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The signing of Armistice


Armistice Day is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. The Armistice was signed at 5.12AM on 11 November but, for tidiness, it was agreed the ceasefire would take place at 11.00AM on the 11th day of the 11th month. In an extraordinary coincidence, the number plate of the car in which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was travelling when he was assassinated was A 111 118.

With the surrender of the Ottoman Empire and of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany was isolated but unrealistically still hoped for a negotiated peace that would enable it to maintain its pride and the territory it now occupied. On 7 November a signal was sent to Marshal Foch requesting a meeting. The German delegation would all too soon be disabused of their illusions. On 9 November the Kaiser abdicated and Germany became a republic.

Three days earlier two trains had arrived at Rethondes, forty miles north of Paris. One was the train used as headquarters by Marshal Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces. The other contained German civilian politicians and an assortment of senior but obscure military officers, enabling Hitler later to claim that Germany ‘had been stabbed in the back’ and betrayed by its politicians.

The Germans made their way to Foch’s carriage where Foch enquired ‘Ask what these gentlemen want?’ The German delegation replied that they had come to hear the proposals for peace but when Foch replied ‘I have no proposals to make,’ the Germans knew that it would not be an honourable negotiated peace but a humiliating defeat.

It took three days to finalise the details; Germany would hand over all its artillery, all its machine guns, its fleet comprising six battle cruisers, ten battleships, eight light cruisers, fifty destroyers and its submarines, and its air force of seventeen hundred aeroplanes. It would withdraw to its original frontiers.

The Armistice was signed at 5.12 a.m. on 11 November although it was agreed the ceasefire would take place at 11.00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month for tidiness. It is estimated that in those last six hours of fighting a further two thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight men were killed, needlessly. The last to die, a Canadian soldier, was shot by a German sniper just two minutes before the bugles sounded the end of the fighting.

But it was not the end of War. Peace was but an interlude before the outbreak of the Second World War. In an action redolent with symbolism, Hitler would, on 22nd June 1940, accept the surrender of France in that same railway carriage.

In the meantime, in Britain, there was universal relief and celebration, as portrayed in Sassoon’s poem ‘Everyone Sang’, written in April 1919:

Siegfried Sassoon: Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; On; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears and horror
Drifted away ….. O but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
The singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon
April 1919

Extract from Ghosts of War by Andrew Ferguson

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