Notes on First World War Revisionism, Part 1
After coming to a far different view than the common historical consensus on how events unfolded in the years leading up to the First World War’s outbreak, it might seem rich for me to argue historical revisionism ran rampant though European capitals and Washington D.C. after the 11 November 1918 armistice. But the great economist John Maynard Keynes likened the 1919 Treaty of Versailles to ancient Roman bloodthirstiness rather than the 1871-73 French Indemnity the treaty was actually modeled after. Accusing that valid evidence of German war crimes was nothing more than propaganda became a staple of 1920s and ’30s Great War revisionists…
[O]nce the narrative of the war reaches the establishment of the trench system and the commencement of the long-standing stalemate that is viewed as such an essential aspect of the war in the West, Belgium and its people seem to vanish from the story entirely. Why might this be?
The answer to this question likely involves the troubled history of “propaganda” and its complex role in the war. A longer post on some other day will address this matter more fully, but in the meantime let it suffice to say that a great deal of propagandistic hay was made of the sufferings of Belgium in the war’s early stages — especially by British journalists, statesmen and public intellectuals. The most notorious example of this is likely the Bryce Report (or, more extensively, the Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages), first released in 1915. The report has long been a bête noire for those cultural historians examining popular attitudes during the war, it having been concluded by some very emphatic commentators in the 1920s and 1930s (such as Arthur Ponsonby in Falsehood in War-Time and Irene Cooper Willis in England’s Holy War) that the Report was simply a tissue of lies. Modern research, as we shall see, has confirmed that the Report’s conclusions were substantially correct.
…and has extended to 21st century asinine assertions that on the surface seem reasonable:
Why didn’t Bryce dismiss the fabrications and concentrate on the German executions of civilians? Because that opened a very sticky subject. A high percentage of the Belgian Army were “home guards” who wore no uniforms except for an insignia pinned to their shirts or hats. The Germans, desperately trying to win in the West before the invading Russian Army smashed through their lightly held lines in the East, were infuriated by these seemingly civilian combatants, and showed them no mercy. They were entitled to do so by the rules of war in 1914. Some German field commanders obviously lost their heads and retaliated excessively against whole towns, such as Dinant. But a defense of sorts could be mounted, even for these men. The ensuing debate would have produced yawns in newspaper readers. They wanted what Bryce gave them — blood and lust and horror.
Between Liege and Brussels, the Belgian city of Louvain was the subject of mass destruction by the German army over a period of five days from 25 August 1914. The city itself fell to the German First Army on 19 August 1914 as part of the German strategy to overrun Belgium during the month of August 1914.
Occupied therefore by the Germans the city was relatively peaceful for six days until 25 August. On that date German units to the rear of the city were attacked by an initially successful Belgian force advancing from Antwerp.
Panicked, those German troops under fire withdrew to Louvain, which in itself caused confusion to German soldiers stationed in the city. Shots were heard amid fearful cries that the Allies were launching a major attack.
Once it became clear however that no such Allied attack was underway or even imminent, the city’s German authorities determined to exact revenge upon Louvain’s citizenry, whom they were convinced that contrived the confusion that day.
The German form of retaliation was savage. For five consecutive days the city was burnt and looted. Its library of ancient manuscripts was burnt and destroyed, as was Louvain’s university (along with many other public buildings). The church of St. Pierre was similarly badly damaged by fire. Citizenry of Louvain were subject to mass shootings, regardless of age or gender.
As demonstrated earlier at other Belgian towns, including Dinant, the destruction of up to a fifth of Louvain’s buildings merely comprised a standard German strategy of intimidating occupied Belgian territories as a means of securing maximum civilian co-operation.
Already widely regarded as an unacceptable strategy internationally, the treatment of Louvain provoked highly critical press headlines (which routinely referred to German barbarism and ‘rivers of blood’) and caused great concern in neutral capitals.
With the government in Berlin unrepentant, the German retaliation ceased on 30 August.
Click here to view footage of the sack of Louvain.
