On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the incessant boom of artillery abruptly went silent along the Western Front in France.
An American medical officer, Stanhope Bayne-Jones, suddenly could hear water dripping off a bush next to him. “It seemed mysterious, queer, unbelievable,” he later recalled, according to an account on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website. “All of the men knew what the silence meant, but nobody shouted or threw his hat in the air.” It took hours for the reality to sink in. World War I—the bloodiest conflict so far in human history, with more than 8.5 million military casualties—had finally ended.
But the war ended with an armistice, an agreement in which both sides agree to stop fighting, rather than a surrender. For both sides, an armistice was the fastest way to end the war's misery and carnage.
By November 1918, both the Allies and Central Powers who’d been battering each other for four years were pretty much out of gas. German offensives that year had been defeated with heavy casualties, and in late summer and fall, the British, French and U.S. forces had pushed them steadily back. With the United States able to send more and more fresh troops into combat, the Germans were outmatched. As Germany’s allies crumbled around them as well, the war’s outcome seemed clear.
Even so, both sides were ready for the carnage to stop. “An invasion of Germany would have required too much in terms of morale, logistics and resources,” explains Guy Cuthbertson of Liverpool Hope University and author of Peace at Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918. Beyond that, “where would it end? Berlin is a long way from France.” Instead, “There was a need to end the war as soon as possible as long as the Allies could achieve peace with victory.”
Read more: Life in the Trenches of World War I
Germany’s political and military situation were weak enough that the Germans feared being conquered, Cuthbertson says. “Germany was suffering from starvation,” he says, with the situation getting worse “by the hour.”
Germany asked to negotiate an armistice.
In fact, the Germans had started making overtures about an armistice in early October. At first they tried to go through U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, fearing that the British and the French would insist upon harsh terms. But that end run didn’t succeed. According to Bullitt Lowry’s 1996 book Armistice 1918, the Germans finally sent a late-night radio message to Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander-in-chief of the Allied forces, requesting permission to send a delegation through the lines to negotiate an armistice, and asked for a general cease-fire. Forty-five minutes later, Foch replied. He ignored the cease-fire request, but gave the Germans permission to come.
At 8:00 p.m. on November 7, three automobiles carefully made their way through the nightmarish landscape of artillery craters and barbed wire in no-man’s land in northern France, as a German bugler sounded a truce and another soldier waved a white flag. The German envoys switched to a French car and then boarded a train, and traveled through the night. On the morning of November 8, they pulled into a railroad siding in the Forest of Compiègne, alongside Foch’s railroad car. That was where the meeting would take place.
Recommended for you
Germany agreed to harsh terms.
The task that awaited the German diplomats weighed heavily upon them. “There was the fear of national disgrace,” explains Nicholas Best, author of the 2008 book The Greatest Day in History. “Whoever proposed a laying-down of arms would be hated by militaristic Germans for the rest of his life.” Indeed, Matthias Erzberger, the politician who reluctantly agreed to lead the German delegation, would be murdered not quite three years later by German ultra-nationalist extremists.
There wasn’t much of a negotiation. When the Germans asked if he had an Allied offer, Foch responded, “I have no proposals to make.” His instructions from the Allied governments were to simply present an as-is deal. French General Maxime Weygand then read the terms that the Allies had decided upon to the Germans.
According to Lowry’s account, the Germans became distraught when they heard that they would have to disarm, fearing that they’d be unable to defend their teetering government against communist revolutionaries. But they had little leverage.
In the early morning hours of November 11, Erzberger and Foch met for the final negotiations. According to Lowry, the German emissary tried his best to persuade Foch to make the agreement less severe. Foch made a few small changes, including letting the Germans keep a few of their weapons. Finally, just before dawn, the agreement was signed.
The Germans agreed to pull their troops out of France, Belgium and Luxembourg within 15 days, or risk becoming prisoners of the Allies. They had to turn over their arsenal, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns and 1,700 airplanes, along with 5,000 railroad locomotives, 5,000 trucks and 150,000 wagons. Germany also had to give up the contested territory of Alsace-Lorraine. And they agreed to the indignity of Allied forces occupying German territory along the Rhine, where they would stay until 1930.
“The Allies wouldn't have given Germany better terms because they felt that they had to defeat Germany and Germany could not be allowed to get away with it,” Cuthbertson said. “There's also a sense that an armistice has to ensure that the enemy are not strong enough to start the war again any time soon.”
A WWI peace treaty paved the way to WWII.
After the celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic had died down, two months later a conference was convened at Versailles, just outside Paris, to work out a final peace treaty. But things didn’t go smoothly, Best explains, because the Allied powers who dominated the conference all had different agendas.
“It wasn’t until May that the Allies managed to agree a common position among themselves that they could present to the Germans,” he explains. In the agreement that was signed in June, vanquished Germany was forced to accept harsh terms, including paying reparations that eventually amounted to $37 billion (nearly $492 billion in today’s dollars). That humiliation and the lasting bitterness it engendered helped pave the way to another World War two decades later.
Nevertheless, November 11 itself would become a hallowed day. In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day, which in 1926 became a permanent legal holiday. The day is also now known as Remembrance Day in the Commonwealth of Nations. And in 1954, the U.S. Congress—at the urging of veterans’ organizations—changed its name to Veterans Day to honor service members who had served in World War II and the Korean War as well.