The Armistice of 1918 and its signing
By October 1918 General Ludendorff, the Quartermaster General of the German Armed forces, had to admit that his plan to hold the Allies at the Hindenburg Line had failed and that his last reserves were now exhausted. His troops were demoralised and worn out and the time had come to seek the first opportunity to sue for peace.
The propaganda machine in Germany had broken down and the Allied blockade was taking its toll on the German people, they were starving and disturbances were breaking out. The Kaiser was being asked to abdicate and there was real fear of a revolution similar to the one in Russia. With all of this happening the new Imperial Chancellor Prince Max of Baden and the government agreed with Ludendorff and decided to seek an Armistice.
On the 6th October via the Swiss government’s minister in Berne, a note was sent to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to inform all Allied forces to send representatives to start negotiating the terms for an Armistice. The German Chancellor had chosen to approach Wilson because of the terms he had suggested for peace in his 14 point statement made in January 1918.
Baden accepted Wilson’s proposal formally on the 12th October but by the 16th Marshal Foch who had already drafted terms to impose upon the Germans insisted on his privileges as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces which enabled him to appoint government advisors after consulting with French, British and American Forces. Therefore President Wilsons 14 points were discarded and Foch retained all responsibilities. Not that any of these points had been agreed by the British and French governments or ratified by the US Congress.
By the beginning of November several meetings had taken place. Foch had met with the French Premier and other heads of governments as well as the Allied Commanders-in-Chief and by the 4th November the terms for the Armistice were examined by the Supreme Council of War which consisited of nine plenipotentiaries. On that day the final text for the Armistice was drawn up by the Allied Heads of Government. With these preliminaries out of the way the meeting between the two opponents could now take place.
On 5th November orders were given to receive the Germans under a flag of truce and on the 6th the Germans released the names of the of the plenipotentiaries (diplomats invested with full independent power on behalf of their government). They were as follows:
Matthias Erzberger, The Minister of State
Major-General Detlof von Winterfeldt
Count Oberndorff, The Plenipotentiary Minister
Naval Captain Vanselow
Captain Geyer, German General Staff
Captain von Helldorf, Interpreter
The German plenipotentiaries, led by Matthias Erzberger, were told to approach General Debeney’s army along the front between Givet – La Capelle – Guise. A provisional cease fire had been sort but was refused apart from the route leading into La Capelle.
At 20:20 hours four cars, with their headlights fully on and displaying white flags approached the French lines near the hamlet of Haudroy. A trumpeter sounding the cease fire clung to the running board of the lead vehicle. It was pouring with rain and a thick mist hung over the ground.
Here the vehicles were stopped and the German party was met by 25 year old Captain Lhuillier commanding the 1st Battalion of the 171st Infantry Regiment. A French bugler, Corporal Pierre Sellier replaced the German trumpeter and this small convoy set off through the French Lines to Villa Paques at La Capelle. As they travelled Sellier, the bugler played the cease fire and the call to attention. Up until his death in 1948 Sellier would play the cease fire each year in commemoration.
At Villa Paques they were received by Major Ducornez and invited to leave behind their cars which were decorated with the imperial German eagle and get into French vehicles. Once they left La Capelle they journeyed to Homblieres near Saint Quentin where the commander of the 1st French Army met them in a devastated presbytery. They were given a simple meal before starting out once again. The whole point of this journey was to show them the shear destruction that had been caused to France by this war. After three hours of travelling they reached the town of Tergnier which lay in ruins and this visibly moved the Germans. Here a train awaited them at the station and a smart company of riflemen presented arms as they boarded a saloon car which at one stage had been used by Napoleon III and was adorned with the monogram ‘N’ and draped in green satin.
The train set off into the night its windows had been screened and the Germans had no idea where they were heading. At 7:00am the train stopped in a marshy copse and the windows were then uncovered. A few yards away stood another train shrouded by mist. It was only when a gendarme gave the secret away that they knew that they were in the forest of Compiegne.
The Carriage bore the number 2419D and had been fitted out as an office. In this carriage sat Field Marshal Foch the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied armies. Normally his headquarters situated in Senlis would have been used to meet envoys suing for a cease fire but it was located near Paris and the town would have been swamped by reporters and sightseers from all countries. Also Senlis had been shamefully treated by the Germans in 1914 when the Mayor and innocent hostages had been shot. Foch felt sure the inhabitants would not hide their indignation.
