On November 11, 1918, after four years of horrific fighting and the loss of millions of lives, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. Although fighting continued elsewhere, the armistice between Germany and the Allies after the Peace Conference in 1919 was the first step to ending the war. The global reaction was one of mixed emotions: relief, celebration, disbelief and a profound sense of loss. The armistice centennial offers the chance to look back and assess its continued significance today.
The war that ultimately took the lives of over 9 million military personnel from over 30 countries had its origins in the nineteenth century. Imperial competition, economic pressure and a rise in nationalism positioned the world on the brink of war. In the Balkans, Slavic peoples sought independence from Austria-Hungary. On June 28, 1914, one young nationalist assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie Chotek. This triggered the July Crisis, a series of diplomatic and military escalations among Europe’s great powers. By the first week in August of 1914, five continents were at war.
When the fighting broke, few expected the conflict to last beyond Christmas. Both the Allied Powers (including Great Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) felt confident in their ability to defeat the other quickly. Over the course of the next few months, it was clear this would not come to pass. The conflict, already expanded beyond Europe, included great movements of imperial colonies in Africa and Asia. As it progressed, further independent nations like Bulgaria, Romania, Italy, Ottoman Empire, China and Japan joined the fighting.
After a series of alliances drew most of Europe into the conflict, fighting took place on three major European fronts: the Western Front in France and Belgium, the Italian Front in the Alpines, the Eastern Front in Russia and into the Balkans. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire, with occasional assistance from Germany, fought against an array of Allied forces, principally connected to the British Empire. Fighting also occurred throughout Africa, especially East Africa, the Pacific, and the Atlantic Ocean.
Carring [sic] Trench mats at Passchendaele (1917) by Ernest Wilfred Albert ChurchNational WWI Museum and Memorial
Although fighting on all fronts was brutal and costly, it was the Western Front that came to symbolize the war’s horrific nature, with its miles of trenches and artillery shell holes in No Man's Land.
While many, then and now, focus attention on the European fronts, it is important to recognize that colonial populations in Africa and Asia proved essential to the war effort, even as many were forced to participate in a war not of their making. Fighting was fierce in Africa and the Ottoman Empire where the line between combatant and non-combatant often blurred. World War I also witnessed the emergence of Arab nationalism in the Middle East, whose post-war division continues to impact the world today.
World War I not only impacted service personnel, but millions of civilians as well. Agriculture production and the distribution of food suffered because of the war, leaving those on a multitude of home fronts with severe shortages of basic supplies. War-weariness after 1916 increased dissent among civilian populations and contributed to the outbreak of riots, famine and revolution.
In April 1917, faced with resumed unrestricted German submarine warfare and the publication of the Zimmerman Telegraph proclaiming Germany’s offer to assist Mexico in a war against the U.S., President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war. A nation, with a standing army less than 135,000, entered a war fought by millions on the side of the Allies.
The Final Year
The war's end was not assured when U.S. troops began arriving in Europe in the summer of 1917. Revolution led Russia to seek an armistice with Germany, leaving the Germans free to concentrate on the Western Front. In the south, the Italians suffered defeat at the Battle of Caporetto and fighting continued in the Middle East and Africa. By the summer of 1918, however, the Central Powers were on the defensive. At the end of October, an armistice between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies ended fighting in the Middle East. Only days later, the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire signed an armistice with Italy.
“Quiet” on the Western Front
German general Erich Ludendorff’s bleak pronouncement of the state of the military ultimately led Germany to pursue an armistice with the Allies. Great Britain and France largely ignored President Wilson’s Fourteen Points for Peace and demanded harsh reprimands from Germany. Placed in an impossible situation but left with no alternative, the German delegates signed the armistice. The Western Front finally fell silent at 11 a.m. on November 11. It was this armistice, ceasing hostilities on the Western Front, that impacted a lasting global significance.
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was met with celebration from battlefield to home front. Even in places far removed from the Western Front, like East Africa (where fighting continued for several weeks), news of the armistice was greeted with jubilation.
It is easy to look back on that day and see only joyful relief. The end of war – any war – invokes this emotional response. Reading accounts, however, reveals a different picture. Physical, and psychological exhaustion permeated the war-torn nations. Many realized that the armistice was only a temporary solution to a more complex situation. All participants and their home fronts experienced an overwhelming sense of loss.
After 1918, November 11 became a day of remembrance. Commemoration practices involved both celebration and somber remembrance with ceremonies often including parades, speeches and a moment of silence. In the 1920s, Armistice Day integrated pilgrimages to each country’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as a part of the ceremonies. Local and regional memorials around the globe held events on this day to honor those who served in the “World’s War”.
Remembrance in the U.S.
In the United States, the meaning of Armistice Day was made clear in President Wilson’s November 11, 1919 address. He stated that the day would be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory,” words that continue to resonate today. In 1938, Armistice Day, “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace,” was designated an official holiday.
Remembrance Sunday (1946) by PatheNational WWI Museum and Memorial
Armistice Day remained an important part of national identity and global memory even after a second world war, with Commonwealth countries adopting the name Remembrance Day or Remembrance Sunday.
In the wake of World War II and Korea, veterans of those wars advocated for Armistice Day to become a day of remembrance for all veterans, not just those who died in World War I. In the U.S., this idea was supported by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who signed legislation into law in 1954 to create Veterans Day. The meaning then as today shifted to honor the service of all U.S. veterans, while Memorial Day continues to honor all who died in military service.
One hundred years after the signing of the armistice that ushered in the end of World War I, the world continues to remember the Great War and realize its enduring impact on the global community. In the United States and abroad, though its name has changed and who it remembers has expanded, Armistice Day continues to reflect the courage, honor patriotism and sacrifice of those that first established it in 1919.
Curator of Education: Lora Vogt
Digital Content Manager: Liesl Christman
Special Projects Historian: Dr. Jennifer Zoebelein
Senior Curator: Doran Cart
Registrar: Stacie Petersen
Director, Archives and Edward Jones Research Center: Jonathan Casey
Made possible in part by the generous support of the William T. Kemper Foundation, the Regnier Family Foundation and the David T. Beals, III Charitable Trust.