Rear Window: The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: Armistice Day 1918

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The Independent Online
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this week, at that resonant moment, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the First World War ended. If the Germans had had their way, the guns would have been silenced three days earlier.

It was on 6 November that the German command sent a wireless message to the French commander, Marshal Foch, asking for a meeting. Early on 8 November a German delegation arrived for talks at a carriage in a railway siding in the forest of Compiegne, where they urged an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Foch said no. Germany must first agree terms for military withdrawal, accept its own disarmament and promise to pay reparations. If not, the Allies were ready to fight on. Foch set a deadline for the Germans to comply: 11am on the following Monday, 11 November. The terms were relayed to Berlin.

The vital answer did not arrive until after 7.30pm on the Sunday. 'The German Government accepts the conditions of the Armistice communicated to it on November 8.' At 5am the Germans signed and by 7am the news had reached the soldiers.

'The glad news,' wrote one historian, 'caused no demonstration, everybody appeared too tired to take it in anything but a philosophic manner.' One officer wondered: 'Was it that men kept their feeling of thankfulness deep buried in their hearts, in the same way as they have hidden their misgivings during four years of war, or was it that the occasion was too big for them to grasp? I'm sure I don't know.'

After 1,567 days of war, only four hours remained, but the fighting did not stop. At Meznieres the Germans bombarded the town and destroyed a hospital. Near Valenciennes a company of British soldiers was sent into an ambush by a wounded German who told them a village had been evacuated when it had not. Death and revenge ensued.

Some found it hard not to fight. The historians of the 8th Division record: 'Precisely at 11am the leading platoon of a company of the 2nd Middlesex found itself immediately opposite an occupied German post. The men were persuaded with difficulty to refrain from attacking it, their earnest contention being that no one need know anything about it and that it seemed a pity not to kill a few more Germans while they still had the chance.'

Others did not resist the temptation. At Lessines, history went into reverse as the fighting ended with a British cavalry charge. 'We started at 9.50,' wrote an officer, 'and galloped 20 kilometres, rushed his outpost lines at the gallop at five minutes to eleven and charged into the village only nine strong, shooting up the streets with revolvers and chasing Bosche round blocks of buildings. We captured a bridge head at two minutes to eleven and mopped up the village.'

When the hour came, the guns did fall silent (with the odd exception, including some American artillerymen who were determined to claim the last shot). By midday men were raising their heads above the parapet, standing up and looking cautiously around. Here and there, there were tentative meetings with the other side. Cigarettes were exchanged and wine was drunk. During the afternoon, orders went out banning fraternisation.

In London, Big Ben ushered in the peace. At the first stroke of 11am, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall were empty. By the 11th stroke they were packed with a cheering, reeling, happy mass of humanity, celebrating victory in a conflict that claimed 908,371 British lives. Lloyd George told the Commons: 'Thus came to an end the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind. I hope we may say that thus, on this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.'

(Photograph omitted)