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The approach of war
     U-boats and convoys
     Western front
     Germany's armistice
     Forest of Compiègne

Hitler in power
Steps towards war
World War II
To be completed

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U-boats and convoys: 1917-1918

In the spring of 1917, and then again a year later, Germany seems to have two real chances to clinch victory. The first is at sea and the second on the western front.

Germany's advantage at sea early in 1917 is the result of her decision in January to resume all-out submarine warfare. Three months later the success rate is 430 Allied and neutral merchant ships sunk during April alone (of merchant vessels leaving British harbours during that month one out of four fails to return). Both the Germans and the Allies calculate that if losses continue at this rate, the Allies will be starved into submission by the end of the year.


A rapid solution is essential, and it is found in a very simple change of procedure - though one which is considered highly controversial at the time. A proposal is put forward in the British admiralty early in 1917 that merchant ships should cross the Atlantic in convoys. Opponents point out what seems to many at the time blindingly obvious - that such a strategy merely gathers the ships together for a U-boat to pick them off, as a collection of sitting ducks.

But until now each vessel has been setting off on its own for its transatlantic journey, thus dotting the ocean with separate targets which a U-boat is much more likely to encounter. Moreover if ships are grouped together, it becomes feasible to provide an armed escort.


The argument is won by those in favour of convoys, which begin crossing the Atlantic in June 1917. There is an immediate and drastic fall in the number of ships sunk. In the following six months only ten fall prey to U-boats when travelling in convoy. Like fighter planes and bombers and tanks, the convoy system evolves in World War I before becoming a standard feature of later conflicts.

With the advantage at last turning, the Allies now take much more vigorous steps to retaliate against the U-boats. Vast numbers of mines, laid in the Channel and North Sea, bring many underwater victims. And successful raids are launched to block the Belgian harbours where the U-boats have been returning to refuel.


Western front: 1918

The Germans appear to win a second chance of victory on the western front early in 1918. It is by now a matter of urgency. Ludendorff, in command of the German armies, is aware that a decisive blow is essential if Germany is to prevail before the arrival of US troops tips the balance irretrievably.

Between March and June he launches three massive attacks in different parts of the line. They succeed as no such offensive has done in the past three years. Indeed the first, pushing towards Amiens, brings the Germans forty miles into France within a few days. The other two create similar great bulges into French territory.


But Ludendorff fails to make the breakthrough which he requires, either against the French towards Paris or against the British in the direction of the Channel ports. And in July and August he suffers two critical reverses at the hands of the Allied armies, now under the unified command (since April 1918) of the French marshal Ferdinand Foch.

In the second battle of the Marne (from July 18) and in the battle of Amiens (from August 8) the German forces are driven back. In both encounters the Allies make extremely effective use of the one weapon which is exclusively theirs. The attack at Amiens is led by as many as 450 tanks.


With these German defeats the psychological tide of the war finally turns. At the same time the balance of physical power is also tipping. US troops are in action on the western front in large numbers from May 1918, and many more divisions are on their way.

After the battle of Amiens, in August, Ludendorff concludes that the German cause is hopeless. He advises his emperor that peace negotiations should be started before the situation deteriorates further. Meanwhile Germany's allies are all about to drop separately out of the fray.


Germany's armistice: 1918

The German decision to seek an armistice comes with surprising speed after the start of a new Allied push in the west. This is a carefully coordinated assault on three fronts. On September 26 the French and the US 1st army (under John Pershing) advance at the eastern end of the line, near Verdun. A day later the British begin an assault on the central section, between Cambrai and St Quentin. And on the following day a French and Belgian army (commanded by the Belgian king, Albert I) attacks in the north, round Ypres.

Only in the centre is a rapid advance made, similar to the German successes earlier in the year. By October 5 the British, under Haig, are through the much vaunted Hindenburg Line.


These events seem to reinforce Ludendorff's advice (given after August 8) that it is time for an armistice. So does the capitulation of Bulgaria on September 29, opening up a new front to which German resources will need to be diverted if the conflict is to continue.

On October 3 the Kaiser appoints a new chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, who is internationally respected (during the war he has worked with the Red Cross for the welfare of prisoners on both sides). His task is to win Germany a just peace. The obvious channel, among the Allied leaders, is through Woodrow Wilson. During the past year the US president has spoken frequently on the necessary basis for a lasting peace in Europe. His blueprint is enshrined in his famous Fourteen Points.


During the night of October 3 Prince Max sends a message via Switzerland to President Wilson. It asks for an immediate armistice followed by peace negotiations based on the Fourteen Points. Over the next four weeks Wilson and the Allies stipulate various conditions. An armistice will only be signed with a government representing the German people (a direct threat to the Kaiser's autocracy). And its terms will have to ensure that Germany is in no position to renew the conflict before a peace treaty is agreed.

Seeing this as a demand for unconditional surrender, Ludendorff now argues that Germany should fight on. On October 26 Prince Max persuades the Kaiser to dismiss him.


Over the next ten days events give ever greater urgency to Germany's need for an armistice. On October 28 there is the start of a mutiny when the High Seas Fleet in Kiel is ordered into the North Sea (in the hope of a last-minute naval victory which might improve the peace terms). Within days the mood of rebellion spreads through the armed forces and erupts in German cities. On November 3 Austria-Hungary opts out of the war with its own separate armistice.

Prince Max moves swiftly. On November 6 he appoints a commissioner to negotiate for Germany. On November 9 he deposes the Kaiser and hands over his own powers as chancellor to a Social Democrat government, which proclaims a German republic. It is therefore a new but uncertain Germany which approaches the armistice and the peace.


Forest of Compiègne: 1918

The German delegation to the armistice talks consists of three men - the commissioner (a politician, Matthias Erzberger) and two army officers. They set off from Spa, in German-occupied Belgium, to their rendez-vous with the Allies. Their destination is a railway carriage parked on the track at Rethondes in the forest of Compiègne, north of Paris. Here, on November 8, they are confronted by a team led by the Allied commander-in-chief, Marshal Foch.

The terms on offer are uncompromising. In addition to the return of foreign land captured during this war, together with Alsace-Lorraine (won from France half a century previously), German territory to a line 31 miles (50 km) east of the Rhine is to be occupied by Allied troops for up to fifteen years and then be permanently demilitarized.


The advantageous German treaty with Russia is to be annulled. All German submarines are to be appropriated by the Allies, as is much military equipment. The High Seas Fleet is to be interned in Scapa Flow, pending any future decision. And the Allies will continue their blockade of Germany until peace is agreed. In addition there is one further ominous detail. France and Britain have announced they will insist on a postwar settlement not envisaged in Wilson's Fourteen Points - the compensation by Germany for damage done by land, sea or air to civilian property.

For the next two days the small German delegation struggles to improve these terms, mainly using the argument that both sides share an urgent need to prevent revolution in Germany on the Russian pattern.


They win some concessions, particularly in delaying the withdrawal of German troops on the highly sensitive eastern front. But the eventual agreement is nevertheless close to the one imposed from the start by the Allies. Both sides eventually sign at 5 a.m. on November 11. With a fine instinct for the drama of the occasion, the document states that hostilities will cease six hours later. So the great war ends, with memorable precision, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

The Germans certainly expect the peace treaty to follow fairly soon. In the event their nation suffers the economic effects of the Allied blockade for a further six months before peace terms are finally offered.


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