The Armistice of 11 November 1918 was an armistice during the First World War between the Allies and Germany – also known as the Armistice of Compiègne after the location in which it was signed – and the agreement that ended the fighting on the Western Front. It went into effect at 11 a.m. Paris time on 11 November 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), and marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not formally a surrender. The Germans were responding to the policies proposed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points of January 1918. The actual terms, largely written by French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, included the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German troops to behind their own borders, the preservation of infrastructure, the exchange of prisoners, a promise of reparations, the disposition of German warships and submarines, and conditions for prolonging or terminating the armistice. Although the armistice ended the actual fighting, it took six months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to conclude the peace treaty, the Treaty of Versailles.
On 29 September 1918 the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor, Count Georg von Hertling at Imperial Army Headquarters in Spa of occupied Belgium, that the military situation facing Germany was hopeless. Quartermaster general Erich Ludendorff, probably fearing a breakthrough, claimed that he could not guarantee that the front would hold for another 24 hours and demanded a request be given to the Entente for an immediate ceasefire. In addition, he recommended the acceptance of the main demands of US president Woodrow Wilson (the Fourteen Points) including putting the Imperial Government on a democratic footing, hoping for more favorable peace terms. This enabled him to save the face of the Imperial German Army and put the responsibility for the capitulation and its consequences squarely into the hands of the democratic parties and the parliament. As he said to officers of his staff on 1 October: “They now must lie on the bed that they’ve made for us.”
On 3 October, the liberal Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed Chancellor of Germany, replacing Georg von Hertling in order to negotiate an armistice. After long conversations with the Kaiser and evaluations of the political and military situations in the Reich, by 5 October 1918, the German government sent a message to President Wilson to negotiate terms on the basis of a recent speech of his and the earlier declared “Fourteen Points”. In the subsequent two exchanges, Wilson’s allusions “failed to convey the idea that the Kaiser’s abdication was an essential condition for peace. The leading statesmen of the Reich were not yet ready to contemplate such a monstrous possibility.” As a precondition for negotiations, Wilson demanded the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and the Kaiser’s abdication, writing on 23 October: “If the Government of the United States must deal with the military masters and the monarchical autocrats of Germany now, or if it is likely to have to deal with them later in regard to the international obligations of the German Empire, it must demand not peace negotiations but surrender.”
In late October, Ludendorff, in a sudden change of mind, declared the conditions of the Allies unacceptable. He now demanded to resume the war which he himself had declared lost only one month earlier. However the German soldiers were pressing to get home. It was scarcely possible to arouse their readiness for battle anew, and desertions were on the increase. The Imperial Government stayed on course and Ludendorff was replaced by Wilhelm Groener. On 5 November, the Allies agreed to take up negotiations for a truce, now also demanding reparation payments.
The latest note from Wilson was received in Berlin on 6 November. That same day, the delegation led by Matthias Erzberger departed for France.
A much bigger obstacle, which contributed to the five-week delay in the signing of the Armistice and to the resulting social deterioration in Europe, was the fact that the French, British and Italian governments had no desire to accept the “Fourteen Points” and President Wilson’s subsequent promises. For example, they assumed that the de-militarization suggested by Wilson would be limited to the Central Powers. There were also contradictions with their post-War plans that did not include a consistent implementation of the ideal of national self-determination. As Czernin points out:
The Allied statesmen were faced with a problem: so far they had considered the ‘fourteen commandments’ as a piece of clever and effective American propaganda, designed primarily to undermine the fighting spirit of the Central Powers, and to bolster the morale of the lesser Allies. Now, suddenly, the whole peace structure was supposed to be built up on that set of ‘vague principles,’ most of which seemed to them thoroughly unrealistic, and some of which, if they were to be seriously applied, were simply unacceptable.
The sailors’ revolt which took place during the night of 29 to 30 October 1918 in the naval port of Wilhelmshaven spread across the whole country within days and led to the proclamation of a republic on 9 November 1918 and to the announcement of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Also on 9 November, Max von Baden handed over the office of Chancellor to Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat. Ebert’s SPD and Erzberger’s Catholic Centre Party had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Imperial government since Bismarck’s era in the 1870s and 1880s. They were well represented in the Imperial Reichstag, which had little power over the government, and had been calling for a negotiated peace since 1917. Their prominence in the peace negotiations would cause the new Weimar Republic to lack legitimacy in right-wing and militarist eyes.
The Armistice was the result of a hurried and desperate process. The German delegation headed by Matthias Erzberger crossed the front line in five cars and was escorted for ten hours across the devastated war zone of Northern France, arriving on the morning of 8 November. They were then entrained and taken to the secret destination, aboard Ferdinand Foch’s private train parked in a railway siding in the forest of Compiègne.
