The hubris of war, and its irrationalities, were never more glaring than during its last days, and in the first dazed hours and days which followed.

Call it a great and glorious endeavour, if you will — call it even a holy crusade. That might have made sense of the Allies’ firm determination to fight hard until the first stroke of eleven sounded on 11th November.

Although talk of armistice and of peace was everywhere in that final week, no quarter was given. That implacability — the Allied steamroller, pushing back the Germans as far as possible — made sense…

Scottish soldiers guarding prisoners, 1918

WINNING OUGHT TO have been fun. But there was no sign of that. Rather, sorrow and bitterness accrued — strong emotions in which all protagonists shared.

Austria-Hungary collapsed this week, and so did Turkey. Germany continued to fight, but mainly because the people who ran its Army abominated the idea of a ceasefire. They were now engaged in a war of their own — less for the soul of Germany, than for the levers of political power.

But it was only a matter of time. Allied progress on the Western Front had assumed an apparently unstoppable momentum. On 29th October…

Austrian Dugout beyond Mount Grappa after the Italian Advance of October 1918 (Sydney Carline, 1888–1929)

FOR THE FIRST time, perhaps, the bigger stories of the week were not on the battlefield.

Not, of course, that the fighting had become easy. All week the Allies continued to press hard — the British marching on Valenciennes, the Americans on both banks of the Meuse, and the French around the Serre and Oise rivers.

The British were quite bullish: on 24th October, they claimed to have taken 9,000 prisoners and 250 guns in the previous 48 hours, but none of it was easy. The Americans, though it hurt to acknowledge it as such, were finding the going particularly…

The Hundred Days’ Offensive, August-November, 1918

FEAR makes human beings unrecognisable. Thwarted hopes provoke them into bad, bad decisions.

Thus it was that the Germans kept on fighting long after it made any sense. As a result, catastrophic injury and death needlessly accrued, and scores of towns and villages were razed as their retreat gathered pace.

Rank-and-file German soldier were not much better or worse than any other soldier. They got along well with most Tommies when fate threw them together — other than on the battlefield. In the drear phrase, they were only obeying orders, and the drive to fight every step of the retreat…

Mother and child in the French countryside

EXHAUSTION IS TOO POOR A WORD. Soldiers, statesmen, and whole nations were tired out of mind.

Nature abhors a vacuum. As the sense that the war was in its last weeks became more generally absorbed, fractiousness — for some, anyway — became the new order of the day.

In Lloyd George’s case, it took the form of a petulant refusal to give credit to Haig for recent victories — not a syllable more than frigid professional courtesy demanded. …

Capturing the Riqueval Bridge — part of the critical breaching of the St Quentin Canal, September-October 2018

THE IDEA THAT Germany’s eventual defeat was a complete shock to her leaders and people is simply not true. Knowledge that Germany was on the skids was general - for at least a month beforehand.

This is not just a finnicky point over which historians can bicker. The whole idea that Germany was “stabbed in the back” set in train, to put it mildly, consequences. But a minimum test of its credibility was that its people had been suddenly betrayed by a cabal of (Jewish-inspired) politicians and fixers.

The evidence to flesh out such an extravagant idea, however, is conspicuous…

Troops in action in France, 1918

NOW WE ARE left wondering why.

The Germans knew it was over, bar the shouting. Bar the mutilation and dying, come to that.

Why they did not stop? Whatever a few demagogic ranters might have claimed, this was nothing to do with the national will. The German people were wearied, fearful, bereaved and hungry. They feared infinitely worse lay ahead. The autumn rains had now begun in earnest and the prospect of another brutal winter rose up before them.

On 29th September, Ludendorff came clean. He told the Council of War at Spa that

the situation of the Army demands…

Whatever It Takes: troops preparing for The Battle of Megiddo

EVEN THOUGH MANY dared not believe it, events had now assumed an unstoppable momentum.

In the West, the Germans continued to retreat: the only debate was how far this was a tactical contrivance, and how far an involuntary response to being overwhelmed. But it was a fighting retreat — never less than that. The death toll for British and Dominion forces in all arenas had risen to 8,902 from 4,599 the previous week.

Against that, the Allies could point to big achievements. On 18th September, there was a spectacular triumph at the battle of Epehy, in which General Rawlinson commanded…

Advancing Americans near St Mihiel, September 1918

BY NOW, THERE was no way back. The Germans were losing.

True, there is ample evidence that their commanders could not confront the military or existential reality of that fact. Indeed, their denial was mirrored to a considerable extent by the British War Cabinet which struggled to accept Haig’s insistence that the war was now in its final stages. He had journeyed to London in an effort to persuade them that this was, indeed, the fact.

Following his meeting with Lord Milner on 10th September, he noted:

I had specially asked for this interview, and I stated that the object…

A moment of respite — man and beast

NO — THEY WOULD not go quietly. Coming to terms with probable defeat was too much for most Germans.

But the evidence suggested, sooner or later, it would happen. Allied progress continued to be spectacular in terms of ground gained. After taking Peronne, and Bapaume the previous week, a further raft of towns and villages fell into their hands — Manancourt, Etricourt, Roisel, the railway junction for St Quentin and Cambrai.

David Hargreaves

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