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Webmatters : Armistice 1918: The German decision to ask for an armistice

Armistice

Ludendorff and von Hindenburg

28th September 1918

General Erich Ludendorff was ever a man of mixed emotions and throughout the 28th had been suffering from a severe bout of depression. Enclosed in his office at the OHL in Spa, Belgium, he raged against the world for the setbacks his armies were suffering as the Allied and American armies pressed them back across the entire Western Front.

The Americans never considered themselves as Allied as they had never been bound by treaties or alliances.

By 1800 hours he had recovered his composure sufficiently to walk down the stairs to speak with Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.

The two men had formed a solid partnership during the war and it was perhaps no great surprise that each had come to the same conclusion: Germany needed to seek an armistice. She could not win the war.

The following day the two military leaders met with the Kaiser; the Chancellor, von Hertling and the Foreign Secretary, von Hintze.

Ludendorff voiced his fears to the gathered meeting. He stressed the gravity of the situation and asked for suggestions as to how the nation back home could be prepared for the possibility that the much heralded victory of spring could turn into something less palatable by winter.

Somebody would have to be blamed, and it was important that the fault was not laid at the door of the military. The solution to the problem was in the blaming of the politicians.

It was agreed that a parliamentary government should be formed and at that, Von Hertling resigned. The Kaiser eventually persuaded his brother-in-law Prince Max of Baden to accept the position.

The 1st German Note

On the 2nd October 1918 the new German government were given an outline of the situation by the Military Liaison Officer to the Reichstag. In summary – the war was lost.

It was made clear that every day that the government stalled in asking for an armistice the army would lose ground.

Prince Max, however, did not want to declare Germany’s weakness to the world and insisted on the Army formally demanding the government to open negotiations for an armistice with the enemy.

Hindenburg produced a note which reiterated the demand of the 29th September for immediate efforts to be made to conclude a peace. The German army, he said, was standing firm but the situation was becoming acute. They needed to think of saving the lives of their brave soldiers.

No doubt trying to ensure that everything was documented and therefore accountable, Prince Max wrote out a list of pertinent questions.

How much longer could the army hope to hold out beyond the frontier ? Was a collapse imminent ? Did the German High Command realise that seeking terms now would not only put Alsace-Lorraine at risk but also the other German colonies ?

Ludendorff’s reply avoided any form of response other than: …our demand of the 29th September…

A request was formulated on the 4th October and wired to Washington on the 5th.

That same day Kaiser Wilhelm II issued an Order of the Day announcing the decision to make an offer of peace to the opposing powers. In explaining this about-turn he cited the collapse of the Macedonian Front, with the Bulgarians having asked for an armistice on the 27th September.

The Germans were seeking to use President Woodrow Wilson as an intermediary as his proposed list of fourteen points were less unsavoury than anything the French might come up with.

 

The Allies respond

On hearing of what became known as the First German Note the French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau suggested to his allied counterparts that the government representatives should draw something up and then ask the military for their input and considerations.

The Note was a good sign but not one that necessarily suggested that Germany was finished militarily. On their own side there were worries that if an armistice was granted for a short period, and things fell through, the British and French would find it difficult to re-start their war effort.

An initial list of eight points was drawn up to act as a broad working document.

  1. Total evacuation by the enemy of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy
  2. The Germans to retire behind the Rhine into Germany
  3. Alsace-Lorraine to be evacuated by German troops without occupation by the Allies
  4. The same conditions as (3) to apply to the Trentino and Istria
  5. Serbia and Montenegro to be evacuated by the enemy
  6. Evacuation of the Caucasus
  7. Immediate steps to be taken for the evacuation of all territory belonging to Russia and Rumania before the war
  8. Immediate cessation of submarine warfare

Clemenceau stated that the terms had to be reasonable. He did not want soldiers to die just because the Allied Supreme War Council could not agree on reasonable conditions.

The list of eight points was forwarded to the various Military Representatives of the War Council who were only given an evening to look over the document before being asked to offer their opinions the following day.

In essence they accepted the list but added that they wanted Allied prisoners released and all German forces west of the Rhine disarmed; in other words, most of them.

They also said that not only should Alsace-Lorraine be evacuated but that certain strategic locations should be occupied.

Clemenceau also asked Maréchal Ferdinand Foch as Commander in Chief on the Western Front to offer his own thoughts. The Generalissimo revealed that he considered Alsace-Lorraine as much invaded as Belgium and France and sought its restoration to France immediately. He stressed two points:

  • Germany and her allies had to evacuate all occupied territory.
  • The Allies would occupy the left bank of the Rhine plus a number of bridgeheads on the right bank.

Foch would appear to have already been envisioning war reparations (which went against Wilson’s 14 Points) and was seeking territorial guarantees to ensure that these were met.

The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George felt that the military’s proposals would never be acceptable to Germany. However Foch was already planning his troop requirements for 1919 so he may not have been expecting a rapid finish to the war.

The Allies were trying to balance what they ultimately wanted in a peace treaty with what they thought they could gain immediately in an armistice. However, with the danger that having stopped fighting the Allies themselves would not be able to return to a war footing they realised that the armistice would have to start very close to an eventual peace treaty.