Long before the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the Central Powers knew that the First World War was essentially over. Bulgaria had bowed out at the end of September, the Ottoman’s at the end of October and Austria-Hungary, with the Hapsburg Empire splitting apart from internal unrest and late Italian offensives, concluded its own armistice on the 4th November. That left Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany to struggle on for one more critical week.
In many respects, the road towards a German armistice was a game of pass the parcel. Ludendorff initially told the Kaiser at the end of September that he couldn’t guarantee the front would hold for another two hours, and insisted that the German government be reorganized on democratic lines; this was not an idealistic act, as Ludendorff hoped he could then put the blame for what was now inevitable on newly installed liberal politicians in Berlin, the genesis of what would become known as the “stab-in-the-back myth”.
By the 5th October, Wilhelm had been convinced to open more firm negotiations with Woodrow Wilson, though he and other traditionalists balked at the US President’s demand that he abdicate. By the end of October, Ludendorff had a miraculous change of heart, now insisting that the war must be continued, despite growing desertion and a disintegrating situation on the home front. The German Navy at Wilhelmshaven had mutinied around that time, starting a series of uprisings across Germany, that would extend on into 1919, as a dissatisfied populace, fed-up with the fighting and food shortages, took matters into their own hands. A delegation of negotiators departed Germany to France on the 6th November, arriving, after a lengthy and difficult journey, on the 8th. On the 9th of November a republic was declared in Berlin, with the Kaiser abdicating and fleeing into exile in the Netherlands, where he would spend the rest of his life.
The negotiations, that took place on Ferdinand Foch’s private train parked at a railway siding in the Compiegne Forest, were hurried and, in the end, largely pointless. The Allies held all the cards, and the German delegation was given no leeway to squeeze out better terms than those presented at the beginning of the process. It was only on the point of literally impossible demands, like the decommissioning of more submarines than the German Navy actually had, that things were changed. On the 10th November, the delegation were instructed by the provisional government in Berlin to agree to the terms, regardless of their harshness. The alternative was a continuation of a useless struggle, where Germany would almost certainly be military occupied in 1919, if not completely overthrown by violent revolution before then.
The Armistice was signed around 0500 on November 11th 1918, with an agreement that it would come into effect six hours later. All hostilities on the western front would be terminated, the Germans would retreat to within their own borders (minus Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhineland) and most of their military forces would disarm.
The Armistice became public knowledge a few hours after being signed, with Foch issuing a general order to cease hostilities before 1100 though parts of the front were aware of it through rapidly spreading rumour earlier. But still, the fighting did not cease. While many soldiers, especially on the German side, would have little interest in fighting on at this late stage, there were good reasons for the Allies to keep going. Only an armistice had been agreed, not a full peace treaty: the fighting could break out again in the future, so the Allies wanted to hold as much ground as possible before being obliged to stop. And there were more practical reasons for why artillery kept firing right up to the last seconds: some gunners wanted less ammunition to cart away when the fighting stopped. Over 10’000 casualties were incurred on that last day, with over 2’500 of them dying.
What were some of the Irish units doing on the 11th November?
As previously noted, what was left of the 16th (Irish) Division was way behind the lines, helping to train soldiers if doing anything at all. Its war had already come to an end. The 36th (Ulster) had also, as noted, been pulled from the front, though after considerably more fighting than their largely nationalist counter-parts. Its various battalions were billeted in different areas: the varying reactions from unit histories and individual soldiers ran the gauntlet from nothing at all, to wild joy, to numbed feelings of apathy. At least a few units, like the 2nd Royal Innsikilling Fusiliers and 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, had outright victory parades but plenty did little to mark the moment.
Plenty of other Irish named units were fighting on the last few days though. The 2nd Royal Irish Regiment were fighting all the way up to the 10th, attacking German positions around the village of St Symphorien, near Mons, before suddenly finding a lack of enemy to engage with. Four of them died on the last day. The 1st Irish Guards were engaged near Mauberge, on the banks of the Sambre (the 2nd battalion, contrastingly, were billeted way behind the line in Normandy). The 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars were constantly busy in the final days, to the extent that their orders to advance was counter-manded while they were already undertaking them, and they only found out the war was over when they met with other units.
The 16th Royal Irish Rifles spent the final few hours of the war building pontoon bridges across the River Scheldt, Belgium, which must have been a miserable enough task given the time of year; before they received official word they, like other units in the vicinity, got news of the armistice from the mass of fireworks and flares set off by celebrating soldiers at the nearby front.
The communication problems also resulted in instances of units learning of the armistice hours after it had come into effect, like the 7th Royal Irish Regiment, who were told as they trudged into reserve billets at Ellezelles, exhibiting a reaction of non-care. Soldiers who had spent hours marching in the bleak winter weather could not be relied upon to generate the kind of exuberant reactions you might expect: the 2nd Leinsters are recorded as barely reacting to the news when they were informed by the brigade commander, and simply continued their march through 1100.
The 69th Regiment had fought their last fight on the 7th November, and had been removed behind the front when the armistice came; they would soon be part of the occupying Allied force stationed at Remagan, in Allied occupation of sections of western Germany. Elsewhere in the world, Irish units received the news of the armistice slowly: the 1st Connacht Rangers, one of the last Irish battalions engaged in the Middle-East, spent the 11th November billeted in Nazareth of all places, where at least one soldier died in a hospital.
The 5th Royal Irish Lancers had inflicted the first British casualties of the war in 1914. Now, operating near the same area, they suffered the last British casualty pre-Armistice when Private George Edward Ellison, a coal miner from Leeds, was shot dead while on patrol an hour and a half before the fighting ceased. Another Lancer, Thomas Farrell from Navan, Meath, was wounded in the same engagement, but survived long enough to expire after the armistice on the 12th.
While there are numerous instances of attacks continuing past 1100 due to miscommunication or commanders chancing their arm, and plenty of soldiers would continue dying due to past wounds, when the hour came, fighting generally ceased on the western front, and in what few areas elsewhere in the world that the war was still continuing.
The casualty numbers of the conflict are not easy to discern. At least 15 million people, soldiers and civilians, were killed as a result of World War One. Nine million of those were for the Allies, with over a million of those for Britain and its colonies. 27’405 Irishmen are officially recorded as having died in British military service during this time, but this figure is untrustworthy: many Irish serving in non-Irish named units are not counted, and there are many non-Irish who died serving in the Irish Divisions that cloud the issue also. There are also the Irish-born who fought and died with Australian and Canadian units to consider, and the natural distinction between those who might have been born on the island but were counted as British. In the end, a conservative estimate would be the amount of Irish killed in the First World War, as part of military operations, at up to 35’000.
Of course, in many ways the First World War did not end on the 11th November 1918. It would not be until the next year that a peace treaty would be signed, and various smaller wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions precipitated by the First World War would be fought until the mid-twenties. But, in terms of this large-scale conflict between competing alliance blocks, engaging millions of troops on vast fronts, Europe would see a measure of peace, for a time.
In the next entry, I will offer a brief summation of the First World War and the Irish experience there, before we move on to more local affairs.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.