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)

5/11/1918 The end draws near: Wilson tells the Germans that Foch has been authorised to receive their armistice delegation #1918Live

Germany’s position is now dire. At home unrest is spreading, with Lübeck today following Kiel in declaring for the revolution. The collapse of Austria-Hungary meanwhile leaves the country vulnerable to invasion from the south. And on the Western Front the ability of the army to resist the Allies diminishes hourly. Yesterday Allied troops forced a crossing of the Sambre canal; as part of this battle New Zealand troops succeeded in storming the town of Le Quesnoy, capturing large numbers of German prisoners. Groener, Ludendorff‘s replacement, decides that he has no option now but to order a general retreat.

It must then come as something of a relief when the latest note from Washington arrives in Berlin. Lansing, the Secretary of State, informs the Germans that Wilson has conferred with the other Allies and that Marshal Foch has now been authorised to receive Germany’s representatives and present the Allied armistice terms to them. The end of the war is at last in sight.

Lansing’s note

image source:

The Scaling of the Walls of Le Quesnoy, by Edmund Butler

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)

31/10/1918 The cold grip of influenza

The war’s end seems to be approaching both on the Western Front and in Italy, but the struggle of humanity against the influenza pandemic shows no sign of abating. The more virulent second strain of the flu is wreaking havoc across the world, taking far more people to the domain of Hades than the war. In the USA some 195,000 people have died in the last month alone, far more than the USA’s total losses to combat in France. But the pestilence is not striking everywhere equally: Germany’s soldiers and civilians, weakened through their reduced diets, appear to suffering more so than their Allied counterparts. Some 3,000 people die of the influenza in Berlin this month, with Prince Max, the Chancellor, lucky not to be one of their number.

The flu’s effect on Germany’s army is even more striking. The influenza kills only a tiny proportion of those it makes ill, but while soldiers are ill they are unable to fight. In the last month the German army has suffered some 420,000 flu cases, more than three times October’s combined total of flu cases in the Allied armies on the Western Front. The German army cannot afford to have this number of men too sick to fight and the ravages of the influenza must have played a part in forcing Germany to request an armistice.

Elsewhere the flu has political consequences. In restive Ireland, newspaper reports of high rates of influenza among Sinn Féin prisoners in Belfast fuel rumours about their maltreatment by the authorities. Elsewhere in the country the flu particularly singles out those whose work brings them into contact with the public, a pattern seen across the world. Doctors and nurses are particularly afflicted, but so too are policemen, clergymen, public transport workers and shop assistants. So many teachers are struck down in Dublin that the city’s schools are temporarily closed.

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.