FOR THE FIRST time, perhaps, the bigger stories of the week were not on the battlefield.
Not, of course, that the fighting had become easy. All week the Allies continued to press hard — the British marching on Valenciennes, the Americans on both banks of the Meuse, and the French around the Serre and Oiserivers.
The British were quite bullish: on 24th October, they claimed to have taken 9,000 prisoners and 250 guns in the previous 48 hours, but none of it was easy. The Americans, though it hurt to acknowledge it as such, were finding the going particularly tough. They had already attracted much criticism for some of their tactics — most notoriously, for favouring frontal attacks against machine-gun nests. The British and the French had learned years earlier, after spilling industrial quantities of blood, to favour an artillery barrage to soften up the target.
Pershing had, until now, resisted the idea. One of his critics was the remarkable Father Francis Duffy. Having witnessed an earlier attack on these lines in October, he had been moved to ruminate that:
Success is not always the reward of courage. Since 1915, no commanders in the [British and French] armies would dream of opposing to strongly wired and entrenched positions the naked breasts of their infantry. They take care that the wire, or part of it at least, is knocked down by artillery or laid flat by tanks before they ask unprotected riflemen to try conclusions with its defenders. When the wire is deep, and still intact, and strongly defended, the infantry can do little but hang their heroic bodies on it.
Perhaps Pershing’s reluctance to adopt the all-arms strategy of his more experienced allies was a symptom of chippiness. He would not have the Americans patronised by anyone, and that may have made him less suggestible. Perhaps he was also now owning up to his own limitations in handing over command of the two American Armies to Generals Liggett and Bullard. Yet his administrative excellence was the stuff of legend, and there is no reason to believe he did not care deeply for his men.
The intensity of German resistance ensured, whatever tactics were employed, that the Americans were never going to have an easy ride. On the Meuse-Argonne, Supply Sergeant Norvel Clotfelder of the 385th Division noted in his diary on 27th October:
They [Germans] shell roads, bridges, and river every time.Germans have it over us on observation. One shell wounded three this evening.
Have dysentery and fever. Am so weak I can hardly get around. Irregular meals, dead horses, bad water, insufficient covering, and constant nerve tension are enough to kill anyone. Have seen men so badly shell-shocked that they could not be held still when they heard a shell.
The pertinacity of the Germans was a quality no longer shared with their allies. On 27th October, the Austrian Ambassador showed the German Chancellor, Prince Max, a copy of the letter to the Kaiser from Emperor Karl:
It is my painful duty to inform you that my people is neither able nor willing to carry on the war any longer… I must therefore acquaint you with my irrevocable decision to issue within forty-eight hours a request for a separate peace and an immediate armistice.
Sensible fellow. The political realities could no longer be defied. A flurry of recent fighting on the Italian front had done nothing whatsoever to stir the sinews of the Habsburg armies. The Italian Expeditionary Force, which now numbered 83,000 troops, had been baying for some time to emulate the current successes on the Western Front with a victory of its own. A fresh offensive now opened up on 24th October, the anniversary of Austria’s earlier humiliation at Caporetto. This time, in what became known as the battle of Vittorio Veneto, General Caviglia’s Eighth Army, with the British Earl of Cavan’s 10th Army, attacked the Austro-Hungarian forces in the Piave area. Cavan’s force captured Papadopoli Island in the centre of the Piave, crossed the river and broke through the Austro-Hungarian defences, manned by already demoralised troops.
The yields were considerable — 9,000 prisoners were taken on 27th October alone — but there was a cost as well. The 12th Durham Light Infantry, for instance, had to cross the deep waters of the Piave early that day, and were raked by machine-gun fire, losing half the strength of the leading Company. In the end, however, it went well for the Allies. The Italians crossed the Piave on 28th October and, following severe fighting in the Grappa region, entered Alessio in Albania.
According to Private Harry Lamin of the 23rd Division: “It is a bit more like war out here at present, but I hope it turns out a success,and the Austrians retire. I think they want peace bad.”
The ferocity of the fighting on the Italian Front was in marked contrast to its relative quietude in recent months. Shortly beforehand,the Prince of Wales, who was Cavan’s aide de camp, had written to his father,King George V, complaining that:
all of us in Italy really feel very ashamed to be sitting idly on the only allied front where not only are we not advancing and driving [back] the enemy but where there isn’t even an offensive… It really requires a great effort to go on being civil to them [the Italians] and telling them what fine fellows they are… I can’t say the French do.
Here, as in almost every other sphere of his largely meaningless life, the future Edward VIII’s analysis of events was ungenerous.
Nor were the Turks in a position to divert Allied attentions away from the West: they were still retreating on the Tigris, pursued by the British. On 25th October, British cavalry occupied Kirkuk, and Aleppo the next day.
The Australian pilot, Ross Smith, who had only recently been awarded a second bar to his DFC, was one of those currently in action in the skies above Aleppo, often flying for seven or eight hours non-stop. On 24th October, he wrote home to his mother in towering spirits:
It is two years since I joined the sqdn. at Kantara and I have now done 800 hours flying, 200 observing and 600 as a pilot. Contrary to the general rule I still feel as fit as ever & could easily do another 800 hrs. if necessary but I want to get home more than anything now.
Anyway it’s safe flying these days & there is not much to worry about in the shape of Huns or archies & as for getting captured, well the war will soon be over so what’s the odds. [sic]
Fortunately, the hubris of that last line remained unpunished. After the war, he was destined to become internationally famous when he and his brother flew, non-stop, between England and Australia.
The greater drama of the week concerned the terms of any ceasefire. The Germans, save for a few diehards, wanted one — that was obvious. But how badly? There were huge obstacles: would the price demanded by the Allies be so high that it would be better to fight on, even if that risked invasion and national catastrophe? If the terms of an Armistice could somehow be agreed, how would a new, defeated Germany be governed? For the five decades of her existence, militarism and martial ardour had been in the bone marrow of the Second Reich. What was Germany if not that?
Allied military commanders differed sharply among themselves in their ideas as to what the enemy must surrender before a ceasefire. On 25th October, Haig noted in his diary details of a conference at Foch’s headquarters that day:
…I felt that the enemy might not accept the terms which Foch proposed because of military necessity only — and it would be very costly and take a long time (perhaps two years) to enforce them, unless the internal state of Germany compels the enemy to accept them.
We don’t know very much about the internal state of Germany — and so to try to impose such terms seems to me to be really a gamble which may come off or it may not. It struck me that the insistence of the two French Generals on the left bank of the Rhine means that they now aim at getting hold of the Palatinate as well as of Alsace Lorraine! Meantime, French troops will hold the left bank of the Rhine as a pledge!
The next day, Haig wrote to his wife:
It is most important that our Statesmen should think over the situation carefully and not attempt to so humiliate Germany as to produce a desire for revenge in years to come.
All very prescient — or so it now sounds. At the time, his fellow-commanders feared that Haig had gone soft. Pershing’s diary for 25th October described Haig as “most lenient; Pétain more severe. Foch said nothing.”
The American commander was, in some respects, a naif. Haig’s caution had little to do with leniency, but much with military realpolitik. The British Army was exhausted, and there was still great uncertainty as to what was happening in Russia. Although it seemed improbable, Haig also had in mind that there might soon be a need to divert significant forces out East to fight the Bolsheviks.
The perception in Germany was that the British commander-in-chief was a tartar. Princess Blucher in Berlin noted that same day, 23rd October:
There is great groaning over the hardness of Wilson’s second Note. A man from the Hague tells me that Wilson would like to make moderate terms for Germany, but that England and France are blind with victory, and will not let him do as he likes. They mean to punish Germany for her falseness and for her brutalities. He added: ‘England seems quite to forget that for four years they have shut off Germany from the outer world, and have been cold-bloodedly starving her women and children the whole time.’
There are different points of view — each nation’s vision is only focused on the brutalities of the other.
Germany’s difficulties were compounded by the frightening power vacuum at the apex of the Empire. The Kaiser had been edged out of any serious decision-making many months ago, but he still hovered on the peripheries— a reflex of deference rather than out of enthusiasm.
Now the clamour to shove him out altogether made him not merely an embarrassment, but a liability. The new Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, set out to propitiate an increasingly restive population by announcing sweeping constitutional reforms in Germany on 22nd October, presaging an era of mass democracy. He promptly succumbed to flu and took to his bed, but his presence or absence were equally irrelevant.
In President Wilson’s reply the following day to the earlier German Peace Note, copied to the nineteen Allies, he clearly indicated his wish for regime change. If America had to deal with “the military masters and monarchical autocrats of Germany… it must demand, not peace negotiations, but surrender”.
