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, they 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, and soon aerial combat began. Specially trained pilots flew single-seat airplanes with a machine gun on board, shooting down as many enemy aircrafts as possible. The other side had anti-aircraft guns to shoot down enemy planes. These air force squadrons were elite units. Pilots who had shot down more than five enemy fighter aircrafts, became very popular. The most famous was Jagdgeschwader 1, commanded since January 1917 by Manfred von Richthofen, commonly known as the “Red Baron”, after he had painted his plane all in red.
In the East, Tsar Nicholas II and his empire were a thing of the past. Now the Bolsheviks ruled with Lenin at their head. The Kaiser’s government had also had a hand in this. When the moderate provisional government had continued the war after the tsar’s abdication in February 1917, the Supreme Command and the government had arranged for Lenin’s return from his exile in Switzerland, in a special railroad car.
Since December, Germany and Russia had been negotiating peace at Brest-Litovsk, but in February 1918, Trotsky broke off the negotiations after a German ultimatum. A renewed offensive, “Operation Fist Strike,” followed. In March 1918, Lenin signed the very harsh Peace of Brest-Litovsk. A few months later, the tsar and his family were murdered.
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 March 21, 1918, the German spring offensive began. It succeeded in breaking through the front; not since the Battle of the Marne in 1914 had German troops been so close to Paris. Air battles raged over France, and 26 people died in an attack by Allied planes on Bonn. On the other side, the Allied troops struggled to hold off the German troops until the reinforcements from the USA arrived. 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.
Hundred Days Offensive
In summer, the tide of war turned towards the Allies. The American troops arrived in Europa faster than the German Supreme Command had expected. The Entente now massively deployed the new tanks, whereas the Germans had nothing to counter them with. The Supreme Command had not considered them decisive for the war, a fatal mistake.
The Allied counter offensive, 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’ morale collapsed, causing Ludendorff to refer to this day as the “Black Day of the German army”. By summer 1918, the USA was sending 10,000 fresh soldiers to France every day. By August 10, the First U.S. Army had become 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
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. When Bulgaria surrendered, Germany lost its main supplies of oil and food. It was evident that Germany could no longer mount a successful defense. On the other side, the Americans supplied more than 80% of Allied oil during the war, and there was no shortage.
Ludendorff saw no more chance of victory. Rather, he feared that 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.
At the the end of September, the High Command 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 to everyone that that President Wilson would not negotiate with the Kaiser’s represenatives. Therefore, the Supreme Command suggested a “revolution from above”, in other words the democratic political parties should participate in the new government. Only now the Supreme Command revealed the full truth.
Kaiser Wilhelm appointed the liberal-minded Prince Max of Baden as Reich Chancellor. He included Social Democrats and Center Party politicians in his cabinet. After a hasty constitutional amendment, the chancellor was no longer responsable to the Kaiser but to parliament. Finally, the three-class suffrage system was abolished in Prussia as well. These October reforms turned the empire into a parliamentary monarchy.
However, the Kaiser, Hindenburg and Ludendorff and their Supreme Command had abdicated from their responsibilities. Now the democratic parties had to deal with the consequences of defeat, armistice, and all that would follow. “Let them now eat the soup they have brought us,” was Ludendorff’s cynical comment.
In the following weeks, diplomatic notes were exchanged. Wilson would propose an armistice to the Allies but added that the terms must be such as to make Germany incapable of renewing hostilities. For Ludendorff, this sounded like unconditional surrender, and he would continue fighting. 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 and the Kaisers’ confidence in him, so on October 26, he had to resign. 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.