In honour of Armistice, today I am writing about an important part of the Great War…. The Road to the Armistice, The reason why this topic is often considered reactionary is that although the Armistice was a pre-arranged agreement, first approached at the beginning of 1918 with President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” for achieving peace in Europe, it did nothing to prevent further casualties as the conflict continued until after the Politicians and the Leaders had finished hashing out their terms and conditions, and a Treaty was signed. During this period of negotiation, tens of thousands of the world’s young men continued to be slaughtered.
The contents of the final draft of the treaty were largely proposed by Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Ferdinand Foch and included the end of hostilities, with subsequent and immediate withdrawal of German troops to behind their own borders, the release and exchange of prisoners from both sides, the preservation of infrastructure including the allowance of access to ensure rebuilding could commence as soon as possible, a demand for reparation costs, the removal of German naval forces, particularly the submarines that had blighted the waters around Europe and their heavy artillery weapons etc, and the conditions for the application of the armistice.
As Wilson drew up the proposition, the war continued. In late September 1918, Paul Von Hindenberg (Supreme Commander of the German Army), Chancellor von Hertling and Kaiser Wilhelm II, met in Spa, Belgium at the Imperial Headquarters where Hindenberg announced that the German forces were fighting a hopeless battle, and this was confirmed by his deputy, General Erich Ludendorff, also at the meeting, that he didn’t expect the German troops to be able to keep up their line for more than another couple of months. The outcome being that Germany should consider Wilson’s proposals for an Armistice. As the notion was considered, hostilities continued.
A formal request for negotiations for a ceasefire was proposed, to be sent to the Entente-Cordiale powers, with the idea that to save face for the German Military, the matter could be placed squarely on the shoulders of Parliament, in the belief that they were the processors of the War, and therefore should be the ones to negotiate a treaty. Von Hertling was replaced as Chancellor just four days later, by Prince Maximillian of Baden, who was famed for his liberal persuasions. Based on President Wilson’s recent speech and his proposal of the “Fourteen Points”, after agreement from the Kaiser, a formal request was sent to Wilson to open negotiations on October 5th.
In a response, Wilson outlined that pre-conditions were the immediate withdrawal of troops, the cessation of hostile submarine activity against Allied shipping naval submarines, and the abdication of the Kaiser. Surrender rather than peace treaties were the order of the day. The German Reich were horrified at the notion their Kaiser should have to step down. Negotiations were terminated and Von Ludendorff had a sudden complete change of opinion regarding the “lost cause” of the Army situation. His ground troops however were reluctant to change their minds, having been led to believe the war was all but over and they were going home. As Ludendorff demanded a return to hostilities towards the end of October, the soldiers began deserting in large numbers.
Ludendorff was replaced by Wilhelm Groener, and the Imperial Government continued with the negotiations. Further delay was caused by the Allied Powers, who although were initially enthusiastic with Wilson’s proposals, they considered them only in terms of undermining the morale of the enemy. As far as a peace treaty was concerned, they felt the proposals lacked merit; some of them were considered even to be unworkable. This would later be borne out when the follow-up Treaty of Versailles put together based on the expansion and consolidation of the fourteen points, took six months to sign, and failed to be ratified by the American Government following the introduction of the League of Nations.
In the last days of October, German Sailors revolted at the Port of Wilhelmshaven; their antipathy to their leaders spread like a virus over the next few days across the whole country. As Wilson sent a final note regarding negotiations to the German leaders, forcing the dispatch of a German Parliamentary delegation headed up by Matthias Erzberger headed for a railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest of France, to meet with Foch’s committee, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and Germany was declared a Republic by its people. Just a few days later, the negotiations complete and signed, only reluctantly following the validation via newspaper that the Kaiser had abdicated, and the signatures confirmed by Foch, an announcement was made at 5am on the morning of 11 November 1918 that on the stroke of 11am, hostilities would cease and the war would be over.
The Treaty of Versailles followed some weeks later and took further months to negotiate and agree; Peace was not actually confirmed until 10th January 1920.