On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

It is both poetic and poignant that the armistice signed at 5 am on 11 November 1918 was intended to come into effect six hours later, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Senior Allied officials, French and British, outside Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s private train, in which the armistice of 11 November 1918 was signed. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The decision was deliberate; but it also meant that fighting in the First World War’s main combat theatre – the Western Front – continued for an additional six hours. Men died.

The armistice had been anticipated; ever since the German government crumbled at the end of October there had been talk of it – further fuelled by other agreements signed between the combatants in other theatres. But the big one was Germany.

By 10 November speculation was high that something was imminent, but it took until 5.00 am the following morning before the German delegation signed the instrument, in Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s railway carriage-turned-command-centre in the Compiegne forest.

Why the delay? Part of the motive was less the symbolism of the recursive as the fact that the armistice was not a peace treaty. Fighting could break out again, and the Allies were eager to make sure that they had the best possible tactical positions when the armistice took effect and the men were required

Among other things, that led to the young New Zealand brigadier, Bernard Freyberg, then in charge of the British 88 Brigade, personally leading a squad from 7 Dragoon Guards down the road to Lessines at the gallop. They had to secure the bridge over the river Dendre near Lessines, and managed it – by Freyberg’s watch – at 10.59 am. The Germans insisted it was after 11, and there were protests, but the British upheld their officer’s actions and awarded him the Distinguished Service Order, his third.

The immediate need for good tactical positions soon passed, however; one of the terms of the armistice was that the German army – which was not yet beaten in the field of battle – had to disband and that Allied forces would occupy parts of Germany. This happened over the next few weeks.

So was the six hour delay worth it? At the time nobody knew the future; they could only act as best as they knew from what had happened to that time. And the appeal of that recursive series of numbers always loomed.

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For more on the First World War, check out my book Western Front, available on Kindle.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

12 thoughts on “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

    1. An extraordinary fellow! I actually met another of Scott’s 1910-13 expedition, when I was a kid – fellow named Tom Clissold. He’d emigrated to NZ later, and lived in Napier, around the corner from my parents. My Dad knew him. He was very elderly when I was taken to meet him. According to Clissold, if the men at the base camp had any idea that Scott was just a dozen miles away – and on course – they’d have gone out to get him.

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  1. I don’t know if the six hour delay was worth it. I think the question is, was any of it worth it. The war began the process of the decline of Great Britain into what it is now ( which isn’t very impressive), it removed a lot of talented individuals on all sides, and maimed men on all sides in the most horrific manner. The list of negatives could go on and on. Positives?


    1. There was no up-side to the First World War, which was horrific by all measures. None of it was worth it; the whole event was an indictment of a particular side of human nature which, alas, keeps recurring. There have been plenty of wars through history: but in 1914-18 the failure was achieved, literally, on industrial scale. I’ve explored it extensively in my books – the relentless failure of humanity to be, well, human.

      And as you say, Britain’s decline from the high noontide of her Empire can be pinned to 1914-18 and the fall of the old order. I believe up to 47 percent of British GDP was being spent on the war by 1918 and for the whole inter-war period the economy was essentially in recession. Things got worse with the Second World War which, really, was Act II of the same forces that had driven the 1914-18 conflict – on an even larger and more horrendous scale. None of it is worth it, in the end.

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      1. Agreed, my grandfather fought in ww1 with the Scots guards and was gassed and ended up deaf. I didn’t know him and don’t have extensive information but I remember my mother saying that after he was gassed, he woke up after being gassed to find that he was in a pile of dead bodies. I believe that he was a merchant seaman in ww2. I have military experience and every time that ww1 comes up, it annoys me to think of the stupid tactics used by the infantry. I think that Germany was catching on when they began to use stormtrooper units. The overall impression that I have of this war is that it was exceptionally evil.

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  2. Matthew, interesting tidbit about the “why” of the six-hour delay. I didn’t know the armistice instruments were actually signed six hours before the cease-fire took effect. And the image of Brigadier Freyberg and a small force of dragoons seizing a bridge…one can almost feel that moment.

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    1. It was a dramatic moment; and the sheer contrast between the frenetic action and the sudden silence must have been extraordinary – as you’ve captured in that FB post you shared via the sound recording. I’ve seen diary entries and other material from the moment in which the men couldn’t believe their deliverance. They literally wandered about not knowing what to do – numbed by the whole experience, unbelieving that they had come through it alive.

      I should mention that I am in throes of writing a new general biography of Freyberg at the moment (my second – the first was a WW2 ‘war biography’ that came out in 2005). An extraordinary character – and it was typical of him that although he could have ordered his men to take the bridge, he went himself, leading literally from the front. He just about got shot (again) – a bullet lodged in the saddle of his horse. He seemed to thrive on this kind of action-hero excitement and one of my aims in my new biography is to find out why. Who was this guy? He was a Kiwi but after arriving in London in 1914 (via the Mexican Revolution, where he seems to have been a mercenary) he ended up right in the thick of a specific London literary scene that included Rupert Brooke (who he helped bury) and others. Afterwards, he stayed in the UK and flatted for a while with J. M. Barrie, who was a good friend, penned a book on his WW1 experiences (still unpublished) – and was awarded a Litt.D. in literature, so he was also a writer on top of all his other abilities!

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    1. Glad you liked it! The shapes and patterns of history often throw up curious shadows such as this. A six hour delay, just to give a poignant repeating number? How many died as a result of the wait? In part it was also to get the orders promulgated, but I am sure they could have done it faster than that.

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