An armistice is an agreement between belligerents to stop fighting. Its literal meaning is ‘a halt to, or stopping of, the use of arms’ (as in weapons of war). The word is the same in English and French; in German it is ‘Waffenstillstand’ (‘weapon stand-still’).
The parties to an armistice agree to certain terms or conditions, an obvious one being to stop fighting – cease hostilities/cease-firing – at the same, pre-arranged date and time. But an armistice is not a peace treaty. Peace treaties signify the formal conclusion of a war and are arranged and signed after armistice agreements have been made.
In November 1918, the French and Germans implemented cease-fires in their areas of the Front where the German armistice delegation was due to cross no-man’s-land on its way to meet Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander. But these cease-fires were not the result of an armistice. They were ordered separately by the French and German Military High Commands as ad hoc local cease-fires which did not extend or apply beyond the crossing-point area. 1 ENDNOTES
The Germans, however, wanted more than local cease-fires. They asked the Allies twice for a cessation of hostilities covering the entire Western Front to coincide with their armistice talks – that is, a general cease-fire before any armistice had been signed. The Allies refused.
The German requests for a cease-fire.
In their first Spa-Senlis wireless telegram, the Germans named the delegates they were sending to meet Marshal Foch, asked where they could meet him, and made it known that “in the interests of humanity” they would welcome a “temporary suspension of arms” when the delegation reached the Allies’ lines. The French reply instructed the delegates to head for the French forward positions on the Chimay-Fourmies-La Capelle-Guise road and told them they would be brought from there to the Marshal. But the “suspension of arms” suggestion was ignored. 2 When the German delegates finally met Foch on Friday 8 November (in a railway carriage at a clearing in the Forest of Compiègne) they asked for “an immediate suspension of hostilities” during the armistice talks. Again, their request was refused.
The Allies were adamant that there would be no general cease-fire until after the Germans had accepted their terms and signed an armistice. They deeply distrusted the Germans: they were afraid they might take advantage of a cease-fire concession to consolidate their forces and defences along the whole Western Front, then reject the Allies’ terms and resume the war. And they were unsure how their own armies and civilian populations would react to a resumption of fighting following a general truce.
Marshal Joseph Joffre, a member of the Allies’ Supreme War Council (and until late December 1916, commander-in-chief of French armies on the Western Front), spoke frankly to the American Ambassador, William Sharp, of the French High Command’s concerns about the impending armistice talks. Sharp recorded Joffre’s words in his diary for 30 October 1918:
“Germany has continued fortifying her original pre-war frontier and the line along the Rhine …. We can only conclude that Germany is preparing to defend her soil, should certain eventualities occur ….
Our army is impregnated with the idea that the war is virtually over. There has been so much peace talk that officers and men can almost fancy themselves at home once more. If Germany could manage to hold out for a while longer, our armies, forced to a winter campaign which they now judge impossible, would feel a disappointment whose results might be extremely serious. The French army has accomplished such prodigies of valor and of self-sacrifice during more than four years, that I do not like to think it would refuse to fight on until Spring if ordered to do so. But such a possibility does exist, owing to the spirit of peace now impregnating the air, and to the fact that the French people themselves have suffered almost as much as they are capable of suffering”. 3
Not surprisingly, similar views were held at operational command level. In the war zone, while listening-in to wireless transmissions on 7 November, radio lieutenant Henri Tscherning intercepted the Spa-Senlis telegram announcing the German 3:00 pm [local] cease-fire and subsequent messages about armistice developments. 2 His general instructed him to keep everything he picked up “top secret”. Nothing was to be leaked: “if an armistice results from the talks now taking place” the general told him “then the carnage is over. But if everyone in the division finds out about it and the talks fail and the war has to continue, what a disappointment it would be, and blow to morale, for our brave men!” 4
Matthias Erzberger, the head of the German delegation, recalled in his memoirs how the Allied delegates berated them for complaining about the armistice terms and their likely effects on Germany. He formed the impression that their complaints were not taken seriously. One of the Allied officials, he wrote, “stated plainly that Germany was trying to trick them and wanted only to gain time to re-organize its defeated army in order to continue fighting”. Assurances to the contrary seemed not to be believed and were brushed aside. 5
Allied press reports.
Newspapers in Allied countries published Foch’s rejection of the cease-fire requests in reports covering the events leading to the armistice delegation’s meeting with the Marshal on 8 November.
