11 November 1918 marked the final day of World War One. It was the end to a long and bloody war, but whilst it was a day of celebration for those on the home front, for many troops fighting went on as normal.
The ceasefire followed three days of negotiation. The government in Berlin had no choice but to sign the terms proposed by the Allies. The British naval blockade had caused food shortages and social unrest in Berlin, putting pressure on the leader of the German delegation, Matthias Erzberger, to agree to the Armistice.
The armistice agreement was signed in a railroad car outside Compiégne at 5.10 am. But the official time for the ceasefire was scheduled for 11am to give time for the news to travel to the Western Front. News spread to Europe’s capital cities by 05.40 and celebrations began before the majority of soldiers were even aware of the Armistice.
The news was marked in different way: in London, Big Ben rung out for the first time in four years; parades marched through the streets; and in Paris gas lamps were lit for the first time since the start of the war.
However, on the frontline there were no such celebrations. The ceasefire was planned for six hours later, at 11.00. This resulted in thousands of deaths on the morning of the 11 November. 11,000 troops were killed just hours before the news of the Armistice had reached them.
The Americans were hit particularly badly on the final day of war. This was due to the recklessness of their commander, General John Pershing, who already knew about the Armistice when he ordered his troops to cross the River Meuse in the early hours of 11 November. On the monring of 11 November, the 89th US Division was ordered to attack Stenay, This was the last town captured on the Western Front but at a cost of 300 casualties. Pershing was unwilling to accept the armistice, arguing that the Germans must be severely defeated before the war could end: “There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.”
The CWGC records show that the last British soldier to die in World War One was Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. He was killed at Mons at 09.30, only 90 minutes before the ceasefire.
The last Canadian to die was Private George Lawrence Price of the Canadian Infantry (2nd Canadian Division) who was killed at Mons at 10.58. Officially, Price was the last Commonwealth soldier to be killed in World War One.
Private Henry Gunter was the last American to be killed with a time of death of 10.59. Gunter became the last soldier to die in conflict in World War One.
A breakdown in communications across the front led to thousands of unnecessary deaths on both sides. Nobody had told the Americans that the war was over when they shot dead Tomas, a German junior officer, at 11.00. The officer was approaching the Americans to offer them the house that he and his men were vacating, having already been informed of the ceasefire.
At home people were outraged over the deaths. Faced with a 3,000 American deaths on 11 November alone, the American public demanded an investigation. In November 1919, Pershing stood in front of a House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs that examined the actions of senior commanders in the final days of war. Pershing was not charged and he remained unapologetic, arguing that he was only following the orders of the Supreme Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch, that they should keep fighting until the official ceasefire.
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