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Webmatters : Armistice 1918: The Kaiser abdicates

Armistice

Senlis

25th October 1918

Maréchal Foch held a conference at Senlis on the 25th October where he asked his three Commanders for their opinions as to what should be asked for.

Général Phillipe Pétain tended to take a tougher stance than Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig whilst General Jack Pershing took the severest line of them all.

Pershing was inclined to push the Germans all the way back to Germany. He believed that it was important that Germans back home realised that their military had been beaten in the field. Of course Pershing had the advantage of a steady flow of fresh troops.

Sir Douglas Haig remarked that should the Germans retire they would rapidly shorten their front and be better able to utilise their current strength. Furthermore whilst accepting that the American soldiers were in high spirits and ready to get on with the task in hand — the British and French were exhausted.

It was also true that enthusiastic though they might be, the Americans lacked experience and it would be some time yet before they would be in any position to relieve the French and British.

The British wanted terms put forward that it was believed would be acceptable to the Germans.

It should be remembered that only a year before the Allies were wondering how to fend off the Germans through 1918 so as to finally make use of a fully operational American Army in 1919. Nobody doubted their fighting spirit but the American Army was still suffering from administrative teething troubles.

 

The Kaiser

On the 31st October the thorny problem of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince raised its head in German circles. One of the Wilsonian points seemed to be directed at exactly the sort of autocrat that the Kaiser portrayed. He had also been even more explicit in his recent reply.

The Kaiser’s presence was a problem, but within the government and OHL there were mixed feelings about whether or not he should abdicate.

Ludendorff’s replacement: General Wilhelm Gröner suggested that perhaps the Kaiser should take himself to the front in order to seek a glorious death at the head of his troops. The Kaiser declined.

Events were happening now at great speed. After years of little real change the war had developed into one of movement. The Germans could probably have counted themselves fortunate that the French and British had lost most of their front line leaders versed in the arts of such engagements. For three years the front had been stagnant and the new generation of officers had little training for the type of war that the generals had been dreaming of since 1914.

Everybody was conscious of the need to watch the flanks to ensure that the line was never broken and despite the fact that the Germans had shown that much could be gained by storming ahead, they had been re-trained in a new art. The Allies lost perhaps a chance to advance faster and harry the Germans more.

On the 1st November Pershing’s Americans launched an assault on the Meuse whilst on the Franco/Belgian frontier the New Zealanders would take the fortified town of Le Quesnoy on the 4th.

On the 6th November General Gröner reported to Prince Max that they must take the step of asking Foch for an armistice, and retreat behind the Rhine.

That evening President Wilson’s reply was received stating that Maréchal Foch had been authorised to receive representatives of the German Government. A list should be drawn up advising as to whom he should expect.

  • Matthias Erzberger for the German Government
  • General von Gündell for the OHL
  • Count Alfred von Obersdorff for the Foreign Ministry
  • Captain Ernst Vanselow for the Navy
  • Major General Detlev von Winterfeldt

It will be noted that originally the OHL was to be represented but von Gündell was withdrawn. Von Winterfeldt was a liaison officer and not part of the Supreme Command. OHL did not want to be seen to be taking part in the negotiations. If the future was going to blame anybody for the collapse of Germany in 1918 it was going to blame the civilians.

On the 9th November with the Kaiser still dithering, Prince Max took the lead and simply declared that he had abdicated. He himself then resigned as Chancellor and at 0500 hours the following morning the Kaiser took a train for the Netherlands.

In the early hours of the 11th November Erzberger signed the Armistice — he had also just signed his own death warrant for he would be assassinated in 1921.

I would remind you that this is a military armistice, that the war is not ended thereby, and that it is directed at preventing your nation from continuing the war. You must recollect a reply given by Bismark in 1871, when we made a request similar to what you are making now. Bismark then said: Krieg ist Krieg, and I say to you: la guerre est la guerre.

Maréchal Foch