A few days ago, we observed Remembrance Day, once known as Armistice Day. Everyone knows what “remembrance” means, but what exactly is an “armistice?”
It’s the term for a document signed November 11, 1918, in an oak railway coach at Compiègne, France — an agreement between Germany and the Allied Powers united against Germany.
Signed at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Armistice signified, “the suspension of fighting pending a definite peace settlement.” It was a truce, not a peace treaty — a truce that remained in effect until the formal end-of-war was ratified via the Treaty of Versailles.
The Armistice of November 11, 1918, was the fourth such cease-fire agreement signed that year. The first, between the Allies and Belgium, took place September 29, 1918. The second, with Turkey, was signed October 30, and the third, authenticated on November 3, was between Austria-Hungary and the Allies.
All four were truces, not final peace pacts. Even so, the November 11 truce was such a blow to German esteem that on June 22, 1940, Hitler re-enacted the ceremony in the same railway coach in the same spot as in 1918. The difference was that in 1940, France was forced to sign a document like the Armistice, while in 1918, Germany was the country compelled to sign.
The actual end-of-war document, the Treaty of Versailles, was not ratified until June 28, 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, an assassination that triggered the First World War.
In this treaty, such onerous conditions were forced on Germany that even Marshal Ferdinand Foch of France, who was instrumental in drafting the treaty, foresaw that hostilities were merely postponed, not ended.
Foch wrote, “This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for 20 years.”
How right he was! The Second World War began 20 years later. It’s widely believed German resentment arising from the Treaty of Versailles was a direct factor in the onset of Nazism.
Oxford defines armistice as, “a cessation of arms; a short truce.” Known in English since 1707, armistice comes from the Modern Latin word, armistitium (stopping arms).
A truce is, “a suspension of hostilities for a specified period between armies at war.” In English since 1567, truce is originally from the Gothic, triggwa (covenant).
Pact, in English since at least 1601, is Middle English arising from the Old French, pacte, which in turn comes from the Latin, pactum (agreement; covenant; compact).
Treaty, ultimately from the Latin, tractare (to draw), came into Middle English via Old French. In the sense of “covenant; compact,” it’s been known in English since 1753.
Several synonyms for armistice are offered in the Thesaurus — truce, pacification, treaty of peace, cooling-off period, temporary arrangement, and hollow truce. Of these, only “treaty of peace” suggests an actual end to war.
No wonder the day we once observed as war’s end underwent renaming. The name was officially changed by an act of the Canadian Parliament to Remembrance Day from Armistice Day in 1931.