The Great Silence

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson Read Free Book Online

Book: The Great Silence by Juliet Nicolson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Juliet Nicolson
though the streets were packed with people, ‘not a word was spoken, not a single cry of celebration was made’. To Maude it seemed as if’the stricken soul of France had not been able to find within itself the desire to rejoice’.
    Suddenly her attention was caught by a sound, ‘the noise and din, the sobbing of a woman, a few yards away, finis - finis - incroyable’. Later on she remembered that almost unconsciously she had found herself’in the little military cemetery behind the congested street of the town where our men were buried three deep, for land was dear in France, and where the graves had been so beautifully kept by the loving hands of a khaki girl. I could not distinguish the names for the mist of tears.’ Barely able to drag herself away, Maude stumbled and then almost fell over something in the ground; a broken piece of wood that had sunk so deep that it was scarcely visible. She had come across the grave of a German soldier and, anxious not be spotted, she hurriedly laid a few flowers at the foot of the broken cross. She knew that ‘somewhere a woman was sorrowing’.
    As soon as Maude’s signal reached the field units, messengers on foot, bicycle and horseback spread out in all directions, carrying up to the troops at the front line pink slips of paper torn from signal pads on which news of the ceasefire was written.
    But the announcement that the war was over did not deter all those still caught up in the process of slaughter. Three hundred and twenty American soldiers lost their lives at Meuse on the morning of the 11th with a further three thousand wounded. General Pershing, Commanding General of the American ExpeditionaryForces, remained stubbornly reluctant to observe the ceasefire before teaching the Germans one final lesson.
    Many British soldiers on the front line were too exhausted to celebrate. A muted cheer and a half-hearted attempt to send a hat spinning in the air was the most that some could manage. There was no crossing over into the enemy lines for the gentlemanly shaking of hands. The comradeship felt for fellow human beings during the Christmas truce four years earlier had evaporated.
    In the northern French village of Malpaquet on the Belgian border, Brigade Major Wilfred House of the 57th Brigade wanted to demonstrate his gratitude for having survived the last four years. ‘We hurriedly organised a tea with rationed food for all the children in the village school’, and in their turn the villagers arrived with flowers and wine and pâté, and some rationed eggs and butter. Major House found the party to be ‘very moving and very simple’.
    In Paris as the bells of Notre-Dame began to ring, flags sold out in every shop; so the scientist Marie Curie, with the help of the daily lady from the Radium Institute, stitched together some blue, red and white material and hung the home-made flag from the Institute’s window.
    In Germany a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry lay on his hospital bed wondering if he would ever fully regain his sight. A few weeks earlier he had been blinded in a gas attack after four years of fighting at the Western Front. The gas had begun to gnaw at his eyes and although the cloudiness was beginning to clear, his vision was still hazy. The news of the Armistice, given to him in the convalescent hospital by the local padre, reduced him to a state of despair as he thought of ‘so many a dear friend and comrade’ who had died in the fighting. On hearing the news the young soldier had ‘tottered and groped’ his way back to the ward and at the thought of defeat ‘threw myself on my bunk and dug my burning head into my blanket and pillow’. The medical staff were worried. They wondered if Corporal Adolf Hitler was going out of his mind.
    In Holland a train was on its way to Arnhem. Inside a curtain-shuttered carriage sat the white-faced Kaiser Wilhelm. A chink in the curtains made it impossible for him to ignore the thousands ofpeople

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