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Petain’s Panic


How the Germans Might Have Won the Great War by Default

By Kyle Schuant. Melbourne, 2002

The passage of time often casts a false romantic glow over war.

Men forget the cruelty and suffering that it brings to the innocent.

Every war shames the human race and is yet another monument to his ignorance, his greed, and folly

-          Winston Churchill

"Gentlemen, you will regret this."

-          The Kaiser of Germany to the general staff on the decision to mobilize

"After the almost-success of the March 1918 German offensive, Marshal Petain resigns, and the French cabinet puts out peace feelers to the Germans. News of this leaks out, ruining morale, and leading to French seeking armistice terms, which the Germans accept. In OTL, the reverse occurred, shattering morale in the German ranks, and among the people, leading to revolution and German capitulation."

The essence here is that most defeats aren't physical defeats. It's not like Command And Conquer game, where the enemy is defeated when his last soldier is blown to hell. Most nations reach a psychological limit long before they reach a physical limit.

A good example is the recent movie, "Black Hawk Down." The Somalis brought the US to battle, and killed 18 of their soldiers, wounding five times as many. In terms of the battle, the US won: it held the ground, and inflicted at least thirty times the casualties it received.

But in terms of the war, it lost. Those casualties caused the US to get out of Somalia. By receiving any casualties at all, the US felt defeated. If you feel defeated, you are.


In WWI, in 1917-18, all combatants, save for the US, were reaching the end of their psychological tethers. They'd suffered millions of dead. Britain's military expenditures had gone up twenty fold from 1913; from 91 million, to 1,800 millions of pounds. This was over half is gross domestic product. Rationing had been instituted in Britain for the general populace, German air raids occurred across coastal Britain, the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1917 had been put down with much bloodshed.

Revolution occurred in Russia, Italy was near collapse, the bulk of the French army had mutinied - a frontline division even boarded trains for Paris, but got shot up by an Algerian division, and surrendered. Roumania had been conquered by Germany, Serbia had been overrun by Austria-Hungary, the entire Serbian Army deporting to Italy. In March 1918, Russia signed a peace treaty with the Germans, granting the Germans: Poland, Ukraine, Bessarabia, Estonia, Latvia Finland and Lithuania.

Then in April 1918 came the German offensive. Rejecting the British approach of using tanks to break the trench deadlock, the Germans used Sturmtruppen, small groups of men, with grenades, flamethrowers, and so on. They would infiltrate the line, breaking through weak points. This brought the Germans to within 37 miles of Paris. British General Haig made his famous “backs to the wall,” speech, and the Allies appointed Marshal Foch as General-in-Chief Allied Armies in France; there had never been a single commander before.

Point of Divergence: April, 1918.


April – June 1918; Springtime for Deutschereich
As the German armies assault to within 37 miles of Paris, Petain, the hero of Verdun, long in favour of the defensive war, goes to President Poincare, and Premier and War Minister Clemenceau, and tells then, “we cannot conquer Germany. They will be in Paris within 3 weeks.” The Cabinet debate back and forth, Foch calling on them to fight on, even if Paris is lost, and while they argue, Petain points out that three-quarters France’s arms production is in Paris environs; if that is lost, they will be unable to fight on. The Russians are out of the war, having surrendered the Ukraine, Poland, Finland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic. The British blockade of  Germany, designed to starve them into submission, looks more futile with the grain of the Ukraine now available to Germany. With the Americans still months away in force, and the British well over a year into rationing, losing 20,000 tons a day of shipping, France’s position looks hopeless. Some point out that they’ll be able to fight on from the rest of France, with American help. The thought of having their capital liberated by Americans is more than “the Tiger” Clemenceau can bear! He is in a quandry, and then comes forth the personal rivalry between he and Poincare, breaking up the meeting in farce as fists fly.

Poincare instructs Foreign Minister Pinchon to discreetly ask through the Swedes, for an Armistice with the Germans.

Within days, news of this leaks out, and strikes occur across France, particularly in armaments factories. Mutinies break out on the front, soldiers refusing to “go over the top” when “when peace is only days away!”

Pinchon, with the added pressure of the French near collapse due to cabinet-induced defeatism, asks for the armistice and, despite British and USA protests, on May 5th at 5am (on the fifth hour of the fifth day of the fifth month). The British Army fights on with the Belgians for another three weeks, until the Germans agree to withdraw from Belgium.

Churchill spoke of Britain’s aims in the Luxembourg negotiations:

"The aim," he said , "is to get an appeasement of the fearful hatreds and antagonisms which exist in Europe to enable the world to settle down.” Britain's role should be, "the ally of France and the friend of Germany,” and to help to mitigate "the frightful rancour,  fear and hatred between the two countries,” for these hatreds would "most certainly fester and within a generation and bring about a renewal of the struggle which has only just ended.”

At first the negotiations stalled over the questions of German colonies, Alsace-Lorraine, and Belgium. The British also demand that Germany surrender its Navy. The Germans decided to offer the French some slice of Alsace-Lorraine, to withdraw from Belgium, and to give up on overseas colonies. The Kaiser is, naturally, horrified by all this, but Ludendorff and Hindenburg inform him that Germany, if it fights on, will be defeated in a year, and lose the eastern territories, also. Perhaps they’ll even have to pay the British and French war debts to the Americans for them. With the choice between that, and giving up Lorraine… Hindenburg and Ludendorff think it’s a good deal. Besides which, they offer their resignations, should the Kaiser not accept it.  

The Peace Treaty, negotiated at Luxembourg, June 1918, establishes the post-War order:

  • Belgium to retain its independence
  • Serbia-Montenegro and Roumania to become provinces of Austria-Hungary, with a status equal to that of Croatia. Italy cedes to Austria-Hungary, Veneto province. (The Austrians and Germans had overrun these areas anyway, and I don’t see the British continuing the war just for the sake of Roumania, or Veneto; the Italians, Serbs and Roumanians aren’t in a position to argue.)
  • Lithuania to be incorporated into Germany.
  • Germany to retain Alsace, France to receive Lorraine. Exchange of populations to take place over next few years.
  • Ukraine, Poland (rather a rump Poland), Finland, Estonia and Latvia to be independent nations in the “sphere of influence” of Germany. All acquire German princes as constitutional monarchs; all are allied to the Reich.
  • All the new nations are to become part of the Greater German Customs Union; a sort of German-dominated EEC. France to be an “associate member” of the Union. All new nations will have German garrisons.
  • Germany renounces claims to its colonies overseas (necessary for peace with Britain). German East Africa remains the “protectorate” of Germany, with the understanding that British and French commerical interests shall have a free hand there, and that Britain may pass its “Cape to Cairo Railway” through there.

The Turks remain at war with the Allies, as does Bulgaria. Civil war between the Reds and the Whites rages in Russia. Trotsky and Lenin are accused of “selling out to the Germans!”

July- September 1918; Summer for Deutschereich

The French and the British begin demobilising large parts of their armies. They send a force to Murmansk and Archangelsk to assist the Whites in the Russian Civil War, but general war weariness prevents them from sending more than a few divisions.

The British continue their war against the Turks, and take Damascus in September. There are advances along the Salonika Front towards Constantinople. The Sultan is toppled, and the Young Turks, under Kemal Ataturk, seize power. The Turks, and the Bulgars, sign an Armistice on September 3rd.

The war is over.

American troops return home to mixed response. Woodrow Wilson proclaims it a victory, since they defended the French Republic and kept it free, “only our presence prevented a complete French collapse and surrender.” Others regard it as a shameful waste, since so many men went so far, and didn’t fight (no Belleau Wood, June 1918 in OTL).

October – December 1918; Autumn of Europe

Germany demobilises much of its armies, but retains many to garrison the Union nations. The White Russians are given good support from a German base in the Ukraine and Baltic. The Bolshevik capital is moved from Petrograd to Moscow.

In France, the government of Clemenceau falls, and is replaced by that of Marshal Foch, called on to become Premier of France by President Poincare.

Across Europe, Spanish Influenza becomes a destructive epidemic, spread by soldiers returning home (in OTL, this happened mid-1919)

January – March 1919; the Black Winter for Europe

The war took Frenchmen, Germans and Russians from the land. Largely ignoring food production to concentrate on armaments, crops have been left to rot in the fields over the Summer of 1918. It won’t be till March that they can plant again, and June until they harvest. The French, British and Italians receive some grain from the Americans, increasing their war debts. The Germans don’t, and while they release the Tsar’s prisoners of war from the areas they now rule, to return to the lands and farm them, it won’t be until June that Germany and Eastern Europe sees some relief.