Historians probably should revisit setting 28 July 1914 as the date First World War hostilities broke out. How does Austria declaring war on Serbia or a Russian declaration of war in the Balkans really have a direct link with Germany invading two neutral Low Countries? Again, the invasion of neutral, noncombatant Belgium commenced 13 days prior to the Russians striking East Prussia (and later that month getting slaughtered by 150,000 ‘lightly’ armed German troops at Tannenberg) and eight days before Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, so the necessity of violating the 1839 and 1867 Treaties of London in the service of taking Paris seems a little dubious. But to the revisionists, one atrocity justifies another:
The Bryce Report unquestionably helped England win the war. It convinced millions of Americans and other neutrals — it was translated into 27 languages — that the Germans were beasts in human form. No one except a few outsiders such as Casement ever reproached Lord Bryce for these vicious lies. He went to his grave loaded with royal and academic honors.
From a perspective of a hundred years, we ought to take a harsher view. The Bryce Report has obvious connections to the British decision to maintain the blockade of Germany for seven months after the armistice in 1918, causing the starvation deaths of an estimated 600,000 elderly and very young Germans. This was far and away the greatest atrocity of World war I and it made every German man and woman hunger for revenge. By creating blind hatred of Germany, Bryce sowed the dragons teeth of World War II.
Wait, how did blind hatred of Germany start the Second World War? Thomas Fleming does not answer this fairly obvious followup question and leaves his assertion hanging; seeming to make an argument that the apparent German culpability for instigating the worst war in human history is both wrong and his assertion to this effect is self-evident. Needless to say, I am not convinced.
Is Famine and Plunder Lesser than Rape?
Something is missing here, namely a German decision regarding a people they had quickly conquered:
Besides machines, raw materials and money, the occupiers were seizing food. In November and December , they ordered anyone who possessed any of five different kinds of grain, flour, potatoes, other vegetables or livestock to declare them on pain of seizure. The rest was simple. One Liege commune yielded up everything from livestock to fodder to blacksmiths’ and carpenters’ tools to fuel to clothes and shoes to butter, bacon, wine, coffee and sausages. The officer who had remarked on the war’s “horrible bad joke” said of Passchendaele in late November that “only a month ago, this country might have been rich; there were cattle and pigs in plenty.” Now, requisitions had emptied the place. “We have taken every horse, every car; all the petrol, all the railway-trucks, all the houses, coal, paraffin, and electricity, have been devoted to our exclusive use.”
On 16 October, Whitlock cabled Wilson that in “two weeks the civil population of Belgium, already in misery, will face starvation.” Eleven days later, his alarm made front-page headlines in the New York Times. By then, more than a million Belgians were said to be in the bread line, and the country had a three-week supply at most, less in Brussels. Namur had no flour, Flanders was running short because of having to feed the returning refugees, and famine was menacing the poorer parts of north Linburg. The head of the Belgian committee estimated that feeding his country would require eighty thousand tons of food every month, four times the earlier appraisal.
The Imperial German Army from the war’s outset had no issue starving subjugated peoples, or robbing them blind:
Among Bissing’s first acts was to order the Belgian provincial councils, which had not met since the invasion, to approve a “war contribution” of 35 million francs a month, or 420 million a year. This was greater than Belgium’s direct-taxation revenue in 1914, 354 million francs. To fund the contributions, every month, banks would buy special bonds with paper currency the provinces must guarantee, which would flood the country with weak paper. Legal opinion had never discussed exactions this large, but though experts accepted levies, the only concept remotely similar, they usually enjoined the occupier to defray local expenses at most and consider ability to pay. Usages of War for once agreed with Westlake, saying that an occupier could not recoup the cost of war by taking private property, “even though the war was forced upon him.” Even Maximilien von Sandt, the occupation’s chief civilian official, urged Berlin to demand less, to avoid awkward questions in the Reichstag and objections based on international law. He estimated that the contribution exceeded what the occupation needed by so much that roughly one-fourth of the money would end up in the imperial treasury.
