Armistice Day

Alpine Village: a photo of the Aix-les-Bains area in Binkley’s “War Diary”.

The first November 11th was, of course, a day of jubilant celebration everywhere in France. We don’t know for sure where Binkley was that day, but his ambulance unit was en repos in a “defensive sector” when the fighting ended, after working close to or at the front line continuously from early June through October 27. However, we know that his comrade Dan Evans was in Aix-les-Bains in the French Alps on Armistice Day, because of a letter to his parents that was published in the San Bernardino County Sun, transcribed below. Evans describes the celebrations in town on the night of the 11th: round dances in the streets, a French woman distributing roses to American soldiers in the dining hall, French and American soldiers boosting each other up to the balconies of the hotels to get kisses from the waitresses.

In 1918 Aix-les-Bains had been transformed by into a massive “leave area” or rest-and-recreation camp for American soldiers. The YMCA had leased the Casino and other landmarks, and invited a Harvard geologist to write a guide-book for soldiers who wanted to hike in the Alps. (By November the American presence included influenza hospitals, as the Spanish Flu spread.) A hundred thousand Americans passed through, bringing jazz and baseball. The centenary of the American presence is being commemorated this year.

Was the rest of S.S.U. 578 there with Evans, including Binkley? It seems that American soldiers went to Aix-les-Bains as individuals, not as units.1 Perhaps I’ll find the evidence eventually. Unfortunately we have no letters from Binkley to describe his experiences at this time: almost all of his wartime letters to his family were lost in a fire in October 1919. It’s plausible that Binkley at least was at Aix, though, since photos of the Aix-les-Bains area are in Binkley’s 1918-19 photo album – but are they too leafy for November? It’s possible that he was there at some other time, or got copies of photos from someone else in the unit: they seem to have shared freely. We know that he visited La Grande Moucherolle (well to the south) in June 1919, when he was staying in Lyon, but his brief diary entries do not mention a previous visit to the Alps. A diary entry from July 4, 1919, when he was in Paris, mentions: “Go to Y.M.C.A. evening talk with girl who was at Aix” (whom I had met in Aix? Or who told me about Aix?). So: maybe perhaps possibly Binkley was at Aix-les-Bains on November 11th.

The end of the fighting left Binkley’s family in a state of tension, since they had had no letter from him since one he wrote in mid-October. His father wrote to him a couple of weeks later:

I am counting anxiously the days from Oct. 16 when you wrote your last letter to Nov. 11. The job was so easy after all, autocracy such a poor hollow shell of a thing, that I am no longer willing to sacrifice someone dearer than my own life. I suppose this attitude is all wrong – that the job was easy only because so many people were willing – more than that – were so strongly willed to push the ………………. into the dust.2

The tension was slow to release, for after the armistice and before the Peace Conference a new world was waiting to be born. It is remarkable that for Binkley it was the armistice, not the war, that marked his generation. In his unfinished textbook for the youth of 1940 he wrote:

For you, twenty years old in the 1940’s, the second world war is the event that will probably mould you as a generation. For me and my age group the corresponding event was the great emotional crisis of the short armistice that ended the first world war in the winter of 1918. At that time, for a moment, all over the world, there was an exalted vision of permanent peace in a new and better order for mankind. This great moment was followed by twenty years of increasing disillusionment. The whole period from 1918 to 1939 turned out to be only a long armistice in which real peace was not attained.3

He believed 1918 was for his generation what 1848, 1865 and 1871 had been for the previous two (and 1968 for some of us today): when we stood at the threshold of escape from the past, before the reaction triumphed. A natural optimist, Binkley could not abandon completely the optimism of the short armistice, before Versailles, when Wilson was being cheered in the streets of Europe and it was assumed that the Fourteen Points would form the basis of the peace. Even after the rise of Fascism Binkley wrote, “I will be a Wilsonian quand-même”:

A German edition of Wilson’s speeches was published about 1926 with a very illuminating preface. The editor said that much as German opinion might question Wilson’s sincerity, and deeply as it might feel the grievance that Wilson’s words were not carried out in the sense in which Germany interpreted them, the fact remained that the words were said, and when uttered they constituted, and today still constitute, the only conceivable basis for a satisfactory order of the civilized world.4

Incidents in France since Signing of the Armistice Are Related by Dan Evans.The San Bernardino County Sun. December 21, 1918, p. 7.

The only changes I’ve made to the text are to fix a couple of obvious typos. On the assumption that Evans’ French was on a par with Binkley’s, I’ve restored the French accents which I assume were in Evans’ original letter but not printed in the newspaper. I haven’t corrected errors in his French or German spelling. I’ve italicized the newspaper’s introduction.

Dan Evans had the unique experience of being en repos when the signing of the armistice brought an end to the active conflict in which he had taken no small part as a member of the S.S.U. 578, which has been commended for bravery under fire in pursuance of duty several times.

