On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918...11 million soldiers, and 7 million civilians, were dead and did not return home to their families. 20 million people were wounded or disabled for life, with millions more permanently psychologically scarred by the impact of a brutal and bloody war that saw a human tragedy on a global scale never before seen. Towns and villages lay demolished, civilians displaced, and food shortages were rampant. In Britain, luxuries such as butter, remained on ration until 1920. Many families suffered the loss of the main bread winner causing serious hardship or reducing them to living in poverty for the rest of their lives. The ‘Roaring Twenties’ saw the wealthy middle and upper classes in major cities across the world try to shrug off the impact of WW1. The rapid development of new technology - automobiles, cinema and radio for example- alongside huge social changes which saw many women able to work and vote for the first time, saw a sudden spike in energy and prosperity that could not be maintained and ‘The Great Depression’, a severe worldwide economic downturn, followed in the 1930’s.
The political map of Europe changed forever. A divided Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century saw many countries becoming increasingly hostile towards each other, with many others fearful of invasion creating military alliances promising military aid should war break out. German ambitions had seen the country become increasingly powerful in Europe. Developments in engineering, and the resulting heightened production of iron, coal, steel saw it rise to the biggest industrial power in Europe. New German ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had ambitions to rival the empires of Britain and France and an arms race began with plans for the German High Seas Fleet to outstrip the power of the British Navy - the largest and most powerful fleet in the world at that time. With tensions steadily rising between the most powerful nations, the balance of power spilt in to two rival groups during World War 1- the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire versus the principal Allied Powers of the British Empire, French republic, Italy and Japan alongside Armenia, Belgium, Greece, Hejaz, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serb-Croat-Slovene State and Czechoslovakia. The United States did not declare war on Germany until April 1917 and Austria-Hungary until December 1917 and entered the war as an ‘associated power‘, rather than a formal ally, of France and Britain. After four years of war 70 million men had been mobilised, the monarchies’ of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia had been removed and the United States was on the brink of becoming a world power. Elected president of the US in 1912, President Woodrow Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts in bringing peace to Europe during World War 1.
The final year of war saw a steady decline in morale of the Germans until it‘s total collapse after the US entered the war after nearly 3 years of heavy fighting with further munitions and a fresh supply of men. German ports were blockaded, the country already lacking vital supplies meant food shortages became desperate. Mounting starvation led to strikes and riots and the German Navy mutinied in late October 1918, refusing to return to the North Sea. The Italians had scored a decisive victory over Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria collapsed in the face of allied attacks. Turkey signed an armistice on 30th October 1918 and Austria-Hungary 3rd November 1918. Germany now stood alone, in a weak position with it’s soldiers deserting, and had no choice but to ask for an armistice. Germany did not surrender but instead negotiated for a cease-fire, an agreement to end fighting as a prelude to peace negotiations.
Britain, France and Germany signed the Armistice between 5am - 5.45 am on the 11th November 1918, in Ferdinand Foch’s railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, about 37 miles north of Paris. Foch was a French general and the Supreme Allied Commander during the first world war. An official radio transmission from Paris at 6.01 am stated:
1. Hostilities will be stopped on the entire front beginning at 11 o’clock 11 November (French Hour)
2. The Allied troops will not go beyond the line reached at that hour on that date until further orders.
Marshall Foch, 5.45 am
All troops, on all sides, had until 11 am to silence their guns.
The cease-fire was not easy. Entrenched war-fare for four long years meant fighting continued right until 11am. There were 10,944 casualties on the morning of the Armistice, of which 2,738 men died. Troops on both sides were under immense pressure to maintain their station but also adhere to the strict Armistice terms. At 11am there was no great celebration on the front-line, troops simply walked out of their trenches, bowed and walked away. The final front-line casualties have been recorded as British man George Edwin Ellison at 9.30 am at Mons, Belgium, Frenchman Augustin Trebuchon, killed at 10.50am at the Meuse River, France, Canadian soldier George Lawrence Price killed at 10.58 am at Ville-Sur-Haine and the final casualty of war is generally recognised as American Henry Gunther in the last 60 seconds before all guns fell silent at 11 am.
Whilst the Armistice had demanded the termination of all hostilities within six hours of signature, the final Peace Treaty of Versailles was not signed by Germany until six months later. Preceding The Treaty of Versailles were a series of long-negotiated treaties turning the various short-term armistices in to what was hoped would be lasting peace. The Treaty of St Germain organised the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire creating the separate states of Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and The Treaty of Trianon broke up the Ottoman Empire, leaving the much smaller state of Turkey. The Treaty of Versailles, dealing with Germany, was signed at Versailles, France on 28 June 1919. US President Woodrow Wilson had tried to set out a more reasonable set of demands but was overshadowed by the demands of French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The demands of Germany were so harsh that it was left not only defeated but totally weakened and humiliated. It was recognised at the time that the terms of the treaty were unlikely to lead to long term peace.
German’s disarmament included 5,000 guns, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 aeroplanes and all submarines they possessed. They were requested to give up several warships and disarm the ones they were allowed to keep. They had to hand-over 5,000 locomotives and 150,000 railcars. German troops were ordered to evacuate most overseas territory and provide information about locations of mines and traps left behind, including any springs or wells that had been polluted or poisoned. The Treaty of Versailles saw Germany lose all it’s colonies, and some territory in Europe, and to accept the blame for the war, including an estimated £22 billion pound bill by today’s money. Germany only finished paying it’s First World War debt on October 3rd 2010.
Permanent reminders of World War 1 exist all over the world. The entire length of the Western Front is marked with graveyards. At Verdun, France, the French National Burial Vault contains the remains of 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers and there are 410 British cemeteries in the Somme Valley alone. Many of the dead were so badly disfigured that the bodies have never been located or identified. Plain crosses mark their grave. Both France and Britain ceremoniously buried one ‘unknown soldier’ at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris, and Westminster Abbey, London. The 11th November is generally observed each year by a two minute silence at 11am to commemorate the commonwealth war dead and the red poppy remains as an enduring symbol of World War 1. The landscape on the Western Front was often a decimated land of mud and slaughter where nothing could grow yet the delicate but resilient poppy flourished in their thousands. Immortalised in the famous war poem ‘In Flanders Field’, a poem written by Canadian doctor, Lt Col John McCrae after losing his friend at Ypres, Belgium in 1915.
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.