11th Hour

A heavy fog had enveloped Ville-devant-Chaumont, just north of Verdun, obscuring the view even just meters away for the American troops of the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th “Liberty” Division.  The regiment, called “Baltimore’s Own” due to the high number of locals from that city, was utterly exhausted having been on the front lines of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive for nearly two months.  They could hear the crackling fire of German machine guns ahead of them, but were more interested in the running footsteps to their rear.  It was a communique from their commanding officer to hold their position and to neither advance nor retreat until following orders were given.

The 313th was relieved, with one exception – 23 year-old Private Henry Gunther.  Gunther had left a fiancé and a successful early career as a banker in Baltimore when he was drafted.  The son of German immigrants, Gunther arrived in France eager to prove his patriotism yet quickly became discouraged amid the slaughter of the trenches.  Gunther wrote to a friend complaining of his life in France and encouraging his friend not to volunteer.  Army censors read the letter and demoted Gunther.  In response, the former banker began to volunteer for dangerous assignments to prove his loyalty, even being hit with shrapnel as a runner that could have sent him home.  Gunther refused; he still hadn’t regained his honor.

Injury and risky service didn’t return his rank or apparently his unit’s respect and it cost him at home.  Gunther’s fiancé wrote that she was ending the relationship, further sending Gunther into a spiral of reckless heroism.  His fellow soldiers noted that as the war seemed to be coming to an end Gunther became more and more withdrawn, perhaps knowing that his opportunities to find redemption or meaning amid the bloodshed were dwindling.  Gunther wasn’t going to obey any orders to hold his position on this day – he was going to attack.

On the other side of the line, the German machine gun nest saw a figure emerge from the fog, charging at them with a fixed bayonet.  They fired, careful to avoid hitting him, hoping that he’d stop or retreat.  Gunther jumped to the ground but quickly rose again, resuming his charge.  In broken english, the Germans yelled at Gunther, frantically waiving their arms to tell him to stop; “Baltimore’s Own” wouldn’t be discouraged.  At last, fearing for their own lives, the German machine gunners fired off a five-round burst, striking Gunther in the head, killing him instantly.

It was 10:59am on November 11th, 1918.  The last combat casualty of the Great War had fallen.

Henry Gunther’s grave site in France.  Gunther is widely acknowledged as the last combat death of the First World War before the armistice.  More would die in accidents or sporadic fighting after 11am, to say nothing of the war in the East

Four days earlier a far different sight could be seen by French soldiers in their trenches near the town of La Capelle.  Three large cars, each with the black eagle of Imperial Germany on their sides, approached the front lines with their headlights on. Two German soldiers were perched on the running boards of the lead car, one waving a white flag, the other, with a long silver bugle, blowing the call for ceasefire – a single high tone repeated in rapid succession four times, then four times again, with the last note lingering.  The German delegation to discuss an armistice had arrived. 

For five weeks, Germany and the Allies had debated the terms under which even starting armistice talks could begin, with Germany vainly hoping that the American “Fourteen Points” would provide the basis of such negotiations.  The American response – that the “Fourteen Points” would be the basis of any final treaty but were not relevant to any ceasefire – had crushed any German hopes for a less than punitive peace.  And as the Germans internally debated whether or not to even engage in talks in those five weeks, Berlin witnessed all three of their Central Powers allies fall, as well as another 500,000 men.  Revolution had engulfed the northern port cities and was rapidly spreading across the country.  Bavaria had overthrown their king, Ludwig III, and declared a “People’s State of Bavaria” separating from the German federation with their Bolshevik-inspired revolution.  By every metric, Germany was coming apart at the seams.     

Conversely, it was becoming debatable whether the Allies really wanted an armistice at all.  Since the “Black Day” of the German army in August, the Allies had made astonishing progress along the Western Front, capturing within weeks what had taken the Germans months and one million casualties to claim.  The feared Hindenburg Line had been breached and the Allies had been able to force the rest of the Central Powers into armistices that were borderline unconditional surrenders.  The continued loss of lives remained appalling, but at what price would Germany accept an armistice?  A total defeat of Germany no longer appeared a military fantasy while a negotiated end open a series of uncomfortable questions for an Alliance that had increasingly hinged on Woodrow Wilson’s ambitious, and likely naive, preconditions for peace.  The result was that for the British and French, negotiations to even begin armistice talks took on a hardline stance, likely fearful that a final peace might be ultimately softened by the Americans.  For the United States, preconditions to starting talks were fairly simplistic – the Germans had to leave Belgium and France, return their submarines to port, and remove the Kaiser from power.  The first two terms were understandable; the third was seemingly impossible.

The railcar where negotiations took place.  Ferdinand Foch can be as second to the right on the bottom

The issue of the Kaiser’s abdication temporarily froze any progress towards peace.  Erich Ludendorff, who had spent most of 1918 in between manic depressive bouts of unrealistic optimism and uncontrollable pessimism, declared that the war must go on if the Kaiser’s position was being threatened.  The military, eager to free themselves from Ludendorff’s scheming, finally relieved him of command.  The unstable general’s reaction was to acquire a fake beard and passport and flee to neutral Sweden, saying he feared for his life from both ordinary German politicians and the revolutionaries who were swarming the nation. 

No other prominent German appeared willing to defend the German monarchy, not even Wilhelm II.  The Kaiser tentatively agreed to abdicate if he could retain his secondary crown as King of Prussia – there were 22 “federal princes” (kings, in essence) within the German Empire.  But as events on the ground saw German revolutionaries denounce the entire monarchial system, Chancellor Max von Baden told the Kaiser that keeping any crown would likely be a non-starter.  As the Allies announced on November 5th, 1918, that they were willing to start negotiations even with Wilhelm II still on the throne (ignoring the American preconditions), any final decision on abdication was tabled.  Perhaps the terms of the armistice wouldn’t be as bad as Germany feared.

Before one word had been spoken at the negotiating table, it was clear to the German representatives who had crossed no man’s land that the French were in no mood for mercy.  The three German cars, now with French escorts, travelled a long and circuitous path through the French countryside, past ravaged towns and factories.  “It appeared to me that the drive was intentionally prolonged in order to carry us across devastated provinces and to prepare us for the hardest conditions which the feelings of hatred and revenge might demand,” one of the German passengers later wrote.  Arriving at a railcar in the middle of the forest, the Germans recognized it as the same car that Napoleon III had used – the French monarch whose defeat in the Franco-Prussian War had lost  Alsace-Lorraine and planted the seeds of the current war.  Here among the trees at Compiègne, the Germans would find terms far more crushing than Napoleon III could have ever imagined or than Berlin could have feared.

Revolutionaries in Berlin – the collapse of German society sparked a series of Bolshevik-inspired revolts across the country

To even begin negotiations, the Germans had to retreat from Belgium and France, as expected.  They would have to turn over Alsace-Lorraine immediately, a not surprising demand.  The German left bank of the Rhine – the Ruhr industrial heartland of Germany – would be given to the French, a crippling blow to German unity and the German economy going forward.  Most of German’s artillery, machine guns, airplanes, tanks, and navy would be given to France, plus 5,000 trucks, 5,000 locomotives, and 150,000 freight cars.  Germany would be borderline defenseless, with much of their railway system and industrial base in French hands.  And these were simply the terms to start negotiating an armistice, yet alone finalizing a ceasefire or peace treaty.  The German delegation was shocked.  Surely the French would rather reach a ceasefire first, sparing the lives of their men, not to mention their allies or the Germans.  Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch made it clear – the Germans had 72 hours to agree or the deal was off.  Foch also instructed the Allied armies to redouble their attacks in order to place further pressure on the German delegation.

As news of the terms reached the German High Command and the Kaiser at Spa, Belgium, events on the ground back home were eclipsing concerns over French demands.  Under the counsel of Chancellor Max von Baden, the Reichstag had amended the German constitution to effectively neuter Wilhelm II’s authority, creating more of a British-styled constitutional monarchy with a strong parliament.  The move placed the majority Social Democratic Party, and it’s leader Friedrich Ebert, as the defacto Chancellor given that Baden held no direct affiliation with any political party and Ebert could rely on his parliamentary coalition to pass legislation.  Neither Ebert or Baden wished to see the end of the monarchy, but both recognized that the choice was being made for them.  As revolutionaries occupied the Kaiser’s residence in Berlin and flew the red flag of Bolshevism, it appeared as the fait accompli – the Kaiser had to go.  On November 9th, 1918, Baden declared that Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated the throne and the Chancellery had gone to Friedrich Ebert.  The German Empire was dead.  The German Republic was born.

At Compiègne, the German delegation sat negotiating for a regime that no longer existed.  The delegates had managed to tweak only a few conditions of the armistice, namely the timetables for withdrawal and the exact numbers on equipment being transferred to the French (the French had in some cases demanded more ships and materials than the Germans possessed).  Beyond that, the delegates could only protest the terms of the arrangement.  They would learn alongside the average citizen of the fall of their government, as the French provided newspapers showing the Kaiser’s abdication – no one in Berlin or Spa or anywhere in Germany had bothered to tell them.  For a moment, there was concern that the delegation no longer represented any sitting power in Germany and thus couldn’t sign any binding armistice.  Wilhelm II had fled Spa to cross over the border to Holland where he would spend the rest of his life in exile.  Hindenburg had essentially gone quiet from Spa and Ebert hadn’t even reached out as he was busy trying to co-opt the leadership of a number of worker’s councils that had declared a socialist republic that same day as the Kaiser’s abdication.  The Bolshevik-inspired Spartacus League, and their leader, Karl Liebknecht, had seemingly seized control of Berlin and appeared to be playing out a Germanic version of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Ebert had to act fast to try and both avoid bloodshed and prevent a leftist takeover of whatever remained of the German political system. 

German troops counterattack Bolshevik supporters

For Ebert and the Reichstag, they faced the same poison pill that Max von Baden had grappled with – their positions of power rested upon ending the war as soon as possible, but if they also were seen as the authors of a punitive peace, they could easily loose public support or credibility with the military.  Without military support, the new republic could easily be overthrown by the Spartacus League or others; an outcome they feared the German army was secretly in favor of occurring as many officers distrusted Ebert’s left-wing politics, seeing little difference between him and Karl Liebknecht’s Germanic Lenin.  Hindenburg at least temporarily put these fears to rest by telling Ebert’s cabinet that he favored agreeing to the armistice, even with the horrible preconditions.  Ebert immediately contacted the delegates in Compiègne and told them to sign.  The ceasefire would come into effect six hours later on November 11th, 1918 – at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year.  The delay would be costly.

The final six hours of the Great War would see nearly 11,000 more casualties and another 2,738 dead among all combatants.  The continuation of fighting would become an immediate post-war scandal, even among the victors.  The U.S. Congress sought an investigation into why American troops were still fighting even in the war’s finally minutes, vainly attempting to pull General John J. Pershing into the matter; only Pershing’s post-war reputation saved him from needing to testify.  The French saw so many dead in the final hours that Paris attempted to cover up the casualties by post-dating their losses to November 10th.  But many units simply refused to follow orders once word had spread that a ceasefire would take place.  There were numerous incidents of spontaneous fraternization, especially between British and German units before the formal armistice.  In so many cases, men from either side were simply relieved to have survived a conflict that had consumed millions upon millions of lives.

Joy in no man’s land – soldiers on both sides celebrated the end of fighting, sometimes together

The end of the war in western Europe did not mean the end of fighting on a variety of fronts around the world.  The Germans in East Africa would not surrender until late that month and the Russian Civil War would only intensify as Germany retreated from her eastern gains, opening the door for Bolshevik occupation.  There would still be tremendous fighting and death before whatever new order in Europe and the world could be created.  But for the first time in more than four years of unspeakable carnage, the guns on the western front were silent.

15 thoughts on “11th Hour

  1. Fascinating. Well done.

    I am reading “Civil war in Europe, 1905-1949” by Stanley G. Payne. Coincidentally I just read about the Germany in 1919. To your point that “the [Allies] were in no mood for mercy” I would add that the wartime naval blockade of the Axis powers was extended eight months after the Armistice. Together with the social chaos you describe well, widespread famine became inevitable. Not a good start to a pan-European peace that would hold.

    One thing you didn’t mention but Payne did was the impact of the Freikorps as the domestic replacement for military in combating the Bolsheviks. I mean mention in the sense of Germany has little or no army to fight a “civil war” so the Freikorps was “created” to act in this role.

  2. The Freikorps are going to get mentioned in an upcoming post on the German Revolution. But thanks for the points!

  3. I have to wonder if it would have helped if the German soldiers had addressed Gunther in German, as I’d have to guess he knew the language still. “Dear John letter” deaths are so sad.

  4. And now, what terms will Putin receive in order to end the war in Ukraine? How much will he have to give back, including his own reign (and would any country take him in)?

  5. 1ST things 1st. FIRST RINGER, just plain magnificent work. I deeply appreciate all the material you bring to my eyes. I’ve a question that has bothered me. I’ve even asked one of my old college professors. The Brits, French & Germans all signed the Armistice. But not the USA. How does that happen?

  6. Eric,

    We’ll touch on that as we cover the post WWI world – there are more than a few more “WWI” posts still written or to be written. But the short answer to your question is that the US didn’t view themselves as part of the allies but, in the words of Wilson, a “co-belligerent.” The armistice was just a ceasefire and the real value would be in the negotiated final settlement. Keep in mind, only really the British and French were present at Compiègne, with other allies like Belgium & Italy did not even part of the process (bizarre in part since Belgium was still largely occupied).

  7. Ringer, thank you very much for a well-timed history lesson. What we are seeing right now is an absolute redux but I am afraid we have learned nothing from history and are headed for Versaille Part Deux. And we all know what that foreshadowed.

  8. NW, I think we should volunteer to take Putin in–he and about 200 of his top generals–and give them the run of a lovely villa in San Francisco Bay.

  9. bike – he’d be “Rockin'” in the new world. Putin might not need that much space – I expect the number of generals – in true Soviet fashion – to decrease even more precipitously.

  10. Yes, but I’m thinking that you’ve got to get down to the Colonels (or even the captains or lieutenants) to really set the precedent that war crimes don’t pay. Putin delenda est!

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