By the autumn of 1918 Germany began to realise that she could not fight on much longer. Her allies were withdrawing from the fight and her people had started to rebel. On 29 September, the Supreme German Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Chancellor, Count Georg von Hertling, that the military situation facing the German army was hopeless. General Erich Ludendorff informed them that he could not guarantee being able to hold the front for another two hours let alone two weeks and that a ceasefire must be sorted.
On 3 October Count Georg von Hertling was replaced as Chancellor by Prince Maximilian of Baden. Baden was a liberal, not associated with the military, and his immediate task was to seek an armistice with the allies. On 5 October, after much discussion, a message was sent to the American President Woodrow Wilson to seek an armistice based on the ‘Fourteen Points’ that he had declared in a speech earlier that year (these ‘Fourteen Points were never sanctioned by congress and the Allies considered them a piece of American propaganda). After seeing the Americans fighting in Europe, and suffering many casualties, the Woodrow Wilson of October was a different man from the one who gave the speech that contained these fourteen points. He insisted that the Kaiser’s abdication was an essential part of any deal and peace negotiations could not be discussed, it must be surrender.
In late October, Ludendorff had a change of mind stating that the Allies’ terms were unacceptable and that Germany should resume the war which he earlier had claimed was lost. With desertions rife and the army failing to raise to any battles, the German Government replaced Ludendorff and stayed on course to seek an armistice.
Germany then began to crumble. On 29 October the sailors of the High Seas Fleet stationed at Kiel mutinied after it was instructed to return to sea. Within a few days the city of Kiel was in the sailors’ control and revolution was spreading throughout the country; Bavaria goes as far as to declare itself an independent republic.
Things need to happen quickly to contain the situation and a delegation is sent to negotiate an armistice. The delegation is headed by Matthias Erzberger and it crossed the front line in five cars where it was escorted for ten hours across the devastated war zone of Northern France before being put on a train and taken to a secret destination; a railway siding in the forest of Compiègne where they arrived on the morning of 8 November. In the siding was another train and onboard was Ferdinand Foch (pictured right).
The delegation entered the train and, sat behind a large desk, was Foch. They approached him and he ignored them, in a way treating them like naughty school boys up before the headmaster for punishment. They exclaim they have come to seek an Armistice and with that replies “if you seek an armistice here are our terms”. There were 35 terms in all but these are the main ten:
- Immediate vacation of occupied teritory.
- Immediate vacation of the western bank of the Rhine.
- A bridgehead into Germany is to be made available.
- Return of all prisoners of war.
- Immediate handover of arms including aircraft and submarines.
- Internment of the entire German Fleet.
- Payment of the cost of the Allied army of occupation.
- Restoration of all damage done in German occupied territory.
- Handing over of 5,000 serviceable locomotives.
- The economic blockade to remain in place.
The negations take three days but essentially there is no negotiation. The Kaiser abdicates on 9 November and on the 10th the delegates are shown papers from Paris confirming this. On this day, Erzberger is instructed to sign the armistice and upon receiving a message from Hindenburg, which also instructed him to sign the armistice even if favourable terms could not be reached, the die was cast.
At 5:00am on 11 November the armistice was agreed and signed and would come into effect at 11:00am Paris time (12:00 noon German time) for which reason the occasion is sometimes referred to as ‘the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’. Signatures were made between 5:12am and 5:20am, Paris time.
And so the hostilities drew to a close. However, the war would not officially finish until June 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles is signed in the ‘Hall of Mirrors’. But we wear our poppy to remember the war and this moment in history.
None more sacred a place to remember the Armistice is Ypres in Belgium and in the Ypres Salient where a special Last Post Ceremony is held under the Menin Gate. Our next blog will be about our Remembrance Tour to Ypres.
Lest we forget.