World War I History: November 11, 1918 Armistice Morning
The Signing of the Armistice
At 5:00 on Monday morning, November 11, 1918, nine grim men agreed to sign the papers laid out on a table in a railroad carriage parked in a forest 37 miles north of Paris. At 5:12, two French generals, three British naval officers, two German politicians, a German general and a German naval officer, started signing the Armistice which would end the World War that had raged for more than four years. The last signature was in place by 5:20, making it official: at 11:00, all fighting would cease. By 5:40 AM, the news of the signing had reached the capital cities where impromptu celebrations broke out. Big Ben rang out in London for the first time since 1914.
Business as Usual
Although it took longer for the soldiers in the trenches to get the news, the generals along the Western Front knew the Armistice would be signed at 5:00 and that fighting would stop six hours later. Until then, they were determined to gain favorable positions, should the cease fire fail, and, not incidentally, to continue to punish the Germans up until the very last minute. Generals under American General Pershing launched attacks as late as 10:30 AM. Some French units were ordered to attack at 9:00 AM and cease at 11:00. The British attacked, relishing the idea of recapturing Mons, Belgium on the last day of the war. Mons was the site of their first battle and first defeat in August 1914. Artillery batteries fired salvo after salvo into the German lines simply to avoid having to haul the unused shells away.
11,000 Casualties That Morning
On that morning of November 11, while the world started to celebrate and word continued to filter down to the troops that the fighting would cease at 11:00, there were almost 11,000 casualties, including almost 2,700 killed.
British Empire Losses
British Empire losses that morning were around 2,400. Forty-year-old Private George Edwin Ellison was the last British soldier to die at 9:30 as he scouted the outskirts of Mons-- the same place where the first British soldier died. George was one of the few “old soldiers” who had been shipped across the channel in 1914 and had fought at Mons in September of that year. Against all odds he had survived over four years in the trenches to be killed 90 minutes before the end of the fighting. The last Canadian to die was 25-year-old Private George Lawrence Price. He was shot by a sniper at 10:58.
The French losses that morning were estimated at 1,170. Augustin Trebuchon was the last French soldier to die. He was shot at 10:50 as he carried the message to the front that hot soup would be served after 11:00. It was decided by the French leaders that no French soldiers were killed that day so the death records of all French soldiers killed on November 11 stated that they had died on November 10.
American losses that morning were estimated as high as 3,500. Some of Pershing's generals saw a last chance at glory and, believing the Armistice was letting the Germans off the hook, Pershing did nothing to dissuade them. US Marines suffered more than 1,100 casualties trying to cross the River Meuse. Had they been allowed to wait until 11:00, they could have safely crossed the river with no casualties. Henry Gunther was the last American and the last Allied soldier to be killed. He and others advanced through fog toward two German machine guns. The Germans fired a burst over their heads and the Americans dropped to the ground. The Germans, knowing that it was almost 11:00, assumed that would be the end of it, but Gunther got back up and started running at them. The Germans shouted and waved at him to stop, but when he didn't, they fired a burst of five shots. One of them struck Gunther in the left temple, killing him instantly. It was 10:59, 60 seconds before the end of the war.
German losses that morning were about 4,100 as many of them were retreating and therefore more exposed. Surviving German records are not clear about the last German killed in the war, but the last German (and last soldier) killed may have been a Lieutenant Tomas. After 11:00, he approached some American soldiers to let them know that, since the war was over, he and his men were vacating a house and it would be available. Unfortunately, no one had informed the Americans of the Armistice and they shot him.
In a war of unprecedented carnage and destruction, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers were ordered out of the relative safety of their squalid trenches to walk unprotected across open land toward enemy machine guns, it may seem that the morning of the last day was just more of the same. It is only when taken out of the context of that war and compared to another, even larger war that its true horror emerges. For on that morning, with only a few hours to endure, when all the generals had to do was nothing, more men were killed, wounded or missing than both sides suffered on D-Day in June 1944 during the Normandy Invasion.
When the Allies were closing in near the end of World War Two, Hitler had the railroad carriage that had been used in the German surrender in 1918 and the French surrender in 1940 blown to pieces, fearing the humiliation of having to surrender in that same carriage.
The harshness of the terms of the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles that followed ensured that there would be a World War Part Two. Twenty-two years later, Hitler and his generals forced the French to sign surrender papers in the very same railroad carriage at the very same spot that the Armistice of November 11, 1918 was signed.