11:00am on 11 November 1918 is commonly recognised as the end of World War One throughout Europe. To this day, up to two minutes of silence is devoted to the commemoration and remembrance of the brave men (from both sides) that fought and died in The Great War.
Despite its convenience, the ’11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month’ idiom does not tell the full story of the final cessation of hostilities.
As with many other conflicts, World War One’s end was in fact much more complicated than this. Through three key armistices, the wars on various national fronts gradually came to a close, and the end of the war was finalised in the decisive Treaty of Versailles.
1. Eastern Front armistice – 15 December 1917
From 4 December 1917 Russia’s new Bolshevik government had been seeking to bring an end to the war with the Central Powers. In the following months a ceasefire took effect, and from 22 December the two sides sought to negotiate a permanent peace settlement.
They were slow to reach an agreement though, with Germany demanding enormous concessions, and on 17 February 1918 the ceasefire agreement lapsed. The Central Powers launched a new offensive into Russia’s western territory seizing much of what is now Ukraine.
In response to this new wave of hostility, on 3 March 1918 the Soviet government signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which agreed peace on terms favourable to the Central Powers. Russian territory in Estonia and Latvia was forfeited to Germany, yet did not last a year in their keeping. Following their defeat on the Western front, The Treaty of Versailles demanded they returned any captured land.
When German negotiators complained about how harsh the terms of Versailles were, allied negotiators would argue it was far more benign than their demands in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
2. Middle Eastern armistice – 30 October 1918
Signed by Ottoman Minister for Marine Affairs Rauf Bey and British Admiral Gough-Calthorpe, the Armistice of Mudros represented the complete surrender of the Ottoman Empire to the Allies. Signed aboard the HMS Agamemnon off the Greek island of Lemnos, the armistice agreed to fully demobilize the Ottoman army and navy, and all of their infrastructure was placed at the disposal of the Allies.
This led to the allied occupation of Constantinople and the division of the Empire’s territories into different zones of influence, namely between the Allies and the emerging Turkish Republic, whose existence was ratified in 1923.
- Romanian/Central Powers Peace (Treaty of Bucharest) – 7 May 1918
- Bulgarian/Allied Armistice – 29 September 1918
- Austrian/Italian Armistice – 3 November 1918
3. Western Front armistice – 11 November 1918
After a scrambled period of confusion in Germany, in which time powers were shifted in an attempt to shift blame onto the democratic Reichstag rather than Imperial powers, chancellorship was passed around and the Kaiser himself abdicated on 9 November.
By this time, a negotiating party including new secretary of state Matthias Erzberger was just north of Paris. They were aboard a train carriage belonging to Supreme Allied Commander Marshall Foch, sitting in the Forest of Compiègne. In this carriage, they would be given 72 hours by the allied commanders to agree to a draconian surrender.
The signing itself was around 5am, and at 11am, the guns finally fell silent across Europe. Despite being the first step to ensure peace in Europe and the cessation of this brutal war, the terms of this surrender (and the ensuing Treaty of Versailles) were so harsh, many believe them to be the starting point of World War Two’s origins.
Even the main architect of the armistice agreement (Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch, pictured standing behind the table) was not entirely happy with this armistice. Despite the fact that, ironically, he thought the terms were not harsh enough, even prophetically stated “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years”.
Treaty of Versailles – 28 June 1919
While these 3 key armistices marked an end to actual fighting in World War One however, the war technically was not over until the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles (signed in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles) on 28 June 1919 which formally agreed the terms under which the warring nations would resume peaceful relations.
In fact, the armistice signed back in November 1918 had to be prolonged three times before the Treaty of Versailles, to ensure a continuation of peace throughout Europe. As well as extensive reparations, this treaty also contained Article 231, commonly referred to as the ‘War Guilt’ Clause, which would present an enduring cause of bitterness.
It virtually forced Germany to accept all responsibility for the war and was viewed as national humiliation for the country. John Foster Dulles, one of the authors of the article, later stated that he regretted the wording used, believing it to have aggravated the Germans further.
Despite its flaws and failings, which have been debated for decades since, the Treaty of Versailles marks the point (after various armistices) that peace was finally returned to a Europe which for years had been ravaged by war. The Great War had finally reached its conclusion.