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

Monday, September 13, 2021

France and the Armistice of 1918 (Part II)

By Brig. Gen. Robert A. Doughty

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

Marshal Foch Would Be the Key Figure for
the Allies in the War's End Game

Part II

(Part I Presented on Yesterday's Posting)


Though the French sensed the end of the war was near, a wealth of information did not reveal what the Germans actually would do or how long the war would last. As late as November 7, intelligence reports emphasized preparations in Germany “for a supreme struggle of unknown duration” but noted the lack of German national unity or agreement on waging such a struggle.

This ambiguity created great concern among French leaders. In  February 1919 Clemenceau told a parliamentary commission, “If we had been better informed, we would have imposed much harsher conditions.”  In reality, better information would have made little difference since the Germans themselves did not know what they were going to do.

Given the desire of the French people for peace, fatigue of the French army, specter of a massively destructive final campaign, and possibility of the other Allies sabotaging France’s victory, what could France do to accomplish its goals? Several strategic alternatives came from the collapse of Austria-Hungary in late October. This collapse not only left Germany virtually alone in the war against the Allies but also increased Germany’s vulnerability. First, there was the possibility of an attack into southern Germany. On November 5, the day after Austria-Hungary accepted an armistice, the Allied Supreme War Council, led by Marshal Foch, approved the launching of an operation into southern Germany with about thirty Italian and five French and British divisions. Planners foresaw a two-pronged invasion through regions of Austria heavily populated by ethnic Germans, one across the Alps from Innsbruck and the other along the Danube River from Linz.

Whatever the strategic opportunities may have been, it was clear an Italian-dominated drive across Austria into Bavaria would be neither simple nor easy, especially with winter approaching. An intelligence summary on November 4 noted Germany’s efforts to encourage rebellion in Austria-Hungary or even to send troops to maintain order in Austria.  Moreover, the Italians demonstrated little enthusiasm for the campaign, and the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau, had to intervene personally “numerous” times to gain their cooperation. A frank assessment came from General Buat, Pétain’s chief of staff, in a conversation with an American liaison officer. The American recorded Buat’s words and facial expression: “Do you think the Italians would go to Bavaria? (Smiling knowingly), not on your life—never—.So what have you left? The French and British. Yes they’ll go but there are not very many of them [only five divisions] and so practically the threat is not so serious as it sounds. It is a menace, an important menace, the idea of attacking Germany from the south, but it’s a moral—a mental menace—more than a physical menace.”

German military leaders recognized the difficulty of an attack across Austria, and in a meeting with the German chancellor on October 17 General Ludendorff downplayed the danger from an attack into  southern Germany. Ironically, the threat of such an invasion ultimately had a greater effect on the morale of German civilians and the outbreak of revolution in Bavaria than it did on the strategic thinking of German military leaders.

The French also considered the possibility of strategic bombing. Throughout the war the French had been reluctant to bomb German cities because their own cities were close to the front lines and German cities more distant. Additionally, French commanders were unwilling to consider an independent role for heavy bombers; they wanted aircraft to support their sorely pressed troops.  In the final months of the war most French bombs fell beyond the Western Front in a triangular area bounded by Amiens, Metz, and Mézières, but some fell on German cities  along the Rhine River (Mannheim, Mainz,  Koblenz, etc.) in attacks on factories and in reprisal raids.  With the collapse of the Austrians, new opportunities for strategic bombing emerged. The French recognized heavy bombers could fly one-way from France to Prague and by reducing cities in southern Germany to “ashes” could reveal the “horrors of war” to the German people. The French also recognized heavy bombers could fly out of Prague and inflict significant damage on Berlin.  In the final days of the war, the French began preparing for such a campaign. Although they had sufficient aircraft to damage some German cities, they knew they did not have enough aircraft for a war-winning campaign. Building the air fleet for such a campaign would take at least a year and would consume an enormous amount of resources. Thus, neither strategic bombing nor an offensive into southern Germany offered realistic possibilities for ending the war quickly.

Even though the news was filled with reports about a possible armistice, the French had no choice but to prepare for a massively destructive final campaign, should the threatened “supreme struggle of unknown duration” occur. They made a special effort to gain even greater output from their hard-pressed factories, especially artillery, tanks, and aircraft. 

Additionally, they looked to their colonies for new sources of  manpower for an offensive into Germany. Soldiers from Indochina and Africa already had reinforced the French army. Many of these colonial subjects had performed superbly, a fact not overlooked by French leaders who cringed at the prospect of running out of soldiers from metropolitan France. Clemenceau optimistically talked about adding 100,000 Senegalese soldiers to the French army. Strong resistance in France’s colonies, however, demonstrated the colonial subjects’ reluctance to become part of a “supreme struggle.”

Practically speaking, the only realistic alternative for continuing an offensive into Germany came from the Western Front. French political and military leaders recognized the enormous challenges of a drive into Germany, across the Rhine, and toward Berlin. Yet, the Allies had no plans for crossing the Rhine River, even though—as Foch later asserted—“Once this barrier was conquered, Germany was at the mercy of the Allies....”

In fact, they had no significant bridging capability and their planning involved little more than maps with arrows drawn across them. When one considers the enormously detailed planning completed in World War II for crossing the Rhine River, one can only conclude that the Allies expected to seize intact bridges across the Rhine, much as American forces did at Remagen in World War II. One does not have to be an accomplished strategist to realize that crossing the Rhine could have become one of the most difficult and costly operations of the war, especially if the Germans had fought a final battle of annihilation. For obvious reasons, the French preferred to do something other than fight their way across the Rhine.

One alternative was to destroy the German army with a massive thrust from Lorraine into its rear. Initial planning for such an offensive began in early September 1918 and foresaw thirty divisions attacking across a front of sixty kilometers. Final plans anticipated the offensive beginning on November 14 or, in other words, three days after what became the day of the armistice. Though planning proceeded, many practical problems appeared in an operation that looked good on paper but tough on the ground. The region had few railways and roads, and the French encountered formidable challenges in getting units and supplies assembled for the offensive. In the aftermath of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, they also had trouble getting as much  American participation as they desired.  Despite the Germans’ vulnerability, the French did not accelerate preparations and launch the incompletely prepared offensive. As Foch later observed, an offensive in Lorraine could have succeeded only if German resistance collapsed in front of it. In his memoirs he noted the offensive initially would encounter only small enemy forces and have a “brilliant start and a rapid advance of several dozen kilometers.” After this, however, “[I]t would undoubtedly encounter the devastation that was already slowing the march of the other armies. It would add its efforts to theirs, it would enlarge, reinforce them without changing their nature.”

The offensive also ran the risk of failing and thereby reviving the Germans’ will to fight. Instead of a relatively narrow thrust into the German rear, Marshal Foch preferred converging attacks along the Western Front by the French, British, and Americans. In essence, he sought a series of blows to keep the Germans off balance, prevent them from shifting reserves from one part of the front to another, and keep them from reviving or reconstituting their forces. He illustrated this strategy by punching with his right fist, then his left, and then again with right, followed by a powerful kick.

Recognize that this campaign strategy took advantage of American power on the right and British success on the left. It also kept the increasingly fatigued French army in the fight and gave the enemy no respite. In essence Foch wanted to maintain relentless pressure on the Western Front and expected the Germans eventually to collapse under this relentless pressure. Whether the collapse came from the German people leaving their army in the “lurch” or from the German army losing its cohesion and discipline was important to Foch but not enough for him to oppose an armistice.

As Foch kept pressure on the Germans, Allied leaders met to discuss armistice terms. What was the purpose of this armistice? Clemenceau answered this question in discussions with other Allied leaders on October 31. He said, “One should not confuse the terms of an armistice with the conditions of peace. The armistice has the objective of assuring the victorious armies such a situation that their superiority is clearly established.”

