Freelance writer from Cornwall
Part of the Allied delegation at Compiegne, outside the train carriage in which terms were agreed and the Armistice signed.
As the world knows, the Armistice to end the First World War officially came into effect at 11am on November 11, 1918. What fewer people know is that the terms of peace (the Germans wanted to attach conditions while the Allies demanded total, unconditional surrender) had been secretly discussed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne for several days previously. The German government had sued for peace on November 6 and it was on November 8 that Allied and German delegations met. The Germans, frightened by the severity of the deal offered, wanted to negotiate easier terms. The head of the Allied delegation, Marshal Ferdinand Foch of the French Army, wasn’t there to negotiate terms. He was there to dictate them.
It was obvious from the peace deal offered to the German delegation, led by senior politician Mathias Erzberger, that it would be a frosty, difficult discussion. How difficult and frosty it would be was made abundantly obvious when Foch first met the German delegates and, fixing them with a cold and indifferent glare, said “What do you want, gentlemen?” It was obvious to the Germans, from Foch’s attitude and their own weak bargaining position, exactly what Foch himself wanted. Total, unconditional surrender of the German forces and their complete submission to the most punitive peace terms that he could impose. Foch was there to deliver terms, the Germans were there to accept them. It was really a negotiation in name only.
The Allied terms were loosely based on US President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, the proposed terms of peace.In practice, the terms were largely written by Foch himself and Foch, having lost his only son during the war and being enraged by the devastation wrought on his country and people, wasn’t in any mood to compromise. It would be his terms or no terms and, if refused, the Allies had the capability to march onward into Germany and then Berlin itself.
Boldly, considering they didn’t really have anything to bargain with, the Germans did at least try to negotiate a somewhat less onerous agreement. But it was a seller’s market and Foch was chief salesman. It was the Germans coming cap-in-hand to the Allies and Foch knew it. All he had to do was offer the Allied terms and stand his ground and the Germans would simply have to cave in. It was only a matter of time. The German position was rendered effectively hopeless by other factors than simply battlefield defeats and steadily-weakening military power. On November 3 the German Navy had mutinied in its major bases at Kiel and Wilhemshaven. On the same day, Germany’s principal ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had sued for peace. On November 5, President Wilson had agreed to armistice talks with terms based on his ‘Fourteen Points’, but had insisted that the actual talks be conducted by Marshal Foch who, as we’ve already seen, was fully aware of his superior position and had every intention of fully exploiting it. Short of their armies in the field completely collapsing and the Allies deciding to march on Berlin the German position couldn’t have been any weaker and both sides knew it.
The German position would continue to weaken until they finally signed the surrender. On November 9 the German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and was replaced by a purely political leader. Friedrich Ebert was now Chancellor of Germany. The Kaiser himself, having been warned by his generals that they couldn’t protect him if the country should collapse entirely and that national collapse was only a matter of time, fled to neutral Holland for his own safety. He left behind him a country with a mutinous navy, Socialists and Communists doing their best to start a revolution and a starving population with regular food riots. What had been Imperial Germany was now a powder-keg waiting for a spark. Peace had to be secured, and secured quickly, if Germany’s political leaders were to have even a chance of avoiding outright revolution.
But, onerous and spiteful though they were, the peace terms offered were the only peace terms on the table and the Germans had no choice but to meekly accept. The Armistice was finally signed at 5:10am on November 11, 1918 and would go into effect at exactly 11am the same day. The eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. A few hours later, exactly at 11am, the Armistice came into force. What was at the time the bloodiest conflict in human history was over.
In my next post I’ll explain that soldiers on both sides continued dying, right up until the very moment the Armistice came into effect. After that I’ll relate the absurdity of the last major Allied attack of the war, the needless waste of life that resulted only hours before 11am and the seemingly insane reason for that attack being ordered.
Until my next post, bye for now. I’ll post daily this week, as we count down towards the final day of the First World War.