Nevertheless, Bissing directed the councils to ratify the contribution, which had been raised to 480 million francs, or 40 million a month. He promised that if they did, he would ask for no more contributions, and that the Massenguter receipts would be paid promptly. Behind the carrot lurked a stick, for Lumm told the banks that if they refused to cooperate, he would confiscate their deposits. They consented to float the bonds.
The argument could be made that the Belgians had it coming, given their army’s fierce resistance. It is a quite depraved argument, one which centers on the Germans historically justifying civilian massacres in response to fears of francs-tireurs; an argument Germans and their supporters have alarmingly made since the founding of the Second Reich during the Franco-Prussian War. But what did the Luxembourgers do to merit the same horrific treatment?
Among his findings are the almost farcical circumstances surrounding the invasion of neutral Luxembourg. David explained that a misunderstanding over Britain’s reaction to Germany’s declaration of war on Russia prompted the Kaiser to issue orders to postpone Luxembourg’s invasion by 12 hours. All troops stationed over the border were sent telegrams on August 1 telling them to hold off.
One band of soldiers stationed over the border from Troisvierges, however, did not get the message. “They invaded at 6.30pm on the first of August, smashed up the telegraph in the station and then began pulling up rail tracks,” he said.
According to David’s research, the message was finally delivered and the soldiers restored the rail tracks and retreated. When they returned the next day, they left the railway alone.
“To this day, no-one knows what they were doing. Because German troop trains would have used that track every 10 minutes to come through Luxembourg. It was utterly essential,” he said.
David’s account of the events on August 2, pieced together from archive material, is equally as surprising. After the German army advanced over the border at Wasserbillig in their thousands and took a Luxembourg “Gendarme” with them, they finally arrived in the capital to inspect the rail tracks.
There, they were approached by another unarmed Luxembourg Gendarme on his bike, who they apparently mistook for a member of the French army and so subsequently retreated. “One unarmed gendarme with a bike put the German army to flight,” David said.
The German army marched off only to return up rue Neudorf and be stalled for an hour by a road block by another unarmed Gendarme.
Germany insisted that the invasion was not intended as a “hostile act” against Luxembourg, but rather as a tactical step to exploit the country’s rail links and serve its troops in France, the historian explained.
Luxembourg subsequently became the centre of German operations, with soldiers stationed in a tented city in Avenue de la Liberté where the current ArcelorMittal building is.
The German Kaiser also stayed in the Grand Duchy for three weeks from August 15 at the then German Embassy on the corner of “Rue des Bains” and the “Côte d’Eich”.
“They (the Germans) directed operations from Luxembourg, right across the Western front because of the rail links. Strategically, Luxembourg was right in the middle of it.”
Life under occupation
Under the occupiers, Luxembourgers suffered terrible deprivation. With the borders sealed, food could not be brought into the country. Despite the importance of agriculture in the Grand Duchy, food was in short supply and by the end of 1914 soup kitchens were set up all around the country.
“I reckon most of the capital city got at least one meal per week from soup kitchens,” said David, adding that it was rumoured Switzerland donated a herd of 100 goats to breed and provide food. “Most didn’t live long enough,” he said.
What was worse, German soldiers not knowing why they had invaded or proceeding to starve nonresistant 1914 Luxembourg? I am always confused with assertions that any allegations of German First World War crimes were British propaganda while in the same breath the horrific effects of the Allied blockade that followed are held up as justification for the plunder and starvation inflicted against the people of Belgium and Luxembourg. Are the two famines linked or not?
Starvation–War Crime or Winning Strategy?
