In October 1918, under increasing military pressure on all fronts, Germany seeks an end to the fighting. The new German Chancellor, Prince Maximilian of Baden, sends President Wilson a public note requesting peace negotiations on the basis of the Fourteen Points and the “five particulars” set forth in his recent speech in New York. Further exchanges culminate in an American demand for submission to Allied military supremacy, cessation of “illegal and inhumane practices” such as submarine attacks on passenger ships, and regime change in Germany. When Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff threaten to resign if Wilson’s conditions are accepted, the Kaiser accepts Ludendorff’s resignation but orders Hindenburg to remain. The Allies’ general offensive on the Western Front succeeds in seizing Cambrai and driving the Germans from the Hindenburg Line, while to the south the American Army begins the second phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The “lost battalion” is cut off by the Germans in the Argonne Forest and Corporal Alvin York earns the Medal of Honor by leading an attack on a German machine-gun emplacement. The Austro-Hungarian Empire rapidly disintegrates as a republic is proclaimed in Vienna and as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other nations in central Europe declare their independence. In the Near East, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force captures Damascus and Aleppo, leading to an armistice between the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. The German High Seas Fleet is ordered to sea for a final battle, but when crews begin to refuse orders the operation is cancelled and the Dreadnought squadrons are dispersed. In the United States, the proposed Woman Suffrage Amendment to the Constitution fails in the Senate. As mid-term Congressional elections draw near, President Wilson begs Americans to elect a Democratic Congress.
At the end of last month German Chancellor Georg von Hertling was forced to resign. The Kaiser appointed a new chancellor, Prince Maximilian, Margave of Baden, on October 3. Prince Max accepted the appointment on two conditions, which the Kaiser accepted: first, that Parliament would in the future have the exclusive right to declare war; and second, that the Kaiser relinquish all control over the army and navy. The new chancellor at first resisted, but finally accepted, Field Marshal Hindenburg’s insistence, joined by General Ludendorff, that Germany must seek an immediate end to the war. On October 6 Prince Max sent a message to President Wilson asking him “to take in hand the restoration of peace, acquaint all the belligerent states of this request, and invite them to send plenipotentiaries for the purpose of opening negotiations.” The message stated that the German government “accepts the program set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress on January 8, and in his later pronouncements, especially his speech of September 27, as a basis for peace negotiations.” The chancellor’s note requested “with a view to avoiding further bloodshed . . . the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land and water and in the air.” Notes making similar requests were sent by the governments of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
In the United States, senators greeted the German note with demands for German surrender, disarmament and reparations as the price for any cessation of hostilities. President Wilson, however, sent a prompt reply without consulting the Senate or the Allies. Signed by Secretary of State Robert Lansing and sent through the Swiss Charge d’Affaires in Berlin, the reply sought clarification of the German proposal. It asked: “Does the Imperial Chancellor mean that the Imperial German Government accepts the terms laid down by the President in his [Fourteen Points] address . . . and in subsequent addresses, and that its object in entering into discussions would be only to agree upon the practical details of their application?” The American reply further stated that the President “would not feel at liberty to propose a cessation of arms to the [Allies] so long as the armies of [the Central] Powers are upon their soil.” The Central Powers, therefore, must agree “immediately to withdraw their forces everywhere from invaded territory.” Finally, the Chancellor must state whether he “is speaking merely for the constituted authorities of the Empire who have so far conducted the war.” In Versailles, where they were meeting as the Supreme War Council, the prime ministers of Great Britain, France and Italy, without consulting President Wilson or the State Department, drafted their own statement prescribing harsh terms for any armistice.
Germany replied to the American note on October 12. In a note signed by Wilhelm Solf, the new State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, it stated that “the German Government has accepted the terms laid down by President Wilson in his address of January 8 and in his subsequent addresses on the foundation of a permanent peace of justice” and that “its object in entering into discussion would be only to agree upon practical details of the application of these terms.” It said it believes that the “powers associated with the government of the United States also take the position taken by President Wilson in his address.” It agreed that Germany was “ready to comply with the proposition of the President in regard to evacuation” and suggested “the meeting of a mixed commission for making the necessary arrangements concerning the evacuation.” Finally, on the subject of negotiating authority, it stated that “the present German Government . . . has been formed by conferences and in agreement with the great majority of the Reichstag” and that “the Chancellor, supported in all his actions by the will of this majority, speaks in the name of the German Government and of the German people.”
