Hundred Days Offensive
The last battles of the war
8 August - 11 November 1918
author Paul Boșcu, April 2018
During the Hundred Days Offensive the combined forces of the Entente launched a series of attacks against the German forces. These attacks were designed to break the German lines and force the German leadership to ask for an armistice. This strategy worked and an armistice agreement was reached on 11 November 1918. The war ended but the animosity between the former enemies lingered on.
The Hundred Days Offensive was the final series of battles in World War One during which the Entente forces launched a series of attacks against the German empire on the Western Front. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens the offensive pushed the Germans out of France, forcing them to retreat beyond the Hindenburg Line. The offensive ended the war with the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The term ‘Hundred Days Offensive’ does not refer to a single coordinated attack, but rather a rapid succession of battles that followed the Battle of Amiens.

The German Army was still a deadly enemy, and open warfare, desired for so long, was a cruel mistress, as the French had discovered in 1914.

The Battle of Amiens was the start of a 3-month long campaign that was one of the hardest ever fought by the British Army, the only compensation being the fact that they were winning. The fighting ranged from full-on assaults on layered defensive positions to bloody ambushes and the resulting frantic skirmishes. There are few more stressful military operations than an advance to contact through unknown country against a concealed enemy. The war was in its last stages but the casualty lists were mushrooming fast. The war had never seemed more painful.

The Amiens attack also illustrated the progress gained throughout the BEF in tactics and all-arms cooperation since the Somme offensive of 1916. The employment of aircraft in a ground-attack role, as well as on their normal artillery-spotting and reconnaissance duties, added extra bite to the offensive, while more extensive use of wireless helped improve battlefield communications.

After the Second Battle of the Somme, the Germans were forced all the way back to the Canal du Nord and the Hindenburg Line. In Flanders they were also forced to abandon their gains in the Lys area in order to shorten the line and conserve troops.

After the Hindenburg Line was broken, the German military and political leaders twisted and turned, with more than an eye on posterity, trying to avoid being held personally responsible for defeat. And as they did so, the war went on. But there was no chance of last-minute redemption for Germany: its effort to overcome the existing European order was doomed to failure.

Bolstered by their triumph during the Second Battle of the Marne, Entente officers began to plan a much bigger battle to capitalize on the German weakness. This was emphatically not the work of one man, or even of a small group of officers, but rather the synthesis of all that the British – aided by the French – had learned over the previous three years. It was a collegiate effort, marked by the wholehearted involvement of experts at all levels of the British Expeditionary Force and fully integrating all the new weapons into one ferocious methodology of modern war.

There was no longer any need to decide between counter-battery fire and a barrage: the BEF now had enough guns to allow for both with a comprehensive creeping barrage, forcing the Germans to keep their heads down as the British infantry approached.

The RAF, aided by flash spotters and sound rangers, had already managed to identify 504 of the 530 German guns. When the attack was launched, they would be neutralized by lashings of gas and high explosive shells to prevent them intervening as the infantry crossed No Man’s Land.

With the infantry came the tanks: 324 heavy tanks to squash the barbed wire and help crush any surviving German strong points; then 96 light Whippet tanks to create havoc behind the German lines; while a further 120 supply tanks were loaded with munitions to resupply the infantry in case of German counterattacks. This would be the biggest tank attack of the war.

The infantry themselves were unrecognizable from the warriors of 1915. They were fewer in number, but were covered by massed Vickers machine gun fire and carried their own Lewis guns, Stokes mortars and rifle grenades for immediate powerful support. Furthermore, they no longer advanced in lines, but in ‘short worms’ of about eight men feeling their way in ‘strings’ across No Man’s Land, preceded by well-trained scouts.

When the guns blazed out at Zero Hour, the battle plan began to work like clockwork. As the infantry attacked, helped by the cover of fog, they were simply unstoppable. On most of the front, the Entente surged through the German lines. It was a disaster that General Erich Ludendorff could not deny: ‘August 8 was the black day of the German Army in the history of this war.’ The British and French continued to move forward. The Battle of Amiens ended after just three days. A total advance of twelve miles had been achieved, but what really mattered was the severe blow it had inflicted on the German Army.

‘And suddenly, with a mighty roar, more than a thousand guns begin the symphony. A great illumination lights up the eastern horizon: and instantly the whole complex organization, extending far back to areas almost beyond earshot of the guns, begins to move forward; every man, every unit, every vehicle and every tank on the appointed tasks and to their designated goals, sweeping on relentlessly and irresistibly. Viewed from a high vantage point and in the glimmer of the breaking day, a great artillery barrage surely surpasses in dynamic splendor any other manifestation of collective human effort.’ (Lieutenant General Sir John Monash, Headquarters, Australian Corps)

The Germans moved their reserves forward, stiffening the line and occupying the old trench lines that littered the whole Somme area. As resistance increased, it was becoming apparent that without efficient artillery and tank support, British losses would rise astronomically. General Henry Rawlinson and his corps commanders realized that their attack was running out of momentum. But it was not their decision to suspend operations. That lay higher up the chain of command.

‘Then we were over the tape and away; me with my Lewis gun section. Off along with the tanks. But it was off in a fog as well, a fog that had been coming down all night, and was now so thick you could hardly see 20 yards in front of you. The tanks, unless one came very near to you, you could only place by sound. It was an eerie start. In no time Germans, ghost-like in the mists, were showing up all over the place, most with their hands up above their heads in surrender. But here and there a machine gun still firing at random at us.’ (Corporal William Kerr, 5th (Western Cavalry) Battalion, 1st Canadian Division)

General Douglas Haig examined their case and decided his subordinates were right. But he still had to deal with General Ferdinand Foch, who was determined to press on. A classic confrontation ensued in which Foch tried to order the implacable Haig to bend to his will. He soon found that, Supreme Commander or not, he did not have the right to control British tactical deployments. The result was that Haig ordered his Fourth Army to rest and recover its strength, while the neighbouring Third Army took over the attack.

‘Foch pressed me to attack the positions held by the enemy on the front Chaulnes-Roye. I declined to do so because they could only be taken after heavy casualties in men and tanks. I had ordered the First French and Fourth (British) Armies to postpone their attacks, but to keep up pressure on that front so as to make the enemy expect an attack on this front, while I transferred my reserves to Third Army. Foch now wanted to know what orders I had issued for attack: when I proposed to attack? Where? And with what troops? I think he really wanted a written statement to this effect from me for his records! I told Foch of my instructions to Byng and Horne; and that Rawlinson would also cooperate with his left between the Somme and the Ancre when Third Army had advanced and withdrawn some of the pressure which was still strong in that sector. I spoke to Foch quite straightly, and let him understand that I was responsible for the handling of the British forces. Foch’s attitude at once changed and he said all he wanted was early information of my intentions, so that he might coordinate the operations of the other armies, and that he thought I was quite correct in my decision not to attack the enemy in his prepared position.’ (Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Headquarters, BEF)

Where possible the infantry kept close to the tanks and the creeping barrage, seeking to catch the Germans by surprise: ‘We knew that we had to follow our tanks so kept along after them. Every now and then “Fritzes” would come running back with their hands up, well “souvenired”, watches and pocket books all gone. One Hun came suddenly in sight of a tank that I was near. He was so scared that he bounded right at me and would have knocked me down, but I poked the old bayonet at him and he steadied up. Their main idea seemed to be to get taken prisoner and to get out of the line at the earliest.’ (Private Geoffrey Rose, 30th Battalion, AIF)

The German losses ranged from 48,000 to 75,000, of which nearly 30,000 were prisoners of war. After the losses already suffered in the 1918 offensives, the Germans could not sustain this level of sacrifice. Ludendorff could see the writing on the wall: ‘Our war machine was no longer efficient. Our fighting power had suffered, even though the great majority of divisions still fought heroically. August 8 put the decline of that fighting power beyond all doubt, and in such a situation, as regards reserves, I had no hope of finding a strategic expedient whereby to turn the situation to our advantage. On the contrary, I became convinced that we were now without that safe foundation for the plans of General Headquarters, on which I had hitherto been able to build, at least so far as is possible in war. Leadership now assumed, as I then stated, the character of an irresponsible game of chance, a thing I have always considered fatal. The fate of the German people was to me too high a stake. The war must be ended.’ Yet even so there was much hard fighting to go.

The Battle of Albert was significant in the fact that it was the opening push that would lead to the Second Battle of the Somme. General Sir Julian Byng’s Third Army hammered forward between the Ancre and Scarpe Rivers north of the Somme. Considerable progress was made as the German line began to fragment. Haig urged his generals to seize the moment.

