Prince Max of Baden (1867-1929), German Chancellor in the final weeks of the war.
October 3 1918, Berlin–At Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s insistence, Chancellor Hertling was replaced with Prince Max of Baden, who despite his royal background was considered a liberal who could attract a wide base of support in the Reichstag and successfully appear to the Allied governments. His government largely drew on the majority that had already supported Erzberger’s peace resolution of July 1917, including parties as far left as the Social Democrats. Prince Max was not especially eager for an immediate armistice, believing that asking for one as his first act as Chancellor would be a clear sign of Germany’s weakness. His allies in the Reichstag, who had been lied to for months about Germany’s military prospects, were also unenthusiastic.
However, Hindenburg insisted: “It is desirable in the circumstances to break of the battle in order to spare the German people and its allies useless sacrifices. Every day wasted costs thousands of brave soldiers their lives.” An OHL representative briefed Reichstag leaders, blaming the current predicament on Bulgaria’s collapse and saying that the German army was “still strong enough to hold out against the enemy for months,” while also saying that “every twenty-four hours might make matters worse and lead the enemy to discover our real weakness.”
On the night of October 3, Prince Max, at Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s insistence, sent a note to Wilson via Switzerland:
The German Government requests the President of the United States to take in hand the restoration of peace, acquaint all the belligerent States of this request, and invite them to send plenipotentiaries for the purpose of opening negotiations.
It accepts the program set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress on Jan. 8 [The Fourteen Points], and in his later pronouncements…as a basis for peace negotiations.
With a view to avoiding further bloodshed, the German Government requests the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land and water and in the air.
Hindenburg & Ludendorff had apparently not even read the Fourteen Points when they called for the armistice.
In conjunction, Austria-Hungary sent a similar note to Wilson on the same day, just weeks after their last peace note. The call greatly hurt morale in the armies of the Central Powers, and greatly emboldened Austria-Hungary’s subject nationalities. Two days later, a National Council of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was formed in Zagreb, and two days after that, the German puppet government in Poland declared its independence and laid claim to Galicia.
Today in 1917: US Enacts War Revenue Act
Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.
American troops marching into the St Mihiel salient. The large hill in the background, Montsec, was simply bypassed on both sides.
September 12 1918, St Mihiel–The Germans had taken St Mihiel on the Meuse nearly four years ago in 1914, and had maintained the salient stretching to the city ever since, despite numerous French attempts to dislodge them. The German position there had cut off the railroad lines leading to Verdun from the south. Pershing, who had been forced by the events of the late spring and early summer to throw in his forces into the fighting a division at a time, was eager to deploy his new First Army on the offensive as a unit, and had chosen St Mihiel as his target for early September.
At the end of August, however, Foch had decided that the French and Americans should attack in force on the west side of the Meuse late , to support the continuing British advance further north. Pershing was furious, but a compromise of sorts was eventually reached. The St Mihiel attack would continue, but with French infantry support reduced to one corps of colonial troops. Furthermore, the Americans would have to turn around and head for the west bank of the Marne almost immediately–an almost impossible logistical task that was left to Lt. Col. George Marshall.
In the meantime, the Germans were aware of the American preparations. The German commander, Max von Gallwitz, wanted to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Americans, but Ludendorff declined and instead ordered a withdrawal from the salient. There was no urgency to the evacuation, however, and it only began on September 11–weakening the German lines just in time for the Americans to attack the next day.
The preliminary bombardment began at 1AM on September 12; the infantry attacked four hours later. There was essentially no resistance. Major Raymond Austin recalled:
Their resistance was so feeble as far as artillery was concerned, and their Infantry, so much of it as was within the zone of our artillery preparation, was badly shaken. Not a shell landed anywhere near my batteries and during the whole fight not more than four shells fell near enough to me to be dangerous…the Boche evidently left in great haste as our advance was extremely rapid. One of my batteries got two cows and several had pigs, chickens, and a great number of rabbits. The main idea of the Germans seems to have been get out of the salient and about all we had to do was to follow them up….The whole thing was a walk-over for us…
George Patton wrote his father:
We have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped, not as exciting as affairs in Mexico, because there was so much company. When the shelling first started I had some doubts about the advisability of sticking my head over the parapet, but it is just like taking a cold bath, once you get in, it is all right….
I walked right along the firing line of one brigade they were all in shell holes except the general (Douglas Mcarthur [sic]) who was standing on a little hill, I joined him and the creeping barrage came along towards us, but it was very thin and not dangerous. I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us. The infantry were held up at a town so I happened to find some tanks and sent them through it. I walked behind and some boshe [sic] surrendered to me….
The Americans would take most of the salient within a day at the cost of 7000 casualties, capturing 450 guns and 16,000 prisoners in the process. Among these were elements of the Austrian 35th Division–one of the few encounters between Americans and Austrian forces in the war. Father Francis Duffy, with the 42nd Division, recalled of the Austrians:
They had not been very keen about the war at any time and were made less so on finding that they had been left behind after the bulk of the army had withdrawn. Many of them had been in the United States, and the first question that one of them asked was, “Can I go back now to Sharon, PA?”
One of the worst obstacles to the advance of the German barbed wire, which had been unaffected by the partial withdrawal and was only somewhat reduced by the bombardment. To cross it, the Americans cut it where possible, rolled out 18-foot stretches of chicken wire to collapse it, or simply crossed it themselves if they could. One member of a team of French officers sent after the battle apparently concluded that “the Americans had the advantage over Frenchmen because of their long legs and large feet.”
Today in 1917: British Mutiny at Étaples Suppressed
Today in 1916: French & Serbians Launch First Offensive from Salonika
Today in 1915: French Evacuate Armenians From Musadagh
Today in 1914: Belgian Attack From Antwerp Halts
Sources include: Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers; Gary Mead, The Doughboys; Gene Fax, With Their Bare Hands; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.
August 27 1918, Berlin–By late August, both Germany and Russia had higher priorities than fighting each other, despite voices on both sides that still called for it (and the series of assassinations of German officials in Russia and Ukraine). Germany was facing defeat on the Western Front and needed whatever resources could be gotten from Russia without a commitment of troops, while the Russians needed to fight the White forces on the Volga and needed reassurances that the Germans would not attack them from behind, especially given they had already stripped much of Petrograd’s defenses.
On August 27, Germany and Russia signed a supplemental peace treaty. The Russians agreed to pay 6 billion marks in indemnities for wartime damages, to relinquish any rights to Estonia, Latvia, and Georgia, to fight the Allied forces around Murmansk and Archangelsk, to allow the Germans to use the remnants of the Black Sea Fleet (which was already under their control anyway), and to provide the Germans with a third of their oil once Baku returned to their control. The Germans, meanwhile, promised that neither they nor their Finnish allies would attack Russia, and that they would do their utmost to convince the Turks to return Baku once they expelled the Allies. Many of these provisions were secret, despite the Bolsheviks’ stated aversion to “secret treaties.” The terms were viewed by many as a further humiliation, in the words of one negotiator “worse than Brest-Litovsk.” It should be noted, however, that the 6 billion mark figure was far less than the 132 billion mark figure which would be imposed on the Germans at Versailles.
Today in 1917: Continued Failed Attacks Around Ypres
Today in 1916: Romania Declares War on Austria-Hungary
Today in 1915: Last Allied Push on Hill 60 Falls Short
Today in 1914: Germans Outflank Russian Second Army’s Advance in East Prussia
Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.
Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Charles, pictured in Spa on August 14. This would be their last meeting.
August 14 1918, Spa–In the span of only a few days, the Central Powers’ hope for a military victory had apparently disappeared. The German collapse near Amiens, although checked before it turned catastrophic, still made it clear that the German army was in no condition to go back onto the offensive, and would be lucky to survive further Allied attacks. In private, Ludendorff retreated into depression, while still ordering determined resistance to the British and (now increasingly) French advance. One of his aides, Col. von Haeften, noted on August 12 that he was
…outwardly calm, but very grave…It was not the loss of territory or the superiority of the tank…which disturbed him…What depressed the General was that he had lost confidence in the morale of his troops, the indispensable element in victory. Ludendorff said to Haeften that the men could no longer be depended upon and we needed peace quickly….No longer could any hope be placed in an offensive.
The Kaiser had come to a similar conclusion on August 10: “I see that we must draw up the balance sheet, we are on the brink of insolvency. The war must be ended.” He summoned Hindenburg & Ludendorff to meet with him in Spa, along with Chancellor Hertling and Foreign Minister Hintze.
In their meetings with the Kaiser and the political leaders of Germany on August 13 and 14, Hindenburg & Ludendorff were far more sanguine than they were with their military colleagues. Ludendorff told Chancellor Hintze that a “strategic defensive with periodic offensive action” (whatever that meant) could still offer “good prospects for finally crippling the enemy’s will to war.” Hindenburg admitted the army could not “break the enemy’s will” as they had planned for 1918, but was optimistic that the German army could remain in control of large parts of France and thus “enforce their will on the enemy.”
Hindenburg recommended that Germany change its diplomatic approach in the meantime, but the Kaiser was so encouraged by Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s tone that he only ordered a peace feeler via the monarchs of Netherlands and Spain, rather than directly to the Allied powers. Chancellor Hertling went further, planning to delay even this tepid offer until “after the next German success in the west;” no such success would come. Regardless, none of Hertling, Hintze, nor the Kaiser put too much effort into challenging Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s views.
Ludendorff knew he was deceiving the Kaiser and the Chancellor. Perhaps he could not bear to admit defeat before the Kaiser, feared for his own position, or was already seeking to deflect post-war blame to the civilians. Maybe his reasons were exactly what he told one of his officers: “Perfect candor would have led to a catastrophe! If I had told them the truth, they would have completely lost their heads.” Regardless of his motivations, the result of the conference at Spa was the waste of more lives fighting a war that had already been lost.
Coincidentally, Austro-Hungarian leadership was also in Spa at the same time, including Emperor Charles, Chief of Staff Arz, and Foreign Minister Buriàn. The Germans tried and failed to get the Austrians to commit to more troops for the Western Front. Arz admitted “Austria-Hungary could only continue the war until December.”
Nevertheless, this did not stop Arz and Ludendorff from discussing far-fetched plans; Arz suggested another offensive against Italy, and the two even agreed for an attack on Romania for late September, codenamed Fangstoss. King Ferdinand had refused to sign the Treaty of Bucharest that ended the war, and the Central Powers believed they might have to resort to force to compel him to do so. Romania was surrounded on all sides, largely occupied by the Germans, and had been forced to demobilize, but the Central Powers only really had minimal occupation forces in the area. Events would ultimately move faster than the plans for Fangstoss; Romania would eventually re-enter the war, but on its own terms.
Today in 1917: China Declares War on Germany
Today in 1916: Threatened US Railroad Strike Endangers Allied Munitions Supplies
Today in 1915: Russians Sortie from Kovno
Today in 1914: British Expeditionary Force Commander Sir John French Arrives in France
Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.
“They are great people – the
boches – for putting up signs”
“They are great people – the
boches – for putting up signs; in fact the only thing that ever tempted me to
wish I was a Fritz, is the careful, the perfect, the all-inclusive,
nothing-forgotten manner in which they mark their roads and villages – Unlike
the French, notorious for the careless way in which they conscientiously omit
signs where signs should be. The Germans mark every village with a great sign,
and road directions; every cave or cellar is so marked together with the number
it will hold; no path or trail is too insignificant to be undeserving of a
beautiful “wegweiser”. The French leave up the civilian
signs and call it a day – if they have been shot down, then tant pis!”
Lying or Four Sitting – From the Front in a Ford
soccer game; France wins 1-0 over England – and this evening, boxing match!”
soldier, cook, & PoW’s diary in a camp in Germany. Histoire du football
Illustration by WW1 French soldier
Claudius Denis – “Souvenir of my captivity by the barbarians – The allies play soccer” This drawing shows the allies PoWs watching a soccer
game – note the different types of uniforms of this international crowd of
allies PoWs – Here, the 10 first photos, PoW Claudius Denis’s drawings while in captivity.
‘Thursday July 11 1918 – Worked on cars
& sent to Oigny in the Afternoon. It’s very quiet here as the Boches
have evacuated their old positions in front of Faverolles and have gone on higher
ground so that in some places their new lines are over a kilometer from the
French first line.’
July 11 1918, Tournai–The flu pandemic had, by mid-summer, crossed the Atlantic with the Americans and was afflicting soldiers on both sides of the war. The effects were more pronounced for the Germans, who were shorter on manpower in the first place and were planning two large offensives for the near future. It should be stressed that the flu in the summer of 1918 did not follow the same pattern as the more famous and deadly flu that hit in the fall; mortality was not unusually high, and young people were not disproportionately affected. Nevertheless, the first cases had already caused issues during Operation Gneisenau in June. The next offensive, directed mainly at Rheims, would go forward on July 15 regardless, but worries began to mount for the long-delayed Operation Hagen, aimed at the British in Flanders and currently planned for August 1. On July 11, Crown Prince Rupprecht, in charge of executing Operation Hagen, seriously considered postponing it due to the flu; too many soldiers were incapacitated by it, and it would certainly interfere with the large movement of men back to Flanders that would be necessary over the next three weeks. Rupprecht decided against a postponement, and troop transfers would go ahead as planned, beginning as early as July 16–and by August, the flu pandemic had subsided for the time being. While ultimately Operation Hagen would never take place, it would not be because of the flu.
Today in 1917: British Attack Ramadi in 122-Degree Heat
Today in 1916: Final German Attack at Verdun
Today in 1915: Armenians Surrender at Shabinkarahisar
Today in 1914: Kaiser Wilhelm To Wish King Peter of Serbia Happy Birthday by Telegram