The Armistice of 11 November 1918

Australian soldiers in Vignacourt, as the 18th Battalion band plays to celebrate the Armistice

News of the end of the war on 11 November 1918 came suddenly. Many soldiers, including senior commanders, had expected the war to continue well into 1919. Unknown to most, negotiations had begun a week earlier.

On the evening of 7 November a German peace delegation crossed the front line in a convoy of motor cars and were escorted through the war-ravaged regions of northern France. Before dawn, the delegation boarded a train which took them to a secret meeting place, a railway siding in a forest at Compiègne, north-east of Paris.

Over the next three days, the Germans sought to negotiate concessions but French and British senior commanders held firm. They refused a German request for a ceasefire and instead demanded Germany’s complete disarmament: the surrender of weapons, vehicles, ships, guns, and the withdrawal of all German forces from the occupied territories in France and Belgium.

Meanwhile, Allied forces continued to drive the German army back on the Western Front. Germany’s main allies had already collapsed in rapid succession as their armies disintegrated: first Bulgaria signed an armistice on 29 September, then Turkey on 30 October, and finally Austria-Hungary on 3 November. Within Germany, amid food shortages and social unrest, military mutinies broke out and revolution seemed imminent [see page XX Grant]. On 10 November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to neutral Holland, seeking asylum. A new Social Democrat government assumed control and pressed for a peace settlement.

At 5.10 am on 11 November the German delegation at Compiègne finally signed the armistice, accepting allied terms that amounted to unconditional surrender. Six hours later, at 11.00 am, the guns of the Western Front ceased firing after 1,567 days of continuous warfare, bringing to an end the bloodiest conflict the world had known.

An eerie silence descended along the 760-kilometre-length of the Western Front – a silence that would be recalled “at the eleventh hour” in commemorative ceremonies held in many allied nations on 11 November the following year, and every year thereafter for a century.

Lieutenant Rupert Downes, MC, addresses his platoon of B Company, 29th Battalion, before their advance at Harbonnieres in the battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918. Of the 17 men, four were killed in action or died of illness and five were wounded before the war ended.

The Great War, as it became known, had involved the mobilisation of 70 million soldiers worldwide. Its indelible impact defined warfare in human memory long into the twentieth century. The war also left a grim legacy. Thirteen million people died, ten million of them combatants; over one third of those killed were declared “missing”, having no known graves. A further 20 million had been severely wounded; eight million of them would return home permanently disabled.

The news of the Armistice sparked wild celebrations in the major cities of all the victorious allied nations. But at the front, soldiers were too numbed to celebrate. For most, the end of the war came as an unexpected reprieve. Reactions varied right along the Western Front. Fraternisation across No Man's Land was forbidden and in most areas the Germans withdrew before 11.00 a.m. At two minutes before the hour a British machine-gunner on the Fourth Army front blazed away a complete belt of ammunition continuously, then stood up, took off his helmet, bowed and walked slowly to the rear.

Some American artillery units used the Armistice as an opportunity to fire off their last bombardment at the enemy and expend all their ammunition stocks. Units even competed with each other to be the last to fire before the ceasefire. Others contested ground to the last minute in order to be in the most favourable position in case the Armistice failed. Some even moved forward into combat, oblivious of orders to cease fire. Several scheduled attacks, that should have been cancelled, went ahead, and men were killed just minutes before the ceasefire. The last shot of the war was reportedly fired by retreating Germans near the place where the first shots were fired in August 1914. It struck a soldier of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, killing him instantly. It was 10.58 am.

At the cessation of hostilities there were almost six and a half million men in the allied armies on the Western Front, over four million of them combatants. The British army contained 56 divisions and covered a front of 100 kilometres in France and Belgium. Within this massive army, the Australian Corps of five divisions, then numbering less than 100,000 soldiers, was a small but vital formation, having fought at the forefront of many of the battles in the advance to victory.

Will Longstaff, Breaking the Hindenburg Line (1918, oil on canvas, 157 x 244cm)

The commander of the Australian Corps, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, claimed his corps, although constituting just ten per cent of the British army, had captured almost a quarter of all prisoners, field guns and ground gained. Some in England dismissed these claims as “Australian boasting”. They were exaggerations, but in time they became popularly accepted as part of the image of the Australians’ achievement. In their final battles of late September and early October the Australian Corps, together with the British III and IX Corps, had helped to breach the formidable German defences of the Hindenburg Line. But their sustained advance had taken a heavy toll. In their final four months’ fighting, the Australians suffered almost 35,000 casualties, including over 7,000 dead.

