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


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


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 ar­mistice

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


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

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