177: The Armistice Pt. 2 - The Sound of Silence


November 11th. The End.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 177. This is, as I am sure you can already tell by the length, going to be a pretty big episode. What I wanted to do was tell the entire story of the armistice in one episode, that means we will touch on the situation on the German homefront which was the real impetus for the armistice push from the German politicians. We will then in a bit more detail on the removal of Ludendorff from his position at the head of the German army, an important step to remove him as a roadblock to peace. Then we will discuss the abdication of the Kaiser, who long resisted but eventually realized that he had no other choice but to give up his crown. After all of this turmoil was over in Germany they then had to receive the armistice terms from the Allies, which we will then dig into, including how it was presented to the Germans, the circumstances in which they received it, and then the events leading up to the signing. The second half of this episode will then look at November 11th at the front. The fighting that had been going on for over 4 yeras would not stop until exactly 11AM when the war was over. This meant that there were men dying in attacks right up until the final minutes, completely pointless attacks I might add. Once we cover the events at the front that will set us up to do some housecleaning next episode to finish up our story of the military side of the conflict. Up to this point in our story the road to the armistice has been a long one, the offensives and counter-attacks of 1918, the removal of Bulgaria from the war, the developing disaster in austria-Hungary, and then the peace notes of October. All of these had played a role in breaking the German desire, both political and at the front, to continue the war. And in both of these realms, politics and military, they pushed the German leaders into an important decision, the removal of Ludendorff from his position as Quartermaster General.

The removal of Ludendorff from the army would be precipitated by his own actions, specifically the order that had been sent out by Hindenburg and Ludendorff on October 24th, which denounced the actions of the government in Berlin and of President Wilson. On the 26th the two generals would meet with the Kaiser, a meeting prompted by Prince Max, and the Kaiser was not in a good mood. He emphasized that the order was given against his wishes, and of the wishes of Germany’s political leaders. He then criticized the two generals for having supported armistice discussions so recently, and then now completely altering course to instead wanting to fight on, and then also spreading that message to the army which called into question the entire leadership of Germany. He made it clear that he had lost faith in the General Staff, and their leader most of all, saying to Ludendorff that while he recognized his military achievements “it was a misfortune, however, that he was too overburdened. The military task was so large that it required the commitment of his entire character.” Ludendorff, seeing that the Kaiser wished to curtail his power instead offered his resignation, which the Kaiser accepted. When Hindenburg tried to do the same the Kaiser rejected it, fearing that having both men resign at the same time would demoralize the army. Ludendorff would be replaced by General Wilhelm Groener who had previously been in charge of arranging and organizing rail transport within Germany, by all account she was very skilled at management and logistics. He also had two very important characteristics that made him desireable for the job. The first waws that he was a realist, and could see that the German Army and nation were in a very bad situation and needed out. Second, he was not a Prussian and was instead from Wurttemburg, which was important to the political leaders since they were trying to distance themselves from Prussian militarism. At the front this change did not cause too much havoc, feelings were generally mixed, but there was not enough conern to cause any problems beyond what was already being experienced.

After reviewing the situation at the front Groener ordered a general retreat along the entire Western Front from the Sea to Lorraine. One German pilot would fly behind the lines during these days and say ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back.’ Back on the homefront things were just as bad, with the sailors in Kiel in open rebellion by November 4th, and the revolution beginning to spread. Lubeck, Cuxhaven, Hanover, and Hamburg all saw sailors and soldiers flying the red flag of revolution, and Bolshevism in some cases, they demanded both an immediate armistice and an end to the military dictatorship. On November 8th the Social Democrats, concerned that the left wing of German politics was being taken over by radicals, issued an ultimatum that unless the Kaiser and Crown Prince abdicated immediately they would walk out of the government. If that were to happen then it almost certainly would result in full scale revolution in Geramny. On that same night news reached Berlin that Brunswick and Munich had been overtaken by revolution, Stuttgart was now in the hands of Workers’ councils, and Cologne was on the grink of the same. Things were falling apart, and the only thing that might bring it back was the abdication of the Kaiser.

There had been discussions abetween Max and the Kaiser about abdication since mid-October, then when Groener was appointed to lead the army he alost believed that the Kaiser should step down, but always the Kaiser refused. The key to his belief that he could and should stay in office was that he believed that the army was still loyal to him. This resulted in the Kaiser and his closest supporters entertaining the idea of leading the army back home to take back control from the radicals on the homefront. Groener had a more realistic view, knowing that this would cause full scale civil war and that most of the army probably would not even fight against fellow Germans for the sake of the Kaiser keeping power. He would tell the Kaiser and his advisors that “The army will march back to Germany, peacefully and orderly, under its commanders and commanding generals, but not at the command of Your Majesty because it no longer supports Your Majesty.” To try and prove to the Kaiser that the situation was very dire Groener would ask 39 officers, a group designed to provide a good sample of the army, if they would follow the kaiser back home to suppress the revolution. When the responses came back they were less than inspiring. Of the 39 officers that were asked, only 1 said yes, 15 said possibly, and 23 were a resolute no. It was clear that the army would not follow the Kaiser, and so there was only one step left.

Prince Max made it clear to the Kaiser that “Your abdication has become necessary to save Germany from Civil War.” while also telling the Kaiser that there was some concern that the army may not be able to ensure his safety. When the Kaiser agreed to abdicate it took some time to get the proper statement prepared and ready for release. During this time the Wolf Telegraph Agency in Berlin jumped the gun and reported that he had renounced his throne. It is likely that this lead was Max’s doing, concerned that the Kaiser would continue to delay his abdication, perhaps delaying it too long for it to save Germany. When the Kaiser, or I guess former Kaiser at this point, heard of the announcement in the press he was furious, shouting “Treason, gentlemen! Bare-faced, outrageous treason!” Unfortunately for Wilhelm, it was already over, and his plans to give up the imperial throne but not that of Prussia was also no longer feasible. Seeing that there was nothing that could be done, he agreed to enter exile in Holland. Back in Berlin on November 9th Prince Max handed over the Chancellorship to Fritz Ebert, the transfer of power was required to break any connection to the previous government and monarchy. The Hohenzollern dynasty in Prussia, and Germany as a whole, was at an end, now there was but one more thing left to bring to an end, the war itself.

On November 8th a German delegation would arrive at Allied headquarters in Compeigne to discuss an armistice. This delegation was led by Matthias Erzberger, the leader of the Catholic Center Party and the current German Secretary of State. It actually took some time for the German leaders to find people who were willing to be a part of this delegation, as it was almost certain that being a member would have serious negative effects on every participants future political careers. Erzberger was only persuaded to accept as a matter of duty to the nation, and he would pay for it, because in 1921 he would be shot to death by German ultra-nationalists, who regarded his part in the delegation as nothing short of treason to Germany. On November 7th the delegation began its journey, and it would travel all day and all night to arrive at Compeigne after having started on the other side of the German lines, then moving through the lines during a ceasefire arranged by the Allies. They would arrive at Compeigne by rail at 7AM on the 8th, and just a short while later they would meet with Foch who would present the armistice.

While the German delegation was in transit, Foch made something of a mistake that would cause a lot of headache for the French authorities. When Foch had agreed to meet with the German delegation he had arranged for the ceasefire to let them pass through the lines, a very typical practice, don’t want to get any delegates shot. However, to get the information about the ceasefire to the Germans he used the Eiffel Tower radio transmitter, which basically everybody in Europe could listen in on. News spread pretty fast about what was happening, and it was misinterpretted by many. Instead of being correctly read as a local ceasefire that would only last a few hours, some believed that it was a permanent one across the entire front. In Brest, the head of the American Naval Forces was informed of this development and he shared it with Roy Howard, head of the United Press wire service. Howard, who was estatic to get such big news delieved to him, asked if he could send it out, to which the Admiral said sure, why not, and Howeard ran to his office and cabled back to New York the headline “Paris, Nov. 7.—The Allies and Germany signed an armistice at 11 o’clock this morning. Hostilities ceased at 2 o’clock this afternoon.” With the news out the French began a lengthy series of refutations as they tried to make sure that everything was properly denied and corrected. While this big news was being ironed out, just the fact that there were discussions happening betwen the Allies and Germans that appeared to mean peace was on the horizen was front page news everywhere.

Once Erzberger arrived at Compiegne he was informed of the terms of the armistice by Foch, it had 34 claused and they included the following. Germany had to evacuate all occupied territory in Western Europe, this included Alsace-Lorraine, which was technically part of Germany. The Germans had to remove all military troops from west of the Rhine river and they had to give the Allies three bridgeheads over the river which they would garrison, these would be at Mainz, Coblenz, and Cologne. The Germans would have to give 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railcars, and 10,000 trucks to teh Allies. All submarines and captital ships of the High Seas Fleet must be surrendered. All of the territory gained by Germany in the treaties of Brest-Litovsk and with Romania would have to be given up. Huge amounts of military equipment had to be surrenderd including thousands of machine guns, aircraft, and more artillery pieces thatn Germany even had, and they had lot. Germany also had to agree to the continuation of the bloackade, which was already starving the country, while at the same time agreeing to hand over 140,000 head of cattle, among other livestock, which would just make the food situation worse. Meeting all of these obligations would have been impossible and Erzberger knew that, but there were to be no negotiations. From the time that it was presented to them the German delegation had only 72 hours to accept, which would mean they had to accept before 11AM on November 11th. After they were presented with the information Erzberger radioed Berlin to get instructions on how he was to proceed, it would take 26 hours for the message to even arrive because of the chaos in Germany. A response would not be received until 7PM on November 10th, with the response giving Erzberge the authority to sign the document. Erzberger would do all that he could to try and get better terms, but very little was gained during the hours that he had. Pretty much the only changes were small adjustments, like altering the wording slightly so that Germany was not required to hand over more items than it possessed. The most important piece, the blockade was non-negotiable, but the French said that they would re-evaluate it after the armistice. At 2AM on November 11th a final review of the document began, and at 5:20AM it would be signed. Once it was official messages went out to all of the military commands, on both sides, stating that the fighting would stop at 11AM that day, but that there would be no communication between the troops of both armies after the armistice came into effect. Many commanders were also concerned about the conduct of their men after the armistice ame into effect, and this caused some to send out orders for what officers were supposed to do when the time ame. General Groener would advice the German generals that “The discipline of the troops must be maintained by every possible means. Fraternization of our men with enemy troops must be prevented.” He closed, needlessly it would seem, with “No furloughs will be granted.” Haig was already thinking even further ahead, already concerned that the men who had been training and executing a war for eyars would not be easy to deal with once the fighting stopped and they got bored. he would tell his officers that they needed to determine “a number of ways in which men can be kept occupied. It is as much the duty of all officers to keep their men amused, as it is to train them for war.”

Even though the Allied commanders knew that an armistice was just hours away, on November 11th they were determined to keep the fighting going until the very end. Foch wanted to keep the pressure on as long as possible, Pershing completely agreed. Both would order attacks on the last day. Pershing would forward along information that fighting would stop at 11AM but did not rescind any previously ordered attacks from taking place. These actions were incredibly wasteful because part of the provisions for the armistice was a general withdrawal of the German army over the course of no more than 2 weeks, then meant that any ground gained on the last day of the war would have just been given over voluntarily in a few days anyway. Because of this drive for more attacks at the top of the armies the precise actions along the front in the final hours were often determined by individual officers at divisional level or below. For example of the 16 American divisions that were at the front on the morning of the 11th 7 would stand down from any attacks while they waited. These commanders had decided that since the signing was imminent all other orders were no longer necessary. This meant that 9 American divisions would continue to fight, and to execute attacks that were already planned. The same thing would happen on other areas of the front, like in the north with the Canadians. General Currie had orders to attack and take Mons on the morning of the 11th, and these orders would be carried out even though the Germans would have abandoned the town the next day anyway. Currie would later justify this decision by saying “The reason Mons was taken was that we obeyed the orders of Marshal Foch that we should go on until we were ordered to stop. It was a proud thing . . . that we were able to finish the war where we began it, and that we, the young whelps of the old lion, were able to take the ground lost in 1914.” These types of decisions along the front would result in hundreds of casualties in the final hours of the conflict.

