Report from the Fronts #51: November 1918: Armistice

(If you want more on the end of the fighting, try Joseph E. Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, an excellent read.  Note: though the hostilities are ending, the war is not, so there will be a few more Reports.)

It is a crime that operations continued on the Western Front when the Germans were clearly defeated and begging for an armistice.  The Allies already held all the cards, but they were wrangling among themselves.  The French, British and Italians were less than enthusiastic about Wilson’s Fourteen Points with their emphasis on self-determination and drawing boundaries according to ethnicity; they already had secret treaties and plans for the post-war environment that satisfied their own interests.  Nevertheless, thousands of men would have to die when the war was obviously over.  So the Battle of Valenciennes began on 1 November and ended with capture of the city on the 3rd, and on 6 November the Americans took Sedan.  On 5 November Marshal Foch was made supreme commander of all forces fighting against Germany.

The end

To the southeast the Serbians retook Belgrade on 1 November, and King Peter I returned three days later, to be crowned King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (at least until 1921).  The Italians seized Trieste on 3 November, and a day later the Battle of Vittorio Veneto came to an end; the Austrians suffered 80,000 casualties and some 450,000 prisoners, the Italians and allies about 40,000 casualties.  And that same day all hostilities between the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies ceased, and the Italians occupied not only the territory they had lost but also the North Tyrol, Innsbruck, Gorizia, Istria and Dalmatia.

King Peter I

Italians landing in Trieste










The end was also coming for the German Empire, as revolts began breaking out across Germany.  On 3 November the Allies finally agreed to the German proposal for an armistice, as mutiny was exploding among the sailors of the fleet at Kiel.  On 24 October Admiral Franz von Hipper ordered preparations for a final battle against the British and moved part of the High Seas Fleet to Wilhelmshaven, where some sailors refused to obey orders or actually mutinied.  The resistance was defused without violence and the ships returned to Kiel, but the sailors there were also not interested in sacrificing their lives for a pointless foray.

Admiral Franz von Hipper

Hipper’s plan for the last battle










On 1 November 250 sailors held a meeting, which was followed the next two days by large open-air demonstrations, in which workers and civilians participated.  Local troops fired into the crowd, killing some, and on the 4th more troops were sent in, but these soldiers either refused to obey orders or actually joined the revolt.  By the end of the day some 40,000 sailors, soldiers and workers controlled Kiel and Wilhelmshaven.  On 7 November Bavaria was declared a republic, and the revolt spread to Berlin two days later.  The German Revolution had begun.

The Revolution begins

Sailors on strike







Reaction at the highest level followed quickly.  On 9 November it was announced that the Kaiser would abdicate (the abdication was signed on the 28th), and the next day he went into exile in Holland, where he would remain until his death in 1941.  The almost 900 year old Hohenzollern dynasty (at least as rulers) and the 47 year old Second Reich came to an end.  On 12 November Emperor Karl I of Austria, no longer having an empire, was compelled to abdicate, and left for Switzerland in March 1919 and died in Madeira in April 1922.  The thousand year old Holy Roman Empire and the 51 year old Austro-Hungarian Empire were gone; on the same day Karl abdicated a German-Austrian republic was proclaimed.

Wilhelm II

The now dapper Kaiser in exile

Prince Georg Friedrich, current heir to the Prussian throne

Karl I

Karl von Hapsburg, current heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne











And the war was finally ending.  On 3 November Austria agreed to the Armistice of Villa Giusti with the Allies, which effectively ended the war for Austria, and on the same day the Allies accepted Germany’s armistice proposal. The German delegation arrived at the Allied General Headquarters and were ushered into a specially prepared railway car in the Forest of Compiègne (Foch wanted no press or angry Frenchmen present) on 8 November.  They were informed by Foch that they had three days to consider the Allied demands, which were nonnegotiable, and with little choice – Germany was starving from the blockade – the armistice was signed at 5:10 am on 11 October.  The war was over.

Allied leaders at the Wagon

The signing of the Armistice

The Wagon at Compiègne 1940

The Wagon in Berlin 1940










Well, not quite.  The armistice would not take effect until 11:00 am, exactly at the moment Foch’s 72 hour deadline ended.  Whether the Allied commanders considered a delay in order to come up with the nifty “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is unknown, but many professional soldiers, like Foch himself and General Pershing, who wanted their troops to keep fighting and gain ground that was already due to be handed over.  Officers’ careers could still be furthered, and in the case of the Americans, even at the grunt level, there was still glory to be won.  So, men continued to die.

In the six hours between the signing of the armistice and its implementation both sides suffered, conservatively, 11,000 casualties of which some 2700 were deaths.  The last British soldier to be killed was George Ellison, shot in the vicity of Mons around 9:30, while the last Commonwealth soldier to die, Canadian George Price, bought the farm at 10:58 in an advance north of Mons.  Augustin Trébuchon, the last poilu, was killed at 10:50 during an assault across the Meuse River,  The man recognized as the last soldier to die in action in the Great War was an American, Henry Gunther, who in the last 60 seconds of the war charged at a German machine gun; the surprised Germans attempted to wave him off and finally cut him down.  No one seems to know who the last German soldier was.

George Ellison

George Price

Augustin Trébuchon

Henry Gunther










The war in Africa, however, went on.  Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris in the bush were not exactly easy to contact, and on 1 November they invaded Rhodesia and took the town of Kasama on the 9th.  Hostilities finally came to an end on 14 November, and the German force in Rhodesia surrendered on the 25th, two weeks after the armistice.  By that time Lettow-Vorbeck’s army consisted of 30 German officers, 125 other ranks, 1168 askaris and about 3500 porters.  They had led a quarter million Commonwealth troops on a merry chase for four years.  Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany a hero, the only undefeated German commander, and though he was an ardent nationalist, he opposed Hitler, suposedly once telling the Führer to fuck hmself.  He was given a state funeral upon his death in 1964.

Surrender of Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck in Berlin 1919

The Lion of Africa in 1935











Meanwhile, the Germans were going home.  On 18 November the last German troops crossed the French frontier (they would be back in 22 years) and the Belgian frontier on the 26th (ditto).  Brussels was reoccupied by the Belgian army on 18 November, followed three days later by the government.  British and American troops crossed into Germany on 24 November, followed by the French two days later; the day before the French had entered Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine, lost to Germany almost 50 years earlier.

A peace treaty would not be signed until June 1919, but modern eastern Europe was already emerging from the ruin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 1 November Hungary formed its first independent government, under Mihály Károlyi, and on the 16th declared the 400 year Hapsburg monarchy abolished and the establishment of the First Hungarian Republic.  On 14 November Professor Masaryk was elected the first President of the Czechoslovak Republic, and on the 23rd the Yugoslav National Council voted for union with Serbia and Montenegro, which union was approved by the Montenegrin National Assembly on 29 November.

Proclamation of the Hungarian Republic


Mihály Károlyi

Tomas Masaryk

Austro-Hungarian Empire by ethnicity



All was now quiet on the Western Front, but violence continued in the east.  On 1 November the new Second Polish Republic under Józef Piłsudski went to war with the momentarily independent Ukraine, seeking new territory in the east, especially Galicia. The war would end in a Polish victory in July 1919, when the Ukrainians would join Poland in the Polish-Soviet War that began in February 1919.

Poland March 1919

Józef Pilsudski

And there was the Russian Civil War, born of the Great War.  On 18 November in Omsk Admiral Alexander Kolchak declared himself the Dictator of Russia and began collecting White forces to combat the Reds.  To the west the other major White leader, Anton Denikin, had by November gained control of all the territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  It was beginning to appear that the Bolsheviks were doomed.

Alexander Kolchak

Anton Denikin










Finally, on 9 November the British and French issued a joint declaration regarding the disposition of the former Ottoman territories of Syria and Mesopotamia, a telling sign that they had their own agendas for the post-war world.  President Wilson’s self-determination apparently did not extend to non-Europeans.

Disposition of the Ottoman Empire



Report from the Fronts #32: August 1917

August is dominated by the Flanders Campaign.  The Battle of Pilckem Ridge ended on 2 August, resulting in some gains and 32,000 British, 1300 French and 30,000 German casualties.  Proponents of the offensive argued that these were small losses compared to 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, hardly a convincing argument.

On 15 August the Battle of Hill 70 (overlooking the town of Lens 30 miles south of Ypres) began, the intention being to make life easier for their comrades at Ypres by drawing German troops away from the main thrust of the offensive.  The Canadians took the hill in ten days but suffered heavy casualties (9000); the Germans suffered grandly (more than 20,000) but were able to hold without help from the north.  Incidentally, just about two years earlier at the battle of Loos the British suffered 60,000 casualties attempting to capture the same territory.

German flamethrower

Canadians on Hill 70

German pillbox





Meanwhile, back at Ypres the drive restarted on 16 August with the Battle of Langemarck.  The offensive ended two days later with the capture of Langemarck but a failure to seize all the higher ground and certainly no breakthrough.  A major part of the problem was the unseasonable rains, which given the destruction of the drainage canals, turned the battlefields into quagmires and slowed any advance, especially considering that the allies were on the lower ground.  The offensive was halted until conditions were better.  The battle, including subsequent small actions, cost the Allies some 36,000 casualties and the Germans 26,000.  It just went on and on.

Everywhere, mud

Third Battle of Ypres

Battle of Langemarck

And speaking of going on and on, on 20 August the French launched an offensive on both sides of the Meuse at Verdun.  The objectives were limited and mostly attained, but the tactical/strategic situation was unchanged.  The French captured 11,000 prisoners, but suffered 14,000 casualties; the new German POWs were the lucky ones.

Verdun offensive

An ominous sign, on 2 August 350 crew of one of the German dreadnaughts at Wilhelmshaven engaged in a protest, only to be severely disciplined – two leaders were shot.  This put an end to such demonstrations for the duration of the war, but also led to the spread of clandestine sailors’ committees on the big ships. The sailors would be heard from again.

Sailors demonstrating

On 6 August Kerensky became Prime Minister of Russia, but his days were numbered.  Liberia declared war on Germany on 4 August, presumably following the American lead, and the new Republic of China on the 14th, presumably to curry western favor.

And on 17 August – drum roll! – the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo kicked off.  The offensive would fail, hardly a surprise, and prepare the way for the major Italian disaster of the Twelfth Battle.

Our old friend, Luigi Cadorna


Report from the Fronts #16: Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916)

(OK, this is late; it was far more work than I anticipated.  I’ll do better at the bicentennial.  There is an entire episode on Jutland in the excellent series World War I, which is narrated by Robert Ryan.  I also discovered a fine animation of the entire battle:  My first link!  (I think.)  But why should I want you to read other peoples’ stuff?)


The Great War was first and foremost a land conflict.  But in one way the high seas were of prime importance: commerce.  This was especially critical for Great Britain, which utterly depended on overseas trade for food and some resources.  Blockading Germany, which the Allies did immediately, would ultimately squeeze the country, but an effective blockade of the British Isles could quickly bring the Brits to their knees.  (The blockade and the mining of international waters, which the Allies also did, was contrary to accepted international conventions.)

The High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven

The High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven

The Grand fleet at Scapa Flow

The Grand fleet at Scapa Flow

The High Seas Fleet

The High Seas Fleet

The Grand Fleet

The Grand Fleet

The problem for the Central Powers was that the German High Seas Fleet was far inferior to the Grand Fleet of the Royal Navy, at least in terms of numbers.  Stationed at Wilhelmshaven in the Helgoland Bight, where it was protected by extensive mine fields and had access to the Baltic Sea via the Kiel Canal, the German warships could venture into the North Sea only at great risk.  It is not clear that the destruction of the High Seas Fleet would decisively tip the scales in the war, but the loss of any serious number of capital ships would certainly be devastating to morale.  Besides, those dreadnaughts were so bloody expensive.

Still, the British would be hurt much more by being on the losing side of a major fleet action, though Churchill’s quip that Sir John Jellicoe, the British commander at Jutland, “was the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon” is certainly exaggerated.  Inasmuch as Britain had other naval assets around the globe, the Germans would need to virtually annihilate the Grand Fleet.  In the first year of the war the British navy essentially swept the oceans clean of German warships, despite maintaining most of its modern heavy ships in the Grand Fleet in Scotland to cover the North Sea.

The first serious engagement between elements of the two Fleets took place in January 1915, the Battle of Dogger Bank (in the middle of the North Sea).  Understanding they could not directly confront the Grand Fleet, the German plan was to conduct fast raids on the English coast, but the British always seemed to know where they were.  In fact the British had broken the German naval wireless code, but the Germans believed English and Dutch fishing vessels were observing their ship movements and conveying the information to London.

Vice Admiral David Beatty

Vice Admiral David Beatty

Vice Admiral Franz Hipper

Vice Admiral Franz Hipper

Dogger Bank and the Helgoland Bight

Dogger Bank and the Helgoland Bight

Believing the problem was spies, Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper’s scout squadron of three battlecruisers (and attendant smaller vessels) sailed out to clear the area and of course ran into a larger British force of five battlecruisers under Vice Admiral David Beatty. Hipper immediately headed for home and escaped with the loss of the armored cruiser SMS Blücher.  The Germans still did not realize their codes had been compromised, but they did learn the lesson the battle had to teach about plunging fire, inadequately armored decks and consequent magazine explosions; the British did not.

SMS Blücher going down

SMS Blücher going down

German battlecruisers heading for Dogger Bank

German battlecruisers heading for Dogger Bank

SMS Blücher

SMS Blücher

A year later the Germans were ready to venture out again. On 18 January 1916 Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer became commander of the High Seas Fleet and outlined a more aggressive strategy aimed at luring squadrons of the Grand Fleet into more balanced engagements.  On 24 April the Kaiser ended unrestricted submarine warfare, and Scheer, who felt that playing by the accepted rules of engagement would produce little, recalled the U-boats to be used against the Grand Fleet.

His first idea was to raid the English coast to draw out British ships, which would could be spotted by Zeppelins and then attacked by lurking U-boats and the High Seas Fleet. Fourteen submarines were sent out and on station off British ports and routes into the North Sea by 22 May, but bad weather and problems with some of the capital ships continued to delay the operation, pushing the U-boats to the absolute limit of their endurance at sea.

Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Admiral Reinhard Scheer

Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe

Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe

An alternate plan was implemented: Hipper’s fast squadron of five battlecruisers would head north towards the Skagerrat (the passage between Denmark and Norway) to attack British shipping, followed at a distance by the rest of the fleet under Scheer. The hope was that Beatty’s battlecruisers would be drawn into the path of Scheer’s main force and be annihilated.  Hipper sailed on 31 May, followed at about fifty miles by Scheer.

The problem of course is that the British were reading some of the German communications and had a good idea that a major fleet action was afoot, though the details were unknown. Apart from the prospect of the desired lopsided battle against the German fleet, the Admiralty could not risk allowing the High Seas Fleet into the Atlantic. Consequently, on 30 May Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe sailed from Scapa Flow and the Moray Firth with the Grand Fleet, while Beatty left the Firth of Forth with his six battlecruisers.

Battle of Jutland

Battle of Jutland

Around 3:30 in the afternoon of the 31st Beatty and Hipper spotted each other and Hipper immediately turned south to draw the British into Scheer’s force.  Unaware that the entire German fleet was just to the south and thinking Hipper was fleeing to the safety of the minefields, Beatty followed, the two forces pounding one another with main batteries of 11, 12 and 13.5 inch guns once they were in range at about 15,000 yards.

