by Commander W T Bagot RN
8-11 November 1918
On Thursday 7th November 1918, the British Mission, consisting of Admiral Wemyss (C. N. S.), Admiral Hope (D. 1st.. S. L.), Captain Marriott, R. N. (Naval Assistant to C. N. S.) and myself, arrived at the Hotel Meurice in Paris where we were the guests of the French Government. That afternoon, the Mission left in cars for Senlis, where the C. N. S. visited MARSHAL FOCH’S headquarters. Subsequently the Mission had tea at the headquarters of the British Military Liaison Officer. These headquarters are situated in a fine chateau near to Senlis, standing in large grounds containing among other things a racing stable and training track. About 5.30 p.m. the Mission again left by car and boarded MARSHALL FOCH’S train at Senlis station. As the British Mission was living in it for three days a few details of the train may be of interest. It consists of some seven or eight coaches of which two were sleeping cars providing cabin accommodation for the British and French officers, one coach containing an office and conference room, one coach forming MARSHALL FOCH’S quarters, a dining car, and two or three coaches containing men’s quarters, dynamo, telephone exchange, etc. This train has been used constantly by MARSHALL FOCH during the war for travelling about to various parts of the Front
The thing that struck one was the fact that MARSHALL FOCH appeared to run the War with the assistance of only 5 officers. These were the Chief of Staff, (GENERAL WEYGAND), two staff officers and two officers who acted as secretaries and interpreters. He was of course in constant tough by telephone and courier with his headquarters at Senlis, but this was also a comparably modest establishment.
MARSHALL FOCH’s train arrived at some old heavy gun sidings in the middle of the Forest of Compiegne about 7 p.m. and remained there during the whole of the negotiations except for occasional trips to Compiegne station to take in water etc. The German Mission through delay in crossing the fighting front did not arrive until the early hours of Friday morning. The Germans were also accommodated in a train similar to Foch’s and this was placed on another set of rails about 100 yards away, a line of duckboards leading from one to the other.
The weather which during the week had been wet and misty cleared over night and Friday 8th Nov. the first day of the conference proved to be a bright sunny day, which showed to full advantage the rural setting of the whole scene. Looking from Foch’s train there was nothing to be seen but trees and the little woodfires of the sentries posted round to keep away the curious, particularly from the German train, visible through the wood a short way away. Another line of duck boards ran in the opposite direction to the main road to Compiegne. About a quarter of a mile away lies the village of Francport on the Aisne. Close by lies the Chateau de Francport, erroneously reported in the press as the place where the conference was held.
On the arrival of the train containing the German delegates, Marshall FOCH had sent over a staff officer to say that he would receive them at 9 o’clock. So, punctually to the time the German Mission was seen advancing in single file across the duckboards. Leading the procession was ERZBERGER, next came OBERNDORF and General WINTERFELD and finally Captain von VANSELOW, the naval delegate. There were also two junior military officers acting as interpreters. Personal descriptions of the delegates will be found at the end of this report. They all walked very slowly and manifested a certain limpness about the knee-joints. The officers were in uniform and wore a form of sword-bayonet, except the naval officer who wore a dirk. The civilians were in well worn dark blue suits. None of the delegates could have been described as smart.
On arrival at Foch’s train they were shown into the coach containing the office, a part of which was arranged as a conference room. General WEYGAND then announced their arrival to Marshall FOCH, who immediately afterwards entered accompanied by Admiral WEMYSS.
The French and British officers present were:
General WEYGAND, Chief of Staff
Lieut. LAPERCHE, Interpreter
Admiral Sir Rosslyn WEMYSS. C. N. S.
Admiral G. P. W. Hope, D. I. S. L.
Capt. J. R. P. MARRIOTT, R. N.,Naval Assistant to
Commander W. T. BAGOT, Interpreter
The German Delegates were:
ERZBERGER, Chef de Mission
Count von OBERNDORF
General von WINTERFELD
Kapitain z.See VANSELOW
Hauptmann (Capt.) GEYER )
Rittmeister (Capt.) von HELLDORF ) Interpreters.