In French papers the rejection news was part of the following official communiqué issued to them on 8 November:
“The German delegates arrived at Marshal Foch’s headquarters this morning. They have formally asked for an armistice. The text of the Allies’ armistice conditions was read out and then handed to them. They requested an immediate cease-fire, which was refused. The enemy has seventy-two hours to reply.” 6a
The sentence about the refused cease-fire went without comment in most papers, but an allusion to and implied justification of it appeared in Le Matin in an item written by Commandant de Civrieux about the great advances recently made by the Allies. In his last paragraph the Commandant wrote:
“[The desperate situation of the German army] is revealed by their two requests for a cease-fire in less than twenty-four hours. We can assume they have been unable to complete an orderly withdrawal of their forces and equipment [from French territory] and that for this reason Hindenburg has tried to gain two or three days in an attempt to escape imminent disaster.” 6b
American papers based their reports on the same official French communiqués, sent to them from France by their respective news agencies. For instance, the front page of the New York City Evening World, an Associated Press subscriber, carried the headline “FOCH WON’T STOP FIGHTING …. “ By way of explanation, another “official diplomatic despatch from France”, under the heading “WILL FIGHT TILL TRUCE IS SIGNED”, stated:
“Marshal Foch is empowered only to deliver armistice terms to the Germans and receive their acceptance …. The modifications which he is qualified to grant are strictly limited. Any suspension of arms, even if it is asked for on philanthropic grounds, is out of the question …. No effort at compromise or evasion by the Germans is to be tolerated. They must take what [is offered] and lay down their arms or there will be no interruption of the great offensive which is destroying the German military machine.” 7a
One of the Washington Times’ front-page columns, headed “PERMANENT SUSPENSION OF HOSTILITIES REFUSED BY ALLIED COMMANDER”, presented readers with the news of what had happened when the German delegates met Foch, while another headed “POURPARLERS [discussions] FAIL TO STOP ADVANCE OF ALLIED FORCES” suggested why Foch had so abruptly denied them an immediate cease-fire:
“The entry of the German armistice delegates into the allied lines has not stopped the gigantic converging movement of the allied armies, and today the passageway through which the Germans must retreat from France has been narrowed to fifty miles …. Only a small strip of France is now held by the Germans and if the present progress is kept up it will be only a few days until practically all of the country is freed of Germans.” 7b
Two leading British papers, the Daily Telegraph and the Times, presented some additional justifications for the cease-fire refusals. Referring to the initial one, contained in the first German Spa-Senlis telegram, the Telegraph argued that:
“The rejection of the German request for an immediate cessation of hostilities pending the armistice pourparlers – recorded in our later editions yesterday – was, of course, a foregone conclusion. The demand could hardly have been put forward with any serious expectation that it would be agreed to. It may be recalled that in the case of [the armistice Germany imposed on Romania] the German advance was not stopped until the armistice was signed, and in that of Russia the Germans immediately broke the truce, first by continuing their advance, and secondly by transferring troops to the Western Front, although the armistice expressly provided that this should not be done pending its duration.” 8a
Referring to the second request, at the opening meeting with Foch, the Times reported:
“Marshal Foch has lost no time in answering Germany’s petition for an armistice. Yesterday morning … he handed them the conditions on which their request will be conceded [informing them] that these terms must be accepted or refused within three days – that is, by 11 o’clock on Monday [11 November]. Naturally he also told them that the cool suggestion of their Government for an immediate suspension of hostilities pending this decision could not be entertained. It was put forward, Prince Max [Imperial Chancellor] and his colleagues affirmed, ‘in conformity with humanity’; but the advantages which its acceptance would have conferred upon the congested forces of the enemy are so patent that it suggests either sheer impertinence or the necessity to convince the German people that every possible loophole of escape has been explored. Their armies need time, above all else, to disentangle themselves. Every hour of immunity from the converging attacks which threaten to cut off their retreat would be invaluable to them. No respite can be thought of until they have agreed, formally and irrevocably, to the terms imposed upon them …. “ 8b
Four Days’ Delay.
Having received the Allies’ terms, the delegates needed approval from the Berlin government to accept them and sign an armistice. Unable to encode and send the text of the armistice terms by telegram (because of the number of printed pages) they sent Captain von Helldorff, the delegation’s interpreter, to deliver a copy to Field Marshal Hindenburg’s Spa Headquarters. Travelling by car and facing artillery fire from his own side in the La Capelle area where the delegation had crossed the lines on 7 November, von Helldorff did not arrive until Saturday morning, 9 November.
That day, Prince Max, the (last) Imperial Chancellor, removed Wilhelm II as Kaiser (who was in Spa at the time) before announcing his own resignation. He was succeeded as Chancellor by Friedrich Ebert, leader of the Social Democratic Party in the Reichstag. The following evening (Sunday 10 November), Erzberger received permission to agree to the Allies’ terms. The next day, Monday 11th, the armistice papers were (reportedly) signed at 5:00 am Allied time (several minutes later actually) and the cease-fire that finally ended the war began at 11:00 am Allied time. 5
© James Smith (Reviewed and with additions, December 2020.)
(The English translations from French sources cited here are by the author of this article.)
1. See ‘Cease-Fires for the German Armistice Delegation’ on this website.
2. See the ‘Spa-Senlis Telegrams and the German Armistice Delegation’ on this website.
3. Warrington Dawson (Ed), The War Memoirs of William Graves Sharp, American Ambassador to France 1914-1919. ‘October 30, 1918’. (1931). Online.
4. Henri Tscherning, ‘Comment j’ai appris l’Armistice’. In, La liaison des Transmissions No: 119 – 1979. Available Online.
5. Souvenirs de Guerre de M. Erzberger, ‘Chapitre XXIII : À COMPIÈGNE’, pp382-385. (Paris, 1921).
6a) L’Écho de Paris, Samedi, 9 Novembre, 1918, front page, under ‘Le maréchal Foch refuse une suspension d’armes’.
6b) Le Matin, Samedi, 9 Novembre, 1918, front page, right-hand column. (Commandant Larréguy de Civrieux wrote several books about the Great War.)
(The French newspapers are accessible online through the Gallica.bnf.fr portal.)
7a) The Evening World, Friday November 8, 1918, front page.
7b) The Washington Times, Friday Evening, November 8, 1918, front page.
(Both accessible online through the Chronicling America portal.)
8a) The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, November 9, 1918, p7, under ‘TERMS HANDED TO GERMAN ENVOYS’.
8b) The Times, Saturday, November 9, 1918, p6, under ‘Fateful Hours’.
(Both available through Gale Cengage Learning websites.)