The two carriages were shunted into two sections of railway track. These tracks were spurs intended for heavy artillery to fire towards Noyon. Once moved they were then connected by duckboards as the ground was so poor.
Word was sent to the Germans that Foch would meet with them at 9:00am. Foch knew that capitulation by the Germans would have to be the outcome of this meeting or the French would begin the invasion of France on the Loraine Front.
After they had entered the carriage Marshal Foch entered and saluted the German Plenipotentiaries. Erzberger as head introduced the members of his delegation and Foch in turn introduced the officers who had accompanied him. They were:
Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, British First Lord of the Admiralty
English Rear Admiral Hope
General Weygand, The Chief of Staff
After studying the German delegate’s credentials they were invited to take their seats at the long side of a table. At the ends of the table sat two officer secretaries: Captain von Helldorf and the interpreter-officer Laperche.
The following is a description of the meeting in real time as recorded by Marshal Foch and General Weygand:
Foch: What is the object of your visit?
Obendorf (intervening): We wish to enquire into the conditions under which the Allies would agree to an armistice.
Foch (coldly): I have no proposals to make to you.
Erzberger (diffidently): However, President Wilson…. … …
Foch (sharply): I am here to give you an answer if you ask for an armistice. Do you ask for an armistice? If you do, I can acquaint you with the conditions under which it will be obtained.
Erberger and Obendorff (together): Ja
General Weygand reads out the text proposed by the Allied Governments.
Erzberger: May I communicate these proposals to my government?
Foch: You may send them by special courier.
Erzberger: Because of the communication problems, I request that the time allowed for a reply which is limited to seventy two hours be extended by twenty four hours.
Foch: The period of seventy two hours has been determined by Allied governments. It will be adhered to. I shall expect your answer by 11:00am (French time).
Throughout the meeting which lasted forty five minutes Marshal Foch remained stoically still and the British Admiral fiddled with his monocle. Once the terms had been fully read out, Erzberger asked for a cessation of military operations but Foch refused and would not grant this wish until the terms had been accepted. In the face of this refusal the Germans requested that a German messenger be sent to Spa with the text of the terms for an armistice. Captain von Helldorf set off at 1:00pm.
By the time he had arrived in Spa a series of important events had taken place in Germany. The Kaiser had abdicated and the reins of the government had been entrusted to Deputy Ebert and the new German republic was proclaimed.
Several private talks took place over the 8th and 9th November between the German delegates and General Weygand and Admiral Hope regarding the terms of the armistice but Foch remained firm. Talks continued throughout the 10th until at last between 7 and 8:00pm two radio messages were received. They read:
“The German Government accepts the terms of the Armistice imposed on the 8th November.”
“The Under Secretary of State Erzberger is authorized to sign the Armistice.”
At 9:00pm a long telegram in cipher arrived from Marshal von Hindenberg that urged that as soon as the armistice was signed a cessation of hostilities should ensue without delay in order to save lives.
At 2:15am on the 11th November 1918 the German delegates attended a meeting in the carriage. The final text was read aloud by General Weygand. It contained twenty four articles specifying the cessation of hostilities six hours after the signing of the agreement which included:
Evacuation of invaded countries, the restoration of Alsace and Lorraine, the surrender of war materials, guns, aeroplanes, railway rolling stock, bridgeheads established into the Rhine and the repatriation of prisoners. The Armistice was also to last 36 hours. Other meetings were held in November, December and January 1919 to formulate the Peace Treaty to be signed at Versailles.
At 11:00am the cease fire was sounded across the front this time for good.
At 11:30 the Germans left the forest of Compiegne for Tergnier where they regained their vehicles and returned to Spa and so the Great War had effectively come to an end.
The site of the Armistice was preserved and called “The Glade of the Armistice”. The carriage which had returned to being a dining car was brought back and kept in a small museum on the site. When the Germans occupied France during World War Two the carriage was again used for the signing of an armistice. After which it was taken to Germany and eventually destroyed by fire. The site and its memorials were also destroyed by the Germans but rebuilt once again after the war and a reconstruction of the carriage installed.
You can visit this historical site with Rifleman Tours when we conduct our ‘Last 100 Days’ five day battlefield tour in August 2018. This tour takes you through the final 100 days of the war from the repulse of the German Spring offensive to the final shots being fired at Mons before finishing at the fitting Glade of the Armistice.
Lest we forget.
For more details of our five day Battlefield tour click below on link:
Advance to Victory – The last 100 days of World War One