Armistice Day

This article first appeared in The Anvil Vol 7 No 3, published on 19 Nov 2018.

One hundred years ago this month, the guns of World War I fell silent. Ever since then, 11 November has been used to mark the end of that war and an intense political struggle has been waged over its meaning. The war was a devastating event of unprecedented savagery. Millions died and people naturally want to know why. The capitalist media won’t tell you why it started and they won’t tell you how it ended.

World War I began because two great rival imperial alliances had formed, contesting over who was going to be master of Europe. It was a war for conquest of territory, colonies and markets. It had almost started two years earlier, in 1912, but diplomacy headed it off. If diplomacy had prevented the assassination of an Austrian Archduke from starting the war in 1914, it would have happened later on, triggered by something else. The showdown was inevitable.

By chance, the war started when the state of military technology favoured defenders over attackers. With the aid of trenches, sandbags and machine guns, a platoon could hold off a battalion. Given that the two rival alliances were of roughly equal strength, the scene was set for a military stalemate. Governments and generals, as contemptuous of the human life of the lower orders as ruling classes always have been, and as stupid as can be expected in systems built on inherited privilege, proceeded to waste millions of lives of soldiers and others in a vain attempt to break the stalemate.

To cut a long story short, the pointless slaughter generated increasing opposition throughout all belligerent countries. The chain broke at its weakest link, with revolution breaking out in Russia in 1917. The February Revolution overthrew the Czar and the October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks to power, on a promise of peace. They negotiated the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which got Russia out of the war in March 1918, while discontent continued to build in the rest of Europe and in the Ottoman Empire.

Developments in military technology (most importantly the tank) and the entry of the United States into the war had broken the stalemate. Germany and the other Central Powers were under increasing pressure and had reached breaking point. In a last ditch effort, on 24 October the German Admiralty ordered the Navy to sea in order to take on the Royal Navy and break the blockade. The German sailors rightly considered this a suicide mission and mutinied, first at Wilhelmshaven on 29 October, followed by a larger mutiny at Kiel on 3 November. The attack was cancelled, but it was too late. The sailors’ revolt had sparked a revolution. Revolts spread throughout Germany in the early days of November and workers in city after city formed workers’ councils. By 9 November, the Kaiser had been forced out and a republic proclaimed. The new government, centred on the Social Democratic Party, signed the Armistice on 11 November.

Germany’s allies had also collapsed. Bulgaria had capitulated on 29 September, while the Ottomans signed an armistice on 30 October. Instability within their borders had combined with military reverses to force this. The Hapsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary signed an armistice on 3 November, but it was already falling apart by then, with independence proclamations issued in several cities. The Armistice on the Western Front, therefore, marked the end of the entire war. Discontent in the armies of the British Empire, slower to develop, peaked after the Armistice and focused on demands for demobilisation.

World War I was ended by social revolution. The population of the Central Powers, under the pressure of intense privations brought on by the war, and with the example of Russia to their East, withdrew support from the belligerent regimes. The fall of the Kaiser, the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire and the dismemberment of the Ottoman one were the result of workers, peasants and soldiers who had had enough. If the Central Powers’ morale had held, the war would have continued for some time.