We often speak of the 11th hour as being at the last minute. It can be traced as far back as the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard by Jesus 200 years ago, it can be traced back to any governor choosing to commute a death sentence at the last minute, or it can be traced back to the early part of the 20th Century. The centuries leading up to the 20th were brutal. It was common for wars between countries to break out. England and France had centuries of history fighting one another, it was just the way things were done. Russia and Japan mixed it up in 1904 over expansion. Wars were fought between European nations over territory a world away. But there was always a hope that life would get better.
And then, on June 28, 1914, assassins killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. But, truth be told, his death was simply an excuse. The entire continent had been setting itself up, maneuvering for power and a better position on the chessboard. But his death was the excuse used for toppling the precarious house of cards that was Europe in 1914. And, like a pattern of dominoes, one event led to another that led to another until there was WAR like Man had not seen before. It's safe to say that the slaughter, the tedium, the new and improved methods of death, all could have come straight out of the book of Revelations or Nostradamus' more apocalyptic prophecy. The second decade of the 20th Century saw the introduction of a new breed of weapons, the penultimate of weapons.
A brief look at the history of weapons shows that Man started with little more than his body, which can be an efficient killing machine. But, add a basic lever and you get a club that makes it more so, at least against an individual. Add a sword for slashing or a spear for attacking from a distance. And, as Man matured, science made all of these more efficient. Add a little gunpowder and compress the point of the spear and you get a gun, still a weapon for killing one person at a time. The 19th Century took this a step further, first with the Gatling Gun, which enabled a man to shoot rapidly and kill more; then with the Maxim Machine Gun, which no longer required a crank, just pull the trigger and hold. Lord Tennyson captured the horrors of this new gun well in The Charge of the Light Brigade:
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Yes, 600 men on horseback armed with swords, proof conclusive that you shouldn't carry a knife to a gun fight. But the Great War made even that horror seem like child's play as science took us one step higher, with Mustard Gas being used to not just shoot at and wound but actually kill many people with one blow. Yes, effective Weapons of Mass Destruction first came on the scene in 1917. And the world wasn't watching, the world was involved, because this war wasn't between a couple of nations, or even a few, but a majority of the Western World and all of their territories were dragged into this mess.
Yes, Archduke Ferdinand's assassination may have been the spark that lit the powder keg of Europe, but the eleventh hour had already passed and any spark would have ignited that same explosion.
By the Judeo-Christian story of Creation, this would have been a Wednesday (the original Sabbath would have been Saturday). Wednesday, from the Old Norse Oðinsdagr, Odin's Day. An appropriate day, Wednesday, for Odin was a very interesting God. Leader of the Norse Gods, he wasn't above trickery to get his way. Odin was also the god of War, both instigating wars and brining victory. And, while 11-Nov-1918 may have been a Monday, I think it was far more of a Wednesday with a touch of Odin's hand. This eleventh day was not an end, and historians already call the intervening years between what I was taught in History as WWI and WWII as nothing but a temporary truce occurring in one large war.
We had such hopes, this had been the war to end all wars. And yet, as Odin's own tradition shows, it was not Ragnorak any more than it was Armageddon. And the conclusion of this war and the heavy penalties laid upon the losers did little more than fertilize well the ground from which the simmering hate would grow until it exploded out again.
November. How ironic that the 11th month, forever now associated with the great war, has topaz as its birthstone, a yellow stone for month associate with the war that introduced mustard gas. But November is also when we celebrate the changing of seasons, whether Fall in the northern hemisphere or Spring in the southern. We prepare to settle in to enjoying the fruits of our harvests. We take stock of what we have to get us through the long winter.
The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month
Put all of them together and we have Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Remembrance Day. A time when we can visit Bill Mauldin, quaff root beer and tell war stories, at least if we're a certain beagle we can. A day when we and find a veteran and thank them for all they have done for us. Or for the parents of one.
And, if you remember, at the 11th hour of this, the 11th day of the 11th month, take two minutes to silently thank all of those who have fought to allow us our freedom.