This is no ordinary Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth and much of Europe, and Veterans Day in the United States. Today we mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Armistice that brought to an end the most terrible war in history. Exactly a century ago - on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month - the guns fell silent on Europe's battlefields. The belligerents had agreed the terms of the peace at 5am that November morning, and the news was relayed to the commanders in the field shortly thereafter that hostilities would cease at eleven o'clock. And then they all went back to firing at each other for a final six hours. On that last day, British imperial forces lost some 2,400 men, the French 1,170, the Germans 4,120, the Americans about 3,000. The dead in those last hours of the Great War outnumbered the toll of D Day twenty-six years later, the difference being that those who died in 1944 were fighting to win a war whose outcome they did not know. On November 11th 1918 over eleven thousand men fell in a conflict whose victors and vanquished had already been settled and agreed.
It was that kind of war. Four years earlier - at dusk on August 3rd 1914 - Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, stood at the window of his office in the summer dusk watching the lamplighters go about their daily business in the Whitehall gloaming. And then he made a remark that endured across the decades:
The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
Grey died in 1933, a couple of months after Hitler outlawed all German political parties other than his own. But you could have lived a lot longer than Sir Edward, and still recognized the truth of his words - in France until 1945, in Hungary until 1989, and in the Middle East today, where we're still dealing with the unfinished business of the Great War.
Edward Grey was Britain's longest-serving Foreign Secretary, although, in contrast to contemporary foreign ministers, he had a modest appetite for foreigners: For his first eight years in the job, he never set foot abroad, and then only did so because he was obliged to accompany King George V on a State Visit to Paris in 1914. He served a prime minister, Asquith, who had little interest in foreign affairs and was unengaged by distant events in faraway places until late July of 1914 - by which time it was too late, and the great unraveling of world order had begun. Five years later, the German, Russian, Austrian and Turkish empires lay shattered, and in their ruins incubated Communism, Fascism and a hardcore post-Ottoman Islam. And in a more oblique sense the horrors of the trenches caused the ruling classes of the Great Powers to lose their civilizational confidence - and across a century they have never recovered it.
In a SteynPost for the centenary of the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge and of America's entry into the conflict, I reflected on the long shadows of the Great War. Click below to watch:
We shall have more Armistice centenary observances later today, with the most famous poem of that war and some of its lasting music, too.