As diplomatic notes were being exchanged, the war on the Western Front continued. On October 4 in the Meuse-Argonne, nine companies of the American Army’s 77th Division advancing through the Argonne Forest lost contact with the units on their flanks and were cut off by the Germans. Its survivors were finally rescued after days of fighting. On October 8, Corporal Alvin York’s patrol in the Argonne was surrounded by German forces that outnumbered them ten to one. Corporal York single-handedly shot and killed some twenty-eight German soldiers and accepted the surrender of 132 more, marching them back to American lines with thirty-five captured machine guns. Upon his return he was promoted to sergeant and recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The American offensive in the Meuse-Argonne sector, halted temporarily by strong German defenses at the Kriemhilde Stellung and by an outbreak of influenza in the ranks, resumed on October 14. General Pershing, while retaining command of the overall American Expeditionary Force, placed General Hunter Liggett in command of the American First Army and gave it principal responsibility for conducting the offensive. Also slowed by the influenza outbreak, British, French and Belgian forces renewed their offensive in Flanders. The British Fourth Army broke through the Hindenburg Line between October 3 and 5 and Canadian elements of the British Third Army captured the town of Cambrai on October 8 and 9. After a brief pause at the River Selle, British and French forces renewed their offensive on October 14, threatening to cut off German army units on the coast. The next day General Ludendorff ordered a general withdrawal, allowing the Allies to occupy the German U-boat bases at Zeebrugge and advance to the Dutch border.
The German note of October 12 sparked another round of Senate debate and a visit to the White House by Senator Henry F. Ashurst (Dem., Ariz.), who warned the President that if he failed to demand unconditional surrender he would be “destroyed.” The President replied “So far as my being destroyed, I am willing if I can serve my country to go into a cellar and read poetry the remainder of my life.” Ashurst told him a cellar would be necessary “to escape the cyclone of the people’s wrath.” Wilson said “Senator, it would relieve a great many people of anxiety if they did not start with the assumption that I am a damn fool.”
On October 14 President Wilson and Colonel House drafted a response to the German note. Signed and sent the same day by Secretary Lansing, it said the German government’s “unqualified acceptance” of the principles laid down in the Fourteen Points “justifies the President in making a frank and direct statement of his decision.” It stated that “no arrangement can be accepted . . . which does not provide absolutely satisfactory safeguards and guarantees of the maintenance of the present military supremacy of the armies of the United States and of the Allies in the field.” Nor will any armistice be considered “so long as the armed forces of Germany continue the illegal and inhumane practices which they persist in, including both “submarine attacks on passenger ships at sea — and not the ships alone, but the very boats in which their passengers and crew seek to make their way to safety” and the “wanton destruction” of cities and villages in France and Flanders “in direct violation of the rules and practices of civilized warfare.” Finally, calling attention to President Wilson’s Fourth of July speech at Mount Vernon in which he called for “the destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere that can . . . disturb the peace of the world,” the note said that this describes “the power which has hitherto controlled the German nation,” and that “it is within the choice of the German nation to alter it.” Calling this a “condition precedent to peace,” the note concluded by saying “the whole process of peace will . . . depend upon the definiteness and the satisfactory character of the guarantees which can be given in this fundamental matter.”
That evening, after dining with Colonel House and Mrs. Wilson, the President wrote a letter in longhand appointing House the President’s “personal representative . . . to take part as such in the conferences of the Supreme War Council and in any other conferences in which it may be serviceable for him to represent me.” He gave the letter to House, who left on the midnight train to New York and sailed for Europe on October 22.
Foreign Minister Solf replied to the October 14 note on October 21. In it he “protest[ed] against the reproach of illegal and inhumane actions made against the German land and sea forces and thereby against the German people,” saying that “for the covering of a retreat, destructions will always be necessary, and they are carried out in so far as is permitted by international law,” and denying that “the German Navy in sinking ships has ever purposely destroyed lifeboats with their passengers.” Regarding the conditions set forth in the American note, he said Germany “trusts that the President of the United States will approve of no demand which would be irreconcilable with the honor of the German people and with opening the way to a peace of justice.” He assumed that the “procedure of [the German] evacuation and of the conditions of an armistice should be left to the judgment of the military advisers” based on “the actual standard of power on both sides in the field.” The note said that “orders [have been] dispatched to all submarine commanders, precluding the torpedoing of passenger ships,” but added that it cannot “guarantee that these orders will reach every single submarine at sea before its return.” Finally, in response to President Wilson’s insistence on the destruction of the “arbitrary power” that has “hitherto controlled the German nation,” the note stated that “the first act of the new Government has been to lay before the Reichstag a bill to alter the Constitution of the Empire so that the consent of the representation of the people is required for decisions on war and peace” and that this new system is guaranteed “not only by constitutional safeguards, but also by the unshakeable determination of the German people.”
