WORLD WAR ONE     home | history


In 1918 Germany dramatically reduced its defensive capabilities on the Western Front by launching a desperate offensive.The winter of 1917-18 was miserable for the Germans. There was hunger, a lack of coal for heating homes, prices were rising. Workers were going out on strike. The general in charge of the Western Front, Eric von Ludendorff, saw signs of a coming socialist rebellion. The Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia in late 1917 and took Russia out of the war, signing a treaty (Brest-Litovsk) with Germany, allowing Germany to focus on the Western Front.

General Ludendorff and many other Germans still thought that anything other than a military victory was unthinkable. For Ludendorff a compromise settlement was a program defeatists and traitors. He planned to knock France out of the war before the Americans arrived in significant numbers. He believed in himself and in his prayers, and Kaiser Wilhelm was allowing him to run the war. Ludendorff's plan for victory was to drive a wedge between the French and British armies, a gap through which his armies could advance unimpeded, to use an element of surprise, and he planned to supplement his prayers with use smoke and poison gas.

It didn't work out well. Ludendorff sent his troops out of good defensive positions. By mid-April, Crown Prince Wilhelm – the Kaiser's son – was writing that the German troops he viewed were "utterly exhausted and burned out." In their extended positions the Germans were more vulnerable. Their supply lines were stretched, as were their communications (carrier pigeons, messenger dogs, and motorcycle riders). Food supplies for the troops were low. The troops were underfed and hungry, and they were being attacked by the flu.

On June 9, the Americans entered the war in force – well nourished, lively and eager to show the world what they could do. On August 8 the British, with French support, began an offensive along ten miles of front, against a thinner line than the Germans had maintained in previous years. And the assault caught the Germans off guard. On the first day, with 430 tanks, the British advanced nine miles by evening. (Ludendorff had failed to see the importance of tanks, and tanks had not been put into production in Germany early enough for significant use in 1918.)

On in early September the British smashed through the German line and sent most of Germany's 17th Army and all of its 2nd and 18th Armies and the right wing of Germany's 9th Army back to defensive trenches in Northeastern France called the Hindenburg Line.

In late September, Ludendorff fantasized that a miracle could save Germany just as a miracle – the death of Catherine the Great – had saved Frederick the Great in 1763. The miracle was a deadly flu epidemic that Ludendorff believed would destroy the French army. His Surgeon General denied that this would happen, but Ludendorff continued believing that it would.

On the Southern Front, British troops, reinforced by troops from India and Mesopotamia, were driving the Turks northward toward Turkey, the Turks falling back in a rout. On October 1, Ludendorff spoke to assembled military officers, telling them that Bulgaria had collapsed, that Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were at the end of their strength and that the German army was infested with "the poison of socialist anarchy." He announced that troops could no longer be relied upon and that the only way to prevent German forces from being pushed back to the Rhine River was to negotiate an immediate armistice based on President Wilson's Fourteen Points.

In Germany a political revolution occurred. Prince Max of Baden (the Kaiser's cousin) was sworn in as the chancellor of a new parliamentary government, and the chancellor was responsible to parliament rather than to Wilhelm. The Kaiser refused to accept what he called a coup d'etat. But he was as powerless as his cousin Tsar Nicholas had been. On October 10, the Kaiser – kaiser no longer – boarded his silver train and headed for Holland, where he was to spend the rest of his life, the Dutch not seeing as the Devil.

German sailors with the fleet harbored at Wilhelmshaven (20 miles west of Bremerhaven) rebelled. In the following four days the revolt spread to the fleet harbored at Kiel. From there it spread to troops stationed at Kiel and to the civilians there. Then it spread throughout the coastal towns of northern Germany. By November 8 it had spread to all major German cities – but with a strength that didn't promise success. A rebel group of socialists took power in Munich and proclaimed Bavaria a democratic republic. Its success was not a result of its popularity but of confusion and no one else having taken power.

President Wilson had switched from advocating a compromise settlement to favoring peace through military victory, but with the Kaiser gone, and Germany signaling a willingness to settle the war based on his Fourteen Points, Wilson agreed to an armistice. In a French forest in Compiègne, a German and French delegation met and signed an armistice on November 11 that stimulated that Germany was to withdraw from all "invaded countries" and Alsace-Lorraine within fourteen days.


Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.