The word “armistice” baffled me as a child. I gathered it was somehow related to the ending of war but was more problematical than “truce” or “cease-fire,” let alone “peace” or “victory.”
It was many years later I found it was “a formal agreement of warring parties to stop fighting.” Its intent was to allow those parties to sit down for serious peace negotiations.
In later life, I wondered about the origin of the word. I learned it comes from the Latin “arma” [arms] and “sistere” [stop]. For the Germans, the term is “Waffen Stillstands”.
On the Western Front, this stopping of arms would occur in 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It effectively ended fighting on land, sea, and air between Germany and the Entente and assorted allies.
The “War To End All Wars” had accounted for over 9.9 million killed in action, 21.2 million wounded in action, and 7.7 million dead civilians. In this context, a host of contemporary medals were struck to mark the cessation of hostilities. These medals fall into several categories: those that specifically commemorate the armistice, those concerned primarily with peace, others that claim victory, and yet others that provide commentary on events surrounding the armistice and its consequences. The last group comes mainly from Germany. Along with sardonic comment, these include some of the more poignant depictions of the bitter consequences of war.
And, of course, coins commemorating the centenary of the 1918 Armistice have been appearing for well over a year.
These medals and coins provide a most challenging collecting area. The number is such that at least two lifetimes are required for a comprehensive or even a fully representative number to be assembled. Space allows only a few reminders of the costs of war to be illustrated here.
Background: By late October 1918, the Entente had signed or was close to signing Armistice agreements with Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary. A year earlier, Russia had signed a cease-fire with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans. But on the Western Front, the killing continued apace.
It had taken until late September 1918 for Germany’s High Command to admit their country’s position was hopeless. Erster Generalquartiermeister Ludendorff had informed the Imperial Chancellery that an Allied breakthrough was imminent. He demanded an immediate cease-fire and acceptance of the main demands of President Woodrow Wilson.
Today, his motivation is clear. For starters, he wanted to preserve the honor of the German army by laying responsibility for capitulation squarely in the laps of the politicians. Secondly he realized that Wilson’s Fourteen Points were sufficiently vague to allow Germany to extract itself from the fray with minimum pain.
Changes: In October, the German government made overtures for an Armistice along lines proposed by Ludendorff. However, France, Italy, and Britain had no interest in such negotiations, nor did Wilson’s Fourteen Points hold any appeal for them. They had fought for over four years and lost millions of young men. They knew Germany was shattered. They wanted their pound of flesh and numerous quarts of blood as well.
A major stumbling block quickly emerged: the Allies insisted on the abdication of the kaiser. Germany might have been desperate, but at this point its government was not prepared to swallow this particular dead rat.
In fact, Ludendorff abruptly declared the Allied conditions unacceptable and demanded a full resumption of the war. However, his German soldiers had had enough. They were no longer prepared to fight. Desertions became commonplace. On Oct. 26, Ludendorff was replaced, and he fled to Sweden.
A naval revolt took place at Wilhelmshaven. It spread rapidly across the country. The realization that Germany was beaten had shaken Kaiser Wilhelm, but the mutiny of his beloved Kaiserliche Marine was the last straw. On Nov. 9, he abdicated, and a German republic was proclaimed. On Nov. 10, the ex-kaiser went into exile in neutral Netherlands.
Total capitulation: A Social Democrat party took the reins of political power. It engaged in desperate and hurried armistice negotiations. These took place in Foch’s private train parked in the French forest of Compiègne. When the German delegation arrived, they were given 72 hours to agree to a list of demands presented by Allied officers.
These demands were largely written by Allied Supreme Commander Maréchal Ferdinand Foch. They included immediate cessation of hostilities, withdrawal of German forces to positions behind the Rhine, Allied occupation of the Rhineland, the complete demilitarization of Germany including surrender of all military materials, the release of all Allied prisoners of war and interned civilians, and eventual reparations. Reparations were to become such a financial millstone that they poisoned international relations for many years afterwards.
On the Allied side, there was to be no release of German prisoners and no relaxation of the naval blockade of Germany until complete peace terms were agreed.
There was no question of negotiation. In effect, the Allies required the unqualified and total capitulation of Germany.
The new German Chancellor did not hesitate. On Nov. 10, he instructed the head of the German delegation to sign. They did so at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11. The cease-fire was to occur six hours later.
It would take another year before the final peace terms were hammered out. Three extensions to the original document were required before the Treaty of Versailles was finally ratified on Jan. 10, 1920.
A final reckoning: On Nov. 11, both sides knew the fighting was about to end. However, both maintained pressure to the last second. Each continued to fire at the other. In those six hours of that last day, there were a further 10,944 casualties. Of these, 2,738 died.
Battery 4 of the U.S. Navy’s long-range 14-inch railway guns fired its last shot at 10:57:30 a.m. from the Verdun area. It was timed to land behind the German front just before the scheduled Armistice.
The last British soldier died about 9:30 a.m., the last Frenchman at 10:50 a.m., and the last British Imperial soldier, a Canadian, was shot at 10:58 a.m. The last soldier killed in World War I was an American at 10:59 a.m.
