24/12/1918 Berlin’s Christmas Eve Battle #1918Live

It is Christmas Eve. Across Europe people are preparing for the season of goodwill to all men. But not in Berlin, where rival groups of men are today trading gunshots.

The German revolution first stopped the German navy from launching a suicidal attack on the British fleet, before overthrowing the Kaiser and hastening the end of the war. Now Friedrich Ebert leads a coalition government of his own Social Democrats (the SPD) and the slightly more radical Independent Social Democrats (the USPD). Preparations are underway for fully democratic elections to be held early next year.

No one really knows whether the German revolution is now essentially over, with the future being one of gradual reforms improving the lives of the SPD’s working class supporters, or if this is just a transitional phase akin to the rule of Kerensky‘s Provisional Government in Russia. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League hope that Ebert’s government will soon be replaced by a government based on workers’ councils, as supposedly is the case in Soviet Russia. Ebert meanwhile fears that any sign of unrest has been whipped up the Spartacists as a prelude to a coup attempt by them.

The Volksmarinedivision (People’s Navy Division) is a unit of revolutionary marines that were stationed in Berlin in the early days of the revolution, currently billeted in the former royal palace. Now a dispute has arisen between them and the commander of the city garrison, Otto Wels. Wels held back the marines’ pay; in return they have now mutinied, abducting him and roughing him up.

Ebert fears that the marines are preparing to spearhead a Spartacist putsch. He may also be coming under pressure from Groener, the army’s quartermaster-general, to do something about the unruly marines. So he orders regular troops to attack the palace and suppress the marines.

The assault on the palace begins with an artillery bombardment and then a fire fight erupts between the two sides. However the attack turns into something of a fiasco. The marines easily repel the army’s assault. They find themselves being assisted by armed civilians and members of the police force. There are even reports of soldiers switching sides and joining the Volksmarinedivision.

At the end of the day Ebert’s attempt to crush the marines has proved an embarrassing failure. His coalition partners in the USPD meanwhile are furious, as he launched the attack without consulting them. But the Volksmarinedivision makes no move to overthrow Ebert’s government; perhaps they are not actually in league with the Spartacists after all?

image sources:

Soldiers of the People’s Navy Division (LeMo – Lebendiges Museum Online: Die Weihnachtskämpfe 1918)

Members of the Volksmarinedivision defending the Neptune Fountain (Wikipedia: Skirmish of the Berlin Schloss)

16/12/1918 German troops evacuate Finland; Friedrich Karl of Hesse renounces the Finnish throne #1918Live

Earlier this year, with the support of German troops, Finnish conservatives defeated socialist revolutionaries in a short and brutal civil war. Since then the country appeared to falling ever closer into the German orbit, with German troops remaining in the country and a treaty signed binding Finland to Germany. The Finnish government even went so far as to invite Prince Friedrich Karl of Hesse, the Kaiser‘s brother in law, to become their king.

Germany’s defeat has sundered its link with Finland. The armistice obliged it to evacuate its troops from all occupied territories and today the last German troops leave Finland. With the Kaiser now overthrown and in exile in the Netherlands, his brother in law has become less appealing as a ruler. Seeing the way the wind is blowing, Friedrich Karl renounces his throne, without ever setting foot in his Finnish kingdom. In Finland Carl Gustav Mannerheim, the victorious commander in the civil war, is appointed as regent while the country’s leaders ponder whether to formally establish a republic.

image sources:

Karl Friedrich of Hesse (Almanach de Saxe Gotha: Kingdom of Finland)

Carl Gustav Mannerheim (Wikipedia: Finnish Civil War)

10/12/1919 Ebert hails the undefeated German army #1918Live

As per the terms of the armistice, German forces have now withdrawn from all the French and Belgian territory they occupied at the start of the war; Luxembourg‘s independence has also been restored. Now Allied forces are moving into western Germany, occupying the Rhineland and preparing to establish bridgeheads across the river.

In Berlin meanwhile German troops evacuated from the Western Front today march through the city. The event almost has the characteristics of a victory parade, with Chancellor Ebert greeting the returning soldiers with the words “No enemy has vanquished you! You return undefeated from the field of battle.”

Any German soldier who has fought this year on the Western Front knows that the German army has been defeated by the Allies, who first contained Ludendorff‘s spring offensives and then broke the Germans’ ability to resist in the hundred days of offensives that preceded the armistice. Ebert knows this too, but he has his reasons for indulging the army’s pride. He fears that the fragile new republic is under threat from leftist extremists like Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and from reactionary elements who want to establish a conservative dictatorship. If flattery is the price of the army’s support for his government, then so be it.

image source:

Rhineland occupation zone map (Big Think: The Free State of Bottleneck, a Bizarre By-product of Allied Occupation)

Ebert waves his hat (deutschland.de, how Germany ticks – Germany’s greatest revolution: Why the German November Revolution has often been underestimated)

25/11/1918 Germany’s last field army surrenders as Lettow-Vorbeck lays down his arms #1918Live

The Western Front armistice also obliged Lettow-Vorbeck‘s army in east Africa to lay down its arms. Lettow-Vorbeck had been unable to prevent much larger Allied forces from overrunning German East Africa but the Allies in turn have been unable to eliminate Lettow-Vorbeck’s force (which consists of mostly African troops (known as Askaris) led by European officers). Lettow-Vorbeck’s men have retreated into the interior of the colony, striking back against the Allies where they can but always retreating away from enemy forces strong enough to destroy them. Lettow-Vorbeck has also carried the war into enemy territory, launching raids into Portuguese Mozambique and more recently the British colony of Northern Rhodesia.

It is easy to romanticise Lettow-Vorbeck’s army as a plucky David taking on the Allied Goliath, but the reality is a bit less appealing. The Germans are supporting themselves by looting food from the local civilian population, so his army leaves famine and devastation in its wake. Ludwig Deppe, a doctor serving with Lettow-Vorbeck, ruefully notes: “We are no longer the agents of culture; our track is marked by death, plundering and evacuated villages, just like the progress of our own and enemy armies in the Thirty Years War”; hundreds of thousands of civilians may have died from famine and disease. The Allies meanwhile have press-ganged enormous numbers of African porters to support their armies, under-feeding them and bringing them to areas where they have no resistance to the local diseases, with the result that the porters have been dying at a higher rate than soldiers on the Western Front; at 45,000 men (soldiers and porters) killed, losses from British East Africa amount to some 12% of the adult male population.

While the armistice obliged Lettow-Vorbeck to surrender, there was the problem of how to let him know the war was over. Lettow-Vorbeck is completely cut off from Germany and has no radio with which to communicate with Berlin. However Lettow-Vorbeck learns of the armistice when an Allied dispatch is captured. Initially the Germans think that the war in Europe must have ended with German victory but gradually the harsh reality of defeat dawns on them. Finally today at Abercorn in Northern Rhodesia, Lettow-Vorbeck and his men surrender to the British. His army is now tiny, just 155 Germans, 1,168 Askaris and several thousand more porters. The German officers are allowed keep their swords and pistols pending transportation back to Europe.

Lettow-Vorbeck’s surrender, by an anonymous Tanzanian artist (Wikipedia: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck)

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (Badass of the Week)

The war against German East Africa (Wikipedia: German East Africa)

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)

10/11/1918 Canadian troops close in on Mons #1918Live

By now it is clear that the war is about to end, yet the Allies continue to attack the Germans. The German position on the Western Front is collapsing. With the rail hub of Sedan now in Allied hands the German occupation forces cannot be adequately supplied: it would be impossible for them to make a stand even if they were to want to. Everywhere the Germans are being pushed back, with only the most limited resistance being presented to the Allies. In Belgium Canadian troops are now at the gates of Mons. While not a target of any great strategic importance, Mons has a symbolic significance to the British and their Commonwealth allies. It was here in 1914 that British forces first clashed with the Germans and suffered their first defeat. Now Currie, the Canadian commander, is determined that Mons will be recaptured before the war ends.

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)