Actually, there were many voices in the US demanding unconditional surrender, whoever was in power. Former President Theodore Roosevelt had no interest in Wilson’s Fourteen Points:
Let us dictate peace by the hammering guns and not chat about peace to the clicking of typewriters.
The possibility of surrender polarised opinion in Germany. Some wanted to fight to the death and maintain the Kaiser as their leader, but they would only ever be a tiny minority. It was, however, a feature of Wilhelmine Germany that they were overrepresented in military circles. At Spa, Hindenburg and Ludendorff had decided that an appeal to the Fatherland was now appropriate:
Wilson’s answer is a demand for unconditional surrender. It is thus unacceptable to us soldiers… When our enemies know that no sacrifice will achieve the rupture of the German front, then they will be ready for a peace which will make the future of our country safe for the great masses of our people.
Such a claim was nonsense. Most Germans were baying for peace. Wilson was also not going to negotiate with anyone with pretensions to absolutism. Demands for Wilhelm to abdicate were no longer confined to a lunatic fringe. On 25th October, Hindenburg and Ludendorff arrived in Berlin to confer with their royal master to find him bombarded by telegrams from around the country demanding he give up his throne. No photograph records what must have been a particularly gloomy threesome.
That particular à trois concluded, Hindenburg and Ludendorff met the vice-chancellor, von Payer, who seems to have been running low on martial ardour:
I am a plain ordinary citizen and civilian. All I can see is people who are starving.
That was too much for Ludendorff, who minded about malnourished civilians very much less than the prospect of Bolsheviks overrunning the Fatherland. That, to him, seemed the inevitable outcome of surrender.
It was a spectre widely shared. Princess Blucher in Berlin had written from Berlin the day before:
Last evening there was another demonstration going on under our windows, caused by the triumphal procession accompanying the notorious Socialist, Liebknecht, who has returned from prison, where he has been for the last two years. He was seated in a carriage with his wife, surrounded by flowers, and they drove slowly by the Reichstag and through some by-streets, landing finally at the Russian Embassy. There Liebknecht addressed his assembled friends in a speech tainted with Bolshevism…
Liebknecht’s release was an unambiguous sign of a radical change. The next morning, Ludendorff prepared a letter of resignation, hoping not to use it, only to discover that Prince Max had demanded his dismissal. Summoned to the Kaiser, there was a tempestuous meeting. According to Ludendorff’s laughably unreliable memoirs:
There followed some of the bitterest moments of my life. I said respectfully to His Majesty that I had gained the painful impression that I no longer enjoyed his confidence, and that I accordingly begged most humbly to be relieved of my office.
And that was where it all started to unravel. To Ludendorff’s chagrin, Hindenburg said nothing; the resignation was accepted.
Once both military men had left, the Kaiser commented: “The operation is over, I have separated the Siamese twins.”
That moderately diverting metaphor was the sum of his contribution to events all week. When Ludendorff saw his wife later he commented gloomily: “In a fortnight we shall have no Empire and no Emperor left…”
According to rumour, Ludendorff now slipped out of the country to temporary exile in Sweden, disguised in glasses and a false wig. It was here that he began the memoirs which placed the entire blame for Germany’s defeat on her gutless politicians — the so-called dolchstoss, or stab in the back — which sold the German army down the river. As a thesis it is so contemptible that it ought merely to be treated as the petulant pout of a bad loser. Yet it had a brilliance as well: Ludendorff articulated a fantasy which assumed, in time, a toxic attraction.
The following day, 27th October, the bedridden Prince Max replied to President Wilson:
The German Government now awaits proposals for an armistice which shall be a first step towards a just peace such as the President has outlined in his proclamations.
The approaching endgame saw the Kaiser desperately casting round for a role. He tried to deter his Austrian counter-part from seeking an armistice, offering to supply enough grain to supply Vienna and German Austria with bread for several weeks. That was another failure: Karl was now receiving news of the great rout in Italy, and events had far outstripped the consolations afforded by a few emergency food parcels. Wilhelm also sent a wonderfully grandiose decree giving “assent” to the recent constitutional reforms initiated by Prince Max of Baden, and sought to assure his people of:
…the firm will to do my best to cooperate in putting them into full execution, convinced that I am thereby furthering the welfare of the people. The Kaiser is now the Servant of the People.
While the Kaiser’s claims to be furthering their welfare seemed dubious even at the time they were asserted, we do not find it hard today to lament the sufferings of soldiers and civilians of all nations. But the mood of soldiers and civilians in these last weeks of the war was often rancorous.
Sister Edith Appleton in Le Tréport noted in her diary:
23rd October …We had a very heavy convoy in yesterday — most of them from the front near Cambrai. They say there are hundreds of civilians in the villages we are taking now, and one boy said the people had been told the ‘Tommies’ were coming. The people were delighted when they arrived and, as this boy said, some of the chaps who speak French learned that the Germans made the civilians do all the cooking and slapped them if it was not well done. Lots of the girls and women had been taken to ‘work’ for the Germans…
That dark innuendo lingers uncomfortably. As if the terrors of war were not enough, the beastliness of men had also to be endured. Lieutenant Colonel Feilding, the most even-tempered of men, wrote to his wife from Lille on 27th October in sorrow and indignation:
It is a novel and unique experience for most of us to walk in a town, every inhabitant of which looks at us like a mother at her sons… The stories I have heard today of how these poor people have for over four years been bullied have aroused in me a bitterness which I have never felt before,and which, somehow, we did not get in the trenches…
Today the enemy has gone, and in going has given us some curious illustrations of mentality. He did not dare flatten Lille as he has so many other cities; but, in leaving, presumably as an emblem of his hatred, he has used the upstairs rooms of many of the houses as latrines. In a bedroom of a great house… a certain article was found in a bedside cupboard. It had been used for a purpose for which it was not designed, and on the cupboard door was chalked a notice in German which, translated, read something as follows: ‘Here is a breakfast for an Englishman, made by a good German’.
…It is almost impossible to believe that these things have been done with the knowledge or approval of German officers, but it is not the first time I have heard of such things being done, and whatever may be said,they suggest an appalling lack of discipline in the German Army.
…Apart from the general brutality of the enemy to the people of Lille, I have heard of cases of kindliness on the part of individual Germans. Nevertheless, I do not think, after what they have seen, that our men will be much disposed to leniency in future.
The cruelties of the times were too great to be expunged, it seemed, even if the statesmen of Europe could ever be brought to the negotiating table. Despite initial official attempts to downplay the influenza epidemic, its rampant nature could no longer be hidden. The Daily Telegraph reported that, last week, 757 people had died of influenza in London and Liverpool alone, and that Portsmouth was proposing to close all public places of amusement for a fortnight because of the increasing numbers of deaths.
The new pestilence was impartial in its attentions. In Berlin, Princess Blucher wrote on 23rd October:
…what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life…
It nearly killed Flora Sandes. Still with the Second Regiment of the Morava division, she had just endured two days of the worst bombardment she had ever experienced as the Serbs tried to drive the Germans out of Paracin. By the time they succeeded on 23rd October, Sandes was thoroughly ill with a high temperature, although — typically — she was persuaded to take part in the victorious march though Paracin and Cuprija two days later so as not to disappoint the liberated villagers:
All the people cheered and clasped our hands, calling us their saviours. I… was so smothered [by wreaths and flowers which bedecked their horses]… I could hardly see… My gee could hardly hold its head up, flags out everywhere and the whole population in the streets, we came in at one end as our cavalry patrols were driving the last of the Germans out of the other end of the town.
That was all very gratifying but did nothing to restore her to health. The next day Sandes was seriously ill with Spanish flu. Back in Cuprija, she found the hospital:
beyond anything I have ever seen… Hundreds of soldiers were lying all over the place, and on the stone cold floors of the corridors in their wet, muddy uniforms. All down with flu, pneumonia or exhaustion, and the atmosphere was appalling.
Sandes was whisked away by her orderly, Miloje, and billeted in a private house where the only treatment she received was from a French vet who:
…prescribed for me as he would have done for a horse. At any rate that was the only doctoring I received, but it seemed to be pretty effective.
She was almost inconceivably tough, but she was also lucky, and she survived.
The poignancy which attaches itself to those who died in these final weeks of war is unspeakable. Edith Appleton noted on 25th October that a British airman had recently come to the hospital:
…to visit his brother, who was dangerously ill in the officers’ ward, and he dined with us. He came over again two days ago and did some marvellous low flying, and dropped a message for his father and mother who are visiting the other son. We thought he would graze the huts he was so low! He started back when it was dark and hard to see — and crashed to the ground and was killed.
It is really very sad for his parents, poor dears. They have already had one son killed, a second is a prisoner in Austria, the third is here DI, and now this fourth one has been killed. He had only been married a short time, but he looked so young I couldn’t believe he was old enough.