President Wilson responded immediately, rejecting the German reply as unsatisfactory. The American note, signed by Secretary Lansing and dated October 23, said that while the President “cannot decline to take up with the Governments with which the Government of the United States is associated the question of an armistice,” he repeated that “the only armistice he would feel justified in submitting for consideration would be one which would leave the United States and the Powers associated with her in a position to enforce any arrangements entered into and to make a renewal of hostilities on the part of Germany impossible.” He pointed out that, “Significant and important as the Constitutional changes seem to be . . ., it does not appear that the principle of a government responsible to the German people has yet been fully worked out.” Nor does it appear “that the heart of the present difficulty has been reached. It may be that future wars have been brought under the control of the German people, but the present war has not been; and it is with the present war that we are dealing.” Because “the German people have no means of commanding the acquiescence of the military authorities” and “the power of the King of Prussia to control the policy of the Empire is unimpaired,” the President believes that “the nations of the world do not and cannot trust the word of those who have hitherto been the masters of German policy.” The note concluded with an ultimatum for regime change: “If it must deal with the military masters and the monarchical autocrats of Germany now, or if it is likely to have to deal with them later in regard to the international obligations of the German Empire, it must demand not peace negotiations but surrender.”
Prince Max saw no alternative to accepting President Wilson’s terms, and after a lengthy cabinet meeting the government chose to accept both the October 14 and October 23 notes. From army headquarters at Spa, Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff, recently among the foremost voices calling for an end to the conflict, sent a telegram to army group commanders declaring the conditions demanded by the American note unacceptable and ordering a “fight to the finish.” When one of the army commanders objected the telegram was withdrawn, but not before it had reached the newspapers, where it was published on October 25. Hindenburg and Ludendorff traveled to Berlin where on October 26 they confronted the Kaiser and threatened to resign if the American conditions were accepted. Unlike earlier situations of this kind, when such threats by military leaders had forced the resignation of civilian ministers, this time Prince Max threatened to resign unless the Kaiser backed the government. The Kaiser, angered by the presumption of his generals in sending the “fight to the finish” telegram, accepted Ludendorff’s resignation but refused Hindenburg’s.
The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby, entered Damascus on October 1, welcomed as liberators by the city’s Arab residents. A week later an Indian division entered Beirut, opening another seaport for the Allies. On October 29 Allenby’s forces and Arabs under the command of Sherif Hussein arrived at the outskirts of Aleppo, the northernmost city in Syria, cutting rail communication between Constantinople and Mesopotamia. Turkish General Mustafa Kemal withdrew his forces from Aleppo and established a defensive position north of the city, approximating a boundary between the Turkish heartland and the Arab lands to the south. On October 27, negotiations for an armistice began between representatives of the Ottoman Empire and Great Britain. The negotiations took place aboard H.M.S. Agamemnon, anchored off the Aegean island of Mudros, where agreement was reached and an armistice signed on October 30. The terms of the armistice require the Ottomans to open the Dardanelles and Bosporus to Allied warships, allow the Allies to occupy Turkish forts along the straits, demobilize the Turkish Army, release prisoners of war, and evacuate the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces.
