On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the armistice between the Allies and Germany took effect, and World War I thereby ended. Ever since, the Allied nations have remembered that day–known as Remembrance Day in France, Belgium, and the British Commonwealth nations, and first as Armistice Day, and later as Veterans Day, in the United States. By tradition, those countries observe a moment of silence on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to commemorate the fallen and the wounded.
Why all the elevens? It’s pretty clear that the armistice wasn’t delayed in order to achieve a symmetry of numbers; both the Allies and their opponents were exhausted and depleted by years of bloody fighting and were more than ready for it to stop as soon as possible. In fact, many of the opposing powers–including the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Bulgaria–had reached armistices with the Allies before November 11; only Germany was a holdout. The armistice with the German Empire was finally reached at 5:10 a.m. on November 11 and was to take effect at 11 a.m., to allow the news and cease fire orders to be transmitted to the troops on the front line.
By then, choosing the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month as the time for the fighting to stop must have had a poetic quality that was impossible to resist. The concept of the “eleventh hour” as the very last point at which something can be done has long been a part of western civilization. It finds its roots in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, recounted in Matthew 20:1-16. Those hired early in the day agreed to work for a denarius a day and, after working for a full day, were upset when those hired later in the day–including at the eleventh hour–were paid the same amount. (For those unfamiliar with the parable, the vineyard owner holds the early workers to their agreement and says he gets to decide what to do with his money and concludes with the phrase: “For many are called, but few are chosen,” which also became a well-known phrase.)
By the time November 11, 1918 arrived, the participants in World War I probably felt that they had reached the last point at which something could be salvaged. By then, millions of soldiers and civilians had died in what was easily the bloodiest war ever fought to that point, and many of those who survived were left horribly wounded by gas attacks, lost body parts, and the traumas of trench warfare and shell shock. Dynasties were toppled, and the old ways of fighting gave way to the new, with World War I ushering in the era of tanks, and aerial warfare, and poison gas. By the time the war ended entire generations had been brutally decimated, and the desperate participants no doubt wondered why they had decided to fight the pointless war in the first place.
In short, they had reached their “eleventh hour.” It seems fitting that that is when the war effectively ended.