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black and white photograph of five men in military uniforms standing side-to-side in front of a railcar. Four men are disembarking behind them.
This photograph was taken after reaching an agreement for the armistice that ended World War I. This is Ferdinand Foch's own railway carriage and the location is in the forest of Compiègne. Foch is second from the right.

The armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest on 11 November 1918, and marked the end of the First World War on the Western Front. Principal signatories were Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Commander-in-chief, and Matthias Erzberger, Germany's representative. It was a military agreement that marked a complete defeat for Germany, but was neither an unconditional surrender nor a treaty.

Contents

October 1918 telegrams

On 29 September 1918 the German Supreme Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling at army headquarters in Spa, Belgium that the military situation was hopeless. Generalquartiermeister 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 demand of US President Woodrow Wilson (Fourteen Points) and put the Imperial Government on a democratic footing, hoping for more favourable peace terms. This enabled him to save the face of the Imperial 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 us."[1]

On 3 October liberal Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed Chancellor of Germany instead of Georg von Hertling in order to negotiate an armistice.

The telegrams that were exchanged between the General Headquarters of the Imperial High Command, Berlin, and Wilson are discussed in Ferdinand Czernin's Versailles, 1919 (New York: G. P. Putnam's & Sons, 1964).

The following telegram was sent through the Swiss government and arrived in Washington, D.C., on 5 October 1918 [p. 6]:

The German Government requests the President of the United States of America to take steps for the restoration of peace, to notify all belligerents of this request, and to invite them to delegate positions for the purpose of taking up negotiations. The German Government accepts, as a basis of peace negotiations, the Program laid down by the President of the United States in his message to Congress of 8 January 1918, and his subsequent pronouncements, particularly in his address of 27 September 1918.

In order to avoid further bloodshed the German Government requests to bring about the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land, on water, and in the air.

Max, Prince of Baden, Imperial Chancellor

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." [p. 7]

The third German telegram was sent on 20 October.

Woodrow Wilson responded to the request for a truce with three diplomatic notes. As a precondition for negotiations he demanded the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and – in between lines – the Kaiser's abdication.

Wilson's reply on 23 October contained the following:

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. Nothing can be gained by leaving this essential thing unsaid.
[Emil Ludwig, Wilhelm Hohenzollern (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1927), p. 489]

According to Czernin [p. 9]:

... Prince Hohenlohe, serving as councilor in the German Legation in Berne, Switzerland, cabled the German Foreign Office that "a confidential informant has informed me that the conclusion of the Wilson note of 23 October refers to nothing less than the abdication of the Kaiser as the only way to a peace which is more or less tolerable".

Wilhelm's abdication was necessitated by the popular perceptions that had been created by the Entente propaganda against him, which had been picked and further refined when the U.S. declared war in April 1917.

After the third Wilson Note of 24 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. It had been only in the course of the request for a truce, submitted on his demand, that the total military weakness of the Empire was revealed to the Allies. The German troops had adapted themselves to the ending of the war and were pressing to get home. It was scarcely possible to newly arouse their readiness for battle and desertions were on the increase.

So the Imperial Government stayed on course and replaced Ludendorff as First General Quartermaster with General Wilhelm Groener. On 5 November the Allies agreed to take up negotiations for a truce. But the third Wilson Note had created the impression among many soldiers and the general population that the Kaiser must abdicate in order to achieve peace.

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 Entente Powers had no desire to accept the Fourteen Points and Wilson's subsequent promises. As Czernin points out [p. 23]:

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 Kaiser himself wrote:

Nevertheless, it must be noted that John Kenneth Turner, in his […] book, Shall it Be Again? gives extensive proof that all Wilson’s reasons for America's entry into the war were fictitious; that it was far more a cause of acting solely in the interest of Wall Street high finance.[2]

Subsequently, this was substantiated by the findings of the Nye Committee, which studied the causes of the United States' involvement in World War I.

German Revolution

The sailor’s 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 shortly thereafter to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II. The new German government headed by Friedrich Ebert after a renewed demand by the Supreme Command, had accepted the harsh terms of the Entente for a truce.

Negotiation process

Front page of The New York Times on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918.

The Armistice was agreed at 5 AM on 11 November, to come into effect at 11 AM Paris time, for which reason the occasion is sometimes referred to as "the eleventh (hour) of the eleventh (day) of the eleventh (month)". It was the result of a hurried and desperate process.

Acting German commander Paul von Hindenburg had requested arrangements for a meeting from Ferdinand Foch by telegram on 7 November. He was under pressure of imminent revolution in Berlin, Munich, and elsewhere across Germany.

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. They were then entrained and taken to the secret destination, aboard 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. In between, the German delegation discussed the detail of Allied terms with 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 would continue 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), 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 Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated.

