For four years, the armies had slugged it out. Millions had died and most people had forgotten what started it all in the first place, or what they were actually fighting for. It took much, much longer to conclude the peace than it did to begin the war; maybe, t’was ever thus.
The United States of America declared war on Germany in 1917, joining the Allies as an associated power. However, it took time for trained American troops to be deployed in Europe. As something of a counter-balance, later that year, the new revolutionary government in Russia signed an armistice with Germany. The loss of Russia as an ally was an enormous blow for Britain and France. It meant that Germany could switch the massive manpower she had engaged in the east across to the decisive Western Front in France and Belgium. In March 1918, and using new stormtrooper tactics, Germany launched the first of three offensives against the French and British. The Germans were in a hurry – they needed to break the Allies before American forces became effective. Initial German attacks were highly successful and the Allies retreated; but in July they counter-attacked. In August, British, Australian, Canadian and French troops inflicted a severe defeat on the Germans at the Battle of Amiens and drove the Germans back – back over the land they had recently taken, back over the old battlefields of previous years. The Allies too used new tactics, coordinating aircraft, tanks and men and with a centralised command. In September, the French and Americans launched another offensive. While German soldiers continued to offer tough resistance, they were retreating and, at home, their families faced starvation due to the success of the British naval blockade. There were calls for peace – and revolution was in the air.
One by one, Germany’s allies fell away. In September, Bulgaria asked for an armistice; in late October, it was Turkey’s turn. With the end just a matter of time, on 4 October Germany and Austria sent a ‘peace note’ to US President Wilson, asking for an armistice without any preconditions. Wilson was having none of it; the war would not end, he said, until German troops had been withdrawn from France and Belgium, and Austrian troops had been removed from Serbia. So the killing went on, postponing the inevitable, while opposing views in Germany debated how – or whether – to end it all and the Allies bickered over what terms of surrender they would accept. On 27 October, the Austrian Emperor, Charles (or Karl) I, informed Kaiser Wilhelm he would be asking for an immediate armistice – which was concluded on 3 November. Also on 27 October, sailors of the Imperial German Navy mutinied, refusing to launch a suicide attack on the Royal Navy. Meanwhile, all over Europe, nationalities that had been ruled from Berlin or Vienna prepared, and hoped, for independence.
On 7 November, German representatives crossed into French territory to negotiate peace. Their request that this might occasion a suspension of hostilities fell on deaf Allied ears. This did not prevent premature reports of an armistice appearing in US newspapers. On 9 November, while armistice discussions got underway inside a railway carriage 1] in the Forest of Compiègne, just outside Paris, the Kaiser took the decision to abdicate; he fled to Holland the following day. In fact, there was little negotiation in Compiègne and at ten past five in the morning on 11 November, the German delegates agreed terms dictated by the Allies and signed the armistice. All fighting on the Western Front would cease at 11 o’ clock that day – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. German forces would immediately evacuate Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the disputed provinces of Alsace-Lorraine. The Allies would occupy Germany west of the Rhine. Vast quantities of materiel – artillery pieces, machine-guns, mortars, aircraft, railway engines and rolling stock, trucks – would be surrendered. All submarines would be surrendered, along with a significant number of surface ships of the Imperial German Navy. Not only that, but Germany would be required to make ‘reparation’ for the damage done in Belgium and France.
Some in the Allied camp were concerned that Germany had to be seen to be beaten; even that it might be preferable to continue the fight until their forces were on German soil. Later, a myth arose in Germany that the army had not been defeated in the field, that it had been ‘stabbed in the back’ – by politicians, democrats, socialists, communists, Jews, defeatists. The claim fed into right-wing propaganda – including, of course, that of the Nazi Party which emerged in the 1920s. But the fact is that by the autumn of 1918 Germany was in no state to continue the war and, by any measure save full-scale occupation, was beaten.
An official communiqué was issued to troops on 11 November. It said that, “at Eleven o’clock today, November 11, troops will stand fast on the positions reached”. “There will be no contact with the enemy. Further instructions will be issued.” Not everybody got the news. And, anyway, fighting continued right up to the last moment. It is estimated that some 3,000 men died on the last day of the war.
