In Compiègne Forest German and Allied negotiators have been trying to conclude an armistice that will end fighting on the Western Front. The Germans have been shocked by the severity of the terms the Allies are offering. Yesterday though Erzberger, the lead German negotiator, was directed by Ebert, Germany’s new Chancellor, to sign whatever terms he can get. Revolution is now spreading through Germany and the army is disintegrating; if the war continues then chaos and anarchy will be the result.
Ebert’s authorisation led to an intense burst of negotiations. Finally just after 5.00 am today the two sides reach an agreement. The Germans were unable to persuade the Allies to significantly improve their terms, though they did win some concessions. Foch and the Allied negotiators now accept that Germany will not have to surrender more U-boats than it actually possesses. They allow the German army to retain a very small amount of its military capacity in order to combat internal disorder. The Germans also win a slightly longer window in which to evacuate their troops from occupied territory.
Fundamentally though the armistice terms are dictated to the Germans by the Allies and are designed to prevent any resumption of hostilities by them. The German army is to surrender almost the entirety of its artillery pieces, mortars and machine guns, as well as huge numbers of trucks, locomotives and train carriages. The Germans have 15 days to withdraw from Belgium, Luxembourg and France (including Alsace-Lorraine) and must then withdraw their forces 40 kilometres east of the Rhine. The Allies will occupy the west bank of the Rhine and bridgeheads across it, with the right to seize any property they need from the local population. Germany’s navy will completely disappear, its warships and U-boats sailing to Allied ports for internment, pending a final decision on their fate.
The armistice nullifies the unequal treaties Germany signed with Russia and Romania earlier this year. German troops are also to be withdrawn from all the territories it has been occupying in the east. And Lettow-Vorbeck‘s army in Africa is to surrender. All prisoners of war held by the Germans are to be repatriated.
The Germans had hoped that the armistice would mean the end of the blockade of their ports, but this is not to be. The armistice states that the blockade will continue until a final peace settlement is agreed. For Erzberger this is a particularly egregious provision. He reads out a formal note of protest before signing the armistice, warning that the terms will unleash famine and anarchy in Germany. Yet his concluding words are defiant: “A nation of seventy million people suffers, but it does not die”.
Erzberger had wanted the armistice to take effect immediately but Foch insisted on a six hour gap. The fighting will end at 11.00 am. Messengers race off to tell frontline units that the war is ending. Foch meanwhile travels to Paris to present the armistice terms to Clemenceau. “My work is finished,” the generalissimo tells his Prime Minister. “Your work begins.”