South African Military 
History Society


Newsletter No. 510
November 2018

Contact: Charles Whiteing
Telephone: 031 764 7270
Mobile: 082 555 4689


Chairman, Charles Whiteing, opened the November meeting with announcement that "tonight's two meeting talks are about the end of the First World War in memory of this momentous occasion" before introducing the DDH speaker Roy Bowman and his subject for the talk "END OF THE GREAT WAR".

Following the indecisive Battle of Jutland, 31st May to 1st June 1916, the capital ships of the Imperial Navy had been confined to inactive service in harbour. Many officers and crew had volunteered to transfer to submarines and light vessels which still played a part in the war. The discipline and morale of those who remained, on lower rations, with the battleships tied up at dock side, inevitably suffered.

On 2nd August 1917, 350 crewmen of the dreadnought Prinzregent Luitpold staged a protest demonstration in Willemshaven. Two of the ring-leaders were executed by firing squad while others were sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.
Secret sailor's councils were formed on a number of the capital ships in an effort by the sailors to solve the problem.
By September 1918, Germany's military situation was close to hopeless. In the light of ongoing riots over lack of food for the population in the light of the lack of imports caused by the naval blockade, Kaiser Willem was advised to request the Entente Cordiale for an immediate cease fire and put the government on a democratic footing, hoping for more favourable peace terms. On 3rd October the Kaiser appointed Prince Maximillian of Baden as the new Imperial Chancellor, so setting the scene for a change in government.

During October 1918, the Imperial Naval Command in Kiel, under Admiral von Hipper, planned to dispatch the fleet for a final battle against the Royal Navy in the English Channel. The Naval Order of 24th October 1918 and the preparations to sail triggered a mutiny among the affected sailors and then a general revolution of the German Nation, which was to sweep aside the monarchy within a few days.

Other seamen, soldiers and workers, in solidarity with those who had been arrested began electing workers and soldiers councils, modelled after the Soviets of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and took over military and civil powers in many cities. On 7th November, the revolution had reached Munich, causing King Ludwig III of Bavaria to flee.

On 9th November 1918 the Weimar Republic was proclaimed and the announcement was made that Kaiser Willem II had abdicated and fled to Holland. Also on 9th November, Prince Maximillian of Baden handed over the office of Chancellor to the leader of one of the political parties that had suddenly appeared.

The Armistice was the result of a hurried and desperate process. The German delegation crossed the front line in five cars escorted for 10 hours across the devastated war zone of Northern France, arriving on the morning of 8th November 1918. They were then put aboard a train and taken to the secret destination, aboard Marshall Foch's private train and parked in a railway siding in the Forest of Compiègne.




The German delegation was handed the list of Allied demands and was given 72 hours to agree to them. The Armistice amounted to complete German demilitarization, with few promises made by the Allies in return. The Naval Blockade of Germany was not completely lifted until complete peace terms could be agreed upon.

Amongst the 35 terms, the Armistice contained the following major points.

There was no question of negotiation. The German delegation were able to correct a few impossible demands e.g. the decommissioning of more submarines than the Imperial Fleet possessed, extending the schedule for the withdrawal and registering their formal protest at the harshness of Allied terms but they were in no position to refuse to sign.

On Sunday 10thNovember, they were shown newspapers from Paris to inform them that the Kaiser had abdicated.

The Armistice was agreed at 05h00 on 11th November, to come into effect at 11h00 Paris time (noon German time). Hence the commemoration of the end of hostilities is referred to as the "11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month"

The occupation of the Rhineland took place immediately after the signing.

Hostilities officially ceased on ALL fronts at 11h00 (Paris time), 11th November 1918, although Peace was still 2 years away.

The Armistice was prolonged three times before peace was finally ratified.

Germany was wracked by riots, civil commotion, lack of food, unemployment and the crippling payments demanded by the victors for reparations which caused hyper-inflation never seen before, as the government borrowed money in an attempt to pay off the interest accumulating.

Imagine the scene as thousands of soldiers returned from the Fronts, only to find that the newly formed Weimar Republic was trying to solve problems that had never before been experienced in the German States.

The Internment of the Imperial Fleet at Scapa Flow has been dealt with by Ian Sutherland in depth, so I will give a short summary of the events leading up to the signing of the PEACE TREATY of 1920.

The Allied powers agreed that Germany's U-Boat fleet should be surrendered without the possibility of return but were unable to reach agreement upon a course of action regarding the surface fleet. The Americans suggested that the ships be interned in a neutral port until a final decision was reached, but the two countries that were approached, Norway and Sweden, refused. Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss suggested that the Imperial Fleet be interned at Scapa Flow with skeleton crews of German sailors and guarded by units of the Grand Fleet.

