Posts Tagged ‘the end of world war 1’

A rumbling.
The earth trembling.
The man cannot stop himself-he withdraws his head from the hole; he looks upward, and sees the tank.

He sees it above him, over his head. The tank makes a clumsy cradling movement against the arc of the sky, hovers a moment, its prow in the air.

Gunner Müller feebly raises a hand as if to ward it off. The great belly rocking downwards upon him – the livid, striped steel armour, the double rows of rivets, the caterpillars dripping earth-all these
are etched on the retina of his eyes as on photographic plates. The tank weighs three to four tons,
sixty to eighty hundredweight. The human body may withstand a pressure of six hundredweight;
with seven the breath goes out of it; eight and the bones crack; eighty…..

The lips draw back. The teeth are bared. Max Müller’s face has the same expression as the dead
Number Two; the same anguished mouth as a woman’s in childbirth.

The tank slides smoothly down into the crater.

Two dead Numbers and one living, it irons them out flat. Then it lifts itself up again to the level
ground and rolls on in line with the rest of the squadron, clanking and firing, against the retreating
German Front.

A dug-out, rafters, and above them a few feet of earth. Below a lieutenant seated before a field-
telephone. A man comes down the steps, he clicks his heels and reports: “Machine-gun posts have
retired, out of touch with Müller’s group.”

The message arrives before the tanks but hardly before the bombing planes. Telephonic
communications are still intact. The lieutenant takes up the receiver and reports to Battalion
Headquarters: “Front line evacuated.” Battalion H.Q. where the messages from all parts of the
sector are assembled, telephones yet farther back to Brigade: “Broken through on the whole sector –
Yes, four kilometres! Tank attack on a front of four kilometres!”

The face of the lieutenant in the dug-out is ashen grey. He is dirty, lousy and, like his men half-starved. He has been for weeks in the front line without relief.

The officer at Battalion H.Q. looks spruce and well shaven. He still gets enough to eat, he sleeps
regularly and at times may even have a bath in his private quarters. The Brigade Major, who passes
the messages yet farther back to Army, inhabits a villa with every comfort – conservatory, garage,

The Hindenburg Line, to which the people pinned its faith as if it were a new evangel in
concrete, has been broken. The Hindenburg Line, the Wotan Line, the Siegfried Line, the Hermann
and Hunding-Brunhild Line, built up with such unremitting, titanic toil, have been overrun and now
lie behind the advancing Allied troops. From the flooded regions of Flanders to the Vosges the
German Front is in full retreat.

The Germans leave behind them each day a few more miles of country, each day a few more
thousand dead.

But behind the lines of defence the Generals and staff officers forever reassemble the fragments
of broken divisions, reorganize them in new formations, fill them out with scratch drafts from home
and throw them again into the battle.

The military machine is still intact.

Only at the Base, indeed, not at the Front.

In the platoons and sections the collapsing system is relinquishing its hold. But behind the line sergeant majors still require to be saluted, they still bully, they still drill. Quartermaster-sergeants
still issue rations, still arrange fatigues, still supervise the digging of burial pits, still serve out
schnapps – half a litre a head – to the men going up the line.

And 100 miles behind the Front, behind Battalion, Brigade, Division, and Army, at GHQ, where
all the threads meet, in a room of the Hotel Britannia at Spa, a man is stooping over maps and sheets
of figures-he is of the same Prussian sergeant-major type, with the same sergeant-major’s features
but better tended, a closely- shaved heavy jowl, and a little turned-up moustache, a uniform with the
red stripes of a general staff officer, the star of an order on his breast. He scans once more the lines,
the hatchings and points which represent armies, strong points, reserves; then he bundles together a
number of hastily-made sketches and memoranda and hands them to a colonel.

A soldier helps him into his cloak; he takes down his cap and in company with the colonel leaves
the room.

Outside the hotel stands a motor-car. At the station a special train is waiting. The two general
staff officers climb in.

The heavy engine begins to move. After a short distance it is tearing along with its two carriages,
one telegraph and one saloon car, at top speed across the country. Trains come from the opposite
direction – coughing engines, seemingly endless columns of trucks – trains laden with cement, with
trench-supports, munitions, and a stream of troops dragging forever westward.

The line is cleared at congested stations; troop trains and goods trains are shunted on to side tracks; hospital trains destined for home stand waiting. On the platforms soldiers stand round the
fountains and at the flying kitchens of the railway service. Every station presents the same picture.
Soldiers stamping about to keep warm or seated on their packs and bundles. And all of them talking
of the self-same things – of food, of their officers, of peace. They gaze curiously after the special as
it races by with curtained windows.

“A big bug!” they all agree.

Only when passing through the larger cities does the locomotive slacken its pace, then rushes on
again always at top speed. After four hours the train rolls thundering over the long bridge which
crosses the Rhine at Cologne.

The man from Spa is sitting in the saloon, the forgotten stump of a cigar between his lips. An
orderly comes in and lays the newly-received telegraphic tapes on the table: Americans attacking
heavily between Argonne and the Maas – army group crown prince Rupprecht driven back behind
the Lys – Ostend, Tourcoing, Roubaix, Douai evacuated – between Le Cateau and the Oise the
battle in full swing.