Starvation plus the Spanish Influenza kills several millions over the Winter of  1918-19 (in OTL, Spanish Influenza alone killed twice the people the war had; 21 million, versus 10 million. Add in a lack of US aid to a defeated Germany, and the casualties would be far worse). On the plus side, the enormous reserves of coal and oil, set aside for navies and railway supply cars, are now no longer needed. After the demobilisation on the Western Front, there is plenty of fuel for heating.

British troops remain in Belgium, and British support ensures that German pressure for Belgium to join their Greater German Customs Union is rebuffed. The Netherlands, already by virtue of the war (British blockade and German unrestricted submarine warfare) more tied to the German economy, makes its own arrangements with both Germany and Britain.

Ludendorff, drawing on his experience as Quartermaster General, is called upon by Kaiser Wilhelm II to become Minister for Works; to organise Germany’s new empire, for efficient production.

April – June 1919; the Winter Becomes a Prison in the Union

Ludendorff organises labour within the Union nations. All non-Germans are subject to the Land Army Decree, being directed where to work. Hundreds of thousands are shipped or railed off to farms, factories; this amounts to forced labour for Slavs. With Germans still starving, Ludendorff institutes a tiered ration system, whereby Germans get twice the rations of non-Germans. With discontent over the huge cost of the war, and its continuing effects, there are strikes, and demonstrations in the German cities. Communist agitators call for the abdication of the Kaiser. It’s vital, the Kaiser decides, to ensure there be no Revolution in Germany. The people should be as well fed as possible.

Nonetheless, throughout the Spring, strikes and civil disturbances continue in Germany. In the eastern Union lands, Bolshevik agents organise strikes, assassinations of people collaborating with the Germans – a continuation of the “Red Terror,” now extant in Civil War Russia. “The peasants will be drawn into the struggle,” Bukharin told Lenin, “when they see, hear and know that their land, boots and grain are being taken from them.”

The White Russians under Kornilov, holding to a more traditional military doctrine, and using prodigious German help, occupy Petrograd in June 1919. Trotsky flees, and joins Bukharin in Moscow.

July 1919 – September 1919

In Germany, though the Spanish Influenza continues, there is at last some relief from starvation. As the crops do not yield as much as hoped, famine continues in the eastern Union. The general German policy becomes to look after the Baltic lands first, and Poland and the Ukraine last. This comes from traditional military considerations of defending cities, rather than croplands.

With the closing of so many armaments factories, the demobilising of armies, there is unemployment in German cities. Due to this, and the unrest it may cause, Ludendorff extends the Land Army Decree to Germans.

Popular agitation against the new Polish King (a German Prince who speaks not a word of Polish), leads to the Germans allowing the establishment of a Republic there, under Pilsudski. They do consider brutally crushing it, but fear this may set a precedent; it would be incovenient to have to brutally crush the entire Union.

With Petrograd as a base, the White Russians hope to receive more support from the Allies. The Allies, however, are unenthusiastic. Nonetheless, the White Russians hold their own against the Bolsheviks. (In OTL, about this time the Germans released the last 500,000 of their Russian prisoners of war. These men were forced to fight in the Bolshevik armies, actually against British troops in Murmansk, who were trying to keep the supply lines open to the Whites. Churchill at the time referred to this as, “This is one of the capital blunders in the history of the world". )

October – December 1919

In Berlin, at a protest, some protestors, former soldiers complaining about the Land Army Decree forcing them to do “unsuitable work far from home,” are shot. Within days, a general strike grips the country. With protests from the Reichstag itself, Wilhelm II abdicates in favour of his son, who accepts the Reichstag’s demand for a constitutional monarchy. However, Kaiser Wilhelm III insists on retaining the power to appoint Chancellors, the Cabinet, and direct foreign and military policy. In December, Hindenburg is appointed Chancellor, Ludendorff remaining Minister for Works.