Jutland battlecruiser engagement



Hipper’s force consisted of five battlecruisers, five light cruisers and thirty torpedo boats (the German equivalent of the destroyer, which itself was developed to counter the first torpedo boats); Beatty had six battlecruisers, four fast battleships (in a separate squadron under Rear Admiral Hugh Evans-Thomas), fourteen light cruisers, twenty-seven destroyers and a seaplane tender (the first “aircraft carrier” to participate in a naval battle).  In the initial encounter Evans-Thomas’ battleships took no part for the first thirty minutes, unable to keep up with Beatty as he steamed south.

Vice Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas

Vice Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas

Despite being outgunned in terms of number and range Hipper immediately began to score hits on the enemy vessels, sinking the battlecruisers HMS Indefatigable at 4:06 and HMS Queen Mary at 4:26.  Both blew up with few survivors when their magazines exploded, and minutes after Queen Mary went down a third battlecruiser, HMS Princess Royal, was struck by a salvo and mistakenly reported as also blown up (she was still afloat).  Hearing this news, Beatty turned to the commander of his flagship, Captain Ernle Chatfield, and said: “Chatfield, there seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.”  There in fact was: inadequate deck and turret armor and poor management of the cordite (the propellant for the shells).

HMS Indefatigable sinks after exploding

HMS Indefatigable sinks after exploding

HMS Queen Mary blows up

HMS Queen Mary blows up

HMS Queen Mary

HMS Queen Mary

At 4:42 Beatty caught sight of Scheer’s fleet and turned north and then west, searching for Jellico in order to spring the trap.  Due to a signals mix-up, Evans-Thomas turned five minutes later, and while providing a kind of rearguard for Beatty, his ships were now enduring a rain of shells from the now united High Seas Fleet.

HMS Lion - turret damage

HMS Lion – turret damage

HMS Lion - Beatty's falgship

HMS Lion – Beatty’s flagship


At 6:16 Jellicoe finally began forming his battle line, joined now by Evans-Thomas, who took up position on the western end of the line.  Steaming north in pursuit of Beatty, Scheer must have been surprised when he saw ahead the entire Grand Fleet in battle formation – or more accurately, saw the muzzle flashes of the battleships that were now sending explosive calling cards in his direction.  At 6:34 German shells sank the battlecruiser HMS Invincible, but a minute later Scheer turned west to escape.  There was no way his sixteen modern battleships and six pre-dreadnaught battleships could confront Jellicoe’s twenty-eight dreadnaughts.  (HMS Dreadnaught, entering service in 1906 with the first uniform battery of large guns and the first steam turbine on a capital ship, created a whole new class of warship.)  Jellicoe responded by turning south fifteen minutes later, seeking to prevent the High Seas Fleet from reaching port.


HMS Iron Duke - Jellicoe's flagship

HMS Iron Duke – Jellicoe’s flagship

HMS Dreadnaught

HMS Dreadnaught

SMS Friedrich der Grosse - Scheer's flagship

SMS Friedrich der Grosse – Scheer’s flagship

There were now some 250 warships engaged in battle; in terms of the tonnage of the ships actually engaged this was the largest naval battle in history.  One has to imagine that while the capital ships were maneuvering and shooting at each other over immense distances, there were also 37 light cruisers, 78 destroyers (all British) and 61 torpedo boats (all German) dodging about the behemoths.  Fast, nimble and difficult to hit, their job was to counter one another and more important, torpedo the big boys, which made them good cover for their larger colleagues.

British desroyers

British desroyers

German destroyers (torpedo boats)

German destroyers (torpedo boats)

Surprisingly, at 6:55 Scheer turned back east.  It has been suggested that he mistakenly thought Jellicoe had divided his force, but his memoirs make it clear that he felt there was too much daylight left to simply flee.  Without the cover of darkness his slower capital ships would suffer greatly in a stern chase, and he thought to confuse and disrupt the British with his surprise move.  This maneuver allowed Jellicoe to “cross the T” (passing in line an approaching column, allowing firing to be concentrated on the lead ships) of the High Seas Fleet again, this time with more concentrated fire.

After twenty-two minutes Scheer turned west again, covering his retreat with smoke and a screen of torpedo boats, normal procedure. But he also sent Hipper’s four remaining battlecruisers on a seeming suicide mission against the British battleships, surely a measure of desperate concern for his own dreadnaughts.  Though heavily pounded, the battlecruisers in fact survived, and together with the barrage of torpedo attacks delayed Jellicoe long enough to let Scheer get away.

The last engagement between the big ships occurred just after sunset, from about 8:20 to 8:30, when Beatty’s battlecruisers caught up with Hipper’s. No ships were sunk, and with darkness falling Jellicoe, aware that the Germans were better at night actions, headed south to confront them before they reached the haven of the mine fields.  Scheer closed up his fleet and headed southeast, blasting his way through the destroyer screen protecting Jellicoe’s rear, but Jellico steamed on, thinking the action to the north involved torpedo boats.

During the remainder of the night there were several close-range engagements as the lighter warships blundered into each other and the capital ships, but the battle was over. On the way south the pre-dreadnaught SMS Pommern was torpedoed and blew up, and the damaged battlecruiser SMS Lützow had to be sunk.  But the High Seas Fleet made it home.

Unidentified battlecruiser going down - SMS Lützow?

Unidentified battlecruiser going down – SMS Lützow?

SMS Pommern

SMS Pommern

SMS Lützow

SMS Lützow

Both sides trumpeted victory. Tactically, the Germans had won the battle, taking on a superior force and inflicting more damage.  The British lost three battlecruisers, three armored cruisers and eight destroyers, totaling 113,300 tons; the Germans lost one battlecruiser, one pre-dreadnaught, four light cruisers and five torpedo boats, for 62,300 tons.  The Grand Fleet suffered 6945 casualties (6094 killed), while the High Seas Fleet sustained 2758 (2551 killed).

One of the British casualties was Boy Seaman First Class John “Jack” Cornwell, serving on the light cruiser HMS Chester as a Gun Layer for a 5.5 inch gun.  Shellfire killed everyone else in the partially closed turret, and though severely wounded and surrounded by fire, Jack stood by his gun, awaiting orders until the action broke off.  He died a few days later and was ultimately awarded Britain’s highest decoration, the Victoria Cross.  Jack was sixteen, the third youngest recipient of the prestigious award, and almost literally became the boy in Felicia Hemons’ poem written ninety years earlier:

Jack's 5.5" gun

Jack’s 5.5″ gun

John Travers Cornwell         1900-1916

John Travers Cornwell

HMS Chester - Jack's gun

HMS Chester – Jack’s gun

The boy stood on the burning deck

Whence all but he had fled;

The flame that lit the battle’s wreck

Shone round him o’er the dead.



But the strategic victory was British. Jellicoe was widely criticized for excessive caution, but his job was to contain the German fleet not annihilate it, and contain it he did: for the rest of the war the capital ships of the High Seas Fleet did not leave Helgoland Bight.  But it was certainly a learning experience for the Royal Navy, which had been definitely outclassed in gunnery and had experienced serious problems with magazine security and ship to ship communications.  Fortunately for the Admiralty, Great Britain would not have to fight another significant surface engagement for more than twenty years.

In the end the High Seas Fleet sailed again, this time to Scapa Flow as prizes of the victorious Allies. In 1918 Scheer, now Grand Admiral, planned to send the Fleet out on 29 October to destroy as many British ships as possible to improve Germany’s bargaining position, but with the war clearly lost his sailors began to mutiny.  After the Armistice the Fleet was interned at Scapa Flow, sailing under Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter because Hipper refused to be involved.  On 21 June 1919, having learned the terms of the Versailles Treaty, Reuter ordered the ships to be scuttled, and most went to the bottom, to the delight of Scheer, who felt honor had been satisfied.

"Uh...why don't you take over now, Franz?"

“Uh…why don’t you take over now, Franz?”

The High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow

The High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow

End of the line

End of the line


Secretly the British were also delighted, preferring to see the warships destroyed rather than turned over the French and Italians.