The Armistice of 11 November 1918 was the armistice signed at Le Francport near Compiègne that ended fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and their last remaining opponent, Germany. Previous armistices had been agreed with Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Also known as the Armistice of Compiègne from the place where it was signed at 5:45 am by the Allied Supreme Commander, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, it came into force at 11:00 am Paris time on 11 November 1918 and marked a victory for the Allies and a defeat for Germany, although not formally a surrender.
The actual terms, largely written by Foch, included the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German forces to behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhineland and bridgeheads further east, the preservation of infrastructure, the surrender of aircraft, warships, and military materiel, the release of Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, eventual reparations, no release of German prisoners and no relaxation of the naval blockade of Germany. Although the armistice ended the fighting on the Western Front, it had to be prolonged three times until the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919, took effect on 10 January 1920.
Fighting continued up to 11 o’clock, with 2,738 men dying on the last day of the war.
October 1918 Telegrams
On 29 September 1918, the German Supreme Army Command at Imperial Army Headquarters in Spa of occupied Belgium informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor, Count Georg von Hertling, 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 two 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 favourable 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. He expressed his view to officers of his staff on 1 October: “They now must lie on the bed that they’ve made for us.”
On 03 October 1918, the liberal Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed Chancellor of Germany (prime minister), 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 05 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 1918, 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 05 November, the Allies agreed to take up negotiations for a truce, now also demanding reparation payments.
The latest note from President Wilson was received in Berlin on 06 November 1918. 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-militarisation 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 German Revolution
Refer to German Revolution of 1918-1919.
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 09 November 1918 and to the announcement of the abdication of Wilhelm II. However, in various areas, soldiers challenged the authority of their officers and on occasion established Soldiers’ Councils. Thus for example the Brussels Soldiers’ Council was set up by revolutionary soldiers on 09 November 1918.
Also on 09 November 1918, 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 Negotiation Process
Refer to the Compiègne Wagon.
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 08 November 1918. They were then 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 demilitarisation (see list below), 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 were very few negotiations. 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 1918, the Germans were shown newspapers from Paris to inform them that the Kaiser had abdicated. That same day, Ebert instructed Erzberger to sign. The cabinet had earlier received a message from Paul von Hindenburg, head of the German High Command, requesting that the armistice be signed even if the Allied conditions could not be improved on.
The Armistice was agreed upon at 5:00 am on 11 November 1918, to come into effect at 11:00 am Paris time (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.
The Allied Occupation of the Rhineland
Refer to Occupation of the Rhineland (1918-1930).
The occupation of the Rhineland took place following the Armistice. The occupying armies consisted of American, Belgian, British and French forces.
The Armistice was prolonged three times before peace was finally ratified. During this period it was also developed.
- First Armistice (11 November 1918 to 13 December 1918).
- First prolongation of the armistice (13 December 1918 to 16 January 1919).
- Second prolongation of the armistice (16 January 1919 to 16 February 1919).
- Trèves Agreement, 17 January 1919.
- Third prolongation of the armistice (16 February 1919 to 10 January 1920).
- Brussels Agreement, 14 March 1919.
- Peace was ratified at 4:15 pm on 10 January 1920.
- For the Allies, the personnel involved were all military. The two signatories were:
- Marshal of France Ferdinand Foch, the Allied supreme commander.
- First Sea Lord Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, the British representative
- Other members of the delegation included:
- General Maxime Weygand, Foch’s chief of staff (later French commander-in-chief in 1940).
- Rear-Admiral George Hope, Deputy First Sea Lord.
- Captain Jack Marriott, British naval officer, Naval Assistant to the First Sea Lord.
- For Germany, the four signatories were:
- Matthias Erzberger, a civilian politician.
- Count Alfred von Oberndorff, from the Foreign Ministry.
- Major General Detlof von Winterfeldt, German Army.
- Captain Ernst Vanselow, German Navy.
Among its 34 clauses, the armistice contained the following major points:
- A. Western Front:
- Termination of hostilities on the Western Front, on land and in the air, within six hours of signature.
- Immediate evacuation of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Alsace-Lorraine within 15 days. Sick and wounded may be left for Allies to care for.
- Immediate repatriation of all inhabitants of those four territories in German hands.
- Surrender of matériel: 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, 3,000 minenwerfers, 1,700 aircraft (including all night bombers), 5,000 railway locomotives, 150,000 railway carriages and 5,000 road trucks.