‘To turn the present situation to account, the most resolute offensive is everywhere desirable. Risks, which a month ago would have been criminal to incur, ought now to be incurred as a duty. It is no longer necessary to advance in regular lines and step by step. On the contrary, each division should be given a distant objective which must be reached independently of its neighbour, and even if one’s flank is thereby exposed for the time being. Reinforcements must be directed on the points where our troops are gaining ground, not where they are checked. A vigorous offensive against the sectors where the enemy is weak will cause hostile Strong points to fall, and in due course our whole army will be able to continue its advance. The situation is most favourable; let each one of us act energetically and without hesitation push forward to our objective.’ (Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, General Headquarters, BEF)

Haig, however, sensed that greater triumphs were within reach, calling for 'all ranks to act with the utmost boldness and resolution in order to get full advantage from the present favourable situation'.

The British and French ground their way forward as the Germans, struggling to prevent them, threw in more reserves. Soon it was the turn of the First Army of General Sir Henry Horne, which attacked in the Arras sector, pushing the Germans back towards Monchy le Preux. In the Somme area the German retreat became more widespread, and General John Monash was determined to use the momentum gained for his Australian Corps to jump the Somme River, behind which the Germans were trying to stabilize their front. But the Germans were now being thrown back everywhere.

Monash’s men were exhausted, their numbers dwindling, as every day and every action took its toll. Soon brigades had shrunk to the size of not much more than a battalion. But they had the Germans on the run. The key battle took place at Mont St Quentin, a mile to the north of Peronne. The Australian Corps crossed the river and tore into the German positions, taking the hill. The Australians swept over to a victory which at a stroke broke the integrity of the German line along the Somme.

The Canadian Corps attacked the Drocourt-Quéant Switch Line, an extension of the Hindenburg Line. They too met with success as the patchy German resistance was overwhelmed: ‘Our party of about twelve men took off under artillery and machine gun fire from the enemy. After a while we came to the right of the village and got onto a sunken road. Over to the right was a bunch of Heinies beating it from an old windmill. We potted at them with rifles and machine guns and caused some casualties. Advancing along the sunken road, we completely surprised and outflanked two machine gun posts simply swarming with men. After we fired a few shots we took the whole bunch of prisoners, about 100-150 of them. Proceeding up the sunken road to help with the prisoners, I happened to look over to my left. I saw there another thickly manned machine gun post of Heinies shooting over to the left from an embankment. I dropped down on the bank of this sunken road and fired at the man operating the machine gun. He fell over backwards and the machine gun with him. Some more of the boys arrived and joined in the firing. We got many others, but soon the remainder put up their hands to surrender.’ (Private Morley Timberlake, 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion, CEF)

The fighting included a significant event: the launch of the first fully fledged offensive by the Americans, on the St Mihiel Salient. It was the supreme learning experience for the inexperienced Americans. The barrage was ferocious, although here the Americans had wisely leaned on French artillery expertise and support. The advance was a relatively easy triumph for the AEF as the Germans had been preparing in any event to evacuate the salient. But the Americans had achieved their objectives and gained experience that would stand them in good stead for greater trials.

There was a sense of exhilaration in the air: ‘Leaping out of bed I put my head outside the tent. We had received orders to be over the lines at daybreak in large formations. It was an exciting moment in my life as I realized that the great American attack upon which so many hopes had been fastened was actually on. I suppose every American in the world wanted to be in that great attack. The very sound of the guns thrilled one and filled one with excitement. The good reputation of America seemed bound up in the outcome of that attack.’ (Captain Edward Rickenbacker, 94th Aero Squadron, AEF)

As the troops went over the top Captain Rickenbacker watched from the air: ‘We found the Germans in full cry to the rear. One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Bosche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over, upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire – now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks. Most of the drivers and gunners had taken to the trees before we reached them.’

Because of lapses in Entente security, the Germans were expecting an attack and had begun to pull back. Still, they could not prevent the AEF from registering a notable success in the first major American-led operation of the war. Within 30 hours, and at a cost of about 7,000 American casualties, Pershing's troops seized 15,000 prisoners.

Foch brilliantly coordinated the attacks up and down the Western Front: on the first day the French and Americans would strike hard in the Meuse-Argonne area, while the very next day the British would launch their First and Third Armies at the Hindenburg Line attacking towards Cambrai. On the following day the French, the Belgians and the British Second Army would attack in Flanders in the Ypres area. Finally on the fourth day, a fourth offensive would take place as the British Fourth Army attacked the Hindenburg Line in the Somme region.

