World History 2 189 - 11.5.3 The Final Year

The final year of the war started auspiciously for Germany. In March, its troops began an offensive against the British and quickly took the advantage. Poor weather and fog created confusion, and the British may have retreated farther than they needed to. The Germans again moved toward Paris and resumed bombarding the city as they had in the early weeks of the war. Germany also worked out treaties with Russia and Romania, which exited the war and ceded territory in the process. By the summer of 1918, these successes meant that Germany held more territory than at any time in the past.

In that same summer, however, the mass of U.S. troops finally arrived. After four long years of war, the French and British welcomed the aid. China and Greece also entered the war, as did Brazil in October 1917. (Haiti, Cuba, and most of the nations of Central America also declared war on the Central powers between the spring of 1917 and the summer of 1918, but none sent troops or played a decisive role in the fighting.) While the Central powers had been successful in the first half of 1918, the Allies’ sheer numbers gave them a nearly three to one advantage that the Central powers could not withstand for long.

The Allies began offensive maneuvers, gaining some victories and setting the stage for the events of the fall. The last major engagement of the war was the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France, which began in September 1918. This Allied counterattack had been planned for many months. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops joined the British and French forces, employing tactics that included infantry attack and the use of poison gas, tanks, and aircraft. The Allied armies quickly advanced several miles. The German armies held on, but over the next month, the tide turned against them.

The situation for Germany was bleak. Food shortages were causing widespread panic and despair. Troops began deserting, and civil unrest spread throughout Germany and Austria-Hungary. German naval commanders wanted to achieve one last moment of glory by sailing the fleet out in late October to engage the British. The German sailors, however, knew there was no chance of victory and had no wish to go on a suicide mission. About one thousand of them mutinied and refused to set sail. In Kiel, home to a major German naval base, both sailors and workers refused to follow orders. The revolt soon spread to other cities.

In Berlin, the far-left Socialist Party’s politicians seized on the burgeoning revolt as a way to force a major change in the government and restore order. They called for the abdication of the Kaiser and the establishment of a republic. Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9, 1918, leaving the country for the Netherlands where he lived until his death in 1941. The civilian political leaders of the more moderate Social Democrats now proclaimed a provisional government, making Germany a republic. The German military agreed to work under this new civilian government. Political leaders then took up the negotiations that had already begun for an armistice, or cease-fire agreement, with the Allies. They believed Germany could not win the war and was best served by ending it. This maneuver helped isolate the socialist radicals.

Compounding the problems the Central powers faced in the final months of the war was the entrance on both the battlefield and the home front of another foe—influenza. By the fall of 1918, a flu pandemic was raging throughout Europe and the United States. The first cases had been reported in the United States earlier that year, and the mass movement of troops across the Atlantic Ocean had undoubtedly facilitated the virus’s spread. The flu proved quite deadly, especially among young adults. As the pandemic continued unabated, tens of millions of people around the world died before the virus burned itself out the next year.

Link to Learning

This website covers the influenza epidemic in the United States in 1918 and 1919. You can search on any of the cities listed to see information about how the flu affected them. There is also an archive and image gallery through which you can search.

Austria came to terms on an armistice on November 3, 1918, and Hungary followed on November 13. For Germany, an armistice was set to go into effect on November 11 at 11:00 a.m., imposing a cease-fire on all units. The armies continued to fight up until the precise minute. Then, at the appointed time, the guns fell silent. Men climbed out of their trenches and came from behind their batteries. The decision by the Allies to request an armistice instead of a surrender was important. A surrender meant that one side had to accept defeat. This was not something Germany was prepared to do in 1918. The armistice, however, simply meant that a cease-fire would be imposed while formal negotiations occurred. Germany believed these negotiations would allow it to preserve some of its gains in the war and extract itself from the fighting with a measure of honor and dignity.

Under the terms of the armistice, German troops had to withdraw from their occupation of parts of France and Belgium and return to Germany. (The fact that German troops were still in possession of foreign soil when the war ended was a point that later leaders such as Adolf Hitler exploited in the coming decade.) Germany also had to turn over its military equipment to the Allies, along with its navy. Most of the ships ended up at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland, where their German crews scuttled them the following year rather than turn them over to the Allies intact.

The casualties from the war were staggering. They included not only those who died or were wounded but also those who were taken prisoner or classified as missing. Russia had more than nine million casualties, France more than six million. Germany and Austria-Hungary topped seven million casualties each. In all, more than 8.5 million soldiers died in the war, and twenty-one million were wounded. The numbers of civilians who perished or were wounded were also in the millions.

Link to Learning

This website covers the casualties of the countries involved in the war. You can see how many troops were mobilized for each country, how many were killed, how many were wounded, and how many were taken prisoner or listed as missing.

It was in this period, with countries still reeling from the aftermath of the carnage, that treaty negotiations began. They dragged on for six months following the armistice, and Germany was ultimately proven wrong in its expectations of what it could expect from the talks. There was still much damage and suffering from which to recover, but the war was over.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax