Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
ARMISTICE. In the course of a war, it frequently happens that hostilities are suspended for a time. At the close of an engagement it is agreed, between the belligerent parties, to stop operations, for a short period, in order to bury the dead. The commanders of contending armies may wish to hold a conference, to have a parley, or to enter into an arrangement for the surrender of a besieged place. There may also be other reasons for a suspension of hostilities, at a given time or place. These suspensions are ordinarily of short duration, and, therefore, are called simply suspensions of arms, especially when they are only temporary, and hostilities may be resumed without any previous notice. But there are circumstances in which suspensions of arms are prolonged, as, for instance, when both parties feel that an effort should be made for the restoration of peace. A protracted cessation of hostilities, mutually agreed on by the belligerents, is called an armistice.
—The term truce which seems to have fallen out of use in diplomatic language, can properly be applied only to a general armistice of long duration.
—When the hope of restoring peace makes it advisable that an armistice should be sought for, and the belligerents wish to enter into negotiations to that end, it is customary to begin with an agreement that hostilities shall be suspended at all points, sometimes without previous stipulation as to what shall be the duration of the armistice.
—Although an armistice is only a military convention, it is obligatory, not merely on armies but on nations themselves, in the same way as international treaties are binding. Hence, the breaking of an armistice has always been considered one of the gravest violations of the law of nations. A suspension of arms should, therefore, be concluded in the name of the sovereign, and by persons having power to bind the country. It is generally assumed that the commander in chief of an army receives with his commission, the power to make any agreement of a military character. He is authorized to appoint, from among his officers, the commissioners and plenipotentiaries charged with the duty of concluding a military contract, reserving to himself the right to ratify it. This authority is not even restricted to the person of the commander-in-chief. The commander of a detached or an isolated corps, who is not in direct or immediate communication with his superior officers, may properly agree to a particular armistice, so far as it concerns the corps or the detachment under his command. When there is question of a general armistice, it is usually understood that such an armistice is a convention more political than military in its nature; and even a commander in-chief should not agree to the terms of such a convention, if he be not specially authorized to do so by his government, and if there be not a previous understanding to that effect between the rulers of the belligerent nations.
—There are instances of armistices having been concluded directly between one government and another, through the medium of their representatives or ministers; but in most cases, even when the suspension is general, of long duration, and agreed upon by the governments of the belligerent parties, the military authority is charged with the drawing up of the terms of the armistice, and with the care of its execution.
—The duration of an armistice must be agreed upon in the terms of the armistice itself, and this must be done with the utmost precision, that a renewal of hostilities may not be feared while one party is under the impression that the armistice has not expired. Even when the duration of an armistice is long or uncertain, it is customary not to resume military operations until after due notice has been given, declaring the armistice at an end. On the occasion of a memorable armistice concluded in 1813, at Plesswitz, in Silesia, between the French army on the one side, and the Russian and Prussian armies on the other, the following provision was inserted in the text of the agreement: "The armistice shall last until July 20th, inclusive, and six days more, during which to give notice of its termination. Hence, hostilities shall not be renewed until six days after the armistice shall have been declared at an end, at the headquarters of the respective armies." Subsequently the armistice having been prolonged, the following clause was added: "The armistice shall be prolonged until the 10th of August. Neither of the contending parties shall declare the armistice at an end before that time. If, at the expiration of that time, the armistice shall be declared at an end by either of the interested parties, then six days' notice thereof, shall be given. Therefore, hostilities shall not be renewed until six days after the armistice shall have been declared at an end."
—The declaration of the expiration of an armistice is all the more indispensable when the duration of the armistice has not been previously fixed.
—An armistice is binding from the day it is concluded; but military commanders, charged with its execution, are responsible for its observance only from the day they are notified of the armistice. Hence, an armistice should be promulgated, and governments are responsible for the damage caused by too tardy a notification of the fact of its existence.
—During an armistice, armies ordinarily maintain their respective positions, and can not rightfully commit any hostile act Hence, besiegers can not prosecute their offensive operations, nor the besieged throw up new works of defense, repair their breaches, etc. But there is nothing to prevent each of the belligerent parties from availing itself of the suspension of arms, to do, within its own borders, anything to improve its position, such as to levy troops, provide supplies, etc. Neither party is bound to maintain a strict statu quo, save within the limits embraced in the armistice, and as to matters relating to the armistice.
—It depends on the terms of the armistice whether the citizens of hostile states may freely trade with one another, whether passports are necessary, and who may issue them. Many other things depend upon the terms of the armistice. Thus, the re-victualing of a fortress during an armistice may be sometimes allowed, for instance when the position is of little importance, or its capture is certain within a short time: but the re-victualing of a fortress should be denied when its capture might decide the fate of the war. It is evident that it is better to decline an armistice than grant an advantage for which there could be no equivalent.
—The whole law of armistices may be reduced to one principle: provide for as many contingencies as possible.
Return to top