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How WWI ended: 100 years later

September 1, 2018

World War I ended on November 11, 1918. The conflict claimed countless victims with unprecedented displays of power. But the human suffering continued as Europe could not fully recover from the disaster.

World War I armistice at Compiegne
World War I armistice at Compiegne: Germany's Matthias Erzberger (center, standing) and France's Ferdinand Foch (at right, standing) negotiate the German capitulationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Finie la guerre?" — "Is the war over?"

The German negotiator's car, which crossed the border from the Belgian side on November 6, 1918, on its way to France, put the French soldiers in high spirits. The armies were still fighting one another, but the more than four-year-old war appeared to be coming to an end. Perhaps the politicians who had traveled from Berlin had even brought, as an appetizer to peace, a few cigarettes for them? But Mathias Erzberger, the leader of the German delegation, had to pass. "As a non-smoker," he reported in his memoirs, "he could not fulfill their wish."

However, along with his French counterpart, Marshall Ferdinand Foch, he was able to oblige the desire of millions of Europeans on the morning of November 11. On this day in a rail wagon in a forest by Compiègne, around 90 kilometers (56 miles) northeast of Paris, they put their signatures to a just negotiated cease-fire between Germany and the Allies. Germany had surrendered. Several months later in the famous dining room of the Palace of Versailles, both sides officially signed the peace treaty. 

Read more: Crowdfunded archaeology reveals the WWI Ypres Salient battlefield

The last German offensive

The German advanced along the Western Front well into the summer of 1918, making some considerable land gains even though troop numbers diminished from 5.1 million to 4.2 million between March and July. Despite this, the German Empire was able to close gaps in the ranks, even if only by falling back on previously wounded and recovered soldiers. In addition, new conscripts, those born in 1900, began to trickle in.

The western front in WWI
Fighting on the western front was a whole new kind of destructionImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library/IBL Collections

But the Germans were faced with a new enemy: the Americans. Following US President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war in April 1917, American "doughboys" crossed the Atlantic in seemingly endless numbers. In early fall 1918 around 10,000 soldiers arrived every day. The young American soldiers might have been inexperienced, admits historian John Keegan. "However, the effect of their arrival on the enemy proved decisive: It was deeply depressing." Ultimately it was the well-equipped US forces that decided the war in the Allies' favor.

The senior German leader had to accept that the war could no longer be won and that a complete collapse of the German front could only be prevented by a cease-fire.

Read more: "World War I defined a century"

'One ruin after another'

Europa had experienced four years of monstrous bloodshed and unknown destruction when the Armistice was signed on November 11. Erzberger was able to form his own picture of the devastation on his journey through Belgium and France: "Not a single house was left standing; one ruin came after the other, " he noted. "In the moonlight the ruins loomed like ghosts in the air. No living creature showed itself."

Erzberger outlined the toll of a war that was deadlier than any to date. Technological advancements and industrialization had given rise to weapons that overshadowed all prior ones in both quantity and quality: nearly indestructible tanks, boats that could maneuver below the water's surface, artillery with a gigantic range, deadly gases.

French tank 1917
The battle machine of World War I: a French tankImage: Archives of Renault Company

Military historians estimate that around 850 million artillery shells were fired during the World War I. The killing in this mass war was industrialized: the hail of bullets and the fire of machine guns took the lives of up to 11 million soldiers. The warring nations conscripted a combined total of nearly 56 million recruits. On average 6,000 soldiers died each day of the war. In addition, over 21 million soldiers were wounded — they lost parts of their bodies, were paralyzed or bedridden, had to have amputations, or ended up blind or deaf.

Read more: 1914: An eager march into catastrophe

'The whole belly was gone'

The corresponding experiences on the front were disturbing: "It is terrible when shrapnel goes into soft flesh with such force," remembers the German soldier Karl Bainier. "Our two runners took a direct hit in the night. The whole chest, the whole belly of the other — gone. The one with the belly was dead immediately. The other still could scream."

Johannes Götzmann reported that he and his squad had sought protection in an underground shelter. "We sat underneath as the garage was hit. There were quite a lot of wounded. One of them did not have any legs anymore. Both legs were gone. He bled to death there."

It was thus unsurprising that the soldiers were among those who hoped for an end to the war. It was "no longer unusual," noted army leader Prince Rupprecht von Bayern in May 1918, that "up to 20 men deserted out of a team of 100, for when they were caught it meant two to four months in prison. That is exactly what some wanted because then they would avoid one battle or another."

In the following months the front lines on the side of the Central Powers began to crumble. Numerous soldiers refused to fight. Others made their own way home. "You lie in bed and are an illness. You are a fractured skill, a bullet in the stomach, a fractured pelvis," wrote Alfred Döblin in his novel November 1918: A German Revolution, when describing how the recruits felt about life.

Käthe Kollwitz's sculpture "Mourning Parents"
German artist Käthe Kollwitz lost her younger son in WWI and later created the sculpture "Mourning Parents" for the German war cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium; this copy of the work made by Joseph Beuys sits in CologneImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Birth of the "dagger-thrust legend"

The ranks of the Germans were dwindling. Army leaders refused to take responsibility. On September 19, 1918, General Erich Ludendorff noted, "I have asked his majesty to now summon a government assembly of those circles that we primarily have to thank for having gotten us so far. We will now see these gentlemen transferred to the ministries. They should now negotiate the peace that must be made. They should face the music for landing us in this situation."

With "these gentlemen," Ludendorff meant the politicians of the parliamentary parties of the German Empire that as early as 1917 had advocated for a peace agreement: the Social Democrats, left-wing liberals and the Catholic Center Party.

Paul von Hindenburg
German Field Marshall Paul von HindenburgImage: picture-alliance/empics

The assertion of alleged treachery by the war weary homeland was also seized upon by Paul von Hindenburg, the most senior military officer of the German Empire. He quoted an "English general" who probably never uttered such words: "The German army was stabbed in the back." The supposed general, Frederick Maurice, vehemently disputed ever having said this, but his protests meant nothing. The "dagger-thrust legend" — the claim that the war was lost through internal "treason"  — was born. It played a significant role in the collapse of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s.

'Anger, anger, anger, and still no sense'

But well before that, November 11, 1918, brought the much-hoped-for end to the war. It did not, however, mean an end to suffering. Destitution, hardship and grief continued to grip people. There was also a profound feeling of having fought for nothing, suffered for nothing. "Futility, at it highest point, is anger, anger, anger and still no sense in sight," author Walter Serner said of his fellow countrymen's rage. This poisonous feeling seized the Germans more than anyone else. It was to prepare fertile ground for the political rise of a former front soldier named Adolf Hitler.

Interview - With Herfried Münkler, Political Scientist

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East