The end of the First World War and the Armistice: a quick guide

9 November 2018

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David Watt
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

The Parliamentary Library’s paper Remembrance Day 2018—the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I provides an overview of the end of the First World War from an Australian perspective and the background to and nature of Remembrance Day. This quick guide is a supplement to the Remembrance Day paper to highlight further resources about the end of the First World War.

The end of the war and the Armistice

In ‘The end of the Great War: Australian soldiers and the Armistice of November 1918’, Ashley Ekins describes the reaction of Australian troops to the end of the war, and the massive task of demobilisation (Wartime, 4, Summer 1998).

For a history of how Armistice Day became Remembrance Day, see: J Amess, ‘A day of remembrance: 11 November’, Sabretache, 24, April–June 1983, pp. 25–26.

The Flanders poppy (a bright red poppy) has been part of Armistice or Remembrance Day since the early 1920s. Wearing a red poppy is a sign of remembrance for the servicemen and women who died in war.

E Percy, ‘The Great War centenary: The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute: the League of Nations’ and S Reimer, ‘The Great War centenary: a commentary on Lord Eustace Percy’s “the League of Nations”’, (RUSI Journal, June 2018)—this first article reprints the first speech given to the Royal United Services Institute after a lengthy period of closure during the First World War. Percy sets out the case for the League of Nations and cooperative multilateralism while some of the rejoinders made by members of the Institute are opposed to his views. The debate has similar echoes in contemporary international relations.

In ‘War’s destructive legacy’ (Wartime, Spring 2018) Joan Beaumont looks at the effect of the war on Australia. The article takes in the impact of the loss of so many young men, the tremendous burden on the health system of so many others who returned with injuries and illness, the inadequacy of treatment for mental health issues, and soldier resettlement.

J Beaumont, ‘The damage inflicted on the Australian home front by the Great War’, The Strategist, blog, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 3 November 2018.

A Ekins, ‘The Armistice of 11 November 1918’ (Wartime, Spring 2018)—describes the process by which the Armistice was signed, conditions at the front and the state of the Australian forces.

M Hampton, ‘Australian victories in France’ (Wartime, Spring 2018)—seeks to place the Australian efforts during the closing months of the war within the broader context of all the British and French advances.

H Jones, ‘The Great War: how 1914–18 changed the relationship between war and civilians’ (RUSI Journal, 1 September 2014)—explores the effect of the war on civilian life, the forms of violence perpetrated against civilians during the conflict, and the longer term impact of the war on perceptions of soldiers in society.

S Tudor, Armistice of November 1918: Centenary Debate on 5 November 2018 (House of Lords Library Briefing, 5 November 2018)—covers the closing campaigns of 1918, the process by which the Armistice was signed and current commemorative activities in the UK.

C Mick, ‘Endgame’, in J Winter, ed., The Cambridge history of the First World War: volume 1 global war, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK), 2014, pp. 133–171—describes the final campaigns of the war, the rapid changes in the government of Germany and negotiating the Armistice that ended the fighting.

The Australian War Memorial website contains information about ‘The Armistice of 1918’ and the 2018 ‘Centenary of Armistice’ commemorative activities run by the Memorial. The National Archives of Australia’s ‘Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice’ contains some information about the Armistice and also images of documents contained in their collection, such as the cablegram from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Prime Minister of Australia informing him of the signing of the Armistice.

R Nelsson, ‘The war is over! How the Guardian reported the signing of the armistice—November, 1918’, The Guardian, 2 November 2018—The Guardian’s 1918 editorial stated:

The war is over, and in a million households fathers and mothers, wives and sisters, will breathe freely, relieved at length of all dread of that curt message which has shattered the hope and joy of so many. The war is over. The drama is played out.

The old order in Europe has perished. The new is hardly born, and no one knows what its lineaments will be. Tomorrow we shall be brought up against the hard immediate problems of re-establishment.

Armistices

There were, in fact, a number of armistices signed towards the end of the First World War.

The Armistice of Salonica was signed between Bulgaria and the Allies on 29 September 1918, the Armistice with Turkey was signed on 30 October 1918 and the Armistice with Austria-Hungary was signed on 3 November 1918.

The Armistice with Germany was signed on 11 November 1918, but was renewed three times before the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919.

Last man killed

The Armistice was signed at 5 am in a railway carriage in the forests of Compiègne, but was to take effect from 11 am Paris time. The last known man to have been killed in the First World War died at 10.59 am. Sergeant Henry Gunther of the United States Army died when charging a German machine gun position on the road to a small town called Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. It is not known why Gunther charged the position and the German soldiers attempted to wave him back (although he was of German descent and there was some suggestion he was proving his loyalty by making a last minute charge). While Gunther was indeed the last known man to die during the war he was, of course, far from the last to die as a result of the war.

For further information, see: JE Persico, 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour: Armistice Day 1918: World War I and its violent climax, Random House, New York, 2004.

It is thought that the last Australians to be killed in action died on 4 November 1918. Corporal Albert Davey, a 34-year-old ex-miner from Ballarat, was one of six Australians to die that day. Davey died with fellow sappers Arthur Johnson and Charles Barrett while assisting with an attack across the Sambre-Oise canal in France. The remaining three men were Captain Thomas Baker and Lieutenants Parker Symons and Arthur Palliser of the Australian Flying Corp. Of course, Australians continued to die from injury and illness up to and well beyond 11 November 1918. See: J Lees, ‘The last Aussies to die’, Sunday Telegraph, 4 November 2018; and P Burness, ‘The last to fall’, Wartime, January 2008.

Paris Peace Conference

As with many other aspects of the First World War the Paris Peace Conference of 1919–20 is complex and not easily summarised. It commenced on 18 January 1919 and although the most important issues were decided during the first six months, negotiations did not end until 21 January 1920, some days after the founding of the League of Nations and the entry into force of the Treaty of Versailles (its two most important outcomes).

The US, Great Britain and France had each formed committees before the end of the war to consider what they hoped to achieve out of the peace process. The results of these processes each fed into the Paris conference, albeit with varying degrees of success. US President Woodrow Wilson established an American inquiry (known as The Inquiry) during 1917, the result of which led to a set of principles which he hoped would underpin the peace settlement—these became known as the Fourteen Points. The Fourteen Points were delivered to a joint session of Congress on 8 January 1918. The first of the Points was:

Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view.

In reality, Wilson’s more idealistic vision was to run afoul of the European desire for territory and revenge as well as opposition within the US Senate to aspects of the League of Nations charter. Although there were delegates from 29 countries, in practice, the direction of the conference was controlled by the ‘Big Four’—President Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, France’s Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Orlando from Italy. The Four formed the core of what was called The Supreme Council, which comprised the foreign ministers of each of their countries plus two representatives from Japan. This proved to be an unwieldy number, with major discussions taking many sessions to complete. In an effort to move issues along more swiftly, the number was reduced to the Four, with the foreign ministers meeting separately from March 1919 and Japan intervening only on matters of direct importance to it.

Invitations were sent out to every country that had fought with the Allies, with the exception of Russia.

Originally, the British had intended that the Dominions would fall into line behind them but this was unacceptable to the countries involved. A diplomatic process allowed Australia, Canada, South Africa and India to send two delegates to Paris, with New Zealand being allowed one. Australia was represented by Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook. Hughes took a forceful approach to the negotiations (Woodrow Wilson called him a ‘pestiferous varmint’). He strongly supported Germany paying substantial reparation, argued against a racial equality clause in the Charter of the League of Nations, and advocated that Australia be granted a mandate over the former German colonies in New Guinea.

In addition to the headline issues, the Conference dealt with a range of topics. These included prisoners of war, undersea cables, international aviation and a variety of territorial disputes, each of importance to their protagonists:

Additional complications arose from the fighting and the vacuum of power caused by the collapse of four empires. Delegations and individuals seeking redress for oppression and years of alien rule converged on Paris in the hope that Wilson, in particular, would produce miraculous answers to their plight. It was an impossible task, as the President ruefully admitted: ‘What is expected of me only God could perform’. As he had feared, en route to Europe in December 1918, the outcome was, in many cases, ‘a tragedy of disappointment’. Wilson’s sense of powerlessness paralleled the wider frustrations of the Four, whose ability to enforce their decisions diminished in direct proportion to the distance of the problem from Paris.

The defeated powers were excluded from the negotiations and the outcome of the conference was experienced as particularly harsh and humiliating by Germany. The Conference resulted in the creation of the League of Nations and the signing of five treaties, the most important being the Treaty of Versailles between the Allies and Germany. It is often considered that the punitive nature of this contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War:

According to French and British wishes, Germany was subjected to strict punitive measures under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The new German government was required to surrender approximately 10 percent of its prewar territory in Europe and all of its overseas possessions. The harbor city of Danzig (now Gdansk) and the coal-rich Saarland were placed under the administration of the League of Nations, and France was allowed to exploit the economic resources of the Saarland until 1935. The German Army and Navy were limited in size. Kaiser Wilhelm II and a number of other high-ranking German officials were to be tried as war criminals. Under the terms of Article 231 of the treaty, the Germans accepted responsibility for the war and, as such, were liable to pay financial reparations to the Allies, though the actual amount would be determined by an Inter-Allied Commission that would present its findings in 1921 (the amount they determined was 132 billion gold Reichmarks, or $32 billion, which came on top of an initial $5 billion payment demanded by the treaty). Germans would grow to resent these harsh conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles.

For further information, see:

  • The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles, Office of the Historian, US Department of State
  • M MacMillan, Paris 1919: six months that changed the world, Random House, New York, 2001 and
  • J Ewers, Versailles revisited’, US News & World Report, 2 December 2002, pp. 44–45—reviews the book by Margaret MacMillan above and argues that the high level of reparations imposed upon Germany was not the principal cause of Germany’s economic failure in the 1920s.

 

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