The 11th Hour: A brief history of the Great War

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The 11th Hour: A brief history of the Great War
Striking workers fill the streets of Berlin on November 9th, 1918.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 bugles across Europe sounded the end of a war that left some 10 million soldiers dead.


Hopes for a ceasefire had been growing for weeks with German troops - under pressure from an unrelenting Allied offensive - withdrawing from Flanders and most of occupied France.

At last, it came: at 11:00 am on November 11th, 1918, amid the mud and fallen leaves of a grey European winter, World War I was over.

Here is an overview of the final days of the Great War.

Berlin calls for talks

On October 3rd Germany's emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, appoints as chancellor Prince Max of Baden who has long advocated a negotiated peace with Britain, France and the United States.

The very next day the new chancellor telegraphs the US president, Woodrow Wilson, to call for talks.

The Allies demand Germany's unconditional surrender and the kaiser's  abdication.

Pressure builds on Berlin. German forces, their spring offensive long exhausted, are beating a disorderly retreat.

On November 3, German ally Austria-Hungary capitulates and signs an armistice.

 German negotiators enter France

Tensions mount in Germany as naval forces mutiny at Kiel and a general strike is called on November 5th.

French officers, meanwhile, receive the order to allow safe passage of top German diplomats into Allied territory.

On November 7th, at 8:30 pm, a ceasefire is sounded at La Capelle in northern France, near the Belgium border.

It is the first in more than 50 months of war and allows the German delegation, led by minister of state Matthias Erzberger, to cross into an Allied zone.

The diplomats take a train to a secluded forest clearing near Compiegne to meet Allied forces commander General Ferdinand Foch.

 Kaiser abdicates

Foch receives the German delegates at 9:00 am on November 8 in a train parked in a railway siding in the forest.

He asks if they are ready for an armistice. An aide reads out a list of terms fixed by the Allies at Versailles four days earlier.

At the request of the delegation, a messenger is sent to German forces commander Marshal Paul von Hindenburg in Belgium for his authorization to sign an armistice.

By the time the envoy arrives, on November 9th, the kaiser has abdicated, with the German Revolution under way.

Armistice signed

Night has fallen on the forest clearing when the messenger returns, on November 10th, with the commander's permission.

Negotiations resume. For three more hours the Germans argue, clause by clause.

Eventually there is a final version: by 5:20 am on November 11th, the armistice ending a war started four years earlier is signed in a train carriage in the woods.

The news reaches the troops quickly, and is received with disbelief. Some
commanders decide to continue fighting to the bitter end; others will not risk any further lives.

On the stroke of 11 am the ceasefire agreed just hours earlier is sounded by bugles and clarions along the hundreds of kilometres (miles) of front line that stretch across Europe.

Soldiers gradually emerge from the trenches, stunned.

 War is over

Celebrations erupt in the capitals of the Allied victors.

Civilians pour into the streets, thronging the Place de la Concorde in Paris, Piccadilly Circus in London, New York's Fifth Avenue, the Piazza Venezia in Rome.

Church bells ring out at full peal and people dance in the streets. In French ports, soldiers from the United States, Australia and other far-away lands parade under their national flags.

The Great War - which had drawn in some 30 nations and their colonies, and mobilized around 70 million soldiers - is over.

The final peace treaty will be signed in Versailles in June 1919.

Nearly 10 million soldiers lie dead, along with another 10 million civilians. Much of Europe is ruins.

German humiliation, blame

In Germany there is relief but also humiliation and anger. The Kiel mutiny spreads and there are deadly revolts across the country.

The generals blame politicians for defeat, saying they were "stabbed in the back" on the home front.

It is a notion taken up by ultra-nationalist parties and is a key refrain of one Adolf Hitler.



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