October 23, 1918 – German Political Prisoners Amnestied
Pictured – Karl Liebknecht was an implacable enemy of the Wilhelmine government and one of the prisoners released on October 23.
The rapid advance of the Allied armies was matched by a extreme change in the German political atmosphere. The appointment of the moderate Prince Max as Chancellor had done nothing to quell the rising forces of republicanism and socialism. Germans were fed up with the war, and increasingly, fed up with the Kaiser and his warlords.
On October 23 the Kaiser decreed a general amnesty for the state’s political prisoners. He hoped this might appease the mounting discontent. It did the exact opposite. Karl Liebknecht was one of the prisoners to go free. He had been jailed for his anti-war activism, as well as his vocal leadership of the socialist Spartiacist League, alongside Rosa Luxemburg. Upon his release a crowd of 20,000 people went to the Berlin train station to welcome him back to the city. Lenin, fighting for survival in the Russian Civil War, found a Marxist solace in watching the collapse of the Central Powers. “Three months ago people used to laugh when we said there might be a revolution in Germany.” No one would laugh if he said it about Austria-Hungary: in Italy that day Croat troops behind the lines mutinied and seized the port of Fiume before being suppressed by loyalist Habsburg forces.
I've been meaning to ask, now that we're less than a month from the centenary of the war's end, for how long do you plan on covering news related to the conflict? The sinking of the German fleet? The Spanish flu? The sort lived intervention in Russia? Or would you simply stop at 1918?
Thank you for the question, I really appreciate your interest! This blog will likely stop posting daily on November 11, 2018, the centenary of the Armistice. But obviously, as you point out, such a neat periodization does not do much justice to historical understanding. Fighting and revolution went on throughout Eastern and Central Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the colonial world. Meanwhile the demobilization of armies, the repatriation of prisoners, and a refugee crisis saw millions of people continue to move around the globe, while Spanish Flu killed millions, far more than the war had done in four years. Soldiers had to reintegrate into society, the missing and the dead had to be accounted for, families had to deal with the loss of loved ones. November 11 marked the end of the war, but the war continued to affect everyone.
Therefore I will probably create another blog to write about the interwar period. it is a fascinating time and one which deserves more attention to understand the world we live in today. But I will probably post less regularly. Being freed from the burden of daily posting will allow me to treat themes more in-depth. And it will also allow me to deal with more aspects of history that this blog has often left out. Posting daily updates works well for military, political, and diplomatic history, but gives short shrift to areas like cultural, social, and gender history which explore subtler and more gradual processes. Topics like the Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic, and the demobilization of wartime societies deserve more in-depth treatment. I am very grateful to everyone who has read, commented on, and supported this blog over the last few years and I hope some of you will continue to join me to discuss history between the wars.
October 22, 1918 – German Navy Ordered to Attack England and “Fight to the Death”
Pictured – Admiral Scheer sets the scene for the end of the war.
A collective death wish seems to have fallen over Imperial Germany’s leaders as the Great War reached its inevitable conclusion. Ludendorff called for Belgium to be turned into scorched earth, rather than surrendered to the Allies, and even the anti-military Chancellor Prince Max vowed he would not accept a “peace of violence.” The dying spasms of the Second Reich were best symbolized, however, by the final days of the Kaiser’s Navy.
On October 22, Germany’s naval leader Admiral Reinhard Scheer ordered the High Seas Fleet to sally out into the English Channel and provoke a battle with the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. The German flotilla would be unlikely to survive, but Scheer believed that just maybe it could win a decisive victory to turn the tide of the war. If it was destroyed, however, at least it would go down with honor. “An honorable battle by the fleet,” commanded Scheer, “even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed of a new German fleet of the future. There can be no future for a fleet fettered by a dishonorable peace.”
Scheer believed that even a defeat could re-ignite the German population’s will to fight. Scheer had not informed Berlin of his death ride; German’s naval leaders felt they had been denied their shot at glory and would stop at nothing to get it even (especially) if they died trying. The orders – which were decoded quickly in London – electrified the British Admirality, who began preparing for the showdown in the Atlantic they had craved since Jutland.
Pictured – British sailors watch the torpedo-boat destroyer HMS Tempest drop depth charges in the North Sea.
Unlike World War II, the Great War was primarily a ground war. Although the naval arms race between Britain and Germany had been a chief reason for the escalation of tensions in Europe, and theorists like A.T. Mahan believed a nation’s might depended on its control of the oceans, sea power played only a limited role in determining victory and defeat between 1914 and 1918.
That is not to say that navies played no important role in the Great War. True, there were hardly any great fleet actions, with the exception of Jutland in 1916, and even this battle between the world’s two great dreadnought fleets was indecisive. Yet sea power remained vital for the survival of Britain as an island-nation, and by extension for maintaining the supply routes that fed the Entente war machine on the mainland. It was here, in the unglamourous daily work of merchantmen, submarines, and convoys, that navies played their largest role in World War I.
The naval balance in 1914 tipped heavily toward the Allies because of the mighty Royal Navy. By 1915 the British had chased Germany’s few colonial squadrons and merchant raiders from the high seas, and commenced the blockade which steadily reduced the Central Powers to starvation. The blockade stopped all food and supplies from coming into
Germany, even shipping from neutral states, which was perfectly legal
under the laws of maritime war.
Looking aft in the control room of a U-boat. First World War
submarines were primitive, able to submerge for only a few hours at a
Unable to take on the British on the surface, Germany’s High Command
turned to another weapon which they believed could even the odds, the
submarine, or in German, the Unterseeboot: the U-boat. First World War submarines were primitive machines, unable to remain underwater for very long. But they could slip through the blockade into the North Sea and the wider Atlantic, and there sink shipping which Britain depended on. Legally, a submarine could capture merchant shipping if they allowed the crew to leave the vessel, and then towed it to a friendly port. Obviously, this was tactical suicide for U-boat commanders who needed to sink shipping fast and get away before British destroyers responded.
German submariners take advantage of fair weather for a shower on deck.
Therefore the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare. Merchant shipping was sunk with no warning. Moreover, because most shipping came from the neutral Americas, U-boats destroyed any merchant ships they saw, without worrying if they flew an Allied flag or not. For a time this aggressive strategy turned the Atlantic into a maritime graveyard. In February 1917, for example, U-boats sank 520,000 tons of merchant shipping, in April an incredible 860,000 tons. The British government began emergency rationing as supplies to the island dried up.
A Royal Navy convoy escorts shipping across the Atlantic. Destroyers protect the convoy while an airship keeps watch for a U-boats periscope.
Yet the U-boat campaign cost Germany strategically by provoking the Americans into the war. Unrestricted greatly hurt Germany’s reputation abroad, especially after disasters like the sinking of the Lusitania, an unarmed passenger ship which went down with 1,198 people, over 128 of them Americans. Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917.
The U-boats also failed tactically. After years of pressure, the Royal Navy began organizing shipping into convoys. Destroyers and airships protected these flocks of merchantmen, herding them away from predatory U-boat wolfpacks. U-boats began to be sunk in large numbers, although the greatest success of the convoy system was merely that it prevented the Germans from being able to find many targets in the great and wide Atlantic. Without individual ships traveling independently, the U-boats’ opportunities dried up.
German U-boats are surrendered after the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from ever constructing them again.
When the war ended, 15,000 Allied and neutral merchant sailors had died because of the U-boat campaign. About 5,000 German submariners joined them at the bottom of the sea. The U-boat campaign was a crafty attempt by Germany to even the odds with the Entente, but ultimately a failed one which only briefly threatened the Allied war effort. The First Battle of the Atlantic was an important era in the evolution of naval warfare, but perhaps not a decisive part of the First World War, except that it drew the Americans onto the Allied side. In the next world war, the Atlantic battle would be re-fought, but this time on a much more dramatic scale.
Pictured – A U-boat beached and abandoned on the Belgian coast.
The war had come to its last days, but men were still dying at sea. On October 21 a German submarine sank the merchantman Saint Barcham in the Irish Sea. She went down with eight crewman.
The torpedo which sank Saint Barcham was the last one fired by a submarine during the Great War. That day the High Seas Fleet ordered all U-boats still hunting the Atlantic to come home. Woodrow Wilson demanded the end of unrestricted submarine warfare before any peace negotiations began. In any case, the whole of the Belgian coast, with its U-boat bases, had fallen back into Entente hands. The Great War’s U-boat campaign, the First Battle of the Atlatnic, had seen 15,000 sailors, mostly British merchant mariners, killed. Another 5,000 German submariners joined them at the bottom of the sea.
Germany’s Naval Staff still had bellicose plans in mind. Several days later they would issue an order for the entire High Seas Fleet to sail for the English Channel and take on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. It was to be a death ride for the Kaiser’s prized battleships.
While Allied troops drew nearer to the German border, the Kaiser’s leadership in Berlin debated what to do. The new Chancellor, Prince Max, and the civilian government favored peace. They replied to an American note that day promising to end the unrestricted submarine campaign, part of Wilson’s preconditions for negotiation.
The military went back and forth between despondency and manic proposals to continue the war. Ludendorff told his generals to form a new line of battle stretching down from Antwerp, and told them use everything in their arsenals to devastate Belgium “so that 1914 will be child’s play compared to it.” More realistically, the Minister for War General Scheüch promised to find 600,000 reinforcements for the front, but added that if the oilfields in Romania fell into the hands of the Allied army advancing north from the Balkans, then the military could only fight on for six weeks.
The generals closest to the front-line had the best idea of the situation. Writing from Belgium, where his wretched army had lost most of its artillery and horses and hemorrhaged men every day, Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria told his superiors that “we must obtain peace before the enemy breaks into Germany.”
October 19, 1918 – Liberation of Bruges and Zeebrugge, Belgian Coast Clear of Germans
Pictured – To the victors: women grin for the camera and sit on an abandoned German coastal gun.
On October 19, the Belgian Army presented the Yser Medal to all its men who had participated in the desperate battle for survival in October 1914. That month the remnants of Belgium’s tiny army had held off German attacks on the Yser River, preserving a sliver of their homeland from occupation.
Four years later and the Belgians had gone on the attack to liberate their country. The Yser Medal came in coordination with their greatest triumph of the war as Zeebrugge and Bruges fell back into Belgian hands. Zeebrugge in particular had been an important U-boat base. With the liberation of these cities the entire Belgian North Sea coast had been taken out of German hands.
October 18, 1918 – Czechoslovakian Declaration of Independence
Pictured – The democracy of the New World lends support to democracy in the Old.
Emperor Charles I’s attempt to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a federation was a move made out of desperation to stave off the regime’s imminent collapse. It had no chance of success and only revealed the total weakness of Habsburg power; the empire was dead, Charles just did not know it yet.
Of the Dual Monarchy’s subject peoples, the Czechoslovaks had come closest to complete independence already. They had a provisional government in the United States ready to step into power, and an army, the Czech Legion, fighting against the Central Powers (and Bolsheviks) on the Eastern Front.
Czech National Council leader Tomáš
Masaryk cemented his leadership of the future nation on October 18, issuing a declaration of independence from Washington D.C. The Declaration, couched in Wilsonian language to appeal to the Americans, listed a litany of Habsburg abuses and laid out a parliamentary system and a list of fundamental rights.