Bitter lessons from 1918

Bitter lessons from 1918

The First World War ended 100 years ago today (Sunday) after a civilian peace delegation dispatched by the German government, and led by Matthias Erzberger, agreed to an armistice. 

Erzberger was denounced as a traitor after the war and in August 1921, while walking in the Black Forest, was assassinated by two former naval officers.

France’s Marshal Foch, supreme commander of the allied armies, was in no mood to compromise when the German peace delegation arrived on November 8 after his nation had suffered around 6 million casualties, including the deaths of his son and son-in-law. 

Erzberger’s suggestion of an immediate ceasefire was refused. Instead, on November 9 Canadian forces attacked Mons, which held out until its capture on November 11. It is believed the attack was ordered to secure retribution for the one of the allies’ first major defeats in 1914.

US General Charles Summerall ordered his men across the River Meuse against machine gunners after midnight on November 11, resulting in his marines taking over 1,100 casualties. 

The armistice was signed at 5am on November 11 and due to come into effect at 11am to allow time for the news to spread across the front. 

By 5.40am celebrations had begun in capital cities but the killing continued on the western front.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission said 863 Commonwealth soldiers died on November 11, although this includes those who succumbed to wounds from previous days and does not include those who were injured on the 11th but died later. 

The last French soldier to die was Augustin Trebuchon, a runner killed at 10.50am while delivering a message about the ceasefire. 

US casualties on the last day were at least 3,000, exceeding total American losses on D-Day in 1944. 

US commander, General John Pershing, wanted to teach the Germans “a lesson” and regarded the armistice as too soft. 

General Wright ordered the 89th to take the town of Stenay on the morning of November 11, saying he heard it had intact bathing houses and wanted his men to have access to hot water.

The prevailing view among many commanders had changed little since 1916 when a British corps commander at the Somme wrote: “The men are much too keen on saving their own skins. They need to be taught that they are out here to do their job. Whether they survive or not is a matter of complete indifference.”

Domestically in the UK, the war meant 1.5 million women took up jobs mostly hitherto occupied by men with some of the earliest calls for equity dating back to that era.

The first equal pay strike in the UK took place in 1918, when women London bus and tram staff demanded the same increase in pay as men. It spread to the southeast and the London Underground and the women won a five-shilling bonus, although not equal pay. 

Domestic servants became window cleaners, gas fitters and crane drivers or moved into munitions factories, where their skin turned yellow and hair green from the chemicals they handled. 

Manufacturers also came up with a technological fix for affluent housewives whose servants had departed. 



German troops felt betrayed by the peace deal in 1918. Picture credit: Wikimedia 

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