Sunday 29 September 1918 was the day the Allies broke through the Hindenburg Line. In February 1917 the Germans on the western front had withdrawn to a series of positions named after characters from Wagner’s operas. They were designed to be as formidable as the military engineers could possibly make them.
The central sector, opposite the British in Picardy, was the Siegfried Stellung or Siegfried position, known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line. In five great attacks between March and July 1918 the Germans had advanced 50 miles or more westwards from the Line, menacing Paris, the Allies’ lateral railways, and the channel ports. But between July and September they were expelled from these conquests, and between 26 and 29 September the Allies launched four co-ordinated attacks from Flanders to the Argonne. This was the biggest battle of the First World War, and the piercing of the Hindenburg Line marked its climax.
The breakthrough was accomplished by north Midland troops of the 46th Division in the British Fourth Army. They were a competent but not an elite force. The German positions in this sector ran along the Saint-Quentin canal, a waterway 35 feet wide between brick-faced walls 10 feet high. Protected by dense layers of barbed wire and machine guns to the west and by artillery on the east bank, it lay at the centre of six lines of defences. In 1916 or 1917 such a position would have been impregnable. But now it fell in less than a day. The key to success – apart from the demoralisation of the German troops – was an extraordinarily intense and accurate bombardment, 126 shells per minute raining down on each 500 yards of German trench for a period of eight hours. The infantry attack began at 5.50am and by 8.30 the Staffordshires were over the canal, using collapsible boats, mud-mats, scaling ladders, and lifeboats from channel steamers. By 3.30pm they were three miles beyond; by 3 October they were into open country. This Allied achievement was one of the most striking of the war.
Yet it was only one among many. On 15 September Allied forces in the Balkans had begun another offensive that forced Germany’s partner, Bulgaria, to conclude a ceasefire. On 19 September British empire forces (mainly Indian and Australian) began an advance that encircled and destroyed the Turkish armies in northern Palestine at the battle of Megiddo, before driving on into Syria.
On the western front itself, Germany could no longer hope to take the offensive or to hold even the strongest defensive line. On 26–28 September the Ypres salient, territory which the British had taken three months to conquer in the terrible third battle of Ypres in 1917, was recaptured by the Allies in two days. Their advancing forces now faced a beaten army.
During 1918 the western front had witnessed a dramatic reversal of fortunes. After Lenin and the Bolsheviks had seized power, Russia had left the war in March, signing the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Although Germany kept hundreds of thousands of occupation troops in the east, it moved even greater numbers to France and Belgium and for the first time achieved a numerical advantage on the western front, enabling it to unleash a succession of offensives. These attacks, however, cost the German army more than a million dead, wounded, and captured, and after July it lost another three-quarters of a million. Such losses could not be made good. From August, tens of thousands of German soldiers surrendered every month, and tens of thousands more deserted or failed to return from leave.
Meanwhile the Allies built up a massive numerical advantage because the Ludendorff offensives created an emergency and obliged the Americans to accelerate their transatlantic troop shipments. American service personnel in France totalled only 220,000 in March 1918 but by November they exceeded two million, and in the final weeks they fought two major battles: at St-Mihiel and on the Meuse-Argonne.
American assistance had become indispensable, but British and French forces still held most of the front and inflicted most of the damage on the enemy. Both – especially the French – were very tired, and by 1918 the British were sending out boys of 17. But the Allied armies were better and more heavily equipped than in previous years, and more skilled in using their weapons. They enjoyed superior logistics (partly because Britain and America had supplied the French railways with personnel and rolling stock) and for the first time they possessed the advantage in intelligence, repeatedly surprising their opponents.
The Allies also operated hundreds of tanks whereas the Germans had only a handful (though tanks were a useful rather than a decisive weapon, progressing at little more than walking pace and highly vulnerable to artillery fire). Air superiority contributed to the intelligence advantage, and aerial observation and photography enabled the Allied artillery to silence the enemy guns. Combined with the ‘creeping barrage’ – a curtain of fire moving close ahead of advancing infantry – these methods enabled the Allies to overwhelm the German defences, and endowed them with a superiority to which the Germans had no answer.
This being the case, why did the Allies agree to a ceasefire, even though on 11 November their armies had yet to reach the German border? The answer is less military than political, and is bound up with the rise to prominence of the United States, a power with an isolationist tradition that had declared its neutrality in 1914. It entered the war in 1917 because of German attacks on Allied and neutral shipping and a clumsy German attempt to ally with Mexico. Yet President Woodrow Wilson continued to suspect his new partners – Britain, France and Italy – of imperialism, and his suspicion was reinforced when the Bolsheviks published the secret treaties concluded between the European Allies and Tsar Nicholas II.
Wilson therefore distanced himself from the Allies when in January 1918 he set out a moderate and idealistic peace programme in his Fourteen Points, including his proposal for a League of Nations to secure peace after the war. The United States described itself not as an Allied but as an ‘Associated’ Power, retaining the right to conclude a separate peace.
