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Ludendorff's Failed Offensives and an Armistice

In 1918, Germany made a desperate effort to win the war with military offensives. 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, was afraid of disorder similar to what was occurring in Russia.

In France, pacifism was on the rise, but the new prime minister, Clemenceau, and his government were determined to hold on defensively while waiting for arrival of the Americans. Britain's David Lloyd-George also favored a defensive strategy on the Western Front, for the time being at least, while looking forward to a major effort against the Turks, who had just been driven northward from Jerusalem.

President Wilson was no longer advocating a compromise settlement. After taking the United States into the war he had switched to favoring a military victory based on his Fourteen Points. This included troops withdrawing from other people's territory, European boundaries drawn "along recognizable lines of nationality," the abolition of secret diplomacy, freedom of the seas during peace and war, equality of trade and a reduction of armaments.

In Germany, 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 could arrive in significant numbers. He believed in himself and 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, and he planned to use an element of surprise. And he planned to supplement his prayers with use smoke and poison gas.

Ludendorff sent his troops out of good defensive positions beginning on March 21. 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. As the offensives continued, German 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 the Germans had not put tanks soon enough for significant use in 1918.)

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 called the Hindenburg Line (in northeastern France).

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. Ludendorff's miracle was a deadly flu epidemic. Hd believed it would destroy the French army. His Surgeon General denied that this would happen, but despearate people were inclined to fantasize and 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. Ludendorff was alarmed and had lost hope. On October 1 he 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 his 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.

Prince Max of Baden (the Kaiser's cousin) was sworn in as the chancellor of a new parliamentary government. The chancellor was responsible to parliament rather than to Kaiser Wilhelm. The Kaiser refused to accept what he called a coup d'etat. But without support he was powerless. On October 10, Wilhelm — kaiser no longer — boarded his silver train and headed for Holland, where he was to spend the rest of his life and public opinion had not been demonizing him.

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 these were populations not led by a revolutionist organization like the Bolsheviks. Moderate labor-oriented socialists had some influence on them. But in Munich, a rebel group of socialists took power and proclaimed Bavaria a democratic republic. Its success was not a result of its popularity but of confusion and no one else having claimed power.

On November 9, Prince Max turned the office of chancellor over to the leader of Germany's Social Democratic Party, Friedrich Ebert, a patriotic man who had lost sons in the war, and a man who hated the disorder of revolutions such as had occurred in Russia. He began as chancellor with proclamations asking people to remain calm and stay out of the streets for the sake of peace and order.

With the villainous Wilhelm no longer in power, one of Wilson's conditions for peace was met. And the German government was signaling a willingness to settle the war based on his Fourteen Points. So Wilson agreed to an armistice. In a French forest in Compiègne, a German and French delegation met and, on November 11, signed an armistice that stipulated that Germany was to withdraw from all "invaded countries" and Alsace-Lorraine within fourteen days.

An armistice a few days before had ended the fighting between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Big things were happening politically: Hungary split from its union with Austria (the Hapsburg monarchy was about to end); Poland had proclaimed itself independent from a Russia that was no longer ruled by the tsar; the Ottoman Empire and had already signed an armistice with the Allies.

On November 12, Austria became a republic (Habsburg rule had ended). On November 13, Allied forces (British, French and Italians) occupied Constantinople (and were to stay almost five years). On November 14, Czechoslovakia became a republic. On November 22 the German Communist Party (the Spartacist League) was born.

On December 4, President Woodrow Wilson began his journey by ship to attend the Paris Peace Conference — the first US President to travel to Europe while holding office.

CONTINUE READING: Paris Peace Treaty

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Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.