Thursday, November 8, 2018

On the Morning of November 11, 1918

Rickenbacker, third from left, and fellow officers of the
94th Aero Squadron
On the morning of November 11, 1918, fighter pilot and leading American ace Eddie Rickenbacker quietly ambled to the hangar of his aerodrome in France. The night before, in anticipation of the Armistice, all Allied flights were grounded. But Rickenbacker was not known as a rule-follower. He told his crew to roll out his SPAD XIII fighter plane and "and warm it up to test the engines." He climbed into the cockpit, took off, and headed to the trenches of the Western Front. Low clouds kept him low, around five hundred feet. He could see flashes of rifle and machine gun fire from the German trenches.

And then it was 11:00 A.M., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. I was the only audience for the greatest show ever presented. On both sides of no-man's-land, the trenches erupted. Brown-uniformed men poured out of the American trenches, gray-green uniforms out of the German. From my observer's seat overhead, I watched them throw their helmets in the air, discard their guns, wave their hands. Then all up and down the front, the two groups of men began edging toward each other across no-man's-land. Seconds before they had been willing to shoot each other; now they came forward. Hesitantly at first, then more quickly, each group approached the other.
            Suddenly gray uniforms mixed with brown. I could see them hugging each other, dancing, jumping. Americans were passing out cigarettes and chocolate. I flew up to the French sector. There it was even more incredible. After four years of slaughter and hatred, they were not only hugging each other but kissing each other on both cheeks as well.
            Star shells, rockets and flares began to go up, and I turned my ship toward the field. The war was over.

     In memoirs, diary entries, and letters, we find that for the fighters of the First World War, the Great thing about the War was its end. In victorious countries, schools let out, impromptu parades and rallies erupted. These outbursts recognized victory, to be sure, but they chiefly celebrated the end of the war. My own grandmother recounted to me, more than once and each time luminously, the
Armistice celebration in Philadelphia
ecstatic celebration in her little town of Murray, Kentucky, where school was cancelled and virtually everyone in town gathered in the courthouse square to celebrate. In my recollection, she never mentioned the word "victory" once. In Rickenbacker's squadron, everyone from pilot to cook joined in a mad celebration, but not of victory, "many of them shouting 'I survived the war! I survived the war!"
      In the defeated countries, people at home were, if more subdued, at least relieved for the end, but they were also incredulous that they had lost when only days before, the newspapers had proclaimed they were winning. Above all, they were apprehensive about what was to come. Spontaneity among the vanquished was more often a matter of revolution, strikes, and mutinies, often accompanied by gun battles in the streets of Berlin, Budapest, and other cities, as revolutionary groups clashed with each other and with returning soldiers. Of course, some ten or eleven million dead soldiers and sailors would never return to join in the joy or the revolt on either side. Nor would the eight million civilian dead of the war be rejoining their loved ones in any country.
    But the shooting war was in some ways hardly over. The Russian Civil War raged. Sixteen countries, including the United States, invaded Russia to try to shape the outcome of the brutal Russian war. The Greek army invaded Turkey. Poland fought a regular war with the Soviets in 1920. Large-scale violence scarred postwar societies in Ireland, on the German-Polish border, in the Middle East. And the British maintained the Hunger Blockade on Germany for many more hungry months.
     Nor was the notable wartime inflation at an end. This massive transfer of wealth by belligerent governments through inflation impacted both winners and losers. Immediately after the war, inflation escalated to society-bludgeoning hyperinflation in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Austria, and the Soviet Union, creating heightened poverty and misery.
     Yet the elites of the war, especially those on the winning side, were already taking advantage of the war's drastic restructuring of international affairs and domestic politics to plan for "the salvation of the empire," or economic hegemony, or control of vast supplies of raw materials and fuel, or "greater" Serbia (or Greece, or Poland, or Romania), or "a new diplomacy." Intellectuals in the victorious countries likewise saw the war as the "fulfillment" of domestic and social goals, a subject which Murray Rothbard has analyzed in detail. Above all, the international banking houses (many of them connected intimately with the armaments industry (which had lobbied for, sponsored, and organized the complex loans for "modernization" before 1914, and for war loans thereafter) looked forward to the fees and the financial power which the interwoven loans of billions presented. The famous scheme of reparations from Germany and Austria enshrined in the Paris Peace would emerge from American banking agents on the Finance Committee at the Paris Peace Conference. Before long, New York banks would be loaning billions to Germany so that it could pay billions in reparations to Britain, France, and Belgium, so that they could repay millions in war debt to U.S. banks.  
     Nor would the statist total war systems that had in some degree marked all the belligerents cease at on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The most extreme of these systems--in the Soviet Union, Italy, and Germany--would produce a new phenomenon, totalitarianism, which would reek havoc with the lives of millions in their own countries and with those of many others throughout the twentieth century and beyond. And even among the previously liberal regimes, total war social and political organization would extend in many ways into the future.
Matthias Erzberger in 1919. Bundesarchiv,
Bild 146-1989-072-16 / Kerbs,
Diethart / CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
     But little of all this could be foreseen as the German Armistice representative, Matthias Erzberger, made his way to the Forest of Compiègne in November 1918, with a little band of Germans commissioned with ending the fighting.  Erzberger was the leader of the Progressive branch of the German Center Party, the political party of German Catholics. Early in the war, Erzberger was as enthusiastic about "fulfillment" of German dreams through war as most German politicians were. But he came to see that the aggressiveness of all sides, including the German reintroduction of unlimited submarine warfare, was producing an unlivable world. He managed to push a Peace Resolution through the German parliament in mid-1917, calling for peace negotiations. But the chancellor (a front man for the military dictatorship of Hindenburg and Ludendorff) had been able to rob the Resolution of any meaning. Yet by August 1918, the German High Command was demanding that civilian politicians save Germany by making peace, by ending the war which the generals and imperial bureaucrats had lost. A liberal prince from Baden assembled a moderately liberal cabinet (including Erzberger) at the beginning of October and sent messages to Woodrow Wilson, proposing cease-fire negotiations on the basis of Wilson's famous Fourteen Points peace proposal from the previous January. Wilson hesitated, since the Allies were now driving the Germans from their positions on the Western Front. But at last the Allies agreed to talk. A highly reluctant Erzberger was appointed head of a negotiating team which he assembled hastily: a brigadier general, an upper diplomat, a naval officer, and two translators.

