The German army was beaten. October 1918 saw it locked in freefall on the Western Front. Attacked from one end of the front to the other, the Germans were giving ground everywhere. Behind them there were no great defensive trench systems – the allies had broken through into open country. The Germans would fight on, but they lacked the men, the guns and the resources to stem the allied advance. Their casualties in 1918 had been simply unbearable.
And this was not the start of a war: this was the end. The youth of their nation had been dying year in and year out for more than four long years. Youth was a scarce resource in Germany. But then everything in Germany was scarce: raw materials, food, fuel. Most debilitating of all, there was now no hope of ultimate victory. The Americans may have been inexperienced, but they were present in huge numbers.
The Australian Corps had also reached the end of its tether by early October. They were simply worn out. Their contribution to victory was enormous and they had become one of the most effective assault forces in the entire war; they were exceptionally well led, with a superb cadre of officers, gritty NCOs and tough-as-nails ordinary “diggers”. Since 8 August they had been attacking without rest for two whole months. Their achievements were a roll call of honour for their country: they had captured nearly 23,000 prisoners and taken 332 guns. But they had also suffered more than 25,000 casualties – killed, wounded and missing. Together they had set a benchmark for the whole British Expeditionary Force. But much remained to be done. The baton was handed to the unsung ordinary divisions that made up the bulk of the British army. These men would have to drive over the finish line to the final victory they all craved.
Freed by the conditions of open warfare of the necessity to advance maintaining an unbroken front, individual divisions set their own objectives and pushed on in the attack. Battalions sought to exploit opportunities with little regard for whether their flanks were properly covered or whether they had sufficient support. This would have been suicide just months before. There were still disasters where the Germans turned and savaged their pursuers. And the casualties were appalling, as German soldiers sold their lives dearly.
Richard was hit. With a gurgling noise he slumped over. Death was instant: the bullet pierced the helmet, the blood running from his nose and mouth, while the brains oozed out in a thick yellowish mass from the back of his head. His body lay squarely on the ammunition belt. A hatred flared up in me against the English. Jerking his body aside to free the belt, I automatically resumed firing, when it jammed again. I was raging and for a moment forgot where I was.
—Corporal Frederick Meisel
371 Infantry Regiment, German army
Another German veteran was dead: his experience lost, his comrades at first infuriated, then, in the cold light of dawn, disheartened.
The great question of the war had long been answered: Germany would be humiliatingly defeated and the allies would use that defeat to extract every ounce of retribution. The German politicians and high command twisted in the breeze, trying to do their best for their country, while also trying not to attract the opprobrium of blame for the inevitable surrender. Each day might have been the last day of the war – but wasn’t. Anti-climax became a way of life, while some fell just short of the end. These deaths were unforgettable for the men who witnessed them.
— Private Harold Bashford
2nd Bedfordshire Regiment
There was much frenetic activity going on behind the scenes in that final month of war. The allied politicians conducted a series of meetings to hammer out the terms they would be willing to accept in return for peace. Meanwhile the allied military commanders were also meeting to discuss their demands: Foch, Haig, Pétain and Pershing – a cold-eyed group of men utterly determined that this be a true knockout blow. Just to get a temporary armistice the Germans would have to cripple themselves as a military force.
Finally at 5.15 on the morning of 11 November the armistice document was signed. It would begin with a wonderful symmetry on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. On the night of 10 November two British officers arrived at Boulogne on a packed leave train. Their boat would not leave until next morning, so they made their way to the Officer’s Club for a good wash and brush up, a drink and bed – all in no particular order.
We were tired, rather dirty and we were in war kit. We had our tin hats and gas masks slung from our shoulders, I was wearing a trench coat stained with blood and had in my Sam Browne belt a German Luger pistol in its holster. We entered a large bar room, filled with smoke and lots of Australian officers, most of whom were exceedingly tight. We thrust our way through to the bar counter, where some boozy loons roared at us in mock terror, “Jesus!” they howled, “Look lads! There’s a bloody war on somewhere!” Captain Brown swore at them in English and Hindustani, and I gave them the benefit of certain French oaths which would have caused mortal offence had they comprehended the meaning.
Early next morning they awoke and caught their morning leave boat, still all unaware that the end was nigh.
As we began to enter Folkestone Harbour about mid-day, every craft in there possessing a siren began to let it off. We were at first astounded by the noise – what was all the fuss about? But as it went on and on and we steamed slowly and majestically to our appointed birth, and beheld the crews of several ships cheering and waving at us, we tumbled to it. “Dickie,” said Captain Brown, “The bloody war’s over! It’s over!” And it was. No more slaughter, no more maiming, no more mud and blood, no more killing and disembowelling of horses and mules. No more of those hopeless dawns, with the rain chilling the spirits, no more crouching in inadequate dugouts scooped out of trench walls, no more dodging snipers’ bullets, no more of that terrible shell fire. No more shovelling up of bits of men’s bodies and dumping them into sandbags.
— Lieutenant Richard Dixon
Royal Field Artillery
Back at the front, that fateful morning was marked by an increasing tension. No one wanted to be the last corpse, the last man crippled by the Great War. And the danger facing them was still very real.
You don’t know the feeling you have. Everybody had the wind up. Really afraid, really windy! When ten to eleven came I was really windy! He started shelling, one or two long range stuff, expending his shells instead of carrying it back, getting rid of it. I just threw myself under an embankment; all of a sudden I felt a crack on my steel helmet – shrapnel! It jerked my head a bit, gave me a bit of a headache, but it didn’t penetrate the helmet itself. The shelling finished right on the dot at eleven o’clock! Not another thing!
— Private Bill Smedley
14th Worcestershire Regiment
The fighting had continued right up to the end, but now it was suddenly all over. Men did not know how to react. The news was too much to take in and most seem to have found it nigh on impossible to articulate the jumbled emotions running through their heads.
One would have expected that at this stage the field would have been filled with men carried away in a paroxysm of joy, but it was not so. Instead officers and men moved quietly about from one group to another, giving and receiving a handshake amongst comrades. It was an occasion too great for words. The artificial barriers of rank were temporarily cast aside, and we felt to the full the real comradeship of war and the realisation that the distasteful task had ended. In our mind we called to memory those of our comrades who had made the supreme sacrifice.
— Captain Oliver Woodward
1st Australian Tunnelling Company
They had won the war but most now merely wanted to get out of khaki and be safely back in civilian life as soon as was humanly possible. Eventually they would all get home, free to try to pick up the traces of their civilian lives that many found had ceased to have much meaning. Too much had changed: vast empires had fallen and the world had surely altered forever. Millions had died; millions more were crippled or maimed. The young men who had survived this modern Armageddon knew they were lucky, but they had changed – in many cases, beyond all recognition – from the callow boys who had gone to war. Millions of them returned to their homes, families and girlfriends. Most coped well and against all the odds managed to live reasonably happy and contented lives. Yet many found themselves alone in a crowd. No one had really defined the nature of combat fatigue or post-traumatic stress disorder in the 1920s and there was little psychological help available until it was too late. Some soldiers back from the front had simply seen too much, experienced too many horrors, to go quietly back into the tranquillity of civilian life.
Text © the Author
Cite as: Hart, Peter, “Armistice 1918”, Wartime 44 (2008) 46 - 49