Erzberger was not able to get instructions from Berlin because of the fall of the government. However, he was able to communicate with the German Army Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg in Spa who instructed him to sign at any price as an armistice was absolutely necessary.[3] Signatures were made between 5:12 AM and 5:20 AM, Paris time.

The Armistice Carriage

The armistice was signed in a carriage of Foch's private train, CIWL #2419 ("Le Wagon de l'Armistice"). It was later put back into regular service with the Compagnie des Wagons-Lits, but after a short period it was withdrawn to be attached to the French presidential train.

From April 1921 to April 1927, it was on exhibition in the Cour des Invalides in Paris.

In November 1927, it was ceremonially returned to the forest in the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. Marshall Foch, General Weyland and many others watched it being placed in a specially constructed building: the Clairiere de l’Armistice.

There it remained, a monument to the defeat of the Kaiser’s Germany, until 22nd June 1940, when swastika-bedecked German staff cars bearing Hitler, Goering, Keitel, von Ribbentrop and others swept into the Clairiere and, in that same carriage, demanded and received the surrender armistice from France.

During the Occupation, the Clairiere de l’Armistice was destroyed and the carriage taken to Berlin, where it was exhibited in the Lustgarten.

After the American advance into Germany in early 1945, the carriage was removed by the Germans for safe keeping to the town of Ohrdruf, but as an American armoured column entered the town the detachment of the SS guarding it set it ablaze and it was totally destroyed.

After the war, the Compiègne site was restored, but not until Armistice Day 1950 was a replacement carriage, correct in every detail, rededicated – an identical Compagnie des Wagon-Lits carriage, no. 2439, built 1913 in the same batch as the original, was renumbered no. 2419D.

Key personnel

For the Allies, the personnel involved were entirely military:

For Germany:

  • Matthias Erzberger, a civilian politician;
  • Count Alfred von Oberndorff, from the Foreign Ministry;
  • Major General Detlof von Winterfeldt, the army;
  • Captain Ernst Vanselow, the navy.

General Weygand and General von Gruennel are not mentioned in the (French) document.

Terms

The terms contained the following major points:.[3]

  • Termination of military hostilities within six hours after signature.
  • Immediate removal of all German troops from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Alsace-Lorraine.
  • Subsequent removal of all German troops from territory on the west side of the Rhine plus 30 km radius bridgeheads of the right side of the Rhine at the cities of Mainz, Koblenz, and Cologne with ensuing occupation by Allied and US troops.
  • Removal of all German troops at the eastern front to German territory as it was on August 1, 1914.
  • Renouncement of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Russia and of the Treaty of Bucharest with Romania.
  • Internment of the German fleet.
  • Surrender of materiel: 5,000 cannons, 25,000 machine guns, 3,000 minenwerfers, 1,700 airplanes, 5,000 locomotive engines, and 150,000 railcars.

Aftermath

The peace between the Allies and Germany would subsequently be settled in 1919, by the Paris Peace Conference, and the Treaty of Versailles that same year.

Last casualties

The news was quickly given to the armies during the morning of 11 November, but even after hearing that the armistice was due to start at 11:00, intense warfare continued right until the last minute. 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 which 2,738 men died on the last day of the war.[4]

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 British soldier 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 killed just two minutes before the armistice to the north of Mons, in an Allied trench 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.[5][6]

The last reported German casualty occurred after the 11 a.m. armistice. A Leutnant Tomas, in the Meuse-Argonne sector, went to inform approaching American soldiers that he and his men would be vacating houses that they had been using as billets. However, he was shot by soldiers who had not been told about the ceasefire.

External links

References

  1. ^ zit. nach Haffner, Der Verrat p. 32f.
  2. ^ My Memoirs: 1878–1918 by William II, London: Cassell & Co. (1922) p. 310
  3. ^ a b Hans Michael Kloth (2008-11-11). "Atempause für den Weltuntergang" (in German). Der Spiegel. http://einestages.spiegel.de/static/topicalbumbackground/3131/atempause_fuer_den_weltuntergang.html.  
  4. ^ Persico, Joseph E (2004). Eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour. Random House. ISBN 9780099445395.  
  5. ^ "The last soldiers to die in World War I". BBC News Magazine. October 29, 2008. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7696021.stm. Retrieved 2008-11-06.  
  6. ^ "Michael Palin: My guilt over my great-uncle who died in the First World War". The Telegraph. November 1, 2008. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/3329304/Michael-Palin-My-guilt-over-my-great-uncle-who-died-in-the-First-World-War.html. Retrieved 2008-11-01. "We unearthed many heart-breaking stories, such as that of Augustin Trébuchon, the last Frenchman to die in the War. He was shot just before 11am on his way to tell his fellow soldiers that hot soup would be available after the ceasefire. The parents of the American Pte Henry Gunther had to live with news that their son had died just 60 seconds before it was all over. The last British soldier to die was Pte George Edwin Ellison."  
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