The proceedings were opened by Marshal FOCH, asking the German delegates what was the object of their visit, to which ERZBERGER replied that they had come to hear “proposals for an Armistice on land, at sea, in the air and in the colonies.” To this FOCH replied “I have no proposals to make”. Count OBERNDORF then produced from his pocket a paper and read an extract from one of Mr. WILSON’s statements. FOCH then stated that they could hear the terms if they wished to have an Armistice, and that these were the terms of the Allied and Associated Powers. The Germans then decided to hear these terms. Before proceeding with the conference, ERZBERGER handed over his credentials. Marshal FOCH, Admiral WEMYSS and General WEYGAND then retired to examine them. The credentials having been found in order, Marshal FOCH and the other officers returned and requested ERZBERGER to introduce the members of his mission. After this had been done Marshal FOCH introduced the French and British delegates.
The Germans, having decided to hear the terms, General WEYGAND began the reading of the principle articles of the Terms of Armistice. The French interpreter translated each article into German as it was read. The proceedings were conducted in French. That is to say, the French and British delegates used the French language throughout. ERZBERGER spoke only in German, although he appeared to know enough French to be able to follow. General WINTERFELD and Count OBERDORF however spoke French. Captain VANSELOW played only a very small part in the proceedings, but appeared to know French. When the reading of the terms had been completed, by which time the Germans looked rather dejected, the question of communicating the terms to the German Government arose. Marshal FOCH offered to assist them in every way with wireless and other means. He stipulated however that the terms of the Armistice must be sent in cypher if communicated by W/T. As the Germans had not brought a cypher with them, it was arranged that Captain HELLDORF should be sent to the German Headquarters in Spa with a copy of the terms. The Germans then asked to be furnished with a certified translation of the French text, but were told that no translation was available. A request was now put forward by the German delegates for an immediate cessation of hostilities so as to avoid useless bloodshed. General WINTERFELD was the spokesman on this occasion and whilst he was explaining the desirability of immediately stopping all fighting, referred to the “rout” of the German army (“la deroute” was the French word actually used) and the useless bloodshed entailed if this continued until the conference had finished its deliberations. This remark would appear to form a fair index to the state of mind of the German delegates at that time. Marshal FOCH informed them that no cessation of hostilities could take place until the terms already read had been accepted and signed.
A plain language message was then sent at the request of General WINTERFELD informing the German Government that the first sitting had been held and that his request for an immediate cessation of hostilities had been refused.
This ended the first sitting and the Germans then retired with a copy of the terms to their own train, the proceedings having lasted about an hour and a half.
About lunch time Capt. HELLENDORF carrying the terms of the Armistice departed in tears (so it was reported) for the German Headquarters at Spa. Later in the day various German delegates arrived over to discuss the details of the terms with the French and British delegates. About 4 p.m. Captain VANSELOW, the German Naval delegate, came over and was received by Admiral HOPE, Captain MARRIOTT and myself. He stated he proposed to discuss the terms with us, so that, in the event of the Armistice being concluded, it would save time if the details were arranged beforehand, but that it must be understood that nothing he said could be taken as implying that they intended to accept the terms. It may of interest to record briefly some of the views he expressed. With regard to Article XX of the naval conditions which provides for the immediate cessation of all hostilities at sea and the furnishing of information as to the whereabouts all German ships, he enquired whether we would undertake not to use such information to attack German ships. He was assured that that was out of the question as the terms of the Armistice provided for the cessation of all hostilities. In connection with the surrender of surface ships he stated that the “MACKENSEN” was at least 10 months off completion and that consequently only 5 Battle Cruisers could be surrendered. He also said that all work on new construction had ceased some time ago. As regards destroyers he remarked that the number 50 asked for was too high as nothing like that could be got ready. Although the Germans had many more than this number on paper, the wear and tear of machinery and craft in general had been so great that it would be difficult to find 50 boats sufficiently seaworthy to send over at once. The next complaint concerned the continuation of the blockade provided for in Article XXVI. According to the German view the continuation of the blockade was not in accordance with the conception of the term “Armistice;” therefore the blockade ought to be raised so as to allow Germany revictualling with her own ships. He said that Germany was in a very bad way and that the continuation of the blockade would mean sickness and famine, more especially as the returning army would have to abandon a large part of its supplies. He also complained bitterly about the effect of the blacklist and hoped that it would be abolished. As a concession on this point, the last sentence stating that the Allies contemplated revictualling of Germany was eventually added to Article XXVI.
