In this programme, Timewatch travels to the battlefields in France and Belgium to see the places where American, British, French, Canadian and German troops were fighting as the war came to an end at 11am on 11th November 1918.
Michael Palin counts down the last hours and questions the 11,000 casualties which occurred that day; many in the hours after the Armistice had actually been signed. Timewatch reveals the stories of the last soldiers of each nationality to be killed in the final minutes leading up to the 11 o’clock cease-fire. Using newly discovered photographs and original research never before seen on television, using contemporary film archive, newspapers and state of the art graphics, this film tells the explosive story of the final day of World War One.
At 5.10 on the morning of 11th Nov 1918, the Armistice between the Allies (essentially Britain, France and America) and Germany was signed in a railway carriage in a forest clearing at Compiegne just outside Paris, but it would be a further six hours before the treaty would come into effect.
This was at 11am on the 11th Day of the 11th month of 1918 - what has over the years become known and celebrated as Armistice Day. It is a solemn date still marked every year across Britain and Europe.
Visiting the part of France and Belgium that in World War One was called the Western Front, Timewatch discovers the terrible truth that in those final six hours - essentially on that last morning - the killing continued. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission alone records 863 British and Commonwealth deaths for that last day of the war. One historian estimates that over 11,000 soldiers on all sides were killed, wounded or were missing on the final day of the war.
This is a higher figure than D-Day when the allies were fighting a just cause, to liberate Europe from the Nazis as opposed to the final day of World War One when the war was over. How could killing on this scale ever be justified?
By the end of the First World War, there were just two areas of fighting left, both on the Western Front. The other nations - Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria - had surrendered leaving Germany to fight on alone.
Around Mons in Belgium, the Canadian General Sir Arthur Currie was leading the British and Canadian troops on that final day. Britain’s General Haig and Currie knew the end was in sight and didn’t want a bloodbath. As a consequence, the number of deaths amongst their forces was relatively low.
Further south, near Verdun, it was a very different story. American Generals were throwing men into action throughout the morning of 11th November, up until the stroke of 11am, with hundreds of deaths and several thousand casualties. Some might see the deliberate forcing of troops to die in a war awaiting a formal end as murder.
But the American General John Pershing didn't believe in the Armistice. It was, he believed, clearly a mistake, letting Germany off the hook.
Timewatch goes to the battlefields of the Argonne where US troops were fighting, the soil rich still full of guns, bullets and personal artefacts of the American doughboys and north into France to see the area where, a week before the Armistice, the final set battle of World War One took place.
It was here, by the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal, that 2,000 British soldiers (including the war poet Wilfred Owen) lost their lives. In Mons, where the war ended for the British and Canadians, Timewatch reveals the personal story behind the final soldiers to be killed in the war.
The Last Day of World War One was first broadcast on November 1st, 2008 on BBC Two.
Reg Grant, Wayland
At the Eleventh Hour
edited by Hugh Cecil and Peter Liddle, Pen & Sword Books
The Last Days of Innocence: America at War, 1917-1918
Meirion and Susie Harris, Vintage Books
1918: The Last Act
Barrie Pitt, Pen & Sword Books
War Graves Commission
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the war graves of all commonwealth soldiers who died in action during the two world wars. The site is a very useful port of call for those researching their family history.