Foch, with cane, and his Compiegne team. 
     The small group drove--yes drove--to the trench lines, reaching the French outposts in darkness on the evening of November 7, and by the middle of the night had been conducted through the desert of the Western Front to a train at Tergnier, south of St. Quentin. The train conveyed the Germans over the thirty miles to the middle of the Forest of Compiègne. A French railway car soon arrived, carrying the Allied Commander-in-Chief, French Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch and British First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Rosslyn Weymyss, and their staffs.
   In the morning, Erzberger and his small group walked to the French railway car. Foch and Weymyss appeared. Foch asked, "What do you want of me?" And the three-day conversation began. Before Erzberger had left Germany, Chancellor Max of Baden had written to Erzberger, "Obtain what mercy you can, Matthias, but for God's sake make peace." This Erzberger proceeded to do, though Foch refused to budge on any issue. Erzberger wired Berlin that the terms were draconian, essentially disarming the German military and providing for Allied occupation of all German territory west of the Rhine. Berlin replied: accept the terms. Erzberger did so, and the Armistice was arranged for November 11, at 11:00 French time. Diplomats from the Allied countries immediately started making arrangements to gather in Paris in January for the peace conference.

     On reflection, as Paul Fussell made clear in his masterpiece, The Great War and Modern Memory, the multi-layered ironies of the conflict created the war's most lasting legacies. And none of the ironies was quite as striking as the fact that those groups of politicians, bureaucrats, generals, and bankers on all sides who created the war and directed it, had had a mortality rate of zero, more or less, at least until the Spanish Flu emerged late in the war to kill with a little less social and demographic selectivity.
      It is fitting to end this short contemplation of November 11, 1918, with a song that emerged from the soldiers who fought the war, performed here in a recent recording by a modern musical organization that thrives on ironies, both present and past, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The performance is a spare and thoughtful rendition of a British soldier's ditty from the war, "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire," a reference to that little-celebrated fate of Great War fighters who made it to the killing zone of the enemy's barbed wire in No Man's Land, only to be killed by the interlocking machine gun fire which everyone knew would be zeroed in on that simple but effective obstacle.

If you want to find the General
I know where he is.
He's pinning another medal on his chest.
I saw him, I saw him,
Pinning another medal on his chest

If you want to find the Colonel
I know where he is.
He's sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut.
I saw him, I saw him,
Sitting in comfort stuffing his bloody gut.

If you want to find the Seargent
I know where he is.
He's drinking all the company rum.
I saw him, I saw him,
Drinking all the company rum.

If you want to find the private
I know where he is.
He's hanging on the old barbed wire.
I saw him, I saw him,
Hanging on the old barbed wire,
Hanging on the old barbed wire.

    Like many soldiers' perceptions, this simplistic view did not tell the whole truth (in most armies, lieutenants died at a higher rate than privates since they led the attacks "over the top," for example) and it did not extend to the political and economic structures which created the war to begin with. The German sailors in Kiel, who had by early November already started the German Revolution of 1918 by carrying out a mutiny at the Kiel naval base, understood only peace. And they called for it in the shorthand expression: "We want Erzberger!" (And a footnote. Matthias Erzberger would pay dearly for his courageous call for peace negotiations and his grim duty in carrying out the first step: he was assassinated by an ultra-nationalist terrorist group in 1921.)
    Yet there was a kernel of truth in the cynical but simplistic perceptions of many Great War soldiers. The personal bravery and the sacrifices on all sides belonged chiefly to the soldiers. The postwar costs would be paid by societies which had had little to do with bringing about the massacres. The victory was in the hands of gentlemen in ornate rooms in the financial and political capitals of the "great powers," the representatives of the modern state, an entity which collectively perceived the results of the war as its own fulfillment. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Total War and the Ludendorff Offensive of 1918

On the Western Front a hundred years ago, a furious and decisive campaign was in progress.  The great German Spring Offensive, often and rightly called the Ludendorff Offensive, was well into the process of launching about three million combat troops against the Allied lines. The Offensive would last from March 21 to July 18, 1918. The combined butcher's bill for both sides in the three-month struggle would amount altogether to over a million and half men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The twin objects of the German assault were  to break the stalemate and end the war. The attack achieved the former, briefly, but its ultimate failure led to the Allied victory.
German Unit during Operation St. Michael
   Significantly, the battle was a product of the total war idea and the omnipotent state that had matured during the war. In 1916, the civilian leadership of Germany invited the successful Eastern Front team of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and his "Quartermaster," General Erich Ludendorff, to take control of the High Command. The two had accepted on the condition that they would be given wide-ranging powers in civilian affairs as well as military. In August 1916, the High Command announced a total war plan dubbed "the Hindenburg Program"--largely shaped by Ludendorff--which introduced "total war" in myriad forms. Economic and industrial intervention became absolute. The state both operated and controlled industrial output, manipulated the economy to focus predominantly on war production. The accelerated the closing of "inessential" firms. Industries--though technically still privately owned--were centralized and conglomerated around favored companies. Inflationary finance was maximized, as were confiscation and other forms wealth transfers to the government.
     Workers lost most of the vestiges of autonomy, being ordered to work where needed. Labor forces were "recruited" in the occupied territories and used as forced labor. Civilian leaders with reservations about the powerful military industrial complex--to borrow a term coined much later--looked on helplessly as a new clique of favored industrialists, high-ranking military staff officers, and enthusiastic bureaucrats intervened at every level of the economy and society. Inflationary policies, government intervention, and the British Blockade caused the price of food and other essentials to soar. The regime sponsored books and pamphlets which extolled the virtues of an extremely low-calorie diet. Accidents and injuries in munitions plants and other factories climbed, as machinery wore out, and as various groups of Germans unaccustomed to factory work found themselves working on production lines. Labor strikes multiplied in factories across Germany, but the regime suppressed them in short order.
     Certainly, even at this late period of the war, German production of shells and other military essentials likewise climbed. But many wondered how long the whole system could last, and they were right to wonder. As Ludwig von Mises demonstrated  in his postwar analysis of the war in Nation, State, and Economy, the remarkable productive capacity of Germany did not result from the command economy, but from the previous structures of capitalism on which the command economy fed (see the "War and Economy" section of this great book, in particular).
General Erich Ludendorff
  The Hindenburg Program and the "silent dictatorship" that ran it would have a huge impact on the world to come. Although historians tend to associate the term "total war" with Hitler and Goebbels ("Wollt Ihr den totalen Krieg?!"), the Third Reich planners would base many of their policies--and to a surprising extent, their military tactics--on the Hindenburg/Ludendorff model. More immediately, in 1917 Lenin looked at the Hindenburg Program admiringly from Switzerland and once in power praised the program as the appropriate model for the Bolshevik state.
   As the executive leader of the High Command, General Ludendorff had originally thought of building up impregnable fronts in the West and elsewhere, to wait for the right moment to negotiate with the weakening Allies. But the whole total war program seemed to energize him. Other factors likewise contributed to his plans for an all out roll of the dice.
    Nineteen Seventeen saw numerous Allied attempts at breakthrough on the Western Front: the Nivelle Offensive centered on the Chemin des Dames area, the British fierce but isolated battles of Vimy Ridge and Messine Ridge, and the slogging and costly campaign at Ypres called Passchendaele. Yet after relentless assaults, a substantial portion of the French army had mutinied during the Nivelle Offensive in the spring, and the Passchendaele battles were, if a technical success, an exhausting drain on the British army. Significantly, British troops also mutinied at the British training base at Etaples in September 1917. A month later, the Bolshevik Revolution touched off the final collapse of the Russian army, with enormous results detrimental to the Allies. Attempting to declare a policy of "no war, no peace," the Bolshevik regime found itself forced to the negotiating table at Brest-Litovsk, signing a peace in early March 1918 which took Russia definitively out of the Entente and resulted in the loss of one third of the European parts of the former Russian Empire.  Most ominously for the Allies, over half a million German troops from the Eastern Front were now freed up to fight on the Western Front.
   In the midst of the slaughters of 1916 and 1917, peace feelers and peace initiatives were floated on many sides, including a plan by the Pope. These trial balloons sometimes accelerated indirect communications among two or three belligerents at a time and numerous neutral powers. Yet by late 1917, the High Command strongly opposed making any concessions to the Allies in exchange for peace. German diplomats still took part in talks, but all discussions stalled on the intransigence of the total war planners, who had already opted to re-start unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.
    The entry of the Americans in April 1917 also contributed to Ludendorff's decision to risk all on one throw of the dice. For one thing, the entry of the United States did much to limit the possibility that the British and French would consider negotiating. Before April 1917, British leadership was increasingly doubtful about the possibility of winning the war outright and was therefore open to some peace feelers. But after American intervention, victory seemed secure enough to ignore most diplomatic initiatives. Contemplating the situation, one British field marshal commented, “with the vast potential supply of men in America there should be no doubt of our winning.” On the American side, Woodrow Wilson had converted from would-be arbitrator of the war to the leader of a belligerent power, and his view was that Prussian-German militarism would only disappear in a total victory. Entente war diplomacy thus no longer needed to consider the possibility of a negotiated peace.
 At the same time on the other side of the Western Front, the corollary to Ludendorff's total war plans was the need for outright, total victory. Hence, once the Americans intervened, Ludendorff and his High Command planners came to see only one path: an all-out assault that would break up the stalemate and win the war if successful. Could German troops be transferred rapidly from the East and organized on the Western Front before the Americans could get troops into the front lines? Ludendorff's staff  looked at the coming race and prepared for an overwhelming breakthrough before substantial American forces could get into the trenches. The Ludendorff Offensive was the result.
  By utilizing most of available manpower and most of available supplies, Ludendorff determined to create five huge assaults, one after the other.  The first one alone (Operation Michael) would involve three German armies comprising something over 800,000 troops. The other four assaults would follow in stages. Each assault represented a "total" effort. In the first five hours of the first wave alone--in the early morning of March 21, 1918--the German artillery fired 1.1 million shells on a forty mile front. “We make a hole,” Ludendorff insisted, “and the rest will take care of itself.”

Tired British Troops Guard Exhausted Captured Germans, 1918
 The obvious flaw in this all-out plan was that if the gamble failed, depleted Germany would face defeat. At one with many of his generation of leaders as a kind of Social-Darwinian Romantic--one might even say Wagnerian--fatalist, Ludendorff staked all on the coming battles. But his reliance on the totality of the state was likewise a piece of his "all or nothing" plan.  In February 1918 Prince Max of Baden asked Ludendorff what would happen if the operation should fail. Ludendorff replied: “In that case Germany will go under.”
     The American presence in the Allied camp altered the dynamic of the war in many ways. Even before American entry, of course, the United States was serving as the banker and auxiliary armory of the Entente. Once in the war, the United States was an enormous financial resource: in its nineteen months at war, the United States would spend 17.1 billion in 1913 dollars on the conflict. This was somewhat below Britain (23 billion) and Germany (almost 20 billion), and more than France and Russia combined. And all of them had been at war since 1914. By means of war production, continued loans, and mobilization of its own version of a "military industrial complex," the most powerful economy in the world represented an enormous material factor.
  But financial and industrial might notwithstanding, the most immediate issue attached to American entry for both sides was, as seen above, American troops. In fact, from the moment John G. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) reached France, he faced enormous pressure from the British and French to send Americans into battle quickly and piecemeal, even as replacements in their own armies. Pershing refused the piecemeal plan of using Americans as British and French replacement troops, though he allowed a limited injection of American companies and regiments with the other Entente armies for the purposes of mastering the routines of Western Front warfare. Some American units fought on the Western front as early as December 1917, but for the most part, the hard-nosed Pershing stood up to British and French demands. Meanwhile, he carried out the task of building the American First Army, but it would not be combat-ready as a unit until late summer 1918.
  So did the AEF make a difference in the total war struggle in the spring of 1918? The answer is yes. The first Spring Offensive German attacks did not reach all their objectives, but they broke through at many points, and indeed came as close as thirty-five miles from Paris. On April 11, the normally phlegmatic British commander on the Western Front, Sir Douglas Haig wrote a "Special Order of the Day" which sounded dire. The order concluded with these famous lines: "There is no other course open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.  The safety of our homes and the Freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."
American Attack, Cantigny, Early Morning, 28th of May, 1918
  With catastrophe looming, Pershing relented. He did not send individual American troops to the British and French, but he sent divisions to plug gaps where needed and provide fresh troops for counterattacking German advances. On May 28, the American First Division counterattacked German salient at Cantigny. The American Third Division linked up with French colonial (Senegalese) troops on their right and regular French troops on their left on May 31, making its stand on the banks of the Marne at the extreme point of the bulge made by the Germans, at Château Thierry, earning its permanent nickname, "The Rock of the Marne." Meanwhile in June, a few miles away from Chateau Thierry, the U.S. Second Division carried out a successful counterattack at Belleau Wood. In these and other sectors of the front, 250,000 American troops arrived at the front during the waves of the Spring Offensive.

British Lewis Gun Team at Hazbrouk, April 1918
 I am not suggesting that the experienced British and French were not doing the majority of fighting on the Allied side, or that, simplistically, American troops won the war on their own. Yet the presence of capable American forces allowed both British and French to concentrate forces at points of greatest need. The Americans were, most importantly, fresh to the battle. In the Marne stand of early June, one observer witnessed a French officer delivering the order to retreat to an American unit just digging in against the German onslaught. The U.S. Marine captain replied: “Retreat, Hell. We just got here!”
By July the German army showed clear signs of  exhaustion. Lack of fuel, supplies and troop replacements hamstrung the tired German divisions. And nearly a half a million troops had been lost by June 6. The Allies, it is true, lost as many--even more--but the mobilization of new troops by the Entente changed the ratios entirely: as Germans troop totals sank, Allied troop totals rose.
   Hence, in the course of July 1918, the momentum on the Western Front shifted to the Allied side. Ludendorff had used up his resources and worn out his divisions. Moreover, the total war state that he had created began to fracture. Successful Allied counterattacks in July led to the "black day of the German army" on August 8 when the British went on the offensive at Amiens and gained eight miles back from the Germans. What followed was a continuous Hundred Days of Allied offensives on much of the front during the last three months of the war. The German army did not break, but by the time rational civilian leaders were able to begin discussing negotiations with the Allies, their negotiating position was nearly non-existent. Ludendorff had been correct about one thing: when the plan failed, Germany "went under." But along the way, the total war thinking of Ludendorff and his planning elite had not only created a model for much worse to come in the twentieth century. In this way and others, the Ludendorff Offensive shaped the modern world.