Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, September 12, 2021

France and the Armistice of 1918 (Part I)

By Brig. Gen. Robert A. Doughty

Harmon Memorial Lecture, U.S. Air Force Academy, 17 March 2009

Part I

As future militarily professionals, it is important for you to study not only the waging of war but also the making of peace. All too often military professionals become enamored with putting “steel on a target” or seizing an objective and fail to think through the challenges of terminating a conflict or shaping the “outcome” of that conflict. As our recent experience in Iraq suggests, terminating a conflict sometimes can be more difficult and costly than accomplishing a mission. Our experience also has reminded us that the manner in which a conflict is terminated can shape its long-term outcome.

By itself the phrase “conflict termination” is a cold, technical term that implies a simple and direct process. Most political and military leaders, who are on the victorious side, obviously prefer an ending similar to that of World War II when the Germans and the Japanese surrendered. In reality, conflict terminations can assume many forms, including surrenders, cease fires, truces, and armistices, all of which can end a conflict locally, temporarily, or permanently. None of these methods of conflict termination, however, guarantees or even ensures conflict resolution. In some cases the manner in which a conflict is terminated can increase chances of the conflict not being resolved.

To gain insights into the challenges of terminating a war, I would like to talk tonight about France and the armistice of 11 November 1918. As I begin, note there were two major events associated with ending the war with Germany, the armistice of November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles of June 1919. I will talk tonight about France’s role in ending the fighting, not in its role in crafting the Treaty of Versailles. I will consider why France accepted the armistice of 11 November and chose not to continue fighting and force Germany to surrender unconditionally.

To give my presentation better focus, I am not going to deal with the separate armistices with Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. To begin, recall how World War I ended. The initial pressure for an armistice came from German military leaders, generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, who appealed to German political leaders on 29 September for peace. The request of the two military leaders came in the wake of the Germans having failed to break through Allied lines with the spring offensive that began in March 1918 and the Allies having seized the initiative in Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s counteroffensive of July 1918. In subsequent operations, the Allies drove the Germans out of the territory seized in their spring offensive and launched a massive offensive on September. Adding to Germany’s woes, its allies began falling away.

Marshal Foch's Intentions As of October 1918

Between 30 September 30 and 5 November, Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary signed armistices with the Allies and left the war. In the face of the Allied offensive on the Western Front in late September, the Germans could do little to support their allies or keep them in the war. On the Allied side, however, the arrival of American forces on the battlefield, especially in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, ensured an ever-increasing margin in favor of the Allies. As the strategic balance shifted, Germany saw its hopes for victory disappearing under the weight of Allied personnel and matériel.

Despite the negative turn of events, the Germans conducted a surprisingly effective defense on the Western Front. In the face of mounting losses and increasing Allied combat power, the Germans withdrew, thereby reducing the length of their front line. At the same time they consolidated their combat power by reducing the number of their divisions and filling the remaining units by diverting workers from factories (who previously had escaped conscription), returning wounded soldiers to the front line, sending recently released prisoners of the Russians to the Western Front, and incorporating conscripts from the Class of 1920.  They also pushed more divisions into the front line and deployed frontline units in three echelons. This left few reserves for tactical or operational counterattacks but maintained significant resistance against the Allies. 

As the Germans withdrew, French intelligence officers noted their deteriorating discipline but also observed their building bridges across the Meuse River, moving weapons and matériel from Belgium toward Germany, and placing explosives on bridges across the Rhine. They identified five different defensive lines between the Franco-Belgian frontier and the Rhine River. While they knew the subsequent defensive lines were not as well prepared as the forward ones, they reported significant efforts in the German rear to strengthen subsequent positions, and they anticipated a massively destructive defense in depth. By 11 November, the Germans had reduced their front line some 190 kilometers and the number of divisions in the West, said French intelligence, from 207 to 184. Meanwhile, the number of divisions available behind the front line went from 68 on 24 September to 17 on 11 November. Although German defenses resembled, as one German officer said, a “spider’s web of fighters,”  key French planners believed the enemy somehow would assemble two or three “great maneuver masses” to meet the Allied attack.

As for the armistice, the German government sent a note to President Woodrow Wilson on 3 October asking for a peace based on the Fourteen Points. This diplomatic move occurred, as I mentioned, after generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had urged the German government on 29 September to ask for an armistice. While fighting continued, Berlin and Washington exchanged notes over the next several weeks. Between 29 October and 4 November, Allied political and military leaders met to discuss terms of an armistice with Germany. On 5 November, President Wilson, who initially had not consulted other Allied leaders but finally had done so, sent the Germans a note accepting the Fourteen Points as the basis for peace but maintaining reservations about reparations for damages and freedom of the seas. At about the same time revolution broke out in most major German cities.