The Australian formations were “pretty well played-out”, observed Australian official war correspondent Charles Bean, and “the end has to come.” Not one of the Australian battalions, normally 1,000 strong, could muster more than a quarter of their full number, and many were down to less than 100 men. Eleven of the 60 Australian infantry battalions had been disbanded owing to lack of reinforcements; more disbandments would have followed had the war continued.

All five Australian infantry divisions were exhausted and had been withdrawn from the front line on 5 October for rest and refitting. Only Australian support units remained fighting with the advancing armies up to 11 November. Australian air squadrons, divisional artillery and trench mortar batteries continued to support the advancing British Fourth Army's attacks until the Armistice. Australian engineers, sappers and tunnellers also worked in the forward areas repairing damaged bridges, and disarming and disposing of hundreds of delayed action mines and booby traps left behind by the Germans during their retreat. They suffered some of the last Australian battle casualties of the war.

The Australian divisions began their return to the front on 5 November, one month after their withdrawal. By 11 November, the 1st and 4th Australian Divisions had begun to move up to take over part of the British line beyond le Cateau. But they were delayed by demolished bridges and junctions, and few Australian troops were at the front when the Armistice was announced.

Most men were too stunned or emotionally drained to celebrate, and they displayed only slight or unenthusiastic reactions. “The change went too deep for outward rejoicing,” Charles Bean observed; “life continued as usual, except for the cessation of actual fighting. The sound of guns ceased – the gates of the future silently opened.” Typical was a soldier of the 17th Australian Battalion who laconically recorded: “The day of days. We had two victories today. We won the War and defeated the 5th Field Company at Soccer. The news of the Armistice was taken very coolly … nobody seemed to be able to realise it.”

Australian troops leaving Bray in France on 10 October 1918 for two months' furlough in Australia, granted to "originals': troops who had four years' service in the AIF

Soldiers who had been through four years of war were simply relieved to have survived, and looked forward to returning home. In the words of one, “It was over – that was enough.” On 11 November Bombardier W.R. Leach, whose artillery battery had been in action just 24 hours before, wrote to his parents: “Hostilities ceased this morning at 11 am. It seemed almost too good to be true … you cannot imagine the feeling of all us boys to think that we have pulled through safe and sound … now we are all looking forward to getting back home again.”

The enthusiasm of Australian celebrations tended to increase with distance from the front line. Private Alfred Binskin of the 20th Battalion described his part in celebrations in the town of Vignacourt, where his unit was billeted: “an Armistice signed, great fun with French people, a mate and I went to the Church and climbed up to the steeple, and hoisted the French and Australian flags, there were over 1,000 Australians around the church at the time, all the 5th Brigade, the band played the National Anthem, and God save the king.”

Some soldiers took “French leave”. Private Ted Smout, who served with a medical corps unit attached to the 3rd Division, recalled in old age: “The day after the Armistice, I buzzed off to Paris … there were hundreds of us did that – went AWL [absent without leave].” Ted enjoyed himself as the sole Australian at the Folies Bergère with its “first class vaudeville show [and] beautiful lasses … The Australians were very popular with the French people … everyone wanted to shout me a drink; couldn’t put your hand in your pocket for anything. It was quite a night – I didn’t get back to the hotel that night either!”

But the cessation of hostilities also caused many soldiers to reflect on the mates they had lost. A corporal of the 2nd Battalion wrote, “So to all intents the war is finished or so it seems. And one sits and ponders sadly of those many pals who … have paid the greatest price, not willingly for not one of them but longed to live, return home, and forget the horrors of the past.”

On the afternoon of the ceasefire, Charles Bean felt compelled to visit the now silent battlefield of Fromelles, site of the Australian soldiers’ initiation into battle on the Western Front in July 1916. Almost 2,000 Australians had died there in a single 24 hours of battle. Bean found the former no man’s land “simply full of our dead … the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.” Arriving in London on the following day, he witnessed the continuing celebrations but he was in no mood for festivities. The scenes at Fromelles clearly haunted him and he reflected on “the strange quietness along the front in France and Belgium”.

Repatriation of the almost 200,000 Australians overseas at the time of the Armistice was a major task. Despite the shortage of shipping, troops were departing for Australia within a month. Most Australians would return home before the end of 1919.

A French postcard shows French and British delegates beside the train carriage at Compiegne after the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918.

One group of Australian soldiers had already begun their passage home weeks before the Armistice. In September 1918 “Anzac leave”, two months’ special furlough in Australia, was granted to the “originals”, those Australian troops who had left Australia in 1914. The first contingent was withdrawn from their units on the eve of a major attack on the Hindenburg Line and they left the Western Front battlefields on 14 September. Over the following weeks some 6,000 originals left on home leave to Australia. For all of them, the war would be over before their leave expired and they were discharged in Australia.

