Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 - Joseph E. Persico I vividly remember reading The Donkeys by Alan Clarke] (the title comes from the phrase, "lions led by donkeys") many years ago that described the total incompetence of the British Expeditionary Force generals in WW I. They were completely unable to adapt to new technologies and insisted on fighting with tactics of previous wars. Joseph Persico doesn't let them off lightly either although that's not his primary mission. The Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day... refers to the time and date of the eventual Armistice. He jumps back and forth between the Armistice and the deeds that lead up to it (a process I found somewhat disconcerting at first.)

General Douglas Haig, a master at manipulating his social contacts, eventually rose to the top (slimy oil usually does) even though he failed the entrance exams to the British Staff College, usually a prerequisite for command. He also had no regard for the machine gun ("unremarkable weapon") that was to revolutionize the battlefield and kill virtually an entire male generation. (In one battle it cost the deaths of 9 men per yard gained -- and in most cases that same piece of ground was traded back within a few days.) Apparently, there is a new book out that attempts to resurrect Haig’s reputation, but I have not read it.

Lest anyone doubt the power of the cast system, Stephen Budiansky in [b:Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II remarks on Robert Graves entrance into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers whose members were expected to have a private income in order to "play polo and hunt and keep up the social reputation of that regiment." For those odd cases in which the rules were waived (as in Graves' situation) they were always referred to as "warts." and were informed "that they could not expect to receive a medal for any feats on the battlefield." The donkeys were a major part of the caste system.

Persico uses the last minutes of the war (multiple examples of the ending of All Quiet on the Western Front - great book) as a springboard to reflect on events leading up to the last minutes of the war. Ironically, often the decision when to quit fighting was left up to individual unit commanders, and even though they knew the armistice had been signed and exactly when it was to take effect, some decided to continue fighting until the absolute last minute.

Some nifty quotes. Douglas MacArthur was an infantry officer known for his bravado and reluctance to stay in proper uniform. When asked why he adopted this behavior, he replied, “It’s the orders you disobey that make you famous.” I wonder if Harry Truman was aware of that proclivity.

Several reviewers have complained the book wasn’t kind enough to the generals nor supportive enough of the war, in general. Tough shit. Some 6500 allied soldiers died in the six hours between signing the armistice and 11:00 when it was to take effect. That’s appalling. Other reviewers complain it’s too elementary or not comprehensive, etc. Nonsense.

After reading WW I books, one is often left with a huge question mark: just what did the millions of deaths accomplish other than to set the stage for Hitler and the next big one? It was cousins fighting each other (King George, Tsar Nicholas, and Kaiser Wilhelm were all grandchildren of Queen Victoria) over diplomatic slights and tensions that had been brewing for the previous four decades leading to misperceptions and a continuing battle between those who wanted to whip up a nationalist frenzy and imperialists. One can only have wished the family might have slugged it out in the backyard somewhere rather than by killing off almost an entire generation of men.

Persico has done a marvelous job of integrating individual stories with their context in the larger scheme of things. It’s very readable and And the peace barely lasted a generation before falling apart.