Haig was determined to defeat the Germans in 1918. He had an all too painful familiarity with their ability to regenerate their forces and stabilize their defensive positions if given half a chance. Faced by the imposing fortifications of the Hindenburg Line, he had the choice of attacking that autumn or suspending operations and attempting the same task in the spring of 1919. However, in Foch, Haig had a superior who, after their initial confrontation, shared the same overall vision of the war; a man equally determined not to allow the Germans breathing space.

Blessed with a plentiful supply of guns and ammunition, Foch could attack anywhere he liked. Instead of persisting where the Germans were focussing their efforts and amassing reserves, he could switch away to where they were not so well prepared. In doing so Foch got within the German ‘command loop’ as Ludendorff was left floundering, always reacting to the last attack and never able to take control of a constantly fluctuating situation.

This stupendous series of attacks, mirroring in scale the huge Battle of the Frontiers clashes of 1914, commenced when the French Fourth Army and the American First Army attacked along a huge 44-mile front stretching between the Meuse and Reims. The French had done it all before. But the Americans were still raw and this time they found the Germans had no intention of retreating. The fighting in the Argonne forest would continue with only short lulls throughout October and into November 1918.

‘Only five minutes more for a great many of the boys to live. Four minutes, three minutes, two, then one. “Ready? Let’s go!” The instant we started climbing out of the trench the artillery cut loose on the Germans. At the same instant the Germans cut loose with artillery and machine guns. Immediately men began to drop. Cries and moans, yells and screams rent the air, and could be heard even above the roaring of cannon and bursting shells of the enemy. Shells were bursting overhead and underfoot. The very air was exploding in our faces. The ground was moving, rolling under our feet. Enemy machine gun bullets were tearing through our soldiers like so much hail and taking a great toll. It was a roaring furnace, all fire, smoke, hot lead and shrapnel in which it seemed we were all trapped and must perish, but some of us went on and on. A large swamp lay between our lines and the Germans. In order to get us across this, our engineers had built some walks under cover of the night. We soon found that crossing on these was much too slow and as we were losing troops heavily, Captain McCormack, our company commander, took the lead and plunged into the swamp. We all followed, holding our rifles over our heads. Breaking through the scum and water up to our armpits, we crossed the swamp. On the other side, the ground was marshy and would not hold our weight. Unless we could step on a bunch of water grass, we were continually pulling each other out of the mire. This condition of the ground probably saved a lot of men from getting hit by shrapnel. As the shells lit here, although their detonation was instantaneous, they would bury in the mud and then explode. We got through the marsh, then came the German wire entanglement. We walked on top of the wires instead of trying to wade through it, but a lot of us broke through several times and got entangled. It was tough going. Soldiers everywhere were tearing their clothes in frantic efforts to extricate themselves and get to the trench and at the Germans.’ (Private Charles Dermody, 132nd Infantry Regiment, AEF)

The ‘Doughboys’, as the American soldiers were nicknamed, fought well and managed to advance some seven miles before they became bogged down in the tangle of woods, ridges and valleys that make the Argonne Forest area ideal for defence. The fighting was an intensive, brutal experience for them against a German Army that may have been on its last legs but was still dangerous when cornered. All the same, the Americans endured, pushing on from ridge to ridge, grinding their way through the Argonne, their very presence and ever-growing strength a constant reminder to the Germans that there could be no escape from defeat.

The Americans frequently found that their lack of experience and poor tactical grasp cost them dearly, but they kept on going. Like the French in 1914 and the British in 1916, they were learning the hard way. And no one could doubt their courage. At times their losses were excruciating. In all the Americans would suffer some 117,000 casualties, the French fighting alongside them a further 70,000, while estimates of German losses range from 90,000 to 120,000.

The opening blow of the general offensive – administered by the US First Army and French Fourth Army in the Meuse-Argonne region – had an immediate impact as the Americans advanced up to three miles on the first day. However, this rate of progress was not maintained. The Germans had sited defensive positions with their usual expertise in the thickly-wooded and steeply-sloping terrain between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse.

The second of the great attacks was launched by the British First and Third Armies. Here the greatest obstacle to progress lay in the partially constructed Canal du Nord. Although for the most part empty of water, it still presented a major obstacle in its own right, whereas behind it lay three German defence systems stretching back some five miles. The Entente captured all their objectives and, indeed, all along the front of the First and Third Armies they threw back the Germans.

Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie tailored his artillery plans to the problem. A long slow barrage of the barbed wire had begun, but there was no crescendo leading up to the assault, allowing some surprise to be achieved when the troops went over the top with a crushing creeping barrage.

Currie's gamble paid off handsomely as the First and Third Armies thrust forward six miles in two days. Thereafter, stiffer German opposition was encountered and hard fighting was required, but the Canadian success on the Canal du Nord opened the way for a drive against Cambrai.

Herbert Plumer’s Second Army, accompanied by the French and the Belgians, sought finally to eradicate the Ypres Salient from the map. They were walking in the footsteps, indeed, treading over the graves of hundreds of thousands of their predecessors. But this time the German artillery were rendered silent by their counter-battery fire, the dreaded pillboxes blasted from the earth. In just one day they swept across the whole of the Ypres battlefields to breast the Passchendaele Ridge.

The Entente forces’ flexible offensive tactics were tailored to every situation, smoothly applying the required mix of weapons – artillery, gas shells, tanks, mortars, rifle grenades – to overcome any hold-ups.

The first day saw the Entente under King Albert break out of the old Ypres Salient, reclaim Passchendaele Ridge and pass beyond the limits of the BEF's advance of the previous year. British units recaptured Messines Ridge and reached Warneton on the Lys. Further north the Belgians were now only two miles from Roulers. The Entente progressed approximately nine miles in this phase of operations in Flanders but then slowed down as German reserves arrived and the familiar problems of rain and mud returned.

In deteriorating conditions, the French and Belgians on the left were particularly handicapped by the inadequacy of the arrangements made by King Albert's French Chief of Staff, General Degoutte, for transporting supplies across the broken and swampy landscape of the former Ypres Salient.

Last but not least was the attack on the Hindenburg Line by Henry Rawlinson’s Fourth Army. American troops, placed for the occasion under the command of Monash, would attack where the St Quentin Canal ran underground between Bellicourt and Vendhuile. The Australian Corps would be ready to exploit any success. The Fourth Army completely ruptured the Hindenburg Line, and the advance on the German borders had begun. The deep-flowing Rhine might threaten to hold them up but the Entente had won the war; the only question was whether they could finish it in 1918.

Most startling of all was the attempt by the 46th Division of the British IX Corps to leap across the still waters of the St Quentin Canal: ‘An enormous barrage opened. It was tremendous. Everything possible was rained on the rear of the canal to prevent their reserves being brought up. The other side knew something was on by the intensity of our barrage, so, up went their flares, green and gold, and over came the counter barrage. The racket was awe-inspiring, it was impossible to hear, even if orders were given. Over we went, slipping and sliding down the canal bank to the cold water below. The opposite bank was pitted with machine gun nests, in tunnels dug into the 30 feet high sloping bank. How any of us even reached the water beats me, but a surprising number did. The water was up to our armpits, and holding that gun above my head was bad enough without being machine gunned as well. Clawing our way on to the bank we were underneath some of the machine guns making it more difficult to hit us, so my team and many others flung Mills grenades into the various tunnels nearest to us, while clinging for dear life to any scrap of projection on the bank. After many years I still don’t know how we got away with it.” (Corporal George Parker, 1/8th Sherwood Foresters)

For the canal crossing, meticulous yet ingenious preparations had been made by the corps and divisional commanders and their staffs, and included the provision of mud mats, collapsible boats, floating piers, lifelines and scaling ladders as well as 3,000 life jackets obtained from Channel steamers.

The capture of the canal by the 46th Division was one of the great feats of arms of the war, helped by heavy early-morning fog and a creeping barrage which rained down 126 shells for every 500 yards of German trench for eight hours. The Hindenburg line was breached.

In October, the individual German soldiers could not help but know that they were beaten. Years of privation and suffering culminated in severe political unrest. A new Chancellor, Prince Max von Baden, was appointed. His cosmetic liberal reforms and the appointment of a few token socialist ministers did nothing to appease the raging left while still provoking the establishment right. The combination of defeat at the front, political division at home and no hope for the future was a potent brew that unsettled the troops in the line.

