; the Polish-Ukrainian War, 1918-1919; the Hungarian-Romanian War, 1919; the Polish-Czechoslovakian War January 1919; the Armenian-Azerbaijani War, 1918-1920 the Georgia-Soviet War 1921; the Lithuania-Soviet War of 1918-1919, the Polish-Lithuania war of August-November 1920; and the Latvian War of Independence, fought against German freikorps (rightwing paramilitaries formed by recently demobilized soldiers) and Russian White and Red forces, 1918-1920.

Maps of Europe and 1914 borders
Erik Sass

In Ireland the long overdue War of Independence boiled over in 1919-22, followed by the Irish civil war from 1922-23. Further afield, the Turks under Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Gallipoli, fought the Turkish War of Independence to end European occupation of Anatolia and Istanbul, including the Greco-Turkish and Franco-Turkish Wars from 1919-22. Meanwhile, the European colonial powers faced any number of resistance movements in their newly acquired territories, including the Iraqi Revolt against British rule in 1920, the Rif War in Spanish Morocco from 1920-27, the Great Syrian Revolt against French rule in 1925-27, the 1931 Greek Cypriot revolt against British rule, and the Arab Revolt in Palestine, 1936-1939.

Map of new states in Europe after World War I
Erik Sass

The world got a terrifying taste of what the new weaponry invented during the First World War could really do during the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the rape of Nanking in 1937, and the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, which set new lows with pioneering methods of terror including mass aerial bombardment of civilian populations on a scale not contemplated during the First World War. The incredibly brutal Italian conquest of Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, in 1935-7, showed that the specter of poison gas was still very much alive, despite international agreements banning it. Extreme violence also erupted in places far removed from the battlefields of the First World War, for example in South America with the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935, which left up to 130,000 people dead in the two sparsely populated countries. Sadly, the League of Nations—crippled by the absence of the United States of America, after Republican senators voted the treaty down—proved powerless to stop the bloodshed, wherever it took place.

MONSTERS IN WAITING

Even more tragically, all of these conflicts would merely serve as a preamble to the epochal catastrophe of the Second World War, when Germany joined with two disaffected members of the Entente alliance, Italy and Japan, in a breathtakingly ambitious bid to overturn the postwar order. These countries would be led to their doom by men who had participated in the First World War like millions of their peers—but rather than recoiling in horror from the violence, openly embraced the camaraderie, simplicity and community of trench life, clinging to the comforting moral clarity of a world divided into friend and foe, organized around intoxicating hatred for the latter.

In yet another irony, many contemporaries clearly understood that another war was bound to come, even as the current one came to an end. Elizabeth Ashe, an American volunteering with the Red Cross in France, wrote home on Bastille Day, July 14, 1918: “Someday we will all be celebrating the final victory—will it bring the world peace? I doubt it. It will just bring about a long, exhausted period of rest when strength will be stored for a future combat. This sounds pessimistic, but I begin to believe that it is inherent in man to fight.” Hanes, the American artillery officer, wrote about reading a remarkably prescient story published in a popular magazine in a letter home on October 28, 1918:

“I have just been reading in Everybody’s for September a piece called “The War of 1938,” in which is depicted what will happen if Germany isn’t beaten completely before the Allies let up this time. Lots of it is very much overdrawn but I think there is a lot of truth in it. Germany will certainly start war again if she isn’t beaten entirely before peace is made this time. She must be whipped until she can't possibly come back again for another scrap, at least not for many years.”

The risk was especially great because of the belief, already growing among German conservatives, that the country’s armed forces were never really defeated on the battlefield, but instead betrayed by the left-wing socialists at home—a popular delusion summoned to explain the inexplicable, Germany’s defeat. Sulzbach, the German officer, recorded General Oskar von Hutier’s farewell order to the German Eighteenth Army in November 1918:

“Even if the war is lost … you can be proud of your achievements! Undefeated by the enemy but forced to this by external circumstances, we have to abandon the territory which we occupied after so fierce a contest. Even if the armistice conditions prescribed by the enemy constitute a monstrous hardship for our nation, we can nevertheless march back to our beloved country with heads held high.”

Meanwhile, Rudolf Hess, the future stenographer and personal aid to Adolf Hitler, blamed the socialists for accepting humiliating armistice terms a letter to his parents dated November 14, 1918:

“I can’t tell you what was going through my mind. It was the hardest hour of my life. Now I read this note to America in which we grovel for moderation in the terms. Who would have thought that our compatriots could be so base, so mean, so shameless? I shan’t waste my breath talking about the events in Germany, the collapse of the monarchy and the secession of Bavaria. The enemy’s terms are so humiliating.”

