the armistice 11 november 1918
The decisive victory allowed The allies To impose humiliating Terms on germany
over the summer and autumn, as its allies dropped out and its own armies were pushed back, germany’s leaders realised they would have to come to terms. what terms they could get, and who would negotiate them, occupied the final weeks of wartime diplomacy. once they realised the war was lost, germany’s militaristic leaders tried to broaden the government, passing power to the democratic political parties who had opposed the pursuit of empire. it was hoped that a democratic government would get better terms from germany’s liberal enemies, and to that end the new chancellor, Prince max von baden, appealed to american President woodrow wilson on 4 october for an armistice to be agreed, pending a peace negotiated on the basis of wilson’s famous ‘fourteen points’. but wilson would not break ranks with his allies and negotiate separately with germany.
moreover, precise terms for a cessation of hostilities pending negotiations were the province of military experts, not statesmen. therefore it fell to Foch, supported by a british delegation headed by First sea lord admiral sir rosslyn wemyss, to present terms on behalf of the allied governments. a german delegation headed by minister without portfolio matthias erzberger crossed French lines on 7 november to begin discussions, and met with Foch and the allied delegation in a railway carriage at rethondes in the forest, near the town of Compiègne.
it was Foch’s intention to impose the harshest armistice terms on germany to ensure that hostilities could not be resumed. to that end the allied armies were to secure bridgeheads over the river rhine, the ultimate objective of Foch’s advance. germany was to surrender guns, machine guns, aircraft and railway rolling stock, and the german army was immediately to evacuate all occupied French and belgian territory, alsaceloraine and the rhineland. the latter was to be controlled by an allied army of occupation, which germany would pay for. to prevent a resumption of the war at sea, germany’s submarines and much of the battle fleet were to be interned at scapa Flow under the watch of the royal navy.
negotiations lasted several days, during which there were further political developments in germany. mutinies in the high seas Fleet and popular disturbances forced the kaiser to abdicate. although it was humiliating, the armistice was agreed by the new german republic, which came into being on 10 november. early in the morning of 11 november, the german plenipotentiaries signed under protest, because the allies refused to lift the naval blockade and feed the german people until a final peace had been agreed. hostilities ceased that day at 11am. by then all germany’s allies had signed their own separate armistices: bulgaria at the end of september, turkey on 30 october and austria-hungary on 4 november.
had seized the high ground around Ypres, which they had fought to capture for months in 1917 and had been obliged to evacuate in spring 1918 during the German offensive. By the time the Anglo-belgian offensive ran out of momentum on 3 October, King Albert’s army group had advanced 14.5 kilometres (nine miles). Uncommitted French armies in the centre – General Charles Mangin’s Tenth and General Henri Berthelot’s Fifth – increased the pressure between 28-30 September, assaulting positions on the Chemin des Dames between Laon and Reims. After these concerted attacks, Haig recorded, “Foch was of the opinion that the Germans cannot much longer resist our attacks against their whole front and ‘soon they will crack’.”
That had already happened. On 29 September, Germany’s First Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff admitted to the kaiser that the army was losing the war and that an armistice from the Allies would have to be sought. He used the recent surrender of Germany’s ally Bulgaria as his excuse – part of Foch’s plan was to put pressure on the enemy on all fronts – but at that moment the waves of Foch’s counter-offensive were crashing heavily all along the Western Front, and Ludendorff’s depleted armies were giving ground everywhere. Simultaneously, British Fourth (General Sir Henry Rawlinson) and French First Armies (General Marie-éugene Debeney) struck against the Hindenburg Line, bringing Foch’s grand scheme to a climax.
If they did not exactly pass through it like a knife through butter, it was a surmountable defensive obstacle given Allied military prowess and German weakness. Australian troops, supported by tanks and an attached American army corps, advanced on the northern end of Fourth Army’s line. Opposite them was the open ground of the Bellicourt tunnel over the Saintquentin Canal. The fighting was as hard as any yet experienced. “The advance was a very bitter affair, right to the finish,’ Second Lieutenant R.H. Poynting wrote home. “I saw more war in a few hours than in my previous seventeen months in the attack on the Hindenburg Line. Tanks ablaze, mortars ablaze, limbers smashed and strewn over the roads and streams of wounded Yankees and Tommies.”
Troops further south would have to cross the canal itself, with its far side defended by German wire and machine gun positions. Covered by an intensive artillery barrage, men from British 46th Division mounted a bold coup de main, crossing the canal wearing life-jackets gathered from Channel troop ships, and taking the defenders in their supposedly impregnable positions on the other side by surprise, capturing two vital intact bridges.
Their success allowed Debeney’s troops to the south to advance on Saint-quentin, the heavily fortified bastion in the centre of the Hindenburg Line. Foch’s only inactive army,
Fifth British Army (General Sir William Birdwood) came into action at this point, following up retreating German forces between Armentières and Lens that had been obliged to withdraw following the advances in Flanders and on Cambrai, which fell to the Canadian Corps on 8 October. By 5 October the northern section of the Hindenburg system was in Allied hands, Ludendorff’s forces were in retreat to their next line of defence, and a German armistice request had been made to American President Woodrow Wilson. The climactic phase of the war, during which intensive battle impelled feverish diplomacy, had begun.
