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History of Armistice Day

What was the armistice and when was it signed?

At 2.05am on 11 November 1918, after four years of conflict, a German delegation sat down in the railway carriage of Allied supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a few hours’ north of Paris. Talks had gone on for three days, and the German delegates were close to accepting the terms for an armistice, a formal agreement to end the fighting.

The Germans had been defeated after a brutal summer of attrition; over the past four months, Allied and American forces had overwhelmed the final line of German defences in the battles of the Hundred Days Offensive. On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II had been persuaded to seek asylum in the Netherlands.

In the early hours of 11 November, final terms were laid out and at 5.12am, the armistice was signed. It declared the “cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing”. Terms of the agreement included: the immediate German withdrawal from the territories they had acquired during the conflict; the disarmament and demobilisation of the German military; and the release of Allied prisoners. The terms made it impossible for Germany to resume any fighting.

This was the last of the September–November 1918 armistices between the warring nations, and peace came into effect six hours after the armistice was signed, at 11am – or at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month". It has been estimated that during the time between the signing and the announcement of peace, the war produced a further 11,000 casualties.

The armistice was never intended to be a permanent peace treaty between the nations; this would be attempted with the Treaty of Versailles, signed seven months later. In January 1919, the leaders of 32 countries met in Paris – without Germany. Negotiations were led by the ‘big three’: British prime minister David Lloyd George; French prime minister Georges Clemenceau; and US president Woodrow Wilson.

The aim of the treaty was to make sure that Germany would never again pose a military threat to the rest of Europe. It left Germany with reduced territories, a significantly smaller army and navy, and the duty to assume ‘war guilt’ and pay an unspecified amount of ‘reparations’ to the Allies.

The terms of the treaty were considered harsh by many, and British prime minister David Lloyd George predicted: "We shall have to fight another war again in 25 years’ time."

French premier Georges Clemenceau, American president Woodrow Wilson and British prime minister Lloyd George after signing the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images) When was the first Armistice Day?

Over the last century, the day has become a more sombre day of reflection, marked with poppies and respectful silence. However, 11 November 1918 was a moment of wild celebration for many. “The day the war ended was a weird and wonderful carnival rather than the day of mournful seriousness that Armistice Day would become in later years,” wrote Guy Cuthbertson for BBC History Magazine.

In Cambridge, students threw books, a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the kaiser was burned in the market square while people danced round the bonfire.

On 12 November, the Daily Mirror reported: “Conversation in the Strand was impossible owing to the din of cheers, whistles, hooters and fireworks”.

While the initial celebrations were filled with relief and jubilation in many quarters, the soldiers still had to be ‘demobbed’ and huge swathes of the population were irrevocably changed. Peter Hart, an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive, wrote in 2009 about the many soldiers who returned home with mental and physical scars.“Many had presumed that they would not live to see the end of the war. Part of their mental defences was the idea that they had nothing to look forward to; that as doomed men they did not have much to lose if they were killed. In a flash their mental landscape had changed.”

The British continued to refer to 1914–18 as ‘the Great War’in the 1920s and 1930s, but after 1945 they adopted American terminology and spoke of ‘the First World War’ and the ‘Second World War’. According to David Reynolds,professor of international history at the University of Cambridge, this changed the nature of commemoration. “After 1945, both Armistice Day on 11 November and the Two-Minute silence fell out of fashion. Instead, the dead of both world wars were honoured on the nearest weekend, known as Remembrance Sunday,” he explained in an article for BBC History Magazine.

For Reynolds, the last third of the 20th century stands in contrast with what had come before, as, with the retreat from empire, compulsory military service was abandoned. “Apart from the Falklands, foreign wars seemed a relic of the past,’ he writes. “But over the last quarter-century, war has returned to our national agenda, in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths of young soldiers today gives new life and meaning to stories and poems from Britain’s greatest war. The two-minute silence has gained new resonance, likewise the poppy appeal.”

Why are poppies worn?

The poppy is forever linked with the landscapes of the First World War, with the deep red flower covering many battlefields on the western front.

The first poppy appeal took its symbol from a 1915 poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor. McCrae wrote 'In Flanders Fields' after seeing a friend, a young Canadian soldier, killed by an exploding German artillery shell. The opening verse cements the symbol of poppies as a “mark” for the fallen:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.”

The British Legion was established in May 1921, with the intent to aid and improve the lives of ex-servicemen and their wives and children, as well as widows, parents and orphans who had lost family during the war. The legion adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, with the first held Poppy Day on 11 November 1921. Today it is seen most commonly in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

The symbol has also been the subject of some controversy. Some claim that its “blood-red” colour represents war and death, while others choose to wear a white poppy. The white symbol was first adopted in the 1930s by the Peace Pledge Union, with the aim of representing “remembrance of all victims of war”, rather than the red poppy which “symbolises remembrance of British armed forces and its allies rather than enemies and civilians who also died in wars”.

The Royal British Legion has stated that the red poppy remains “an emblem of remembrance and hope” and should not be seen as a symbol of religion or politics.

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