World at War - M. B. Synge




The Armistice

"No more to watch by night's eternal shore,

With England's chivalry at dawn to ride;

No more defeat, death, victory—O! no more,

A cause on earth for which we might have died."

—SIR HENRY NEWBOLT (PEACE).

The Great War was at an end. The guns were silent at last. The struggle in which 10,000,000 men had laid down their lives had suddenly ceased! The events of the last two months had made this possible. The plight of the Central Powers had been revealed to the world on 15th September, when the great Italian victory had left the Austrians powerless and hopeless. A cry of distress went to the American President pleading for a peace conference. But Wilson had already made known his famous Fourteen Points as a basis for any peace settlement, and he could not accept separate arrangements for Austria.

Ten days later the total collapse of Bulgaria and the abdication of King Ferdinand brought another request for an armistice.

The withdrawal of their one friend and ally in the Balkans made Turkey's surrender inevitable. General Allenby's victorious advance through Syria had played a leading part in the destruction of the Turkish armies.

Meanwhile the "Western Front" was reeling under the hammer-strokes of the Allies.

On 30th September, after the loss of the Hindenburg line, the Germans themselves saw that the war must end.

It was 1st October when Ludendorff sought an interview with the Kaiser. "Is not the new Government formed?" he had cried excitedly.

"I cannot work miracles," the Kaiser had replied.

"It must be formed at once," answered Ludendorff, "for the request for peace must go to-day."

A new Government had been formed under Prince Max of Baden, and a request to President Wilson to restore peace on the basis of the Fourteen Points had been sent.

"Throughout October the wires between Washington and Berlin were working at high pressure."

But so long as Ludendorff was in command, the Kaiser still on the throne, and the armies on the Western Front unbeaten, peace was impossible.

By the first week in November, Germany stood alone; Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Bulgaria had all surrendered. The end was not far off. The crisis was hastened by troubles from within. A mutiny broke out among the sailors of the Grand Fleet, who refused to obey their officers, and the red flag was hoisted on the great warships.

Workers' and Soldiers' Councils were formed, and a very tide of revolt swept over the land. Then came the cry, "Down with the Kaiser," and a cry for immediate peace. On the memorable 9th of November, Berlin workers and soldiers poured into the streets, and a Republic was proclaimed, and the abdication of the Kaiser was demanded.

"With a shivering hand" he signed the deed of abdication, and fled to Holland.

The once great German Empire had ceased to exist. Already the Germans had decided to request an immediate Armistice, and by means of wireless on the night of 6th November they asked General Foch how and where they might get through the line. A spot was selected, and at noon the following day a great blowing of bugles was sounded at the appointed place. The French stopped firing, and a German officer was seen, accompanied by a sergeant, "carrying an enormous white flag," and a bugler blowing loud blasts. He arranged for the reception of peace envoys, and returned. Towards evening the head-lights of motor-cars appeared, preceded by a gang of German navvies repairing the roads before them. The navvies were sent back, but the cars, each bearing a white flag, were admitted. The four officers and their attendants were then blindfolded, transferred to French cars, and taken by train to Compiegne. Next morning they were taken before Marshal Foch; the terms of the Armistice were read to them in his train in a siding in a wood, and they were given seventy-two hours to decide. All night long the Germans discussed the terms. They were severe, but they had no choice. Their armies were already in flight. At 5 o'clock on the morning of Monday, 11th November, the Armistice was signed, and by 11 o'clock the news had spread over the wide world.

[Illustration] from The World at War by M. B. Synge

THE WESTERN FRONT. THE TURN OF THE TIDE.


The British Army had ended their fighting on the Western Front, where it had begun four and a half years before.

Everywhere the news was received with wild delight. The first impulse in London of the huge crowds that stopped work on the fateful day was to go to Buckingham Palace to cheer the King with enthusiastic and deafening cheers, which expressed their long pent-up feelings of joy.

Germany lay heavily burdened by her drastic terms of surrender. They included the immediate evacuation of all her conquered lands and a withdrawal behind the Rhine; the return of all the Allies' prisoners of war; the surrender of thousands of guns, engines, aeroplanes, submarines, and the main ships of the German Fleet.

The surrender of the Grand Fleet was not delayed. On 15th November, the Rear-Admiral of the German Naval High Command crossed the North Sea in the cruiser Konigsberg to arrange with Admiral Beatty on the flagship Queen Elizabeth  for the surrender of the Fleet. Escorted by a squadron of light cruisers, he entered the Firth of Forth, and steamed between the great ships of the British Grand Fleet to where the Queen Elizabeth lay at anchor. On board the great battleship conqueror and conquered made all arrangements for carrying out the terms of the Armistice.

A few days later the first contingent of German submarines was surrendered at Harwich. The scene was a solemn one. In the still dawn of the autumn, with the moon still lingering over the grey waters of the North Sea, one by one they stole out of the mist—their crews standing motionless on deck. Then each officer in charge formally handed up his papers and the design of the ship, and the British ensign was hoisted. It was a bitter humiliation, and one by one the commanders utterly broke down.

The following day the final and most impressive act of the naval drama took place in the Firth of Forth. It was an imposing sight as some 240 ships of the British High Seas Fleet put to sea soon after midnight to meet the great German battleships coming to the shores of Britain. There were five British battle squadrons of Dreadnoughts and super-Dreadnoughts, including Sir David Beatty's flagship the Queen Elizabeth;  two squadrons of battle cruisers, bearing names already rendered famous—the Lion, Tiger, Australia, New Zealand, Indomitable, and Inflexible;  six squadrons of light cruisers, and 160 destroyers. French and American ships were there too; all decks were cleared for action in case of trouble. Overhead flew airships and seaplanes.

It was 9:30 when the great moment arrived and the enemy Fleet hove in sight, and began to steam slowly between the two lines of the British Fleet. After four battle cruisers came nine large battleships, led by the Admiral's flag-ship, Friedrich der Grosse, followed by light cruisers and destroyers. It was noted that the sun suddenly burst out, and made a path of dazzling ripple between the two Fleets. Not a cheer rent the silent air as the procession of great ships made their way to the Firth of Forth, led by the Queen Elizabeth.

At noon the famous signal was hoisted from the flagship. "The German flag will be lowered at sunset, and will not be hoisted again without permission."

Then, and not till then, from every British battleship rose a very thunder of cheering, while Admiral Beatty stood on his bridge saluting.

At sunset the German ships lay at anchor, powerless in the grip of the conqueror. As a bugle rang out, the German ensign was lowered, never to be hoisted again.

The sequel must also be told.

The ships were interned at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. There they remained till 21st June 1919. When it became known that a Treaty was about to be signed, and the German navy given over to the Allies, then the ships were sunk by their crews as they lay at anchor interned at Scapa Flow.

"It would have been painful for our good ships to come under the enemy flag, and this humiliating and painful sight is spared us by the brave deeds of our sailors in Scapa Flow. The sinking of the ships has proved that the spirit of the Fleet is not dead. It was done at my suggestion," added a German naval officer, "and I feel sure that in similar circumstances every English sailor would have done the same."