Finally, on 11 November, the Germans signed the armistice and the fighting ended. Returning to the question of France and the armistice of 11 November, French political and military leaders did not lose sight of their war aims in the final month of the war. France had not entered the war with clearly articulated goals, but over time political and military leaders had accepted three basic goals: regaining the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine that Germany had taken from France in 1871; establishing international conditions that would ensure the post-war security of France; and acquiring reparations from Germany for damages inflicted on France. In the final month of the war, however, France’s premier, Georges Clemenceau, had to confront the fatigue of the French people. He told his military assistant on the morning of 30 October, “All the people are so tired of this long and terrible war that they would not comprehend or want to comprehend [why] we continue hostilities when the Germans themselves want them ended.”

France had come perilously close to collapsing in mid-to-late 1917 and even the sweet scent of victory did not guarantee public support for continuing the war until its goals were accomplished. Additionally, Clemenceau feared the British and Americans would seek a compromise peace with Germany, one that would end the fighting but not guarantee France's security in the future. He feared, as he told his military assistant, that the other Allies could sabotage France's victory.  British political and military leaders had made it very clear that Great Britain had its own goals and had doubts about France's motives. Clemenceau knew, as Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig wrote in his diary, “[T]he British Army would not fight keenly for what is really not its own affair.”

Similarly, the United States had designated itself an "associated power" and refused to be bound to the demands of France or Great Britain. Additional concerns came from the battlefield performance of the Americans. On his visit to the Meuse-Argonne area on 28-29 September, Clemenceau was appalled by the chaos in American rear and deeply feared the mistakes of General John J. Pershing and the Doughboys could cost the French "much blood."  When General Philippe Pétain submitted a damning report on 6 October about the performance of the Americans in the offensive and warned of a possible disaster, the specter of an American failure allowing the Germans to repair their desperate situation was more than he could bear. Whatever the shortcomings of the Americans may have been, four years of terrible fighting had demonstrated that France could not defeat Germany on its own. Clemenceau had to devise a way to keep the support of France's allies, place realistic demands on the Americans, and achieve its war aims.

As the French contemplated the possibility of an armistice, they recognized the decline in their own forces. No one understood this decline better than Marshal Foch, who was appointed supreme commander of Allied forces in March 1918, and General Pétain, the commander of French forces in northeastern France. They knew French soldiers had performed magnificently during the German spring offensive of 1918, but they also knew French combat power had ebbed slowly in the heavy fighting that year. Out of a population of about 38,000,000 France lost about 300,000 soldiers killed or “disappeared” from March through November 1918. The 74,000 soldiers lost in June represented the highest monthly loss in the war since 1914. Heavy losses forced the French to dissolve some divisions and face the horrible prospect of running out of men.

Transferring weapons and equipment to the Americans hampered efforts to increase French combat power. The French and British tried to convince the Americans to amalgamate small units (companies, battalions, and regiments) into Allied divisions and corps, but the Americans wanted to build an army of their own and agreed to amalgamation only on a temporary basis. In exchange for the Americans giving priority to the transportation to Europe of soldiers, not equipment, the Allies—especially France—assumed the responsibility of providing heavy equipment to the Americans. By the end of the war the French had supplied more than three quarters of the artillery, tanks, and aircraft used by the Americans.  Much of the transfer of equipment occurred when French soldiers desperately needed additional support to sustain their momentum and keep them moving forward.

In the final weeks of the war, the French offensive gradually lost momentum. Heavy casualties and mental and physical exhaustion reduced their combat power. Poor roads and communications interrupted the delivery of food and supplies, and unusually heavy rains soaked the soldiers, many of whom suffered from the flu. General Émile Fayolle, commander of the Reserve Army Group, which consisted of General Eugène Debeney’s First Army and General Charles Mangin’s Tenth Army, noted in his diary the difficulty of continuing the advance. Fayolle’s concerns are notable because in the final weeks of the war the French had only four armies between the British north of St. Quentin and the Americans in the Argonne Forest, and he commanded two of those armies. In early October he noted the seizing of St.-Quentin and Laon and the unfavorable German situation. The Germans, he wrote, “will be obliged to withdraw before winter to the Meuse [River].” Yet, as the French pushed forward over the next two weeks their attacks made only small gains. On October 17, Fayolle noted, “The attack of Debeney has yielded little.” Two days later he noted Mangin’s attack had made “little progress.”