In private discussions with the President of the Third Republic, Raymond Poincaré, however, he had insisted the while terms of an armistice should be “prudent and moderate,” the terms of a peace would not be.  In short, Clemenceau wanted an armistice that would ensure the Germans could not resume fighting but would leave the Allies free to dictate harsh terms in a subsequent peace treaty. Such an armistice, he thought, would ensure termination of the conflict, enable France to achieve its war aims, and create a situation in which the conflict could be resolved.

The terms for an armistice with Germany came together in a relatively hasty manner at the end of October. Though the process ostensibly was an Allied one, Clemenceau and Foch played important roles and ensured France’s victory was not “sabotaged.” Foch first proposed armistice terms on October 8 and then discussed them behind closed doors with Clemenceau and Pétain. With Clemenceau’s concurrence, Foch convened a meeting of the other Allied military leaders on October 25 and then, acting on his own as supreme commander, modified the list. The modified terms were discussed and approved by Allied political leaders from October 29 through November 4. British and Italian representatives at these meetings expressed concerns that Foch was asking too much and thereby risked delaying or torpedoing any chances of a halt to hostilities.  Although the final list of terms differed somewhat from Foch’s initial proposal, the terms ensured the Germans could not resume hostilities after accepting an armistice. That is, the Germans had to agree to evacuate the territories they had seized (including Alsace and Lorraine); leave their heavy weapons and equipment behind; permit the Allies to occupy bridgeheads across the Rhine River; and relinquish control of the Rhineland (the left bank of the Rhine) as a guarantee for reparations.

Among those privy to the private thoughts of Clemenceau, Foch, and Pétain was General Henri Mordacq, Clemenceau’s military assistant. He notes that on November 11, he heard no one, including military leaders, express regrets about not continuing the war.  As Pierre Renouvin has noted, a few French leaders expressed reservations about ending the war too quickly but, in the actual discussion of terms, none of them objected to the armistice. Renouvin also notes that the best known critic of the armistice, Poincaré, primarily feared “false negotiations” by the Germans and did not call for an invasion of Germany and a signing of the armistice in Berlin. 

As the terms of the armistice were being crafted, the main objection to an armistice came from General Pershing. Though Pershing had concurred on October 25 with the main terms of the armistice, he later had doubts and on October 30 he wrote: “I believe the complete victory can only be obtained by continuing the war until we force unconditional surrender from Germany....”  In that same letter he expressed support for an armistice with terms “so rigid that under no circumstances could Germany again take up arms.”

When an American colonel delivered Pershing’s letter to Foch, the French marshal was leaving shortly for a  meeting of the Supreme War Council and could spend only a few minutes with him. After reading the letter quickly, Foch instructed the American to “tell General Pershing that I am in agreement with his views, and he need not be anxious regarding this matter; what I am demanding of the Germans is the equivalent of what he wants and when I have finished with them they will be quite powerless to do any further damage.”

 Foch clearly had no desire to derail the armistice. A few days before the armistice, Clemenceau and Foch met to discuss the terms, and the Tiger asked the Marshal if he had any reservations about signing the armistice. Foch responded that rejecting the armistice and continuing the war would be “gambling for high stakes.” He foresaw another fifty to a hundred thousand French soldiers being killed for “very questionable results,” and he saw no need for any further bloodshed.  Foch said the same thing to Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s personal envoy in the final days of the war. He said, “Fighting means struggling for certain results. If the Germans now sign an armistice under the general conditions we have just determined, those results are in our possession. This being achieved, no man has the right to cause another drop of blood to be shed.” When queried by the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, on how long it would take to drive the Germans across the Rhine if they refused to sign the armistice, Foch responded: “Maybe three, maybe four or five months. Who knows?”

In none of these discussions did Foch suggest delaying the armistice. Foch met with the German delegates on the morning of November 8 near Rethendes northeast of Paris. After receiving the armistice terms offered by Foch, the Germans complained strongly about their severity. Much to the surprise—and pleasure—of the French, however, they—after getting permission from Berlin—accepted the tough terms. On November 11, they signed the armistice and the fighting ended. By yielding bridgeheads across the Rhine to the Allies and by abandoning much of their heavy equipment, the Germans gave up any capability they may have had to continue the war; they also opened the way for Clemenceau to seek harsh terms in the Treaty of Versailles.

In retrospect, the armistice terminated the conflict but it did not resolve it or prevent a future conflict. It also did not ensure France’s security in the post-war period. One powerful myth that came out of the armistice was the famous “stab in the back” myth. German critics of the armistice (people such as Adolf Hitler) insisted the German army had not been defeated but instead had been stabbed in the back by German politicians. To use another phrase, German politicians had left the army in a “lurch.” On the other side of the hill French critics of the armistice insisted the armistice had ended the war prematurely.

Within days after the signing of the armistice, critics charged Foch with having accepted a “premature” peace and complained about France’s not launching an offensive in Lorraine. They watched with regret as German forces returned to Germany,  sometimes as cohesive units without the stigma of defeat. At the end of November the American liaison officer to Pétain’s headquarters participated in a discussion that included Pétain's chief of staff (General Buat) and his operations officer (General Duval); he reported “their great regret that the war had not continued for almost two weeks.” In that same report the American liaison officer reported the assessment of a French colonel in Pétain’s headquarters: “Viewed in the light of history, it is quite possible that it will appear that the war terminated a little prematurely and thus left the seed for further difficulties, difficulties which might have been entirely obviated by a crushing military defeat of the German Army.”

 As the colonel predicted, the French official history of the events of 1918 lamented the suspension of hostilities which had enabled the Germans to avoid a “certain and irremediable disaster.” After the war Pétain reinforced criticisms of the supposedly “premature” peace by saying he had asked Foch to delay the armistice. He insisted—long after the opportunity for action had passed—that he had asked Foch to delay the armistice and launch the Lorraine offensive. Seeking to enhance his own reputation, Pétain disingenuously, I believe, highlighted Foch’s having missed an opportunity to end the war decisively, not his own inability to make such an ending possible. Some of France’s leading historians of the Great War (Pierre Renouvin, JeanBaptiste Duroselle, Guy Pedroncini) have examined Pétain’s claim and found no evidence of his having urged Foch to delay the armistice.  While Pétain may have met privately with Foch and urged him to launch the Lorraine offensive before completing an armistice, he did not do so in writing or in meetings with other people present or with minutes being taken. He also did not convey his reservations to key members of his staff. In the dining room of Pétain’s headquarters, officers openly criticized Foch and Pétain for not unleashing the Lorraine attack and crushing the German army. An American liaison officer, who witnessed the discussions, observed an officer, Colonel Node Langlois, object to the criticisms. The French colonel insisted every effort had been made to organize the attack but roads and railways had proved inadequate. He likened the situation to driving a horse until it had spent its last ounce of strength and dropped in its tracks.

In reality, France’s willingness (and Foch’s willingness) to accept an armistice in November 1918 rested on the weakened condition of French forces, as well as the uncertain support of its allies. By late September the cumulative effect of four years of war and the extraordinary demands of halting the Germans’ spring offensive and launching a counteroffensive had drained the French of much of their combat power and effectiveness. The French army, the “horse,” had been pushed to its limit; not even an opportunity to deliver a death blow to the German army could breathe new life into it.

