On 11 November 1918, the armistice between the Entente and Germany was signed at Le Francport, near Compiègne, ending World War I.
The military situation of the Central Powers had declined significantly following the Battle of Amiens in early August, forcing the Germans to retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the loss of gains from the spring offensive. Moreover, the Allied advance, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, intensified further in September, when France and the US opened a new offensive. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire was close to exhaustion, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in chaos, and resistance by the Bulgarian Army had collapsed.
As a result, in September 1918 the German Supreme Army Command informed Emperor Wilhelm II and the Imperial Chancellor Count Georg von Hertling that Germany’s military situation was hopeless. Erich Ludendorff, the Quartermaster General, pressed for an immediate ceasefire, suggesting acceptance of US President Woodrow Wilson's demands stated in his Fourteen Points for more favourable peace terms. The preconditions for negotiations included the retreat of Germany from all occupied territories, the cessation of submarine activities and the Kaiser's abdication.
However, a month later Ludendorff changed his mind and refused to accept the terms, demanding a resumption of the war. This decision was met with heavy criticism, since the German Army was experiencing a high number of desertions, and Ludendorff was eventually dismissed. Negotiations for a truce then began on November 5, with the Allies now demanding reparation payments.
Negotiation of the Armistice
The Armistice of 1918 was a hurried and desperate process. The German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, embarked on a swift journey across the war-torn region of Northern France in five cars, arriving on the morning of November 8, 1918. They were then taken to a secret location in the Forest of Compiègne.
The negotiation process was brief, lasting only three days. The Germans were presented with a list of demands and given 72 hours to agree. The negotiations were limited, only allowing the Germans to correct a few impossible demands but with little room for refusal. Still, following Kaiser Wilhelm’s abdication on November 10, they were requested by the German High Command to sign the armistice even if the conditions could not be improved.
The Armistice was finally agreed upon at 5:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, to take effect at 11:00 a.m. CET. It consisted of 34 clauses, structured to demilitarize Germany and halt hostilities across various fronts. The key provisions of the Armistice encompassed significant territorial evacuations, surrender of military equipment, and the return of prisoners of war and interned civilians.
On the Western Front, the Armistice required the immediate cessation of hostilities in the air and on land within six hours of signing. Germany was forced to evacuate France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and territories like Alsace-Lorraine within 15 days. Regarding the Eastern and African fronts, the terms required the immediate withdrawal of German troops from Romania and territories formerly under the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires back to German territory as it stood on August 1, 1914. Additionally, Germany was compelled to evacuate its forces in Africa. At sea, the Armistice demanded an immediate halt to hostilities and the surrender of German submarines within 14 days. German surface vessels were to be interned or disarmed, allowing free access to German waters for Allied ships and those from neutral nations. Finally, an immediate release of all Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians was demanded.
The reaction of the public to the news of the armistice was varied but, overall, there was a sense of muted celebration with an absence of grand celebrations due to exhaustion and solemnity after more than four years of relentless warfare. The peace between the Allies and Germany was subsequently settled in 1919 by the Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles that same year.
Nowadays, the Armistice of 1918 serves as a significant historical milestone, commemorated annually in many countries under various names such as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, and Veterans Day. It stands as a symbol of the end of World War I and a tribute to those who lost their life during the conflict. Additionally, the Armistice site at Compiègne bore further historical weight during World War II, as Adolf Hitler arranged the 1940 armistice negotiations there as a symbol of German revenge for their prior defeat.