Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of The Great War Part Three – All Quiet On The Western Front

November 12, 2018 by oriskany

This week marks the 100th Anniversary of one of the most powerful moments in recent history, the fateful Armistice that effectively ended the First World War on November 11th, 1918. Over the past weeks, we’ve been reviewing the battles that led to this event and trying to bring some small sliver of these engagements to the table top.

The Great War 3A

Armistice Centennial: The Final Days Of WWI Interview

In Part One of this series, we looked at the overall military situation in 1918 - and the opening British, Australian, and Canadian phases of the so-called “Hundred Days” Offensive that would eventually end the war. In Part Two, we focused on battles fought by the Americans and French as the Hundred Days Offensive expanded further south.

Now we’ll move our focus back north again, where the British and their Commonwealth allies unleashed fresh offensives deeper into German-occupied France, this time joined by the Belgians under King Albert. There’s even a division of Northern Irish up here, fighting on almost the same field as they would for the Dunkirk campaign of 1940.

Last Battles

The renewed assault along the Western Front’s northern shoulder opened on 28th September 1918, mounted primarily by the British Second Army and the Belgian Army under King Albert I. As successful as the British had been at Amiens and Arras, and the Americans and French had been in the Meuse-Argonne, from the outset this new offensive in Flanders was perhaps the most successful yet.

The Great War 3B

In what is sometimes called the Fifth Battle of Ypres, British and Belgian troops drove quickly across the old Ypres battlefield, reclaiming everything they’d lost to the German “Georgette Offensive” the previous April. This included all the Passchendaele battlefields, ground soaked in so much blood through previous years.

Nevertheless, the offensive soon bogged down in mud and confusion. Perhaps unprepared for the scale of their own success, the Allies regrouped and shoved again on 14th October, igniting the Battle of Courtrai. Here is where 36th Ulster Division, formerly held in Second Army’s operational reserve, played a leading role in II Corps’ drive deeper into Belgium.

Just to the south, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was set to capitalize on his August victories at Amiens and Arras-Bapaume (“Third Somme”), he launched First, Third, and Fourth Armies into the Battles of Cambrai (1918) and the St. Quentin Canal.

The Great War 3C

Again, the Allies (spearheaded by Australians and Canadians, assisted by the French supporting from the south) made excellent headway. But the fighting here was especially brutal. The Canadians, in particular, had a very tough job at St. Quentin Canal, where they were also up against defences of the “Hindenburg Line” (German name: Siegfriedstellung - Siegfried Position)

Yet even once this line was cracked, the Germans were able to stage a coherent defence along with a new line, based this time on the town of Cambrai itself. This was broken in a new assault starting 8th October, so the Germans staged a new one along the River Selle starting on October 17th, then another one on the River Sambre.

The Canadians started an advance on the Sambre line on November 11th, with Haig’s full forces committed in a set-piece assault on November 4th. The Germans cracked but fell back yet again, with the Canadians clearing the city of Mons on November 11th, widely regarded as the last major action of the Great War.

The Great War 3D

Allied casualties here were actually some of the highest of the war. The British and their allies suffered 350,000 killed and wounded since the start of the Battle of Amiens in August, with 140,000 just at Cambrai and St. Quentin.

Eleventh Hour

By the end of September, even the most diehard German imperialist could tell the war was spinning out of control. The battlefield situation was bad enough, but the home front was falling apart as well. Four years of war and British naval blockade had ruined the economy, leading to starvation, civil unrest, and potential communist revolt.

The Great War 3E

The idea of a settled peace was far from new. For years, Belgium’s King Albert I had been working for some kind of “no victory, no vanquished” settlement. But he’d been frustrated by militant factions in both camps, leaders convinced that victory was always “just within reach” and that they “owed it to the dead” to win the war outright.

In September 1918, the German Supreme Army Command (Oberste Heeresleitung, or OHL) advised the government that the German front was about to collapse. The Chancellor resigned, and a new one was appointed on October 3rd with a directive to contact American President Woodrow Wilson for an Armistice.

The Germans hoped for a better deal from the Americans because of Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” a set of principles set forth in January outlining his vision for “a just and secure peace, not merely a new balance of power.” Wilson wanted a strong, stable Germany, and a new “League of Nations” to mediate future international disputes.

European leaders, especially in war-ravaged France and Britain, had little time for Wilson’s idealism. Nor did many hawks in America. Negotiations nevertheless went forward, leading to a fateful meeting in a railroad car in the Compiegne Forest.

The Great War 3F

Through three days of tense negotiations, German delegates at Compiegne were beset with harsh terms virtually dictated by Marshal Ferdinand Foch (Supreme Allied Commander). Finally, Germans were forced to yield to Allied terms, and both sides agreed an Armistice would take effect at 11:00 AM, 11th November.

Thus was set the fateful “eleventh hour of the eleventh day or the eleventh month” for the war to officially end. Yet this agreement was reached at 5:00 AM, leaving six hours until the Armistice actually took effect. The Germans asked for an immediate “battlefield cease-fire” until the formal Armistice, but Foch rejected this out of hand.

Thus began six of the most tragic and wasteful hours in the history of modern warfare. Full-scale fighting actually increased, leading to 2,738 men killed and 8,206 wounded. This actually exceeds the statistical median for a comparable six-hour period of the war (November, time of day, no major offensives).

The Great War 3F

There are many reasons these attacks persisted and even intensified. Some were sparked by vengeance, some by madness. Senseless, last-minute assaults were mounted to gain some imaginary advantage or prestige position. And it wasn’t just the officers, sometimes the men themselves defied orders to inflict some last measure of payback or vindication.

Private George Edwin Ellison, a coal miner from Leeds serving with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, was the last British soldier killed in World War One. Part of the aforementioned advance on Mons, he died less than ninety minutes before the Armistice took effect, hit while on patrol just outside the city.

Augustin Trébuchon was the last French soldier to be killed, part of an insane attack ordered “at utmost speed and regardless of cost” toward the Meuse River that killed or wounded 91 men. Trébuchon was shot trying to tell his comrades that hot soup would be served after the Armistice.

He died with the cease-fire just ten minutes away. Embarrassed by the senseless order, the French Army initially lied about his death, recording the date as November 10th.

The Great War 3H

Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was one of five men who decided to clear occupied houses along a canal facing Ville-sur-Haine. Price was shot by a German sniper. Comrades and a Belgian nurse on the scene tried to help, but he died at 10:58, just two minutes before the guns fell silent. He is recognized as the last British Empire fatality of the Great War.

Henry Gunther was the last American killed, a private who’d been broken from sergeant for writing home negatively about the war. Since then, he’d been obsessed with proving himself to regain his rank. As the final minutes of the war ticked away, he disobeyed orders and advanced on his own against a German machine gun roadblock.

The amazed Germans tried to wave him off. He fired at them, and was shot in turn and died instantly. The Armistice took effect...seconds later. He was posthumously re-promoted to sergeant.

A Shadow Of The Future

Even after the guns had fallen silent, the Great War wasn’t technically over. The Armistice was only a cease-fire pending the finalization of the Treaty of Versailles, not signed until well into 1919. During this time, Allied armies occupied the Rhineland and the naval blockade of Germany persisted.

The Great War 3I

Almost immediately a wave of betrayal swept through Germany. They’d expected somewhat fair treatment from the Americans, but Wilson’s views were more or less overruled by the British and especially French at the Paris Peace Conference. Furthermore, isolationists in Congress wouldn’t permit the US to join the new League of Nations Wilson himself had proposed.

At the conference, the British and French put the hammer down hard on Germany. Vast tracts of German territory were taken. More was occupied. Almost 50 billion marks were demanded in immediate reparations, with about 80 billion more extending forward, completely ruining a German economy that was already in a shambles.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was sloppily disbanded, the map of Eastern Europe carved up into “artificial states” that would cause decades of tension - and even all-out war and genocide in the Balkans - well into the 1990s.

The Great War 3J

But the worst results of the Versailles Treaty were in Germany itself. The army felt betrayed, forced to accept defeat even though they’d never surrendered. The Navy sank most of their own ships in Scapa Flow rather than hand them over to the British. One of the German Armistice delegates would be assassinated by extremists as a “traitor.”

From the political and economic chaos of post-war Germany arose a flock of right-wing nationalist political parties. The labour strikes and economic turmoil that helped end the war were blamed on communist sympathizers and Jews, with horrific consequences to come. The Versailles reparations only made such turmoil many times worse.

The Great War 3K

One such party was the National Socialists German Workers’ Party, or NSDAP, later shortened to “Nazi.” Their leader was an embittered Austrian who’d served with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, decorated with the Iron Cross at the 1918 Battle of Soissons.

Adolf Hitler would blame the Allies for Germany’s woes and because of the Treaty of Versailles, people had a reason to listen. Rarely has a document so clearly ended a war, and started the next war, with the same stroke of the pen.

Conclusion

That’s going to do it for another article series, everyone. As always, I’d like to thank Ben, Sam, and Lance for their facilitation that allows me to publish these articles, and of course the whole OTT / BoW team for supporting this kind of commemorative material on the site.

The Great War 3L

Most of all, thanks to all of you, the community, for taking the time to read these articles. By doing so you prove that this hobby really can be more than “just toy soldiers.” We can take history and, in our own small way, become part of that story, keeping it alive and close to our hearts.

So whether it’s a Great War-themed game you run on your table, posting a comment below, or just a quiet pause sometime this week, we can each take a reflective moment … and remember.

We owe the men of November 1918 at least that much.

"By the end of September, even the most die hard German imperialist could tell the war was spinning out of control..."

Supported by (Turn Off)

"...you prove that this hobby really can be more than “just toy soldiers.” We can take history and, in our own small way, become part of that story, keeping it alive and close to our hearts"

Supported by (Turn Off)