The orderly goes back to the colonel at work in the telegraph car. The man in the saloon car, who
through two years of unceasing activity has directed the movements of the German troops-he, who
eight weeks ago dismissed sixty generals on the Western Front, is in no hurry to read the incoming
reports. Without looking at them he knows that every passing hour is a fresh hammer-blow against
the German Front. He leans back and stares into space. He is feeling the burden of his flesh, heavy
and strange. He has grown weary.

One day later, 17th October, 1918.

The man from Spa is approaching the Imperial Chancellery. The guard presents arms. The
flunkeys behind the tall glass doors stand motionless as statues. After the man with the general’s
cord has gone by, one of them whispers: “That’s him – that’s Ludendorff!”

The Chief Quartermaster-General, Ludendorff stands before the members of the War Cabinet,
the members of the newly-appointed National Government. The meeting is presided over by the
Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden. Beside the Chancellor sits the Vice-Chancellor, von Payer, on
either side of the table are the ministers and Secretaries of State. The patriotic Left is represented by
the Social Democrat, Scheidemann.

The members of the Cabinet are putting questions. The defeated General answers:

“War is not a matter of simple arithmetic – no one can really tell what will happen. … Germany’s
luck may easily turn again. … Gaps four miles wide have been made in the front, it is true,
nevertheless the enemy has not broken through ….We have been pushed back, but it came off all
right… . One should not overestimate the Americans …. The 41st Division? That was a matter of
morale. The Division had had influenza. They were short of rations ….I have every hope that the
present fear of the tanks will in time be overcome. Once the morale is restored; the troops will make
short work of them – as it is, the Jäger battalions and the Guards have rare sport shooting them up… If
the army can get through the next four weeks successfully, and winter comes, then we are well
away… It all depends on what the homeland can still give us. It is a question of man-power.”

The Western Front is collapsing; the allies are defaulting; the reserves of men are exhausted; yet
the General still begs for a last 600,000 men.

There he sits – a uniform, decorations, the “pour le mérite” on his breast. His heavy, fleshy face
is expressionless. When he looks at the members of the War Council his glance is sidelong under
half-closed eyelids. The Minister for War, the Secretary of State for the Navy, Admiral von Scheer,
General Hoffmann who has been summoned from the Eastern Front, all these are fighters. The
Imperial Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden also ranks as a general, but he is not wearing his
uniform. The rest – the Vice-Chancellor, the Secretaries of State and the various ministers are
civilians. One is a barrister, another a judge, a third a journalist; the Social-Democratic Secretary of
State was once a printer.

What is the matter with the fellow? What is biting him now? Gröber, the leader of the Centre
Party, an octogenarian with a long white beard, turns his great gleaming spectacles upon the Chief

He begins to talk of the depressed mood of the troops. “It is primarily a matter of feeding.
Take the officers’ canteens, for instance – understand that the officers can get additional supplies and even
luxuries; but if a private soldier comes in, he is told it is not intended for him. Cannot such glaring
contrasts be avoided?”

Ludendorff surveys the ministers – neither have these gentlemen the appearance of drawing their
midday ration from the soup-kitchens – but he replies patiently to the question. “In the trenches
both officers and men eat from the same field-cooker. But the Staff is situated differently and it is
only natural if they arrange things better. It is hardly to be expected we should eat from the field-
kitchens. Whatever is fair and just we enforce. The mischief is that rumours are circulated which are
injurious to our reputation ….”

The Chancellor calls the gentlemen to order: “I must ask you not to go into details; we have not
time for that.”

They discuss the position on the Western Front, the occupied regions in the East, the possibility
of withdrawing troops from the Eastern Front to strengthen the West.

“What is the precise value of the Ukraine as a source of food?”
“Well, we bought up a million and a half tons of grain there which are already beginning to rot!”

“It is no longer possible to get any considerable quantity of grain, fodder or cattle from there, so I suggest we abandon the occupation of the Ukraine, and in case of necessity supplement our
supplies by smuggling.”

But then there are political considerations: “We must hold the Ukraine as a concentration-point
against the Russian menace, against Bolshevism.”

Dr. Solf, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, has a report from the Consul on conditions in the
Ukraine and informs the meeting that the economic value of the country to Germany is very
considerable. “I also asked Herr von Mumm what would happen in the Ukraine if we withdrew the
German troops. He was sure, so he told me, that the Bolshevists would then gain control and behave
in the most savage and terrible manner. All the well-to-do would be executed.”

“We should have to chance that; even though it were against our pledged word,” retorted
Ludendorff. “Is the evacuation necessary or not necessary for Germany? If it is, then it must be
done, no matter what the consequences.”

But General Hoffmann requires three months to withdraw his divisions from the East. And it is
generally agreed that the troops, infected as they are with Bolshevism, are no longer suitable to fight
in the West.

Therefore the Western Front must be reinforced from home.

The Chancellor breaks off the debate on the Ukraine: “I pass now to the second question: Is the
country prepared to place the necessary man-power at the disposal of the Higher Command?”

The Minister for War and the Chief of Staff, Colonel Heye, who has accompanied Ludendorff
from Spa, speak in reply to this question. The Chancellor, the Vice-Chancellor and the various
Secretaries of State ask questions.

Ludendorff follows the arguments brought forward with ever growing concern. In his hand he
has the agenda drawn up by the Cabinet as a basis for the discussion; he sets it down on the table
and restlessly shoves it hither and thither– Yes, His Excellency the Quartermaster-General who has
overthrown Cabinets and meditated Dictatorship; who has already prepared a political programme
for the repopulation of the country after the conclusion of the “victorious war”, according to which
the Government and the General Staff shall supervise domestic life, regulate propagation,
education, sanitation and housing-reform; organize the struggle against decreasing birth-rate,
gonorrhoea and syphilis, against celibacy and promiscuity, against the use of contraceptives, against
excessive attendance at cinemas and against the use of tobacco and alcohol by the young; who has a
politico-military programme which beginning with bonuses for nursing mothers, and by means of
patriotic instruction, a law requiring military training in schools, an extension of the period of
military service, a tax on bachelors, and by the granting of privileges to patriotic organizations, is to
transform German citizens into soldiers and the begetters of future soldiers– Yes, His Excellency General Ludendorff who would turn Germany into one vast barracks, German industry into a body
of army contractors, and make the entire population of the country the compulsory inmates of this
great barracks, his Excellency, who has sent 1,600,000 men to their death for this “Greater
Fatherland”, his Excellency has become nervous and is now fidgeting with a piece of paper. He
looks around in search of help, his glance stops at the face of the Secretary of State, Scheidemann,
and he hangs on those watery blue eyes.

Scheidemann, thin, a great shining skull, tufts of grey hair on the temples, straightens up in his
chair: “I believe it may still be possible to round up a few hundred thousand more men for the
Army, but he would be deceiving himself who imagined that those hundreds of thousands would in
any way improve the morale of the army….”

Scheidemann, representing the Social Democracy, the last political capital of Imperial Germany,
is General Ludendorff’s last hope.

“Could not your Excellency contrive to raise the spirits of the masses?”

His Excellency Herr Scheidemann replies: “It is really a question of food. We have no meat, we
cannot bring up potatoes because we are short four thousand trucks daily, we have practically no
more fats. The shortage is so great that it is a puzzle how Berlin North and Berlin East are to get
their food. So long as this puzzle remains unsolved, it is impossible to raise the spirits of the

When Scheidemann talks of the masses, he speaks as a professional, as a technical expert, to
advise the Government what pressure the body politic can support without danger of an explosion.
The explosion now appears to be inevitable. The duration of the war, the defection of the other
allies, the ever increasing misery at home, the transport crisis, the food shortage…

The army has only sufficient oil for another six weeks.

Admiral von Scheer expresses his readiness to hand over to the army the navy’s oil stocks, of
which it has sufficient for another eight months. At this point Drews, Minister for the Interior,
reminds the meeting of the paraffin lamps of the civil population: “Ten thousand tons of oil monthly
are the minimum requirement, if the people are to be kept even moderately quiet through the

The Secretaries of State see no way out. The seventy one year-old Vice-Chancellor von Payer
sits there with knitted brows. Secretary of State Gröber has sunk down into his chair. The eyes
behind the great spectacles stare wearily, ever at the self-same spot. Dr. Solf looks again and again
across at Ludendorff who, through his insistent demand fourteen days ago for an armistice, has
brought the Cabinet to this desperate pass, and yet who today suddenly advances the opinion that
the Front may yet be able to hold out until the early spring. But the situation report which he has
just given refutes this opinion, and above all it admits of no strong reply to President Wilson’s
humiliating note. The discussion continually returns to the general depression in the army and to the
desperate condition of the people.

“One must not overemphasize the question of the morale of the army – it is, after all, a very
uncertain factor,” interposes Under-Secretary Haussmann.

The Vice-Chancellor supports him: “I do not see things quite so gloomily as His Excellency Herr
Scheidemann. If our note is framed in such a way that the people can gather that, though we are in a
difficult position, still we are not throwing up the sponge, then all is not yet lost.”

The Quartermaster-General makes a sudden movement: “The Vice-Chancellor has expressed my
own feelings. The whole question is, can we do it? 1can only repeat my request: Stir up the people!
Rouse them! Could not Herr Ebert do it?”

New factors are introduced.

The Chief of Staff, Colonel Heye, is reading out figures from which the sorely diminished
strength of the divisions on the Western Front and the steadily increasing superiority of the enemy
becomes only too evident.

General Ludendorff points out on the other hand, that the war weariness is growing in France
and the Allied countries also.

“Can the army still hold the enemy, or must we accept Wilson’s conditions? That is the question we have to answer.””

– Theodor Plivier, The Kaiser Goes, The Generals Remain. Translated by A. W. Wheen.  London: Faber & Faber, 1933. pp. 3-7

Painting is George Grosz, Zuhälter des Todes/The Pimps of Death (From “Gott mit uns”). 1919. Color photolithograph. 39,5 x 30 cm (15,6 x 11,8 in).

Read Full Post »