Dan’s leave area was Aix-les-Bains, one of the most famous resorts in the world, in the heart of the French Alps, and amid some of the world’s most famous scenery. There he helped in the celebration, and writes an interesting account of the way it was done:

I have tried to picture the scenes in America on that mad joyous night of the 11th. Would have given a good deal to have been there, but, nevertheless, had I the choice, would have preferred to have been in France. Missed being in Paris by two days. I reported back in Paris Saturday [Nov. 9], the day that the kaiser’s abdication was announced. I did not think that more joy could be portrayed. The city was en fête. Captured Boche cannon were lined hub to hub along the Champs Elysées and in the Place de la Concorde. German tanks, airplanes, machine guns, trench mortars occupied every bit of the available space. Flags flew from every building. Cafes were full and romping, rollicking crowds filled the streets.

Celebrating at Aix

But here at Aix the demonstrations surpassed anything I had ever seen or heard. In the afternoon I rode to the summit of Mt. Revard for a view of Mt. Blanc and the higher ranges of the Alps. At sunset when the whole world was melting into the first subdued gray of the early twilight; when the fogs were stealing up from the valley floors, and the splendid pinnacles of Mt. Blanc above were bathed in the rose of the sun’s last rays, I heard a familiar sound – the thunder of cannon.

The “dinky little train” to Mt. Revard. (Wikimedia)

Then rockets began to flare up from the villages below. The armistice was signed! Every Yank on the mountain top heard it and there was a concerted rush for the dinky little train. We simply had to be down in time for the celebration. At a mountain station on the way down, a crowd of German prisoners, employed in the forests, thronged about the car crying out in German, French and broken English – “Americains, the war is over, the kaiser is ‘fini.’ Gott sei dank, Kamerads!”

They were eager to shake hands, eager to talk, happy beyond expression. A Prussian guard cut off one of his uniform buttons, and pressed it into my hand, saying “souvenir, Kamerad Americain, souvenir.” And then down down, to the rocket<s>, the bells, and the booming guns.

Flowers for the Americans

Hardly any of us could eat dinner that night. While we were at table a French girl, a refugee from northern France came into the dining hall, her arms full of great red roses and in broken English, presented them to us as a token of her esteem for the Americans who had assisted in freeing her home. We roared acclaim and a deafening “Vive la France!” to her “Vive l’Amérique!”

“Oh, What a Night!”

And then the celebration. Aix-les-Bains, in addition to all the Americans on leave, harbors quite a contingent of French and Italian troops. The parade that we staged surpassed any college demonstration that I have ever seen or ever hope to see. Headed by an American band and a French bugle corps we stormed the streets, the “Y” and the public gardens. Poilus, Yanks, Italians, the civilians, arm in arm, hopped and skipped from side to side, singing, shouting and cheering.

The waitresses in the hotels, and they are some lookers too, thronged the balconies, ready with kisses for any soldier who would climb. First a Yank would boost a poilu to the balcony, and then the poilu would shove the Yank up. What’s that? No, Mrs. Grundy was banished for the night. “To the visitor belongs the spoils.”

Two Frenchmen joined us at our table and in Madame’s best port we formed a Franco-American alliance celebrating it in song, cheers, compliments. Gaining the street we pushed through the crowd that seethed in the streets, waving flags, pinning colors on soldiers, doing a hundred and one things that it is impossible to remember.

When a Kiss is Undesirable

A little poilu, intoxicated with victory and something more potent, flung himself upon me, wrapped his arms around my shoulders and yelled – “Ah Camerade, camerade Américain. Vive l’Amérique! Vive la France!” He would have kissed me on both cheeks but thank divine Providence he was not tall enough. The French kiss is all right, but its desirability depends – .

A little further we came upon a great ring in the middle of the street, a ring made up of civilians of both sexes and all ages, from three to 70 odd, the inevitable Yanks and poilus and many of the village belles. Round and round they would dance with a man in the center. When the halt was called he would choose his partner in the kissing bee, and she in turn would make her choice. As a folk dance it has no equal.

These are only a few of the pictures of that night. Wish I could picture, too, the color, the spirit, the utter joyous abandon, the strong element of the dramatic. I cannot do it because at the time I was a part of the mob. I did as it did, felt as it felt, was filled with its divine madness.

Perhaps in the spring when I come home <I> can tell it in a rational manner. But not now.

“Fini la guerre! Victoire!”

  1. Vacation Spot of American Soldiers.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. November 24, 1918.↩︎

  2. Doc. 436: Christian K. Binkley to RCB, 1918-11-28. The letter was damaged by fire.↩︎

  3. A Sense of History, chapter 1, “Generations as Measures of Change”.↩︎

  4. Doc. 5892: RCB to Edgar C. Kissel, 1936-06-27.↩︎