After the signing of the armistice the German Army and Navy had to come to terms with what came next.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 178. Thank Stanley (six months), peter, craid, Bradley, Julian, Ronald, Glenn, John and Thomas and Thomas, both thomas’s have last names that start with W so this is very confusing, so Thomas Wa and Thomas Wi. While the war in Europe ended on November 11th, it would continue in other parts of the world for just a bit longer as news of the armistice spread around the world. The last German commander to learn of the armistice and surrender would be General Lettow-Vorbeck Eastern Africa. Back on the Western Front the fighting wrapped up quickly, although there would be some ambiguity about whether or not it might restart later. Regardless of this, quite remote possibility, Petain would send a letter to his troops that read “I am touched like you by the memory of our dead, whose sacrifice has given us victory. I salute with sorrow the fathers and mothers, the widows and orphans of France, who have stopped their tears for a moment during these days of national joy to applaud the triumph of our arms.” For all of the countries involved, the big and the small, it had been a long and costly war. Today we will be looking at some of the immediate aftermath of the conflict, with the German troops returning home to a burgeoning revolution and the German fleet surrendering to the Allies. We will also spend some time looking back at the war, with a whole bunch of numbers, really really big numbers, that represent how many lives were destroyed by the war. Then we will look a bit at the post war world by talking about what happened to some of the military leaders that we have followed for the four years of fighting. For all of those wondering how all of this bits tie together, well, they don’t really. As with most series of episodes on the podcast, this series ends with a grab bag of random, but still important topics that did not really find a place in any of our previous episodes.
After the armistice took effect the German Army had to be out of the territory they had occupied in Western Europe in just a few weeks. This meant that they had to start pulling back from the front very quickly. In many ways the movement of the units back to Germany was the last coherent act of thd old German Army, and what they found when they arrived back home forced them to change and to become something very different. What they found was a country on the verge of revolution. In many cities revolutionary groups had seized complete control, these revolutionary groups came in many different forms, many were socialists, some were Bolsheviks, others anarchists, but regardless of their specific cocktail of beliefs they all wanted one thing, big changes in Germany. What they were met with was a large set of Germans that did not agree with their world views, and many of these Germans came from the army. The German soldiers who returned home would form together into a variety of units with a variety of names, and they would take it upon themselves to bring control back to the cities, well their control of the cities. This was not a simple process, and it involved no small amount of violence. In cities all over Germany street fighting broke out between the two groups. Berlin, Dresden, Munich, and countless other cities saw fighting in the streets. In these clashes the soldiers were victorious, and they brought the cities back under the control of the German government. While the danger of revolution had been avoided for the moment, these socialist uprisings and clashes between the soldiers and socialists sowed other seeds within German society. Among the hardcore German nationalists the pre-existing hatred of socialism, and Bolshevism especially, was just inflamed. And with it the extreme anti-semitism that also already existed. Much like in Russia in Germany thost that were the hardest anti-socialists believed that the Socialists, and especially Communism, was supported by Jews within Germany. It was not a good situation, and it would only get worse over the coming decades.
As part of the agreement for the armistice the Germans had agreed to surrender their fleet to the Allies, their entire fleet. That included not just all of their surface ships but also all of their U-Boats, and they made it clear that no U-boats would be returned to Germany under any circumstances. The fate of the German surface vessels was a bit more up for grabs, and at the time it was not certain if the Allies would keep all of them, or just some portion. The French and British wanted to split them up among their fleets to bolster the size of their naval forces. The Americans did not really want any, but they were also not huge fans of their Allies being given so many free warships. There would be a good amount of discussion about the fate of the German ships at Versailles. The first ships to be surrendered to the Allies were the U-Boats, there were 194 of them in service with the German navy at the end of the war and on November 20thy they began the lengthy process of surrendering. The U-Boats were instructed to move to a rendevous point in small groups, where they were then met by groups of British destroyers. Once the two groups of ships met the British prize crews, which consisted of 2-3 officers and 15 enlisted men would board the U-Boats and take command. Each of the U-Boats would then be moved to Harwich harbor. After they arrived the Germans would gather all their personal belongings and be moved to transport ships that were waiting to take them back home. It would take 11 days of this process being repeated over and over again before it would be complete. In the end 176 U-Boats would be surrendered over to the British, with the rest either having been unfit to sail or having sunk along the way, no men were lost when they went down. The U-Boats would stay in British hands until the details of their future was determined at Versailles.
While the surrender and captivity of the German U-Boats went quite smoothly, the surface fleet would have a somewhat different experience. To start with the Admiral in command of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Hipper, refused to lead the fleet when it surrenderd, and so instead Rear Admiral Reuter was in command. He would be leading a procession of 70 German ships, 9 Dreadnoughts, 5 Battle Cruisers, 7 light Cruisers, and the rest destroyers. They would proceed to the Firth of Forth where they were surrendered to the British Grand Fleet and from there they were transferred north to Scapa Flow in small groups. Once they arrived at the Flow all radio equipment was removed and the crew sizes were reduced. The ships had arrived in British waters with their full compliments, somewhere north of 20,000 men, and this would be reduced over the coming months as several thousand sailors were sent back to Germany over the course of December 1918. When the new year came there would be less than 5,000 men stil with the ships. As can be expected in such a situation, the discipline among these ships, stuck in Scapa Flow with nothing to do, was not the best, and there was a strong Sailor’s Council that had a good amount of power. There was also a lot of drinking, a lot of smoking, and not a whole lot of anything else.
Even though they had been peacefully surrendered, Admiral Reuter and his highest officers were never really big fans of giving up their ships to the British. There was also, technically, a standing order within the Imperial Navy that a ship should never be allowed to fall into enemy hands. Citing this order Reuter, even without communications with the German Government, decided that allowing the ships to be boarded and surrendered was something he could not do. On June 17th, 1919 he began to plan to make sure that this did not happen. A very detailed order was written up and secretly distributed to all of the captains saying that “all internal watertight doors and hatchway covers, ventilator openings and port holes are to be kept open at all times.” On June 18th, 2,700 more men were sent back to Germany, leaving less than 2,000 men on board the ships, all hand-picked men ready for what came next. The code word that would begin the plan was a signal, “Paragraph Eleven. Confirm.”
At 10AM on June 21 Reauter sent out an order that all ships should be ready to receive signals from the flagship and at 11:20AM the signal was hoisted, Paragraph Eleven. Confirm. At exactly noon all of the ships hoisted their Imperial Navy colors, and the ships began to go down. All but one of the dreadnoughts and battlecruisers went to the bottom, half of the light cruisers, and 32 of the destroyers. Their officers had opened them to the sea, and the water had rushed in rapidly. The British were shocked that it had happened, the French were furious that it had been allowed to. The Germans were quite pleased with themselves even though 9 German sailors had been killed, and 16 others had been wounded by gunfire when the British realized what was happening. Scheer, after hearing the news was pleased “I rejoice. The stain of surrender has been wiped from the escutcheon of the German Fleet. The sinking of these ships has proved that the spirit of the fleet is not dead. This last act is true to the best traditions of the German navy.” I have come to consider the sinking of the fleet as the last action of the war in Western Europe. It would be the last time that the old German Army or Navy would come into conflict with the Allies, even if it was mostly bloodless. There would be further scuffles between Germany and the Allies in the 20s, but those would be quite different, led by different men and for different reasons.
One feature of many of this podcast’s episodes has been a section near the end of a series where we discuss numbers. Often in my notes that section is just called “Numbers” and it exists to just give an overview of casualties. Well we not come here, at the end, to the largests “Numbers” section of the war, because it is about the entire war. The war had continued for 52 months, and one thing you can do with the very large numbers we are going to talk about is to start dividing those numbers by the time scale. So if we take the highest level number we have for military deaths during this time, which is 8.5 million to 10.8 million, and then we add in directly attributable civilian deaths, we end up between 15 and 19 million people killed during the war. If we start divided that by the time scale, just taking the low end of that estimate we arrive at 288,000 per month, 9,615 every day, 400 every hour, almost 7 per minute. That is seven people dying every minute for over 4 years. And that does not even include the deaths caused by the Spanish flu, which we will discuss next episode, or events like the Russian Civil War, which would add millions more. We should also break up those numbers by country, Russia with 2.8 to 3.3 million dead, the Ottoman Empire with 2.8 to 3.2 million, Germany 2.2 to 2.8 million, Austria-Hungary 1.8 to 2.0 million, France 1.7 million, Italy 1-1.2 million, the British Empire 1 to 1.2 million, Serbia 750,000 to 1.2 million, Romania 580-650,000, Bulgaria 190,000, Greece 175,000, Belgium 140,000, United States 117,000. The impact of these numbers, as gargantuan as they are, even goes beyond just their numerical values when you start looking at them by percentage of population. For example Serbia, with 750,000 to 1.2 million people dead barely breaks the top 10 in terms of total deaths by country, but it comes to almost a quarter of their total pre-war population, a quarter, 25%. In many other European countries on the list the percent would be around 4-5% of their total pre-war population. Even that does not tell the entire story because those deaths would not fall on the entirey population equally. There were specific generation that would be the hardest hit, the worst being those born between 1890 and 1895 who were 19 to 24 when the war started. In Germany this cohort of men would be reduced by over a third, and in other countries the percentage would be very similar. A huge chunk of an entire generation destroyed in most of the countries of Europe. Those that were born later and maybe did not reach military age during the war were still effected, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. In these areas the mortality rate for those under the age of 15 would skyrocket due to economic problems caused by the war, malnutrition would be the norm and not the exception. In many of those areas 1918 represented not the end of war, but just a middle chapter.
