26/10/1918 As Allied leaders discuss armistice terms, the Kaiser sacks Ludendorff

After discussing possible armistice terms with the Western Front commanders yesterday, Foch today reports to Clemenceau and Poincaré, France’s prime minister and president respectively. Foch follows the other generals by suggesting armistice terms that will effectively make it impossible for the Germans to return to war. If they refuse then the Allies should continue fighting until the Germans are obliged to surrender.

Meanwhile in Germany a rift has opened up between the Chancellor, Prince Max, who wants to continue negotiations towards an armistice, and Ludendorff, the army’s Quartermaster-General, who now favours an end to negotiations and military resistance to the outmost. In defiance of Prince Max, Ludendorff has had Hindenburg, the army’s commander, issue a proclamation condemning the armistice negotiations. Now Hindenburg and Ludendorff return to Berlin to meet the Kaiser, where they threaten to resign unless Prince Max is sacked and a more pliant Chancellor appointed; Max meanwhile has also threatened to resign unless Ludendorff is sacked.

By now Ludendorff’s star has fallen and the Kaiser is afraid his own star will fall with it. Instead of sacking Max, the Kaiser sacks Ludendorff, hoping that this will placate both President Wilson and the increasingly restive German people. Hindenburg’s offer of resignation is not accepted; the Kaiser needs him to continue leading Germany’s army in the nation’s hour of need. Ludendorff’s replacement meanwhile will be Groener, whose previous work directing the German war economy should make him more acceptable to the Social Democrats than any other general.

Ludendorff’s removal shocks many in the army, even those who were deeply critical of his leadership. But the way is now clear for Prince Max to pursue more substantive negotiations with Wilson.

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

24/10/1918 A developing rupture between Prince Max’s government and Ludendorff’s army #1918Live

In their last note to Wilson the Germans disputed his assertion that the retreating German army was laying waste to France and Belgium and denied that the U-boat campaign was a particularly beastly undertaking. They also asserted that political reforms in Germany mean that the German government is now effectively responsible to the Reichstag. As a concession the Germans nevertheless agreed to immediately recall the U-boats to port, in advance of a general armistice.

The Germans hoped that their concession would lead to Wilson’s agreeing to proceed immediately to substantive armistice negotiations. However the reply from Washington that arrives today is disturbing. Secretary of State Lansing writes on the President’s behalf that the United States is willing now to arrange with the other Allies for armistice talks to begin. However the note makes clear that the terms offered will be such as to make it impossible for the Germans to renege on the armistice and resume the war. Wilson still sees the Kaiser as the ultimate director of German policy and does not trust any guarantees made by the German government. He offers the prospect of real negotiations with a truly representative German government, but so long as real power remains with the Kaiser and the generals then the United States must demand “not peace negotiations, but surrender”.

To the Social Democrats in Prince Max‘s cabinet, the American note means that the Kaiser will have to be removed from office. The position of Hindenburg and Ludendorff is now also under question. Ludendorff has changed his mind on the armistice issue and now wants the army to fight to the bitter end.

Hindenburg and Ludendorff today depart Berlin for the army’s field headquarters in Spa. From they issue a proclamation to the army denouncing Wilson’s proposals and urging the continuance of resistance to the Allies. The two generals are now trying to continue the war in defiance of Germany’s government.

The text of Lansing’s note.

20/10/1918 As a concession to Wilson, Germany calls off the U-boats #1918Live

The latest note from Washington to Berlin is stern. Wilson berates the Germans for the destruction their army is leaving behind in the territory it is evacuating. Angered by the sinking of the RMS Leinster he also demands an end to the U-boat campaign before an armistice could be agreed. And he suggests that Germany’s authoritarian system of government is itself an obstacle to a ceasefire.

The Germans are peeved by the American note, feeling that it represents an insult to their army. Some, notably Ludendorff, argue that Germany must fight on and abandon any attempt to secure a shameful peace. But Prince Max, the Chancellor, knows that Germany’s ability to resist is ebbing away. Now he sends another note to Wilson. He protests against accusations of German inhumanity but as a concession he says that the U-boats are being ordered to return to port. He also claims that Germany’s government is being reformed to make it truly representative and that his cabinet is now responsible to the Reichstag. He therefore asks Wilson to let armistice negotiations proceed.

Text of the German note

17/10/1918 Wilson’s note causes consternation in Berlin #1918Live

When the Germans sent their first request for an armistice to President Wilson they did so hoping that he would offer more generous terms than his European allies. But the arrival in Berlin of Wilson’s latest note disabuses them of any notion that he is any kind of soft touch. He takes the German leaders to task for the destruction being left behind by their retreating troops in France and Belgium and then berates them for continuing the U-boat war while they are attempting to negotiate a ceasefire. The sinking of the RMS Leinster has excited anger on the Allied side, and Wilson states that it would be impossible for armistice negotiations to take place while German submarines are still sinking civilian vessels. He also says that the German system of government is itself an obstacle to peace, implicitly calling for full German democratisation.

Wilson’s harsh words cause consternation in Berlin. Prince Max is furious, feeling that Wilson has insulted the honour of the German army. A council of war today considers how Germany should respond. Ludendorff appears to have recovered his former confidence and urges rejection of Wilson’s terms and a continuation of the war. However, when the Chancellor asks him to go through the current military situation, the disastrous state of the German army is made clear. The army is now so short of men that Ludendorff proposes despatching divisions from the East to the Western Front (which would prevent the East being exploited for German needs) or by drafting industrial workers (which would cause a collapse in production of vital war goods). Prince Max dismisses these ideas as desperate fantasies. He gloomily concludes that there is no option but to continue the armistice negotiations with Wilson.

12/10/1918 Prince Max replies to Wilson, accepting the Fourteen Points and need to evacuate Allied territory

President Wilson replied to the initial German request for an armistice with a note asking a number of questions. He wants assurances that the government of Prince Max is speaking on behalf of the German nation and also that the Germans are prepared to accept his Fourteen Points. Moreover he makes clear that any armistice would necessarily involve the Germans abandoning all occupied Allied territory.

The Germans have hesitated somewhat before replying. The military situation has improved somewhat — as the Allies advance, they outrun their supply lines, making it harder for them to keep up the pressure on the Germans. Ludendorff has become more confident and is less convinced that an immediate armistice is necessary. However Prince Max now believes that an armistice must be secured as soon as possible. Today he despatches his reply to Wilson, stating that he accepts in principle the Fourteen Points and the need to evacuate occupied territory.

29/9/1918 Germany’s “Revolution from Above”

Germany’s position is unravelling. The Allies are pressing hard on the Western Front while its allies are being picked off: Bulgaria has thrown in the towel, Turkey is being battered in the Middle East and Austria-Hungary looks like it might be on the brink of disintegration. Ludendorff has come to the conclusion that an armistice must be secured at once before the situation deteriorates further. Now he and Hindenburg meet with Hintze, the foreign minister, and demand an immediate request to the Allies for an armistice.

Hintze however fears the political consequences of an armistice request. The German public have largely been shielded from the facts of the disastrous situation at the front and are still under the impression that victory is within Germany’s grasp. A sudden revelation of the true situation could lead to an explosion of anger against the regime. To prevent a domestic crisis, Hintze proposes that the German government be reformed by bringing in parties from across the political spectrum, in order to spread the responsibility for defeat. This “revolution from above” might just prevent a revolution from below.

Ludendorff and Hintze’s case is put to the Kaiser. He agrees to the government’s reformation and the subsequent request to Wilson for an armistice on the basis of his Fourteen Points. Then they all go for lunch.

28/9/1918 Ludendorff cracks and demands an immediate armistice

The Germans are being hard-pressed in the Argonne, in front of Cambrai and now in Flanders, with heavy artillery fire suggesting that an attack on the St. Quentin Canal and the Hindenburg Line itself is imminent. At the German army headquarters in Spa, Ludendorff is frantically trying to manage his army’s crisis. Some generals give broad instructions to their subordinates and leave them to proceed as they see fit, but not Ludendorff, who spends his time continuously telephoning his army commanders, looking for updates on their situation and issuing new orders. Delegation seems impossible to him and he has taken on himself the entire task of managing the resistance of the German army to the Allied juggernaut.

Today the effort proves too much for him. He is simply overwhelmed by reports of the collapse in Flanders. There are rumours, never confirmed, that he experiences some kind of mental breakdown, collapsing in his office and foaming at the mouth while suffering a seizure. That may be an exaggeration, but he appears nevertheless to have finally lost any belief that defeat can be avoided. He goes to Hindenburg, the army’s commander-in-chief, and says that a request for an armistice must be made immediately before the German army is destroyed and Germany consumed by revolution. He proposes a direct approach to Wilson, believing that better terms can be obtained from him than from Foch, the Allied Western Front commander.

Hindenburg agrees with Ludendorff. They will put the case for an armistice to the politicians and the Kaiser tomorrow.

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Hindenburg and Ludendorff in happier times (Wikipedia: Erich Ludendorff)

6/9/1918 Allied advance slows as the Germans withdraw to the Hindenburg Line #1918Live

The pace of conflict on the Western Front has temporarily slowed. The Germans are withdrawing to the Hindenburg Line while logistical problems are making it hard for the Allies to pursue them with all necessary vigour as they are now marching further and further from their bases of supply. The blasted landscape Allied troops are moving through was cleared of anything useful by the Germans last year during their previous withdrawal, with even wells poisoned or filled in, making it impossible to live off the land. The Germans are also making prodigious use of poison gas to slow the Allies, shelling broad areas to deny them to the enemy.

The Germans have their own logistic problems. While their men are moving towards their bases, the German army is suffering from an acute shortage of horses, which makes it difficult to move supplies to where they are needed. The German army’s crisis of morale is also seeing incidents whereby stores are looted before supplies can be despatched to where they are most needed.

The Germans hope that the Hindenburg Line will hold back the Allies and that after unsuccessful attempts to breach it they will agree to end the war. But what if the Hindenburg Line fails? At German army headquarters today, Ludendorff proposes the creation of a second line behind it. However he rejects suggestions that the German army could greatly shorten its line by abandoning most of the gains of 1914; he deems this an unacceptable admission of defeat. Ludendorff also blames the recent reverses on the poor performance of the men at the front. This shocks his fellow officers, who feel that he should be more appreciative of the sufferings of the frontline troops. They note also that he in no way sees the current situation as resulting from his own poor decisions.

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Map showing German retreats (The Long, Long Trail: The Battles of the Hindenburg Line)
The Hindenburg Line is shown by the name the Germans used for it: the Siegfried Line.

14/8/1918 Hindenburg and Ludendorff block peace talks

The disaster at Amiens has forced the Germans to take stock. Yesterday Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the army’s chief of staff, met with senior German politicians; Hindenburg remained confident but Ludendorff was pessimistic. Today the generals brief the Kaiser, in the company of Chancellor Hertling and Hintze, the foreign minister. Ludendorff now recovers his poise somewhat, admitting a reverse on the battlefield but blaming it on agitations by socialists and malcontents in Germany. The generals insist that German forces are still well-placed to fight a successful defensive war on the Western Front, hoping that the Allies will just give up and let Germany keep Belgium, Alsace-Lorraine and some territory captured from France. The Kaiser and Hintze suggest some kind of peace overture, but Hindenburg and Ludendorff reject this as an admission of weakness. The German army will have to first win an impressive military victory so that Germany can enter peace talks from a position of strength.

The Kaiser is notionally Germany’s supreme warlord but for now he defers to the generals. Despite the recent defeats, there will be no serious attempt to seek an end to the war.

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Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff (in 1916) (Wikipedia: the Hindenburg Programme)

8/8/1918 Amiens: the Black Day of the German Army #1918Live

Foch, recently promoted to marshal, has managed to convince the Allied commanders that it is time for them to go on the offensive. Now the British lead an attack near Amiens in the Somme sector. At the Somme in 1916 and at Passchendaele last year Haig hoped to achieve a breakthrough that would bring the war’s end in reach. This time his goals are more modest, with the main aim being to push the Germans out of artillery range of the transportation hub of Amiens, paving the way for further assaults elsewhere.

Great efforts have been made to keep news about the impending attack from the Germans. Allied fliers prevent German aircraft from observing the troop build-up. Allied soldiers are careful to avoid talking about the plans for the battle, telling any loose lipped comrade to keep their mouth shut. A German raid two days ago saw several hundred Australian troops captured, but none of them spill the beans on the imminent offensive.

Now, finally, the attack begins, with the infantry moving forward behind a devastating barrage, supported by tanks. In an echo of the first day of the German offensives in March, the Allies attack out of mist. The Germans are taken completely by surprise, unprepared for the hammer blow landing on them. The Canadian and Australian troops leading the British assault make astonishing gains, as do the French. As many as 15,000 Germans are taken prisoner.

As news of the disaster reaches Ludendorff he is dumbstruck. Later he will describe this as “der schwarze Tag des deutschen Heeres“: the Black Day of the German Army. What is so shocking is not the gains achieved by the Allies but the apparent collapse in the fighting spirit of the German troops. There are reports of men surrendering after only token resistance and of retreating men shouting “blackleg!” at reserves moving forward, accusing them of prolonging the war.

The initiative has now definitively passed to the Allies. Bowing to reality, Ludendorff finally abandons his plans for a final offensive against the British in Flanders. His attempts to win victory on the battlefield have failed and now it looks like Germany is staring defeat in the face.

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German prisoners (Forces Network: The Beginning Of The End Of WWI – Amiens, 1918)

8 August 1918 by Will Longstaff (Wikipedia: Battle of Amiens (1918))