At 11 a.m., 102 years ago today, the cannons fell silent across the Western Front, as an Armistice agreement signed at approximately 5 a.m. (Paris time) went into effect, calling for an end to hostilities at “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”
In late September, the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Whilhelm II that the military situation had become hopeless and a series of diplomatic negotiations for an end to the war began. There were rocky points along the way, with a breakdown in negotiations in late October. The German soldiers were exhausted, however, and desertions were on the increase. There was also a sailors’ revolt in the German navy. Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated on November 9.
Faced with the breakdowns in the ability to continue hostilities, the German delegation signed the armistice agreement in the early morning hours with a ceasefire at 11 a.m.
Tragically, the fighting continued to the final minutes, with 2,738 men killed in those last hours.
Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away unused ammunition, as well as to ensure that if fighting resumed they would have advantageous positions. A battery of U.S. Navy 14-inch railway guns shot their last salvo at 10:57:30 a.m., timed to land far behind the German front line just before the scheduled armistice.
An American soldier, Henry Gunther, is recognized as the last soldier killed in action. He was killed one minute before the armistice when he charged some astonished German troops who were aware that the cease-fire was about to take place. He had been despondent over a reduction in rank and was apparently trying to redeem his reputation.
The last fighting in the war ended about two weeks later, when word reached the King’s African Rifles who were still fighting in what is now Zambia. The commanders of the British and German forces negotiated protocols for their own armistice ceremony.
There were later investigations as to why so many soldiers died in those final hours of the war after the Armistice had been signed. Congress opened an investigation to find out why, and if blame should be placed on American Expeditionary Forces, including General John Pershing.
Armistice Day is still celebrated on November 11 in many countries, and we will recall there were global commemorations of the centenary of the Armistice on November 11, 2018, with more than 60 heads of government and heads of state gathering in Paris. Many western countries have renamed the observances as Remembrance Day.
In 1926, Congress passed a resolution asking President Calvin Coolidge to issue annual proclamations calling for the observance of Armistice Day with appropriate ceremonies. In 1938, Congress approved legislation establishing November 11 as a legal holiday, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace…”
In 1945, a World War II veteran, Raymond Weeks, had the idea to expand Armistice Day to become a day to honor all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. In 1954, Congress passed legislation changing Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1982, President Reagan honored Weeks with a Presidential Citizenship Medal, honoring him as “the father of Veterans Day.” Weeks died in 1985.
For several years, in accordance with the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday in October from 1971 to 1977. In 1978, the day was moved back to November 11.
I still remember Armistice Day ceremonies in my Minnesota hometown prior to 1954. This was a time when many World War I veterans were in the prime of life, the business and civic leaders of the day. World War II was still a vivid memory for most people, and the veterans of that war were getting established in life and starting families. The Korean War limped to a cease fire in 1953, and loss of loved ones in that conflict was a fresh, bitter memory.
While the “war to end all wars” was a failed promise, we honor those veterans, living and dead, for their valor in service, and continued dedicated service to our country.