A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we recalled how the Allied powers exploited a series of captured German documents in 1914 to launch a series of offensives that would eventually pave the way for the invasion of Germany three years later. In this chapter we’ll continue with our account of the Allied drive towards Berlin and examine the political strain the offensive placed on Kaiser Wilhelm II’s regime.
As the Allied armies drew ever closer to Berlin, the German antiwar movement became increasingly more bold in its defiance of the Kaiser. In nearly every sector of Germany not under Allied occupation, prisons were stuffed to the gills with objectors to Wilhelm’s war; a resolution calling for Kaiser Wilhelm to open cease-fire negotiations with the Allied powers was gathering momentum in the Reichstag; and even some elements of the Imperial German Army were starting to exhibit signs of insubordination.
Though the Russian Marxist movement might have been in tatters just then, its German counterpart was starting to enjoy something of a resurgence among the working classes thanks in part to its deft exploitation of popular discontent in regard to the Second Reich’s losing battle against the Allies. Spartacist League co-founders Karl Liebknicht and Rosa Luxembourg were among the most influential figures in Germany’s peace movement, a somewhat ironic position for them to occupy give the League’s ardent advocacy of overthrowing the government by armed revolution. There was seldom a day when Liebknicht or Luxembourg weren’t delivering a streetcorner speech urging their fellow Germans to kick Kaiser Wilhelm II off the throne for the sake of peace.
Other leftist parties, though less radical than the Spartacists, agreed that Wilhelm should abdicate or at least give his chancellor more leeway to conclude a cease-fire agreement with the governments of the Allied powers. There was also considerable support among the moderate elements of the Reichstag for a negotiated peace with the Allies; those politicians who still unreservedly supported the war were mostly among the hardcore sectors of the right-- and even there one could hear vague rumblings of discontent as the British, French, American, and Russian armies continued to press home their advance on Berlin...
Any hope the Central Powers might have cherished of retaining control of Vienna vanished on October 10th, 1917 when Austria’s King Charles I was overthrown in an uprising launched by dissident Austrian officers tired of continuing to fight a futile war against an enemy whose strength and numbers were growing beyond the Austro- Hungarian Empire’s ability to keep up. The new government quickly made a separate peace with the Allies and ordered all its troops still on foreign soil to come home at once; Kaiser Wilhelm became so enraged at the news of the coup d’etat that he nearly died from an aneurysm. As it was, Wilhelm spent a week confined to his bed, ranting and raving about how his brother monarch had been "betrayed" by his own countrymen.
Beneath this anger ran an undercurrent of fear that Wilhelm’s own generals might follow in the Austrian rebels’ footsteps. And to be sure, some men in the Imperial German Army high command secretly resented the Kaiser for what he’d done to von Falkenhayn; however, the loyalty oaths the generals had taken to the Reich helped dampen any impulse towards rebellion.
The October revolution in Austria had consequences far beyond simply overthrowing the Austrian monarchy and taking Austria out of the war. On October 20th, 1917 the new Vienna government, which had dissolved the old Austro-Hungarian Empire shortly after assuming power, became the first foreign administration to recognize a new independent state of Hungary; six days later the Balkan nations of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia united to form the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.1 Almost simultaneously Germany’s last remaining ally in continental Europe, Bulgaria, suffered a crippling defeat when its attempt to invade its southern neighbor Greece was turned back by the Greek army with such severe casualties that the Bulgarian army almost ceased to exist.
On November 5th, 1917, as the battered and minute fragments of the Bulgarian army were retreating to their home soil in the wake of the catastrophic failure of the attempted invasion of Greece, the AEF earned its most significant victory of the war, capturing the historic city of Hamburg in a ferocious three-pronged assault that overwhelmed the city’s tired and half-starved defenders. By an interesting historical coincidence, two US Army officers who would one day occupy the Oval Office then belonging to Woodrow Wilson were involved in the attack on Hamburg: Dwight Eisenhower, a lieutenant from Kansas who’d graduated from West Point shortly before the United States entered the First World War, and Harry S. Truman, an artillery captain from Missouri who had unsuccessfully invest in oil and mining stocks before going into the Army.
Eisenhower had been running the Army’s tank training program before he was transferred to the Western Front; now he was helping United States Tank Corps commander George S. Patton execute the first major offensive in the Corps’ brief history-- and Eisenhower rose to the challenge admirably, personally directing one tank squad in a diversionary offensive that kept German troops looking in the wrong direction until the Allies had Hamburg by the throat.Truman played a smaller but equally vital part in the American victory at Hamburg when his battalion provided cover fire for an infantry charge against one of the weaker sectors of the German eastern flank at Hamburg. This charge punched a sizable hole in the German lines, allowing additional American forces and French reserve troops to enter the city and neutralize the rest of its defenders. For his actions, Truman would be awarded the Silver Star and would leave the US Army with the rank of major in 1918.
The fall of Hamburg was more than just a military defeat for the Second Reich; it also constituted a major catalyst for the chain of events that led to the Reich’s final collapse. Antiwar protests in Germany rose to a fever pitch; even some of those people who still supported the war wondered if perhaps the time hadn’t come for the Kaiser to abdicate. Three days after Hamburg was captured, the newspaper Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung printed an editorial urging Wilhelm to step down "for the common good of the German people", something he took as a personal insult at best and borderline treason at worst. He summoned the paper’s editor to his palace and demanded an immediate apology; the editor, however, stuck to his guns and told the Kaiser in no uncertain terms that as far as he and most of his readers were concerned, the time had come to end not only the war with the Allied nations but also Wilhelm’s tenure as ruler of Germany.
Many prospective recruits to the Imperial German Army apparently shared the editor’s sentiments on that score. Draft-dodging, which had once had been considered unthinkable by good Germans, had almost become a national pastime in Germany; an increasing number of young men were adopting the philosophy that life as a fugitive was better than death as a sacrificial lamb for the Kaiser’s injured pride. For some of those already in the army, finding ways to avoid front-line duty had started to become a full-time occupation; desertions and incidents of mutiny were piling up almost as fast as the casualties on the battlefield.
In an attempt to preserve his army’s crumbling discipline, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered the establishment of so-called "honor courts" to mete out severe punishments for even the most trivial offenses. This move backfired to the tenth power-- the verdicts handed down by such courts added fresh fuel to the already raging fires of resentment burning in the hearts of many German soldiers and drove some junior officers who’d heretofore been unquestioningly loyal to the Reich to contemplate insurrection against Kaiser Wilhelm.
At least one of these officers went beyond just contemplation: on November 15th, 1917 an infantry captain named Karl Johannes Peritzky was arrested after trying to persuade his company to join him in an ill-conceived plan to march on Berlin and attack the Kaiser’s palace in hopes of sparking a rebellion in Germany. To this day it still isn’t known who leaked Peritzky’s intentions to the Imperial Army high command, but the Kaiser’s reaction to the captain’s attempt at insurrection is a matter of public record-- within hours after he was informed of the arrest, Wilhelm took a Luger pistol and went to Peritzky’s cell to personally execute the captain. In Wilhelm’s eyes Peritzky, who twice had received the Iron Cross for heroism under fire, was guilty of treason against king and country.
The response of the German masses, on the other hand, was a bit more mixed. Some of them shared the Kaiser’s fury over Peritzky’s actions, but a surprisingly large number of them were sympathetic to the infantry captain, feeling he’d been pushed over the edge by Wilhelm’s continuing refusal to negotiate peace with the Allies. Rosa Luxembourg in particular saw Peritzky as a martyr to the Kaiser’s bloodlust; in the days immediately after the captain’s execution, she prominently displayed his picture at her antiwar speeches and invoked his name often in calls for German soldiers to join her in rising up against the Imperial regime.
Those calls fell on increasingly receptive ears; with German casualties on all fronts continuing to mount, even the most devout stalwart of the Second Reich found it more and more difficult to motivate himself to keep fighting. In the east the Russian advance, after being temporarily stalled by heavy autumn rains, had resumed with a vengeance; in the west British, American, and French troops were capitalizing on the gains of previous offensives with a three- pronged thrust into the Saxony-Anhalt region; and in the south, the Italians were on the verge of breaching the German border.
On November 26th, 1917 Russian cavalry reached the outskirts of the East Prussian port of Danzig, sending Berlin’s citizens into a panic. The Reich’s sacred capital, they feared, was in danger of being sacked just as the Turks had done to Constantinople in 1453. Leipzig, which had the supreme misfortune to be a major objective for both the Russian and Italian armies, was the scene of bloody riots when Imperial troops tried to suppress a peace march at which some of Germany’s most prominent Catholic and Protestant clerics called for "swift and total regime change"2 before it was too late for Germany to secure a just peace.
In the aftermath of the Leipzig riots, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s mental state took a sharp and permanent turn for the worse; the shock of the riots, combined with the subsequent news of Danzig’s fall to the Russians on December 4th, severed most of Wilhelm’s links to sanity and forced his chancellor Georg Michaelis to gradually assume more and more of the burdens of state from the Kaiser. By now the German army was almost entirely on the defensive and the German navy was losing vessels at a catastrophic rate, leaving Michaelis as captain of a badly foundering ship of state. Anxious to keep Berlin from coming under attack, either by the Allies or mutinous elements of his own army, Michaelis instructed his foreign minister to quietly sound out the Allied powers, through neutral third-party channels in Stockholm and Geneva, about the possibility of negotiating a cease-fire.
Michaelis’ efforts to broker a peace took on added urgency when a mutiny broke out at the Imperial Army garrison in Dresden on the afternoon of December 8th, 1917. What made this insurrection stand out from previous such events in the Great War was not merely the number of men killed or wounded(total casualties from the mutiny approached 500), but also the stark detail that a senior officer was involved, a decorated lieutenant colonel in the artillery who’d lost faith not only in the Reich’s war policies but in the very idea of the Reich itself. Against his own personal inclinations, and in the interest of averting a civil war in Germany, Michaelis had to send Reichswehr reserve troops to restore order in Dresden.
The reservists marched into Dresden on December 10th and were quickly met with stiff opposition by the mutineers. Government troops and rebel forces alike took heavy losses as they struggled for control of the city, and the number of civilian deaths incurred in the course of this skirmish was such that it would be the cause of a national scandal in Germany when the full story of the Dresden uprising finally came to light after the war. The mutineers fought tenaciously, but by dawn on December 11th it was clear that their rebellion was doomed to failure; at 11:30 AM the surviving rebels surrendered.
By this time even some members of the Imperial General Staff were giving voice to long-stifled criticisms of how the Kaiser had handled-- or, as his domestic foes saw it, mishandled --the war with the Allied powers. In the streets of Berlin, anti-government rallies now regularly drew tens of thousands; in Kiel, sailors flatly refused to put to sea even when their officers threatened them with court-martial; in Munich pro-Italian elements openly called for the Kaiser’s overthrow and the formation of a German-Italian alliance.
However, there was one ray of light amidst the gloom for the Michaelis government; on December 15th he received a telegram from the German embassy in Stockholm that the Allied powers had agreed to commence cease-fire discussions with Germany as soon as the two parties could decide on a mutually acceptable time and place for the start of those discussions. Michaelis responded by instructing the Stockholm embassy to send a reply telegram to the British, US, French, and Italian governments suggesting that the initial meeting be held no later than December 19th. This date was quickly assented to by the Allies, and after consultations with the Swiss and Swedish governments it was decided that the first meeting between German and Allied diplomats should be convened in Zurich.
As part of the stipulations for beginning peace negotiations, German and Allied forces on the Western Front instituted a temporary cease-fire at noon London time on December 18th, 1917; half an hour later a similar cease-fire went into effect on the Eastern Front. All over the world, people anxiously waited to see what if anything the diplomats in Zurich could accomplish. Nowhere was the hope for an end to the war greater than in Germany, where the martial spirit of 1914 had long since been drowned in rivers of needlessly spilled blood and millions of ordinary German citizens-- not to mention most German soldiers --simply wanted the slaughter to stop...
To Be Continued
1Bosnia would be admitted to the kingdom in early November.
2Quoted from a leaflet being distributed by the protestors just before the riots broke out.