The 1918 Armistice: 'The end of the nightmare' for the French
At 11am on November 11, 1918 the armistice came into effect. At the frontline or further away from the conflict, the reactions were different. While some celebrated victory, most were simply relieved. And many quietly mourned their dead.
"The four-and-a-half year nightmare is over. It is the armistice. Incredibly, the end of this bloodbath went almost unnoticed among us. We were so used to fighting the war that it seemed like it would never end,” says Xavier Chaïla, a cavalryman of the 8th armoured regiment. On November 11 1918, Chaïla feels no joy. When the guns fall silent, the soldier feels only relief.
"The nightmare." This expression appears again and again in the letters and testimonies gathered by historian Rémy Cazals for his latest book "La fin du cauchemar" (“The End of the Nightmare”). "This word symbolises the horror, but also the idea that, for people of the time, these four years of war brutally interrupted normal life. They saw it as a bad dream,” explains the emeritus professor at Jean-Jaurès University in Toulouse.
'A really profound calm'
There are many images of celebration, soldiers embracing and frenzied emotional moments from November 11, 1918. But, at the front, silence prevails, as shown by these testimonies from letters and personal notebooks.
"You're asking me about celebrations for the armistice? Well, think again! It may have produced demonstrations of delirious joy at the higher level, but here with us (and, I think, throughout the army) the news was greeted with a really profound calm," says Elie Barthaburu, a second lieutenant in the 17th Alpine Hunters Battalion. "Why aren’t we laughing? We aren’t singing? We aren’t kissing? We aren’t jumping for joy? We aren’t about to explode with delight? It's peace! Peace, for God's sake! And yet somehow we remain inert. Are we dead inside?" asks Camille Rouvière of the 411th Infantry Regiment.
Many of these men simply cannot believe that the guns have finally fallen silent. In the trenches, disbelief reigns. "What they felt was surprise rather than joy. Was it possibly over? Could this news be true? They were dazed, stunned... it was almost impossible to imagine," says Captain Gérard Chaumette of the 115th Infantry Regiment.
After four years of exhausting fighting, it is hard for them to imagine that the war is finally over. "In August 1914 they had signed up for a very short war. And then three more years went by... Many soldiers used the expression: 'we are going to fight a 100-year war'. They believed it would never end," says Cazals.
'We are not experiencing any joy'
“How can we explode with joy when so many friends have fallen on the field of honour? The time has come for pausing and remembering,” said Moïse Hébrard of the 70th infantry regiment. "The bugles are sounding; we know there is an armistice. But our first reaction is to think of our dead comrades, their families, all those affected by these losses, and we cannot yet feel joy. It is impossible to stop thinking of all of the comrades, the ones we knew and the ones we didn’t, who will never return home.”
Away from the frontline, emotions are very different. In the French capital, people gather to celebrate as soon as the armistice is announced.
"I was in Paris that afternoon. The excitement in the air was almost delirious. I am convinced that we have never seen -- and never will see again -- such a public outpouring of emotion. The streets were swarming with people, the houses were filled from the cellar to the attics with people at the windows," says Sergeant Major Pierre Bellet.
In the country, it was also a time for celebration. In Carcassonne, Marie Saint-Mans remembers feeling intoxicated by the general sense of joy: "Friends and strangers alike held each other in their arms, singing patriotic songs, and we moved about the city like a huge linked chain.”
But many civilians were also thinking about their dead. The mayor of Mende, Emile Joly, who lost his son Paul, doesn't hide his sadness: "Today, our sense of regret is increased and our despair exasperated. The victory that France is celebrating right now was brought about by the work and sacrifice of our dearly departed. All the laurels, which we use to cover their graves, are powerless to temper the bitterness of our tears.”
Cazals also pays tribute to the forgotten men on November 11, to prisoners of war in Germany and to those who continue to fight. On the Eastern front, soldiers will continue fighting in southern Russia against the Bolsheviks for several months. They feel excluded from the armistice celebrations.
"All day long, I remember thinking that France is celebrating and we should all be having a good time. But our only entertainment was looking at the landscape and feeding our poor sick animals," laments Etienne Reverdy on July 14, 1919. Reverdy was a member of the 3rd Spahis sent to Odessa.
By giving the French the opportunity to relive their experiences through these testimonies, Cazals presents an intimate portrait of how they felt when the armistice was announced. He shows us how it was experienced differently by soldiers and their families. And, whether it produced pain or joy, November 11 remains a milestone for everyone.
"It was a long time ago. I was just 14 years old, at the time. But the powerful moments from that day will never fade from my memory," sums up Marie Saint-Amans.
This piece has been adapted from the original in French.