When the guns on the Western Front fell silent at 11am on 11th November 1918, it marked an end to four years of continuous fighting between the Imperial German Army and the combined forces of the British and French Empires. The Armistice was a suspension of these hostilities, rather than an endpoint to the war, which would not come until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.
With the failure of the Spring Offensive in August 1918 it became clear that Germany could not win the war. The “final hundred days” were an attempt to stave off complete defeat and secure more favourable terms for a negotiated peace. The Armistice, when it came, was unexpected. Few knew of the secret negotiations between the Allies and the German High Command that had been in progress for several months. The reaction of the soldiers on the front line was muted, as though they hardly
dared believe the ceasefire might last, or were too exhausted, physically and emotionally to respond otherwise.
The awful depravity of war, the sense of loss for fallen comrades and the shattering of all sense of moral purpose, was brilliantly depicted in Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front”. It explains, perhaps better than many historical accounts, why soldiers who had experienced the horror of war could not fully share the jubilation of those back home.
In Sydney, as in London and Paris, news of the Armistice brought huge crowds into the streets to celebrate the Allied victory and the hopeful return of servicemen and women. So uninhibited and prolonged were these celebrations that after several days, authorities called on police to restore order and made careful plans to organise more restrained and more dignified official commemorations.
While it was clear that the Allies had been victorious, it was not clear that this was an end to the fighting. There had been previous armistices, some by an informal “understanding” between opposing commanders, others such as the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, occurred spontaneously.
In August 1917 Pope Benedict XV issued a Peace Plan calling on all belligerents to cease fighting and resolve their differences through arbitration and a “conciliatory frame of mind”. Both sides ignored the pontiff’s seven-point plan, although its format and content were very similar to Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, which were eventually adopted as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
For the Allies there were real concerns that the German military class might seek to gain an advantage in the eventual peace negotiations by launching a surprise attack. The German Army was still in the field, occupying territory in France and Belgium captured during the war. Germany’s much-vaunted navy, which had played such an important part in the pre-war arms race, remained largely intact, secure in its homeport of Kiel. Now, with Germany facing humiliating defeat, it was widely anticipated orders might be given for one last futile attack to secure concessions in any final settlement. Instead the soldiers, sailors and workers of Kiel mutinied, forcing the abdication of the Kaiser, who fled to Holland.
In Berlin authorities permitted a symbolic triumphal parade through the city’s Brandenburg Gate, an honour traditionally bestowed on victorious armies returning from war. The gesture, meant to deter communist insurrection, fed suspicions among the Allies of a return to militarism. Fears that communism would spread to other parts of Europe led Winston Churchill, then First Sea Lord, to order the Royal Navy to support the Mensheviks (White Army) who were engaged in a bitter civil war in Russia with the Bolsheviks (Red Army). Some 200 Australian sailors volunteered to serve under British command in the North Russia Relief Expedition between June-September 1919. Two Australians were awarded the Victoria Cross for actions in this campaign. These were Corporal Arthur Percy Sullivan and Sergeant Samuel George Pearse. They were the last two Australian VCs awarded in the First World War.
Allied soldiers serving at the time of the Armistice were awarded a Victory Medal on which was inscribed “The War for Civilisation 1914-1919”. There was no agreement then as to what to call the war. The name most commonly used was the “Great War”. It was not until a global war erupted again twenty years later that it earned the epithet “World War I”. British Prime Minister and historian, Winston Churchill referred to the Great War as the “Third Balkan War” by way of explaining its origins in earlier conflicts in the region. The last of these became the trigger for a wider European war with the assassination of Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand in July 1914.
Despite the signing of the armistice, many Australians remained suspicious of German intentions. This is hardly surprising given the intensity of anti-German propaganda, which had been a useful recruiting tool during the war. Norman Lindsay’s cartoon depiction of the “brutal hun”, destroying civilisation was a popular meme; as were newspaper stories about German soldiers raping Belgian nuns and the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell.
Australian newspaper accounts generally reinforced the stereotype of German subterfuge. One example of this is the Sydney Morning Herald, which kept a running tally of the number of alleged breeches of the Armistice, most of which might be described as trivial. A report in the Melbourne Herald of a German ship arriving in Port Melbourne in September 1919 caused some concern before it was helpfully explained that German ships, handed over to the Allies under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, flew what was called the “Armistice Flag” from their highest mast. The flag was divided into three horizontal sections of alternately white, blue and white. It was correctly flown beneath the ensign of the country to which the vessel had been allotted. Some of these ships were used to repatriate Australian soldiers.
The Armistice provided a break in hostilities that allowed a settlement to be forged. Historians have argued that it was in this period the Allies, despite winning the war, lost the peace by imposing a punitive and unenforceable treaty that precipitated a second world war. Fears on both sides fuelled suspicions, exacerbated by the mutually incompatible goals each of the parties brought to the Peace Conference. Historians’ focus on the Western Front obscures the fact that there were other fronts in Eastern and Southern Europe as well as campaigns in the Middle East. There is also the assumption that the war ended on Armistice Day. In reality the general war morphed into a number of revolutions, coups d’état and civil wars, which persisted for many years.