World War One was characterized by many bilateral declarations of war, and for the same reason, it ended gradually as each state of war was lifted. For most, however, the principal conclusion to the war lay in the Armistice and treaty signed between Germany and its enemies in the West: France, Great Britain and the United States. These are two separate events. The Treaty of Versailles ended the state of war and laid down terms for Europe’s future. The Armistice, on the other hand, concerned only a cease fire, including the military terms that the Allies demanded as a prerequisite for any cease fire.
The Armistice came in a context of general collapse on the German side. While 1917 had ended with some sense of promise, given the conclusion of the war with Russia, 1918 had seen progressive disasters, first in the failure of German offensives and then in accelerated losses in a series of Allied offensives. Always in the background hovered the Allied blockade, which remained unbroken and created widespread privation in Germany. By October, the highest military leadership had concluded that the war must end.
The only question that remained concerned the terms under which an armistice might be signed. Wilson’s Fourteen Points had been problematic because they required a change in Germany’s political and military leadership, but by October 29, the Germans had become willing to accept this. Wilson gave his approval on November 5th, but then it remained for the Germans to arrange the details with the French. Marshal Foch responded early on the 7th, calling for German representatives to arrive by train at a stop in the Forest of Compiegne at 8 pm.
Negotiations proceeded in Foch’s railcar. Technically, the German representatives requested an armistice, following which the Allied representatives presented the terms under which such armistice would be accepted. The deal was then delayed by the inability of the Germans to communicate with their superiors before the 10th of November. The political circumstances had changed substantially in the interim.
On the 8th, Prince Max von Baden, the Chancellor, urged the Kaiser to abdicate; the next day, without conferring with the Kaiser, the Prince announced that abdication and tendered his own resignation. Confronted with a demonstration of loss of confidence on the part of the army, the Kaiser was compelled to allow this proclamation to stand and accepted Hindenburg’s help in escaping to Holland. Socialist Friedrich Ebert assumed the role of Chancellor on the 10th; interestingly, however, it was Prince Max and Hindenburg who granted permission for the German representatives to sign the armistice. Hindenburg urged the leader of the delegation, Matthias Erzberger, to seek any possible concessions.
Erzberger was handed these authorizations at 7:30 pm, November 10; actual negotiations began at that point. For the Germans, the principal objective was the end of the blockade. This request was rejected, and the Allies only agreed to monitor the situation and to provide some emergency aid if they found it warranted. The Germans secured one other concession: the original terms required the Germans to give up 2000 military airplanes, which was reduced because the German Army’s air wing could not muster even 1700.
The final instrument was signed at 5:10 am, with the armistice to be effective at 11 am the same day. For reasons of symmetry, the signatures were backdated to 5 am, with a full six hours before implementation.
The Armistice was not a peace treaty; most of its provisions concerned military dispositions, although one had a political dimension. The German Army was to withdraw from all occupied territory over the next fifteen days, and that included territories in the east that were occupied under the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Treaty of Bucharest. These two treaties were nullified under the terms of the armistice. It is also significant that the withdrawal provisions required the German Army to retreat to positions at least twenty-five miles east of the River Rhine. Substantial portions of Germany itself were to be vacated by the army.
The armistice called for the return of Allied POW’s, and the forfeiture of an enormous amount of equipment. The entire air arm was handed over. The navy was effectively dismantled; the entire fleet, including 114 submarines, was delivered to British ports. The army was to forfeit most of its artillery and machine guns, as well as a substantial number of vehicles, including five thousand locomotives and a like number of trucks. The terms were left open-ended, so that additional material could be required at a future date.
Word of the signing of the armistice was sent out at 5:30, and most commanders were aware of it by six am. All military action was to cease at 11 am; unfortunately, a competitive spirit among many commanders led to a flurry of unnecessary activity over the next five hours. Casualties on this half day of fighting were actually higher than average for an entire day in the First World War. On a normal day, total losses exceeded 7,000, with 2,250 of these being killed; November 11 saw nearly 11,000 losses, including more than 2,700 killed in action.
And then, at 11 am, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the armistice came into effect. Celebration was exuberant in Britain and the United States; in France, it was highly welcomed, although met with greater sobriety. In Germany, the end of fighting along the Western Front was something of a footnote to the other crises that wrenched the country, with economic and political collapse leading to revolutionary agitation that would soon create civil war in important cities. For all parties, it would be a further seven and a half months before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles marked the official conclusion to the First World War.
Livesey, Anthony. The Historical Atlas of World War I. Holt, Henry & Co., Inc. 1994
Persico, Joseph E. Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918 World War I and Its Violent Climax. Random House, 2005
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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