The meeting lasted about an hour and then Captain VANSELOW returned to the German train.
On Saturday morning there being no conference on, the British delegates took the opportunity to motor over to Soissons to see the damage done to this town by enemy bombardment. On arrival the French officer accompanying the party was lucky enough to find an officer who had recently conducted the French President over the town. The latter took the party round, who were thus enabled to see all the points of interest. The British delegates arrived back at the train about 12 o’clock to find that there was no prospect of any further conference that afternoon, so after lunch, the time was spent exploring the grounds of the neighbouring chateau of Francport. Late in the afternoon, the Germans sent over their reply to the terms of the Armistice, or rather a reasoned paper requesting certain modifications to the terms, arising mainly from technical difficulties to carry them out. This paper contained also remarks about the naval terms by Capt. VANSELOW and an exposition of the views he had expressed during the afternoon meeting on Friday. After dinner these remarks were considered by the British delegates.
Sunday was a busy day, commencing about 9 a.m. with a conference with Captain VANSELOW, during which the various points raised by him in the above mentioned paper were discussed. The procedure was to go into all the details, to discuss these and the various difficulties arising, but to leave them over for ultimate decision at the final conference with all the delegates. An interesting point arose at this conference. The question was whether Germany under the then existing political situation would be in a position to carry out the terms of the Armistice, more especially the surrender of the ships. Captain VANSELOW was of [the] opinion that although the Kaiser and the Crown Prince had renounced their claims to the throne (information which the Germans had obtained from the French Sunday newspapers sent over to their train, and that there had been some disturbances, speaking generally it would be possible for the German Government, whichever party [were] in power, to carry out the conditions. He could not, however, be certain that mutinous elements in various ships might not damage or destroy their vessels. It was then suggested that we might have to occupy Heligoland to enforce the terms. Captain VANSELOW did not, however, think that this would be necessary.
Various points regarding the surrender of ships were then discussed and the meeting rose shortly before lunch.
On Sunday evening a plain language W/T message addressed to the German delegates was received instructing them to sign the Armistice, but to add a declaration regarding the danger of a spread of Bolshevism in Germany if the provisioning of that country were not undertaken by the Allies.
During the night several further meetings between the French and German delegates took place and also a further meeting with Captain VANSELOW. The latter stated that he had just seen the revised terms and desired to thank us for having altered the condition regarding von LETTOW in East Africa from “surrender” to “evacuation”. The next matter concerned the occupation of Heligoland, if it should be necessary to ensure the surrender of German warships. Captain VANSELOW said that this could not be included in the terms without first consulting the German Government, as otherwise he might be tried for high treason on his return for having surrendered German territory. As it would however have taken some time to obtain the concurrence of the German Government it was decided to attach the Heligoland stipulation to the terms as an annexure stating that the German delegates would transmit this stipulation to the German Chancellor with a recommendation that it should be accepted, adding the reasons for this demand on the part of the Allies.
Finally, about 2 a.m. the German delegates arrived for the final conference. From the above-mentioned telegram the outcome of the conference was a foregone conclusion, and the Germans were not a little annoyed that the instruction to sign and been sent in plain language. At least, this was the impression gathered from some remarks of VANSELOW’s during the preceding meetings. It could equally well have been sent in cypher as two Naval coders with the necessary books had arrived on Friday night making communication by cipher possible, and incidentally a number of cipher messages were received by the Germans.
The final conference then commenced its deliberations at about 2 a.m. on Monday the 11th of November. The procedure was for General WEYGAND to read out the terms, article by article. The French officer interpreter then translated each article into German and then, where necessary, after discussion the final form of the article was decided on. The first point conceded by FOCH was the alteration of the text of Article II to its present form in which Alsace and Lorraine are not termed “occupied territory”. Most of the other points on which on which discussion took place arose from the technical impossibility (according to the Germans) of carrying out the terms. For instance, General WINTERFELD stated that it would not be possible to surrender more than 1700 aeroplanes as this was approximately the total number of machines available, 300 less than the number asked for. The evacuation of the occupied territories was illustrated by a large map showing the lines to be occupied by various dates. This was spread out on the table and formed an annex to the terms.
When the terms relating to the blockade came up for consideration, ERZBERGER tried to soften the hearts of the British and French delegates by telling them that owing to the food shortage large numbers of their women and children had died during the influenza epidemic. It was quite apparent that the blockade coupled with the black-list had hit them very hard. The black-list and the various measures connected therewith they referred to as “the blockade on shore”; VANSELOW remarked that they had only undertaken the submarine war as a counterstroke to this shore blockade.
When the reading of the terms had been completed, ERZBERGER rose and read out a declaration in German. In this he stated that the German Government would do everything in its power to carry out the terms. The German plenipotentiaries however desired to point out that some of the terms were so harsh as to be likely to bring about a state of anarchy and famine in Germany.
The proceedings came to an end about a quarter past five and the Germans were then asked to say whether they would call the hour of signing 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. They chose 5 a.m. French time. The various documents were then signed first by FOCH and WEMYSS and then by the four German delegates. They had agreed to sign without waiting for the amended version arising from the final conference to be typed. So after they returned to their own train, it was some time before the various documents were completed.
Orders were then issued for a cessation of hostilities on land and in the air and on the sea at 11 a.m. French time, the 11th November, the duration of the Armistice being 36 days from that hour.
One would have supposed that on such an occasion there would have been some outward display of emotion on the part of the French officers on the conclusion of the Armistice. Such however was not the case. About 6 a.m. the commandant of the train produced a bottle of port and some biscuits. But it was not until one of the British officers proposed it, that a toast was drunk to the great event.
Before leaving, the Germans requested the British delegates to meet a food expert and transport officer to discuss the details of revictualling Germany. These however did not arrive, so about 9 a.m. Captain VANSELOW came over. He stated that he did not know much about the subject, but was of opinion that Germany would require about 30,000 tons of edible fats a month, this being her principal need. He was informed that his remarks would be noted.
At 8.20 a.m. Marshal FOCH and Admiral WEMYSS left for Paris by car to lay the terms of the Armistice before the French Government. The train containing the Germans left at 10 a.m. for the front.
Admiral HOPE and myself left for Paris about 10.30 a.m. arriving at the Hotel Meurice about half past twelve. At first as we drove through the countryside there was nothing to show that anything unusual had occurred. It was only as the villages nearer Paris were reached that one began to notice signs of excitement. However as soon as the outskirts of Paris were reached it was evident that everybody had heard the good news. Everybody was buying flags and decorating their houses with them, and by lunch time the people of Paris were marching about arm in arm crying “La Victoire! La Victoire!”
After dinner that night at the Hotel Meurice Admiral WEMYSS was presented by two Canadian officers with a large silk table centre displaying the Allied flags. It turned out later that this was the property of the Hotel! As Admiral WEMYSS rose to leave several French gentlemen at a table a short way off rose intending to call for a speech or to drink his health and called out “Admiral”. The latter had however just passed through the doors of the dining-room and did not hear the shout, consequently nothing came of this intended demonstration.
