You may remember that last week was Remembrance Day, when we remembered the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the end of the war to end all wars. Until recently, I never really got the importance of the two sides choosing that particular time to end hostilities. It just seemed like the kind of cute date symmetry your Mum’s friend shares on Facebook, no more meaningful than “today is the 20th of the 12th 2012, which won’t happen again for another 101 years! Share if you hate Ebola.”
But WWI was an era when leaders still made grand poetic gestures, before they realised that the horror they just unleashed had murdered earnestness forever. The armistice agreement was deliberately signed at the eleventh hour. To the largely bible-literate population of Europe at the time, this would have had heavier connotations than it does today – the phrase comes from a parable in the Gospel of Matthew and refers to the very last moment when salvation is possible, just before it’s too late. This is what those bloodsoaked bureaucrats wanted us to remember: that once upon a time humanity was on the brink of destroying itself, and we shouldn’t let that happen again.