Remembering the Armistice23 October 2020
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, we pause to remember all those who have served and sacrificed in wars and conflicts across the world. But why is this moment so significant?
It was 5am on 11 November 1918. In a railway carriage in a snowy forest in France, representatives of France, Britain and Germany signed the document that would end four years of bloody conflict. The armistice would come into effect six hours later – at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
News of the armistice reached Britain by 10.20am and was telegraphed to the Australian Governor General: “Most urgent armistice signed 5AM this morning”.
Despite the late hour, the news was greeted with jubilation. The scene in Barcaldine – captured by the Townsville Daily Bulletin – was echoed across the country: The ringing of school, fire and church bells brought out hundreds of people from their beds in all sorts of attire... the gratifying news soon circulated, and the jubilation increased... At 9am, the streets were quite crowded with people who were worked up to a great pitch of excitement.
The joy and relief, though, were tinged with pain and loss. In a nation of less than five million people, hardly a single family was left untouched; more than 60,000 soldiers had been killed and a further 156,000 had been wounded or taken prisoner. Some 23,000 soldiers were missing, and their families would never learn what had happened to their loved ones.
News reaches the Front
At the Front, the mood was subdued. Word of the imminent ceasefire had reached the troops but the fighting continued right to the last. On that final day of conflict, there were almost 11,000 casualties, and 2,738 men died.
“It was hard to believe the war was over,” Colonel Percy Dobson wrote. “Everything was just the same, tired troops everywhere and cold, drizzly winter weather – just the same as if the war were still on.”
It would take time for the exhausted troops to realise that they had survived and would be returning home. But for many Australian soldiers, it would be months before they saw familiar shores. And many would find that, although they had left the battlefields behind, they had brought the horror of what they had lived through home.
The Treaty of Versailles
Although the armistice ended the fighting, it would take six months of negotiation before the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919.
Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes had fought for Australia to represent its own interests at the peace conference, arguing the nation had won this right by its disproportional sacrifice during the war. As a result, he and Deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook both added their signatures to the document – the first time that Australia had signed an international treaty.
Remembering the fallen
In towns and cities all over Australia, memorials and rolls of honour spoke of the terrible toll that ‘the war to end all wars’ had taken on families and communities.
The moment of the ceasefire gradually became associated with the remembrance of those who lost their lives during the war. On the first anniversary of the armistice, King George V asked all the people of the British Empire to stop and observe two minutes’ silence at 11am.
This moment of respect and reflection continues to be observed during commemorative services on Remembrance Day, when we remember all those who have served in the Australian Defence Force, in World War I and in all wars and conflicts since.