On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, was declared between the Allied nations and Germany in the First World War, then known as “the Great War.” Though the Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, marked the official end of the war, the public still viewed November 11th as the date that marked the end of the Great War.
At 2.05am on 11 November 1918, after four years of conflict, a German delegation sat down in the railway carriage of Allied supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a few hours’ north of Paris. Talks had gone on for three days, and the German delegates were close to accepting the terms for an armistice, a formal agreement to end the fighting.
The Germans had been defeated after a brutal summer of attrition; over the past four months, Allied and American forces had overwhelmed the final line of German defences in the battles of the Hundred Days Offensive. On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II had been persuaded to seek asylum in the Netherlands.
In the early hours of 11 November, final terms were laid out and at 5.12am, the armistice was signed. It declared the “cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing”.
Terms of the agreement included: the immediate German withdrawal from the territories they had acquired during the conflict; the disarmament and demobilization of the German military; and the release of Allied prisoners. The terms made it impossible for Germany to resume any fighting.
This was the last of the September–November 1918 armistices between the warring nations, and peace came into effect six hours after the armistice was signed, at 11am – or at the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”. It has been estimated that during the time between the signing and the announcement of peace, the war produced a further 11,000 casualties.
Over the last century, the day has become a more somber day of reflection, marked with poppies and respectful silence. However, 11 November 1918 was a moment of wild celebration for many.
“The day the war ended was a weird and wonderful carnival rather than the day of mournful seriousness that Armistice Day would become in later years,” wrote Guy Cuthbertson for BBC History Magazine. “The armistice brought church services and tears, but it was a day of joy, spontaneity, noise, and fun.”
In Cambridge, students threw books, a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the Kaiser was burned in the market square while people danced around the bonfire.
On 12 November, the Daily Mirror reported: “Conversation in the Strand was impossible owing to the din of cheers, whistles, hooters and fireworks”. While the initial celebrations were filled with relief and jubilation in many quarters, the soldiers still had to be ‘demobbed’ and huge swathes of the population were irrevocably changed.
Peter Hart, an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive, wrote in 2009 about the many soldiers who returned home with mental and physical scars.“Many had presumed that they would not live to see the end of the war.
Part of their mental defenses was the idea that they had nothing to look forward to; that as doomed men they did not have much to lose if they were killed. In a flash, their mental landscape had changed.”
(Photo credit: Archive Photos / Library of Congress).