1918- 1919 in Context

 Ellen: ‘We need some inspiration. We need some hope. We need to feel that the end is in sight. I don’t feel any of those things at the moment. It’s as if there is nothing that anybody can do except offer up our children to the guns. Where is the purpose? We say that we want to defeat the Germans and we do. But what are we really trying to achieve in all of this?’  (‘Two Trees’ – Chapter Two)

Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel, France (photo: GJG)

At the start of 1918, there was no guarantee that the Western Front would see a decisive conclusion to the First World War.  The Allied forces were bolstered by the arrival of the Americans but Germany was able to move troops from the Eastern Front following the collapse of Russia in 1917. However, the German High Command knew that the domestic situation in Germany itself was deteriorating rapidly. The Allied naval blockade in the North Sea meant that the German economy was denied vital resources and food was becoming increasingly scarce. The launch of the German Spring Offensive in March 1918 secured spectacular progress in the light of stagnant trench warfare that had dominated the Western Front since the end of 1914. However, the German blitzkrieg strategy was a huge gamble that eventually failed. In the summer of 1918, the Allies started a counter-attack that increasingly began to roll back the enemy positions leading to the capture of the heavily defended German Hindenburg Line.

The centre of Arras, La Grand Place, c1917 – in the streets of Arras barricades and barbed wire fences were erected as a precaution against a future German offensive (Source: ‘Somewhere on the Western Front Arras 1914-1918’ Documents d’Archeologie et d’Histoire du XX Siecle-No 8)

Arras was a vital strategic position in Northern France and had witnessed heavy fighting in 1917. Beneath its shattered streets lay a series of caves and tunnels that were fully utilised by the Allies as barracks, hospital facilities and communication links. It became one of the key bases from which Allied troops began to attack the Hindenburg Line to the east. Trench warfare gave way to more open conflict from August 1918 and in ferocious fighting the Hindenburg Line was captured. There were considerable casualties and many troops from both sides were taken prisoner. Allied prisoners of war found German camps very challenging, largely due to the lack of food behind enemy lines.

By November 1918, the situation in Germany itself was collapsing and revolution broke out in a number of places including Berlin. Many parts of the country were under effective military rule. The German High Command realised that the chances of winning the war were fading rapidly but they needed to secure an armistice before Germany itself was invaded and before the German people blamed an Allied occupation of their country on the military. Kaiser William II was obliged to abdicate on 9th November and the High Command agreed to a ceasefire on 11th November, believing that any peace negotiations would include Germany and that the President of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, would utilise his principles of a lasting settlement based on his 14 Points. At the time of the Armistice, Germany still occupied large parts of Belgium and parts of Northern France.

Vimy Ridge Memorial, France (photo: GJG)

Britain itself found 1918 to be a very challenging year. Although the Allied generals had learned many strategic lessons from the previous two years on the Somme (1916) and at Passchendaele (1917), many of their experienced officers and troops had been lost or taken prisoner. However, there was a determination to hang on until the American troops provided a real advantage but the Spring Offensive launched by the Germans in March 1918 tested resolve, as many Allied gains on the Western Front of the previous year were rapidly lost.

 In Britain life was becoming more difficult. Conscription had been introduced in 1916 and David Lloyd George had replaced Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in December of the same year. From 1917 Lloyd George was faced with a deteriorating domestic situation as German U Boat warfare, especially in the Atlantic, denied Britain valuable food supplies. The Prime Minister insisted that the convoy system be set up but this could not prevent increasing levels of rationing from being introduced; more foodstuffs were in short supply as 1918 unfolded.

War Memorial, Leper/Ypres (photo: GJG)

By 1918 Britain was in a state of total war, with every economic activity geared towards the war effort. The government played an increasingly direct role in industry, food production and communications. Many women were employed in the munitions factories for the duration of the war and women volunteered as Voluntary Aid Detachments (e.g. nurses and ambulance drivers) as well as joining the Land Army. However, the health of the nation was poor and by the autumn of 1918, thousands fell victim to the Spanish flu pandemic.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, France (photo: GJG))

 The Armistice was greeted with wild enthusiasm in Britain and it was hoped that 1919 would see the country provide homes ‘fit for heroes‘. This was far from the case. As troops and former prisoners of war attempted to rehabilitate themselves into domestic society, they found little official support and help. In Germany, the returning troops were greeted with great enthusiasm and many found it difficult to accept that their country had lost the war. When the new German republican government was obliged to accept the Versailles Treaty in June 1919, there was widespread shock at the vindictive terms that the Allies had imposed on them and the future of the country was very uncertain. The German economy had virtually collapsed, food was short and the population also fell victim to the Spanish flu pandemic.

The two years of 1918 and 1919 set the foundation for the difficult history of all European countries and international relations for the next two generations. In this vital period the seeds of many of the conflicts of the 20th century were sown. Those troops that survived the Western Front came to hate the war as much as they hated their enemies. There was a genuine hope that the disasters of 1914 to 1919 would be the war to end all wars and it was not surprising that pacifism grew in the 1920s. 

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Leper/Ypres, Belgium (photo: GJG)

 In ‘Two Trees’, Sarah’s anti-German attitude was widely shared in Britain. However, John and Frank Muller would have been deeply saddened at the prospect of another struggle between Britain and Germany over the idea of revenge. Yet the character of Henry Bailey foresees the folly of the Allied thinking behind the Versailles Treaty. Across Europe, left wing politics grew in the post war period but a stubborn right wing element survived. This was especially so in Austria and parts of Germany; this faction sought revenge when the time was right. Sadly, Bailey’s gloomy forecasts were proved correct and the sacrifices of John and Frank’s generation were cast aside in the autumn of 1939 when a veteran of the Western Front, namely Adolf Hitler, led Germany and Europe back to the killing fields.

“The Grieving Parents’ sculptured by Kathe Kollwitz in the 1930’s as a tribute to her youngest son Peter who was killed in October 1914 and subsequently buried in Vladslo German Cemetery, Dicksmuide, Belgium where the statues are now located (photo: GJG)
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