Austria-Hungary’s request for an armistice has accelerated the independence movements of nationalities within the Empire and throughout Central Europe. On October 16 Emperor Charles issued a proclamation that the Austrian portion of the Empire “is to become a federal state in which each nationality will form its own polity on the territory on which it lives.” The next day Hungary and Czechoslovakia declared their independence. In a note dated October 19 President Wilson refused Austria-Hungary’s request for armistice negotiations based on the Fourteen Points. In a note signed by Secretary of State Lansing, he said “events of the utmost importance” occurring since the Fourteen Points address in January “have necessarily altered the attitude and responsibility of the Government of the United States.” Referring to Point Ten (the peoples of Austria-Hungary “should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development”), the note stated that since then the United States “has recognized that a state of belligerency exists between the Czechoslovaks and the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and that the Czechoslovak National Council is a de facto belligerent Government clothed with proper authority to direct the military and political affairs of the Czechoslovaks.” For that reason, and because the United States “has also recognized in the fullest manner the justice of the national aspirations of the Jugo-Slavs for freedom,” the President is “no longer at liberty to accept the mere ‘autonomy’ of these peoples as a basis for peace, but is obliged to insist that they, and not he, shall be the judges of what action on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Government will satisfy their aspirations and their conception of their rights and destiny as members of the family of nations.” On October 26, in a sweeping assertion of freedom from imperial rule, Czech independence leader Tomas Masaryk stood at Independence Hall in Philadelphia and read a Declaration of Independence on behalf of the Mid-European Union, “a chain of nations lying between the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Seas, comprising Czechoslovaks, Poles, Jugoslavs, Ukrainians, Uhro-Russians, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Italian Irredentists, Unredeemed Greeks, Albanians, and Zionists, wholly or partly subject to alien domination.” The Declaration pledged that “we place our all — peoples and resources — at the disposal of our allies for use against our common enemy.” Representatives of each of the nations stepped forward and signed the Declaration on the table where the American founding fathers had signed the American Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The rapid dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has had its effects on the battlefield. An Allied offensive under the command of Italian General Armando Diaz began on October 24. When they learned of their country’s declaration of independence, Hungarian soldiers refused to advance, and requested and received permission to return home. South Slav and Czech units followed suit, and even some German and Austrian units refused to fight as Hungarians left the battlefield. By month’s end, the Allies had seized Vittorio Veneto and Sacile, the Austrians had abandoned Monte Grappa, and an Austrian delegation had crossed Italian lines to negotiate a surrender. Czech politicians took control of governmental affairs in Prague on October 28. On October 31 Emperor Charles relinquished power in Vienna and the imperial standard was hauled down from Government House. In both Vienna and Budapest the military authorities, apparently acting in agreement with their respective National Assemblies, have proclaimed a republic.
The dreadnoughts of the German High Seas Fleet, except for the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, have remained throughout the war in the safety of the Jade Estuary and the naval base at Heligoland Island. On October 22, foreseeing a humiliating end to the war for the German Navy, the Chief of the German Naval Staff Admiral Reinhard Scheer, without notifying or obtaining approval from the Kaiser, ordered Admiral Franz von Hipper, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, to “attack the English Fleet as soon as possible.” On October 24, Hipper ordered the Fleet to sea for a final battle. As the ships began to get up steam for the sortie scheduled for dawn on October 30, German sailors, less attracted than the admirals by the prospect of glorious sacrifice, began refusing orders and abandoning their posts. After a final briefing session with his admirals and captains on the evening of October 29, Hipper cancelled the sortie. In an effort to quell the incipient mutinies and isolate the ringleaders, he ordered the fleet dispersed, sending the dreadnought squadrons to Cuxhaven, Wilhelmshaven, and through the Kiel Canal to the Baltic.
In the United States, the Senate voted on the proposed woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution on October 1. The vote was 53 in favor and 41 opposed, three votes short of the required two-thirds. Before the vote, the Senate defeated by a vote of 61-22 an amendment proposed by Senator John Sharp Williams (Dem., Miss.) to limit the suffrage to white women in order to “preserve the social status of the white women of the South.” President Wilson’s extraordinary visit to the Senate the day before the vote and his plea that passage was “vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the . . . war” (see last month’s blog post) failed to change a single vote, as did letters from the President delivered to selected Democrats on the floor as the measure was coming to a vote, as did a last-minute appeal by Senator Albert B. Cummins (Rep., Iowa) not to “repudiate” the President. After the vote Alice Paul, Chairman of the National Woman’s Party, said “The defeat is only temporary. The votes of the Senate, we are convinced, will be reversed before this session of Congress ends. Our efforts to secure the reversal will begin at once and will continue until our victory in the House is confirmed in the Senate.”
While concentrating on the intense negotiations for an armistice, the President has not been unaware of the approach of the mid-term Congressional elections. On October 25, contrary to the advice of many of his advisers, he issued a public plea to American voters, asking “if you have approved of my leadership and wish me to continue to be your unembarrassed spokesman in affairs at home and abroad, I earnestly beg that you will express yourselves unmistakably to that effect by returning a Democratic majority to both the Senate and the House of Representatives.” Republicans, most of whom have been firm supporters of the war from the beginning, are irate. In a speech at Carnegie Hall on October 28, former President Roosevelt reminded his audience that the President had told Congress in May that “politics is adjourned” because of the war. Now, he said, he is asking the American people not “for loyalty to the Nation” but “only for support of himself.”
October 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, October and November 1918
New York Times, September and October 1918
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fifth Year of the Great War: 1918
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Anthony Lewis, Make No Law, The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment
Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians In War and Revolution 1914-1918
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Ted Morgan, FDR: A Biography
William Mulligan, The Great War for Peace
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Patricia O’Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made
Edward J. Renehan, The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy
David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward, A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
This article is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: