Chapter 27 Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month – The Complete Idiot's Guide to World War I

Chapter 27 Eleventh Hour, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Month

In This Chapter
  • The assault on the Hindenburg Line
  • Germany calls for an armistice
  • President Wilson’s hard line
  • Ludendorff resigns, the kaiser abdicates
  • Amid defeat and revolution, Germany surrenders
  • The price of war

The level of Allied elation had been high at the start of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This was largely thanks to the actions of the Americans. Immediately after reducing the St.-Mihiel salient, they moved against the Argonne area. The Germans, exhausted both by recent events and by four years of mostly stalemated war, were dumbfounded. The five weak trench divisions manning the forward positions were overwhelmed on the very first day of the offensive by an American force four to eight times their number.

But the initial Allied jubilation soon faded as the American advance became bogged down in the Argonne Forest as Pershing’s troops faced relentless German resistance, difficult terrain, and a lack of proper rail lines and roads to bring up supplies. American military engineers labored under heavy enemy fire to cut divisional roadways. Georges Clemenceau saw the slowdown as a failure of American command and called for Pershing’s dismissal, but Marshal Foch understood that, although forward momentum had been stalled, the German army was suffering nonetheless.

Perhaps the more serious problem during that hellish October in what had once been a beautiful French forest was disillusion. Everything had gone so well at first that the Allies suddenly saw visions of early victory. It was like a mirage of oasis to long benighted desert wanderers. And when that mirage dimmed and faded away, the first reaction was heartbreak followed by anger.

While most eyes were concentrated on the Americans and French in the bloody Argonne, the British began their offensive to the north, in Flanders.

Storming the Hindenburg Line

At the beginning of the war, the French battle doctrine of “offense to the uttermost” left little provision for defense. The result was that the Germans came within 30 miles of Paris in the first month of combat. From the beginning, however, German battle doctrine included a major defensive component, the most elaborate manifestation of which was the Hindenburg Line, discussed in Chapter 21, “Allies Imperiled.” Unspeakably bitter experience had proved to the Allies that a relatively small number of troops could hold a well-entrenched, well-fortified position against vastly superior numbers. Battered and beaten as the Germans were in the autumn of 1918, they still had more than enough troops to inflict terrible casualties on any who dared to assault the Hindenburg Line. But unless that line was breached, the war would not end—at least, not anytime soon.

The Flanders Offensive

One of the greatest dividends of the Allies’ Amiens Offensive (see Chapter 25, “Second Marne”) was the capture of a complete and detailed plan of the Hindenburg Line. With this document, General Douglas Haig had precise knowledge of the locations of all defensive positions along the German Fourth Army front.

 Voices of Battle “They fought with terror, running blindly in the gas cloud . . . . Hundreds of them fell and died; others lay helpless, froth upon their agonized lips and their racked bodies powerfully sick.”

—An unidentified British officer describing death by poison gas

Haig eagerly anticipated making a decisive, war-ending break through the Hindenburg Line. On the evening of September 26, 1918, he ordered a massive artillery barrage, which, thanks to the captured plans, was precisely pinpointed on such key targets as headquarters, artillery positions, and troop shelters. The British had developed a new, more concentrated form of mustard gas—the weapon the Germans had first unleashed in July 1917—which killed by burning out the lining of the throat and lungs. In heavy barrages, they laid down tons upon tons of the new agent.

On September 27, the British infantry of the First and Third armies went over the top and quickly captured the area around Cambrai, including Bourlon Woods, long a concentration of German strength. On the 28th, a combined force of British, French, and Belgian troops advanced through Flanders, taking the area in front of battered Ypres. On the 29th, the British Fourth Army, with French units in support, breached the Hindenburg Line.

The Hindenburg Line had achieved an almost legendary status during the late phase of the war. There was a feeling—entirely irrational—that finally to breach the line would be to break an evil spell and suddenly end the war.

No such thing happened. Haig was dismayed to see that his costly victory did not force the Germans out into the open. By October 5, the British attacks had succeeded in driving through the last of the Hindenburg Line positions, yet the Germans kept finding new positions to which to withdraw. Try as he might, Haig could not achieve a definite breakthrough. Just as Pershing’s advance slowed in the Argonne Forest, so Haig’s momentum now flagged in Flanders.

Advance to the Sambre and the Scheldt

If the Allies were discouraged, it was only because victory had not come miraculously and suddenly. For his part, Erich Ludendorff understood that Germany was defeated. Yet he found reason to fight on. His hope was to establish a new defensive line, still west of the German border, and carry out a grimly determined defense through the winter, which would compel the war-weary Allies to grant generous peace terms.

But the Allies were in no mood to grant terms. Discouragement at the failure of a miracle was only temporary. They realized now that they would win. Although Foch, Haig, and Pershing had often disagreed, they were now in agreement on one unshakable principle: They would maintain unremitting pressure on all sectors of the receding Western Front. Although geographical progress in the Argonne Forest was painfully slow, it was clear by mid October that Ludendorff was retreating because of American pressure there.

The Allies pursued. On October 17, General Sir Henry Rawlinson led his British Fourth Army against German defenses at the Selle River and broke through them. On October 20, General Julian Byng’s British Third Army crossed that river at a point farther south. The German army group commanded by General Max von Boehn fell back toward the Sambre River, some 50 miles east of his original position, while Crown Prince Rupprecht’s army group was pushed toward the Schelde River, about 40 miles east of the line held before the offensive. Boehn lost 20,000 men as prisoners of war, and still the British and Belgians kept coming, giving the Germans no time to reform new lines of defense.

The Germans Fold

With the advances through the Argonne Forest and in Flanders slowing, the Allies did not realize just how close victory was.

Even as the German armies grimly fought on, Erich Ludendorff advised Kaiser Wilhelm II on September 29 to seek an immediate armistice. He was reacting not only to the situation on the Western Front, but also to the collapse of Bulgaria (see Chapter 23, “The War Beyond the Trenches, 1917–1918”).

 Words of War In the imperial German government, the chancellor was appointed directly by the kaiser and was, in effect, prime minister, the highest civilian official in the government.

The kaiser agreed and appointed as chancellor of Germany Prince Max of Baden, a man with an international reputation for liberal moderation and general decency. The kaiser hoped that Max’s appointment would encourage the Allies to negotiate in good faith and grant Germany generous terms.

Prince Max accepted the appointment, but he advised the kaiser to move more slowly to provide time for negotiation. Wilhelm II—this time with the backing of the military high command—directed Max to proceed immediately.

A Message from Prince Max

It is revelatory that, of the three major Allied leaders, Prince Max chose to communicate not with Lloyd George of Britain or Clemenceau of France, but with Wilson of the United States. On October 6, he cabled President Wilson asking for an armistice on the basis of Wilson’s own Fourteen Points (see Chapter 24, “New Blood”).

In the past, Wilson had shown himself to be the most reasonable and conciliatory of the Allied leaders, but if Max had expected a quick and easy affirmative reply to his request for an armistice, he was sorely mistaken. The prince and the president exchanged notes over the next two weeks. Wilson’s final note was received in Berlin on October 23. Essentially, it proposed nothing short of Germany’s complete and unconditional surrender as the only possible basis for an armistice; moreover, Wilson declared that neither the United States nor the other Allies would negotiate with what he called the present German military dictatorship.

End of a Dictator

Since 1917, Erich Ludendorff had been virtual dictator of Germany. It was he who had pushed through and endorsed the navy’s demands for unrestricted submarine warfare, and it was he who had engineered the dismissal of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who had made overtures of peace to Woodrow Wilson. In one of his most brilliant diplomatic moves of 1917, Ludendorff had approved a plan to give Lenin safe passage from Swiss exile so that he might lead the Bolsheviks in a revolution that would bring about in Russia sufficient chaos to take that nation out of the war.

