WWI Centennial: Allies Rebuff German Armistice Offer

William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License
William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 321st installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

OCTOBER 4-14, 1918: ALLIES REBUFF GERMAN ARMISTICE OFFER

The Central Powers were in total collapse. At a crown council on September 29, 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff warned Kaiser Wilhelm II that defeat was imminent and insisted that they must request an armistice from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on the basis of his “Fourteen Points” and repeated calls for “peace without victory,” in hopes of gaining more lenient terms than they would receive from vengeful French and British governments. Even at this late date, however, Ludendorff still didn’t envision peace negotiations, let alone German surrender. He simply hoped for a pause in the fighting, banking on exhaustion in the enemy camp to win some breathing space in which he might reconstitute the shattered German armies (above, German soldiers taken prisoner by Canadian troops during the Battle of Canal du Nord, September 27-October 1, 1918).

Although the Allies were indeed exhausted after four years of war, Ludendorff badly underestimated their determination to continue, reflecting the political will of civilian populations who had sacrificed so much and now expected to achieve a decisive victory. Meanwhile, Ludendorff’s personal prestige at home was plunging. Stunned by the sudden admission of defeat and angry over Ludendorff’s continued interference in matters that were properly the business of the civilian government, Chancellor Georg Hertling tendered his resignation, triggering another political crisis just as Germany needed steady leadership.

On October 1, the Reichstag approved Kaiser Wilhelm II’s appointment of Prince Max of Baden, the monarch’s second cousin, as chancellor with responsibility for requesting an armistice from Wilson. At first Baden hoped to wait until German armies had regained some French territory to use as bargaining chips, but on October 3, 1918, commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg (technically Ludendorff’s superior) confirmed that the situation was critical, requiring immediate action by Baden to save what was left of the German Army.

In the early morning hours of October 4, 1918, Baden sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., requesting an armistice based on the “Fourteen Points,” including Germany’s evacuation of Belgium and France, free navigation of the seas (implying an end to both German submarine warfare and the Allied “starvation blockade”) and self-determination for the ethnic minority populations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Mindful of Wilson’s demands that Germany also adopt a democratic government, Baden had already included members of the hated socialists in his cabinet to provide at least the appearance of parliamentary democracy.

The German armistice request gripped the world, giving Allied soldiers and civilians hope that the war might soon end. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the scene in provincial France as the news spread in a letter home, writing, “You should have seen this village and all the villages in France. Every street was lined with people all in one position, bent over a paper. All the world was reading the Paris papers. Men, women, youths, soldiers, Americans. They devoured the papers with the great news. It is the only news they are interested in.”

The world was longing for peace, but the Germans soon discovered that Wilson wasn’t about to fall for Germany’s divide-and-conquer gambit by agreeing to an armistice without first consulting Britain and France. With German armies in retreat all along the Western Front, America’s allies were in no hurry to take the pressure off, urging the president to allow enough time for all the Allied representatives to meet to discuss armistice terms in order to present a united front to the enemy. Wilson himself was deeply distrustful of German intentions, correctly doubting that the Kaiser and his hardline generals would give up Alsace-Lorraine or ethnic Polish territory in East Prussia, as implied by the Fourteen Points. He was also infuriated by the continuation of German U-boat warfare against civilian vessels, including the sinking of the mail boat RMS Leinster on October 10, 1918, resulting in the deaths of at least 564 civilians, many of them women and children.

On October 14, 1918, Wilson responded to Baden’s armistice request (and a subsequent German communiqué on October 12) with a note that quickly deflated German expectations. While explaining that the actual conditions of an armistice would be set forth jointly by all the Allies, Wilson also insisted that a ceasefire would only be granted once Berlin agreed to terms that made it impossible for Germany to continue the war in the event that subsequent peace negotiations failed—in effect, it called for unilateral German disarmament. He also insisted on Germany’s immediate cessation of “illegal and inhumane practices” including submarine warfare and scorched-earth tactics by retreating German forces in France and Belgium. Finally, Wilson reminded Baden of his earlier demand that Germany give up its authoritarian form of government—which he blamed for German militarism—and create a true democracy.

Wilson’s conditions, calling for Germany’s unconditional surrender and the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, shocked Ludendorff and Wilhelm II, who still hoped to cling to power after the war as a constitutional monarch. In fact, Ludendorff reversed himself (perhaps encouraged by a temporary slowdown in the Allied offensive, as John “Black Jack” Pershing’s disorganized and inexperienced U.S. First Army had become bogged down in the Meuse-Argonne in early October) and insisted that Germany should fight on, predicting that the Allies’ civilian populations would demand their own governments make peace within a few months—proof that Germany’s warlord was increasingly out of touch with reality.

Although they had rejected the first German armistice request, Allied leaders correctly interpreted the ceasefire offer as evidence that victory was near, requiring them to formulate their own armistice terms and peace conditions. The inter-Allied discussions that followed were complex, given the number of countries and players involved, as well as the various internal divisions and power struggles. In France, for example, in September-October 1918, Premier Georges Clemenceau quarreled with both President Poincaré, the head of state, and supreme military commander Ferdinand Foch about who had the ultimate authority to set forth armistice terms. In the end, the irascible premier succeeded in asserting his constitutional authority, but also agreed to most of Foch’s demands, including German withdrawal behind the Rhine and cession of at least three strategic bridgeheads across the river to the Allies as insurance against resumption of hostilities.

At the same time, the public disclosure of the initial armistice offer left no doubt in the minds of ordinary German soldiers and civilians that defeat was imminent, further undermining morale and accelerating the process of disintegration and political collapse. One German soldier wrote home bitterly on October 13, 1918, in a letter held back by the military censors:

“The main thing is that the swindle and the murdering has an end. We do not have to care whether we stay German or become French, we are now finished anyway. You at home will have an even better insight than we out here. If it does not come to an end right now, there won’t be nothing left of Germany at all.”

Not everyone was ready for peace, however, and many proud Germans could hardly believe that defeat was near. In a diary entry on October 15, 1918, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, expressed despair over Wilson’s note:

“It is presumptuous and makes exorbitant demands. One can hardly find words to express the indignation with which every German must now be filled. They want to humiliate us to death! This hypocrite Wilson, this perverter of justice, this ‘friend of peace’ and ‘idealist.’ Whatever are we to do? How splendid, if we had the strength and power, to say ‘No,’ but that will hardly be possible … The burden of a terrible nightmare lies on everyone. Everybody’s honor has been smirched, and the ignominy is too much to bear … My god, who would have thought it would end like this?”

Sulzbach’s feelings of indignation were hardly as universal as he imagined. Millions of working-class German soldiers and civilians were now in a revolutionary ferment. Clifford Markle, an American POW in Germany, noted the following exchange between a German worker and another American POW in October 1918:

“A conversation between one of the Americans who was a machine gunner and a German soldier who worked in the factory typifies the feeling at that time. The German asked the American if he operated a machine gun, and when the Yank replied in the affirmative, the Boche said, ‘We expect to revolt soon; will you handle a machine gun for us?’”

On the other side, Allied soldiers and civilians were hopeful that peace would come soon, but also cautious in their expectations to avoid disappointment. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote home on October 14, 1918:

“Maybe by the time you get this, everything will have been settled up and we shall be getting ready to go home again. I sincerely hope so altho’ it is too good to be true and I am afraid all the time that the whole thing is only a dream and that nothing will turn of it at all. It would be too wonderful for anything if we should be able to get home for Christmas and have the whole thing over with.”

Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, recorded a poignant encounter with a French soldier desperate for peace in his diary entry on October 9, 1918:

“He had been, he said (he spoke English perfectly) in the war four years during which time he had been in the signal service and three times wounded. He was not yet 26 and was engaged to a beautiful young Parisienne whom he was to marry the moment the war was ended. This very morning in the midst of rumors of peace and an armistice at midnight, orders had come for him to report to an infantry battalion which was new in the lines and … was to attack at four tomorrow morning. Now as you can see, he continued, if they sign the armistice tonight there will be no attack tomorrow or ever again. This he repeated either because he wished us to grasp the full significance of it, or because it held so much for him—life, love, and happiness … No one spoke as he stood there trying to master his emotions and regain his self control … but as he walked slowly thru the door we called our … word to him, “Good luck old man.’”

Tragically, the death and destruction would continue for another month, claiming tens of thousands of lives in the final awful spasm of the conflict. One American soldier recorded terrible scenes on the Meuse-Argonne battlefield:

“You had to do some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on the dead that covered the ground. I had never before seen so many bodies. There must have been a thousand American and German dead in the valley between the two ridges. They were an awful sight, in all the grotesque positions of men killed by violence … Once I looked down and was terribly shocked. There was a young German soldier with red hair and freckles, eyes staring at the sky—and he looked just like me.”

On October 15, 1918, Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (“Rainbow”) Division noted in his diary that, despite all the setbacks, the Germans were still resisting fiercely. “Was talking to a wounded Cpl. out of the New York Regiment,” he wrote. “He said the Bosche are fighting like tigers up here. Said it’s the worst that he’s run up against yet … I guess it’s fight to the finish. Well, if diplomats can’t settle it, soldiers can.”

See the previous installment, or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

One Vaccination, Under God: When George Washington Kept a Smallpox Epidemic From Costing Him the American Revolution

"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
"You, there! Have you been vaccinated?" George Washington looks to be saying in this portrait.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1751, a teenaged George Washington emerged from a harrowing bout of smallpox, which he had contracted in Barbados, that left him weak, pockmarked, and well aware of just how catastrophic an outbreak of the insidious disease could be. Nearly 25 years later, the experience would help him prevent smallpox from ravaging the ranks of American soldiers, an event that could have dramatically affected the outcome of the American Revolution.

As Andrew Lawler reports for National Geographic, British, Canadian, and German troops surged into Boston in 1775 to quell the burgeoning revolt, bringing with them both weapons and, unwittingly, germs. While the foreign forces had built up an immunity to smallpox due to previous exposure, Boston colonists were no match for the disease, which began to spread through the city. To keep it from infecting his Continental Army, stationed across the Charles River, Washington forbade anybody from Boston from entering his camp and quarantined any soldier who showed signs of sickness. Washington’s precautionary measures proved successful, but the venerated general wasn’t satisfied with temporarily keeping smallpox at bay: He wanted to inoculate his entire army.

There were a few significant stumbling blocks to this course of action. For one, the vaccination process—known as variolation, after variola, the virus that causes smallpox—was still illegal in some states, and the Continental Congress had outright prohibited military surgeons from inoculating soldiers. Much like modern vaccinations, variolation entailed injecting a patient with a tiny quantity of the virus, just enough for the immune system to fight it off without seriously sickening or killing the patient. When administered properly, variolation resulted in immunity. If the dosage was wrong, however, it could lead to death—which had happened to King George III’s own son.

Washington wasn’t exactly abstaining from mass inoculation on behalf of the legislature, though. Even when done correctly, the vaccination can produce smallpox symptoms, and Washington couldn’t afford for thousands of his soldiers to be incapacitated for weeks right in the middle of the war. Instead, he ignored Congress’s order and mandated variolation only for newly recruited men, calculating that they would be fully recovered before heading into battle.

Despite his efforts, smallpox was already wreaking havoc on the existing troops. In May 1776, for example, Major General John Thomas lost somewhere between one third to one half of his 10,000 soldiers to smallpox during a siege on Quebec (which they did not win), and Thomas himself died of the disease on June 2.

“The smallpox is ten times more terrible than Britons, Canadians, and Indians together,” John Adams wrote.

In February 1777, Washington told Continental Congress president John Hancock that he saw no other way to prevent the spread of the disease than to inoculate the whole army. By the end of the year, variolation had been performed on about 40,000 soldiers, and infection rates plummeted from 20 percent to a measly 1 percent. Soon after that, legislators across the fledgling nation did away with variolation prohibition.

While Washington has long been lauded for leading American revolutionaries to victory on the battlefield, his shrewd foresight and strong leadership in the face of disease was just as, if not more, important.

“A compelling case can be made that his swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career,” historian Joseph Ellis told National Geographic.

[h/t National Geographic]

PBS Is Making Several Ken Burns Documentaries Available for Free to Teachers and Students

Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Ken Burns, namesake of iMovie's "Ken Burns effect," during a press tour in 2014.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns has a reputation for presenting audiences with incredibly comprehensive, detail-oriented portraits of American history, covering everything from baseball to the Brooklyn Bridge. His documentaries are just as informative as they are engrossing, and you might walk away considering yourself an unofficial expert on whatever topic Burns lends his talents to.

Now, PBS LearningMedia is bringing Burns’s educational spirit to housebound students and teachers across the nation with a new “Ken Burns in the Classroom” digital hub, where you can watch a number of his docuseries for free. So far, the list comprises Jazz (2001), The Roosevelts (2014), and College Behind Bars (2019), and it will include four others by the end of April: 1990’s The Civil War, 2007’s The War (about World War II), 2009’s National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and 2012’s The Dust Bowl.

“We have heard loud and clear that teachers are in need of full films to better engage students and to align with their teaching during this period of distance learning,” Ken Burns said in a statement. “We have worked closely with PBS to clear rights and package these films so they can be streamed and made accessible.”

In addition to full-length series, the hub also houses video clips from Burns’s other works, covering subjects like the Vietnam War, Lewis and Clark’s expeditions, and more, along with a wealth of supplemental materials and lesson plans that teachers can send to their students via Google Classroom or another “share” option on the site. The resources are organized in two ways—by film and by era—so educators can skip right to a section on, for example, “The Industrial Age (1870-1900)” or see what content is available from Burns’s 2011 docuseries Prohibition. The hub will remain open through June 30.

To give us yet another way to explore the history of America through his body of work, Burns has created a separate PBS-run webpage called “Unum,” where video clips and supplements are split up into different categories, from themes like “Protest,” “Elections,” and “Art” to specific events like the Great Depression and Watergate.

All things considered, both Unum and “Ken Burns in the Classroom” are wonderful opportunities to expand your historical knowledge, whether you’re a student, teacher, or just a curious person.

And if you are a teacher, you can tune in to a live Q&A session with Ken Burns on PBS LearningMedia’s YouTube channel on Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m. EST, where he’ll answer questions submitted by teachers.

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