The last British soldier to be killed in action was Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was from Leeds and was shot at 9.30am scouting on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons – where the British Expeditionary Force had begun their war four years earlier.
At 10.45, Frenchman Augustin Trebuchon was killed taking a message to troops by the River Meuse. The message said that soup would be served at 11.30, after the peace.
At 10.58, 25-year-old Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot by a sniper in the village of Ville-sur-Haine, east of Mons.
At 10.59, Henry Gunther of the US Army – ironically of German descent – was killed in a final charge against enemy trenches.
Leutnant Tomas of the German army was killed after 11am by American troops who hadn’t heard about the Armistice.
Although the armistice might have ended the fighting, it did not technically end the war. That was formally concluded by treaties signed later between all belligerents. The Treaty of Versailles, with Germany, was signed on 28 June 1919.
In Britain, the War Cabinet met at 10 Downing Street that Monday, 11 November, at 9.45 am. The official minutes of the meeting say that the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, had learned that the Armistice had been signed and that he wished to consult his colleagues as to when the public announcement should be made and the form it should take. The Cabinet decided:
- To announce the news at once;
- To inform all Home Commands that steps should be taken to celebrate the news by the firing of fireworks (maroons), playing of bands, blowing of bugles and ringing of church bells throughout the Kingdom;
- The First Sea Lord should arrange for vessels of the Fleet to dress ship;
- The order prohibiting the striking of church and other public clocks should be at once rescinded.
The Prime Minister’s statement was issued at 10.20 am. It said: “The armistice was signed at five o’clock this morning, and hostilities are to cease on all fronts at 11 a.m. to-day.”
Another decision taken by the War Cabinet that day was to continue the naval blockade of German ports. The blockade, one of the Royal Navy’s primary tasks of the war, was at least as controversial as the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. It is impossible to say how many people died as a consequence – estimates for Germany alone start at 424,000. Prime Minister, Lloyd George, said that the blockade was really “rationing” and must be kept up.
As news of the Armistice filtered out, jubilant crowds filled Trafalgar Square, Downing Street, the Mall and public places in towns and cities across the nation. In the North Yorkshire market town of Skipton, news of the signing of the Armistice reached the offices of the Craven Herald soon after 11am on the 11th. The announcement was put up and the news quickly spread, mills sounded their buzzers, and parish churches rang their bells.
Maude Cra’ster heard about the Armistice from her Red Cross Depot in London. She and some friends went to the Palace to hear the King. “I can’t tell you what the sight was!” she said. Lorries crammed with men and women, all with flags – people crammed on the top of taxis and inside too. Large Government motors with hospital nurses…soldiers…the mass of all kinds on their feet.” The band played ‘God Save the King’, the King said something, but she couldn’t hear. Then the band played ‘All People That On Earth Do Dwell’ and ‘Home Sweet Home’, which really touched the crowd. Everybody sang, solemnly, almost with a sob. It was an unforgettable moment.
Marie Pankhurst, writing to her brother, described wild scenes – an officer being smacked with a fresh herring as people danced on his taxi, some ‘Colonials’ grabbing an RAF girl and driving off with her “amidst a din of applause”. Even rain did not disperse the crowds and fireworks and bonfires carried on all week.
George Cook was a schoolboy. “Just after dinner, on an ordinary school day, all of a sudden the young chaps from the works burst into the school. They knocked the headmaster over and they beckoned all of the kids out of the classrooms, and believe me, we didn’t need any encouragement. We all flew out and the staff were just left standing there. Then we marched behind the band all the way round the town, and I remember that there were people all over the place, waving tiny Union Jacks. I remember wondering wherever could they have got those from in such a short time?”
Wilfred Littleboy was a Quaker, pacifist and conscientious objector. He was imprisoned in 1917 for refusing any form of military service and spent time at Wormwood Scrubs and Dorchester Prison. He was not released until April 1919 – but he always remembered Armistice Day. “There was a German prisoner of war camp fairly near, near enough for us to hear pretty nearly every middle-day a band come out and play. And on Armistice Day the band turned out – or rather several members of the band turned out — and played very slowly the hymn ‘Now thank we all our God’.”
In the small rural village of Burton in Lonsdale, nestling on the borders of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Westmoreland, they held a soldiers’ dance that Monday in the Sunday school – now the Village Hall. Seven soldiers and a sailor were present, in addition to over sixty villagers. Next day, a peace dance was held in the evening and a party of enthusiasts paraded the locality with an effigy of the Kaiser and an impromptu band.
In Shrewsbury, Shropshire, Wilfred Owen’s parents were listening to the town’s church bells ring out in celebration of the Armistice, when a telegram arrived informing them of their son’s death on 4 November.
On the Western Front, there was a mixture of disbelief, numbness – and liberation. Gunner Pankhurst of the Royal Field Artillery had seen a notice nailed to a tree saying that an Armistice would be declared. He casually broke the news to his mates as they were finishing a meal. “The war’s over at 11 o’clock this morning. Somebody said, ‘Yeah?’ Somebody else said, ‘Go on!’ They just went on eating.” Private Frank Dunk of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment saw his officer coming down the street in shirt and braces with a barrel of beer on a big French wheelbarrow. He said, “Come on lads, the war will be over at II o’clock.” Dunk recalled, “When the French folks heard, out came the flags and wine, beer, all sorts, and everybody got totally pickled.”
A deathly hush fell all along the line when the guns finally fell silent. It was eerie. The men were not used to it. Many described a feeling of not knowing what to do…they had no objectives any more.
Marine Hubert Trotman was still fighting hard and losing comrades in Belgium on the morning of 11 November. The first they knew of the Armistice was at a quarter to ten when a runner came up and told them it would be signed that day, at 11 o’clock. They stood where there had been fighting at the start of the war, four years earlier, and found the skeletons of some of the men from the Manchester regiment who had died there back then, lying in a wood with their boots still on.
Sergeant Grady of the US Army wrote: “Cold and raining. Runner in at 10.30 with order to cease firing at 11.00am. Firing continued and we stood by. 306th Machine-Gun Company on my right lost twelve men at 10.55, when a high explosive landed in their position. At 11.00 sharp the shelling ceased on both sides and we don’t know what to say.”
Major Keith Officer of the Australian Corps was sitting at a table in Le Cateau with a major in the Scots Greys. They sat there, watching the minutes tick by. When 11 o’clock came, the Scots’ major said, “I wonder what we are all going to do next!” That was a common sensation; the war was practically the only life many could remember, they had started so young.
A nearby German machine-gun post kept firing until almost the last minute. At 11 o’clock precisely, an officer stepped out of their position, stood up, lifted his helmet and bowed to the British troops opposite. He then marched his men away.
Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin of the Royal Naval Division had been dreaming of the Armistice. The day the guns, fighting and killing stopped. “We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste and the friends I had lost.”
Lieutenant Richard Dixon of the Royal Garrison Artillery was on a boat entering Folkestone harbour to go on leave when, at about midday, all the ships sounded their sirens. “Everyone wanted to know what the fuss was about – then all the crews on the ships in the harbour started cheering and waving. ‘Dickie,’ said Captain Brown, ‘The bloody war’s over! It’s over!’ And it was. We had left France with a war on and arrived in Blighty 2] with a peace on!”
“While we were going through the formalities of disembarking, a strange and unreal thought was running through my mind. I had a future.”
1] Just 22 years later, Hitler insisted that the same railway carriage was used to sign the armistice with France in June 1940.
2] ‘Blighty’ is (or was) a slang term for Britain – home. It is a corruption of the Hindi bilayati, meaning foreign, European.
Credits (links to Amazon where appropriate)
“Forgotten Voices of the Great War” – Max Arthur
“1914-18 – Voices and Images of the Great War” – Lyn Macdonald
“Look Up The Road Home” – Max Arthur
“The First World War” – Martin Gilbert
The Westmorland Gazette