When the war ended, Hitler himself was recuperating in a military hospital in Pasewalk, Pomerania, after being gassed along with the rest of his battalion by attacking British forces in the Ypres Salient on October 13-14, 1918, causing Hitler to temporarily lose his vision. Supposedly, the shock caused by hearing of Germany’s defeat triggered a brief relapse of this blindness.

In the months to come, Hitler (who had never held a steady job before the war, and always referred to himself as a “simple frontline soldier of the Great War”) would become involved in politics, in part at the behest of German military intelligence, which employed the former corporal and regimental messenger as a low-level informer, keeping tabs on a hodgepodge of radical movements in the ranks of demobilizing soldiers. Occasionally, Hitler would also address small groups of soldiers himself, parroting anti-socialist political messages handed down from the military high command. But he soon discovered that his unusual talents extended far beyond these petty tasks: “For all at once I was offered an opportunity of speaking before a larger audience; and the thing that I had always presumed from pure feeling without knowing it was now corroborated: I could ‘speak.’”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war. And finally, our sincere gratitude to all our loyal readers!

The 25 Greatest War Movies of All Time

Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
Benedict Cumberbatch in Sam Mendes's 1917 (2019).
© 2019 Universal Pictures and Storyteller Distribution Co. LLC. All Rights Reserved.

It makes sense that master filmmakers keep returning to old wars to tell new stories, because war and cinema go hand-in-hand in many ways. War has everything you want to make a good story: Scope and spectacle, high stakes, dramatic tension, and emotional distress both at home and on the battlefield. It’s all right there, just waiting to be woven into an epic on the big screen.

What sets the best war movies apart, though, is their ability to never lose sight of the real human cost of war. The true masterpieces of the genre can deliver spectacle, yes, but they also tell us something more essential at the heart of every epic struggle in human history, something that unites us all no matter which side of the battle we may be on. With that in mind, here are 25 of the greatest war films ever made, from medieval epics to modern thrillers. To help narrow the list down, we mostly focused on movies that directly address the combat aspects of war versus dramas that are set during wartime.

1. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Lewis Milestone’s film about a group of German soldiers drawn in by nationalism and then picked apart by the ravages of war remains the film against which all other World War I epics are measured. It was released more than 80 years ago, and its depictions of the horrors of war—blood-streaked men screaming in foxholes, bare hands clinging to barbed wire—still hold up to modern eyes. It’s one of the great war epics as well as one of the great anti-war films.

2. La Grande Illusion (1937)

One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion succeeds in no small part because of the tremendous empathy running through every frame. No matter the side of the conflict each character falls on, they are treated as pawns within the greater illusion that war will do any of them any good. Renoir’s humanistic touch, coupled with his dazzling cast, make this film an all-time classic to such a degree that Orson Welles declared it one of his desert island movies.

3. Sergeant York (1941)

There are other "conscientious objector becomes war hero" films out there, but none has ever quite risen to the heights of Sergeant York for one simple reason: Gary Cooper. In the title role, Cooper delivers one of the finest performances of his storied career, and even as Howard Hawks infuses the film with a sense patriotic glory and duty, he trusts Cooper to imbue the story with an essential humanity. Sergeant York is a hero, yes, but Cooper never makes him into a superhero. The toll the war takes is right there in his eyes the entire time, and that makes this film a classic.

4. Twelve O’Clock High (1949)

Among Air Force-based war dramas, Twelve O’Clock High holds a particular place of reverence for a great many fans, and it ranks as perhaps among the best of the World War II dramas made while the war was still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Led by Gregory Peck’s tour-de-force performance as Brigadier General Frank Savage, the film builds in intensity right up to the climactic battle, and remains one of the most emotionally satisfying films of its genre.

5. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is the only director with two films on this list, because … well, he’s David Lean. The Bridge on the River Kwai is Lean’s seminal World War II epic about a group of prisoners, the bridge they build and then attempt to destroy, and the shifting allegiances that come with the emotional upheavals of war. Lean’s tremendous attention to detail, combining sweeping tracking shots with smaller moments like close-ups of ruined shoes on soldiers’ feet, and the Alec Guinness-led cast combine for a thrilling, often surprisingly funny, masterpiece.