In November 1918 Signaller Ted Matthews was on his way home on Anzac leave to Australia when he learnt of the end of the war. He celebrated his twenty-second birthday and the Armistice on the same day, he recalled, “somewhere in the Indian Ocean”. Having enlisted in Sydney in September 1914 at the age of seventeen,at eighteen he landed on Gallipoli, and by his nineteenth birthday he was a veteran of the Gallipoli campaign. At twenty-one he fought in the battles which helped stem the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918. On 11 November 1918 he was sailing for home, having survived four years at the sharp end of war. At the time of his death on 10 December 1997, aged 101, Ted Matthews was Australia's last surviving original Anzac who had taken part in the Anzac landing on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. His experiences as a soldier of the 1st AIF left him with a lifelong abhorrence of war. But he never doubted the rightness of the cause for which he had enlisted.

Most returning soldiers brought with them a similar sense of the victory they had helped to achieve. A private in the 20th Battalion, witnessing the devastation in the liberated areas, recorded in his diary, “This place [the village of Bohain, France] is shelled to pieces, the church is about levelled to the ground, the people almost starving and very thin, the Germans have taken everything away from them … women and children dragging all sorts of vehicles, it is a very pitiful sight, my thoughts are of Australia, and I am very pleased I came away to do my bit to keep the Germans away from wife and children and the people of Australia.”

But Australia paid a heavy price for this commitment. Some 330,000 Australians served overseas and almost two-thirds of them became casualties, the AIF having the highest proportion of battle casualties of all the forces of the British Empire. More than 60,000, or one man in five of those who served abroad, died on active service. “It is the loss of those men, beyond all question, that is Australia’s loss in this war,” wrote Charles Bean. The monetary and material loss could easily be replaced, he felt,“but we can never bring back those 60,000 men … the very best men our young country had.”

More than half of the 270,000 soldiers who returned had suffered some sort of wound. War-damaged veterans would be a visible reminder of the war in Australian society throughout the inter-war years. Writer George Johnston recalled growing up in a post-war Melbourne suburb in a house always full of returned soldiers, and with “the fixed belief that grown-up men who were complete were pretty rare beings – complete, that is, in that they had their sight or hearing or all their limbs.”

King George VI speaks at the unveiling of the Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux, France, 22 July 1938. It records the names of almost 11,000 Australian soldiers with no known graves.

The war took a similar toll on Australian army nurses. Almost one-fifth of them were declared “medically unfit” upon demobilisation, and many more contracted illnesses after discharge, owing to the debilitating effects of their war service. Many of these women remained unsettled by their experiences and failed to find domestic security in the years following the war. Over half of them never married, and many were dependent upon war service pensions.

By 1920, two years after the Armistice, over 90,000 incapacitated veterans, one-third of Australia’s over 270,000 “returned men”, were receiving disability pensions. By 1926 almost 23,000 were in hospital and by 1939 this number had grown to almost 50,000.

The social effects of the war were profound and enduring in Australia. Together with the loss of those who died and the devastation to the living, the war left a legacy of sorrow. Thousands of families were left with only the memories of men who should have returned from the war as husbands, fathers and sons. Many grieving women never remarried. Australia remained “a nation in mourning” for much of the postwar period. The war had also left a bitter and lasting division over the question of conscription for war service.

In time the Great War receded in Australian popular memory. The most conspicuous evidence of its impact remained in the war memorials which were raised in major cities and in country towns all over the nation. Personal grief and civic pride mingled in this impulse to commemorate Australia’s soldiers in stone and bronze. According to one estimate, by the 1930s there were over 1,500 of them: equivalent to one for every 200 men who served overseas, or one for every 40 who died. The memorials provided a symbolic reminder of the official justification and meaning of the war; and many small town memorials also offered families and communities a focus for their grief as “substitute graves”, a means of preserving the memories of their loved ones who remained buried on the other side of the world.

The British Empire Victory Medal, showing the Winged Victory, issued to all military personnel who served in the war between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918. On the reverse is written "The Great War for civilisation 1914-1919" surrounded by a laurel wreath

Australian soldiers of the Great War had enlisted to fight in a struggle which they believed had to be won to avoid disastrous consequences for their young nation. With victory in 1918, they had helped defeat a militarist, autocratic power; they had liberated the invaded nations of France and Belgium and thwarted German imperialist war aims. None could have anticipated what the cost of that victory would be – or that it would be eroded within a decade by the apparent failure of the Versailles peace settlement, the rise of Nazism and the inevitable approach of a Second World War.

As French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau shrewdly remarked on 11 November 1918, “We have won the war … now we must win the peace and that will be perhaps more difficult.”

For more stories on the end of the First World War, purchase a copy of Wartime issue 84 here.

About the author

Ashley Ekins is Head of the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial.”.