100 years ago today, Allied leaders and German officials signed the Armistice that brought an end to four and a half years of fighting on the Western Front. While not a surrender, the Armistice represented a complete defeat for Germany, which had been seeking a ceasefire since its military situation had become hopeless in late September of 1918.
The German delegation, under Secretary of State and peace advocate Matthias Erzberger, arrived in a forest clearing near the north French town of Compiegne on November 8th with the intention of winning some concessions. However, as discussions took place in the private railway carriage of Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Foch, there were no negotiations. When Erzberger was told that the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had abdicated, Erzberger was instructed by Chief of Staff Paul von Hindenburg to sign the armistice on the Allied’s terms.
The Armistice was signed at 5am on the morning of November 11th, and it went into effect at 11am the same day. Its terms included the removal of German troops from occupied territories, the surrender of the German’s U-boat fleet, the surrender of all German cannons, planes and machine guns, and the immediate release of all Allied prisoners.
There were 2,738 deaths during the last morning of the war. The last British soldier to die was 40-year-old George Ellison, who was shot at 9.30am on the outskirts of Mons in Belgium. He fell less than four miles from where John Parr – the first British casualty – had been killed on August 21, 1914. The two are buried in the same cemetery with their graves facing each other.
According to one corporal at the Front, German soldiers climbed out of their trenches at 11am, bowed, and walked away. Exhausted Allied soldiers could barely bring themselves to celebrate the end of 52 long months of fighting, but in the towns and cities of the victorious nations, people were dancing in the streets at the news that the war was at its end.
After the signing of the Armistice, Erzberger was branded a traitor by the Germans. Two former navy offices assassinated him while walking in the Black Forest in August 1921.
Marshal Foch’s railway carriage spend much of the next decade on display in Paris before returning to the Compiegne clearing in 1927. Adolf Hitler received the French surrender in the same carriage in June 1940. The carriage was later taken to Berlin and burnt down by retreating SS forces in 1945.