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.