Ceasefire And Revolution: Article by Katherine Quinlan-flatter
Terms Of Ceasefire
At the end of September 1918, German Supreme Army Command informs the Kaiser of the hopeless situation at the Western Front, and the decision is made to negotiate an armistice. The German Armistice Commission, led by Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger, meets with the Allies’ Commander‐in‐Chief Marshal Foch in a forest near Compiègne, Northern France at 9 a.m. on November 8, 1918. The Allies’ conditions are presented: withdrawal of German troops; evacuation of Alsace‐Lorraine, Belgium and Luxembourg, surrender of the left bank of the Rhine, including the stationing of Allied garrisons at Mainz, Koblenz and Cologne; renunciation of the peace treaty with Russia; surrender of almost all of the fleet as well as 5,000 cannons, 25,000 machine guns, 3,000 trench mortars and 1,700 planes; handover of 5,000 locomotives and 150,000 railway carriages. The Germans have 72 hours’ time to sign, but there is no question of negotiation. Although this is not formally a surrender, the ceasefire ends the fighting on November 11, 1918.
The “Ganze Halt“
The “Ganze Halt“ (correct: “Das Ganze. Halt!“, literally “Everything stop”) was originally a hunting term and bugle call which the Germans used to signal the ceasefire. The Regimental History of the German Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 250 records: “At exactly 12 o’clock our companies leave their trenches and covers while the buglers walk up to the high ground and blow “Das Ganze Halt”, which is taken up immediately by others along the entire line. All guns are unloaded. Profound silence at the Front! No more shots are heard. The War is at an end. And it is to a bad end – everyone feels it – that it has come! But for the time being, a dulled amazement takes over, and our thoughts rush to our loved ones in the homeland”.
The ceasefire occurs at 12 o’clock German time. In France, which in 1918 runs on the same time as Great Britain, it is 11 o’clock.
As soon as the ceasefire has come into force, the soldiers gather sticks of wood and light small fires.
Bonfires have been impossible before as the enemy would have seen the smoke, but now everyone can warm themselves on this cold November day. “The matches blazed everywhere under painstakingly collected wood and along the whole line, you could see the fires smoking”, writes Dr. Theodor Kiefer in his memoirs “The End Of The War”. “However, there were no cries of joy, not even any audible cheers. The fact was simply accepted, if not as a disaster, then merely as a matter of fate. There really was no cause for happiness”. “The officers sit in a circle, very serious”, reports RIR 250’s Regimental History. “As the departure is planned for 1.30 p.m., we are to eat our last meal at the trenches. The sequence in which we are to pull out, how we are to line up and which equipment we are to take are then announced. This last officers’ meeting thus does not last very long”.
“We ate a thin soup and, as a special treat, canned meat spread on army loaf. The men ate quietly around the fire. They were still soldiers”, writes Theodor Kiefer.
The March Home
The German troops now have to commence the long march home through France. All along the lines, the officers compile plans for the return journey. “The French villages we march through are completely transformed”, according to RIR 250’s Regimental History. “The tricolour hangs from many of the houses, and the general public, in festive clothing, observe the retreat of the German army very seriously”. Great importance is placed on bringing all usable material back to Germany, but the returning troops are already closely cramped together on the roads available for the march home. This makes it difficult to transport equipment and so the retreat is planned with daily marches of reasonable distances and rest days in between. The troops march through the Moselle Valley towards the Rhine Valley, crossing the border to Germany over the various Rhine bridges, for example, at Wasserbillig, at Kehl near Strasbourg, and around Cologne. In the town of Bingen, where the Rivers Rhine and Nahe meet, the troops cross the 11th century Drusus Bridge at Bingen, where they are received and catered for by the enthusiastic residents.
Our Boys Are Coming!
“Black‐white‐red flags flutter everywhere and the villages greet us with a flag salute. There is great rejoicing among the people. We are the first combat troops to march through. “Our boys are coming!” they shout enthusiastically, but at the same time with sadness, and throw flowers to us. Near to the border in particular, the people commend one hundredfold the exploits of the frontline troops who have kept the enemy at bay”.
“On November 30 our marching column reaches the Rhine at Mainz. We cross the river on the Kaiser Bridge singing the Rheinschutzlied with sadness in our hearts. Everywhere, there are masses of people, thunderous applause and a mighty sea of flags: the German colours, next to the white‐red flag of the Rhineland”. (Both quotes from the Regimental History of Reserve Infantry Regiment No. 251).
The Birth Of German Democracy
The German Supreme Army Command led by Hindenburg and Ludendorff recommend that the Imperial Government be restructured on a parliamentary basis to meet a key demand of the Americans. The American government has made it clear that Germany can only expect acceptable terms for an armistice if Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates – this requirement is an item in President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Point Program, which forms the basis for a peace order and thus the end of the World War. The German Armistice Commission is formed and is to represent German interests in the armistice negotiations, with the mandate for signing the armistice treaty of November 11, 1918. The majority parties, led by the Social Democrats, are prepared to bear responsibility for the new German government. Kaiser Wilhelm appoints Prince Max of Baden as the new Chancellor and he remains in office until the Republic is declared on November 9, 1918.
The revolution then quickly gains momentum. In North Germany and Berlin, triggered by the sailors’ mutiny in Kiel, the revolution develops within a few days and the government fears civil war, and in particular, bolshevism. Local governments urge the population not to listen to rumours and to keep the peace. Soldiers’ and workers’ councils based on those of the Russian revolutionaries take over power and form provisional governments. They demand the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm, who renounces the throne officially on November 28 and goes into exile in the Netherlands. The troops are not greeted everywhere with applause and flowers. In the weeks following the ceasefire, numerous officers are frequently humiliated, having their rank insignia torn from their uniforms in public. War veterans experience scenes of disgrace and humiliation by civilians who are not prepared to honour the soldiers. “There’s a revolution in Germany”, Karl Friedrich Baader, who is lying wounded in the army hospital, writes in his diary. “Young lads are tearing the epaulettes and cockades from the uniforms of officers and men. Gadding about with red flags. Stealing military goods is the order of the day. The Kaiser’s gone to Holland. Governmental power is in the hands of soldiers’ and workers’ councils. Germany is now a republic. Who knows how all this will end. At any rate, we were victorious and still lost the War“.
Establishment of the Weimar Republic
Despite the fear of bolshevism, the left‐wing Social Democrats are successful at the national elections in January 1919. They win almost 38% of the votes and form the Weimar Republic, together with the leftwing German Democratic Party and the Centre Party.
Images courtesy of Estate of Theodor Kiefer, State Library Centre of Rhineland-Palatinate.