Armistice Day by Mike Creasy
Many readers regularly attend one of our country’s Remembrance Day events; usually a cold, rain swept morning surrounded by hundreds of others, all doing their bit to say thank-you to the hundreds of thousands who did so much for us.
Canada's Vimy Ridge Memorial
Armistice Day began in 1919 to mark the end of World War 1, and later became Remembrance Day to – quite rightly – include all the other wars, conflicts and police actions in which Canadians have played a role. One thing we should also remember is that November 11, 1918 was the date on which an armistice was signed, as opposed to a peace treaty or surrender. An armistice is a temporary agreement to cease firing while a more permanent peace treaty can be negotiated. By way of comparison, both Germany and Japan agreed to unconditional surrender at the end of the Second World War. Germany on May 7, 1945 at Rheims, France; Japan on August 28, 1945 aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. No temporary armistice in either case and since both surrendered without conditions, Allied governments were free act as they saw fit to secure long term peace. The Marshall Plan sought to return Europe to stability with civilian governments and sound economies, while Japan was largely ignored – a story for another day.
World War 1, however, ended in a thick haze of political infighting and intrigue between the Allies, and a political revolution within Germany which nearly became a full-blown civil war between Social Democrats, Bolsheviks and the ruling monarchists.
American President Woodrow Wilson was dedicated to the concept of world peace through statesmanship and diplomacy, a view not shared by his top General, George “Black Jack” Pershing. Wilson began negotiating an end to the war directly with the new German Chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, leaving the other Allies out of the loop. On Oct 5, 1918, Prince Max cabled President Wilson asking for an immediate armistice, but Wilson did nothing for several days. The Meuse-Argonne campaign, meanwhile, ground on at great cost to both sides.
There was little doubt that the war was nearly done; General Ludendorff (de facto Military Chief under the aging General von Hindenburg) had advised Kaiser Wilhelm on October 2 that the army was on the verge of collapse and the expected Allied offensive could not be stopped.
When the French and British finally heard about the American President’s attempt to negotiate on his own terms, they were not impressed. The Allied Armies were all in rough shape after 3 years of staggering casualties – 200,000 Canadians killed or wounded, nearly a million British and 1.7 million French plus many, many others. The Americans were just beginning to take the strain (they had only entered the war in 1917), and Pershing was all for the idea of pushing on to annihilate the rapidly failing Germans, a view shared by many Allied commanders. Despite Pershing’s advice President Wilson continued to negotiate with Prince Max, cabling his acceptance of the German offer on October 23. Other Allied leaders were not yet on board with the terms of Wilson’s deal, but were not in position to object too strongly. Confusion and conflict reigned within the German hierarchy as well, as various officers and politicians argued for a last brave battle for the Fatherland. On November 3, Navy Commander Admiral Scheer ordered the High Seas Fleet out for a last attempt at death or glory, but the crews wanted no part of it. They mutinied, killing several officers and raising the red flag of the Bolsheviks. On land, the German Army was losing men steadily, both in battle and in a steady stream of weary men sick of the smell of death.
At 5 am on November 11, 1918, an armistice was finally signed, to be effective 6 hours later at 11 am (Paris time). The terms were harsh, calling for Germany to pull out of all occupied territories, and to “demilitarize”. German Armies were to withdraw immediately, leaving their weapons behind. The mighty High Seas Fleet and all submarines and modern destroyers were to be delivered to the Allies as soon as possible for internment, with only a caretaker crew left aboard.
More importantly, an armistice meant that blockades of German ports would continue at least until the details of a peace treaty could be negotiated. This was a cruel blow to a starving and demoralized nation, but some felt it would be necessary to prevent the German Armies from taking up the fight once again.
German High Seas Fleet Sails to Internment
The Treaty of Versailles was finally signed on June 23, 1919. The vengeful tone of the Allies – particularly French President Clemenceau – caused deep and lasting unhappiness amongst the German populace. In a final display of outrage at the perceived offense to German honour, the entire German High Seas Fleet, interned (not surrendered) at Scapa Flow since war’s end, scuttled itself just before the Treaty was signed. This action allowed a tenuous mythology to grow around the idea that the German fleet had not been defeated in battle, a concept that would reappear in the second war with the scuttling of the pocket battleship Graf Spee.
Others foresaw that a punitive approach to peace would only give rise to renewed conflict – their wisdom was to be proven a few years later by a small man with a big mouth and a good understanding of human nature. His name was Adolf Hitler.
The list of names to remember becomes longer every year as the battles and wars continue. Maybe the first name was the right one – Armistice Day – a temporary peace for just one day a year.
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The First World War An Illustrated History, A. J. P. Taylor, Penguin Books, 1963
World War 1, S. L. A. Marshall, American Heritage Books, 1964
Germany’s High Seas Fleet in the World War, Adm. Reinhardt Scheer, War Times Journal, 1920