The first craft to be surrendered were the U-Boats, beginning on 20th November 1918, with 176 eventually being handed over.

The surrender of the surface fleet was given to Rear Admiral Ludwig von Reuter who led 70 ships of the Imperial Fleet to a rendezvous with HMS Cardiff and 370 ships of the Allied fleet to the Firth of Forth on 21st November 1918, where they were anchored.

The German ships were moved over the period 25th to 27th November to there moorings in Scapa Flow. Eventually 74 ships were interned there.

From the start conditions aboard the interned vessels was quite horrific. There was a lack of discipline after the Kiel mutiny and the officers had to have there [sic] orders passed through a sailors committee who would then decide whether they should be obeyed or not.

Personal hygiene amongst those sailors aboard the ships grew steadily worse as morale dropped. The causes of the lack of morale were later identified as;

The cumulative effect created indescribable filth in some of the ships.
There were German doctors aboard the ships to see to general health but there were no dentists and the British refused to provide dental care.
The continuing delays in the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which would see the interned sailors being repatriated back home affected morale further.
The scene was set for this powder keg to blow!

At 10h00 on 21st June 1919, Von Reuter sent a prearranged flag signal ordering the interned fleet to stand-by for the signal to scuttle.
At 11h20 the flag signal was sent and scuttling began immediately.
Of the 74 German ships in Scapa Flow, 15 of the 16 Capital ships, 5 of the 8 cruisers and 32 of the 50 destroyers were sunk. The remainder either remained afloat or were towed to shallow water and beached.
The crews were then split up and sent to POW camps to await the signing of the PEACE AGREEMENT on 20th January 1920.

Meanwhile conditions in Germany had worsened. After 4 years of war and famine, many German workers were exhausted, physically impaired and discouraged. Millions were disenchanted with capitalism and hoping for a new era. Meanwhile the currency continued to depreciate. The government simply printed more currency to pay debts. By 1923, the Republic claimed it could no longer afford the reparations repayments and they began to default on some payments. In response French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr Region, Germany's most productive industrial region at the time, taking control of mining and manufacturing companies. Strikes were called and the scene was set for the demise of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the NSDAP (Nazi Party) to the Reichstag in September 1930.

The scene was set for WORLD WAR TWO.

A short break was called before the main speaker for the night was introduced by the Chairman, Dr. John Buchan with his subject "THE INVOLVEMENT OF AMERICA IN WORLD WAR ONE".

The talk on the Involvement of the USA in World War 1, covered the relevant events during the 8 year Presidential period of Woodrow Wilson, from 1912 - 1920.

Wilson was lucky to win as the Republican vote which outnumbered the Democratic vote was split two ways.

Early in the twentieth century America was advanced industrially. This was underlined in 1913 by the opening of the Woolworths 60 storey skyscraper in New York, then the highest building in the world.

The steel girders for this structure reflected the massive annual American steel production of more than 45 million tons. This was more than 3 times the combined output of Germany and Austria.

There was also a highly developed machine tool industry which was to prove of great initial value to Britain and France.

In spite of the political blustering over the prior few years, the suddenness with which war had occurred following the murder of the Austrian heir when visiting Bosnia had surprised the various military leaders.

A few months prior to the outbreak of war, President Wilson's emissary, Col. House had mentioned the powder keg situation in Europe. Wilson had been advocating mediation to resolve military conflicts - peace without victory. Proposals for mediation received no support at this stage.

When war commenced, Britain had been receiving some of her military supplies from Germany and her mid-Victorian machine tool production could not manage the demands of mass production. In this situation America was able to assist in many ways, including the supply of modern machine tools, munition components and rifle production.

At the commencement of hostilities in 1914 the Germans planned to avoid a war on two fronts by the early elimination of the French, and then deal with the Russia ns. However the French and British, at the First Battle of the Marne, prevented a French breakthrough.

In 1916, with still strong support for neutrality, Wilson was re-elected on the slogan that he has kept us out of the war, and the improved economy.

During the major battles of 1914, 1915 and 1916, the Allied military losses had been high. With maritime activities, intermittent U-boat activity and British arming of their merchant ships had displeased Wilson.

In January 1917, Wilson had addressed the Senate and Congress to outline the principles which would guide America if hostilities did commence. These points were a prelude to the later 14 points.

America's declaration of war was in fact going to be earlier than expected.

In January the German government announced that from pt February 1917 unrestricted U-boat activity would commence.

The German government had been convinced by their military and naval commanders that this, together with a renewed military attack on the Western front, would bring victory to the Central Powers.

It had been anticipated that this declaration would probably bring America into the war and the Germans planned their victory to be obtained before significant American involvement. As will be noted, this proved to be a fatal decision.

The U-boat activities caused a hardening of American public opinion.

There was duly strong support for Wilson's declaration of war on 6th April 1917.

General John Pershing was chosen to command the American Expeditionary Force. This was influenced by his successful conduct of the incident on the Mexican border in 1916.

Pershing and his staff arrived in France on 18 June 1917. It was soon apparent to Pershing that rapid enlistment, training and dispatch of troops to France was required. An efficient system was duly organised by Congress.

In 1917, the revolutionary change occurred in Russia. Around the end of 1917, with the Bolshevicks in power, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed with Germany this established the transfer of a large number of German troops to the Western front. This underlined the need for rapid dispatch of American troops.

The German offensives on the Western front commenced on 21st March 1918 and were most effective. They were only halted by the successful Allied defensive action: The Second battle of the Marne. American troops had contributed in this defence.

In April 2017 Marshal Foch was promoted to command the Allied Forces. At this stage Pershing had formed the pt American army and wanted the American forces commanded by American Generals. This resulted in initial arguments between Foch and Pershing, but an agreement was reached.

During the subsequent Allied offensive in 1918 the American forces captured the St Mihiel salient between 12th and 16th of September. This enabled improved rail transport to the Allied front.

The second major offensive in the Meuse-Argonne region commenced while the St Mihiel attack was still going. This offensive was successfully handled by the then Col. George C. Marshall, assistant chief of staff for operations in the first army.

There was subsequent successful American involvement in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. At the time of the Armistice the Allies had overcome the main German defence systems.

On 8 January 1918, President Wilson had made his speech to the Congress and Senate, mentioning the 14 points that contained his proposals for peace. These proposals were brushed aside by the Germans in view of the current military situation. The general response in Europe to these proposals had been very favourable.

As a result of the successful Allied offensives from mid July 1918, there was a request on 7 October 1918 from the German authorities, requesting Wilson to arrange an Armistice and restore peace.

Wilson personally handled the subsequent contacts with Germany in October.

These resulted in the Abdication of the Kaiser and his move to Holland, and the suspension of Ludendorf as the military head. The civilian government formed then sent a delegation to sign the Armistice in Marshal Foch's coach in the Compiegne Forest.

The discussion commenced on the night of November 30th and ended at 05h00 the next morning. The Armistice was to come into effect at 11am. The document signed by Mathias Erzberger, in charge of the German delegation, was more like a surrender, than an Armistice, and didn't bode well for the future.

President Wilson decided on attending the Peace Talks in Paris in 1919, and so broke with the previous tradition of a President never leaving the USA while in office. Wilson was keen to promote the issues of importance to him. These included open discussion in the future, of matters arising between nations. Freedom of the Seas was another issue of importance to him the return of territory captured militarily, was to occur.

The idea of a future Organisation of Nations to promote future peace was another key objective. Wilson received a tumultuous welcome on his arrival in Paris.
At the commencement of the Peace Conference in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the USA, France, Britain and Italy were the Big Four that made the major decisions.

During discussion on the various topics, compromises were made by all parties.

With respect to the proposed future League of Nations the topic was noted for future discussion, but never formally adopted.

The Peace Treaty was eventually signed on the 28th June 1918. This date coincided with the 5th anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke.

Wilson left shortly after the signing to return to the USA. He had been away for approx. 6 months and called a special sitting of the Congress and Senate.

The Peace Treaty required ratification by the Senate. However with a Republican majority in the Senate, this did not occur.

With this lack of support in Washington, Wilson commenced a rail tour of the country, to obtain public support.

However on 24 September 1919 at Pueblo, Colorado, Wilson suffered a major stroke from which he never fully recovered.

In the 1920 election, the Democratic Party fielded a candidate not closely associated with Wilson.

With the election won by the Republican Warren Harding, in March 1920 the Senate, in its final vote, rejected both the Versailles Treaty and the League Covenant. Wilson is thus remembered as the President who had won the war but lost the peace.

Marshal Foch is remembered today, as it was his Railway Coach in which the Armistice was signed and it was kept as a National shine.

After Hitler used this coach in 1941, to have the French surrender signed within, the coach was transported to Germany and placed in a Berlin museum where it was later destroyed by Allied bombing.

In 1950, the French Government had an exact replica constructed and this replica was placed at the original site in the Compiegne Forest where the Armistice was signed.

The Chairman invited Donald Davies to present the meetings Vote of Thanks before closing the meeting with the announcement of December's Meeting where Colonel Steve Bekker will present one of his hilarious talks on his experiences in the South African Air Force after which there will be the Branch's annual Year End Cocktail Party.

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