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)

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)

7/10/1918 Haig and Foch scent victory, the Americans finally rescue their Lost Battalion

In Berlin the German leadership is waiting for Wilson‘s reply to their request for an armistice. On the Western Front the fighting continues. British and Commonwealth forces are preparing an attack on Cambrai, which still remains in German hands. Haig is increasingly confident that the war will soon be over. Of course he also thought that a decisive victory would soon be achieved during the Somme and Passchendaele, but he might just be right this time. Foch is also in an upbeat mood. When the two generals meet today, Foch shows Haig a newspaper report of the German armistice request; he tells Haig that this is the result of his men punching through the Hindenburg Line.

In the Argonne the US-led offensive is still struggling. Gains are being made but the inexperienced US troops are suffering terrible casualties. Nevertheless today they achieve a notable symbolic success. Five days ago a German counter-attack separated Major Whittlesey‘s battalion from the rest of the Americans. Since then the ‘Lost Battalion’ has been subjected to relentless German attack (and shelling from their own side). US troops have been attempting to push forward to relieve Whittlesey’s men, taking enormous losses in the process, but after previous reverses they today at last manage to reach the Lost Battalion. Whittlesey is hailed as a hero, but nearly two thirds of his unit are casualties (killed, wounded or missing).

4/10/1918 Cher Ami, brave pigeon of the Argonne

The German government has submitted a request for an armistice. On the Western Front the war continues. The British and Belgians are continuing to press the Germans in Flanders while further to the south British and Commonwealth forces are now through the Hindenburg Line.

In the Argonne the Americans have renewed their offensive, attacking in strength following a French artillery barrage. While some progress is achieved, the attack is not achieving the results that Pershing wants for his men, with the inexperienced Americans struggling against the terrain and determined German resistance.

Whittlesey‘s “Lost Battalion” remains lost, cut off from the rest of the Americans and under continuous attack by the Germans. The confused nature of fighting in the Argonne means that they are also being heavily shelled by Allied artillery. Whittlesey has sent runners to report his men’s position but they have all been intercepted. Now he sends a message by pigeon, begging for the artillery barrage to be halted. The brave pigeon, named Cher Ami, is shot by the Germans but arrives at divisional headquarters with his vital message. The artillery barrage is halted and then army medics work to save the life of Cher Ami, who is hailed as an American hero.

image source:

Cher Ami (Wikipedia)

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.

29/9/1918 St. Quentin Canal: piercing the Hindenburg Line

While the Americans struggle in the Argonne their Allies make gains elsewhere. In Flanders the Belgians have recovered Dixmude while the British have recaptured Messines Ridge; the German-held coast of Belgium now looks like it might soon be wrested from their hands. Further to the south, the Canadian forces that crossed the Canal du Nord are now threatening German-held Cambrai.

Now the next of Foch‘s rolling attacks on the Germans begins, a British-led attack against German positions on the St. Quentin Canal, near to the old 1916 Somme battlefield. No one expects this to be an easy battle as the attack here is against the feared Hindenburg Line itself.

By now the norm for attacks has been to precede them with a short but intense bombardment, designed to stun the defenders without giving their commanders enough time to prepare reserves to meet the assault. At the St. Quentin Canal the British try another tack. In the fighting at Amiens, a map of German defensive positions here was captured. For the last few days the British have been subjecting these to an accurate and devastating bombardment.

When the infantry finally attack, progress is not spectacular. US troops spearhead an assault on the left but suffer heavy casualties and fail to break through. However British troops making what was meant to be a diversionary attack achieve a stunning success. Attacking in fog across the canal (with men given life jackets so they can swim across in full military gear), they make inroads into the German position and crucially succeed in capturing intact a bridge across the canal at Riqueval.

At the end of the day both sides have suffered great numbers of casualties. German resistance here is resolute, with none of the collapses in morale that have been seen elsewhere. To many soldiers on the Allied side this day of tough fighting does not feel like it has ended in victory, but the first breach has been made in the Hindenburg Line.