The defeat of Germany
By early 1917 it had become clear that neither side was in a position where it could win the war. At the same time, it seemed very unlikely that either side would be defeated. The deadlock was broken by the declaration of war by the USA in April 1917. Until 1916 the US government adopted an anti-war stance. President Woodrow Wilson spoke many times against US involvement. Nevertheless, by 1917 the USA had lent large sums of money to Britain and France, £850,000,000 to Britain alone. This would be lost if Germany won. There was also increasing sympathy in the USA for Britain and France, as democratic countries.
In March 1917, after Germany had begun unrestricted U-boat warfare, four US ships were sunk by German U-boats. The British government then handed the Zimmermann Telegram to the US government. This had been intercepted by British agents. It invited Mexico to attack the USA if war broke out with Germany. It also offered German support to Mexico in recovering the territory lost to the USA in the nineteenth century. It was a ridiculous scheme, but it angered the Americans. Woodrow Wilson could not now stay out of the war any longer. In April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany.
The most important effect of the US declaration of war was that it convinced the German High Command of the need to win the war quickly. The repeated attacks in April, May and June 1918 were in an effort to finish the war before US forces arrived in Europe in large numbers. In fact they had the effect of exhausting the German soldiers, which made final defeat all the more certain.
German strategy was influenced by the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917. Lenin accepted the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 and this released many of the German soldiers serving on the Eastern front. This allowed the Germans to move 1,000,000 men from the Eastern Front to France. In fact these troops proved to be of doubtful value when they arrived in the west. Many had had little battle experience in the previous two years, and they were unprepared for the ferocity of the fighting on the Western Front.
On 21 March 1918 the Germans launched a massive surprise attack (Operation Michael) on the Allied forces at St. Quentin. They used a short barrage and specially trained shock troops. The Allies were taken completely off their guard. The Germans were trying to bring the war to an end before any US forces arrived in Europe. In one place the Allied forces were driven back fifty-three miles. By the end of May the Germans were only thirty-seven miles from Paris.
But the Germans failed to drive a wedge between the French and British forces, which had been their main intention. The line held and in June US troops reinforced the Allies.
US forces did not arrive in Europe until the spring of 1918. After halting the German advance in June they played an important part in the second battle of the Marne in June and the subsequent battles in September and October. Altogether about 1,250,000 US soldiers served in Europe, they showed immense bravery, but were not prepared for the dangers of modern warfare; their casualty rate was very high.
The commander of the US forces, General Pershing, generously allowed his troops to be used wherever they were needed, provided they were kept as one united force. This gave Marshal Foch, the Allied commander, reinforcements which he could use as he wished.
Operation Michael ground to a halt in June 1918. For two months the front was stable once again, but now the Allies had several major advantages. More and more US troops were arriving in Europe and the Germans had advanced beyond their defensive lines. They were now in much more exposed positions. So on 8 August, the Allies attacked near Amiens, it was called the 'Black Day' by the German High Command. The German army collapsed all along the front.
From August until the end of October the Allies advanced steadily. It became more and more obvious that Germany was on the brink of disaster. Even so the German High Command still refused to agree to peace talks. There were informal peace talks between the Germans and the Allies in October and early November, but while Hindenburg favoured an armistice, Ludendorff opposed it and claimed that the army could hold out until the spring of 1919. Eventually, on 7-8 November, the Socialists seized power in Berlin and immediately asked for an Armistice. Germany surrendered unconditionally at 11 am on 11 November 1918.
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