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Armistice Day in WWI: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Freda Bradley

Freda holds a Master's Degree in History and teaches a variety of college history courses.

Armistice Day is commemorated globally by various nations to honor the fallen in World War I. Read more about how this agreement was reached, and how it helped lead to the Treaty of Versailles.

Meeting in a Forest

At 5 o'clock in the morning on November 11, 1918, just north of Paris in the isolated Forest of Compiegne, representatives from the countries of France, Great Britain, and Germany held a clandestine meeting in a railway car. The hope was that the Allies could secure an end to the hostilities of the First World War (also called the Great War), by the signing of an armistice, a mutual agreement to a ceasefire that is a precursor to a peace treaty. Armistice Day began as the ending of hostilities between the Allied Powers and Germany in the First World War. Although the armistice did not officially end the war, it did end the fighting as a precursor to the Treaty of Versailles, which did end the war.

Road to Armistice

Germany had requested the meeting, but the Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch, was not convinced of the Germans' sincerity, despite the fact that they had reached out to President Woodrow Wilson of the United States the previous month for help in ending the war. Wilson agreed to be the intermediary, based on his now famous Fourteen Points for peace. Immediately upon contacting the Allies, objections were raised against Wilson's plan. Great Britain wanted to continue the naval blockade of Germany, and France wanted Germany to pay war reparations, both of which would be severe blows to German economic recovery.

President Wilson did not agree with either of these approaches, but he compromised by accepting both objections, stating that if any more objections were brought forward, the United States would negotiate a separate peace with Germany, which could damage the military standing of the Allies. No more objections were raised, and the terms of the armistice were drawn up and sent to the German Supreme War Council on November 5, 1918.

The terms were not immediately accepted by Germany, however. The United States had firmly insisted on the abdication of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, but Germany objected. Eventually, they found they really had no recourse and ultimately had to agree. This agreement to abdication was the final hurdle to the actual meeting to discuss the armistice in the Forest of Compiegne.

The Signing of the Armistice

Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch chose the meeting place deliberately. Inside the densely covered forest and away from the media, he hoped the delegations would be isolated from view both from the air and from the ground. He wanted both privacy and security, but also wanted to prevent raising the hopes of the world if a ceasefire agreement could not be reached.

Ferdinand Foch, the French commander of the Allied forces, second from right

However, unbeknownst to Foch, the German delegation had already been instructed to sign any agreement set before them. They had no choice. Germany was facing a severe food shortage brought by the British Naval blockades, and their economy was toppling. Ceasefire was their only option, because they no longer had the ability as a nation to continue the fight. Therefore, Foch was able to easily secure the agreement of Germany to end hostilities.

Although the armistice was signed at 5 o'clock in the morning, it did not take effect until later in the day at 11 o'clock to allow for the information to travel to the entire Western Front. Due to this, fighting continued after the armistice was signed, causing as many as an additional 10,000 casualties in those final few hours.

A portrait of the German delegation signing the armistice agreement

Armistice Turned Treaty

The original armistice created a cessation of hostilities, but it did not end the Great War. Therefore, from the time of the armistice until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, hostilities could reignite at any moment if Germany stepped outside the bounds of its agreement. Tensions remained high on both sides, but the armistice was successfully renewed every thirty days until the Treaty of Versailles finally ended the war more than seven months later.

President Wilson's Fourteen Points ended with a statement indicating that hostility against Germans was not intended. It also stated that it was hoped that Germany would take an equal place, as opposed to a place of mastery, in the world. Unfortunately, the German people felt the terms of the armistice did not reflect this ideal. They felt that the terms of the ceasefire were unnecessarily punitive in nature and began to resent the terms quickly. By contrast, France felt the terms were too lenient, and that Germany was not punished nearly enough for the war.

Regardless, Germany was defeated not only militarily but economically, and the German people remained resentful. Despite this, the Treaty of Versailles was eventually signed on June 28, 1919, finally ending the Great War. The impoverished German people were forced to pay more than they felt were their fair share of war reparations and give up their weapons, along with much of their landholdings, to acquire peace.

New York Times, 11-11-1918

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