10:58 am. On the outskirts of Mons in Belgium. A rifle shot rings out. It must be a sniper, defending the retreating German troops as they moved eastwards away from the Western Front. A British soldier – one of the countless Tommies who perished during the Great War – falls dead in his comrade’s arms.
Two minutes later and it will 11 o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. 1918, and the Armistice that the Germans had sued for over the previous weeks comes into effect (although some exchanges of fire would continue for a couple more hours along the Western Front). All became silent, but two minutes too late for this British soldier. One more tragedy after more than four years of the tragedy of conflict, during which the combatants tried to slug each other to defeat without success – until now.
I had always wondered how Great Britain became embroiled in a European war that was started four years earlier in August 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Saravejo at the end of June. Just a month later Europe was consumed in a conflagration that came to be known as World War One or the Great War. How did an event hundreds of miles away in Bosnia drag Great Britain into war? Well, a couple of months I did write about the start of the Great War after reading Sean McMeekin’s excellent July 1914: Countdown to War published in 2013. In the first few months of the war, the respective front lines of the Entente Powers – France, Great Britain and her Dominions (Canada and Australia) and colonies, and eventually the Americans after 1917 and the Central Powers – Germany and her allies – were already established and didn’t move much over the next four years. Stalemate had been achieved.
So what changed in 1918? How did the war come to an end. I have just finished reading an excellent review of the last months of the conflict, A Hundred Days – The end of the Great War* by Nick Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London (based at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in Wiltshire).
The Germans had launched a Spring offensive in April and May 1918, and although they came within a whisker of a victory over the Allies, they were not able to achieve their objectives. The Allies withstood this major assault, but the Germans were irretrievably weakened. Then from mid-August the Allies went on the offensive and, using tanks, superior (overwhelming in fact) air power, and improved battlefield tactics, began to make the sort of breakthrough that had eluded both sides in the conflict through four years of stalemate. Soon, the Germans were out-gunned, out-witted, demoralized and apparently disproportionately affected by a flu epidemic; they began retreating north and eastwards.
The end of the Great War was approaching, and Wilhelm II – ‘Kaiser Bill’ – was forced to abdicate just before the Armistice was signed, bringing to an end centuries of rule by the Hohenzollern dynasty, and going into exile in the Netherlands. He never did accept that Germany had been defeated.
The debate over the end of the war, whether the Allies should have pushed for outright victory, continues, as does that over who was to blame for starting the conflict in the first place. Having entered the war in August 1914 Great Britain was there for the duration – only defeat of Germany was the acceptable outcome. And to a large extent that was what was achieved. It was Germany that sued for peace – she could no longer sustain the conflict. Political reality set in, the threat of revolution in Germany hovered over the country, and the German military had nothing more to give.
Were the terms of the peace treaty signed at Versailles in June 1919 too harsh? There are those who argue that they were, and historians like Niall Ferguson argue that Great Britain should never have become involved in the first place. Germany was a ‘broken’ country. Since the Allies never invaded Germany (apart from occupying the Ruhr) there were always those who denied that she had ever been defeated. Certainly there was an upsurge of nationalism after the war leading ultimately to the coming to power of the Nazis in the 1930s – and all the consequences that arose therefrom. Had we learned nothing from the First World War. It took another world war to defeat German militarism once and for all. Today Europe is a much more stable continent although the Balkans have seen their fair share of conflict in recent decades. The ongoing crisis in the Ukraine and the flexing of Russian muscles is all too redolent of the mistakes that led to conflict in 1914. We can only hope that in today’s geopolitical environment there are fewer chances of mistakes happening because opposing sides in a potential conflict are unaware of what each other is doing, unlike in the days leading to the outbreak of the Great War.
* London: Viking. ISBN: 0670920061, 067092007X, 9780670920068, 9780670920075
These two books about the war are also worth considering:
Max Hastings, 2013. Catastrophe: Europe goes to war 1914. London: William Collins. ISBN: 0007398573, 9780007398577
Ian F.W. Beckett and Steven J. Corvi (eds.), 2006. Haig’s Generals. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military. ISBN: 1844151697, 9781844151691.