Foch appeared only twice in the three days of negotiations: on the first day, to ask the German delegation what they wanted, and on the last day, to see to the signatures. The Germans were handed the list of Allied demands and given 72 hours to agree. The German delegation discussed the Allied terms not with Foch, but with other French and Allied officers. The Armistice amounted to complete German demilitarization, with few promises made by the Allies in return. The naval blockade of Germany was not completely lifted until complete peace terms could be agreed upon.
There was no question of negotiation. The Germans were able to correct a few impossible demands (for example, the decommissioning of more submarines than their fleet possessed), extended the schedule for the withdrawal and registered their formal protest at the harshness of Allied terms. But they were in no position to refuse to sign. On Sunday 10 November, they were shown newspapers from Paris to inform them that the Kaiser had abdicated. That same day, Erzberger was instructed to sign by Ebert. The cabinet had earlier received a message from Hindenburg, requesting that the armistice be signed even if the Allied conditions could not be improved on.[
The Armistice was agreed at 5:00 a.m. on 11 November, to come into effect at 11:00 a.m. Paris time (12:00 noon German time), for which reason the occasion is sometimes referred to as “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”. Signatures were made between 5:12 am and 5:20 am, Paris time.
News of the armistice being signed was officially announced towards 9 am in Paris. One hour later, Foch, accompanied by a British admiral, presented himself at the Ministry of War, where he was immediately received by Georges Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France. At 10:50 am, Foch issued this general order: “Hostilities will cease on the whole front as from November 11 at 11 o’clock French time The Allied troops will not, until further order, go beyond the line reached on that date and at that hour.” Five minutes later, Clemenceau, Foch and the British admiral went to the Élysée Palace. At the first shot fired from the Eiffel Tower, the Ministry of War and the Élysée Palace displayed flags, while bells around Paris rang. Five hundred students gathered in front of the Ministry and called upon Clemenceau, who appeared on the balcony. Clemenceau exclaimed “Vive la France!”—the crowd echoed him. At 11:00 am, the first peace-gunshot was fired from Fort Mont-Valérien, which told the population of Paris that the armistice was concluded, but the population were already aware of it from official circles and newspapers.
Although the information about the imminent ceasefire had spread among the forces at the front in the hours before, fighting in many sections of the front continued right until the appointed hour. At 11 am there was some spontaneous fraternization between the two sides. But in general, reactions were muted. A British corporal reported: “…the Germans came from their trenches, bowed to us and then went away. That was it. There was nothing with which we could celebrate, except cookies.” On the Allied side, euphoria and exultation were rare. There was some cheering and applause, but the dominant feeling was silence and emptiness after 52 exhausting months of war.
Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away their spare ammunition. The Allies also wished to ensure that, should fighting restart, they would be in the most favorable position. Consequently, there were 10,944 casualties of which 2,738 men died on the last day of the war.
An example of the determination of the Allies to maintain pressure until the last minute, but also to adhere strictly to the Armistice terms, was Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railway guns firing its last shot at 10:57:30 am from the Verdun area, timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled Armistice.
Augustin Trébuchon was the last Frenchman to die when he was shot on his way to tell fellow soldiers that hot soup would be served after the ceasefire. He was killed at 10:45 am. The last soldier from the UK to die, George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, was killed earlier that morning at around 9:30 am while scouting on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium. The final Canadian, and Commonwealth, soldier to die, Private George Lawrence Price, was shot and killed by a sniper just two minutes before the armistice to the north of Mons at 10:58 am, to be recognized as one of the last killed with a monument to his name. And finally, American Henry Gunther is generally recognized as the last soldier killed in action in World War I. He was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while charging astonished German troops who were aware the Armistice was nearly upon them.
As a small tribute to my family members who served in the Great War here is a gallery:
My paternal grandfather, John Forrest, who was an ambulance driver:
My maternal grandfather, William Sloper, who served in the trenches in the Ox and Bucks regiment (commonly called the “box of nuts”), was gassed and eventually repatriated with part of his foot blown off. He died from lung complications attributable to the gassing:
My maternal grandmother’s brother, my great uncle Charlie Harden, who was a trench soldier:
My maternal grandfather’s brother-in-law, my great uncle Bill Legge, feared missing in action but eventually made it home, having walked from the eastern front !!!
During the First World War people in Britain would bake and post a fruit cake to loved ones on the front line. This recipe is repeated from a contemporary newspaper. Some traditional cake ingredients were hard to come by.
There are no eggs in this recipe and vinegar was used to react with the baking soda to help the cake rise.
4 oz margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
3 oz brown sugar
3 oz cleaned currants
2 teaspoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
grated lemon rind
Grease a cake tin. Rub margarine into the flour in a basin. Add the dry ingredients. Mix well. Add the soda dissolved in vinegar and milk. Beat well. Turn into the tin. Bake in a moderate oven for about two hours.