Germany in late 1918

Germany in late 1918
German revolutionaries take to the streets in 1918

Germany in late 1918 was a nation on the brink of defeat. With hindsight, the capitulation of Germany seems to have been inevitable: she was surrounded, starved, outnumbered by her enemies and failed by her allies. Yet only a year before, most Germans – and indeed some neutral observers – had been anticipating a German victory in Europe. Two revolutions in Russia in 1917 spelled the end of Russia’s involvement in World War I; by late 1917 the Russians had begun negotiations for a peace treaty. With the war on the Eastern Front over, Germany had more than a million men she could relocate to the Western Front. The United States’ April 1917 declaration of war loomed as a potential obstacle – but the German General Staff believed a final major offensive could break through weakened Allied defences before any significant influx of American troops.

In November 1917 Hindenburg authorised plans for this major offensive, which was scheduled for the following spring. Its objective was the penetration of the Western Front at two of its weaker points.  One army would advance to threaten Paris and force the exhausted French to sign an armistice; another larger force would outflank British forces, push them north and hem them in along the North Sea coast, forcing a surrender. To prepare for this offensive, German commanders ordered every Western Front division to release its most capable battle-hardened soldiers. These men were organised into battalions of shock troops called Sturmmann (‘stormtroopers’); they were given training in how to infiltrate enemy lines through pre-determined weak points.

The Spring Offensive, as this last German assault became known, began in March 1918. The advances of the Sturmmann were initially successful and led to incursions and rapid advances into enemy-held territory. In some areas the Western Front was pushed back 60 kilometres, its most significant movement since 1914. German troops advanced close enough to Paris to allow them to shell the city with a massive artillery piece. But much like the Schlieffen Plan of 1914, the advances of the Spring Offensive proved impossible to sustain. The stormtroopers moved more quickly than their supply lines, so constantly found themselves short of food, ammunition and reinforcements. The use of Germany’s best troops meant they suffered a higher rate of casualties, while the quality of rear defensive positions was weakened. The attack gained considerable ground but at a significant cost, and by July 1918 it had lost its momentum. Almost one million German soldiers died in a six month period. Hindenburg’s advisors suggested 1.1 million new soldiers would be needed to sustain the war into 1919 – but that conscription would barely fill one-quarter of this quota.

The harvests of 1917 produced 12 million tons, down from 21 million tons before the war. A disproportionate share of food was set aside for the military: civilians received 33 per cent of the grain, though they comprised 67 per cent of the population. Germans received pitifully low amounts of meat (12 per cent of pre-war levels) fish (five per cent) and eggs (13 per cent). Farmers, able to grow their own produce, were coping – but conditions in German cities had become drastic. There were reports of malnourished factory workers collapsing at their machinery, of widespread outbreaks of dysentery, and of gangs of skin-and-bones children begging on major streets. Civilian deaths in 1918 increased by more than 200,000 from the previous year, mainly from starvation. Ten per cent of hospital patients, including many women in childbirth, were reported to have died from malnutrition.

“The army, it could be argued, had fought a heroic battle and would therefore maintain its prestige in the eyes of the nation, after the war. The fleet, on the other hand, had spent most of the war bottled up in Wilhelmshaven and Kiel. It was expected that the country would never wish to rebuild a navy that had proved so useless. A spectacular battle in the North Sea was supposed to rectify this. When ordering that thousands of sailors be sent to their deaths in a final do-or-die battle, the admiralty had its own future in mind. But the sailors wanted to go home rather than die as heroes in the North Sea… The ‘revolution from below’ had broken out.”
Volker Berghahn, historian

By September 1918, the situation had become drastic. The arrival of American and British Commonwealth troops on the Western Front had forced German forces there to retreat; the Spring Offensive had failed utterly and an invasion of Germany itself now seemed likely. Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had effectively acted as military dictators since 1916, concluded that the war could not be won; Ludendorff sank into a severe depression and was later sacked by the kaiser. On September 29th the German High Command, encouraged by US president Woodrow Wilson’s conciliatory fourteen-point peace plan, sought an armistice from the Allies; this was subsequently refused. Rumours that Berlin was seeking an armistice reached the ranks of the military, which sparked dissent, disorder and rebellion. Commanded to engage the Allied fleet in one last battle, German sailors at Kiel mutinied; they refused the orders, occupied their base and drafted a list of demands – including an end to the war and the introduction of civilian government.

The Kiel mutiny marked the death knell for the German imperial government. It now seemed that the kaiser and his generals were unable to control the military. In addition, left-wing political groups, comprised of communists and SPD members, were forming across Germany. These groups control in provinces and cities across Germany, including Bavaria, Hanover, Brunswick and Frankfurt. The German Revolution, as it became known, had begun.

1. In late 1917, German leaders still held high hopes of achieving victory in the war.
2. A Spring Offensive in 1918 was initially successful but eventually stalled due to inadequate personnel and supplies.
3. Germany’s civilian population suffered severe food shortages, caused by an Allied blockade and domestic policies.
4. With an invasion of Germany imminent, its leaders began seeking an armistice, triggering civilian and political unrest.
5. The Kiel mutiny of October 1918 instigated the German Revolution, which ended both the war and the reign of the kaiser.

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