- Evacuation of territory on the west side of the Rhine plus 30 km (19 miles) radius bridgeheads of the east side of the Rhine at the cities of Mainz, Koblenz, and Cologne within 31 days.
- Vacated territory to be occupied by Allied troops, maintained at Germany’s expense.
- No removal or destruction of civilian goods or inhabitants in evacuated territories and all military matériel and premises to be left intact.
- All minefields on land and sea to be identified.
- All means of communication (roads, railways, canals, bridges, telegraphs, telephones) to be left intact, as well as everything needed for agriculture and industry.
- B. Eastern and African Fronts:
- Immediate withdrawal of all German troops in Romania and in what were the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire back to German territory as it was on 1 August 1914, although tacit support was given to the pro-German West Russian Volunteer Army under the guise of combating the Bolsheviks. The Allies to have access to these countries.
- Renunciation of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia and of the Treaty of Bucharest with Romania.
- Evacuation of German forces in Africa.
- C. At Sea:
- Immediate cessation of all hostilities at sea and surrender intact of all German submarines within 14 days.
- Listed German surface vessels to be interned within 7 days and the rest disarmed.
- Free access to German waters for Allied ships and for those of the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
- The naval blockade of Germany to continue.
- Immediate evacuation of all Black Sea ports and handover of all captured Russian vessels.
- D. General:
- Immediate release of all Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, without reciprocity.
- Pending a financial settlement, surrender of assets looted from Belgium, Romania and Russia.
The Last Casualties
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 favourable position. Consequently, there were 10,944 casualties, of whom 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, who were attempting an assault across the Meuse river, that hot soup would be served after the ceasefire. He was killed at 10:45 am.
Earlier, the last British soldier to die, George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, was killed 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 while part of a force advancing into the Belgian town of Ville-sur-Haine just two minutes before the armistice to the north of Mons at 10:58 am, to be recognised as one of the last killed with a monument to his name.
Henry Gunther, an American, is generally recognised 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. He had been despondent over his recent reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation.
News of the armistice only reached African forces, the King’s African Rifles, still fighting with great success in today’s Zambia, about a fortnight later. The German and British commanders then had to agree on the protocols for their own armistice ceremony.
After the war, there was a deep shame that so many soldiers died on the final day of the war, especially in the hours after the treaty had been signed but had not taken effect. In the United States, the US Congress opened an investigation to find out why and if blame should be placed on the leaders of the American Expeditionary Forces, including John Pershing. In France, many graves of French soldiers who died on 11 November were backdated to the 10th.
Aftermath and Legacy
The British public was notified of the armistice by a subjoined official communiqué issued from the Press Bureau at 10:20 am, when British Prime Minister David Lloyd George announced: “The armistice was signed at five o’clock this morning, and hostilities are to cease on all fronts at 11 am to-day.” An official communique was published by the United States at 2:30 pm: “In accordance with the terms of the Armistice, hostilities on the fronts of the American armies were suspended at eleven o’clock this morning.”
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 11 November 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 fraternisation 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.
The peace between the Allies and Germany was subsequently settled in 1919, by the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles that same year.
The celebration of the Armistice became the centrepiece of memories of the war, along with salutes to the unknown soldier. Nations built monuments to the dead and the heroic soldiers, but seldom aggrandizing the generals and admirals. 11 November is commemorated annually in many countries under various names such as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Veterans Day, and in Poland, it is Independence Day.
The end of the Second World War in China (end of the Second Sino-Japanese War) formally took place on 09 September 1945 at 9:00 (the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month). The date was chosen to echo the Armistice of 11 November 1918 (on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month); and because “nine” is homophone of the word for “long lasting” in Chinese (to suggest that the peace won would last forever).
Coincidentally, the license plate of Franz Ferdinand’s Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton that he was riding at the time of his assassination reads “A III 118”, which can be read as “Armistice, 11/11/1918”.
The Stab-in-the-Back Myth
The myth that the German Army was stabbed in the back, by the Social Democratic government that was formed in November 1918, was created by reviews in the German press that grossly misrepresented British Major-General Frederick Maurice’s book, The Last Four Months. “Ludendorff made use of the reviews to convince Hindenburg.”
In a hearing before the Committee on Inquiry of the National Assembly on November 18, 1919, a year after the war’s end, Hindenburg declared, “As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was ‘stabbed in the back’.”