One illustration can be found in the legend of Corporal Alvin York during the Ardennes fighting. This enterprising American NCO, apparently acting for the most part on his own, managed to force the surrender of a large number of prisoners. The Americans naturally hailed his achievements; the Germans were far more sceptical. One German officer, Lieutenant Schleicher, pondered on how such a state of affairs had come to pass: ‘Anyone who knows the morale of our troops as it existed in those days must admit that it was comparatively easy for the Americans to perform heroic acts. I must confirm that the fighting value of the men in the trenches had sunk very low. A few days prior to this incident, we were unable to carry out a counterattack because our men simply would no longer go over the top. Racing through the enemy barrage at the head of my company, I found myself in the front line with only one sergeant and four privates; the remainder of my company was ‘unaccounted for’. When I ran back to the rear, I saw my men, together with other companies and even their commanding officers, lying at the edge of the woods. To apply force would have been useless. Yet this state of affairs was quite comprehensible. 1) Our unit had been in the firing line since September 26, on which date the Allied forces launched their offensive. The protracted mental strain, inclement weather and soggy ground – we had to spend the nights in the open, without any kind of protection – had generally lowered the morale. 2) Many of our men were hardly fit for active service. The replacements that were sent to the front were poor in build and health as well as in training. These men were facing American troops who, so far as I know, were relieved every other day. Moreover, the Americans were strong and healthy-looking individuals; most of them were volunteers and, as I observed on my way to the prison camp, had at their disposal all kinds of auxiliaries. Provision dumps were located along the roads where everybody could help himself; and motor trucks were on hand in enormous numbers. I can readily see that these well-equipped troops found it easy to take our demoralized men by surprise.’

In the first week of September, there were increasing signs that many German soldiers were rapidly losing confidence in their military leadership. Returning to the front from sick leave, Crown Prince Rupprecht recorded that a troop train had been seen at Nuremberg bearing the inscription 'Slaughter cattle for Wilhelm and Sons!’ The German Army, nonetheless, remained a tough adversary and its front-line units still possessed sufficient collective tactical skill to exact a heavy toll in casualties for most local Entente successes.

The Entente armies, British, French, American and Belgian, moved forward along most of the Western Front. They were winning all right, but casualties were still high – this was a truly murderous form of warfare. It is a sobering statistic that of the 1.2 million men serving in the BEF between August and November 1918, some 360,000 become casualties. This was unsustainable: the BEF was being consumed. The French and Americans were also suffering. This was Armageddon. But Germany was finally beaten; more than that, the Central Powers were finished.

For the Germans, the bad news was pouring in from everywhere. The Turks were in disarray in Palestine and Mesopotamia, while the Bulgarians were falling back in Salonika.

The German High Command knew it was beaten, but at the same time sought an exit strategy which would allow it to resume the battle in 1919. Both Hindenburg and Ludendorff clung to the idea that they could defend the German homeland and that their enemies were themselves tottering, at the end of their endurance. Unsurprisingly, the Entente refused to fall into this obvious trap. They were collectively determined to impose conditions to any Armistice negotiations that would cripple the German war machine for the foreseeable future.

‘The Armistice is militarily necessary to us. We shall soon be at the end of our strength. If the peace does not follow, then we have at least disengaged ourselves from the enemy, rested ourselves and won time. Then we shall be more fit to fight than now, if that is necessary.’ (Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, German Headquarters)

‘If the war should approach our own territory, if the feeling that he was protecting home and all that word meant entered into the heart of each man at the front, who knew full well the meaning of such terms as ‘theater of war’, ‘battlefield’ and ‘lines of communication’, if the war with all its destruction threatened German soil, then I felt our 70 million Germans would stand like one man, determined and ready to sacrifice for their country all the mighty strength that still remained to them.’ (Quartermaster General Erich Ludendorff, German Headquarters)

By this time Ludendorff was suffering the after-effects of a partial mental breakdown and seemed unable to maintain a consistent approach from one day to the next. Finally he offered his resignation after a dispute with the Kaiser on 26 October. He was replaced as Hindenburg’s Chief of Staff by General Wilhelm Groener.

Groener was well aware that the game was up for Germany. With the capitulation of Bulgaria on 30 September, Turkey on 30 October, and the Austro-Hungarian acceptance of an armistice on the Italian Front on 3 November, Germany was left fighting alone and without hope.

The final offensives began. The British Fourth, Third and First Armies attacked on a wide front. The attacks were broadly successful, but blemished as ever by painful casualties. November was nearly always a miserable, desperate time for fighting, but with the war teetering to its long-awaited close, it was a particular trial in 1918. Wet weather hampered progress, but the Germans were still trying their best to hold back their pursuers, blowing up bridges, felling trees and blasting houses to block the roads. Booby traps and delayed-action mines added to the delays inflicted on the advance.

As the British soldiers entered many of the towns and villages, they encountered French civilians now finally freed from years of German occupation: ‘As we rode in, people began to run out of their houses, regardless of the shelling. By the time we reached the Grande Place we were surrounded by a seething crowd of people simply delirious with joy. I had a little chocolate for the children, but it did not go very far. Luneau was dragged off his horse and smothered with kisses. I was almost dragged off but I managed to stick on. They kissed my boots and lifted up their babies to be kissed, all laughing, sobbing and shouting, ‘Vive la France! Vive l’Angleterre!’ They fished out French flags from somewhere and hung them out of the window. They begged for French newspapers and any news we could give them. And all the time the Bosche was shelling the place and nobody cared a damn! As we dismounted at the house of the Mayor, a shell hit it and a splinter passed between Luneau and me – rotten luck if I get “done in” with the end in view.’ (Major Thomas Westmacott, Headquarters, 24th Division)

For the British there was a peculiar irony in the site chosen by the German Seventeenth Army for a rearguard stand: the Mons area where for the BEF it had all begun, hundreds of thousands of lifetimes ago. By early morning of the next day the Canadians had cleared away the last of the Germans, and Mons was returned to British control. They were truly back where they started.

The goal was to capture the city without destroying it. This was achieved by the Canadians before the armistice came into effect. Casualties for the battle were light compared to others that had been fought in four miserable, bloody years: 280 men killed, wounded or missing during the last two days of fighting.

The surrender negotiations were based on the framework of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. These attempted to set out a vision as to how the Great Powers could co-exist after the war. The Allied Supreme War Council offered Germany peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points, but also announced that it would be Foch who would negotiate the terms for an Armistice before a peace conference was convened. Foch, aided by Haig, Pétain and Pershing, had worked out exactly what was wanted from his negotiations with the German representatives: absolutely no chance that Germany would resume the war after a short armistice.

Although in some ways a fairly naive document, the Fourteen Points at least provided a starting point for the negotiations. Under its provisions Germany was invited to surrender all its gains in the east, allowing for the creation of a independent Polish state. In the west, Belgium was to be evacuated and Alsace-Lorraine returned to France. Crippling financial reparations were demanded to defray the exorbitant cost of the war damage suffered.

A minor hiccup arose over the American demand in the Fourteen Points for complete freedom of the seas, which worried the British as it would prohibit their habitual use of blockades as a legitimate weapon of war. This was, however, brushed under the carpet; no one wanted any lengthy hold-ups over this kind of complication. The German armies would have just fourteen days to withdraw to Germany, and they would have to surrender an important number of their weapons. The High Seas Fleet would be interned in Allied waters – and even then the Royal Navy blockade would be maintained until the formal peace treaty was signed. Lastly, Allied armies would occupy the west bank of the Rhine, with fortified Allied bridgeheads at Mainz, Coblenz and Cologne standing out in an enforced demilitarized zone on the eastern bank.

In Germany itself there was a tremendous state of political flux. The High Seas Fleet was in open mutiny and there were crowds demonstrating on the streets of Berlin. Prince Max von Baden, the recently appointed Chancellor, realized the game was up and he dispatched a joint military and civilian negotiating team led by a relatively moderate politician, Matthias Erzberger, charged with the thankless task of sorting out the terms for an Armistice with the forbidding figure of Foch. The Kaiser, who at first refused to abdicate, crossed the border into the Netherlands and formally abdicated after the Armistice was signed.

Prince von Baden advised the Kaiser to resign in order to avoid the onrushing specter of civil war. The Kaiser refused and the Prince himself resigned, to be replaced as Chancellor by the socialist parliamentary leader, Friedrich Ebert.

At the Army Headquarters at Spa in Belgium, the Kaiser was being given a stern lesson in reality by General Wilhelm Groener, who suggested that Wilhelm II go to the front and die at the head of his armies, an invitation politely declined by the Kaiser. Instead he chose ignominious exile in the Netherlands, crossing the border on 10 November. His more formal abdication would occur on 28 November, but to all intents and purposes Germany was now a republic.

