Liberation and Armistice




In late September 1918 the head of the German 6th Army gave the order to evacuate Lille. After blowing up several bridges, except for the Pont-Neuf which was spared, the German troops abandoned the town without meeting the slightest resistance. British troops under General Birdwood entered the town on 17 October 1918 and the newly resuscitated press (Echo du Nord, Progrès du Nord, and others) celebrated the event with gusto. The first French soldier to enter the town was Carl Delesalle, son of Lille's mayor. British military musicians marched up rue Nationale to Grand-Place, the main city square, where they were welcomed by a jubilant crowd singing the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

Next came a series of official visits. On 19 October the head of the French government, Georges Clemenceau, visited the Town Hall and the Prefecture. The next day Mayor Charles Delesalle was given a standing ovation on place de la Concorde in Paris, in front of the statue dedicated to Lille. On the twenty-first Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was cheered on Grand-Place square by an enthusiastic crowd watching the British troops parade. On 28 October General Birdwood was made honorary citizen of Lille. French generals Ferdinand Foch and Philippe Pétain also came to Lille, as did British sovereign George V.

Similar scenes took place in all the liberated towns and the official visits continued apace. President Poincaré visited Douai and Valenciennes on 10 November and Avesnes-sur-Helpe on 29 January the following year. On 7 November the Prince of Wales reviewed troops in Valenciennes during celebrations to mark the liberation of the town. On 1 December Avesnes played host to King George V. The purpose of all these official visits and events was, of course, to cement the return of the people of the department of Nord to the bosom of the French nation after more than four years of isolation.

The Armistice

On 7 November 1918, between 11 p.m. and midnight, a German car pulled up in Fourmies and its occupants got out to find something to eat. General Winterfield got back in the car carrying a bamboo cane and a bed sheet which would serve as a white flag for the German plenipotentiaries. His companions were government minister Matthias Erzberger, the diplomat Count Alfred von Oberndorff and the naval captain Ernst Vanselow. The car returned four times to Fourmies before finally managing to cross French lines at Haudroy, to the south-west of La Capelle. The German delegation were then taken by train to Compiègne where Marshal Foch, chairman of the Allied delegation, awaited them to negotiate the terms of the armistice. With three days to accept or refuse the Allies' terms, the Germans recrossed the lines at Fourmies and travelled to the General Headquarters of the German Army for meetings. Germany was in turmoil: on 9 November Berlin revolted, Emperor William II abdicated and the socialist minister Philipp Scheidemann announced the creation of a republic.

On 11 November, at 11 o'clock precisely, Corporal Bugler Pierre Sellier sounded the ceasefire and a vanquished Germany accepted the terms of the armistice. The principal demands of the Allies were for military equipment and vehicles (5,000 field guns, 3,000 mortars, 2,500 machine guns, 1,700 aeroplanes, all their submarines and part of their surface fleet) to be delivered up to them so Germany would be unable to restart the war; however in practice Germany was allowed to retain some of her military equipment in order to contain the revolution that was threatening to break out. In addition to disarmament, the Germans were required to demilitarize their borders and abandon within two weeks any territories still occupied, including the left bank of the Rhine and a ten kilometre strip on the right bank from Switzerland to the Netherlands.

In its edition No. 698, which appeared in 1918, the newspaper La Gazette des Ardennes published a clear-sighted article which would be vindicated by future events: "Imagine, for an instant, the improbable, the impossible eventuality of a German defeat. The Germany of tomorrow, despite the repression and violence, would remain the sound, young and vigorous people she has shown herself to be throughout the course of the great historic ordeal of the last four years. And France would remain the neighbour of this great oppressed people who would harbour only one desire: to regain the liberty and the right to great nationhood of which the grudges, hatred and jealousy have unfairly deprived it. A new French-German war, even more implacable than this one, would be inevitable..."

Claudine WALLART, Head Curator of Heritage
at the Archives Départementales du Nord (Nord Records Office)

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