May they rest in peace.
Commemorative medals: All participants in the conflict produced some sort of medallic memento. Some were official, but there were many unofficial private issues. Some are of superb quality and charged with pathos. Among these are personal commentaries from leading sculptors. Others are crude in their execution, but all commemorate a major historical event.
Initially, most focused on the blessed peace that had followed the end of the killing. A few made specific reference to the Armistice. Many French medals expressed unqualified gratitude to the Allied soldiers who fought and died for their country.
Within months, however, that peace and gratitude had transmuted to victory celebrations. It was no longer simply a question of an armistice. The Germans, Austro-Hungarians, and the Ottomans were seen as utterly defeated. Given the uncompromising nature of the cease-fire terms, they could be perceived as little else.
A common award to all Allied soldiers was proposed by Maréchal Foch. Each nation was free to design its own, but the shared theme was a winged Victory struck on a 36mm bronze round and suspended by a double rainbow ribbon. The award became known as the Inter-Allied Victory Medal, with at least 15 countries producing their own versions.
The back commonly carried a potent piece of propaganda: THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION 1914-19. (The 1919 date refers to involvement of Allied troops in the Russian Civil War.) The back of the U.S. medal displays a bound fasces with the names of Allied countries listed on either side: FRANCE, ITALY, SERBIA, JAPAN, GREAT BRITAIN, BELGIUM, BRAZIL, PORTUGAL, RUMANIA and CHINA.
Some medals struck in the years after the war and even after the signing of the Versailles Treaty neither forgave nor forgot. French sculptor René Baudichon’s bronze ULTRIX AMERICA JURIS is a case in point. Struck in 1920, it portrays a vengeful Lady Liberty rising from the Atlantic Ocean. The cause of her wrath is clear on the medal’s back: the torpedoed Lusitania sinks while a baby drowns.
Germany’s medalists had little to celebrate or even commemorate. Their country was wrecked; their political system, economy, and agriculture were in ruins; its former leaders had fled. Germans would continue to be denied basic supplies by the Allied Blockade for eight months following the Armistice. Tens of thousands would starve.
As a consequence, many German medalists sought their subjects in simple yet vital matters such as wife and children being reunited with husband and father.
Goetz’s 1918 Christmas medallion opts for the reality of peace. Danish sculptor Lotte Benter’s massive bronze “WIEDERSEHEN-1918” [Farewell 1918] is more poignant: an ordinary German soldier returning to his wife, his family united around a 1918 Christmas tree with FRIEDE AUF ERDEN [Peace on Earth]. It really says it all.
Goetz medals aside, it would be some years before Germany’s spirit would reassert itself in political medallic statements.
Centennial Coins: For over a year, mints and nations around the world have been issuing coins to mark the 100 years that have elapsed since the Great War ended. Many echo themes seen on medals from 100 years earlier. Some refer to the Armistice itself, others to Peace, while yet others salute the return of the soldiers. Victory gets scant mention.
Of all the coins marking the end of the conflict, those issued by France stand out. Their designs focus on the immediacy of the feelings that swept the entire country on the afternoon of Nov. 11, 1918.
For the French, the end of La grande Guerre was a profoundly emotional national experience. For over four years, great swathes of the country had been laid waste to provide battlegrounds for the Western Front. Towns and villages had been devastated. Some 1.4 million French soldiers and 300,000 civilians lay dead. A further 4.3 million had been wounded.
Words are inadequate to describe the response of the French that Nov. 11. But it is all there in the coin deigns. And in capturing this moment, the designers at Monnaie de Paris have not overlooked their allies. The flags of Britain, America, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia wave alongside the Tricolor.
The centenary is marked primarily with two matched coin pairs. Each consists of a .900 fine silver (37.00 mm, 22.20 g) 10 euro and a .999 fine gold (22.00 mm, 7.780 g) 50 euro. Symbolic poppies and cornflowers are prominent in the designs, “Le bleuet” (the cornflower) being France’s national symbol of remembrance.
On one, the sun rises for Armistice Day, a bugler sounds the cease-fire, and soldiers discard their rifles while a signaler releases an allegorical dove. The second depicts jubilant crowds welcoming “Le Poilu” [The Unshaven]. This is the coin that acknowledges the vital role of the Allied troops in France’s liberation – on both obverse and reverse.
A bugler sounding the recall before the Arc de Triomphe features on the second 10 euro but struck on a 31.00 mm, 17.00 g .333 fine silver flan. His uniform is decked with the flags of the allied nations. In the background, a returning soldier embraces his child. Oddly, the reverse makes reference to matters 100 years on: linked oak and laurel branches evoke the euro sign.
As would be expected, numerous coins have come from the countries of the former British Empire who contributed 1.1 million killed and 2 million wounded.
