western front

The Armistice

Foch (center, with cane) and Wemyss (to the immediate left) pictured outside the train car in which the armistice was signed.

November 11 1918, Compiègne–The German armistice delegation at Compiègne had attempted to secure better terms, but had failed at doing so, apart from a slight extension of the two-week timeframe to evacuate Belgium, France, and Alsace-Lorraine.  On November 10, they received notification that the Kaiser had abdicated, and received instruction from the new Chancellor, Ebert, that they were to sign the armistice as they were.  Shortly after 5AM local time (GMT) on the 11th, Erzberger, the other Germans, Foch, and Wemyss signed the armistice.  The armistice was slated to go into effect six hours after the signing (backdated to 5AM), at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Fighting continued until 11AM across the front, though dampened by rain that day.  Gunner B.O. Stokes, with the New Zealand Field Artillery, recalled:

We heard the announcement of the Armistice when we were still in the Forest de Mormal on a cheerless, dismal, cold, misty day.  There was no cheering or demonstration.  We were all tired in body and mind, fresh from the tragic fields of battle, and this momentous announcement was too vast in its consequences to be appreciated or accepted with wild excitement.  We trekked out of the wood on this dreary day in silence.

In some sectors, six hours was not enough time to convey news of the armistice to troops in the thick of fighting.  Parts of 89th Division, which had attacked at 4AM that morning, did not stop fighting until noon.  There are no known reports of any shooting continuing beyond 12:30 in the afternoon.

I leave you with a recollection from American Private Frank W. Groves:

At the front our days and nights were filled with the sounds and smells of the bombardment.  Never were we free of it and we had learned to live with it.  On November 11 at 11:00 am those sounds and vibrations abruptly stopped.  The quietness that followed was awesome; you could feel it – almost smell and taste it.  There was no singing, no shouting, no laughter; we just stood around and looked and listened.

4

C’était la Guerre des Tranchées / It Was the War of the Trenches (1993) is a French ‘comic’ book written and illustrated by Jacques Tardi and dedicated to his grandfather who fought ‘in the trenches’ (a French euphemism to talk about the First World War).
The book is an accurate depiction of the life on both sides of the Western Front, recounted through a multitude of mainly French soldiers’ letters, and is well known for its graphic representation of WW1.

“They’re shooting men… This is normal, because it’s the war of the trenches which has been going on for three years now…
…the most surprising is that there are still traces of life left in these holes, with all so many shells they’re dropping on so little ground.

Those men have dug trenches, made shelters in the earth and learned to live in the mud like rats. These ones are French.
Facing them, it’s the same thing, but the trenches are better organized because they are German. The French say ‘les Boches’ when talking about their enemies, out of contempt, hatred, or perhaps stupidity, because this is indeed what this is about about when one is talking about war.”

“Every Day is Labor Day with Me,” 9/3/1918

Untitled, 9/3/1918. Clifford K. Berryman, artistSeries: Berryman Political Cartoon Collection, 1896 - 1949Record Group 46: Records of the U.S. Senate, 1789 - 2015

Uncover more World War I Centennial Resources at the National Archives

Learn more about our Clifford K. Berryman political cartoon collection.

4

The Chinese Labor Corps of World War I,

“While the sun does not set on the British Empire, neither does it set on Chinese workers abroad.”

Chen Duxiu

During World War I one major problem faced by both sides of the conflict was a shortage of labor, as most working age men either volunteered or were drafted into the military. Many labor roles would be taken up by women. Many more would be taken up by foreign laborers hired or conscripted from different countries. During World War I, China was in the throws of a bloody and complex civil war. The government of the Manchu Emperor had been overthrown by a new Nationalist Government, however the country quickly collapsed into a series of realms and factions controlled by warlords of the former Imperial Army. As a result of the war, China faced hard economic times, and many Chinese looked abroad for opportunities. 

In 1916, the French and British Government contracted 50,000 Chinese to serve as laborers in the Western Front. Over the next two years, another 100,000 would eventually be hired, 100,000 of which would serve under the British, 40,000 under the French, and 10,000 under the Americans. They were used for a wide variety of purposes, including unloading equipment at docks, digging trenches and building fortifications, working in munitions factories, repairing tanks, transporting supplies, cleaning up battlefields after a large battle, and other rear echelon duties. While the vast majority of Chinese Labor Corps were workers, a few hundred were students, contracted to work with the British and French Army as translators.

Life as a Chinese Labor Corps member was not easy.  Living standards were very low, and workers were issued the cheapest clothing, the simplest food, and were paid a mere few francs a day. In order to travel to Europe, the workers were packed onto crowded transports, then packed onto crowded cattle cars once they arrived. Living quarters and barracks were also crowded and very spartan.

 Most importantly, life as a Chinese Labor Corps workers was very dangerous.  While they were non-combatants, it was not uncommon for the Chinese to get caught in the middle of fire fights and artillery barrages.  Such was the case for First Class Ganger Liu Dien Chen who was awarded the British Meritorious Service Medal for bravery when his work crew came under artillery fire while repairing tanks.  

Five Chinese would be awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, and all would be awarded the British War Medal at the end of the war. In addition to pitched combat there were other hazards.  Chinese laborers were often used to clean up battlefields after combat had concluded. This involved burying trenches, recovering corpses, and removing damaged and destroyed equipment.  Accidents involving un-exploded bombs and artillery shells were common.  When the Great Flu Pandemic spread across the world in 1917-1918, around 2,000 Chinese laborers would fall victim.  Altogether, 20,000 would die of various causes, their bodies interred in 40 military graveyards across France and Belgium.

After the war ended, most Chinese workers remained in France, contracted by the French Government to conduct rebuilding efforts.  The first large groups were transported back to China in 1919, the last in 1920. All Chinese Labor Corps members were awarded medals and pay bonuses, while those who were injured, disabled, or who had family members killed were awarded government pensions. Around 5,000 chose to stay in France, in particular the Parisian Region, becoming one of  the first large Chinese communities in Europe. 

In addition to the the Chinese Labor Corps in the Western Front, a similar program was conducted by the Russian Government on the Eastern Front, recruiting around 200,000 - 500,000 workers.