Armistice: The End of the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1937, Thomas R. Gowenlock, by then a colonel in the US Army, published a memoir of his time as the commander of the First Division Combat Intelligence section. Soldiers of Darkness detailed the danger faced by intelligence officers who led groups of scouts in ground surveillance missions. In this book, Gowenlock also recorded the complex experience of the armistice for the soldiers on the front lines who struggled to cope with the transition to peace. This transition was very sudden–though there had been rumors of peace talks, and the war seemed to be ending, General John J. Pershing had ordered sustained and bloody attacks on the German lines up to the very moment that the armistice of November 11, 1918, took effect. Some soldiers had orders to go over the top that morning, and the attack was called off at the minute it was about to begin. Some units did attack, and thousands of men were lost that morning. There was also no clear understanding that the armistice would permanently end fighting, so soldiers on the front lines remained poised to continue. This passage offers valuable insight into the physical and psychological state of Allied soldiers during and immediately after the cessation of hostilities on November 11.

Summary Overview

In 1937, Thomas R. Gowenlock, by then a colonel in the US Army, published a memoir of his time as the commander of the First Division Combat Intelligence section. Soldiers of Darkness detailed the danger faced by intelligence officers who led groups of scouts in ground surveillance missions. In this book, Gowenlock also recorded the complex experience of the armistice for the soldiers on the front lines who struggled to cope with the transition to peace. This transition was very sudden–though there had been rumors of peace talks, and the war seemed to be ending, General John J. Pershing had ordered sustained and bloody attacks on the German lines up to the very moment that the armistice of November 11, 1918, took effect. Some soldiers had orders to go over the top that morning, and the attack was called off at the minute it was about to begin. Some units did attack, and thousands of men were lost that morning. There was also no clear understanding that the armistice would permanently end fighting, so soldiers on the front lines remained poised to continue. This passage offers valuable insight into the physical and psychological state of Allied soldiers during and immediately after the cessation of hostilities on November 11.

Defining Moment

German military leadership had become convinced of the futility of continuing to fight at the end of September 1918. Negotiations began soon after, asking President Woodrow Wilson to negotiate terms on October 4. When Wilson demanded the kaiser’s abdication, negotiations stalled for a month. It was only after German sailors revolted at the end of October, and desertion from the regular army skyrocketed, that Germany sent a delegation, headed by Matthias Erzberger to meet with Allied commander Ferdinand Foch. In the end, two German politicians, a German naval officer, two French generals, and three British naval officers, signed the armistice at 5:00 a.m.

The armistice that ended the fighting on the Western Front between Germany and the Allies went into effect on November 11, 1918, at 11:00 a.m., but had been rumored for months. It was technically the first of three armistices, and was extended to prevent the recurrence of hostilities until a full peace could be negotiated. Though the Germans gave in to stringent demands in the terms of the November 11 agreement, the armistice was technically not a surrender, leaving open the possibility that fighting could resume. In addition, Allied officers pressed their men to push the Germans back as far as possible until the literal minute that the armistice took effect. General Pershing, the American commander, wanted his soldiers in the best possible position in case the cease-fire failed. The last American casualty of the day was at 10:59, when Henry Gunther charged a German machine gun nest. Almost three thousand Americans were lost that morning. Marines ordered to cross the Meuse River were mown down with German machine guns just hours before the armistice took effect, and after their commanders were told of the ceasefire. A year later, in November 1919, Pershing was called before the House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs and asked why men were ordered to attack and lost their lives when the armistice had been signed hours earlier. Pershing replied that he and the other Allied commanders were not convinced that the Germans intended to abide by the terms of the armistice and that they may have begun negotiations to buy time.

Though the armistice was celebrated across the world, many soldiers found it difficult to deal with the suddenness of the transition from full-scale bloody war to an uncertain cease-fire. As Gowenlock described in his memoir, soldiers struggled with conflicting feelings of elation, anger, fear, and relief.

Author Biography

Thomas Russell Gowenlock was born in Clay Center, Kansas, in 1888. He attended the University of Kansas, where he graduated in 1909. Gowenlock worked in advertising in Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to Chicago in 1911 at the age of twenty-four. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Gowenlock tried unsuccessfully to join the British Army in Canada. He entered officer training in August 1917 and was sent to France as a combat intelligence officer. After the war, Gowenlock returned to advertising, and was instrumental in the founding of the American Legion. In 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the governor of Illinois named Gowenlock to a special position as coordinator for all state and local law enforcement agencies, charged with preventing enemy sabotage. Gowenlock died in 1961 in Chicago.

Document Analysis

This excerpt from Gowenlock’s 1937 memoirs begins with the actual armistice order. Hearing the news that hostilities would cease was a moment so powerful that he recalls the exact way the news is delivered: He is sitting in his dugout with the two commanding officers of his division. The first reaction he records is joy and relief, as his colonel declares that he wants to get on a canal boat and “lie in the sun the rest of my life.” Gowenlock’s reaction is more subdued–he drives to the banks of the Meuse River, the dividing line between German and Allied forces, and is surprised to find that the shelling is not only continuing, but intensifying. As the eleventh hour comes and shells continue to fall, Gowenlock decides that this is cathartic–“The men on both sides had decided to give each other all they had–their farewell to arms.” It is an example he sees of the complexity of the experience that men on the front would have to the end of the war. Men who have waited for years for an end to the war pounded each other mercilessly at the moment of its ending.

Gowenlock contrasts the champagne and dancing going on all over the world with the experience of the men in the field. “At the front there was no celebration.” Some soldiers believed the armistice would not hold, and that they would be fighting again soon. The silence of the guns was very pronounced for Gowenlock. After years of ceaseless noise, the quiet, “unearthly in its penetration, began to eat into their souls.” Men talked in low voices, still nervous that they would be attacked.

Once it was clear that the guns were silent for good, men who had been focused on surviving the war began to collapse. “The abrupt release from it all was physical and psychological agony.” Men who no longer had to concern themselves with their moment-to-moment survival were flooded with grief for the friends they had lost and had to figure out how to live with the things they had seen and experienced in battle, “that swiftly moving cavalcade of Cantigny, Soissons, St. Mihiel, the Meuse-Argonne and Sedan.” An entire generation after the war would struggle with how to make sense of their experience, and as they struggled with come to terms with it, “the future was inconceivable.”

Essential Themes

Gowenlock’s recollection of the experience of soldiers during and after the armistice offers insight into the aftermath of war. When the guns were finally silent, many soldiers were uncertain of what would happen next. War would resume if the armistice did not hold. Men were not sure when they would be sent home, and many units did not return to the United States for months after the armistice. For many, the period just after the war was as difficult as the war itself, as the end of the immediate danger of the battlefield marked the beginning of the struggle to come to terms with what had happened and what had been irretrievably lost. Soldiers were unsure how they would live with what they had seen and done. Except in extreme cases, there was very little psychological care or counseling available to ease soldiers from military to civilian life after World War I. Gowenlock’s experience of the profound alienation and depression that soldiers felt when the war ended was the prime motivation for his role in the founding of the American Legion, which offered them camaraderie and support.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ferrell, Robert H. America’s Deadliest Battle: Meuse-Argonne, 1918. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 2007. Print.
  • Gowenlock, Thomas Russell. Soldiers of Darkness. New York: Doubleday, 1937. Print.
  • Palmer, Alan. Victory 1918. New York: Grove, 1998. Print.
  • “Today in History, November 11.” United States Library of Congress Website. Library of Congress, 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
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