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11.11.11: The End of the First World War on the Western Front

by: Randall Lesaffer

At 11am on 11 November 1918, the armistice signed earlier that day at Compiègne between representatives of Germany and of the Allied and Associated Powers made an effective end to the Great War on the Western Front (224 CTS 286). While armistices had been a common instrument of European diplomacy in the process of ending wars, the armistice of Compiègne was highly unusual.

While it was presented as an armistice, its conditions did not hide the fact that this was little else than the abject surrender of the German forces in Western Europe after the collapse of Germany’s military position in the early autumn and the fall of the Emperor Wilhelm II (1859–1941) on 9 November. Apart from the agreement to end all hostilities within six hours of the signing of the treaty, all other clauses were starkly one-sided. Not only were the German forces required to withdraw within the borders of the empire, but they also had to evacuate the left bank of the Rhine well within German territories and to withdraw from East Africa, meaning Germany’s own colony. Moreover, Germany was required to deliver its submarines and the major part of its surface battle fleet into the hands of its enemies. Article 10 provided for the release of all prisoners of war, but it also annulled existing agreements, thus leaving the Allied and Associated Powers the discretion how, when, and with whom to proceed. Germany was also forced to annul the treaties it had made with Rumania (Treaty of Bucharest of 7 May 1918, 223 CTS 241) and Russia (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 3 March 1918, 223 CTS 80) and surrender the gains from its victory in the east (Article 15). In these respects, the armistice foreshadowed the harsh treatment Germany would receive under the final peace, the Treaty of Versailles of 28 June 1919 (225 CTS 188).

The armistice not only set the conditions for the cessation of hostilities and offered a wide range of military guarantees to the winners of the war in the West, but it was also part of a negotiations process that was meant to prepare the ground for the peace negotiations that would follow. Although the text of the armistice itself did not refer to this, it was part of a wider agreement that was understood to constitute a ‘pactum de contrahendo’, to set the basic conditions under which final peace would be negotiated and made.

One month before the armistice, the German government had sent a request to US President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) through the good offices of the Swiss government to start negotiations about ending the war. In its note of 6 October, the German government indicated the conditions of peace set by the American president in his Fourteen Points speech of January 1918 and subsequent relevant addresses ‘as basis for the peace’. The ensuing negotiations about the armistice were largely conducted by the US government, which acted as the effective intermediator between Germany and the US’s own main allies, Britain and France.

The exchanges among the three leading members of the Western alliance and between them and the Germans were not restricted to the conditions for the cessation of hostilities themselves. From the beginning, they extended to the interpretation of the ‘peace programme’ of Wilson’s Fourteen Points that would set the framework for the final peace. On 5 November, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing (1864–1928) confirmed on behalf of the alliance to the German government that the Fourteen Points and subsequent addresses by Wilson would serve as the basis on which to negotiate peace.

One major issue of interpretation of the Wilson peace programme which occupied the allies was the question of ‘reparations’, the demand for financial compensation from the Central Powers for themselves and their allies that Britain and France had made into one of their major aims during the war. The payment of a large amount of money as part of a peace settlement had become fairly common practice in European warfare since the Napoleonic Era. Many peace treaties provided for the losing side to pay a lump sum indemnification to the victor. Such indemnification was not considered retribution for the illegality of the war or for wartime actions on the side of the losing belligerent, as peace treaties never ruled on the question whether belligerents had acted in accordance with law on the use of force (ius ad bellum) or with the laws of war (ius in bello). Rather, indemnifications just formed part of the concessions the losing side in the war commonly made to the winning side. After the Franco-German War, for example, France itself had been forced to pay a huge indemnification to Germany under the Treaty of Frankfurt of 10 May 1871 (143 CTS 163, Art. 7).

Wilson’s much-repeated claim that peace should be founded on justice rather than on the victor’s right excluded indemnifications. In itself, this did not present an unsurmountable difficulty for Britain and France. They themselves had premised their demands for reparations upon Germany’s violation of the treaty-based neutrality of Belgium and Luxemburg at the war’s inception and upon its systematic disregard for the laws of wars during the conflict. The two major European allies and the US could easily agree that Points VII, VIII, and XI of the Fourteen Points, which called for the ‘restoration’ of Belgium and of the occupied territories in France, Serbia, Montenegro, and Rumania, encompassed reparations. It was, however, not so straightforward to determine the kinds of damages to which these reparations would apply. While France and Britain pushed for a very wide interpretation, the US wanted to limit reparations to damages which had ensued from clear violations of international law within the occupied territories. From the start, Washington made an exception for Belgium, which it considered entitled to a full compensation for all wartime costs and damages because its participation in the war itself had been consequential to Germany’s violation of its neutrality. Under Franco-British pressure, the US government made the concession to apply this reasoning to ensure full reparation of all damages—but not war costs—in the north-eastern provinces of France that had been reached through Belgium. This was, however, as far as the Americans would go.

This plan left the European allies unsatisfied. They feared that such an arrangement would limit reparation to damage to civilian property and would exclude damage to civilians themselves—let alone to the military. It would also exclude reparation for losses suffered at sea. In order to preserve their position in the negotiations, the French and British governments made a reservation to their acceptance of the Wilson peace programme stating that they understood the plan to imply ‘that compensation [would] be made by Germany for all damage done to the civilian population of the Allies and their property by the aggression of Germany by land, by sea and from the air’. These lines were included by Lansing in his note of 5 November whereby he accepted the Wilson peace programme as the basis for the future peace.

The reference to ‘aggression’ was slipped in to extend Germany’s accountability to the seas. It was substituted for ‘invasion’ from an earlier version. But during the preparatory phase of the Parisian peace conference in early 1919, in which the Allied and Associated Powers negotiated the conditions for the final peace among one another, the reference was given a greater purpose. The Commission for the Reparation of Damages established by the allies became the first battle ground for the fight over the extent of German reparations between the European allies on the one side and the US on the other side. When the Commission failed to reach agreement, the matter was left to the principals—Wilson, the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George (1863–1945), and his French colleague Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929). In the end, they reached a compromise that combined European principles with US reticence.

The deal found its expression in Articles 231—the infamous ‘guilt clause’—and 232 of the final peace treaty. Article 231 made Germany liable for all the ‘loss and damage’ of the Allied and Associated powers from the war which had been ‘imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies’. Article 232, however, restricted the effective obligation of Germany to pay compensation as full payment was deemed impossible.

Although Britain and France had failed to obtain satisfaction of all their demands, the inclusion of the ‘guilt clause’ with its reference to German aggression gave voice to their most radical interpretation of the principles underlying the demand for reparation. It implied that Germany was accountable for all war costs and damages because the war was consequential to its aggression. This signalled that the war itself, and by consequence all of Germany’s wartime actions, were to be considered illegal. With this reasoning, the European delegations appealed to the logic of the civil law of delict—as enshrined in Article 1382 of the Napoleonic Civil Code—to justify their wide-ranging claims for compensation.

Article 231 was not meant to carry the sentencing of Germany to the level of a criminally imputable and punishable offense. However, in combination with Article 227, which called to ‘arraign’ the former German emperor ‘for a supreme offence against international morality and the sanctity of treaties’ and the report of the Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties, which stated that Germany had premeditated and committed aggression, the German delegation, when confronted with the text, concluded otherwise. When its staunch rejection of this condemnation was met by a brisk corroboration of it at Versailles, the myth of the ‘guilt clause’ and the ‘Diktat von Versailles’ was born. In the years and decades to follow, subsequent German governments, aided by powerful voices from German and international academia, would work to undercut the legitimacy of the Versailles settlement. Reading Article 231 as a criminal sentence allowed for the defence that aggression had not been an offence before 1918 and that criminal law could never be applied retroactively. That this was clearly a misinterpretation of Article 231, which stood within the logic of civil law, and that this logic had already been foreshadowed in the ‘pactum de contrahendo’ of November 1918, was largely disregarded by governments and scholars on both sides.

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Isabel V. Hull, A Scrap of Paper. Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press 2014).
Randall Lesaffer, ‘Aggression before Versailles’, European Journal of International Law, 29 (forthcoming 2018).
Margaret Macmillan, Peacemakers. Six Months that Changed the World (London: John Murray 2001).
William Mulligan, The Great War for Peace (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2014).
Michael S. Neiberg, The Treaty of Versailles. A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press 2017).
Leonard V. Smith, Sovereignty at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2018).
Christian Tomuschat, ‘The 1871 Peace Treaty between France and Germany and the 1919 Peace Treaty of Paris’ in Randall Lesaffer (ed.), Peace Treaties and International Law in European History. From the Late Middle Ages to World War One (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2004) 382–96.