Ultimately, the issue is that using deprivation as a weapon of war has long been militarily expedient. The Germans had learned the hard way the effectiveness of naval blockades in the middle of the nineteenth century. Prussia had been on the wrong end of a powerful naval blockade a decade before the wars of unification:
(Map provided for reference to Als Island, Funen Is., Jutland Peninsula and Zealand Is. locations)
The main task of the Royal Danish Navy was transport and the blockade of German harbours. At the beginning of the war the steamers showed their value as they could tow several sailing ships and in that way transport the Danish army from Zealand and Funen to Jutland in record time. Later, in connection with army operations from the Island of Als in 1848 and Fredericia in 1849 the navy played an essential role for the concentration of the army. The German states had no navy hence the Danes totally dominated the sea from the beginning of the war and so the Danish army did not have to protect Zealand and Funen and all the other small islands but could be concentrated on the tasks in Jutland and Schleswig. This was in contrast to the German army which had to use troops fore protection of the coasts. The German troops were therefore often scattered, which in certain situations was crucial for the Danish operations.
The Danish blockade of the German North Sea and Baltic harbours damaged the German trading and the financial consequences of this made the war unpopular in parts of Germany.
The navy was divided into three squadrons: the Baltic, the North Sea, and the squadron assisting the army with transport. The Baltic squadron assured the blockade of the Schleswig harbours and in 1849 was extended to Prussian harbours in the eastern Baltic, although it was always in reserve for transportation of troops. The North Sea squadron was used for blockading the rivers Elbe, Weser and Jade from 1849, resulting in a full blockade of Germany.
The Danish North Sea squadron accomplished the unthinkable…
In 1850 when Prussia signed a peace treaty with Denmark pulling out of the war, the naval operations ceased in the North Sea, apart from operations in the shallow waters around the islands of the west coast of Schleswig, and were concentrated on blockading the Schleswig Holstein Baltic coast.
…knocking the most powerful army in Europe out of the First Schleswig War. Surprisingly, Germany had not developed a counter to weaponized deprivation when the Royal Navy deployed its potent blockade 65 years later:
The year 1917 proved to be the pivotal point for the German war effort, even if both the Entente and the Central powers did not realize it at the time. If we recall, 1916 was the first year that widespread increases in civil disobedience occurred throughout Germany. This trend continued to grow moving into 1917-1918, and showed little sign of slowing down (see Table 2.2 in Appendix). As millions waited in never ending ration lines for meager allowances, or went cold during the long winter months because of the scarce availability of coal or new clothing, the morale of the German people began to plummet rapidly.
The first signs of serious unrest began in April 1917 with the Berlin metal strikes. On the morning of the sixteenth, nearly 200,000 metal and munitions workers refused to report to their jobs, and rather assembled in large groups to begin active demonstrations. According to reports from that day, most of the protesters struck over the ‘food question.’60 By nightfall, Berlin fell quiet once more as had been previously planned by union leadership, leaving government officials to ponder if protests like this would rapidly become the norm rather than the exception. While this stoppage did not effect the soldiers at the front, should the conditions continue to deteriorate in Germany, the war effort could ground to a halt quickly. Without munitions, equipment, or weapons pouring out of German factories, the army would stand little chance of defending its positions in the trenches, let alone launch any kind of major offense to break the deadlock.
U.S. President Herbert Hoover once noted that, “Famine is the mother of anarchy. From the inability of governments to secure food for their people, grows revolution and chaos.”
Herbert Hoover had personal experience with famine, happily as a man that was extremely adept at preventing starvation. He was dubbed the “Great Humanitarian” during the 1910s and ’20s, a moniker that was well-earned as his efforts saved millions of lives from starvation. Hoover entered public life by easing the Belgian famine:
Trapped between German bayonets and a British blockade, Belgium in the fall of 1914 faced imminent starvation. Hoover was asked to undertake an unprecedented relief effort for the tiny kingdom dependent on imports for 80 percent of its food. This would mean abandoning his successful career as the world’s foremost mining engineer. For several days he pondered the request, finally telling a friend, “Let the fortune go to hell.” He would assume the immense task on two conditions– that he receive no salary, and that he be given a free hand in organizing and administering what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium.
The CRB became, in effect, an independent republic of relief, with its own flag, navy, factories, mills and railroads. Its $12 million a month budget was supplied by voluntary donations and government grants. More than once Hoover made personal pledges far in excess of his total worth. In an early form of shuttle diplomacy he crossed the North Sea 40 times seeking to persuade the enemies in London and Berlin to allow food to reach the war’s victims. He also taught the Belgians, who regarded cornmeal as cattle feed, to eat cornbread. In all, the CRB saved ten million people from starvation.
Every day brought new crises. The British investigated charges that he was a German spy. Germans deported youthful CRB workers, including a Salvation Army major, on similar charges. At home, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wanted to prosecute Hoover for dealing with the enemy. Theodore Roosevelt promised to hold Lodge at bay, informing Hoover that “the courage of any political official is stronger in his office than in the newspapers.”
Despite the obstacles put before him Hoover persisted, purchasing rice in Burma, Argentine corn, Chinese beans and American wheat, meat and fats.
Germany eventually began to tolerate Hoover’s efforts, perhaps in light of actions like these:
When a blockade was placed on Germany during World War I, Hoover and the American Relief Administration, or the ARA, established a feeding program for children with the help of the Quakers. From the US alone, Germany received over 800 thousand tons of food. Distribution of the food took place in over 2 thousand Quaker kitchens throughout more than one thousand communities in Germany. In 1921, over one million children were fed per day.
Unfortunately relief was not available for Luxembourg as Germany had sealed the landlocked country’s borders and CRB shipments required European seaports to offload. However, the American reactions to European deprivation was very atypical. Britain instead saw opportunity:
Following the Berlin metal strikes, protests continued to increase with more frequency and intensity as the German civilian population continued to starve, and the prospect of another long cold winter loomed on the horizon. Again throughout August, 1917, renewed riots and demonstrations took place, only this time they encompassed more than just munitions and metal workers in the German capital. Widespread protest grew throughout the country seemingly overnight, and saw men, women, and children from every strata of the population take part in the chaos. In Berlin alone, violent daily battles over food took place on the Alexanderplatz grounds, Berlin’s largest market place.62 According to one report compiled by Officer Schrott, “The market halls are daily stormed by hundreds of women … it often comes to wild [wüste] rows, looting, and even to blows … There is great tension and hatefulness among the people.”63 Other citizens threw decency to the wind, and simply slaughtered horses in the middle of the streets, or rummaged through piles of garbage for traces of food or fuel (see Image 1.1 & 1.2 in Appendix).
These scenes of violence and disruptions continued in Germany throughout the rest of the war, and showed little sign of peacefully dying down like they had in 1916. In late 1917, and early 1918, it must have seemed to German leaders as if the country was on the brink of revolution, or that the red tide of Bolshevism would sweep westward and engulf the nation by storm just as it had in Russia the previous year. As reports of another poor harvest spread in late 1917, the morale throughout Germany began to plummet even further. According to one account, during 1917-1918, Germans stopped worrying about the war, and only the lack of food filled their hearts and minds.64 Repeated reports from police agents warned that broad ranges of the population intended to follow the Spartacist calls to bring down the government, and enact a general peace that would relieve their suffering once and for all.65 Other reports feared that it was not just adults that might fall prey to revolutionary manipulation, but that the easily moldable German adolescents might also fall prey to leftist agitation as well. According to a summary compiled by the Centre for the Care of the Young, many juvenile prisoners felt as if they were ‘absolutely innocent,’ and this bitterness coupled with the lack of food due to the blockade would allow many to fall easy prey to the ‘Bolshevist agitator.’66
According to Belinda Davis, only the renewal of unrestricted U-boat operations against British and French shipping on January 31, 1917, and peace negotiations in the east later in December, 1917, stopped the country from following the revolutionary path that brought Russia out of the war by the end of that year.67 Even still, the supposed Burgfrieden – ‘fortress of peace’ a term used by the Wilhelmian government to described the German political and social unity, and lack of opposition for the war –68 began to crack at its foundations in early 1917. As the food and material shortages in Germany worsened during the last two years of the war, popular unrest grew along with it. Andreas Hillgruber explained that by the summer of 1917, the Social Democrats, Progressive People’s Party, and National Liberals – the three leading socialist parties in Germany – all used the deteriorating situation at home to justify calls for immediate reform of the government, something that had been promised to them by the Kaiser if they supported the war until its end. They threatened that the current government could not count on the continued support of party leadership, nor the already upset and war-weary workers should their demands be ignored.69 Therefore the blockade was the catalyst to further unrest, which combined with the fact that the war seemed to have no end in sight, caused the fragile situation throughout Germany to turn quickly.
In short, the British blockade was threatening to bring down the Imperial German government in 1917. It was also shattering the discipline and morale of German sailors…
Beginning in June, 1917, and continuing through early August, hunger and furlough strikes quickly morphed into anti-war mutinies on board the German battleship Prinzregent Luitpold, anchored at the northern German port of Wilhelmshaven.70 While unrest was quickly subdued due to prompt action by the fleet commanders, it was here again in Germany’s northern ports that the seeds of revolt would spring up in the last days of the war, and become the spark that turned into the German Revolution of November, 1918.
Unrest was not only limited to the German navy. By early 1918, many German soldiers had also reached a point of untenable discord as well. David Englander noted that up to ten percent of soldiers being transferred from the Eastern Front to the Western Front in early 1918 deserted while en route, and growing numbers of those who arrived to their prescribed destinations were significantly agitated, and resistant to their commanders.71 Simply put, nearly four years of devastating warfare, and rapid deterioration of army supplies and food rations due to the blockade had finally begun to take their toll on the German front line defenders. Thus, no longer could it be assumed by German leaders that the home front, nor the military, would continue to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the war. As the German army geared up for their last ditch offensive in the Spring, 1918, the home front and military teetered between starvation or revolution, leaving German leaders with two options, win the war within a few months, or sue for peace before the people did it for them.
By the fall of 1918, anyone with an idea that Germany could somehow miraculously win the war was in a state of denial. The country and its people had lived through four grueling years of war, and had reached a point of impasse. The German populous was exhausted by 1918, and as Vincent noted, “Those who insist that the country could have prolonged the war well into the next year have failed to look beyond Germany’s apparently untouched condition. The conclusion of hostilities found Germany experiencing the uncontrolled effects of a rapidly accelerating famine.”
One could almost be led to believe that the brutal effects of the British blockade brought the German armed forces to their knees–that the First World War was won not in the trenches of the Western Front…
While the land war certainly contributed to the Entente’s (Britain, France, Italy, U.S.) victory in 1918, it was the blockade that truly broke Germany’s back. Without it, the war could have potentially gone on even longer, but because of it, the world’s preeminent land force was left with no other choice than to surrender as the seeds of revolution brewed among its population.
…but from the mere presence of American and British battleships, cruisers and destroyers patrolling the North Sea. Almost.
During the war, the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL, translates as Supreme Army Command) began pushing aside the titular commander-in-chief of the German Empire:
The law made Emperor Wilhelm II the Commander-in-chief of the German Army, but the generals at the OHL made decisions largely on their own. At the end of the war they had practically superseded the government as the center of political power. However, the Imperial German Navy was led by the Admiralty Staff, from August 1918 by the Seekriegsleitung (Naval Warfare Command, SKL). Co-ordination was poor at the beginning of the war between OHL and SKL: the Imperial Navy did not even know about the Schlieffen Plan of an initial attack on France through Belgium.
At the start of the war on 1 September 1914, the commanders of the Prussian, Saxon, Württemberg and Bavarian troops joined forces in the OHL. Colonel general Helmuth von Moltke (1848-1916), nephew of the legendary Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and a close confidant of the emperor, was appointed chief of the Great German General Staff. His subordinate as Quartermaster General was Hermann von Stein.
However, Moltke was compelled to resign after 14 days upon the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in the Marne offensive. The Prussian War minister Erich von Falkenhayn was appointed as his successor. Abandoning the initial plans, he threw the German Army into the Race to the Sea, which ended in the First Battle of Ypres. Von Falkenhayn came into conflict with the emperor and his General Staff colleagues, when he—despite the German victories at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes—pleaded for a peace agreement with Russia. Especially the commanders of the 8th Army on the Eastern Front, General Paul von Hindenburg and Major general Erich Ludendorff reacted with fierce protest. Already in January 1915, von Falkenhayn was replaced as War Minister by Adolf Wild von Hohenborn. On the Western Front, he advocated a “war of attrition” (Abnutzungsschlacht) which showed its limitations in the Battle of Verdun.
When Verdun did not usher in Falkenhayn’s hoped-for victory, the German Empire effectively devolved into a military dictatorship:
Upon Falkenhayn’s failure, the “Tannenberg Hero” Hindenburg on 29 August 1916 took over the supreme command. His chief-of-staff Ludendorff, who had instigated Falkenhayn’s demission, was appointed deputy chief of the “Third OHL” in the rank of a Quartermaster general (Generalquartiermeister). Hindenburg and Ludendorff had worked successfully in the same relative position on the Eastern Front. By his rhetoric and intellectual skills, Ludendorff was the actual chief manager of the German war effort throughout this time, with Hindenburg his pliant front man. Together, they acted as like military dictators, superseding both the emperor and Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg.
The third OHL made serious political and strategic mistakes. While the public wanted peace, the OHL by the Hindenburg Programme of a total war strategy sought victory at all costs. Ludendorff ordered the resumption of the U-boat Campaign, which provoked the United States entry in to the war. The OHL ensured safe passage for Lenin and his accomplices from Switzerland to Russia. It negotiated the peace of Brest-Litovsk only to be able to attempt a victory on the Western front in 1918.
The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare wasn’t just a mistake, it led directly to the German defeat:
The Spring Offensive was launched on 21 March 1918 and was seen by many German officers as the High Command’s last effort to defeat the Allied forces before American forces could significantly impact the course of the war.
Roger Parkinson in his book, Tormented Warrior describes that this “…offensive represented a critical part of Ludendorff’s career. Upon this battle rested the hopes of a victorious conclusion to the war. The alternative for both Germany and Ludendorff was too frightening to contemplate.”
The Spring Offensive began with initial success, pushing the Allies back 40 miles and within three marching days of Paris. However, the operation was not as successful as the High Command hoped in that the British had not been driven from France, and the French Army had not collapsed. Ludendorff reported in May that thus far, the operation was indecisive.
The turning point of the war in favour of the Entente was 18 July 1918 when French and American forces successfully counterattacked the German forces at Villers-Cotterets. The attack consisted of 24 French and American divisions, 2000 guns, 500 tanks, and more then 1200 aircraft. Allied tanks led the offensive behind the cover of a creeping barrage.
The Germans were not prepared for an attack; especially an attack led by this number of tanks. The Allies punctured the German lines, and a general retreat was ordered within 48 hours of the Allied and American breakthrough. From July 18th onwards, the German army was in retreat.
General Fritz von Lossberg who was sent to inspect the condition and morale of the Seventh and Ninth German armies following the defeat of July 18th stated, “…July 18, 1918 was the precise turning point in the conduct of the war. The OHL’s (High Command) failure to understand that the combat strength of the German army was already severely shattered in July 1918 [and] required systematic rebuilding.”
At this point, the German army was incapable of an offensive campaign for several reasons. By July 1918, American troops were arriving in Europe at a rate of 120,000 a month and had begun to sway the balance of power in favour of the Allies. Morale was low among the German troops. During the July 18th battle, there were accounts of large groups of German soldiers surrendering to a single enemy soldier.
American forces were overwhelming the exhausted Germans, both the AEF on the Western Front and by redoubling the blockade with the weight of the U.S. Navy capital ships added to the RN fleet at Scapa Flow. But the Germans’ fortunes weren’t being dictated by the blockade or American soldiers. They were dictated by one man–Erich Ludendorff.