Commemorating 100 years since end of WWI
In 1918, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — Nov. 11, World War I came to an end after four years. “The war to end all wars” had seen 37 million killed and 21 million wounded in bloody battles with trench warfare, mustard gas attacks and newly-invented tanks.
America had joined Britain and France against the Germans before the Russians pulled out following the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.
“By 1918, what had happened with Russia, who began the war on the side of Britain and France, is that they were in a civil war between the Pro-Bolsheviks, Bolsheviks and Anti-Bolsheviks, so they are not a part of the end of World War I,” Mark Mengerink, Lamar University associate professor of history, said.
In March 1918, the Soviet Union signed the Brest Litovsk treaty with Germany which ended the war between those two countries and freed the German troops to use against the western allies.
On the Western Front with Britain and France, several hundred thousand U.S. troops were on the front lines.
“The Americans haven’t seen a lot of combat-action, or are well-trained, but just the fact that they are fresh and are there, and the United States can always provide many more is a problem for German Leadership,” Mengerink said.
Even with the Treaty of Brest Litovsk, the German military leaders knew they couldn’t hold out long on the Western Front.
“They convince the emperor of Germany to try one final offensive against the Americans, British and the French to break through the trenches and front lines, in the hopes that Britain and the French surrender and collapse,” he said.
The German leadership knew that if that did not work, the war would be lost, Mengerink said.
“They don’t tell the German people that,” Mengerink said. “In the summer of 1918, the summer offensives, they do just that.”
The Germans mounted a massive operation on the Western Front and push through the trenches with everything they had for 20 miles.
“This is an enormous amount considering the trenches haven’t moved much in four years,” Mengerink, said.
The Germans were able to push their enemies back, it looked to be on the brink of victory and capture Paris. But the offensive slowed down.
“Once their offensive wasn’t gaining ground anymore, the German leadership realized the war is over militarily,” he said.
During the course of 1918, some of the German people were willing to give their leadership the benefit of the doubt, but others were less likely to do that, specifically communists and socialists, Mengerink said.
“What they wanted was an immediate end of the war,” he said. “They wanted Germany to focus on feeding the people and rebuild their economy. That sentiment spread through the army and concerned the German leadership, because it undermined the morale of the troops.”
In late 1918, mutiny spread throughout the German army, Mengerink said.
“In early November, people on the home front began to rise up and rebel,” he said. “It got so bad that the emperor of Germany stepped down because he had a full-blown revolution on his hands.”
A new government dominated by socialists rose.
“They contacted the allies and said, ‘We want an armistice,’ basically a ceasefire,” Mengerink, said. “They arranged a ceasefire on the eleventh day on the eleventh hour on the eleventh month. All the fighting on Western Front stopped. All sides realized that this is not an end of a war, only a treaty can end the war, but (it) relieved pressure off everyone.”
Mengerink said Britain and France had a hard time keeping up support for the war.
“Both countries had been at it for four years,” he said. “France lost over a million men, and mutinies had spread throughout their army, as well.”
Mengerink said that when Germany came forward and said, “Let’s stop the fighting and negotiate a treaty,” all sides agreed.
“In early 1919, all sides gathered in Versailles and ended the war with the Treaty of Versailles,” he said. “It did not solve the problems that caused the war in the first place, and also created more problems that contributed to the second world war.”
The Treaty of Versailles was a compilation of punishments and blame on Germany, Mengerink said.
“In article 231, the war-guilt clause, blamed the outbreak of WWI on Germany,” he said. “The Germans did not feel that they were the cause of WWI, but since they lost, the other side could impose blame. And once they blamed them for the start of the war, they could punish them. They limited the German army to 100,000 men (and) demilitarized the sliver of land between France and Rhine River to give France protection and security, even though it’s German territory. Other parts of Germany were taken from the Germans and given to Poland.”
Mengerink said whether the treaty was right or wrong, one thing the treaty did was humiliate Germany.
“Throughout the 1920s, German resentment grew to the treaty and surrounding countries, and the right-winged political parties were calling for the destruction of the Treaty of Versailles through war,” he said. “So, from the day the treaty was signed, Germans were calling for war again.”
Twenty years later, World War II broke out.
Story by Sierra Kondos, UP staff writer
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