With the final document signed early in the morning on the 11th it made for some very busy hours as communications officers and runners along the front tried to spread the word of the coming armistice on both sides of the trenches. As the news got out the reactions were different everywhere, Ernst Kielmeyer was a German telephone lineman, he would write in this diary that there were rumors of the armistice floating around long before official word was received, he would say “We are just killing time, we are thinking and hoping that it is the real thing. Then we won’t have to endure another winter out here to suffer, freeze, die and join our comrades who sleep the eternal sleep far from home.” A short time later his sergeant would appear in the doorway of his dugout and say that “The armistice has been signed” For Kielmeyer the news was a relief, but there were still sounds of fighting all around him. Feldwebel Georg Brucher, who had been at the front since 1914, was stuck in a trench early in the morning o the 11th, at 7AM his company commander came weaving through the trench saying “Cease fire at eleven! Pass the word. Cease fire at eleven!” but just as the news was getting passed around his unit, gas shells began falling on his positions, and when he got his gas mask on he could see the shapes of American soldiers moving their way. After the war he would write “It was all the harder for us since we knew the end could not be far off. We ducked at the sound of every explosion—which we had never bothered to do before. The old hands fought for the deepest, safest dug-outs and did not scruple to leave to the young recruits the hundred and one things which were risky. . . . The thought of an attack was more terrifying to them than to the young soldiers who were still so inexperienced, so touchingly helpless, yet in spite of everything, so willing.” When he looked at his watch during the American attack it was just two minutes to 11. At 8:56 the commander of the Amerian 79th division would radio his units and say “Hostilities will cease on the whole front at 11 hours today, French time. Until that hour, the operations previously ordered will be pressed with vigor. At 11 hours our line will halt in place, and no man will move one step backward or forward.” This meant that they would continue their attacks until 11. At 9:20AM Colonel Thomas Pearch would tell his men that the forthcoming attack was cancelled, only to then have to inform them that it was back on due to an order from his unit commander. This delay meant that it did not go forward at 10:40, and with just 20 minutes before the armistice Pearce’s unit began moving through the fog between the trenches. At 10:35 the American 26th division attacked, while at the same time the 80th French infantry division went forward beside them. The french colonel in charge of the attack had received two messages at the same time, one saying that war would be over at 11 and that he was to attack at 9AM. All along the front commanders prepared for the coming armistice, in some cases battery commanders who were preparing to fire their final artillery rounds of the war attacks long cords to their guns so that 10s or even hundreds of men could pull the rope for the last round the war. IN some cases 200 men would fire a single gun. Some units were actively fighting right up to 11AM, with men dying on both sides in the final minutes. With just a few minutes left two German machine gun squads manning a roadblock would see American troops advancing toward them, and they would fire in self defense. With the seconds counting down the Americans would duck, but then one American would stand up and charge, Private Gunther, the Germans were once again forced to fire, the time was 10:59, Gunther was dead.

One soldier would later say of the armistice that “Victory was sudden and complete and the general sensation was that of awaking from a nightmare.” Near Mons, when the firing stopped, some Australian troops saw a German officer rise up above the trenches, take off his helmet, bow, and then walk away. Many first hand accounts talk about the silence, a huge change for the men who had experienced constant gunfire for months. There were often diary entries like this one, “The silience is oppressive. It weighs in on one’s eardrums.” Corporal Carl Noble of the American 5th Division would say that almost instantly the demeanor of the men shifted “From the moment the firing ceased, the boys’ talk changed. Before this one might hear them say, ‘If I ever get back to the States,’ but now everyone was saying, ‘When I get back.’ … They began to wonder how soon. Some thought we would start at once and be back early in December. Others thought it would be Christmas time or New Year’s Day before we saw the States again. I thought we wouldn’t make it before February.”

Throughout the afternoon the situation at the front was best categorized as weird, and when night fell celebrations along the front began in earnest for many units. Lieutenant Clair Groover would record “That nigth all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air.” Private Swartz would have a similar story to tell “We could see how we were surrounded by the Germans, when they set off the different signal rockets, it was a very beautiful sight, as they had a lot of different kinds. After the Germans were through celebrating we tucked ourselves in for the night, as we were not allowed to celebrate in any way, except dig in to hold our line, in case anything would start up.” Along with various celebrations, final war orders were sent out to the units from their commanding officers. IN many of these, especially on the Geran side, where was congratulations and words to try and ease the pain of defeat. General Karl von Einem would write to his troops that “Undefeated and tested again and again in numerous battles, you are terminating the war in enemy country. What you have accomplished in the face of an enemy force many times superior to ours in number belongs to history. . . . With unbroken ranks, each one staunchly in his place, proudly as we left in 1914, so we want to return to our native soil.”

The war, was over. After the war, especially in America, there were lengthy discussions and investigations into the actions of the armies on the 11th. The fact that so many soldiers were killed in attacks after it was known that the war was ending was something of a scandal. In America the congressional investigation would say that this was “needless slaughter” but the final report stopped short of open criticism of the army, avoiding any direct accusations of incompetence or blame. I hope you will join me next episode as we look at the immediate aftermath of the armistice, Germany nears revolution, the High Seas Fleet determines that it doesn’t want to be captured, and the allies try to deal with the immediate effects of victory.