The advance slowed further in subsequent days. On 24 October Fayolle wrote, “The attack of Debeney is not moving....” and the following day that Mangin’s  attack was “not very useful.” On 30 October he noted Debeney’s attack had “yielded few results” and the following day he added, “And still nothing. It’s messed up.” On 1 November he complained, “I fear that we are attacking on too large a front with insufficient means. Better to concentrate our efforts on a limited number of points.” The next day he noted, “The Boches are still holding in front of us.”

Fayolle feared the Germans would not stop fighting until they had no other choice. The combat log of Fayolle’s Reserve Army Group recorded heavy fighting but only small advances in the final days of October and first days of November. Not until 5 November did the Germans resume their withdrawal and the pace of the French advance increase. The French launched their last attack on the night of 9–10 November . After crossing the Meuse River just west of Sedan, soldiers of the 163rd Division (part of the Central Army Group) gained a precarious foothold on the northern bank of the river. The intensity of the fighting clearly demonstrated that German resistance had not ended. Yet, the 163rd Division was about 100 kilometers from the German frontier, 200 from the Rhine River, and 500 from Berlin.

As diplomatic messages about an armistice flooded the world’s capitals in late October, French soldiers sensed the approaching end of the war and became more cautious. On 20 October, a French general officer told Colonel Émile Herbillon,  he liaison officer between the French government and military, “The poilu is pleased to see that a victorious peace is close, but he also says to himself, ‘This is not the moment for me to have my face smashed.’” As German resistance continued, rumors circulated through French ranks that German women had been chained to machine guns and forced to fight to their death.

Formal reports on soldiers’ morale, which were derived from reading letters written by soldiers, reflected their desire for an end to the four years of fighting. After receiving news of the Germans having sent their first note to Wilson about an armistice, French soldiers wrote many letters home about the prospect of peace, and as the possibility of peace became more likely, their comments became more numerous. Morale reports from individual divisions documented the soldiers’ anxiety. In many French divisions the number favoring an immediate peace tripled or quadrupled those favoring a “complete victory.”

The difference between an immediate peace and a complete victory, of course, pertained to whether Allied forces halted their advance along the German frontier or fought their way into Germany. In some divisions the number of soldiers favoring a complete victory was small. On November 8 staff officers from the 71st Division reported the results of reading 2,360 letters: “The correspondents expect the signature very soon of Germany on the armistice.... Three soldiers desire to continue [the war] until its destruction.”

Like American soldiers in World War II who dreaded the possibility of invading Japan and who welcomed the dropping of the atomic bomb, French soldiers dreaded the possibility of having to fight their way into Germany and preferred an armistice that would end the fighting and give the Allies significant advantages. Whatever steps France took to  terminate the conflict, those steps had to take into account the will and capability of French forces.

But what did French leaders know about developments in Germany? As the end of the war approached, French intelligence provided political and military leaders an enormous amount of information. Consider the main channels of information. The French had established intelligence gathering stations in Annemasse and Belfort, France, both of which were near the border of Switzerland. They also had military attachés in Switzerland and the Netherlands, two neutral countries that occupied key positions around Germany. And they used radio listening sites (including at least one in a Belgian enclave in the Netherlands) to monitor official and unofficial communications inside Germany Among other activities, military attachés collected newspapers from most major German cities, and they talked to businessmen, military officials, and tourists who traveled through Germany.

Officers at the intelligence gathering sites (especially Annemasse) interviewed numerous “repatriated” soldiers from Alsace and Lorraine who had deserted from the German army. Officers at the sites and military attachés also managed a variety of “agents” who operated in Germany, as well as in neutral countries. One extensive study of French intelligence, for example, credits the French with having about 200 agents in the Netherlands. Additionally, the French had access to British intelligence, especially in the sharing of important information at Folkestone. The French and British had agreed in October 1914 on the general function and structure of Folkestone, and not long after Foch’s appointment as supreme commander, he attempted to centralize Allied intelligence more and strengthen the role of intelligence specialists at Folkestone.  Important information from French and British sources thus flowed through huge openings (Switzerland and the Netherlands) on the German frontier.

What did the French learn? Perhaps the most important piece of information pertained to the deteriorating morale and discipline of German soldiers. Although German morale appeared to rise in May 1918 (with the German offensive on the Chemin des Dames), it deteriorated thereafter, especially after the Allied counteroffensive on 18 July. Intelligence reports painted a picture of soldiers losing trust in their officers and hope for victory. Numerous reports from German prisoners (those who were captured on the battlefield or deserted) described the “very bad” morale of German soldiers. Those who had been prisoners of the Russians and then sent to the Western Front or those who had been wounded and then hastily returned to the front line seemed to have especially bad morale. Many of those losing all hope deserted. Some found their way into Allied lines; others bought forged papers and tried to enter neutral countries.  The French also received reports of mutinies and refusals to attack.