Essential to the calculations behind Germany’s ceasefire appeal of 4/5 October was the hope of splitting Wilson from the harder men: David Lloyd George in London, Georges Clemenceau in Paris, and Vittorio Orlando in Rome. The Germans applied not to the Allies collectively but just to the American president, requesting a ceasefire linked to a peace based on the Fourteen Points. They combined their appeal with a stage-managed democratisation at home, a new government under Prince Max of Baden being established that pledged itself to constitutional reform.
Wilson had not made ‘regime change’ in Berlin an explicit objective, but he had described Wilhelm II’s autocracy and the German military as obstacles to peace. And at first it seemed he was responding as the Germans hoped he would. Without consulting the European Allies he began a public exchange of notes, proceeding while the fighting continued. By 23 October it appeared that Washington and Berlin had agreed on a peace based on the Fourteen Points, leaving the European Allies out in the cold. Wilson now asked his partners if they too would agree to end the war on this basis. A conference held in Paris from 29 October to 4 November between the Allied prime ministers and Wilson’s envoy, Colonel Edward House, would determine the response.
The cost of war
Wilson had seized the chance to act as an arbiter, seeking to railroad both sides into accepting American terms. Although the American commander, John J Pershing, urged that the victors should demand unconditional surrender, and some of the opposition Republican party wanted to fight on to Berlin, the president had many reasons for calling a halt. One was financial: the war was costing far more than originally expected, and now that a huge American army was stationed overseas it had to be paid for in francs and in sterling.
More significant for Wilson, the Republicans were heading for success in the mid-term Congressional elections. He had not realised, he told House, “how war-mad our people have become”. Indeed, if the war had continued into 1919 his domestic support would have crumbled. In addition, he feared that too complete a victory would weaken his leverage over Britain and France. Yet Wilson was less naïve than the Germans supposed, and he had no intention of simply granting Berlin a breathing space. He insisted that the Allied commanders must decide the ceasefire’s military and naval terms. Once the Germans had accepted this crucial point, not just Wilson’s cabinet but most of American public opinion rallied round in supporting his judgement that further bloodshed was unnecessary.
To understand the armistice, we must therefore see it as partly a political and partly a technical arrangement. At the Paris conference the European Allies accepted most of the American political programme but they set the military conditions. Compromise was assisted by the play of personalities. Wilson sent House to represent him, and perhaps due to their friendship he failed to provide clear instructions. House was more of a fixer, more conciliatory than the president: he got on well with the Allied premiers and was eager to please. Conversely, Orlando, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George distrusted each other too much to form a united front. Lloyd George could live with the American programme except for Point Two – the ‘freedom of the seas’ – which threatened Britain’s right to impose blockades and therefore its maritime supremacy. Clemenceau and Orlando gave way, and the Allies agreed to a peace based on the Fourteen Points minus Point Two while reserving their right to demand reparations: a hint of trouble to come. With some justice, House reassured a sceptical Wilson that this outcome was “a great diplomatic victory”.
The armistice’s technical clauses conveyed a different impression. The British admirals demanded and eventually obtained the handover of all of Germany’s submarines and its most modern warships. The American admirals would have preferred them not to go to Britain, but a compromise of detaining them in a neutral harbour proved unworkable.
On land the lead was taken by the French marshal Ferdinand Foch, who in spring 1918 had been appointed Allied commander-in-chief. He ignored Pershing’s demand for unconditional surrender and the surprisingly moderate views of the British commander, Sir Douglas Haig. Instead Foch insisted that the Allies must occupy Alsace-Lorraine (lost by France to Germany in 1871) and the territories on the left bank (west) of the Rhine and bridgeheads east of the river. He set a schedule for withdrawal so rapid that the Germans would have to abandon most of their heavy weaponry.
Allied troops would also occupy all the territory where France had ambitions (Clemenceau hoped not only to regain Alsace-Lorraine but also to establish French-dominated buffer states in the Rhineland) and Germany would be militarily crippled. House accepted Foch’s conditions, probably in return for Clemenceau agreeing to the Fourteen Points, and although Lloyd George thought the scheme excessive, it was his turn to be left isolated.
In short, the armistice reflected the balance of power between the victors. Britain, France and the USA all made vital contributions to Germany’s defeat. The European countries needed American money, supplies and troops, but the USA needed British shipping, and equipped its soldiers with French-built aircraft, tanks and guns. No single one of the three was dominant, and all three needed to agree before the war could end. If fighting had gone on into 1919 the Allies would certainly have invaded Germany, but the British army was so short of manpower that it would have had to suppress perhaps one third of its divisions, and Jan Christiaan Smuts warned his colleagues in the war cabinet that America “would dictate to the world”. Foch wanted to end the fighting before France’s influence ebbed. Wilson feared the European Allies would gain in bargaining power; they feared the reverse.
By early November Germany had lost its allies and was exploding into revolution at home (see ‘Germany’s Plight’ box). Now that neither the German, French, British, nor Americans saw political advantage in fighting on, statesmen and generals in all four countries asserted that doing so would be a waste of lives. They displayed a humanitarian concern that previously had been absent. Ironically – or so it was argued in retrospect – the decision to stop the war was premature, and by making it easier for Germany to try again, meant that millions more lives were lost a generation later. If the Allies had carried on for a few weeks more the German revolution would have cut off supplies and visited disaster on the German army, which instead marched home in good order. These circumstances helped the Nazis to insinuate that Germany had not really been beaten, and defeat resulted from a ‘stab in the back’ on the home front.
Yet the issue is not so simple. It is facile to suggest that after the Second World War the peace was more enduring because this time Germany had been invaded and occupied. Many other factors contributed to post-1945 stability, including the willingness of Britain, America and the Soviet Union to maintain troops in central Europe for 40 years, as well as American economic assistance via the Marshall Plan.
In 1918, by contrast, Wilson wanted a League of Nations but no lasting occupation or economic commitment in Europe, envisaging that American private investors would finance reconstruction. Moreover, the military and naval terms of the 11 November armistice were so severe that Germany was in fact rendered helpless, and obliged to accept the humiliating terms of the Versailles peace treaty in June 1919. In turn, those terms so curtailed its armed forces that it could not start another major war, and provided for the Rhineland to remain occupied for at least 15 years and to be demilitarised in perpetuity.
The real undermining of the peace came when the Versailles disarmament and security provisions collapsed without resistance once Hitler challenged them. That collapse, however, was far from being made inevitable by the victors’ decisions in 1918.
David Stevenson is professor of international history at the London School of Economics. His book With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918 was published by Penguin last month.
Why the losers were forced to accept a ceasefire on any terms available
In Germany by 1918 the army high command (Oberste Heeresleitung or OHL) had enormous political influence. The chief of the General Staff was Paul von Hindenburg, but much of the brains and energy in the military leadership came from first quartermaster-general Erich Ludendorff. The precondition for Germany to seek a ceasefire was for Ludendorff to lose faith in the possibility of victory, which effectively he did after suffering a breakdown at headquarters on 28 September and demanding an immediate ceasefire.
The trigger for this was the news that Germany’s ally Bulgaria was seeking an armistice; but the underlying reason was that Germany had failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough during its offensives of March–July and was now relentlessly being pushed back towards its borders, while army discipline was breaking down.
Once Ludendorff pressed for a ceasefire, Hindenburg rapidly agreed, as did the civilian government and Emperor Wilhelm II. The request was accompanied by the formation of a new government under Prince Max of Baden that included the Catholics and Social Democrats. It was hoped that this “revolution from above” (the phrase of foreign minister Paul von Hintze) would head off revolution from below and saddle the leftwing parties with co-responsibility for defeat. In Ludendorff’s words: “They will sup the broth that they have cooked.”
After the ceasefire request went out on 4/5 October, this strategy of damage limitation – of extricating Germany from a lost war on as favourable terms as possible – broke down. The Americans and Allies demanded more rigorous terms than Ludendorff had anticipated. He tried to row back, arguing that the war could be continued after all, at least for several months. The government reviewed the situation and decided to continue negotiations. Ludendorff lost all credibility with the politicians, and on 26 October Emperor Wilhelm dismissed him.
While the Allies continued to advance on the western front, Germany lost its partners: Ottoman Turkey signed a ceasefire and Austria-Hungary broke up into its component nationalities. In Germany itself revolution broke out in early November after the navy attempted to sabotage the armistice negotiations by planning a suicide attack against the Thames estuary.
A socialist provisional government took over in Berlin while soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils) spread across the country and Wilhelm abdicated. These developments forced the new government and the army high command to accept a ceasefire on any terms available.
The final year of the war
American president Woodrow Wilson announces to Congress his Fourteen Points peace programme
Peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers
Start of Operation Michael, the first of Germany’s ‘Ludendorff offensives’, attempting to defeat the Allies before American troops arrive in force. It is followed by Operations Georgette in Flanders on 9 April and Blücher-Yorck in Champagne on 27 May
Opening of the second battle of the Marne. The final German attack is halted in Champagne, followed by an Allied counter stroke led by French and American forces. Germans are in retreat from now on
Opening of the battle of Amiens, described by Ludendorff as “the black day of the German army”. British empire and French forces attack in Picardy and drive the Germans back from their March gains, taking thousands of prisoners
Four co-ordinated Allied attacks along the western front. On 29 September British forces break through the Hindenburg Line
German high command decides a ceasefire is necessary
New German government under Prince Max of Baden (pictured right) sends armistice request to Woodrow Wilson
29 October–4 November
Allied-American conference at Paris agrees on armistice terms
German revolution. Wilhelm II flees to Holland and is replaced by a socialist provisional government
Armistice signed at 5am and takes effect at 11am
This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine