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The End of the Great War

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This paper was in response to the question, "What were the key factors involved in why the First World War came to an end in 1918?"

            The key factors that brought the First World War to an end in 1918 were the English breakthrough of the Hindenburg Line and the revolution in Germany.  The English breakthrough was the first successful military attack since the beginning of the war, and provides a military explanation for the end of the war.   The German revolution provides the necessary change for the German home front to collapse.  Between these two events, Germany was doomed to lose in 1918.

            The Hindenburg Line, also known as the Siegfried Line, was Germanys last line of defense.  Earlier in the war, the German Army had pulled back to the line, giving up territory for the added strength of the fortifications.  This heavily defended zone was comprised of multiple trenches, concrete shelters, and thick wire on the crest of a ridge.  The support trenches were located in a safe area on the German side of the crest.[1]  And now the Allied forces had made the decision to break through the Hindenburg Line in an attempt to win the war.

            Each army, French, British, an American, would attack in separate locations, each seeking to break through the German line.  The idea being that if the German line was punctured in a few key areas, the entire line would crumble.  In late September, the attacks began.  On September 21, 1918, a combined force of British and French soldiers launched the first of the critical attacks, focusing in the Albert/Bapaume area.[2]  The success of this venture opened the door for a more extensive Allied offensive.  The Allies were in position, the Americans were ready for their first major military action of the war, and the Germans were reeling from their defeat. 

            Beginning on September 26, what were really four offensives began.  On the 26th, the American 1st Army and the French 4th attacked the Germans at Mezieres-Sedan.  On the 27th, the British 1st and 3rd armies would attack near Cambrai.  The next day a combination of British, French, and Belgian troops would move against Ghent.  And finally, on September 29, The British 4th and French 1st would take the offensive in the Busigny area.[3]  Heavy casualties were expected among the Allied troops.  They had been foreseen as early as the beginning of September, when the British Chief of Imperial General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson sent a telegram warning Haig of potential problems.  It warns of the impending high losses, and also urges Haig to be sure of victory.  The telegram also contains a veiled threat of severe consequences if should Haig make the attempt at breaking through the German lines, and failing, should incur high losses.[4]  Fortunately for Haig, the breakthrough was a success.

            By October 5, all four Allied armies had forced their way through the last of the German defenses in the Hindenburg Line.  At that point, there was little standing between Germany and the Allied armies.  Granted, there remained pockets of resistance along the Hindenburg Line.  For example, Cambrai remained in German hands and was heavily defended, but on the whole, the German army was in withdrawal and the way stood open for advancement.[5]  But the Germans by this point had had enough.  Already, by September 28, the German High Command agreed that an armistice was the only way to save the German Army.  Germanys allies had all fallen, its army was dwindling, and the Allies had broken through.  The daily procedure for a German unit was now to retreat back towards Germany, leaving behind whatever was unneeded, including artillery and troops who were ready to give up.[6]

            This was a critical moment for both sides.  If Haig had failed in the attempt to break through the fortified Hindenburg Line, the Allied armies would have suffered tremendous casualties.  It is also possible that Haig would have been removed from his position or at least have been considered a failure.  In any event, the war would have continued, but only after heavy casualties.  On the other side, the Germans desperately needed to maintain the fortified line.  If the Allies were to break through, there would be nothing to protect Germany.  Ludendorff, had never planned for any eventualities should the Hindenburg Line be broken.  To him, it was inconceivable and so impossible.[7]  Because of this lack of planning and the lack of available troops, Germany was doomed to defeat.  In truth, even if the German army held the Line strong, the final outcome of the war had been decided.  Germany would lose against the Allied soldiers, now bolstered by fresh American troops and funds.  All Germany could have hoped for would be to prolong the war and perhaps a better peace agreement.  They failed to achieve either.

            While the German Army was collapsing on the field of battle, the German home front was in a state of revolution and uprising.  Throughout the war, the German people had been suffering from the British blockade.  Throughout the war, the blockade had caused rioting, food lines, and various forms of civil unrest among the German people.  After the Germans failed to win the war in their offensive of 1918, the nations lacked the ability to perpetuate the war.  The home front simply lacked the necessary resources to continue on like it had. [8]

            In the last months of the war, Germany became a place of chaos.  The situation on the German home front became more desperate after it became known that Germanys ally, Austria, had decided to seek a separate peace with the Allies.  The atmosphere in Berlin became tense as rumors flew and armed police patrolled the streets.[9]  A general strike was called in Berlin, revolutionary councils were being appointed in cities throughout the nation, and the troops ordered to police areas often joined with the revolutionaries.[10]  It is surprising that the German people had maintained at least some form of loyalty for as long as they did.  Food had been in increasingly short supply, and other goods like textiles, rubber, cotton, and paper were almost non-existent.[11]  Germany was ripe for revolution.  It was no longer a matter of if but a matter of when. 

            In the first days of November, the revolution truly began.  But unlike other revolutions when one party attempts to gain control, multiple groups in multiple places all strived for preeminence.  Soviets were declared in many German cities, including the important cities of Cologne, Frankfurt, Hannover, and Dusseldorf.  A Bavarian Republic was declared, with Munich as its capital.[12]  As in Russia, the problems caused by the war had finally exploded.  The control of the German government was dwindling along with its army.  It was obvious that the monarchy was without real power as more groups sprang up across Germany, promising a better future for the nation.

            Many political groups vied for supremacy in this atmosphere of unrest.  The Socialists proclaimed, Better a terrible end than a terror without end.[13]  And so they demanded for an end to the war, any end that could be achieved.  Another leftist group, the Spartacists made a simpler demand.  They simply demanded that the Kaiser abdicate.[14]  The military itself saw that while Wilhelm II remained in power, it was unlikely that Germany would gain a satisfactory peace agreement.[15]  Really, the only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that the war needed to end and the Kaiser needed to go.  And so the chancellor of Germany took matter into his own hands and made a public announcement that the Kaiser Wilhelm II had abdicated the throne.  Several days later the chancellor resigned.  The next day abdicated and left for Holland, followed by Crown Prince.[16]  The house of Hohenzollern, which had ruled in central Europe for hundreds of years, had come to an end.  What ensued was a political debacle.  Every political group rushed to fill the void after the monarchy was swept away.  The problem was that radicals were rampant, muddying the waters almost completely.  Socially reforming liberal democracy won out over the more radical elements in Germany only by using the remnants of the old monarchys military machine.[17]  This was the founding of the Weimar republic. 

            The day the Kaiser abdicated, the German Armistice commission accepted the Allies conditions for an armistice.  The next day, November 11, 1918, the armistice was signed and put into effect.[18]  The war that had enveloped Europe for four years was over.

            If the home front had not erupted in revolution, there were a number of possibilities for how things would have ended up.  Obviously, the Kaiser would not have abdicated, and it is possible that Germany would have remained in the fight until they were nearly eliminated from the map of Europe.  More likely, the armistice would have been accepted and signed, and Germany would have experienced the post-war depression with the monarchy intact.  In any event, it was the November revolution in Germany that provided a reason for an end to the war.  It became painfully obvious that no one wanted the war to continue.  And few people wanted the Kaiser to remain in power.  The revolution overthrew the old government and established a new republic.  This republic was weak, and as a result it fell to the Nazis easily in the years to come. 

            Both the British led breakthrough of the Hindenburg Line and the revolution in Germany were directly responsible for the war ending when it did.  The conditions of unrest had existed in Germany from almost the very first day of the war.  And the Hindenburg Line was the last real defense of Germany.  And so when the Hindenburg Line fell, Germany lacked the military ability to prolong the war.  This only fed the revolutions beginning in Germany.  The German people, tired of starving and suffering, went on strike, rebelled against the government, or simply ignored orders.  The will to fight, as well as the ability to fight, had left Germany.  If one had remained, the war may well have continued.  If the ability to fight had remained, the German government could have resisted the revolutionaries and defended itself from the Allies.  If the will to fight remained, it is possible the nation could have fought almost to the last soldier.  One can never underestimate a nation that will stop at nothing to achieve a much-desired victory.  And so it took the collapse of both the German military and the German home front to stop the war.  Either by itself could have made a difference in prolonging the war.  Without either, continuing the fight was out of the question.  And so the wars end had to wait.  Even though the German home front had semi-collapsed long before, the nations ability to fight remained.  It was not until 1918 that the army fell apart and victory was possible for the Allies.

[1] Sir James Edmonds, as cited in J. H. Johnson, 1918: The Unexpected Victory (London: Cassell, 1997), 126.


[2] Tim Travers, The Allied Victories, in World War I: A History ed. Hew Strachan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 283.

[3] Travers, Allied Victories, 284.

[4] John Terraine, To Win a War1918: The Year of Victory (London: Cassell, 1978), 139.

[5] Terraine, Win a War, 177.

[6] Travers, Allied Victories, 288.

[7] Terraine, Win a War, 162.

[8] B. J. C. McKercher, Economic Warfare, in World War I: A History ed. Hew Strachan  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 132-133.

[9] Terraine, Win a War, 207.

[10] Johnson, 1918, 185.

[11] Terraine, Win a War, 207.

[12] Johnson, 1918, 244.

[13] Terraine, Win a War, 207.

[14] Terraine, Win a War, 208.

[15] Johnson, 1918, 185.

[16] Johnson, 1918, 185-186.

[17] John Horne, Socialism, Peace, and Revolution, in World War I: A History ed. Hew Strachan  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 237.

[18] Johnson, 1918, 186.