6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Steven Spielberg once said that David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one of the few films he re-watches before every new project, and it’s easy to see why. The World War I drama is synonymous with epic filmmaking even now, nearly six decades after its release. Lean’s film, led by Peter O’Toole’s splendid work in the title role, retains a sense of wonder even after all these years thanks to jaw-dropping visuals, flawless editing, and a sense of scope to rival anything on the big screen today.

7. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Few films have ever been able to depict both sides of an escalating conflict with as much unflinching intensity as The Battle of Algiers. Based on the events of the Algerian War and focusing specifically on the guerilla warfare that erupted during the conflict, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is shot like a searing, unflinching docudrama, and the sense of verisimilitude is palpable and deeply affecting.

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Some war films are reverent, measured, and delicate with their depiction of the particular horrors of conflict and what it does to the people on the front lines. Then there are films like The Dirty Dozen, a film without which we might never have gotten things like Inglourious Basterds or the modern version of DC Comics’s Suicide Squad, which appeared in the 1980s. Robert Aldrich’s film takes a murderer’s row of acting talent and a tremendous sense of adventure and infuses it all with the kind of chaotic energy that only soldiers with nothing to lose could muster. The result is the kind of film those who love it want to watch over and over again.

9. M*A*S*H (1970)

One of the greatest anti-war films of all time, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H combines an irreverent, sometimes surreal sense of humor with realistic dialogue and some truly absurd situations to create a tapestry of comedy and tragedy. The film places its characters right on the edge of the action, just close enough that the blood is often quite literally on their hands as they work, then examines what that kind of precarious placement can do to a group of people whose job is to heal. It’s an essential film, and not just because of its afterlife as a legendary TV series.

10. Patton (1970)

Even if Patton had nothing else going for it, the film would likely still succeed thanks to the sheer force of will of George C. Scott. The actor’s legendary, knockout performance as the title character carries the movie, but it’s not all that makes Patton great. Director Franklin J. Schaffner uses Scott’s performance as a linchpin, framing the narrative of war through Patton’s bombastic eyes and tireless spirit. The result is a war film unlike any other, one driven by a single unstoppable personality.

11. The Deer Hunter (1978)

To say that Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter is one of the more “problematic” Vietnam War films ever made might be a bit of an understatement to some, but more than 40 years after its release it’s hard to deny the visceral power at the heart of the film. Some aspects of the storytelling—most famously, the Russian roulette sequences at the heart of the movie—function as rather blunt instruments that hammer the point home, but they strike so hard and ring so true that the film is impossible to ignore.

12. Apocalypse Now (1979)

The New Hollywood era of the 1970s gave rise to several prominent filmmakers who would eventually turn their attention to the Vietnam War in critical, satirical, and often incisive ways, but none of them ever did it better than Francis Ford Coppola. After crafting two masterpieces with the first two Godfather films, Coppola went through hell to craft his hellish journey into the heart of darkness of a generation-defining war, and the result is the greatest Vietnam War movie ever made.

13. Das Boot (1981)

Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot is a film that succeeds in part thanks to its sense of contrast. It’s a war epic and it delivers the goods of a war epic, but much of it takes place within the tiny confines of a German U-Boat. It’s packed with tense, explosive action, but it counterbalances that action with stretches of quiet, contemplative boredom. The result is one of the most gripping portrayals of the mundane horror of war ever, told in an environment few other films in the subgenre have ventured into.

14. Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was a master of many aspects of cinematic storytelling, but one of his greatest strengths was easily his ability to make violence explode out at his audience with unpredictable ferocity. Ran, Kurosawa’s loose adaptation of William Shakespeare’s King Lear, is perhaps the best example in the director’s entire filmography of his knack for creating epic conflict. The film’s gorgeous sets and detailed costumes are all set up beautifully only to be swept up in the chaos of the story in some of the most realistically kinetic war sequences ever shot.

15. Platoon (1986)

Based on writer/director Oliver Stone’s own experiences in Vietnam, Platoon steers clear of the most bombastic, epic level depictions of the war and instead focuses on the titular unit of men and the transformative effects the crucible of war has on them. Led by powerhouse performances from Charlie Sheen, Willem Dafoe, and Tom Berenger, Platoon remains one of the most relentlessly intense war movie experiences of all time.

16. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick made a habit out of directing war films thanks to Spartacus and Paths of Glory. Full Metal Jacket was his last experience with the genre, and it feels like he poured everything he had learned into it. The film’s genius lies largely in its structure, as it shows us just how far these soldiers are pushed by basic training before they’re actually thrown out into the war. The training sequences, led by R. Lee Ermey’s amazing drill sergeant performances, are the best-remembered of the film, but the Vietnam sequences near the end are truly stunning.

17. Braveheart (1995)

Mel Gibson’s epic about the life of William Wallace and his rise as leader of a Scottish revolution in the late 13th century is one of those films that just compels you to watch until the end every time you see it on cable. Gibson’s magnetic, charismatic central performance is key to this, but somehow his directing is even more powerful. From the sweeping scenic beauty of Scotland itself to the rapid-fire brutality of the battle sequences to James Horner’s goosebump-inducing score, Braveheart is medieval epic filmmaking at its best.

18. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Steven Spielberg’s harrowing World War II film is perhaps best remembered for its relentless, breathless opening sequence that depicts the brutal D-Day landing of Allied Forces at Omaha Beach. It’s an all-time great war movie sequence, but that’s not the only reason Saving Private Ryan endures. Its stacked ensemble cast, powerful yet simple central story, and overwhelming emotional resolution combine to make it a modern classic.

19. The Thin Red Line (1998)

No one else could make a World War II film quite like Terrence Malick, and as proof we have The Thin Red Line. The film defies easy description, despite the relatively straightforward backdrop of its emotional journey. What is ostensibly the story of a company of men fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942 becomes a deeply philosophical film that documents the overwhelming intellectual and emotional gauntlet of war. And while war is by its very nature not a beautiful thing, this just might be the most visually stunning war film made since Lawrence of Arabia.

20. Downfall (2004)

Few films have ever wished or dared to interact with Adolf Hitler on a personal, intimate level, for obvious reasons. In the realm of war cinema, the leader of Nazi Germany often exists as some kind of near-supernatural embodiment of ultimate evil, but Downfall sought to change that. The film does not sympathize with Hitler’s madness, but through Bruno Ganz’s unforgettable performance, it does allow us an opportunity to see the man’s unraveling in a compelling, perhaps even cathartic, way.

21. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)

Ridley Scott’s modern war epic Black Hawk Down narrowly missed inclusion on this list, because while it’s a masterpiece, his Kingdom of Heaven is a brilliant piece of work that remains underseen. Scott’s attempt to turn a modern lens on the Crusades—specifically Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187—combines a spectacular cast with some of the best epic visuals of the esteemed director’s career. Look for the Director’s Cut of the film for an even more robust experience.

22. Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to make a World War II film that feels like it came from both an alternate universe and straight out of our own warped rage fantasies. Inglourious Basterds combines Tarantino’s legendary knack for dialogue with a truly brilliant cast and a brutal sense of humor to tell the story of a unit of Nazi hunters and their efforts to bring down Hitler himself in the midst of a German movie premiere. Taut, violent, and hilarious, Inglourious Basterds walks a line few other war films ever could.

23. The Hurt Locker (2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s film about a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and what their high-pressure job does to them works because it attacks your psyche on two fronts. On one front, there’s the human side of these soldiers, which we see through the film’s dark sense of humor and compelling ensemble cast. On the other, there’s the kind of virtuoso directing that won Bigelow the Oscar for Best Director (making her the first—and still the only—woman to take home that particular award). A lot of directors could have made The Hurt Locker suspenseful, but only Bigelow could have made it this suspenseful.

24. Dunkirk (2017)

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk turns the filmmaker’s masterful eye for pacing, visual elegance, and structural intrigue to the events of World War II, and the result is one of the most pulse-pounding movies of the 2010s. Anchored by a tremendous cast, the film tells the story not of one of the war’s great attacks, but one of its most essential retreats. Nolan’s brilliant sense of tension, coupled with Hans Zimmer’s ticking-clock score, combine to keep you on the edge of your seat—even if you know how it ends.

25. 1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’s Golden Globe-winning World War I epic, based on stories told to him by his veteran grandfather, has gained a lot of press because of its “one-take” style, which might lead you to believe that it’s a gimmick film. Instead, 1917 rises beyond the structural hook of its filming style to become a meditation on the relentless nature of life in battle, and the way even the quietest moments can pivot into horror at any moment. Roger Deakins deserves another Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman carry the emotional heft of the film like true champions, even when surrounded by A-list names like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Andrew Scott.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER