11/11/1918 The guns stop firing, too late for some #1918Live

The Allied and German negotiators signed the armistice just after 5.00 am this morning but it does not come into effect until 11.00 am. As word spreads of the war’s imminent end fighting begins to trail off but before then fighting is surprisingly intense, with Allied troops either trying to capture symbolic targets or to secure advantageous positions in case the ceasefire breaks down and fighting is resumed. Canadian troops expend great efforts to liberate Mons, site of the first clash between British and German troops in 1914. By the time the guns stop firing it is in Canadian hands. American troops die taking the town of Stenay, apparently for no better reason than it has some excellent bathing facilities.

People keep dying right up until 11.00 am (and possibly beyond, as some isolated units only discover that the war is over after mid day). There are reports of Allied artillery pieces continuing to fire on the Germans until the very last moment, simply because doing so will save them the bother of bringing the un-used shells home.

There are a number of candidates for the last man killed. Near the Meuse river Augustin Trébuchon is bringing a message to frontline troops that hot soup will be served after the armistice comes into effect; then a bullet ends his life at 10.50 am. On the outskirts of Mons, Privates Arthur Goodmurphy and George Laurence Price are so far forward that news of the impending armistice has not reached them. Without orders, they move on further to investigate some abandoned houses. Then Price is shot and killed by a sniper at 10.58 am.

American troops taking part in the last stages of the Meuse-Argonne offensive are still fighting this morning but again, as news of the imminent armistice spreads they mostly choose to sit tight until the ceasefire. Private Henry Gunther has other ideas. Previously a sergeant, he was demoted after complaining to a friend in a letter about army conditions, advising him to avoid being drafted. Now he seizes a last chance for glory and makes a solo bayonet charge on a German machine-gun post. The Germans try to wave him away but he keeps coming and fires his gun before the machine guns cut him down, one minute before the armistice takes effect.

The last German deaths appear not to have been recorded. In total both sides suffer some 11,000 casualties today, of which roughly 2,700 are fatalities.

When the guns stop firing there does not appear to be much in the way of fraternisation between the two sides. There are reports of German soldiers waving towards their former enemies before beginning their long march home. Lieutenant Clair Groover of the US army is unusual in that he does meet a German today. A tearful German soldier approaches him, saying that his brother was killed yesterday. The German asks for permission to find and bury his brother’s body.

image sources:

map (New Zealand history: Armistice and occupation of Germany map)

Augustin Trébuchon’s grave (Wikipedia)

George Lawrence Price (Wikipedia)

Henry Gunther (Wikipedia)

7/11/1918 Germany’s armistice negotiators cross the lines #1918Live

Wilson‘s latest note told the Germans that Foch had been authorised to present armistice terms to a German delegation. The way is therefore clear for the war’s conclusion. Prince Max, the Chancellor, was initially wary of seeking an immediate ceasefire but his mind has been concentrated for him by the revolutionary chaos spreading in Germany. Groener meanwhile has warned that the army is on the brink of collapse. French and American troops have finally reached Sedan; without this vital rail hub the entire German position in France becomes untenable. The ability of the German army to continue resistance is ebbing away by the day.

Prince Max persuades Erzberger to head the armistice delegation. Erzberger is the leader of the Centre Party, which represents Catholic interests. He had previously called for an end to the war, so Prince Max hopes that the Allies will treat him more favourably.

Today under a white flag of truce Erzberger and his delegation cross the Allied lines. They are brought to a train that will transport them to meet Foch and his team.

image source:

Matthias Erzberger (Wikipedia)

2/11/1918 Italy presents its armistice terms to Austria-Hungary

Austria-Hungary is being torn apart by disaffection within and defeat on the battlefield. The Allies are now advancing up the Balkans, pushing the Austro-Hungarians from territories they have occupied since 1915. Today French and Serbian troops liberate Belgrade, which brings them to the pre-war frontier with Austria-Hungary. Now of course the Empire’s southern Slav territories are seceding in the hope of forming a new state with Serbia, the very nightmare that Austria-Hungary’s leaders went to war in 1914 to prevent.

On the Italian front the army is in a state of collapse. Italian troops are pressing eastward and are now across the Tagliamento. The forced evacuation of Monte Grappa meanwhile has allowed the Italians to push northwards into the Asiago plateau. The Austro-Hungarians seem incapable of further resistance here and are surrendering in large numbers; one British division attached to the Italian army here manages to capture some 20,000 prisoners for the loss of only 150 of their own men killed or wounded.

In Trieste the Austrian governor has fled the city after being informed by Vienna that it is being abandoned. And in the Villa Giusti outside Padua Austro-Hungarian negotiators are presented with Italy’s armistice terms. The Austro-Hungarian army must cease fighting, surrender half its artillery and demobilise. The Austro-Hungarians must also evacuate the territories promised to Italy by the Treaty of London and place their transport network at the Allies’ disposal. They have until midnight tomorrow to accept or reject the terms.

image source (Metropostcard – Belligerents and Participants in World War One: The Kingdom of Italy pt1)

1/11/1918 Maintaining the pressure on the Western Front

Allied efforts are continuing on the Western Front, notwithstanding all this talk of an imminent armistice. In the Argonne the Americans are still plugging away. Contrary to Pershing‘s wishes, the fighting here has turned into an attritional meat-grinder, but with more US troops arriving in France every day this plays to American strengths. Although losses have been heavy, the Americans have pushed the Germans back some 15 kilometres and are now more or less out of the bleak forest. Their French allies on the left, who are more experienced and may also be fighting in easier terrain, have made even more progress. Now the French and Americans seek to press on towards Sedan, a rail hub whose capture will make the whole German position in France and Belgium untenable.

Further to the north, British and Canadian forces are also pressing the Germans. In concert with the Belgians they are now advancing towards Ghent. The Germans are still inflicting casualties but the boot is very much on the Allied foot. German troops defending positions under attack now pretty much know that if they do not retreat they will die where they stand; seeing the war as lost, many are choosing to retreat rather than to throw away their lives.

map (A Year of War – Frank’s Diary 1917-1918: Up the Line to Maurois – November 2nd, 1918)

17/10/1918 German morale buckles as the Allied advance continues #1918Live

While their masters exchange notes with Washington, Germany’s soldiers on the Western Front continue to be pushed back. Allied troops are now recovering territories that have been in German hands since 1914. For the Belgians this is a particularly exciting time as almost their entire country has been under German occupation and now its deliverance is at hand. Recent Allied victories have forced the Germans to begin a withdrawal from the Belgian coast and today Belgian troops enter the port of Ostend, together with King Albert. His arrival leads to emotional scenes.

French troops meanwhile have recovered Lille, while British forces liberate Le Cateau, scene of a failed attempt by the British in 1914 to hold off the Germans. Times have changed and now it is the Germans who are unable to halt the Allied juggernaut.

The retreats and defeats have sapped the morale of the once-mighty German army. Officers censoring their men’s post report that defeatism is now rife, with many soldiers writing home that they want peace at any price and are no longer willing to risk their lives in a war that has been lost. If an armistice is not concluded soon then the German army is at a very real risk of disintegration.

map (The Long, Long Trail: Campaign and battle maps for the British Army, 1914-1918)

2/10/1918 Western Front: in the north Germany retreats, while in the Argonne the “Lost Battalion” gets lost

Allied forces on the Western Front are pressing the Germans hard. British troops have pierced the Hindenburg Line and in response the Germans are building a new position to its rear, the Hermann Line. As the Germans prepare to retreat there are some shocking incidents of indiscipline. In Cambrai the town is looted by the Germans but then fighting breaks out over the spoils between Prussian and Bavarian troops. Shots are fired and fifteen soldiers killed, including an officer who is thrown from an upstairs window.

On the Allied side British and Commonwealth troops are doing much of the fighting. The French army is exhausted, still in a fragile state after the mutinies last year and the casualties it has suffered since the start of the war. Today nevertheless French units manage to take the town of St. Quentin from the Germans. The French are shocked at the state in which the retreating Germans have left it; Mangin even suggests that after the war’s end German prisoners should not be repatriated until they have repaired the damage inflicted by their army.

In the Argonne the American offensive is on hiatus as Pershing attempts to reinforce and resupply his battered troops. Fighting continues here however, as local attempts by each side to improve their position lead to attack and counter-attack. American attention finds itself focussed on the travails of one battalion commanded by Major Charles Whittlesey. After standing firm against a German counterattack, Whittlesey’s men discover that units to their right and left have been driven back. Whittlesey sends runners out to make contact with other American units. When they fail to return he realises the awful truth: his battalion has been cut off from their comrades and is now surrounded, adrift in a sea of resurgent Germans.

28/9/1918 Fifth Ypres: another drubbing for the Germans

The Allies are piling the pressure on the Germans, with the American and French attacking them in the Argonne, the British and Canadians advancing across the Canal du Nord towards Cambrai, and British artillery blasting away at Germans defending the St. Quentin Canal in the Somme sector in preparation for an attack there tomorrow.

Today though it is at Ypres that the Allies attack. Ypres has already seen four battles in this war, the last being the second of Germany’s spring offensives earlier this year. Now it sees a fifth, as British, French and Belgian troops attack. The last British offensive here, in 1917, was a horrific affair that saw men butchered as they drowned in mud for nothing. This time though things are different. The short preliminary bombardment stuns the Germans. Although they hold what little high ground there is here and are defending positions that can only be approached across sodden fields, the Germans mostly lack the stomach for a determined defence. The Allies advance some 6 miles and capture around 6,000 prisoners. It now looks tantalisingly like it might soon be possible to clear the Germans from the Belgian coast and press on to liberate the entire country.

Note: confusingly, some do not consider Germany’s Flanders offensive in April to have been an Ypres battle, which means that the current British offensive is sometimes referred to as the Fourth Battle of Ypres rather than the Fifth.