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.
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.
For more on the First World War, check out my book Western Front, available on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018