Let us reflect on this important time in modern history with excerpts of documents from our diplomatic archives
The Armistice of 11 November in Rethondes (Compiègne Forest) was signed – following the Bulgarian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian armistices – right after the German Chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, requested the cessation of hostilities on 7 November 1918, then Emperor William II abdicated on 9 November, whom the Allied leaders considered responsible for the First World War. Then the November Revolution broke out in Germany, which worried the French and British authorities (fear of the unknown, Bolshevik threat across the Rhine).
An armistice is fundamentally different from a peace treaty. An armistice is negotiated by military authorities – who are subject to the authority of a government which can ask them to include non-military clauses and has an immediate goal of ending combat. A peace treaty is negotiated by a civil government and defines the conditions of peace by establishing the foundations for a new international order. From this viewpoint, French diplomacy did not directly take action at the time of the actual signing of the Armistice under the authority of Marshal Foch. Just as the entry of French troops in Alsace-Lorraine from 17 to 22 November 1918 was a military endeavour under the command of General Henri Gouraud.
On 18 January 1919, French diplomacy came onto the scene holding the Paris Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay under Georges Clemenceau’s Presidency of the Council, which was attended by President Woodrow Wilson – who arrived in Brest one month before the conference on 13 December.
When the Armistice was signed, diplomats at the Quai d’Orsay and around the world consulted with the authorities of the Allied nations. Several documents dated 9, 10 and 11 November, conserved in the Diplomatic Archives, provide proof of their concerns and those of the British and German authorities.
This conference, during which President Wilson implemented several of his Fourteen Points set out in January 1918, resulted in the peace treaties of Versailles (between Germany and the Allies, 28 June 1919), Saint Germain (between Austria and the Allies, 10 September 1919), Neuilly (between Bulgaria and the Allies, 27 November 1919), Trianon (between Hungary and the Allies), and Sèvres (on the former Ottoman Empire, 10 August 1920, reviewed in Lausanne in 1923).
One century later, France and Germany are together commemorating the end of the First World War, as evidenced by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s presence alongside Emmanuel Macron on 4 November 2018 at the Cathedral of Strasbourg, the European capital and symbol of French-German reconciliation, and that of Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel at the ceremonies of 10 and 11 November 2018. These are the lessons learned from the two World Wars of the 20th century that led to a reconciliation of French and German people, which is the driver and basis of European integration.
Germany’s surrender: the notes taken by Georges Mandel, his chief of staff, and dictated by Georges Clemenceau, President of the Council and Minister of War (9 November 1918):
- Clemenceau considered it was almost certain that the Germans would accept the Armistice.
- Mention of Germany’s request to keep an army and machine guns to combat Bolshevism and a merchant marine to avoid famine.
- Clemenceau’s conclusion: Germany’s situation exposed us to the unknown.
Clemenceau’s diplomatic cable to his British and Italian counterparts, Lloyd George and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, communicated to President Wilson’s aide, Colonel Edward House, and to the authorities of the Kingdom of Belgium, sent by French Foreign Minister Stephen Pichon (10 November 1918):
- Clemenceau spoke about the consequences of the German revolution in terms of the application of the Armistice.
- He believed there was a risk that the German fleet could fall into the hands of those revolting.
- Clemenceau also feared that Germany would merely end up annexing Austria’s German provinces by calling on them to take part in the vote on the new Republican regime.
An encrypted text from Clemenceau with the instructions given by the Reich Chancellor via the German plenipotentiaries to sign the Armistice (10 November 1918):
- German plenipotentiaries received the order from Berlin to accept the conditions of the Armistice.
- “Point out that the carrying out of certain points [conditions of the Armistice] could throw the people in the part of Germany that will not be occupied into famine.”
- Clemenceau considered that the issue of providing supplies should be discussed at a later point.
- “The French territory has been freed by the strength of arms.”
- “Let us unite to hail the return of Alsace and Lorraine to our shared homeland.”
- “Eternal gratitude to those who died (…) whose glorious sacrifice finds (…) its reward in victory”.
Diplomatic cable announcing the signing of the Armistice to all the French diplomatic personnel in the world (11 November 1918):
- The Armistice requested by Germany was signed.
- The Foreign Minister will read the text before the Senate (while the President of the Council will read it before the Chamber of Deputies).
- The nation rejoicing.
Cable from the Ambassador of France to London, Paul Cambon (12 November 1918):
- The British Prime Minister considers it important to provide food supplies to Germany.