Ending the war to end all wars: Ian McGibbon comments on the centenary of the Armistice that brought the fighting on the Western Front to an end.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian

Shortly after 5 am on 11 November 1918 in a railway carriage in the forest at Compiegne, France, a bevy of Allied officers watched as grim-faced Germans reluctandy signed a ceasefire agreement. Six hours later, all along the 700-kilometre-long Western Front the guns fell silent. The greatest military contest in history to that time, which had begun with Germany's invasion of Belgium and France at the beginning of August 1914, was finally at an end.

The blood-letting had continued up to the final moment: more than 2700 men lost their lives between those signatures and 11 am, when hostilities ended. They included a few hapless Germans killed minutes before the end as a result of renowned New Zealander Bernard Freyberg's dash to capture the bridge at Lessines before the ceasefire took effect. Although no New Zealanders were killed or wounded on 11 November, James Sloss, a pilot, had been mortally wounded in an air raid on the night of 9/10 November, the last New Zealander to fall on the Western Front.

New Zealand's main force in the campaign, Sir Andrew Russell's New Zealand Division, a week earlier had taken part in the stupendous attack, involving three armies, that had forced the issue. Launched on 4 November, it sent the Germans reeling back in disarray. In their sector New Zealand troops had assaulted the French town of Le Quesnoy in medieval fashion by climbing a ladder against its towering walls, an action that captured the imagination and led to a century-long connection with New Zealand that will be strongly in evidence during centenary commemorations in November. A week later most New Zealand soldiers were out of the line when news of the armistice reached them. War-weary, they reacted with resignation rather than elation.

Germany's position had been collapsing since August 1918, when the Allies went over to the offensive. Successive blows kept the Germans off balance as they fell back before a much superior force. When their allies began to fall away--Bulgaria on 30 September, the Ottoman Empire on 29 October and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on 3 November--the writing was on the wall for the German Empire. With its population growing restive as the British naval blockade made life more and more difficult and the situation at the front deteriorating by the hour, Germany's situation was dire. It became obvious that only a ceasefire could prevent the Allies driving into the Reich. As revolutionary strife engulfed Germany, the Kaiser...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT