Pre­ced­ing art­icle: Wilson and the Four­teen Points


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Amer­ic­an troops attack­ing on the order of John J. Per­sh­ing

The Ger­man army was still slow­ing down Allied pro­gress in late Octo­ber, but, clearly, their stand was the next-to-last act of the drama: some­thing had to give. In the event, it was the Kais­er’s favour­ite toy, the High Seas Fleet, the navy.

With the Ger­man empire in its death throes, two groups in the Ger­man navy, first the admir­als, then the sea­men, took mat­ters into their own hands. The sub­mar­ine weapon had been sheathed but the High Seas Fleet remained a power­ful force. Enraged by the U-boat decision, Scheer and the Nav­al Staff decided to use the sur­face ships in one last offens­ive thrust, a bold vari­ation on earli­er unsuc­cess­ful attempts to lure the Grand Fleet over a U-boat ambush. The dif­fer­ence this time was that the Ger­mans inten­ded to fight a battle wheth­er or not the U-boats had man­aged to reduce the Grand Fleet’s numer­ic­al superi­or­ity.

Fur­ther, the Ger­man admir­als did not care wheth­er the High Seas Fleet won or lost; they cared only that it inflict heavy dam­age on the Grand Fleet. Hip­per agreed with Scheer that “an hon­our­able battle by the fleet –
even if it should be a fight to the death – will sow the seed for a new Ger­man fleet of the future.” Besides pre­serving hon­our, a battle that inflic­ted severe dam­age on the Grand Fleet might also influ­ence the peace nego­ti­ations in Germany’s favour. (42)

Kept secret from the Ger­man gov­ern­ment, the scheme devised to bring everything that floated to bear against the Roy­al Navy: eight­een Dread­nought-type battle­ships, five battle cruis­ers, twelve light cruis­ers and sev­enty-two des­troy­ers. The tac­tic­al plan was to tempt the Grand Fleet to pur­sue the High Seas Fleet over a bar­ri­cade of mines and U-boats, which would reduce the Brit­ish numer­ic­al superi­or­ity enough to allow the Ger­mans to win the day or die in glory. To entice the Brit­ish admiralty’s atten­tion, Hip­per, pro­moted to Fleet Admir­al, envis­aged raids on Brit­ish ports and bom­bard­ments of coastal cit­ies. A spe­cial group of cruis­ers and des­troy­ers was to rattle the Brit­ish cage by sail­ing into the Thames estu­ary and attack­ing the loc­al ship­ping. When the Grand Fleet des­cen­ded to end the nuis­ance, the Ger­mans would be ready. Scheer, now nav­al C-in-C, and Hip­per both hoped that “a tac­tic­al suc­cess might reverse the mil­it­ary pos­i­tion and avert sur­render.” (43)

Battle Plan for Octo­ber 31

This was either remark­able optim­ism or com­plete delu­sion. Scheer approved Hipper’s plan on Octo­ber 27, and twenty-two U-boats headed out to set a trap. The rest of the fleet was called on to assemble in Jade Bay, where their unex­pec­ted pres­ence caused ado galore. Instances of deser­tion had already occurred at Cux­haven, and con­tin­ued among the crews of the battle­ships that arrived in the bay dur­ing Octo­ber 29. The con­cen­tra­tion of all the big ships in one port could not mean any­thing but an oper­a­tion being laid on, and the scut­tle­butt soon con­firmed that the next morn­ing would bring the order to weigh anchor. No sail­or had doubts as to for what pur­pose. The crews of the battle­ships “König”, “Kron­prinz Wil­helm”, “Mark­graf”, “Kais­er­in”, “Thürin­gen” and “Hel­go­land” hois­ted red flags and thus declared their insur­rec­tion; “on all these ships, sea­men had no interest in ‘an hon­our­able death for the glory of the fleet’; they wanted sur­render, dis­charge and per­mis­sion to go home.” (44)

The SMS Thürin­gen was one of the ships to lead the revolu­tion ...

Around 10 pm on Octo­ber 29, Hip­per found most of his fleet inop­er­at­ive, and when, on the next morn­ing, the mutiny spread to the battle­ships “Friedrich der Grosse” and “König Albert”, the sortie had to be abor­ted. To quench fur­ther insub­or­din­a­tion, Hip­per ordered the three battle­ship squad­rons to sep­ar­ate and return to their home ports of Wil­helmshaven, Cux­haven and Kiel. “Thürin­gen” and “Hel­go­land”, how­ever, did not move an inch, and Hip­per called on a bat­talion of loy­al mar­ine infantry to have their crews arres­ted, shackled and imprisoned. (45)

Soldier’s Coun­cil of the “Prin­zre­gent Luit­pold”.

Hipper’s attempts at enfor­cing dis­cip­line only stoked the fire, and by divid­ing the battle­ship squad­rons to three har­bours he only suc­ceeded in spread­ing dis­obedi­ence fur­ther. When the 3rd Squad­ron arrived at Kiel on Novem­ber 1, car­ry­ing chained sea­men by the hun­dreds, it was greeted by four thou­sand rebel­li­ous mar­iners and dock hands that had helped them­selves to arms by break­ing into the well-stocked arsen­als and deman­ded the cap­tives’ release. The next day saw the estab­lish­ment of pro­vi­sion­al sail­ors’ and work­ers’ coun­cils, a call for a gen­er­al strike by the uni­ons, and the tak­ing over of port and town by Novem­ber 4. A posse of mutin­eers set out to arrest the com­mand­ing admir­al, Prince Hein­rich of Prus­sia, Wilhelm’s broth­er, who…

Sail­ors demon­strate in Kiel

was forced to flee for his life, hid­ing behind a set of false whiskers and the red flag fly­ing on his car. Even so, the car was shot at sev­er­al times, the driver was ser­i­ously wounded, and the Prince was forced to take the
wheel him­self in a mad dash for the Dan­ish fron­ti­er at Flens­burg
. (46)

Soon the mutiny fostered open calls for revolu­tion, and as coastal ves­sels spread the mes­sage to the smal­ler port towns, the rail­ways spread the germs of revolt over the coun­try. Com­mit­tees of revolt­ing sail­ors and sol­diers brought their demands to the burgh­ers of any town they entered: an imme­di­ate armistice, the abdic­a­tion of the Kais­er and the form­a­tion of a new, demo­crat­ic and Repub­lic­an gov­ern­ment. Still, the news was sketchy in many places, and in an attempt to find out exactly had happened in Kiel, Chan­cel­lor Prince von Baden sent an embassy of two Reich­stag depu­ties to the town: his friend Con­rad Hauß­mann and the former butcher and journ­al­ist Gust­av Noske, a rep­res­ent­at­ive of the Social Demo­crats. When the emis­sar­ies arrived at the town’s rail­way sta­tion, they were greeted by a crowd whose appar­ent revolu­tion­ary resi­li­ence con­vinced Noske to hold an impro­vised speech in which he essen­tially prom­ised the listen­ers that their demands were soon to be met. The same even­ing he was able to inform Ber­lin about the details of the revolt, adding that the crowd had elec­ted him to the post of revolu­tion­ary gov­ernor of Schleswig-Hol­stein. (47)

The Revolu­tion spread like a wild­fire ...

In the mean­time, suf­fer­ing on the West­ern Front was much increased by the return of the so-called Span­ish Influ­enza, which, des­pite the name, seems to have ori­gin­ated at Fort Riley, Kan­sas. (48) [FN 1] There had been an early out­break of influ­enza in the sum­mer, sub­tract­ing about 400,000 sol­diers from the already weakened Ger­man lines and per­haps a com­par­able num­ber from the Allied trenches, but the second out­break proved both more con­ta­gious and leth­al. Arriv­ing Amer­ic­an troop ships brought the epi­dem­ic to the great debark­a­tion ports; the sol­diers infec­ted the French, who in turn infec­ted the Brit­ish, and both their POW’s in turn infec­ted the Ger­mans.

Fort Riley sol­diers at Camp Fun­ston

[FN 1] The Influ­enza Epi­dem­ic of 1918/19 undoubtedly deserves its own blog entry. Please refer the Wiki­pe­dia art­icle in this con­text.

Oddly, the dis­ease struck hard­est at the fit­test, par­tic­u­larly young men in their prime. Troop­ships laden with men packed closely togeth­er became float­ing pest holes. An Amer­ic­an con­voy arriv­ing at Brest on Octo­ber 8 in the midst of the Meuse-Argonne cam­paign had 4,000 men dis­abled by the flu, with 200 already bur­ied at sea. Two hun­dred of the sick car­ried off the “Leviath­an” died with­in days. …

The epi­dem­ic posed a dilemma for Pres­id­ent Wilson. Since mil­it­ary camps had become hot­houses for spread­ing the infec­tion, orders for 142,000 men sched­uled to report for induc­tion late in Septem­ber were can­celled. Should he, Wilson wondered, also can­cel the embark­a­tion of troop­ships?

