At 5am on November 11, 1918, the French, British, American and German representatives signed the armistice treaty that formally ended hostilities in the First World War. Under the terms of the Armistice, the war would officially end at 11am that day. All the troops in the trenches had to do was sit tight for the next 6 hours, and everyone would, after four years of the bloodiest stalemate in European history, get to go home intact. Instead, allied forces launched a series of attacks, producing over 10,000 casualties on the last morning of a war that was already over.
By the first week of November 1918, the First World War was drawing to a close. When it began, in August 1914, both sides confidently predicted they would be victorious “before the autumn leaves fell from the trees”. Instead, the war turned into a four-year deadlock, leaving both sides broken and Europe ankle-deep in blood. Virtually an entire generation had been wiped out in the trenches.
In the end, it was the Germans who broke first. The United States had belatedly entered the war in 1917, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1918 that the hastily-trained doughboys, armed largely with French weapons, began arriving in significant numbers. It was enough to break the spine of the exhausted German Army, and by September 1918 the Kaiser’s troops were in retreat everywhere, and the Kaiser himself was forced to abdicate by a rebellion of the war-weary German population. On November 7, the new German Republic formally asked the Entente allies for a ceasefire to discuss a surrender.
They didn’t get one. The military commander-in-chief of the Entente forces, the French Marshall Ferdinand Foch, hated the Germans, blamed them for the war and the devastation in France, and wanted to make them pay dearly. There would be no ceasefire, Foch informed the delegates. Furthermore, the German Government had to accept, without conditions, a list of 32 demands that included withdrawal from all occupied territories, the destruction or surrender to the allies of the entire German Navy and Army and all its equipment, and a formal acknowledgment that the war was all Germany’s fault and that she would pay full reparations for all war damages. If Germany did not agree to these terms within 72 hours, Foch announced, the fighting would go on until Germany had been invaded and occupied.
The German delegation was stunned, and after stammering that they needed to contact their superiors in Berlin for instructions, asked once again for a ceasefire while the armistice was being worked out, pointing out that the war was killing over 2,000 people every day. “For God’s sake,” the senior German delegate begged, “do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.” Foch once again refused a ceasefire, and contemptuously dismissed the Germans.
On November 10, the German delegates were back. Despite the humiliating conditions imposed by the Entente (the resentment of which would go on to produce a Second World War only 20 years later), the Germans had no choice but to give in.
At 5:10am on November 11, the instrument of surrender was signed. To give everyone enough time to contact all their forces in the field, it was agreed that the formal end of hostilities would occur at 11am that morning. Although every officer in the Entente forces had known for the past three days that an armistice was being discussed and the war was almost over, it wasn’t until 6am on the morning of the 11th that official instructions went out to all allied forces declaring that a peace agreement had been concluded and that the war would formally end five hours later, at 11am (Foch had picked that time, as it was poetically the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month).
But, crucially, neither the French nor British nor American commanding generals had issued any orders as to what was to be done in the meantime. The French commander Foch wanted to exact his revenge on the hated enemy right up to the last minute. The American commander “Black Jack” Pershing was opposed to any peace treaty at all; he wanted the war to continue until Germany was conquered and destroyed. And the British commander Sir Douglas Haig shared Foch’s attitude that the Germans were to be punished for as long as possible.
In the absence of any specific orders from the commander-in-chief as to what was to be done, then, the decisions were left to the subordinate officers. Most of them, sensibly, ordered their troops to stand down. But a few did not. Some of them were motivated by a desire for glory, some feared the reaction from superiors if they made a decision, and some simply wanted to get back at the hated enemy and kill as many “Boches” as they could. It was to have fatal consequences.
Despite Foch’s desire to kill Germans till the last possible moment, his French officers had more sense, and nearly all of the French “poilus” stayed in their trenches. Even so, the 80th Regimente was ordered to make an attack on a German position at 9am that morning. A French Army runner named Augustin Trebuchon was killed by a sniper at 10:50am, just ten minutes before the war ended, as he carried a dispatch to a frontline trench. But he was not the last to die.
Most of the British Expeditionary Force’s “Tommies” waited out the last hours of the war without action. But in Belgium, a British Army unit was entrenched in front of the city of Mons, which the Germans had captured from the BEF way back at the beginning of the war in August 1914. Now, on the very last day of the war, one of the British commanders apparently decided that it was a matter of honor for his troops to capture the city before the fighting ended, and ordered his men to attack at 7am. Irishman Private George Edwin Elison, who had helped defend Mons from the Germans back in 1914 and survived the four years of war after that, now became the last British soldier killed, at 9:30am. The attack on Mons continued until the official armistice at 11:00. Just before that, at 10:58am, Canadian trooper Private George Price became the last soldier of the British Commonwealth to be killed. But he was not the last to die either.
It was the American “doughboys” who carried on the war with the most enthusiasm. Perhaps because they had entered the war late, had played little actual military role in it, and felt they had something to prove, or perhaps because it was their last chance to win battlefield honors and promotions for a future career, American officers launched several different attacks that morning. At 4am, the Fifth Marine Division was ordered to cross the Meuse River on pontoon bridges, and came under artillery and machine gun fire. The Marines took over 1,100 casualties. The US Army’s 89th Division was ordered to storm the town of Stenay because, the commander later explained, it had a number of bath-houses and he didn’t want the Germans to have them after the war was over. It cost the Americans 61 dead and 304 wounded to take Stenay. The 92nd Division, an African-American unit with white officers, had been scheduled for days to make an attack on the morning of the 11th. When he heard that the armistice had been signed, the commander, General John Sherburne, contacted his superiors to ask if the planned attack should be called off. He was told to advance. The result was, he bitterly declared, “an absolutely needless waste of life”. In the 81st Division, the commanding officer ordered his men to stand down; at 10:40am, less than half an hour before the war was to end, his superior countermanded that order and told the men to advance. The division lost 66 killed and 395 wounded. At 10:44am, 16 minutes before the end of the war, the 313th Regiment was ordered to clear out a German machine gun post at the village of Ville-Devant-Chaumont. As the American troops advanced, the Germans, in utter disbelief, first waved at them frantically, then fired over their heads to try to get them to stop, and finally in desperation fired a short burst directly at them. Private Henry Gunter, who had arrived in the trenches four months ago, was struck in the head and died instantly. He was the last American killed in the war. The time was 10:59am. But he was not the last to die either.
At 11am, as the armistice went into effect and the guns fell silent, a German junior officer named Tomas left his trench and approached a group of American troopers in No Man’s Land to tell them that they could find shelter in the remains of the bombed-out house that he had been staying in. The Americans, however, had lost their field telephone and had not heard that the war was over. As Tomas approached, they shot him. It was 11:02am.
In all, the six hours between the time the armistice was signed and the time it went into effect cost over 10,000 casualties on all sides: the French losing about 1200 killed and wounded, the British 2400, the Americans around 3000, and the Germans 4100. In return, the Entente gained…nothing.