According to one report, two German infantry regiments mutinied in Köln in late October, refused to leave the city, and sang the Marseillaise.  Additional reports catalogued increasingly poor relations between Bavarian and Prussian soldiers. One report described the mutiny of a Bavarian regiment and a subsequent bayonet fight between the regiment and a Prussian unit. Clearly, cohesion in the German army was cracking. Despite the decline in morale, German defenses did not collapse. In mid-October the French general officer who was Pétain’s director of operations told an American liaison officer, “A few days ago it was to be hoped that the German Army would crack and be routed. They have been put in difficult positions, but they have shown great skill in extricating themselves and there has not been any route [sic] or even disorder, but rather a well-conceived, orderly retirement everywhere they have retired and their rear guards have functioned excellently. The machine gun groups they have invariably left behind have acted with great skill and greatly hampered our following of the Germans. Of course the newspapers are full of a different sort [of information], but you must remember [that information] is for the consumption of the crowd.... The German Army has had some serious situations to meet and up to now they have met them well. A great reduction of moral[e] in their army is not apparent. The rear guards act with good judgment and yield us very few prisoners.” On 1 November, General Edmond Buat, Pétain’s chief of staff, told an American liaison officer, “The Boche army is far from licked. He is going to retire to a shorter line.” 

As the Germans withdrew but kept fighting, the French carefully tracked the increasingly dire situation and poor morale of German civilians. Unlike the French and Belgians, German civilians had not suffered widespread destruction of their homes and communities, but they had suffered from the effects of the Allied blockade and aerial bombing and by the enormous consumption of resources by fighting forces. Regular reading of numerous German newspapers revealed increasing anxiety and desperation in Germany, as well as strikes and public demonstrations. Using a variety of sources, the French tracked the Germans’ rationing of bread, potatoes, and meat. They tracked the increasing death toll from the effects of poor nutrition, tuberculosis, and Spanish flu. They tracked the Germans’ shortage of munitions and resources for the war. 

They also tracked subtle but important changes in the public’s attitude. A Swiss doctor who spent three months in Germany examining the internment of Allied soldiers had refused earlier in the war to provide information to French  intelligence, but in late 1918 he finally spoke to French agents. He said Germany had changed more in the previous three months than it had in the previous three years. He noted the many shortages and the closing of many businesses. “Theft,” he observed, “has become a public calamity.” The intelligence summary noted that if the situation worsened, the German people would revolt.

An intelligence summary on 30 October concluded that the outcome of the war was “no longer in doubt.”  Two days later another intelligence summary said one could expect the “combat spirit” of German soldiers to increase as they defended their “own soil,” but this final effort could be “only of short duration.”  General Buat, Pétain’s chief of staff, believed on November 1 that the end of the war was near. He said, “Yes we are likely to have an armistice with Germany very soon—a matter of days. But it is not because the German Army is defeated or likely to be defeated in the near future. The reason lies within; the reason is the internal situation of Germany.”

In an early, eerie articulation of the “stab in the back” theory, an intelligence summary said, “Alone among the elements that have collapsed, the German army remains standing, but to its rear is an exhausted nation that no longer supports it, and to its front are adversaries stronger than ever. Nothing can save it.”  Some of those in French intelligence believed, as a colonel in Pétain’s headquarters observed, that the “once proud, haughty [German] people” could “leave their army in the lurch.”

French leaders nonetheless had grave concerns about the Germans fighting to the bitter end. As the Allied offensive slowed in early October and Allied leaders revealed aspects of their demands on Germany, General Ludendorff, who had suffered a momentary collapse in late September, regained his composure and advised the German government to continue fighting. He advocated a battle of annihilation or an Endkampf that involved a massive mobilization of the German people and an enormously destructive final battle.  Given the wide-open windows in Switzerland and the Netherlands through which the French viewed internal German developments, information about the possibility of a final battle of annihilation quickly reached France. Intelligence came from newspapers, as well as diplomatic and military sources, some of which emphasized Germany’s having organized itself as an  “impregnable fortress.”  Information about the possibility of a final destructive battle also came from prisoners. One German sergeant, a prisoner, laughed when questioned about the Allies penetrating into German territory. He said, “Never, they will not cross the Rhine, the dear Rhine, because the German people will never accept such a disgrace. The day when [they are] pushed to the end, they will rise in mass, they will be invincible.”

[Continued tomorrow on Roads to the Great War.]

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