On This Day

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Associated Press
American troops in northeast France cheer after hearing that the armistice has been signed.

On This Day: Armistice Ends World War I

November 11, 2010 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 11, 1918, representatives from Germany and the Allied forces signed an armistice that brought an end to fighting in World War I.

Armistice Day Ends War

Fighting in World War I, known then as the Great War, began in 1914 and dragged on for years in a stalemate. The war’s turning point came in 1917 when the United States ended its neutrality and pledged its support to the Allied forces (primarily Britain and France) against the Central Powers (primarily Germany and Austria-Hungary).

In the spring of 1918, the German military launched an offensive to cripple the Allies before a significant number of American troops could arrive at the Western Front. Though they made their deepest advances of the war, the Germans were repulsed in July and the offensive failed.

By September, German forces had retreated back to the Hindenburg Line, one of their final lines of defense along the Western Front. On Sept. 29, after the line had been pierced, German Gen. Erich Ludendorff told the German government that it should sue for peace.

Chancellor Georg von Hertling resigned, and Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Max von Baden to seek peace. On Oct. 4, von Baden sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson requesting an armistice based on Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a plan for peace he had laid out in January.

Wilson and the German leadership negotiated an armistice through October. The Germans, hoping to negotiate from a position of strength, became reluctant to concede as their fortunes on the battlefield briefly appeared brighter. The situation around them soon began to collapse, however.

The German public’s support for the war waned, and at the end of October, German sailors began to mutiny. Germany’s allies, the Central Powers, also began to fall. Bulgaria had surrendered on Sept. 29, Turkey surrendered on Oct. 30, and Austria-Hungary gave in on Nov. 3. Ludendorff resigned on Oct. 27, and Wilhelm would abdicate and flee to the Netherlands on Nov. 10.

On Nov. 8, a German delegation led by Matthias Erzberger crossed into Allied territory at the Compiegne Forest to meet with French Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Foch presented the Germans with a list of 35 demands in an armistice, which included the immediate withdrawal of troops from France, Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine, Eastern Europe and East Africa, the surrender of weapons, vehicles and other war materials, and the return of prisoners of war. The Allies would also maintain a naval blockade on Germany.

After several days of negotiation and revisions, the German delegation agreed to sign an armistice calling for an end to hostilities for 30 days. Shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, the parties signed the document, set to take effect six hours later. The war is therefore said to have ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, though fighting continued that day.

“All over the world on November 11, 1918, people were celebrating, dancing in the streets, drinking champagne, hailing the armistice that meant the end of the war,” wrote American Col. Thomas Gowenlock years later. “But at the front there was no celebration. Many soldiers believed the Armistice only a temporary measure and that the war would soon go on. As night came, the quietness, unearthly in its penetration, began to eat into their souls. … They were trying to reassure themselves that there were no enemy batteries spying on them from the next hill and no German bombing planes approaching to blast them out of existence.”

The Treaty of Versailles

The armistice brought about an indefinite end to the fighting, but the Allies desired a formal peace treaty to officially end the war. Allied leaders met in Paris in January to draft the treaty, a process that took five months. During this time, the armistice, which was set to expire after 30 days, was continually renewed.

The peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Versailles, imposed harsher penalties on Germany than the armistice, forcing it to accept guilt for the war and pay billions of dollars to cover the damage. The signing of the treaty on June 28, 1919, officially ended German involvement in the war.

Background: World War I

World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.

PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.

First World War.com provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.

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