The Armistice of 11 November 1918, a century ago, ended fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and their opponent, Germany. Also known as the Armistice of Compiegne based on the place where it was signed, it came into force at 11am Paris time on 11 November 1918 and marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not formally a surrender.
The actual terms, largely written by the Allied Supreme Commander, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, included the cessation of hostilities, the withdrawal of German forces to behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhineland and bridgeheads further east, the preservation of infrastructure, the surrender of aircraft, warships, and military material (5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 aircraft (including all night bombers), 5,000 railway locomotives, 150,000 railway carriages and 5,000 road trucks), the release of Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, eventual reparations, no release of German prisoners and no relaxation of the naval blockade of Germany.
Although the information about the imminent ceasefire had spread among the forces at the front in the hours before, fighting in many sections of the front continued right until the appointed hour. Many artillery units continued to fire on German targets to avoid having to haul away their spare ammunition. The Allies also wished to ensure that, should fighting restart, they would be in the most favourable position. Consequently, there were 10,944 casualties, of whom 2,738 men died, on the last day of the war.
The armistice ended the fighting, but it needed to be prolonged three times until the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919, came into effect on 10 January 1920.
One needs at this point to remember some grim statistics about this terrible War. Some 9.7 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died in World War One, which lasted from 1914 to 1918.
This year on 11 November nearly 70 world leaders attended a ceremony in Paris commemorating the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War One. This included US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The leaders, including the French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel gathered for a service near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, beneath the Arc de Triomphe- while church bells tolled through the city. 11 November also saw Mr Macron and Mrs Merkel visiting the town of Compiegne in northern France where they signed a book of remembrance in a railway carriage identical to the one in which the 1918 Armistice had been sealed. President Trump, however, caused controversy by cancelling a trip to a cemetery for the war dead because of bad weather.
Events to commemorate the Armistice also took place in London, United Kingdom, Canberra, Australia, Wellington, New Zealand and New Delhi, India. It may be recalled in this regard that nearly 1.3 million troops from undivided India, this former British colony, joined the allied war effort and 74,000 troops amongst them died fighting. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in his speech spoke of the importance of remembrance, and correctly pointed out that people need “to learn from the past so that we can better navigate the changing currents of our own times, for our own children, and for the next generations”. It may be mentioned here that Australian and New Zealand forces sustained huge loss of life in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also reminded others through his tweet that “this was a war in which India was not directly involved, yet our soldiers fought world-over, just for the cause of peace”.
Analysts while generally praising the efforts undertaken by Macron and Merkel have however focused on Trump with some degree of criticism. He has been criticized for missing important moments that might have enabled him to discuss important political and economic issues with his counterparts who were also present in France for the event.
This has led CNN to remark that “by the time US President Donald Trump departed Orly Airport on 11 November, 44 hours after he arrived, the reasons for his trip to Paris had become largely obscured. It did less to bolster the transatlantic partnership than to expose its cracks”. It was also pointed out that “the 3,800 miles the President put between himself and Washington did little to buffer the boiling political crises back home”.
Observers have also suggested that this time round, Trump in all probability, also missed the 2017 Bastille Day parade and the accompanying ramifications that had had left him dazzled- by the soldiers, armored tanks and fighter jets that painted the French sky red, white and blue. This time round, the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I were solemn and stately, and the wet streets of Paris were largely empty as the procession got underway on 11 November.
Another aspect drew the attention of his critics. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly visited the Aisne Marne American Cemetery near the Belleau Wood battleground, in Belleau, France, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. Most Americans had expected that President would go to this cemetery but apparently was dissuaded from doing so by his military and security officials. What compounded the problem was that the President did not make any statements of regret at not being able to visit the cemetery. The White House’s explanations for the cancellation appeared inauthentic to casual observers.
The observance of the Armistice Day however gained special attention because of the manner in which the French President rebuked the growth of nationalism and how it was casting a long shadow on human rights, social responsibility and liberalism. There was also the symbolical gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin who arrived separately near the Arc de Triomphe and flashed Trump a thumbs up before taking his place on the riser. Kevin Liptak and Kaitlan Collins of the CNN have noted that Putin’s gesticulation might have been rooted in logistics. However, it might have also referred to another aspect. It might have been a way of suggesting that as “France and its European partners fret about the alliance forged with the United States in bloody conflict a century ago, it mattered that Trump has shown little appetite for strengthening the relationships that have underpinned transatlantic relations since the end of World War I, instead lambasting traditional US partners on trade and the cost of security”. Trump, on the contrary appears to have shown “more affinity for strongmen leaders who have eroded democracy in their countries, like Putin, with whom he spoke at a lunch on the 11th November, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who sat alongside him at dinner on 10th November”.
This dynamics has left leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Macron, who put forth well-publicized displays of unity, to urgently warn of backsliding into history’s darkest moments.
Macron offered a clear message about the dangers of nationalism while hosting the ceremony commemorating the Armistice. His address as analyzed in the media had denotations of being a stinging rebuke of the US President’s “America First” agenda. Macron pointed out that “patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism.” He added that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism”. He also drew attention by saying that if one reiterates only on “our interests first”, who will then “care about the others?” According to him, “such a move erases what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great, and what makes it essential — its moral values.” Macron later warned that “the old demons” have resurfaced, declaring that “giving into the fascination for withdrawal, isolationism, violence and domination would be a grave error” for which future generations would hold the present leadership accountable. It was also indicated that ultra-nationalism and populism was against moral values.
It may also be mentioned here that many analysts and strategists did not quite understand why Trump had to be so drastic in his observations. Some have drawn particular reference to Trump’s umbrage over a recent interview in which Macron talked about the need for a European army, and cited the US, along with Russia and China , as potential security risks.
In any case the world and its leadership have to understand that in today’s digitalized matrix, it is a world without frontiers. There is the question of osmotic effect. We all have to work together to ensure stability. That is the only way to move forward. If harmony is hampered through selfish national ends or through discrimination or through misuse of the social media, then there can be only one conclusion- tragedy for common citizens. The most important connotation that one needs to realize from the Armistice Day is that peace is always better than conflict and war.
It would also be suitable to remember French President Charles de Galle’s comment- “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org