The German surrender came in November 1918 followed the failed Spring Offensive, launched in March that year.
Facing economic exhaustion and starvation, along with the imminent arrival of two million American troops, Berlin launched a last-ditch attempt to break through the Western Front – but after some initial successes, the Spring Offensive was eventually turned back.
An uncertain outcome
By the end of 1917, an Allied victory in Europe seemed far from certain. The Western Front continued to hold firm. The United States had entered the war but Russia, overtaken by socialist revolutionaries, had pulled out.
Across Europe, the threat of strikes or even a workers’ revolution plagued the governments of all major powers. Support for the war slipped to its lowest level among a public weary of casualty lists, food shortages and unfulfilled promises of victory.
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 that victory could be secured with one last bold offensive that would penetrate the Western Front.
Allied military commanders tentatively planned theirs for 1919, by which time there would be two million American troops at their disposal.
German generals wanted to act sooner. The German economy was under considerable strain and unlikely to survive the entirety of 1918 without a major breakthrough and acquisition of land or resources.
In November 1917, a meeting of the German high command drew up plans for this offensive the following spring. The mission was to penetrate the Western Front at its weakest points.
German forces would then pursue two objectives. One branch of the German army would threaten Paris and force an armistice with the French. Meanwhile, a larger section would outflank British forces, push them north and hem them in along the North Sea coast.
To achieve the speed and penetration required for this offensive, German commanders decided on the organisation and mobilisation of a specialised group of soldiers.
Every division along the Western Front was ordered to release its most capable battle-hardened soldiers. These men were organised into battalions of shock troops called Sturmmann (meaning ‘stormtroopers’).
The Sturmmann were given training in how to infiltrate enemy lines through pre-determined weak points.
The offensive begins
When the Spring Offensive began in March 1918, these Sturmmann led the German advance. Their initial advances were 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.
The attack stalls
Like the Schlieffen Plan, however, 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.
By July 1918, the assault had lost momentum. The Spring Offensive gained significant ground but at a significant cost. Germany had lost almost one million men in a six month period.
The Allied counter-attack
German military planners calculated that 1.1 million new soldiers would be needed to sustain the war effort into 1919. They also predicted that conscription would barely fill one-quarter of this quota.
By mid-1918, Americans were arriving in much greater numbers, around 10,000 each day. The Allies were also bolstered by fresh divisions of Australian and Canadian troops. These reinforcements would play a leading role in the Allied 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. Allied troops even managed to penetrate this line at a couple of points.
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 German harvests of 1917 produced only 12 million tons, down from 21 million tons in 1913. A disproportionate share of this was set aside for the military: civilians comprised 67 per cent of the population but received only 33 per cent of the grain.
By 1918, most 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, who grew their own produce, were coping – but the situation in the 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 their food blockade of Germany during the peace negotiations in Paris.
The Central Powers collapse
Germany’s position was also weakened by the steady loss of her Central Powers allies in the autumn of 1918. Berlin’s largest ally in the Balkans, Bulgaria, was the first to sign an armistice with the Allies (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.
The most critical loss was the submission of the Austro-Hungarians. Through 1917-18, the Dual Monarchy had been beset with its own internal political and economic problems.
The 86-year-old emperor Franz Joseph 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.
The Kaiser loses power
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. This was rebuffed by his generals, who told the Kaiser he no longer enjoyed the loyalty of the military.
Wilhelm came under pressure to abdicate the throne but dithered. The decision was ultimately made for him. Wilhelm’s abdication was announced by the German chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, on November 9th, without the Kaiser’s approval or endorsement.
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 come to fruition but it had taken four more Christmases – and millions more lives – than anyone had anticipated.
“By a combination of a superior weapons system or by a sheer volume of munitions available to Britain because of the efficiency of its munitions industry (staffed in 1918 largely by women), the British army had the means to defeat any defensive combination thrown against them by the Germans. This meant that whatever stratagems the Germans now applied in the field, the British could outdo them. The German military machine had been battered and bludgeoned and harried and hammered and crushed by the British. Whatever events were being played out on the German home front, there should have been no disguising the fact that it was the army in the field that had lost the war. It had been stabbed – not in the back, but in the front.”
Robin Prior, historian
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.