As French forces struggled to advance, Marshal Foch  recognized that General Pétain could not charge forward in Lorraine and would advance only when given additional resources at the expense of the Americans in the Meuse-Argonne and the French on other portions of the front. He also did not expect the British or Americans to assume the main burden of a massive offensive given British doubts about French motives and given Pershing’s difficulties in marshaling and employing his forces. And he saw little chance of Allied forces, composed primarily of Italian troops, advancing into southern Germany. By maintaining pressure on the Germans on a broad front along the Western Front, he expected the Germans eventually to yield. And by demanding and getting bridgeheads across the Rhine River, he ensured the Allies would not have to fight their way across the Rhine. In essence, Foch chose the option that ensured victory for the allies while minimizing the cost in soldiers’ lives. His option, however, allowed the German army to remain together and for reactionaries later to claim it had been stabbed in the back. In the end his option had a profound effect on the remainder of the twentieth century.

Graphic Depiction of the Armistice Terms

What does all this mean to us today?  First, it suggests the complexities of ending a conflict. Under the most optimum circumstances, the Allies and the French could have continued the war, destroyed the German army, and avoided any possibility of a myth of a “stab in the back.” Yet, the French did not have the confidence in their own forces, or in those of their allies, to risk the cost and failure of a march to Berlin. Instead, French leaders favored placing continued pressure on the Germans and waiting for the German government or military to yield. Though a few political and military leaders expressed doubts privately about the armistice, none argued publicly for rejecting an armistice and seeking a complete victory. U.S. leaders may face similar difficult choices in the future and, even if they prefer a complete victory, may have to accept an armistice, truce, or cease fire.

Second, it reminds us that options during wartime are shaped by the capabilities of a country’s or an alliance’s forces, not just the weaknesses or failures of opponents. The French had performed magnificently against the German spring offensive of 1918, but by October they had reached the limits of their endurance. Continuing the advance against the Germans would have required significant rest and refitting, as well as the clearing of significant obstacles and the building of important roads and railways. France’s options thus were limited by the capabilities of its forces, not by the absence of grand ideas. Such limitations will undoubtedly influence American options at some point in the future.

Third, it suggests the difficulty of drawing a line between political and military domains in the making of peace. Marshal Foch saw controlling the Rhine as an essential part of any armistice or peace. His desire for bridgeheads across the Rhine and guarantees from the Germans, however, raised questions about the political future of the Rhineland and brought sharp clashes among Allied political leaders and between Clemenceau and Foch. Separating political issues from  military issues is always complex in a war but it can be even more difficult in the crafting of an armistice or a peace. And adding religious extremism to the process can only complicate the process.

Fourth, it shows us the limits of intelligence. The French had remarkably good intelligence about the internal situation of the Germans, but this intelligence did not paint a complete picture of the enemy and left political and military leaders with significant concerns about the eventual outcome of the war. It was relatively easy to measure the Germans’ military capability but it was difficult if not impossible to predict what the Germans actually would do. Intelligence is never perfect and can never erase ambiguity completely. Political and military leaders in the future will be fortunate to have as much information about opponents as the French had.

Finally, it reminds us that hope is always part of an armistice: hope that the killing will stop; hope that the destruction will end; hope that peace will endure. All of you know that the hopes of 1918 and 1919 were eventually smashed in 1939 when an even more destructive war began. In France’s case, its most important war aim, security, did not come from the armistice of November 11 or the Treaty of Versailles. Instead came disillusionment, distrust, anger, and eventually another war. Over the decades historians have pondered whether a different ending in 1918 may have produced a more enduring peace.

Let us hope that historians will not have as many doubts about the termination of future American conflicts. In conclusion, while the prospect of Germany’s unconditional surrender appealed to French leaders such as Clemenceau and Foch, obtaining one—to use a phrase from World War II—seemed a “bridge too far.” The exhaustion of French soldiers, the specter of greater casualties, and doubts about France’s allies compelled French leaders to seek an end other than unconditional surrender. What they got was a temporary victory, one that seemed permanent at the time but one that later proved illusory at best. They achieved conflict termination but they did not achieve conflict resolution.

1 comment:

  1. A very apt and interesting post in light of the Afghanistan failure.