The German delegation finally met Foch in the inauspicious surroundings of a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest, where he gave them no real choice but to sign, which they duly did at 05.15 on the morning of 11 November, allowing just a few hours before the Armistice was promulgated to the world. Men carried on dying right up to the very end, but finally the rumble of the guns stopped at 11.00. The soldiers reacted in different ways. Maybe a few career soldiers or adventurers were disappointed, but most were delighted.

‘Every man had a grin from ear to ear on his face. Nobody yelled or showed uncontained enthusiasm – everybody just grinned and I think the cause was that the men couldn’t find words to express themselves. I think of the man who every day has his life in danger and who dreams of home more than heaven itself – suddenly finds that the danger is past and that his return is practically assumed – that he has won after personally risking his life – no wonder they couldn’t say much – they simply grinned.’ (Captain Cecil Gray Frost, L Battery, 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, Canadian Machine Gun Corps, CEF)

Many reflected on the blessed relief from the tensions and unremitting horrors of the fighting. The draining hopelessness of the war was not always apparent until it was suddenly lifted. Suddenly they were free: ‘“Dickie,” said Captain Brown, “The bloody war’s over! It’s over!” And it was. No more slaughter, no more maiming, no more mud and blood, no more killing and disemboweling of horses and mules. No more of those hopeless dawns, with the rain chilling the spirits, no more crouching in inadequate dugouts scooped out of trench walls, no more dodging snipers’ bullets, no more of that terrible shell fire. No more shovelling up of bits of men’s bodies and dumping them into sandbags, no more cries of, “Stretcher-bearers!” No more of those beastly gas masks and the odious smell of pear drops which was deadly to the lungs. And no more writing of those dreadfully difficult letters to the next-of-kin of the dead.’ (Lieutenant Richard Dixon, 251st Battery, 53rd Brigade, Royal Artillery)

The French soldiers had good reason to rejoice, but at the same time many good comrades to mourn. The French Army had fought with incredible determination, always – somehow – just about managing to keep going in the face of adversity: ‘Damn! A wave of joy swept over us. I don’t know if I’d tears in my eyes. Like the others, I must have shouted, “Vive la France!” For a moment we were left breathless with happiness. Great sorrow is silent; so too is great joy. Then the shock passed; we recovered our power of speech and with it the reflex common to all Frenchmen, “We’ll have to drink a toast to that!” Yes, but with what? There was no red wine in this poor little place, just a bottle of lousy sparkling wine Bebert dug up in a shop where the bastard made us pay 15 francs. We split it sixteen ways, hardly enough to wet your whistle!’ (Private Ernest Brec, 77th Infantry Regiment)

The Armistice was a relief for the Germans, too, but even as they celebrated, they would have to face the bitter consequences of defeat: ‘I read the fateful sheet with bated breath and growing amazement. What were the terms? Evacuation of the left bank of the Rhine as well as the right to an extent of forty kilometres … 150,000 railroad cars … 10,000 automobiles … 5,000 heavy guns … the blockade to remain in effect … the navy to be surrendered! It can’t be. This is ridiculous. It means a fight to the end. What a sudden change from the joy we had felt that morning! “This is what you get for your God-damned brotherhood!” I shouted to the suddenly silent spectators. It was too much for me to bear and I hurried off to grieve in a lonely corner. The last of the rockets exploded; one siren after the other turned silent; but within me the storm still raged as I was convulsed to the very core of my soul by a deep and terrible anguish. It is sheer madness to subject an industrious and undefeated nation such as ours to these shameful terms.’ (Seaman Richard Stumpf, SMS Lothringen)

There was scant sympathy from the victorious side. During the Armistice negotiations, the humiliated Erzberger had read out a statement to Foch protesting at the stringent terms demanded: ‘A people of 70 million men are suffering, but they are not dead.’ In his reply Foch encapsulated the Entente reaction to German anguish: ‘Très bien!’ The war was over, but the hatred would linger on.

The First World War broke the empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. It triggered the Russian Revolution and provided the bedrock for the Soviet Union; it forced a reluctant United States on to the world stage and revivified liberalism. On Europe’s edge, it provided a temporary but not a long term solution to the ambitions of the Balkan nations. Outside Europe it laid the seeds for the conflict in the Middle East. In short it shaped not just Europe but the world in the twentieth century. It was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose.