The Armistice

(Reprinted from Army Nurses of World War I:  Service Beyond Expectations)

At 11:00 A.M. on November 11, 1918, the guns all across the span of the Western Front fell silent.  In accordance with an agreement signed earlier that morning by representatives of the Allied and German armies, all fighting between the two opposing forces was immediately halted.  The three-million-strong German Army, demoralized and weary, began its retreat to the pre-war German border where it was to be immediately demobilized.  The three Allied armies – American, British, and French – followed the retreating Germans to the banks of the Rhine River, where they prepared for their new task as victorious occupiers.  Though the actual peace treaty would not be signed until June 28, 1919, and separate treaties would have to be negotiated with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, the First World War was over.

The armistice came as a surprise to the Allied war planners.  The three commanding generals – Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig for the British, Marshall Ferdinand Foch for the French, and General John J. Pershing for the Americans – were already planning the Spring 1919 offensive which would carry their armies into German territory.  Though clearly a worn-out force that was a shadow of its former self, the German Army was still seen as a dangerous foe, capable of a stubborn defense.  Unknown to the Allies, however, in an August 1918 meeting in Spa, Belgium, the German Army’s commanders, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff, bluntly told Kaiser Wilhelm II that the German Army was no longer capable of offensive action.  From that point until November 11, the Germans began casting about for a way to make peace while saving whatever face possible.  As summer changed to autumn, however, the options available to the Germans grew fewer and fewer.  The German Navy’s mutiny on October 28, 1918, the unconditional surrender of the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary on October 31 and November 4, and the abdication of the Kaiser on November 10, left them little choice but to accept the stern conditions offered by the Allied forces.

In addition to withdrawing to their pre-war borders and accepting the military occupation of the Rhineland, the German Army was ordered to surrender all of its war material – including submarines, aircraft, the German navy, trucks, and artillery pieces – and demobilize immediately.  The Allied naval blockade would remain in place, ensuring that essential foodstuffs would be withheld from the starving German population.  Combined with the 1919 Versailles Treaty formally ending the war, the Armistice terms would embitter the defeated Germans, ensuring that a future generation would seek to overturn the humiliation of 1918 while also blaming it on internal dissension and betrayal – the so-called “stab-in-the-back” (dolchstoß) legend.

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