On Octo­ber 8, he met with the army’s gruff chief of staff, Gen­er­al Peyton March, to ask his guid­ance. Both men accep­ted that to cram sol­diers into the ships was to pass a death sen­tence on thou­sands of them. But Per­sh­ing was plead­ing des­per­ately for replace­ments, espe­cially since he had 150,000 men down with the flu. Just two days before Wilson and March met, Prince Max had made his appeal to the pres­id­ent to bring about peace. Wilson and March recog­nized that the surest guar­an­tee of defeat­ing the Ger­mans was to con­tin­ue the deliv­er­ies of Amer­ic­ans to France, now swell­ing to an aver­age of 50,000 weekly. How might the Ger­mans react if they learned that the pres­sure was off because the Amer­ic­an man­power pipeline had shut down? March told Wilson, “Every such sol­dier who has died [from influ­enza] has just as surely played his part as his com­rade who has died in France. The ship­ment of troops should not be stopped for any cause.” The troop­ships con­tin­ued to sail. (49)

On Octo­ber 27, Prince Max sig­nalled Pres­id­ent Wilson that all his demands were to be met. Tech­nic­ally, it was of course not his decision but his cousin’s Wil­helm, but Max had, cau­tiously, pre­ferred not to inform the Kais­er of the clause in Wilson’s demarche of Octo­ber 23, which seemed to demand the abol­ish­ment of the mon­archy. He would cross this par­tic­u­lar bridge when he met it. When Tur­key asked for an armistice on Octo­ber 30 and Aus­tria on Novem­ber 4, Ger­many was alone in the war. The front still held, mira­cu­lously, but in the air hung the smell of revolu­tion. On Octo­ber 29, Wil­helm left Ber­lin for the Supreme Com­mand Headquarter at Spa, in the ques­tion­able belief that his pres­ence close to the front would improve the sol­diers’ pan­ache. But it was the absence, not the pres­ence, of the Imper­i­al per­son that set things in motion, which set free a sort of rebel­li­ous entelechy in the cap­it­al, caus­ing the final, decis­ive, and irre­par­able dis­sip­a­tion of the Ancien Régime.

Reds are stream­ing with every train from Ham­burg to Ber­lin,” Count Harry Kessler, social­ite, dip­lo­mat and Social Demo­crat sup­port­er, recor­ded in his diary on 6 Novem­ber. “An upris­ing is expec­ted here tonight. This morn­ing the Rus­si­an Embassy was raided like a dis­rep­ut­able pot-house and Joffe [the ambas­sad­or] with his staff, depar­ted. That puts paid to the Bolshev­ik centre in Ber­lin. But per­haps we shall yet call these people back.” (50)

By the first Novem­ber week, the mutiny of the sail­ors had been fol­lowed by the insub­or­din­a­tion of many gar­ris­ons, whose unwill­ing­ness to sup­port the fail­ing Prus­si­an state eased the appear­ance of pub­lic upris­ings. Loc­al anarch­ists, Sparta­cists and Inde­pend­ent Social Demo­crats pro­posed vari­ous forms of revolu­tion, and coun­cils took over the admin­is­tra­tion of most big towns. In the first week of Novem­ber, Red flags were car­ried through the streets of Ham­burg, Bre­men, Cologne, Duis­burg, Frank­furt and München. But it was a curi­ously silent rebel­lion, the reports agree, that per­vaded the streets; viol­ence, nay, even over­spir­ited dis­cus­sion was strangely absent. That was to change soon enough. The Spar­tak­us­bund, German’s Bolshev­iks in dis­guise, had quietly con­cen­trated fol­low­ers in the cap­it­al dur­ing the first week of Novem­ber while their lead­ers, Karl Lieb­knecht and Rosa Lux­em­burg, pre­pared the Ger­man Revolu­tion.

Karl Lieb­knecht (1871 – 1919), a co-founder of the Sparta­cist League, foments revolu­tion in Ber­lin

Liebknecht’s Fath­er Wil­helm had been a per­son­al friend of Karl Marx and achieved social­ist saint­hood by becom­ing a co-founder of the SPD and edit­or of its news­pa­per, “Vor­wärts” [‘Ahead’]. His son stud­ied law and eco­nomy in Leipzig and Ber­lin before becom­ing, essen­tially, a law­yer for the social­ist move­ment. He was elec­ted to the Reich­stag for the SPD in 1912 and was the sole mem­ber of the social­ist camp to vote against war cred­its in August 1914. When it became clear that the rest of the party would at least tem­por­ar­ily sup­port the gov­ern­ment, and hence the war, Lieb­knecht began to seek sym­path­izers out­side of the party.

For this object­ive he foun­ded the “Spar­tak­us­bund”, the League of Sparta­cists, named, of course, for the Thra­cian slave Sparta­cus who had led the upris­ing against Rome in 72 – 70 BC. The “Spar­tak­us­briefe” (‘Sparta­cus Let­ters’), the league’s anti-war news­pa­pers, were banned soon enough, and its founder and edit­or found him­self at the Rus­si­an front, where he refused to fight and was con­sequently assigned to a buri­al detail. Released from ser­vice for reas­ons of health, he went straight back to anti-war pro­pa­ganda and headed the Social­ist Peace Demon­stra­tion on May Day 1916 through the streets of Ber­lin. This time he was charged with high treas­on and sent to pris­on for four years, but the sen­tence was com­muted under Prince von Baden’s amnesty for polit­ic­al pris­on­ers of Octo­ber 1918. As soon as he was back on the streets, he “resumed his lead­er­ship of the Sparta­cists, in part­ner­ship with the Pol­ish act­iv­ist, Rosa Lux­em­burg.” (51)

Rosa Lux­em­burg

Frau Lux­em­burg was an early appren­tice in the busi­ness of insur­rec­tion; she had been act­ive in the illeg­al social­ist and anti-Czar­ist move­ments of pre-war Rus­sia since she was a school­girl. (52) Timely escap­ing the atten­tions of the Okhrana, she wound up in Switzer­land where an afflu­ent lov­er allowed her to study at the Uni­ver­sity of Zürich and to sub­sid­ize the illeg­al social­ist parties of Poland and Lithuania. She was per­haps the most extreme social­ist out­side of Rus­sia in these years, advoc­at­ing glob­al and remorse­less revolu­tion. She became a Ger­man by mar­riage in 1903, joined the SPD, and began to throw her weight behind the rad­ic­al wing. Even­tu­ally, she became known as the factot­um of the world revolu­tion and was reg­u­larly thrown in jail, res­cued by her old Swiss flame, and jailed again. She joined Lieb­knecht imme­di­ately after her release by von Baden’s amnesty and began to organ­ize the revolu­tion­ary bur­eau­cracy of the Sparta­cists.

This pois­on­ous pair, like Len­in and Trot­sky in Rus­sia, saw the mod­er­ate Social­ists of the SPD as their prin­cip­al enemies. “The party must be recap­tured from below,” Lux­em­burg wrote, “by mass rebel­lion.” Their allies were the anti-war left-wing­ers who had split from the main SPD in 1917 and formed their own Inde­pend­ent Social Demo­crat­ic Party (USPD), and who were only slightly less extreme than the Sparta­cists. The mod­er­ate Social­ists respon­ded by sneer­ing at them in “Vor­wärts”, con­trast­ing the “patho­lo­gic­al instabil­ity” of Sparta­cus with their own “clear-headed and sens­ible calm.” But while the mod­er­ate Social­ists were main­tain­ing their sens­ible calm, the Sparta­cists were meet­ing return­ing troop trains at the rail ter­mini to beg for or buy rifles, pis­tols and machine guns. (53)

Mean­while, Prince Max faced the prob­lem how to end the war and the mon­archy without invol­un­tary nur­tur­ing the revolu­tion. He con­cen­trated his final efforts on three decis­ive issues: the replace­ment of Ludendorff, the depu­ta­tion of the exec­ut­ive power to a gov­ern­ment able to guide the coun­try peace­fully through the many changes that were to fol­low and, pre­requis­ite for the lat­ter, the abdic­a­tion of his cous­in Wil­helm. On Novem­ber 9 he appoin­ted Gen­er­al Wil­helm Groen­er, son of a NCO from Württem­berg and a trans­port­a­tion and sup­ply spe­cial­ist, to Ludendorff’s former post of Chief of Staff and – quite unlaw­fully – trans­ferred his own office and author­ity as chan­cel­lor of the Reich to the forty-sev­en-year-old former saddle maker and chair­man of the SPD, Friedrich Ebert. The remain­ing task was the most dif­fi­cult. No civil, much less a gov­ern­ment led by social­ists, could exer­cise author­ity with the dis­cred­ited emper­or still in office.

At this point, Wil­helm was at Spa, the imper­i­al head full of fool­ish fantas­ies of how, as soon as an armistice was signed, he would lead his loy­al armies back to Ger­many and restore order. What Prince Max back in Ber­lin recog­nized was that, far from being a solu­tion, Wilhelm’s return was the prob­lem. In Metz, the Allies’ next tar­get, 10,000 Ger­man sol­diers had reportedly mutinied, formed a Soldier’s Coun­cil, and taken over the city. Sim­il­ar over­throws of the old order were erupt­ing all over Ger­many. … Peace seekers inside Ger­many accep­ted that the only act that would pre­vent the masses from swinging over to the rad­ic­als was remov­al of the country’s dis­cred­ited mon­arch. (54)

In the last ten days since his arrival at Spa, Wil­helm had suc­cess­fully man­aged to avoid the intru­sions of real­ity and main­tained that abdic­a­tion was out of the ques­tion. Not quite used to being con­tra­dicted, the Kais­er refused to listen to the explan­a­tions of Prince Max’s mes­sen­ger Drews, Prus­si­an Min­is­ter of the Interi­or. He had “no inten­tion of quit­ting the throne because of a few hun­dred Jews and a thou­sand work­men. Tell that to your mas­ters in Ber­lin.” (55)

Baden recog­nized that he had to talk to his cous­in in per­son. On the even­ing of Novem­ber 8, he called Wil­helm on the tele­phone and tried to cut through the Kaiser’s obstin­acy by mak­ing clear that, in lieu of Wilhelm’s abdic­a­tion, civil war was to rav­age the coun­try. The emper­or did not believe a word. It was incon­ceiv­able, he ripos­ted, that the army would refuse to fol­low him. In addi­tion, since it was Prince Max who had asked Wilson for an armistice, not Wil­helm him­self, he felt quite uncon­cerned. “You sent out the armistice offer,” he said, “you will also have to accept the con­di­tions.” (56) On the next morn­ing, Novem­ber 9, the lead­er­ship of the army, Hinden­burg and Groen­er, called at the Hotel Brit­an­nique in Spa to pay their sov­er­eign a final, neces­sary vis­it.

In Spa, on 9 Novem­ber, the Emper­or met the lead­ers of his army, the insti­tu­tion through which the Hohen­zollern dyn­asty had ris­en to power, and to which it had always looked to sus­tain its dig­nity and author­ity. Wil­helm II still believed that, whatever dis­loy­al­ties were being trans­acted by civil­ian politi­cians in Ber­lin, whatever affronts to order dis­turbed the streets, his sub­jects in field-grey remained true to their oath of mil­it­ary obed­i­ence. Even on 9 Novem­ber he con­tin­ued to delude him­self that the army could be used against the people and the roy­al house pre­served by turn­ing Ger­man against Ger­man.

His gen­er­als knew oth­er­wise. Hinden­burg, the wooden titan, heard him out in silence. Groen­er, the work­aday rail­way trans­port officer, son of a ser­geant, who had replaced Ludendorff, found the sense to speak. He knew, from sound­ings taken among fifty regi­ment­al com­mand­ers, that the sol­diers now wanted “only one thing – an armistice at the earli­est pos­sible moment.” The price of that, to the House of Hohen­zollern, was the Kaiser’s abdic­a­tion. The Kais­er heard him with con­tinu­ing incredu­lity. What about, he asked, the Oath of Alle­gi­ance, on the regi­ment­al col­ours, which bound every Ger­man sol­dier to die rather than dis­obey? Groen­er uttered the unut­ter­able. “Today,” he said, “the Oath of Alle­gi­ance is only a few mean­ing­less words.” (57)

In the chan­cellery in Ber­lin, unable to fol­low events in dis­tant Spa, von Baden con­sul­ted Ebert on the situ­ation on the streets. Ebert warned that unless the abdic­a­tion could be effected with speed, a coup d’état by Sparta­cists and USPD became more likely every hour. Since Prince Max was aware that the mon­archy was fin­ished willy-nilly, he dic­tated, in ante­cedence of actu­al­ity, to an employ­ee of the Wolff Tele­graph Office in Ber­lin a mes­sage stat­ing that “The Kais­er and
King has resolved to renounce the throne
.” (58)

Fire­works of the High Seas Fleet on account of the Kaiser’s Abdic­a­tion
“The Kais­er has renounced the Throne” -after­noon extra by the SPD paper “Vor­wärts” on Novem­ber 9, 1918

When the sen­sa­tion­al cable was brought to the atten­tion of the party in Spa with­in minutes, Wil­helm exploded in a diatribe against all trait­ors, civil­ian or mil­it­ary, but was forced to real­ize that the game was up. At 3:30 pm, on Sat­urday, Novem­ber 9, 1918, he relin­quished the throne, and the Second Empire had come to its end, forty-sev­en years and ten months after its incep­tion in the Hall of Mir­rors in Ver­sailles. On Hindenburg’s advice, Wil­helm left for exile in the early morn­ing hours of Novem­ber 10, to Castle Amer­on­gen in the Neth­er­lands, seat of Count God­ard Bentinck, who would be his host for the next twenty-three years. (59)

Wil­helm II cross­ing the Dutch fron­ti­er

Mean­while, events in the cap­it­al pre­cip­it­ated head over heels. Philip Scheidemann, vice chair­man of the SPD, had rushed from the chan­cellery to the Reich­stag to inform his col­leagues of Ebert’s appoint­ment. Hav­ing a well-deserved lunch in the cafet­er­ia, he was informed that Spar­tak­us and USPD had summoned their fol­low­ers to the Emperor’s town palace, ostens­ibly for the pro­clam­a­tion of the revolu­tion and the launch of the Ger­man Social­ist Soviet Repub­lic. Speed was of the essence.

Scheidemann pro­claim­ing the Ger­man Repub­lic

Scheidemann stormed to the ter­race out­side the Reich­stag lib­rary where he was cheered by a crowd vacil­lat­ing between hope and appre­hen­sion. Impro­vising, Scheidemann informed the people about the Ebert appoint­ment and the cre­ation of a new, repub­lic­an and demo­crat­ic gov­ern­ment, and ended his brief address with the words: “The rot­ten old mon­archy has col­lapsed. Long live the new! Long live the Ger­man Repub­lic!” (60) Mean­while, Sparta­cist del­eg­a­tions had appeared in factor­ies, bar­racks and case­rns and mobil­ized a crowd of thou­sands of sup­port­ers, who were marched to meet at the Roy­al Palace. Lieb­knecht greeted the revolu­tion­ary assembly from the bal­cony of the build­ing, whence formerly the Kais­er had addressed his sub­jects:

Com­rades!” he cried. “The red flag flies over Ber­lin! The pro­let­ari­at is march­ing. The reign of cap­it­al­ism which has turned Europe into a grave­yard is over. We must sum­mon our strength to build a new gov­ern­ment of work­ers and peas­ants, to cre­ate a new order of peace and hap­pi­ness and free­dom not merely for our broth­ers in Ger­many but for the whole world. Who­ever is resolved not to cease from the fight until the Free Social­ist Repub­lic and the world revolu­tion shall be real­ized, let him raise his hand and swear!” The crowd roared back “We swear!” But Lieb­knecht was two hours too late. (61)

Ebert had acted quickly and already per­suaded the USPD, Liebknecht’s sole pos­sible sup­port­ers, to enter into a coali­tion with the SPD by offer­ing the smal­ler party an equal share, three of six posts, in the pro­vi­sion­al gov­ern­ment. The new exec­ut­ive power was named Coun­cil of People’s Com­mis­sars, and was expec­ted to share the admin­is­tra­tion with the work­ers’ and sol­diers’ coun­cils of the cap­it­al until a nation­al assembly could enact a con­sti­tu­tion and sub­sequently install a legit­im­ate gov­ern­ment. Ebert’s cau­tious man­oeuv­ring also per­suaded the lib­er­al and Cath­ol­ic interests in the cap­it­al and much of the coun­try to sup­port the formerly dreaded SPD as a main­stay of the new repub­lic, and thus the gov­ern­ment had at least the legit­im­acy of the pop­u­lar back­ing.

That was, if the revolu­tion could be kept at bay. This indeed seemed to be the case: except for a few skir­mishes on Sat­urday even­ing and Sunday, Novem­ber 10, Ber­lin remained quiet, and, the issue of a Ger­man repub­lic now advanced from the realm of pos­sib­il­ity to actu­al­ity, the eyes of the nation returned to the West­ern Front. The war was still going on, and the Allied Supreme Com­mand had already sched­uled the next offens­ive, against Metz, for Novem­ber 14, and fur­ther attacks were planned far into 1915.

Per­sh­ing, now com­mand­ing close to two mil­lion dough­boys, seemed to long for an aug­ment­a­tion of his mil­it­ary prestige by the con­quest of Sedan, which was by far the most attract­ive tar­get on the south-east­ern part of the front. It was the town where the Prus­si­an army had beaten the French in 1870 and taken Napo­leon III and 100,000 poilus pris­on­ers-of-war.

Math­i­as Erzber­ger

Mean­while, Prince Max had dis­patched a del­eg­a­tion for the nego­ti­ation of the armistice to the French trenches near Haudroy on Novem­ber 7. The party was headed by Mat­thi­as Erzber­ger, chair­man of the Ger­man Cath­ol­ic Centre Party, which sup­por­ted von Baden’s inform­al gov­ern­ment. He was a known paci­fist and the sole well-known face in the Ger­man depu­ta­tion which, except for him, con­sisted of mid-level func­tion­ar­ies of the For­eign Ser­vice, Army and Navy. (62) The embassy was taken, by train, to a rail­way couch in the Forest of Compiègne, sixty-five kilo­metres north-east of Par­is, and the expec­ted gruff treat­ment delivered by Foch and Gen­er­al Wey­gand. The armistice con­di­tions were laid out as fol­lows:

All occu­pied lands in Bel­gi­um, Lux­em­bourg, and France, plus Alsace-Lor­raine, held since 1870 by Ger­many, must be evac­u­ated with­in four­teen days; the Allies were to occupy Ger­many west of the Rhine and bridge­heads on the river’s east bank thirty kilo­metres deep; Ger­man forces must be with­drawn from Aus­tria-Hun­gary, Romania and Tur­key; Ger­many was to sur­render to neut­ral or Allied ports 10 battle­ships, 6 battle cruis­ers, 8 cruis­ers, and 160 sub­mar­ines. She was to be stripped of heavy arm­a­ment, includ­ing 5,000 artil­lery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 aero­planes.

The next demand threw the Ger­man del­eg­ates into des­pair. Though their people already faced fam­ine, the Allies inten­ded to para­lyse the country’s trans­port­a­tion by con­tinu­ing the nav­al block­ade and con­fis­cat­ing 5,000 loco­mot­ives, 150,000 rail­way cars, and 5,000 trucks. Wey­gand droned on through thirty-four con­di­tions, the last of which blamed Ger­many for the war and deman­ded she pay repar­a­tions for all dam­age caused. (63)

The Frech Del­eg­a­tion

The Ger­man del­eg­a­tion was giv­en a sev­enty-two hours dead­line and an oppor­tun­ity to con­vey the Allied demands by radio to Ber­lin. Erzber­ger real­ized that the con­di­tions imposed were far too acri­mo­ni­ous to be entrus­ted to radio, which might be mon­itored, and only informed Prince Max that a cour­i­er was on the way. Then he asked for a pre­lim­in­ary sus­pen­sion of com­bat until a reply was received, point­ing out that four thou­sand lives or more a day could thus be saved. Foch refused, as a favour to Per­sh­ing, who, furi­ous that his grand design of con­quer­ing Ger­many was being foiled, insisted on fight­ing to the last minute; to the great­er glory of the Amer­ic­an Exped­i­tion­ary Forces and his own com­mand.

The Erzber­ger mis­sion overnighted in the Forest of Compiègne near Foch’s rail­way coach, draft­ing let­ters of protest they hoped might have a mod­er­at­ing influ­ence on the Allied con­di­tions. At 8 pm on Novem­ber 10, they received a French report of an inter­cep­ted mes­sage from Ber­lin which con­firmed Erzberger’s pleni­po­ten­tiary powers and author­ized him to sign the instru­ment of truce.

Early French Plan for the par­ti­tion­ing of the Con­tin­ent

A second mes­sage was received, from Hinden­burg, veri­fy­ing the authen­ti­city of the first sig­nal and instruct­ing Erzber­ger to try to have the nav­al block­ade lif­ted, for the sake of the starving women and chil­dren. At 2 am the next morn­ing, Novem­ber 11, the Ger­man depu­ta­tion was led back to the rail­way car for a second round of dis­cus­sions.

Foch, how­ever, remained intransigent, and the sole mod­er­a­tion of terms Erzber­ger achieved was that the Allies “would con­tem­plate the pro­vi­sion­ing of Ger­many dur­ing the Armistice as shall be found neces­sary.” (64) The cease-fire was signed just after 5 am, to take effect by 11:00 of the same day, six hours hence, and the meet­ing was adjourned. All that remained for the sol­diers on both sides of the wire was to spend six more hours in their trenches and the slaughter would be over.

Mat­thi­as Erzber­ger at the armistice at Compiegne

That is, for every­one except the AEF, which was dir­ec­ted by Per­sh­ing to con­tin­ue the attacks sched­uled for the day without regard of the armistice tak­ing effect at 11:00? Since Foch had informed all Allied com­mand­ers, includ­ing Per­sh­ing, in advance of the con­di­tions of the truce, it was clear that whatever ground could be gained in a last-minute offens­ive would be ground the Ger­man were obliged to give up with­in two weeks any­way.

Per­sh­ing did inform his regi­ment­al and divi­sion com­mand­ers that a cease­fire was to take effect on 11:00, but dir­ec­ted his chief of staff that, between 5:00 and 11:00, the AEF was “to take every advant­age of the situ­ation.” (65) Nine out of six­teen U.S. divi­sion com­mand­ers on the West­ern Front inter­preted the absence of spe­cif­ic orders as an incent­ive to launch the sched­uled attacks; sev­en refrained from fur­ther jeop­ard­iz­ing their men lives and limbs.

Thus, nine U.S. divi­sions attacked the enemy on the morn­ing of Novem­ber 11, and since the Ger­mans were forced to defend them­selves wheth­er they wanted or not, almost 11,000 cas­u­al­ties were unne­ces­sar­ily added to the total of the war’s losses. With more than 2700 men dead at the end of these few hours, the last day exceeded the aver­age daily toll of 2,000 dead by far.

Put­ting these losses into per­spect­ive, in the June 6, 1944, D-Day inva­sion of Nor­mandy, nearly twenty-six years later, the total losses were repor­ted at 10,000 for all sides. Thus, the total Armistice Day cas­u­al­ties were nearly 10 per­cent high­er than those on D-Day. There was, how­ever, a vast dif­fer­ence. The men storm­ing the Nor­mandy beaches were fight­ing for vic­tory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fight­ing in a war already decided. (66)

At 11:00 on Novem­ber 11, 1918, the guns ceased fire along the West­ern Front. But it was only in the after­math of the great con­flict that the mem­bers of the old Imper­i­al houses real­ized for how long, in truth, their rel­ev­ance had dimin­ished without their notice. For it turned out that the power of the Hohen­zollern, Habs­burg and Roman­ov dyn­asties had not ended in Feb­ru­ary 1917 or Novem­ber 1918, but in the sum­mer of 1914 or even earli­er – in their driv­ing the old con­tin­ent into war and pes­ti­lence they had, alas, over­looked the shad­ows of nation­al­ism and social­ism linger­ing in the rear mir­ror, forces eager to embrace the Imper­i­al inher­it­ance.


[42] [43] [44] [45] Massie, Robert K., Castles of Steel, Bal­lan­tine Books 2003, ISBN 0−345−40878−0, pp. 773, 775, 775, 776

[57] Kee­gan, John, The First World War, Vin­tage Books 2000, ISBN 0−375−40052−4361, p. 418 – 419

[48] [49] [54] [55] [56] [58] [59] [62] [63] [64] [65] [66] Per­sico, Joseph, 11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour, Ran­dom House 2004, ISBN 0−375−50825−2, pp. 303, 304 – 5, 315 – 16, 316, 317, 318, 318, 306, 307 – 8, 323, 325, 378 – 9

[46] [47] [50] [51] 52] [53] [60] [61] Read, Anthony, The World on Fire, Norton Books 2008, ISBN 978−0−393−06124−6, pp. 26, 27, 28, 29, 29, 30, 32, 32

Next Art­icle: Revolu­tion in Bav­aria and Ger­many

(© John Vin­cent Pal­at­ine 2015/19)

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