War as a diplomatic weapon
Evicted from the Hindenburg Line, Ludendorff hoped to improvise some sort of linear defence with the diminishing forces still available to him. If the Allied waves could be contained, better armistice and peace terms might be obtained. Foch refused to allow his opposite number any respite. A line of rearward defences was under construction from the English Channel to Verdun: the Hermann Line stood opposite the British front, with the southernmost extensions, the Hunding and Brunhilde positions, in front of the French, and the Kreimhild position blocking the Franco-american advance towards Mezières.
As Foch’s first offensive all along the front inevitably ran out of steam, with Allied troops tired and outpacing their support, Ludendorff started to think that he might yet hold the Allies over the winter. Armistice negotiations were not progressing favourably and he felt that a stout defence that inflicted yet more casualties would make the Allies see sense. His troops and his political masters, now democrats who abhorred the unnecessary continuation of the war, were starting to see things differently. Ludendorff would fight only one more defensive battle – another defeat – before being replaced, having become an obstacle to ending the war.
Foch’s vision remained focused, his determination unwavering. It would take a few days to link the new Allied lines into the railway system and to bring up reinforcements and munitions, but as soon as that was done the next German positions would be attacked using the same methods that had carried the Hindenburg Line. The Allied commanders were under orders to push forwards when the opportunity arose, and Haig seized the chance immediately, driving with Third and Fourth Armies up to and through the Hermann Line and the northern section of the Hunding position. This allowed Debeney’s troops, which had been held up for some days by strong resistance, to advance and capture Saint-quentin.
Thereafter the battle shifted once more to the flanks. The offensive in the Meuse-argonne sector was renewed with vigour. Troops of French Second Army (General Auguste Hirschauer), supported an American advance on the east bank of the River Meuse, from which German artillery had been shelling the American forces on the west bank and checking their progress. Thereafter the Germans withdrew to the Kreimhild position, which was assaulted and captured in the middle of October. On the Americans’ right, Fourth, Fifth and Tenth French Armies maintained pressure on the Germans, forcing another retreat to the Brunhilde position.
Reinforced by more French troops, now constituted into Sixth French Army (General Antoine de Boissoudy), the Flanders army group renewed its offensive on 14 October.
The advance made rapid progress, and within a week the Belgian forces had reached the Dutch frontier. Once again the Allied pressure had forced the Germans to evacuate territory – in
“I SAW MORE WAR IN A FEW HOURS THAN IN MY PREVIOUS SEVENTEEN MONTHS IN THE ATTACK ON THE HINDENBURG LINE”
this instance the Belgian coast, including the ports Ostend and Zeebrugge, which had been a thorn in the side of the Royal Navy since 1914.
Always prepared to improvise on details as long as the broad principles of his plan were adhered to, Foch decided in the next phase of the bataille générale to make his main thrust in the centre of the line, where the Anglo-french armies seemed to be making the best progress. This thrust, he expected, would turn the German resistance on either flank. Haig’s Fourth and Third Armies renewed their offensive from 15 October, advancing a couple of kilometres a day, and in time obliging the enemy forces opposite Haig’s northernmost armies, Fifth and First, to withdraw once again. The important city of Lille, and many other small towns, were liberated in the last two weeks of October as the British and Belgian forces advanced eastwards. French armies in the centre pushed on at the same time, forcing the Hunding position and precipitating another general German retreat from the Aisne.
The final pursuit was a different affair to what the soldiers had experienced previously. Guards officer Oliver Lyttelton re-joined his unit in late October after a spell of convalescence. “Well here we are again… going forward pretty fast. It is great fun,” he wrote home. “The [enemy] seems to be very weak and near the end of his tether… We all have the feeling of men let out of prison into the open. It is great rolling open country with numerous villages, and the warfare as open as the country… We have had a couple of battles since I last wrote and very successful too. The troops are what we call handy. They take a village at four o’clock. By five the outposts are a mile beyond and everyone in billets… and Brigade Headquarters with the dividers out planning the next advance.”
The enemy had not stopped fighting, but the defence, centred on isolated machine gun positions placed so as to delay the pursuit and inflict casualties, was easily mastered. “This rolling country is well suited to M.G. rearguards and you cannot of course make set-piece attacks on their positions without very heavy loss,” Lyttelton reported home. “So we don’t. We adopt a policy of infiltration, especially at night. Work up to the M.G.S, work round them, always pushing on with small detachments and using darkness.”
Ludendorff was the biggest casualty of this failure to hold the next line of defence. On reduced duties and under the close care of a personal psychologist on account of his state of nervous collapse, he had all but lost any grip he had on military operations, and Germany’s army group and army commanders were essentially fighting the battle on their own while their leader addressed political matters. Still he was reluctant to admit defeat. On 26 October Ludendorff was replaced by General Wilhelm Groener, whose views were more attuned to the mood of the moment. Germany was on the verge of revolution, and its new democratic government needed to bring the war to and end immediately.
A final offensive
Foch would organise one last general offensive in early November, to encourage the Germans to the negotiating table. As he later put it, “By attacking uninterruptedly… we were certain to shake, dislocate and finally destroy the enemy’s military power, and, by depriving the German Government of its Armies, force it to beg for terms.” The Francoamerican offensive in the Argonne was renewed on 1 November, with the other Allied armies’ attacks
“GERMANY WAS ON THE VERGE OF REVOLUTION, AND ITS NEW DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT NEEDED TO BRING THE WAR TO AND END IMMEDIATELY”
rippling along the front towards Flanders over the following days. The Americans once again made rapid initial progress before their advance collapsed into confusion. It was to be French troops of Fourth Army that liberated Mezières shortly before the armistice.
British forces launched their last set-piece battle on 4 November. Four armies attacked at the same time with a view to reaching Mons. By now winter was approaching, and the attack was prepared in cold, driving rain and delivered under a thick morning mist – very different from the earlier advances in summer and autumn sunshine. As weak winter sunshine cleared the mist, the scene revealed itself to Lyttelton. “We rode along off the road along which a steady stream of infantry and guns was moving… Fine view in front. A wooded country with lots of small orchards and enclosures and the jug-jug of M.G.S everywhere. A few shells… rather too close for comfort… the [enemy] has been holding quite an organised line and of course we had only a few field guns to deal with it. However the Grenadier [Guards] got round the flanks and had them out with rather severe casualties.” Despite narrowly avoiding being wounded on several occasions, he ended the day “very cheerful. We had gone 5-6,000 yards (4,570-5,485 metres) in the face of very stiff opposition.” The final week of the British advance followed the same pattern, with improvised enemy positions flanked or stormed.
Liberated French towns welcomed their victorious allies. In Maubeuge, Lyttelton “[found] the Grenadiers radiant being kissed in every direction. Flags from every window. Mayor. Town Band. Bouquets.” On armistice day the advance guards arrived in Mons, Belgium, where the British Expeditionary Force had had its first engagement in August 1914.
The pace of the Hundred Days advance was modest – around 1.5 kilometres (less than one mile) a day at its deepest point – but compared with the war’s earlier years it seemed spectacular. “They were a wonderful ‘last hundred days’,” Poynting said. “In 1915 and 1916… it was hard to believe that we should ever get to open warfare again and only in the wildest dreams could one imagine the army streaming forwards with guns in the open, untrenched country and... grateful civilians.”
Semi-mobile warfare still relied on railway logistics, the build-up of ammunition reserves and other supplies, and troops and machines that couldn’t advance faster than walking pace, so the battle progressed in fits and starts.
Aware of the limitations of his military machine, Foch had not sought to make a dynamic breakthrough, but to steadily push the enemy out of France, degrading their forces all the time. Foch had found the operational key to unlocking the stalemate. As his chief of staff, Maxime Weygand, noted (in 1917), “This manoeuvre by movement [along the front] is the only way on a front on which one cannot turn the flanks, and can be managed against an enemy with inferior numbers. The enemy command will be uncertain and worried, and will be demoralised rapidly the more its reserves are committed and it suffers partial defeats. Finally, the last blow struck will find them materially and morally powerless.” Above all, he judged, “It was a victory of intelligence and willpower” – not only Foch but his subordinates, from generals down to private soldiers.
The Germans had been driven back into
Belgium, and Foch was poised to launch another offensive, into German territory in Lorraine, when the armistice was signed. Groener had nothing left to oppose it – 23 German divisions had
“FOCH HAD NOT SOUGHT TO MAKE ANY DYNAMIC BREAKTHROUGH, BUT TO STEADILY PUSH THE ENEMY OUT OF FRANCE”
been broken up in the course of the offensive to provide reserves for others, and only two reserve divisions capable of going into battle were available on 11 November. Many German soldiers had fought hard in their final battle, although many others had realised the war was coming to an end and decided that surrender was better than self-sacrifice. Around 385,000 prisoners were taken by the advancing Allies, and the Germans suffered a similar number of casualties in the final months of the war. That and the loss or war material – 6,615 guns and tens of thousands of machine guns and other weapons were taken during the advance – had destroyed the fighting capacity of the German army, as Foch had calculated. It was a great Allied victory, but was eclipsed 100 years later by the painful memory of what had gone before.
Even at the point of victory, however, there was a sense of anticlimax. “So it was all over,” Lyttelton remembered. “Winning in war is at all times a heady and exhilarating experience… By noon on November 11th Maubeuge had already slipped back into a normal market town. By the afternoon we were already bored… Part of it was because we had lost our profession, in which we had been immersed for five years: part of it because we had already begun to wonder what awaited us in peace-time.”
Regrettably, the ending of hostilities did not presage a lasting peace: the Treaty of Versailles would turn out to be merely “an armistice for twenty years” in Foch’s prophetic judgment. Lyttelton would have to go to war against Germany again, the second time as a member of Winston Churchill’s government, responsible for organising the British war effort.
The final phase of the German army’s defence was based on isolated and improvised machine gun positions
British troops advance through the deep wire entanglements that protected the Hindenburg Line
Belgian cavalrymen advancing to liberate their country during the 1918 Flanders offensive