While the post-war conflicts in many regions of Eastern Europe were just heating up when the Germans surrendered, for Western Europe the war was over, and so I think it is appropriate to take a moment to check in on some of the military leaders that we have followed over the years. In many cases these men, while they would not disappear from the history books, would soon take a back seat to the politicians. Generals like Foch, Cadorna, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Joffre, and von Falkenhayn all retreated from the public stage. There they would spend a good amount of the rest of their lives working on their memories, many of which do not provide much historical value due to their, shall we say, biased take on events. Haig would be too hated by Lloyd George to play a large role in post-War Britain and so he would spend the last decade of his life raising money for veterans of the army. In many ways these we the happy stories, others, like Ludendorff would tarnish whatever good record or recommendation they had generated during the war. After his return from exile in Sweden he would become involved in efforts to topple the Weimar government, with later efforts being in conjunction with the Nazis. After 1925 he would go even further, taking on views so radical that even the Nazi pary would not associate with him. Hindenburg would take a different path, running for President in 1925 and then for re-election in 1932. During his tenure hw as even more of a figurehead than during the war, and his story would end in 1933 when he was persuaded to name Hitler as Chancellor. In my opinion the saddest, although I bet there are a few who would disagree, story of them all is Petain. Petain was already in his sixties in 1918 but at the age of 84 he would be called back to the service of his country and asked to form a government when the German army was once again invading France in 1940. He would arrage an armistice and then form a new French government in Vichy, one that collaborated with the Germans. He greatly feared that his departure would have opened up France to even worse treatment by the Germans, but other French leaders did not agree with his course. When the country was retaken by the Allies he was put on trial and sentenced to death, a sentence that was reduced to life in prison by de Gaulle. Petain would die in 1951, at the age of 95, a hero that had simple lived too long.
Before we end the episode today I have to admit that I have made a mistake, one that I intend to rectify right now. In episode 177, I was planning on giving several quotes from soldiers about the war, 3 specifically, and they got lost in my notes and so did not make it into the episodes. I consider them good enough, and important enough, that I am going to add them right here, right now, they are a bit out of place considering the topics of this episode, but I think it is worth it. In all three of them the soldiers talk about their memories of the war and how it changed them, in both good and bad ways. We start with Ernest Wrentmore, an American sodlier of the 5th Divsiion who would return to the United States on a stretcher, with gas scorched lunged and shrapnel in his legs “There was no glory. Instead, it brought to him a wounded body, and memories of sights that will always cause heartaches and tears. It brought him hardship and exposure almost beyond man’s conception—hunger, cold, and sleepless nights, the sight of mangled bodies of friends and buddies; the knowledge of desolation; and the sorrow and agony that is the aftermath of war. It left him with memories that can never be erased—memories that bring, again and again, visions of an eternity spent in a hell on earth.” Here is E.R Heppner, a Britsh soldier “Four and a half years have slipped by since 1914 and I go back to make up those lost years—lost in one sense yet gained in another for have I not learnt to realise the sterling qualities in my friends, learnt a little more confidence in myself, gained a wider out-look on life and learnt that might is not always right? I draw a curtain over times in which there have been many glimpses of sunshine thro’ the thunder clouds and I look forward to the Happiness of Peace.” Finally, we end with Private Francis, another British soldier who even has a message for any historian, reader, or I guess podcaster when discussing the First World War “I have read many books about World War One, written mostly from the point of view of the officer class, most of whom, in my opinion, above the rank of lieutenant-colonel should have been suffocated at birth. For God’s sake and common humanity do not write about honour and glory. There was none. War, especially ours, was a stinking, ugly, horrible business. Please treat it as such. I am no angel and do not suppose I ever shall be one. I joined the British Army in 1914, aged eighteen, a sensitive and patriotic boy. I left some six years later, a bitter old man, but, by the grace of God, whole in body and mind.”
One item that I have been talking around for weeks now in the Spanish Flue, I wanted to spend some time discussing it in detail, that that time comes next week, hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be effected by the influenza pandemic, and millions of civilians around the world would feel is effects, we will dive into that story next episode, I hope you will join me.