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The failure of the spring offensive in 1918 indicated that Germany’s military defeat was imminent. The collapse of Bulgaria and the desperate situation on the Western Front, which was only made worse by the intervention of the American troops, made the Germans take further steps. The German military leaders feared an absolute collapse of the front and that the enemies could make their way farther and could thus claim and take over German territory.
In August 1918 the Allies fought the Germans back from their fronts and Ludendorff, a German general, had to inform the Kaiser: ‘We have nearly reached the limit of our powers of resistance. The war must be ended.’ In September 1918 the German government began negotiations on an armistice with the American President Woodrow Wilson whose 14-points they expected to bring about a peace treaty without too much loss.
At the end of September 1918 Bulgaria made peace and one month later Turkey was defeated. Austria was defeated by the Italians at Vittorio Veneto and signed an armistice with the Allies. Germany was now fighting the Allies alone. They had no other choice than to sign an armistice with the Entente in Compiégne, France on November 11. This treaty marked the end of World War One.
Exhaustion at the front
But where did the exhaustion at the front and the necessity of an armistice come from?
The first and major reason is that the conditions the soldiers at the fronts had to live with were disastrous. They led to exhaustion and war weariness.
When the war began many young men rushed to join the armies to proudly fight for their fatherlands. The British government asked for 100,000 volunteers but after just one month they already had 750,000. However, the people’s enthusiasm did not last. Everyone had believed the war would be over by Christmas 1914; nobody had expected they would continue fighting for four more years. War-weariness set in. People, both at the so called home front and soldiers fighting at the actual front, were tired of war and disappointed that in spite of the large loss all the armies had suffered, and the fact that not any progress had been made, there was still no end in sight.
Soldiers – young men of 20 years only – had seen their comrades wounded and die one after the other. Either killed by the enemies’ bullets or bombs or slowly dying of influenza or other disease, caused by the miserable conditions in the trenches. These brave men were fighting in a futile battle, between the dead bodies of their friends, suffering from extreme temperatures and hunger. As a result of the Allied blockade beginning in 1914 German soldiers were exceedingly poorly fed. The allied navies prevented ships sailing directly to Germany providing it with anything that could be used for making war (including food) in order to starve the Germans until they give up and surrender.
The Allies also had an overwhelming superiority in artillery, tanks and mechanised transport and their equipment was greatly superior. The Germans had to rely on their superior skill, but they didn’t have a top-down command structure like the British or the French. It is said that the Germans were tactically unsurpassed, but operationally deficient and strategically inept. So it was not military prowess that led to the Armistice.
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A part of the German military leaders didn’t want to admit their failure in the battlefield. They claimed that the German army had actually been undefeated and their failure was only due to unpatriotic civilians and treacherous politicians at the home front stabbing their own forces in the back. This untrue theory was called “stab-in-the-back-theory” (German: Dolchstoßlegende).
Exhaustion at the home front
But it was not that people at the home front were being unpatriotic that led to the German defeat. Of course many people had lost their belief in their fatherland, but in fact it was the same exhaustion and war weariness as in the battlefield that forced the German leaders to start negotiating about an armistice.
Generally the word “home front” indicates the inclusion of the civil population into warfare, even if the actual front is outside of the population’s lebensraum. And indeed, they were involved and suffering from the effects of the war. The biggest problem at the home front was the acute food shortage – bare hunger. The civilian population of Germany was suffering. Although the German U-Boat campaign had led to food shortages in Britain the Allied naval blockade that prevented supplies from getting into German ports hit Germany harder. Even worse was that the shortage of food during the war had led to an inflation, a rise in the general level of prices of goods. So those little supplies of food that were available was often not affordable for the common family. Even fuel was short supply and limited.
Furthermore the influenza epidemic of 1918 and 1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people in Europe. The so called “Spanish Flu” also hit German cities and claimed many lives amongst the people, who already suffered from and were weakened by the lack of food.
In November 1918 the population was not willing to accept this situation anymore. Strikes and demonstrations paralysed Berlin. Workers went on strike, soldiers refused orders, and the German navy mutinied. The strike and protest spread all over the country. Within a week, there was no more German city that was not involved into the demonstrations, protests and strike developed into a revolution. On 9 November 1918 Germany was declared a democratic republic, which was followed by the formal abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
On 11 November the Armistice of Compiègne was signed by Center Party deputy Matthias Erzberger. World War I was officially over.
Exhaustion on the front and on the home front, not military prowess, brought World War I to an Armistice in 1918. The major reasons for the exhaustion were the large losses that the countries had suffered without making any progress. Bad conditions in the battlefield such as hunger and disease caused war weariness. Hunger and very bad living conditions caused exhaustion and war weariness on the home front. The German people was not willing to take this anymore and started a revolution in November. Germany became a republic and finally signed the Armistice of Compiègne on November 11. The Great War was over!
An essay by Katharina Voß
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