The History of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday

James Carson

4 mins

11 Nov 2017

By November 1918, World War One was one of most destructive wars in history – and the bloodiest in European history by total number of combatants killed or wounded.

The British army, supported by their French Allies, were on the offensive in the ‘100 Days’ campaign. The attritional trench warfare or the previous four years had turned into open fighting with rapid Allied advances.

A British tank after the Battle of Amiens – a key Allied offensive in the 100 Days.

The German army had completely lost its morale and began to surrender en masse. In late September, the German high command had concurred that the military situation was hopeless. This was added to an increasingly desperate economic situation at home, with civil unrest erupting by the end of October.

On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and a German republic was declared. The new government sued for peace.

The last morning of the war

There were three days of negotiations, which took place in Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch’s private railway carriage in the Forest of Compiègne. The Armistice was agreed at 5am on 11 November, and would come into effect at 11am Paris time the same day.

The railway carriage in which the Armistice was signed. Ferdinand Foch (whose carriage it was) is pictured second from right.

Nevertheless, men were still dying even on the last morning of the First World War.

At 9:30am George Ellison was killed, the last British soldier to die on the Western Front. He was killed only a couple of miles away from where the first British soldier to be killed, John Parr, had died in August 1914. They are buried in the same cemetery, opposite each other.

Canadian George Price was killed at 10:58am, two minutes before the end of the war. The last British Empire soldier to die.

At around the same time, Henry Gunther became the last American to be killed; he charged astonished Germans who knew the Armistice was only seconds away. He was the son of German immigrants.

Seconds after the Armistice the young German, Alfons Baule, was killed, becoming the last German casualty. He had joined up in August 1914, aged just 14.

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The effects of the Armistice

The Armistice was not a peace treaty – it was an end to hostilities. However, it heavily favoured Allies, with Germany having to essentially agree to complete demilitarisation.

The Allies would also occupy the Rhineland and did not lift their crushing naval blockade of Germany – they made few promises in what amounted to a German surrender.

The Armistice initially expired after 36 days, but was extended three times until peace was ratified with the Treaty of Versailles. The peace treaty was signed on 28 June 1919 and came into effect on 10 January 1920.

This was heavily weighted against Germany; the new government had to accept guilt for starting the war, pay substantial reparations and lose sovereignty of large amounts of territory and colonies.

The history of Remembrance

In the years that followed the First World War, Europe was mourning the tragedy of losing over fifteen million men on the battlefield, with 800,000 British and Empire troops having been killed.

The war had been shockingly expensive in economic terms, and had led to the toppling of several established European empires and seen social upheaval. Its effects were etched on people’s consciousness forever.

The first Armistice Day was held a year after its original signing at Buckingham Palace, with George V hosting a banquet on the evening of 10 November 1919 and having events in the palace grounds the next day.

The two minute silence was adopted from a South African ritual. This had been a daily practice in Cape Town from April 1918, and spread through the Commonwealth in 1919. The first minute is dedicated to the people who died in the war, while the second is for the living left behind – such as the families affected by the loss of the conflict.

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The Cenotaph was originally erected in Whitehall for a peace parade for Armistice Day in 1920. After an outpouring of national sentiment, it was made into a permanent structure.

In the following years, war memorials were unveiled throughout British towns and cities, and key battlefields on the Western Front. The Menin Gate, in Ypres, Flanders, was unveiled in July 1927. A ceremony of playing the Last Post takes place every evening at 8pm.

The Thiepval Memorial, a huge redbrick structure in the farmland of the Somme, was unveiled on 1 August 1932. It has all the names of British and Empire soldiers – some 72,000 – who died or went missing at the Somme inscribed into it.

In Britain 1939, the two minute silence of Armistice Day was moved to the nearest Sunday to 11 November, so it would not conflict with wartime production.

This tradition was continued after World War Two – with Remembrance Sunday being a commemoration for all those who had made sacrifices in war.

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