War was won as Ger­many fell apart

Lead­ing First World War his­to­rian HEW STRA­CHAN on the de­ci­sive events on the West­ern and Eastern fronts that brought Ger­many to its knees

The Herald - - ARMISTICE: 100 YEARS - Sir Hew Stra­chan is Pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at the Uni­ver­sity of St An­drews and a mem­ber of the WW100 Scot­land Panel.

DUR­ING the course of 1918 the al­liance be­tween the En­tente pow­ers and the United States grew in co­he­sion, at sea as well as on land, and in its con­trol of global re­sources and its ca­pac­ity to use them for the pur­poses of the war. At the same time, ten­sions be­tween the Cen­tral Pow­ers, Ger­many, Aus­tria-hun­gary, Bul­garia and the Ot­toman Em­pire, in­ten­si­fied. One al­liance ral­lied, and the other fell apart. The con­se­quences de­ter­mined both how and when the war was won.

Out­wardly, for the first six months of the year, Ger­many looked to be both strong and get­ting stronger. By the sum­mer its writ ran from cen­tral France to Ukraine, and from the Baltic to the Balkans. Un­der the terms im­posed on Rus­sia at Brest Li­tovsk in March and on Ro­ma­nia at Bucharest in May, it had es­tab­lished a dom­i­nance over Eu­ro­pean Rus­sia which promised the re­sources that would en­able it to sus­tain the war for a lit­tle longer. Con­tained in this vic­tory, how­ever, were the seeds of the Ger­man-led coali­tion’s dis­so­lu­tion.

Suc­cess in the east cre­ated com­pe­ti­tion, be­tween Ger­many and Aus­tria-hun­gary for food from Ukraine and be­tween Ger­many and the Ot­toman Em­pire for the oil of the Cau­ca­sus. In Septem­ber, while strug­gling to hold their lines in the west, the Ger­mans de­vel­oped grandiose plans for the east which clashed with those of the Ot­tomans as the Turks sought com­pen­sa­tion for their loss of Ara­bia and their de­feats in Syria and Pales­tine. None of Ger­many’s al­lies had any in­ter­est in the war in France and Flan­ders: their am­bi­tions lay closer to home. Their peo­ples were hun­gry and tired of war.

With their ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions sat­is­fied by the con­quests of Ser­bia and Poland, and the de­feats of Rus­sia and Ro­ma­nia, they had no rea­son to carry on fight­ing. Their in­cli­na­tion was to seek peace, not to help their ar­ro­gant ally ful­fil its west­ern am­bi­tions.

On Septem­ber 15, a multi-na­tional En­tente army at­tacked in Mace­do­nia. Its com­man­der, Franchet d’es­perey, a hero of the first bat­tle of the Marne, had told the French pres­i­dent in late 1914 that ma­noeu­vre was pos­si­ble in the Balkans and he now backed his words with deeds. Bul­garia asked Lu­den­dorff for reinforcements but it did not get them. In the past the Ger­mans had coun­tered such crises by shut­tling troops across Eu­rope from one front to an­other. Now they were run­ning out of men and they strug­gled to move them. Their rail­ways were suf­fer­ing from overex­ten­sion and in­ad­e­quate main­te­nance. Within two weeks, on Septem­ber 29, the Bul­gar­i­ans sought an armistice.

The ef­fect on Lu­den­dorff was im­me­di­ate. He and his su­pe­rior, Paul von Hin­den­burg, had been so fo­cused on the West­ern Front that they had ig­nored the dan­gers loom­ing else­where. Lu­den­dorff feared that the al­lies would breach the Cen­tral Pow­ers from the south in short or­der de­spite the poor state of the roads and the im­mi­nence of win­ter. Franchet d’es­perey imag­ined him­self en­ter­ing Vi­enna in tri­umph, the first French gen­eral to do so since Napoleon in 1809. Lu­den­dorff said that it was the col­lapse of Bul­garia in the Balkans that prompted him to seek an im­me­di­ate armistice in the west.

Although he ex­ag­ger­ated the im­mi­nence of the threat to Ger­many it­self, Lu­den­dorff was right about the im­pli­ca­tions for what he called the Quadru­ple Al­liance. The al­lied break­through in the Balkans would cut Ger­many’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the Ot­toman Em­pire. As Franchet d’es­perey’s armies ad­vanced on the Danube, the British com­po­nent turned east­wards through Thrace to­wards Is­tan­bul. On Septem­ber 19, Ed­mund Al­lenby had in­flicted a ma­jor de­feat on the Turks in Pales­tine at Megiddo. Although this vic­tory too would not de­liver its full ef­fects un­til 1919, the Ot­toman gov­ern­ment re­alised that it needed to seek terms. The Turks signed an armistice with the British at Mu­dros, on the is­land of Lem­nos, on Oc­to­ber 30.

The Aus­tro-hun­gar­i­ans fol­lowed suit. They had long de­scribed the Ger­mans as “se­cret en­e­mies” and the young Hab­s­burg em­peror, Karl, who had suc­ceeded Franz Josef at the end of 1916, had been anx­ious both to dis­tance him­self from Ber­lin and to seek a way out of the war. His army fought with skill and de­ter­mi­na­tion on the Ital­ian front but its last of­fen­sive, on the Pi­ave in June, failed and, when the Ital­ians at­tacked at Vit­to­rio Veneto on Oc­to­ber 24, they achieved a quick suc­cess. The

Lu­den­dorff said that it was the col­lapse of Bul­garia in the Balkans that prompted him to seek an im­me­di­ate armistice in the west

Aus­trian armistice was signed at Villa Giusti on Novem­ber 3.

This was a full month af­ter the Ger­man re­quest for an armistice had been despatched to the Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent, Woodrow Wil­son. Wil­son in­formed his al­lies of Ger­many’s po­si­tion, which was pub­lic knowl­edge by Oc­to­ber 8. So, although the Turks and Aus­tri­ans reached their own de­ci­sions in­de­pen­dently, the

Ger­mans could hardly claim they had been be­trayed. The Ger­man army was later to claim that it had not been de­feated in the field but had been “stabbed in the back” by col­lapse at home. This too in­verted the se­quence of events.

At the end of Septem­ber, Ger­man sol­diers were still fight­ing well in­side France. At home their fam­i­lies were – like all the peo­ples of bel­liger­ent Eu­rope – ex­hausted and war weary.

A suc­ces­sion of poor har­vests com­bined with the block­ade to cause hunger and pro­mote so­cial disintegration. The en­try of the US into the war had eased the prin­ci­pal con­straint on the al­lied eco­nomic war – the need to re­spect neu­tral rights – and the economies of the states abut­ting Ger­many suf­fered as severely as those of any bel­liger­ent.

But Lu­den­dorff was wrong to dis­tin­guish Ger­many’s army from Ger­many it­self: ci­ti­zen sol­diers were in­flu­enced by, and them­selves shaped, the mood at home. The rev­o­lu­tion that broke out in Ger­many in early Novem­ber, sparked by mu­tinies in the navy, fol­lowed the re­quest for an armistice, rather than pre­ceded it.

The Kaiser ab­di­cated on Novem­ber 9 but he did so be­cause Lu­den­dorff’s suc­ces­sor as First Quar­ter­mas­ter Gen­eral, Wil­helm Groener, had told him that he had lost the con­fi­dence of the army, not be­cause he had for­feited that of his sub­jects.

Through­out Oc­to­ber, the al­lies were un­cer­tain whether or not the Ger­mans were se­ri­ous in their re­quest for an armistice. Philippe Pe­tain wanted the French army to free Lor­raine by force of arms in 1919 and John J Per­sh­ing felt the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Force had just started fight­ing. He hoped it would cap­ture Metz. Dou­glas Haig was the more cau­tious of the al­lied commanders, partly be­cause he un­der­es­ti­mated the re­newed strength of the French army and the po­ten­tial of the Amer­i­can army, but also be­cause he ar­gued that the Ger­man army was not yet de­feated. He recog­nised, too, that the pace of the al­lied ad­vance would slow as their lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion length­ened and win­ter set in. Why, he asked, if the Ger­mans were ready for peace, lose more lives and for what? Haig helped en­sure that the war ended sooner than the politi­cians ex­pected or some of his fel­low commanders wanted.

The corol­lary of Haig’s po­si­tion was that the armistice terms had to do duty for the ab­sence of a “de­ci­sive” vic­tory to match the prece­dent of Water­loo in 1815 or even of Megiddo or Vit­to­rio Veneto in 1918 it­self. The re­sult was that all the armistices had to per­form two func­tions, and that with Ger­many es­pe­cially so. First, the en­emy was re­quired to sur­ren­der so much equip­ment – in the Ger­man case 5,000 ar­tillery pieces, 25,000 ma­chine guns, and 5,000 lo­co­mo­tives – that he would not be able to re­sume fight­ing: this was the sub­sti­tute for the de­struc­tion of the en­emy army on the bat­tle­field.

The de­gree to which the al­lies had con­tin­ued to over-es­ti­mate Ger­many’s resid­ual strength was shown in some cases by their de­mand­ing more than it could de­liver. On Bri­tain’s in­sis­tence, Ger­many also sur­ren­dered the bulk of the High Seas Fleet and 160 sub­marines.

Se­condly, the armistices were tech­ni­cally only tem­po­rary pauses in the fight­ing. They were there­fore de­signed to en­sure that the al­lies se­cured the ca­pac­ity for strate­gic ma­noeu­vre in the event of hos­til­i­ties re­sum­ing. The Turks had to open the Dar­danelles and per­mit the al­lies use of the Black Sea; the Aus­tri­ans had to al­low the al­lies to ad­vance into Bavaria; and the Ger­mans had to give up the Rhine bridge­heads, so open­ing the east bank to the al­lied armies.

Some feared th­ese con­di­tions might be too harsh to be ac­cept­able and oth­ers that the fall of the Kaiser would mean that there would be no Ger­man gov­ern­ment au­tho­rised to agree them. The Ger­man del­e­ga­tion, headed by Matthias Erzberger of the Catholic Cen­tre Party, was brought through the lines in se­crecy to a lo­ca­tion in the for­est of Com­piegne, where its pres­ence could not be ob­served. No Ger­man gen­eral ac­com­pa­nied it, although both Fer­di­nand Foch, as al­lied gen­er­alis­simo, and Sir Ross­lyn We­myss, the British First Sea Lord, rep­re­sented the al­lies. For the vic­tors, this was a purely mil­i­tary ar­range­ment, de­spite its po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences. The Ger­mans agreed the terms at 5.10 am (back­dated to 5.00 am) on Novem­ber 11. The armistice was to take ef­fect at 11am the same day.

The Ger­man army was later to claim that it had not been de­feated in the field but had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by col­lapse at home

„ Mar­shal Foch and his en­tourage, in­clud­ing the British rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ad­mi­ral Ross­lyn We­myss, cen­tre, next to the train coach at Com­piegne af­ter the Armistice was signed.

„ Ger­man pris­on­ers of war at a clear­ing sta­tion af­ter the suc­cess­ful Al­lied of­fen­sive near Amiens. Gen­eral Lu­den­dorff de­scribed it as ‘The Black Day of the Ger­man Army’.

„ Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May lays a wreath at the grave of John Parr, the first British sol­dier to be killed in 1914, at the St Sym­phorien Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery in Mons.

Pic­ture: Sandy Young

„ Turn­berry Light­house in Ayr­shire is lit up red with a poppy for Re­mem­brance Day.

Pic­ture: Stew­art Attwood

„ The names of peo­ple who were killed in the First World War are pro­jected on the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment build­ing in Ed­in­burgh to pre­view an art work ti­tled ‘Their Name Liveth’ that will be on dis­play on Sun­day be­tween 5pm and mid­night.

„ From left to fight: Gen­eral Paul von Hin­den­burg, Kaiser Wil­helm II and Gen­eral Erich Lu­den­dorff.

„ Mar­garet Muri­son, whose grand­fa­ther Wil­liam Balmer and his brother John en­listed to­gether in 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Seaforths, and Ma­jor Gen­eral An­drew plant the fi­nal tree at Dreghorn.

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