When Did World War One End?

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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. This article will explore the ending of the war itself, and how various armistices were finalised.

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11 November 1918 – Western Front armistice

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 would abdicate 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.

This painting depicts the signing of the armistice, effectively a German surrender. This was signed by German (newly-appointed) Secretary of State, Matthias Erzberger. (Maurice Pillard Verneuil, 1869–1942).

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”.

15 December 1917 – Eastern Front armistice

From 4 December 1917 Russia’s new Soviet government had been seeking a ceasefire 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.

The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the German Empire and the new Bolshevik government of Russia. (Creative Commons, credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R92623).

They were slow to reach an agreement though and on 17 February 1918 the ceasefire agreement lapsed and 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. When the German negotiators would complain about how harsh the terms of Versailles were, allied negotiators would argue it was far more benign than the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

31 October 1918 – Middle Eastern armistice

Signed by Ottoman Minister for Marine Affairs Rauf Bey and Admiral Gough-Calthorpe of the Royal Navy the Armistice of Mudros represented the complete surrender of the Ottoman Empire. Their army and navy were fully demobilized 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 between the Allies and Empire’s successor state in Anatolia the Turkish Republic, the existence of which was ratified in 1923.

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Other Armistices:

  • 07 May 1918 Treaty of Bucharest – Romanian/Central Powers Peace
  • 29 September 1918 Bulgarian/Allied Armistice
  • 03 November 1918 Austrian/Italian Armistice

28 June 1919 – Treaty of Versailles

These 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.

One of the two German representatives, Johannes Bell, signs the Treaty of Versailles in front of the allied delegation at Versailles. William Orpen (1878–1931).

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.

Despite its flaws, 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.

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