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Morton: Defeated Germany and the 1918 armistice

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On this day (Nov. 11) in 1918, Germany signed an armistice with the Allies, which effectively ended the fighting in World War I.

Up to that point, WWI had been the bloodiest and costliest war in modern history.  The war claimed well over 40 million casualties and bankrupted most of the countries of Europe.

An armistice, of course, is not a peace treaty, but it is a cessation of fighting. Although the Nov. 11 armistice ended hostilities, the Treaty of Versailles officially ending the war was not signed until June 28, 1919, in Paris. The armistice agreement was finally signed, after several weeks of negotiations, at 5 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918, and was to go into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

This armistice was signed by the head of the German delegation, Matthias Erzberger, and the Supreme Allied Commander, Ferdinand Foch, in Foch’s private railway car at Compiegne. Interestingly, this was the same railway car at the same location where France surrendered to Germany in June 1940 in World War II.

The actual 1918 armistice document consisted of 35 terms, which in reality were mostly demands imposed on a defeated Germany by the victorious Allies. The terms resulted in a complete demilitarization of Germany and clearly made it impossible for a defeated Germany to resume hostilities. On Oct. 5, Germany actually initiated the talks that led to the signing of the armistice when it asked President Woodrow Wilson to state the armistice terms, which it hoped would be similar to Wilson’s “vague principles” contained in his famous Fourteen Points.

These principles were totally unacceptable to Britain and France. French Premier Georges Clemenceau was reported to have remarked regarding Wilson’s Fourteen Points that God had only Ten Commandments whereas the idealistic American President had “Fourteen Commandments.”

Tragically, despite the armistice, which became quickly known to most of the soldiers in the trenches on both sides, there were more than 10,000 battlefield casualties (killed, wounded or missing) between 5 and 11 a.m. Nov. 11.

For example, a few allied field commanders, who claimed they were acting under orders of their superiors, ordered their units to attack German positions right up to and, perhaps, even a few minutes after the 11 a.m. deadline.

The last British soldier killed in WWI was Pvt. George Edwin Ellison, who was shot at 9:30 a.m. – only 90 minutes before the ceasefire. The last French soldier to die was runner Augustin Trebuchon, who was shot and killed at 10:50 a.m. as he was in the process of delivering the message to his colleagues in the trenches of the impending armistice. The last Canadian to die was Pvt George Lawrence Price, who was killed only two minutes before 11 a.m.

The last American to die (one of the 3,000 American soldiers either killed or wounded Nov. 11) was Pvt. Henry Gunter, who was tragically shot and killed at 10:59 a.m.

The terms of the armistice clearly were much more than a mere cessation of hostilities.  In signing the armistice, Germany was, in fact, surrendering almost unconditionally. The 1918 Armistice, which Germany signed under duress, and the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany was forced to sign, with its article blaming Germany alone for starting World War I in the summer of 1914, led many in Germany (most notably Adolf Hitler and his Nazi followers) to subscribe to the stab-in-the-back myth, which claimed the German political leadership had stabbed the military in the back and that the military had not failed because Germany had not been actually invaded.

This myth is totally incorrect. By late September 1918, the German Supreme Army Command had informed the Kaiser that the military situation facing Germany on the Western Front was hopeless and that Germany should quickly seek an armistice before the allies crossed the Rhine River into Germany.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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