Ludendorff always presented himself as the epitome of the stern and aloof Prussian officer. In fact, he was a highly emotional, even mercurial man, given to extremes of optimism and pessimism bordering on deep depression. Depressed after the fall of Bulgaria, he had rushed to urge the kaiser to seek an armistice. When Wilson replied with terms that amounted to a demand for unconditional surrender—and the end of military dictatorship—Ludendorff swiftly reversed himself. He now counseled the kaiser to reject any armistice based on unconditional surrender. Wilhelm rejected this counsel, and Ludendorff offered to resign. The kaiser accepted his resignation on October 26, effective on the 27th. One of Wilson’s key conditions had now been met.

 Combatants With Paul von Hindenburg, Erich Ludendorff (1865–1937) was the architect of German victory on the Eastern Front. Educated in the Cadet Corps and commissioned as an infantry officer in 1883, Ludendorff focused his entire being on the military, to the exclusion of all else, including diplomacy. He joined the German General Staff in 1895 and played key roles in planning for war and mobilization. His incessant calls for dramatic increases in military spending irritated superiors in the military as well as in the civilian government, and he was dismissed from his staff post to command of a regiment and, later, a brigade.

As seen in Chapter 5, “Battle of the Frontiers,” Ludendorff rose to greatness in the capture of Liège in 1914 and then served as Hindenburg’s chief of staff on the Eastern Front. Based on his success there, Kaiser Wilhelm II appointed Hindenburg and Ludendorff to replace Erich von Falkenhayn in August 1916, after the failure of the Verdun Offensive (see Chapter 16, “ ‘They Shall Not Pass!’ ”). Officially, Ludendorff was second in command to Hindenburg, but he became the de facto generalissimo of the German forces and the virtual dictator of the German government.

After his resignation on October 26–27, 1918, Ludendorff fled to Sweden to avoid the dangers of revolution-torn postwar Germany. He returned to Germany in 1919 and threw himself into radical right-wing politics driven by a fanatical belief in the destiny of the “Nordic race.” He supported Adolf Hitler’s 1923 bid for power—the Beer Hall Putsch—and in 1925 ran unsuccessfully against his former comrade-in-arms, Paul von Hindenburg, for the office of German president.

Toward the end of his life, during the mid-1930s, Ludendorff turned against Hitler and Nazism. Shortly before his death, he issued public warnings to his countrymen against the tyranny of Der Führer. These were, of course, too little too late.

A German Revolution

The kaiser’s appointment of Prince Max of Baden was intended not only to impress the Allies with the sincerity of his desire to negotiate peace in good faith, but also to quell the growing discontent with the military dictatorship at home. But the fact was that Kaiser Wilhelm II was not willing to do what the Allies most wanted: abdicate the throne in favor of one of his grandsons. The kaiser’s refusal to step down tied Prince Max’s hands, and Germany found itself in the worst of all possible worlds. The kaiser wanted an armistice but refused to make the sacrifice necessary to obtain it. At the same time, the very fact that he wanted the armistice sapped the fight out of the German soldiers at the front. Nobody wanted to die in a lost cause. Finally, the combination of stubborn resistance and defeatism destabilized the German government. The nation, like Russia before it, drifted toward revolution.

The first stirrings of revolt had come as early as August 2, 1917, with a mutiny on board the battleship Prinzregent Luitpold. This was the first in a series of mutinies among sailors of the German surface fleet. Because it was bottled up in its home ports, the surface fleet received few supplies, and its sailors had almost nothing to do. Discontent festered amid fantastic rumors that the kaiser was planning personally to lead the navy in a final desperate offensive. The mutinies sparked a revolutionary movement onshore. At the end of October 1918, sailors stationed at Kiel mutinied rather than obey orders to put to sea. This act inspired the formation of revolutionary councils on the model of the Russian communist soviets, and by early November, more port towns saw mutinies. The rebellion spread inland among the civilian population.

 From the Front The Dutch government refused to extradite Wilhelm II, whom the Allies wanted to try as a war criminal. He remained in Dutch exile until his death at the threshold of World War II, on June 4, 1941. From a distance, he was cheered by the rebirth of German nationalism and might under Adolf Hitler.

