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The Armistice: Remembering those who died on the Great War’s final day

While the fighting on the Western Front officially ceased on November 11 1918, the casualties did not. Battle continued in Africa and the Middle East, and the influenza pandemic would go on to claim countless lives. Here we share some stories of those who died on Armistice Day.

Stories of the dead of November 11 1918

The Armistice: Germany defeated

A crowd of WW1 era british soldiers gathered around their officer, reacting jubilantly to the news of the Armistice's signing.

British troops celebrate the news of the Armistice - but it wasn't always jubilation on the frontline (IWM)

By November 1918, the Imperial German Army was exhausted and on the brink of defeat.

The Allied Hundred Days Offensive had smashed through once formidable German defences, with Commonwealth, French, Belgian, and US armies capturing huge swathes of land.

Even as early as September, Imperial German High Command realised the war was lost. German general and prominent war leader Erich Ludendorff had decided hostilities must cease as the military situation deteriorated.

At home, all was not pleasant. The German population was war-tired and hungry. The Royal Navy’s blockade of ports had restricted food supplies. Rebellion was in the air.

The German government originally approached the United States government about a potential armistice. In January 1918, US President Woodrow Wilson outlined his “Fourteen Points”: a statement of principles of a potential post-war “peace without victory”.

Thousands of World War One era German POWs

Image: Tens of thousands of German prisoners were being captured during the Hundred Days Offensive, breaking Germany's will to fight (Wikimedia Commons)

However, hundreds of thousands of US troops were now engaged in bloody fighting on the Western Front. Attitudes from Washington had hardened. A surrender was now seen as more suitable than a negotiated peace.

In the end, Allied civilian leaders did not partake in the Armistice negotiations. Supreme Allied Commander French general Ferdinand Foch instead headed peace talks. Under Foch’s eye, the Armistice’s terms essentially neutered Germany’s already dwindling ability to fight.

The terms were also tweaked so the establishment of a democratic government and the abdication of Kaiser Willhelm II were key principles.

On November 9, the Kaiser vacated his throne and a new German Republic was declared. 

Political, economic, and societal pressure at home, combined with the massive military setbacks on the Western Front, essentially forced the German government’s hand.

At 5.00 am on 11 November, in Ferdinand Foch’s personal railway carriage in a railway siding in the Forest of Compiègne, the German delegation and Allied representatives inked the Armistice.

Armistice & aftermath

Gradually, the news spread across the home front and amongst the soldiers at the front that the fighting was to cease at 11.00 am that morning.

In Great Britain, an official government communique was released at 10.20 am, featuring a statement from Prime Minister David Lloyd George:

“The armistice was signed at five o'clock this morning, and hostilities are to cease on all fronts at 11 a.m. to-day."

Crowds poured into streets up and down the country, celebrating that finally, the war that had claimed millions of lives across the world, was coming to an end.

Crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Armistice in November 1918.

Jubilant crowds gather outside Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Armistice (© IWM Q 56642)

At the front, however, reactions differed. Indeed, the method of the announcement, and the timing it was received, differed from regiment to regiment, unit to unit, soldier to soldier. 

For instance, some received the notice through the dots and dashes of their Morse Code receivers; others were given verbal proclamations delivered by officers on horseback.

Some soldiers were cautious and didn’t believe the news. After all, they had been advancing steadily in bloody combats across the Western Front, such as the bitter crossing of the Saint Quentin Canal.

Could it really be over? 

One soldier, George Jameson, told the Imperial War Museum’s Voices of the First World War project, how his unit heard about the Armistice:

“When the war actually ended, we didn't even know about it. We knew that things were getting pretty critical, we knew that we were doing well and nobody wanted to cop out on one when the war might be ending tomorrow, sort of thing

"It was the wrong time to get wounded or hit or anything, you see! So we were pretty careful. But we were moving forward with the idea of taking another position when one of the drivers shouted up to somebody, ‘There's a sign on that,’ it was an entrance to some house.

"He said, ‘There's a sign on that thing marking somebody’s headquarters and it says the wars over.’ Don’t believe it. Nobody would believe it. The war couldn't be over; it had been on for years, nobody would believe it could finish! It’s a fact; it says there the war was over.

"So somebody rode back and read this thing that said, as from 11 o'clock this morning, hostilities have ceased. And we then realised the war was over."

Reactions differed from soldier to soldier. For some, it was jubilation; for others, it just confirmed the inevitability of the Allied victory. Some soldiers were in disbelief that the lifestyle they had grown used to was coming to an end.

“We didn't believe it; we thought that it would all start again in another week," British Private Herbert Cooper told IWM.

"A few days then, outside battalion headquarters, they had the terms of the armistice, the German fleet to go to Scapa Flow; all machine guns, so many thousand machine guns and artillery to be handed over and that the German troops should go back so many miles etc.

"And then that really convinced us that it was over.

"But then I used to dream that the thing had started again. I think it was quite a few weeks before I really got down to the fact that there was going to be no more war and that we were not going into the trenches again.”

A column of British WW1 troops marching in formation during a victory parade in November 1918.

The Armistice was marked by many regimental and military parades. Here, men of the 2/4th Battalion The Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment) march in celebrations in India (National Army Museum) 

While many young soldiers ran out and celebrated with a drink, more were simply too shattered and exhausted to celebrate. In some sections of the line, the news was greeted with a muted cheer; in different places, the soldiers felt relief mixed with a strange flatness.

The blend of emotions created by the fighting halting on the Western Front must have been very difficult to process for the soldiers at the front. Comprehending all they had seen and experienced couldn’t have been easy.

Back home, the mood was initially jubilant. But in the months and years to come, millions of households across the British Empire would have to deal with the tragic loss of their children, spouses, and loved ones.

The war was not over everywhere. Delays in the message reaching the front meant fighting in East Africa continued for another two weeks before coming to a close in mid-November when news of the armistice reached German commander von Lettow-Vorbeck and a formal surrender could be organised..

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission commemorates over a million war dead of the First World War. These represent casualties from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa, as well as several other non-Commonwealth nations.

The death toll was exceptionally high and, even knowing the war was in its absolute final stages, some died on November 11, 1918.

The final day on the Western Front

Despite signing the Armistice in the early hours of the day, Allied commanders were still keen to keep the pressure on Imperial Germany militarily. Should fighting resume for any reason, the Allies decided they should be holding the best ground.

It was reported that several artillery divisions continued to fire on German positions, thus inviting counter-fire. In some areas of the line, commanders gave the order to keep moving forward.

One such place was Mons. 

Mons held very special significance for the soldiers under British command. It was here in 1914 that the British Expeditionary Force fought its first engagement of the war. It seemed appropriate that, nearly four and half years later, the last Commonwealth shots fired on the Western Front were fired at Mons.

Canadian soldiers marching down a street in Mons, flanked by civilians.

Canadian soldiers enter Mons but capturing the town would not be without bloodshed - even on the Great War's final day (© IWM CO 3660)

However, Mons is also a mark of how fighting happened right up to, and in some cases, beyond the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The Canadian Corps was positioned outside Mons on the morning of the 11th. At 6.00 am, its commander, General Sir Arthur Currie, received the news the Armistice had been signed. Even with the knowledge that fighting was to end in five hours, he still ordered his men into Mons.

The last Commonwealth casualty of the war, Canadian Private George Lawrence Price, was killed by a German sniper’s bullet at 10.58 am – two scant minutes before the fighting was officially due to end.

Post-war, Currie came under fire for his decision to send his men into Mons but he was far from the only Commander to see soldiers fighting after the Armistice. 

Jim Fox of the Durham Light Infantry recalled his experiences:

“Of course, when the armistice was to be signed at 11 o'clock on the 11th of November, as from 6 o'clock that morning there was only the occasional shell that was sent either by us over the German lines or the German over at our lines. 

“Maybe there was one an hour. And then, about 10am, one came down and killed a sergeant of ours who'd been out since 1915. He was killed with shrapnel, you know. Thought that was very unlucky. 

“To think he’d served since 1915, three years until 1918, nearly four years and then to be killed within an hour of Armistice…”

Casualties of November 11 1918

It is believed around 11,000 casualties were taken on both sides on November 11 1918. Of those, it’s estimated around 2,750 were killed.

Commonwealth War Graves records indicated the Commonwealth armies lost 910 dead on November 11.

These include military personnel killed on the frontline during the last fighting on the Western Front, in battle in Africa and the Middle East, those dying of disease, accidents, and personnel going missing or succumbing to their injuries in hospital.

These casualties are commemorated around the world, in sites such as Brookwood Military Cemetery, Beirut War Cemetery, Nairobi South Cemetery and Cologne Southern Cemetery. On Armistice Day around the world, these 910 names stand as a stark reminder of the cost of peace. 

Below are some stories of Commonwealth soldiers who died on Armistice Day.

Second Lieutenant Ralph Piggott Whittington-Ince

Second Lieutenant Ralph Piggott Whittington-Ince

Following Second Lieutenant Ralph Piggott Whittington-Ince’s death on November 11, his Colonel wrote to his family: “He has done such excellent work with the battalion. I cannot tell you how much we all feel his death; he has served so long in the battalion and was loved by all ranks.”

Such a powerful testimony speaks volumes about the man Ralph was.

The youngest son of Reverand Edward Whittington and Annie Whittington-Ince, and one of seven siblings, Ralph had a comfortable childhood. He was educated at Ellesmere and Cranleigh Schools before entering Sandhurst Military Academy.

Ralph was commissioned as an officer with the Easy Yorks Regiment in April 1916. It wouldn’t be long until Ralph and his unit were heading for the battlefields of the France and Belgium.

It appears Ralph was a skilled and courageous soldier. He earned the Military Cross in November 1917, although he would not receive the reward while still alive. 

His medial citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a daylight raid. He led his platoon close behind the barrage and penetrated 350 yards into the enemy’s support line. He brought rapid fire to bear on the fleeing enemy, driving them into our artillery barrage, and when the remainder refused to come out of their dugouts, he had them all blown up. He handled his platoon with great skill both during the advance and withdrawal.”

A year later, Ralph was in command of the East Yorks Company C during an attack on the French village of Flobecq.
Ralph was struck by a blast of German machine-gun fire and heavily wounded on November 10. He succumbed to his wounds on November 11 1918 and is buried at Vichte Military Cemetery.

Able Seaman Harold Edgar Walpole

Able Seaman Harold Edgar Walpole

Harold Walpole, born in 1899 in Geddington, Northamptonshire, was one of four Walpole brothers to sign up to serve in the First World War.

Just two months after this 18th birthday, Harold joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, eventually joining the Royal Naval Division (RND). The RND was actually a land-based force, comprised of sailors and marines who fought as infantry units.

Harold had a short but busy war. In May 1918, Harold sustained wounds from German shellfire but stayed with his battalion throughout the summer of 1918.

By August, the Hundred Days Offensive had begun and the RND was involved in the great Advance to Victory, attacking the French village of Thilloy.

At Thilloy, Harold suffered a leg wound and was transferred to a hospital in Etaples near the French coast. Upon recovery, Harold was back in the thick of the Hundred Days, taking part in the Battle of Canal du Nord and the Second Battle of Cambrai.

On 8 November, Harold’s battalion pushed into Belgium, taking up positions east of Valenciennes, before moving onto south of Mons.

The battalion was given orders to capture Villers-Saint-Ghislain. The attack began on midday of November 10. Resistance was spirited, despite being so late in the war, but the village was captured by the evening.

During the fighting, Harold was mortally wounded, one of ten members of his battalion to die.

Harold died on November 11, just as the guns fell silent. He is buried at Nouvelles Communal Cemetery.

Serjeant Francis Coulam

Serjeant Francis Coulam

Taranaki, New Zealand-born Serjeant Francis Coulam had an extensive military career during his time with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. 

During his time in combat, Francis served on the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Somme, and the Ypres Salient. He was wounded several times but Francis always returned to the frontlines to fight again.

He earned the Military Medal at the Third Battle of Ypres, aka Passchendaele, for the following action, as reported in the London Gazette:

“For conspicuous gallantry in the field, east of St Julien on the 4th inst. During the advance this N.C.O. handled the men under his command in a most capable manner and took part in a lot of severe fighting, he himself accounting for a great number of the enemy with the bayonet. He was cool and level-headed throughout and let nothing hinder the advance of his platoon to the objective. 

“On arrival at the Red Line he worked without sparing himself and organised his men in a most capable manner in the work of consolidation, and it was greatly due to his own energy that such good work and progress was made in his particular sector.” 

Francis was again wounded in combat and returned to New Zealand to recover. While at home, he died from complications arising from pneumonia and influenza on November 11. Today, Francis is buried at Auckland (Waikumete) Cemetery.

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