“Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace.” General Omar Bradley
Germany was in pre-revolutionary turmoil. The High Command of the Army had told Kaiser Wilhelm II that military resistance was no longer possible and that the Army would not follow him back to Germany to put down the revolutionaries.
After four long years of war in which around 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians were killed and another 20 million wounded the guns fell silent. In the end it was also the end of an era. It was then end of empires. The Russian Empire had collapsed in 1917 and been initially been replaced by a republic and then by a Soviet State and Czar Nicholas II and his family became victims of the revolutionary violence. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed and in its place a hodge-podge of new states as well as liberated areas came into existence. The Ottoman Empire was carved up with its various parts being granted “independence” by the allies under the leadership of tribal leaders supported by the French or British.
Britain survived the war but not without crisis due to the massive losses in manpower and economic losses sustained during the war. France nearly fell in 1917 when the Army, demoralized by the unrelenting losses of years of brutal warfare mutinied. Belgium was devastated as was much of northern and eastern France.
Most surprisingly Imperial Germany collapsed. After knocking Russia out of the war in 1917 the Germans attempted a knockout punch against France. The offensive, code named Michael was successful at first and nearly succeeded, but in the end ran up against obstacles that could not be overcome, including the arrival of a massive and still fresh American Expeditionary Force. By the summer the tide had changed and the allies were on the offensive and threatening to break through the now vulnerable German lines. At home revolution was in the air, fed by the starvation of the German people and rising unrest units of the High Seas Fleet mutinied, as did units of the Army stationed in Germany proper. Workers and Soldiers Soviets took control of local and state governments. Finally with everything on the line the Kaiser left Berlin to meet with his High Command at their headquarters in Spa, Belgium.
It was in Spa that the Kaiser found out that his reign was over. On November 9th General Wilhelm Groener, the Quartermaster General and the de-facto second in command of the Army told the Kaiser that the Army no longer supported him. It was a seminal moment. The Kaiser abdicated his throne and to prevent a communist takeover the leadership of the Social Democratic party proclaimed a republic that day. Hurried negotiations between the Socialists and the Army produced an alliance which averted the threatened Soviet takeover, but also doomed the new Weimar Republic. A hated state, it was blamed by monarchists and other conservatives for the German defeat and the humiliation of Versailles and hated by the communists, who viewed it as illegitimate.
The Germans send a peace delegation to France which agreed to the armistice at about 5 AM on November 11th which stipulated that hostilities were to cease at 1100. The firing stopped and German troops withdrew to a nation totally unprepared for defeat. The allies maintained their naval blockade of German ports until the Treaty of Versailles was signed the following year, wracked by starvation, the great Influenza epidemic, economic collapse and civil war Germany never came to terms with its defeat. Eventually, a crippled Weimar Republic would fall in 1933. Adolf Hitler , a decorated veteran of the war in the trenches became Chancellor and and with an year the undisputed dictator of Germany in 1934.
During the interregnum between the wars the victors cobbled together states from the the former empires. Borders were drawn without respect to racial, tribal or religious divisions. The victors, particularly the British, French and Italians expanded their overseas empires at the expense of the former empires and the newly acquired lands.
The war that was to end all wars only brought about another even more bloody war that would end with the dropping of Atomic Bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in August 1945. Hitler, who led Germany to ruin died by his own hand in his bunker. The remnants of empires that had not collapsed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War did not survive the second. By the 1970s most of the former colonies of the great empires were independent, but not necessarily free. Tribal and religious conflicts as well as genocide followed in Africa and Asia. A “Cold War” between the former allies of the Second World War followed, only ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9th 1989, which was exactly 71 years to the day that Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated his throne.
Today, though it is nearly a century later the ramifications of that war, a war that was “to end all wars” are still with us. War and more revolution threatens in the Middle East even as former colonies wracked by tribal, religious or ethnic divisions within their artificially drawn boundaries continue to implode. Europe, buoyed by the hope of economic integration following the end of the Cold War is again being torn apart by ethnic and nationalist divisions as the Euro crisis deepened.
On November 11th 1918 few thought that the end of that war would still be felt today. After all, it was the “war to end all wars.”