With more and more U.S. troops arriving, the tide turns in favor of the Allies.
[Eastern Europe, 1918] The Great War had been raging for three years now. Trenches, machine guns, air reconnaissance, barbed wire and modern artillery had helped bring the battle lines of World War I to a stalemate. Since 1915, the fighting armies used poison gas against one another. Germany had its hopes on its lethal U-boat fleet.
Tanks and aerial combat
By the end of 1917, the major armies were using telephones, wireless communication, flamethrowers, armored cars, tanks, and aircrafts. The British and the French had created and constantly optimized a new weapon, the tanks. First used in the battle of the Somme, the showed their potential during the battle of Cambrai in November 1917 when British troops broke the Hindenburg Line.
Airplanes were still a new invention when the war began, yet their military use for air reconnaissance was obvious. The first aero planes were unarmed and used for military reconnaissance, soon anti-aircraft guns to shoot down enemy planes and strategic bombers were developed and fighter aircrafts – single-seat airplanes with a machine gun on board, manned by specially selected and trained pilots. Aerial combat began.
Soon, the air forces squadrons were elite units, “Air aces”, pilots who had shot down more than five enemy fighter aircrafts, became very popular. The most famous of these units was Jagdgeschwader 1, commanded since January 1917 by Manfred von Richthofen, commonly known as the “Red Baron” after he painted his machine all in red.
On the Eastern front, Russia’s army had mounted several offensives, but had not been able to break through German lines. At home in Russia, demoralized by defeat, hunger and great need, lost all confidence in its Czar and his unpopular German-born wife, Alexandra. In February 1917, he was forced to abdicate. But the new Government continued the war, until they were overthrown by the Bolshevist Revolution in October 1917. The Germans secretly had helped Lenin to travel from his exile in Switzerland to St. Petersberg, hoping for him destabilize Russia and get the enemy at the Eastern front out of the war.
Lenin offered peace in November 1917. For months the High Command and the Bolsheviks negotiated while fighting continued until the very hard “peace through victory” was imposed upon Russia in March 1918 at Brest-Litowsk. Germany could now withdraw large numbers of troops, aero planes and artillery from the Eastern front and send them to the Western front.
Yet, the war would be decided at the Western Front. The High Command planned a final offensive that should bring victory, knowing well that Germany could not win against a steadily growing Allied superiority of material and men. On the other side, the Allied troops struggled to hold off the German troops until the reinforcements from the USA arrived.
On March 21, 1918, the German offensive began with intensive artillery bombardments, poison gas and smoke shells. Ludendorff had the best troops from all the Western Front forces at his disposal and had formed them into elite shock divisions. After initial German limited territorial gains, the Allied forces halted the drive. On April 21, the “Red Baron” Manfred von Richthofen was shot down near the Somme River, and died.
On July 15, 1918, German troops launched what would become their offensive, attacking French forces, joined by 85,000 American troops as well as some units of the British Expeditionary Force in the Second Battle of the Marne. Huge numbers of soldiers were killed, and the last reserves were burnt up.
Hundred Days Offensive
The tide of war decisively turned towards the Allies, they regained much of France and Belgium in the months that followed. By now Britain and France had large numbers of tanks at their disposal, whereas Germany, after watching the first only partially successful tanks, had decided they could be neglected and now had only a few.
The Allied counteroffensive, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, began on 8 August 1918, with the Battle of Amiens. Masses of light tanks forced the Germans into a hasty retreat. The defenders displayed a marked collapse in morale, causing Ludendorff to refer to this day as the “Black Day of the German army”. In nearly four weeks of fighting beginning 8 August, over 100,000 German prisoners were taken. By summer 1918, the USA was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day. By August 10, the First U.S. Army was organized, an independent fighting force in France capable of conducting large-scales offensives. By September, some 1,200,000 were fighting in Europe under the command of General John J. Pershing.
September saw the Allies advance to the Hindenburg Line. The final assault began with the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, launched by French and American troops on 26 September.
Central Powers unrevealing on all fronts
Bulgaria surrendered. The collapse of the Balkans meant that Germany was about to lose its main supplies of oil and food. It was evident that Germany could no longer mount a successful defense. Its reserves had been used up, even as US troops kept arriving at the rate of 10,000 per day. The Americans supplied more than 80% of Allied oil during the war, and there was no shortage.
By the fall of 1918, the Central Powers were unraveling on all fronts. Despite the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, later defeats by invading forces and an Arab revolt had combined to destroy the Ottoman economy and devastate its land, and the Turks signed a treaty with the Allies in late October 1918.
Ludendorff saw no more chance of victory, his only option seemed to reach an armistice before the Allies, supported by more and more fresh and well-nourished Americans, would overrun the German positions at the Western Front and force Germany to surrender.
[Germany, November 1918] At the the end of September, the High Command had informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that there was no more hope, and that Germany had to ask for an armistice upon Wilson’s “Fourteen Points”. Meanwhile, Germany was falling apart at home. Anti-war marches and strikes became frequent.
Ludendorff and Hindenburg obtained the Kaiser’s consent to ask for an armistice. However, it was clear that President Wilson would not negotiate with the Imperial authorities, so the High Command suggested that the Government should be democratized from above, and that the democratic political parties should participate in the new government. That was nothing but cynical calculation because that way the democratic parties would have to face the disastrous consequences of the defeat, whereas the Kaiser’s authorities and the High Command were not held responsible. By the “October reforms” Germany became a constitutional monarchy whose Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, internationally known for his moderation and honorability, was responsible to the Reichstag. For the first time, Social Democrats got into the government.
Only now did the High Command reveal the full truth to the Government: the situation was hopeless, armistice had to be made at any condition. It came as a complete shock. In the night of October 3, a note to Wilson was sent off, requesting an armistice and negotiations based on Wilson’s pronouncements.
In the following weeks, diplomatic notes were exchanged. Wilson demanded the withdrawal of German forces from Allied soil, the conditions were to be determined unilaterally by the Allies, considering Germany’s “illegal and inhuman” methods of warfare. The forthcoming negotiations could be conducted only with a government representative of the German people.
Wilson’s note of October 23 conceded Wilson’s readiness to propose an armistice to the Allies but added that the terms must be such as to make Germany incapable of renewing hostilities. Ludendorff saw this, militarily, as a demand for unconditional surrender and would therefore have continued resistance. So he advised Kaiser Wilhelm. After all, the Allies had not broken through the Hindenburg Line, so the situation seemed less bad to him now than it has seemed in September.
But Ludendorff has lost Prince Max’s confidence in him, on October 26, he was made to resign by the Kaiser, on Prince Max’s advice. Germany would negotiate an armistice on Wilson’s terms.
On November 8, a German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, arrived at Rethondes in the Forest of Compiègne, where the Germans met face to face with French General Foch and his party. Foch made it clear right away that the Allies’ peace terms were not negotiable and almost meant surrender.
Germany had to evacuate not only Belgium, France, and Alsace-Lorraine but also all the rest of the left bank of the Rhine, a 50 km wide strip on the right bank was declared demilitarized zone. The German troops in East Africa had to surrender. In the East, the German troops had to withdraw to the pre-war German frontier; the treaties of Brest-Litovsk with Russia and Bucharest with Romania were annulled. Germany had to repatriate all prisoners of war and hand over to the Allies a large quantity of war materials.
Although Erzberger desperately struggled for better conditions, not even the naval blockade would be lifted. On November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed in Compiègne.