The British delegates left that night by train for Boulogne, crossing to Folkestone next morning (12th November) by destroyer. Thus ended a mission to France fraught with such great consequences to the Allies and indeed to the world at large.
PERSONAL NOTES ON THE GERMAN DELEGATES
Excellence Mattias Erzberger. Age 43.
Son of a postman in South Germany. Schoolmaster by profession. Member of the Reichstag centre party. Catholic. Employed in 1914 in propaganda section of F.O. Lost this post on fall of Bethmann Hollweg in 1917. Led the attack of the majority parties on the Admiralty for making false promises about s/m campaign in July 1917. Proposed and carried the resolution of 18th July 1917 for a peace without annexations or indemnities. In October 1918 appointed Minister without portfolio in Prince Max’s government in which he was the strongest personality. Described as a man of much energy and ability. In confidential relations with the Vatican and Vienna, but not a gentleman. Ludendorf’s first powerful enemy. Of medium height, fat a bloated looking, double chin, scrubby moustache wears pince-nez.
Excellence Graf von Oberndorf, Age 48.
Well born. Doctor of Law. Now holds the rank of Ambassador. Has been through the ordinary diplomatic career, being appointed as Minister at Sofia during the war and remained there until capitulation of Bulgaria. Slight build, medium height. Speaks French fluently.
General Detlef von Winterfeld. Age 57
First commission in 1888. Has had very little actual military experience, never having commanded more than a company. Several years Military Attache at Brussels – then returned to General Staff. 1909 to 1914 Military Attache Paris. During the war he has been active in Spain on espionage work. It is stated “He is a kindly chap, very much in earnest, and of average mental calibre. He has the reputation of being a piocheur [?], having collected a good deal of information. Is a fair, though not (except in French) fluent linguist. Is polite and quite without the aggressive manner not seldom found among his colleagues. Has probably a nervous temperament, old for his age”. It is stated by a French officer that Winterfeld’s father was present at Versailles in 1871 at the Peace negotiations.
Captain von Vanselow. Age 44
Entered Navy in 1892. Promoted to Captain in April 1917. There is apparently nothing noteworthy in his career. Appears to have served on the Admiral Staff Berlin since 1913. Has been chief of the Military political Department of the Admiral Staff since some time in 1917. Short, stout, and rather subdued, not very prepossessing, not much force of character.
Transcribed with minor edits from the original in the National Archives by Steuart Campbell in 2023
Copyright Steuart Campbell
Notes by Steuart Campbell:
1 Commander Walter Theodore Bagot (1885-1969) joined the Royal Navy in 1900 but his seagoing career was ended by short sight. He worked in the Intelligence Division during World War 1 and was a German interpreter. He was awarded the Victory Medal 1914-18.
2 Bagot’s surprise at the small staff with which General Foch operated presumably arose from the large staff with which General Kitchener operated.
3 Surely it’s odd that Foch would say that he had no proposals when he had a draft of the Terms of Armistice ready to present.
4 Count Oberndorf read an extract from a statement by President Wilson, but it’s not clear what that was.
5 The Armistice was determined to take effect at 1100 French time, the 11th November. In fact, French time was GMT as, at the time, France and the UK shared the same time zone. Germany was 1 hour ahead, so there the Armistice took effect at noon. It appears that it was understood that 6 hours were need to allow the cease fire to be circulated to the fighting forces. The actual time for the Armistice therefore depended on the choice of the signing time determined by the German delegates. If they had chosen 6 am, the cease fire would have taken place at noon GMT.
6 Bagot’s account was transferred to the national Archives on 16 July 1959 and originally closed for 50 years (from 1919). Consequently it was made publicly available on 1 January 1969.
Below: The delegates; Rear Admiral Hope (front right) was part of the British delegation at the Armistice talks