On November 7, after Austria-Hungary capitulated to the Allies, Bavarian revolutionaries followed the Independent Socialist Party leader Kurt Eisner in declaring the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Bavarian People’s Republic. In response to this, Friedrich Ebert, leader of Germany’s majority Social Democrat Party, prevailed on Prince Max to persuade the kaiser to abdicate, lest Germany become a communist state.

Wilhelm II continued to resist. But matters were entirely out of his hands now. Without consulting the kaiser further, Prince Max simply announced his abdication on November 9. When Wilhelm turned to Paul von Hindenburg for help, the general replied that the army would no longer support him. At this, Wilhelm II fled to the Netherlands (November 10), which had managed to remain neutral throughout the war.

With the kaiser deposed, Prince Max of Baden handed the government over to Friedrich Ebert, who delayed a decision on creating a German republic. Fearing that the communists would exploit any hesitation, Ebert’s colleague, Philip Scheidemann, seized the moment. At two o’clock on the afternoon of November 9, he stepped out onto a balcony of the Reichstag and proclaimed to the crowd that had gathered below the creation of a German republic. In the blink of an eye, Germany had undergone a revolution.

 Words of War The Reichstag is the German parliament.

A Railway Coach at Compiègne

With the resignation of Ludendorff, President Wilson approached the other Allies with a proposal that an armistice be concluded and peace negotiations begin. The Allies agreed in principle, but with two reservations. They would not agree to the second of the Fourteen Points, concerning freedom of the seas, and they would not renounce war reparations. Instead, they demanded “compensation . . . for damage done to the civilian population . . . and their property by the aggression of Germany.” On November 5, Wilson dutifully informed Prince Max of these reservations. He went on to inform Max that Marshal Foch would communicate armistice terms to Germany’s accredited representatives.

On November 8, the representatives, a delegation led by Matthias Erzberger, a civilian politician, arrived at Rethondes, in the Forest of Compiègne. There they boarded the railway carriage that served Foch as his traveling headquarters.

 Words of WarReparations means compensation (usually monetary) required from a defeated nation as a condition of peace.

The Long Talk

Face to face with the enemy, Foch unflinchingly presented the Allies’ terms for an armistice:

  • Germany would immediately evacuate Belgium, France, and Alsace-Lorraine.
  • Additionally, Germany would evacuate the west bank of the Rhine.
  • Germany would demilitarize and neutralize the east bank of the Rhine between the Netherlands and Switzerland.
  • German troops in East Africa—still fighting under the remarkable General Lettow-Vorbeck (see Chapter 11, “A World War”)—were to surrender immediately.
  • German armies in eastern Europe would withdraw to the prewar German frontier.
  • The treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest, by which Russia and Romania ceded large territories to Germany, would be annulled.
  • Germany would repatriate all prisoners of war.
  • Germany would hand over to the Allies a large quantity of war materiel, including 5,000 pieces of artillery, 25,000 machine guns, 1,700 aircraft, 5,000 locomotives, and 150,000 railroad cars.
  • Germany would acknowledge the right of the Allies to maintain its stranglehold naval blockade until a definitive treaty of peace was concluded.

Over the next few days within the confines of the sidetracked railway carriage, the parties debated, argued, and negotiated.

The German delegation pointed out that they and the Allies had a common enemy in the Bolsheviks. With Germany on the verge of collapse, there was a very real danger that communism would swallow it up, as it had Russia. This argument was sufficiently persuasive to move the Allies to agree to the following:

  • The blockade might be relaxed to some degree.
  • The quantity of armaments to be relinquished would be somewhat reduced in the interest of preserving the integrity of the new republic.
  • German forces in Eastern Europe could remain in place for the time being—again to forestall an aggressive move from Russia.

Given the Allies’ fear of a worldwide Bolshevik revolution, it is quite probable that the German negotiators could have obtained additional mitigation of the harshly punitive armistice terms. But they felt that time was against them. The revolution at home created a volatile situation—besides, Foch, Pershing, and Haig refused to let up on their offensive operations. Erzberger and the others feared a new massive blow on the Western Front, which not only would kill more German soldiers but also would open Germany to an out-and-out invasion. If Germany were frankly invaded, conquered, and humiliated, there would be room for no concessions at all.

Darkness Before Dawn

The fact was that although the Allied advance was relentless, it had not succeeded in destroying the German army, which continued in orderly retreat ahead of the Allied forces. Moreover, German troops had destroyed the roads and railways they left behind, which greatly impeded the progress of the advancing Allies.

Grimly, the Allied commanders began to plan a massive offensive set for November 14. It was intended to be the death blow of Germany. Foch would wield a combined Franco-American force of 28 divisions with 600 tanks, poised to advance through Metz into northeastern Lorraine. The ongoing offensive had eaten up all of the German army’s reserves, which meant that a new offensive directed against the army’s exposed left flank would very likely roll up the new German defenses running from Antwerp to the line of the Meuse River and would also cut off any possibility of retreat. Truly, this time, the German army would be destroyed.

And there was more. Waiting in the wings were additional American forces, with more arriving continually. Forty-two U.S. divisions, each 28,000 men strong, were now in France. The British were preparing a massive formation of heavy bombers to attack Berlin—hitherto untouched by the war, save for the dire shortages caused by the British blockade.

Pressed, then, the German delegation took what it could and, at five o’clock on the morning of November 11, 1918, wearily signed the Armistice.

 Voices of Battle “We got the good news that hostilities had ceased. It was too good to believe. During the afternoon, Percy Boyce and me had a walk across to the Belgium border on the Mons Road. Went into the cathedral. Coming back we helped a couple of civilians back with their load.”

—Private Charles Bottomley, Heavy Artillery, Canadian Corps, diary entry for November 11, 1918

All Quiet

The ceasefire was set for 11 A.M.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—and the Allied generals saw to it that the fighting continued right up to the minute. After that, all was quiet on the Western Front.

 From the Front The war cost the neutral nations at least $1.75 billion in defense expenditures, property losses, and merchant shipping losses. However, many of the neutrals also profited from trade with Allies and the Central Powers.

Butcher’s Bill

During the worst of the great plague that swept Europe in the Dark Ages—the Black Death—officials in London posted a list of each day’s dead. Londoners called this list the “Butcher’s Bill.”

The following is the “Butcher’s Bill” for World War I.

The Allies

The Central Powers

The war claimed many civilian casualties as well. Figures are available for the following Allies:

Civilian losses for the Central Powers have been estimated as follows:

Reduced to tables, the numbers defy comprehension. In reading these figures, we must struggle to bear in mind and heart that behind each digit was a human being, someone’s child, someone’s lover, someone’s husband or wife, someone’s father or mother.

The Least You Need to Know
  • A massive, grueling assault on the Hindenburg Line, the German army’s planned last-ditch defensive position, was the culmination of Allied military operations.
  • The combination of military defeat and a swelling revolution at home drove the German government to call for an armistice.
  • Effectively as preconditions of armistice, Erich Ludendorff, generalissimo and virtual dictator of Germany, was forced to resign, and Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate.
  • The Allies dictated harsh armistice terms, which Germany managed to mitigate somewhat by playing on fears of worldwide Bolshevik revolution.
  • World War I ended at 11 A.M. on November 11, 1918.

Part 6Lost Generations

After the Armistice, the Allies gathered in Paris to hammer out the document that became the Treaty of Versailles. The intensely idealistic Woodrow Wilson spearheaded the creation of a League of Nations, an international forum intended to render future wars unnecessary, if not illegal. However, the other Allied leaders were bent solely on punishing Germany and avenging all that it had done. The result was a tragic document so punitive that it virtually ensured a renewal of war in the future.

We conclude with a chapter on the social and cultural impact of America’s experience of the war, the nation’s simultaneous retreat into isolationism and emergence as a world power, its venture into social upheaval and renewal, and its withdrawal into a nearly mindless political conservatism.