A Peaceful Little Glade: The First Armistice at Compiégne

American Soldiers celebrating Armistice

American soldiers of the 64TH Regiment, 7TH Division, celebrating the Armistice/photo U.S. Army

A Peaceful Little Glade: The First Armistice at Compiégne

| published November 10, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie, Thursday Review contributor


On November 11th, we will observe Veterans Day, honoring those people who have served in the armed forces. Originally observed as “Armistice Day,” beginning in November of 1919, Veterans Day has been a legal holiday in the United States since 1954, the bill proposing it signed into law by President Eisenhower on June 1st of that year. It is known in other parts of the world as “Armistice Day" or “Remembrance Day” and is observed as the anniversary marking the end of World War I.

World War I, the so-called “War to End All Wars,” began in July, 1914, one month after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Spontaneous, patriotic celebrations broke out all over Europe following public pronouncements declaring war. Newspaper articles fanned the passions of the populace while politicians assured their countrymen the war would be short, swift and victorious. Millions of young men volunteered for service and were greeted with cheers and flowers when they entrained for the front.

However, an atmosphere of trepidation and foreboding also developed among political and military leaders although they continued to assure their civilians that any sacrifices they made and any privations they suffered would be temporary, and that the war would be brief. Upon the outbreak of war, the Allies were represented primarily by the United Kingdom/British Empire and France, the Central Powers by Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Later in the war, the United States would join the Allies’ cause as would Italy, while Bulgaria would be added to the Central Powers.

Initially, the battlefields on eastern and western fronts were noted by a fast, fluid pace of battle. After several weeks, the pace slowed and the fighting settled into the slower, grinding trench warfare for which the war is known, most prominently on the western front. Huge battles were fought—the Marne, Somme, Verdun in the west, and Tannenberg and Görlitze in the east. Those battles were costly in terms of blood but ultimately none of them knocked a major combatant out of the war. In terms of the lives lost, several of those battles were costly in the extreme; at the Somme, on the first day of battle, the British lost more than 58,000 soldiers, more than a third of them killed. At Verdun, the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands.

New technology took form in new weapons, too. The war at sea expanded underwater with the use of submarines and fighting occurred in the sky as planes were used initially as observation platforms but were soon armed with machine guns to shoot at each other. The use of new technology also took form in yellow and green clouds rolling over trenches - poison gas. But even the employment of submarines, aircraft and poisons did not bring the war to the quick conclusion soldiers and civilians had been promised.

As of late 1917, and over after 3 years of slaughter, the outcome of the war was still in doubt. The United States had entered on the side of the Allies but American power had not yet been fully brought to bear on the battlefield. The German leadership was still cautiously optimistic because they had knocked Russia out of the war that summer. By autumn, Russia was wracked by revolution and social upheaval. The Romanov dynasty was toppled and the new provisional government was also on the brink of collapse. Germany, however, was suffering under the pressure of the Allied blockade. German military leaders, mainly Eric Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg, were planning a massive spring offensive and were privately regarding it as a final throw of the dice.

The Germans final major offensive, “Operation Michael,” achieved initial tactical success but ultimately failed to rend Allied lines or reach Paris. Peace feelers had already been extending throughout Europe, emanating mostly from President Woodrow Wilson. The increasingly exhausted combatants were also more inclined by this time to consider peace overtures.

The leaders of the belligerent countries were aware of the situation in Russia and were worried about increasing socialist agitation and influence affecting their political fortunes. The Russian provisional government was fighting for its survival while the Bolshevik opposition grew in strength. Elsewhere in Europe, the political landscape became fractured as radical ideas were brought to public attention by returning soldiers and spread by media.

In late October, 1918, the Allies launched their final offensive, aiming for the German border. Rumors began circulating in Germany’s High Seas Fleet that return to sea was imminent as an effort to break through the blockade. As the Allied advance made significant progress on land, sailors in Kiev staged a mutiny. The situation unraveled quickly. At the end of October, the Turks surrendered and the Austro-Hungarian Empire followed suit on November 3d. Militarily and diplomatically, Germany was effectively alone.

With the specter of revolution looming before them, the Supreme Command convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Chancellor, Georg Graf von Hertling, that Germany’s military situation was untenable and the country was teetering on collapse. The Kaiser was compelled to abdicate on November 9th and a republic proclaimed.

The first armistice of Compiégne was signed at 5:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, as a prelude for a peace settlement. The armistice took effect at 11:00 a.m. The German delegation was met in the little glade of Rethondes, in the forest of Compiégne. The signing occurred in the railway car of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who largely wrote the terms of the armistice. The location was selected because it was quiet, discreet and relatively close to Paris. The German delegation was not invited to negotiate or discuss the terms of the surrender. They were simply told to sign the documents, and British and French leaders implied that the war would be resumed should the Germans balk at signing.

As for the terms of the armistice, inter alia: hostilities would completely cease in all areas; the German navy would be interned; all artillery and aircraft were to be turned over to the allies; likewise, 5,000 locomotive engines turned over to the French or British, and German troops would evacuate both fronts. In addition, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Russia surrendered to Germany, was renounced and its terms rescinded.

Although the guns fell silent, the scope, violence and duration of the war had resulted in the traumatic dislocation of European society. It had been anything but the short and glorious little war Europe’s political leaders had so confidently predicted. Soldiers returned home to feelings of anxiety and uncertainty regarding the future. Economies were ravaged, resources depleted, and infrastructure ruined. Tens of thousands of surviving soldiers returned home maimed, disfigured or in varying states of mental anguish or shellshock—what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition, the binding effect of the war, which held together disparate elements of national populations in the face of a common enemy and subsumed regional and class disputes, dissolved. In some areas, especially Eastern Europe, ethnic tensions boiled over and were intensified by renewed border disputes. Coupled with extreme economic hardship after the war, the stage was set for intense religious and ethnic animosity across much of a devastated Europe.

In the meantime, the western Allies began rancorous discussions amongst themselves to formalize a treaty legally ending the war. Those discussions eventually resulted in a draconian peace which sowed the seeds of another war, one with even wider consequences for the world.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Silent Night, Christmas 1914; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; December 21, 2014.

The Legacy of Tannenberg; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; August 29, 2014.