The German surrender was the product of events in 1918. By the end of 1917, an Allied victory in Europe was far from certain. The Americans had come into the war – but Russia, overtaken by socialist revolutionaries, had pulled out. The threat of strikes – or worse still, a workers’ revolution – plagued the governments of all major powers. Across the continent support for the war slipped to its lowest level, the public weary of casualty lists, food shortages and promises of victory that never materialised. Italy, a relative newcomer to the Allies, suffered a costly defeat at the Battle of Caporetto. Sections of the French army, devastated by the butchery at Verdun, were largely useless because of widespread mutiny and desertions. Despite these problems, both the Allies and the Central Powers remained confident they could secure victory with one last bold offensive. Allied military commanders tentatively planned this for 1919, by which time there would be 2 million American troops at their disposal. German generals wanted to act sooner, before the Americans could fully mobilise.
In November 1917 a meeting of the German high command drew up plans for this offensive in the following spring. The mission was to penetrate the Western Front at its weakest points, then pursue two objectives. One branch of the German army would threaten Paris and force the exhausted French to sign an armistice; meanwhile, a larger section would outflank British forces, push them north and hem them in along the North Sea coast, forcing a surrender. To achieve the speed and penetration required for this offensive, German commanders ordered every division along the Western Front to release its most capable battle-hardened soldiers. These men were organised into battalions of shock troops called Sturmmann (meaning ‘stormtroopers’); they were then given training in how to infiltrate enemy lines through pre-determined weak points. When the Spring Offensive began in March 1918, these Sturmmann led the German advance. Their initial advances were rapid and successful: in some areas, the Western Front was pushed back 60 kilometres, its most significant movement since 1914. German troops advanced close enough to Paris that the French capital could be shelled with a massive artillery piece.
But like the Schlieffen Plan, the Spring Offensive was tactically flawed. The forward wave of stormtroopers moved more quickly than their supply lines and constantly found themselves short of food, ammunition and reinforcements. The use of Germany’s best troops in an advance capacity meant they also suffered a higher rate of casualties, while the quality of rear defensive positions was weakened. The Spring Offensive gained significant ground but at a significant cost, and by July 1918 the assault had lost momentum. Germany had lost almost one million men in a six month period. Its military planners calculated that 1.1 million new soldiers would be needed to sustain the war effort into 1919 – but they also predicted that conscription would barely fill one-quarter of this quota. By mid-1918 the Americans were arriving in numbers, around 10,000 each day. The Allies were also bolstered by fresh divisions of Australian and Canadian troops, who would play a leading role in the counter-offensive. Allied forces broke through the German lines at Amiens and the Somme, with considerable loss on both sides. This sparked German retreats up and down the Western Front, with more than two dozen significant battles between August and October. The Germans were pushed back to the Hindenburg Line – a series of defences and fortifications well behind the front – and Allied troops even managed to penetrate this line at a couple of points. Momentum was now clearly with the Allies.
Germany’s situation was further imperilled by her domestic conditions. By the winter of 1917-18, the availability of food in German cities was critically low. The British naval blockade of German ports had halted food imports, and Berlin’s reallocation of agricultural labour to industry affected domestic production. The harvests of 1917 produced 12 million tons, down from 21 million tons in 1913. A disproportionate share of this was set aside for the military: civilians received 33 per cent of the grain, though they comprised 67 per cent of the population. Germans were consuming pitifully low amounts of meat (12 per cent of pre-war levels) fish (five per cent) and eggs (13 per cent). German farmers, able to grow their own produce, were coping – but the situation in many cities had become drastic. There were reports of malnourished factory workers collapsing at their machinery, of widespread outbreaks of dysentery, and of skin-and-bones children begging in groups on major streets. Civilian deaths in 1918 increased by more than 200,000 from the previous year, chiefly because of starvation. Ten per cent of hospital patients, including many women in childbirth, were reported to have died because of food shortages. This suffering spanned the entirety of 1918 and continued through much of 1919, as the Allies continued the food blockade during the peace negotiations in Paris.
Robin Prior, historian
Germany’s position was also weakened by the loss of her allies in the autumn of 1918. Berlin’s largest ally in the Balkans, Bulgaria, signed an armistice with the Allies on September 29th 1918. The Ottoman Empire had endured a series of defeats in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and the Caucasus. Pushed back to the area now held by Turkey, the Ottomans signed an armistice on October 30th. But the most critical loss was the submission of the Austro-Hungarians. Through 1917-18 the Dual Monarchy was beset with its own internal political and economic problems. The 86-year-old emperor Franz Josef had died in November 1916, and his successor, Charles I, had little interest in continuing the war. Through an intermediary, the young emperor secretly attempted to negotiate a peace with the Allies, without the involvement or knowledge of Germany. This offer was rejected but news of it was passed to Berlin; the revelation caused friction between the two Central Powers. Charles I was also confronted by rising nationalist movements in the empire, as ethnic groups – Czechs, Slovaks, Slavs and others – demanded independence. Vienna eventually signed an armistice on November 3rd 1918, ending its participation in the war. A week later, Charles I abdicated his sovereign power over both kingdoms, effectively abolishing the empire.
At the start of November 1918, a sailors’ mutiny in Kiel lit the fuse of revolution in Germany. Within a week more than a dozen major cities were effectively controlled by mutinous soldiers, sailors and left-wing revolutionary groups. Pressured to abdicate, Kaiser Wilhelm stalled for a couple of days, while attempting to organise military units to crush the rebels. Advised by his generals that he no longer enjoyed the loyalty of the military, Wilhelm consented to abdicate the imperial throne. His abdication was announced by the German chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, on November 9th. At this time, German politician Matthias Erzberger was in Picardie, northern France, commencing armistice negotiations with French generals. The ceasefire was signed in a French rail car just before dawn two days later. Six hours later, as per the terms of the armistice, the guns of World War I fell silent. By sheer coincidence, it was 11.00am on the 11th day of the 11th month. The chant which had echoed through the streets of London in August 1914, ‘It’ll be over by Christmas!’, had finally come to fruition – though it had taken four more Christmases and millions more lives than anyone had expected.
1. Germany’s generals staked their war fortunes on a major offensive in 1918, while the Allies planned for 1919.
2. The German Spring Offensive was led by specialist stormtroopers, who pushed back the Allies as much as 60 miles.
3. A number of factors, including shortages of men and munitions, saw the German advance in western Europe slow and stall.
4. The domestic situation in Germany was also deteriorating, due largely to food shortages caused by the Allied blockade.
5. The failure of the Spring Offensive and the loss of her allies in mid- to late-1918 eventually resulted in a German surrender and the signing of a ceasefire on November 11th 1918.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The German surrender” at Alpha History, https://alphahistory.com/worldwar1/german-surrender/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].