The Royal Australian Mint was one of those quick on the mark. In February, it announced a commemorative 25.00 mm, 9.00 g aluminum bronze dollar available in both 2018 proof and BU coin sets. In March, the corresponding precious metal proofs were produced: a 21.69 mm, 1/4 oz .9999 fine gold $25; a 99.95 mm, .999 fine 1 kg silver $30; and a 40 mm, 1 oz .999 fine silver $1.
The reverse design by Aleksandra Stokic depicts poppies of Flanders Fields growing in soil deep sown by serried rows of bullets. The outline of each bullet caused comment Down Under on these coins’ release. It is not that of the British .303 but resembles the rimless German 7.92 X 57 cartridge widely used in WWI although, for the pedants among us, the profile differs in detail.
It may well be the designer’s intent was to depict the primary cause of so many grave markers of Australian Imperial Forces whether at Gallipoli or on the Western Front.
Britain’s Royal Mint also believed in getting in early. They issued a BU bimetallic £2 in January. Its design by Stephen Raw is highly evocative. The artist shaped his work using clay from the Sambre-Oise Canal, where war poet Wilfred Owen was killed in 1918 one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice. It bears an inscription taken from Owen’s poem, “Strange Meeting”: “The truth untold, The pity of war.”
The same design is used on a 28.40 mm, 12.00 g .925 fine silver £2 proof; a 28.40 mm, 24 g .925 fine silver £2 proof piedfort plated with gold; and a 28.40 mm, 15.97 g .917 fine yellow gold £2 plated with red gold. All three coins are edge inscribed WILFRED OWEN KILLED IN ACTION 4 NOV 1918.
In addition, the BRM has produced two 5 oz £10 proof coins: a 65.00 mm, 156.30 g .999 fine silver and a 50.00 mm, 156.30 g .9999 fine gold. These are the last coins in the mint’s WWI Centenary 5 oz series. Their common reverse by Paul Day depicts a lone solider on the Western Front at the moment the guns cease fire.
Royal Canadian Mint designer Jamie Desrochers leaves no doubt that it is all about the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The numeral “11” appears three times on the reverse of his 36.06 mm, 23.17 g .9999 fine silver dollar backed by a sunburst of hope. The central “11” is writ large and selectively gold-plated. Its profile echoes Canada’s National Vimy Memorial in France.
A second Canadian coin remembers the fallen: a 76.25 mm, 311.54 g .9999 fine silver $100 proof. On the reverse, artist Pandora Young has incorporated one of Coeur de Lion MacCarthy’s “Angel of Victory” sculptures that stand today in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. The ascending angel holds a fallen Canadian soldier in one arm and a laurel wreath in her left. The two are framed by W.H.J. Blakemore’s design of Canada’s one-cent coin issued during 1914-1918. Appropriately, the obverse shows Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal’s contemporary effigy of King George V.
From the Cook Islands, courtesy of CIT, is an 11 mm, 1/100 oz .9999 fine gold prooflike $5. Its emphasis is the peace. The accompanying web page provides no description beyond the words of John McCrae’s 1915 poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
The tiny Pacific Island of Niue is responsible for two colored silver and gold coins whose themes mark the end of the war. These include a 65 mm, 155.5175 g (5 oz) .999 fine silver $10 proof showing a bugler sounding the cease-fire and a 38.61 mm, 1 oz .9999 fine gold $100 proof depicting troops marching back from the front in the aftermath of the Armistice. The last coin was part of a WWI set released in early 2017.
In a similar vein is a Solomon Islands 40 mm, 25 g .925 fine silver $10 proof with members of the armed services marching in a victory parade. This coin appears to be the only Armistice centenary issue that gives a nod to the nurses of WWI – the troops’ angels of mercy.
New Zealand is the sole country to produce a circulating coin for the centenary: a colorized 24.75 mm, 5.00 g plated steel 50 cents released into circulation on Oct. 1. Central to the reverse design is the New Zealand Returned Services Association red poppy surrounded by a wreath formed from three of New Zealand’s silver fern leaves (past, present, future / Army, Navy, Air Force), rosemary for remembrance, and koru (Maori stylized fern fronds).
Rosemary holds deep significance for New Zealand soldiers. It grew wild across the Gallipoli peninsula where 2,779 New Zealanders died in 1915, a sixth of the Kiwi troops who landed on the peninsula.
A second New Zealand coin is a 21.69 mm, 1/4 oz .9999 fine gold $10 entitled “Back from the Brink” that depicts a returned soldier in the arms of his tearful beloved. This coin comes in a pressed metal tin resembling those gifted to soldiers in World War I by Princess Mary at Christmas.
Afterword: Historians among readers will be well aware that Foch’s 1918 Armistice demands, along with those in the Versailles Treaty of 1920, sowed seeds of deep resentment in the German soil that would sprout full-grown on Sept. 1, 1939. The reverse of Goetz’s 1918 Armistice medal foretells that future all too clearly: EIN 70 MILLIONEN VOLK LEIDET ABER STIRBT NICHT [70 million people suffer but do not die].
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
If you like what you've read here, we invite you to visit our online bookstore to learn more about Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000.
NumismaticNews.net is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated websites.