Kaiser Wilhelm III was born in 1882, and served as commander of the German 5th Army on the Western Front, including at Verdun, where he faced General Petain. In 1916 he had tried to persuade then Chancellor Hollweg to sue for peace, so as to end what he regarded as a senseless war; this was, perhaps, his reaction to Verdun, where the German Army – the part he commanded – took some 400,000 casualties. He had also won the victory at the Aisne, which we have seen was key to convincing General Petain to sue for peace. (All this is correct as in OTL, except of course, Petain’s Panic!)

And so came to Germany what the French like to call a “cohabitation,” where the head of state and his ministers are from rival political streams; Kaiser Wilhelm III being positively liberal in comparison with Ludendorff; and Hindenburg the malleable in between.


Bereft of supplies and support, the Bolsheviks are largely defeated by 1923. Beyond the Union, there is a White Russia, composed of Petrograd, Belorus, Muscovy, and Siberia. There arise independent republics, rival warlords, in Kazakstan, Tajikstan, and the like; the Whites aren’t strong enough to put them down. The Tsar’s family are, of course, all murdered by the Bolsheviks, but a Romanov is nonetheless found to be titular head in Petrograd. Tsar Nicholas III rules… not at all. Kornilov is his Prime Minister, and Kornilov is of the opinion that since Tsarist interference in government and warfare gave the Tsar a revolution, defeat against Germany, and finally a bullet each for his whole family at Ekatarinburg, Tsarist interference is a bad idea. Thus, White Russia is a constitutional monarchy in name, a military dictatorship in practice.

In Armenia, an independent republic proclaims itself, and is promptly put down by the Turks. They institute a genocidal policy.

The Greeks and Turks have a war, as in OTL, with the same result: the Greeks have military gains, but they’re not able to stand, and eventually a population exchange is worked out, causing much suffering to the half a million Turks, and million Greeks, who must leave their homes.

In a France suffering from a tremendous war debt (in OTL, in 1921, war pensions took up half the national budget, which is why the French were so anxious to get their reparations), little economic progress is made, and government after government falls.

The United States, having come so far for a stoush, only to be sent home before they could get in the ring, is not well pleased by the experience, and is rather unforgiving of the Allies in their debt repayments as a consequence.

In Italy, a new political party arises, the Fascisti, led by one Benito Mussolini. He calls for a “stronger Italy!” which will take back the Veneto. His bully-boys cause trouble all across the country, and in 1923 he threatens to march on Rome; the King makes him Prime Minister. The Fascisti begin programmes of grand national works, long-term national service, the building of a grand fleet, and so on. Since the Serbian Army has never been able to go home, they remain in Italy, and ally themselves with the Fascisti (whom they see as their best chance to regain Serbia).

Austria-Hungary, defying critics once again by its longevity, lives on. Emperor Karl I, a confirmed moderate in all things, recognises that his father was right when he wished to include Slavs in the Crown. However Karl I is torn by the necessity of keeping subject the overrun Serb nation, and his wish to liberalise in the rest of Austria-Hungary. He would withdraw the army from Serbia, but every time he brings up the subject, there arises the subject of the 200,000 Serbs in Italy, still armed and ready to fight the Austrians. And so he splits his policy, beating the Serbian Slavs with one hand, while embracing the other Slavs with the other. Periodically there are clashes, but never oturight rebellion.

Germany also suffers from post-war debts, but since they’re debts to itself, it can set its own repayment schedule, lessening the weight it must carry about. The Greater German Customs Union ensures that Germany receives cheap raw materials and food, and is able to send manufactured goods back; the GGCU, the Union, is, in fact, Germany’s colonies. It uses them in the same manner as does Britain her colonies: receiving cheap raw materials, sending back manufactured goods, giving the locals some measure of autonomy, but not enough to give them ideas about true independence. Over ten to fiteen years the harsh Land Army Decree is watered down. In 1928, after ten years, Ludendorff is dismissed from his post by the Kaiser, an older, more confident man now.

In the Union, conditions slowly improve after the harsh times of 1918-23. Once the Russian Civil War is over, things really look up. But a large German garrison remains.

In France in the late 1920s, among the economic chaos, and feelings of almost-victory – a feeling more frustrating than actual defeat – there arises a National Socialist Party, a sort of more racist version of Mussolini’s. It has wild claims of France being “stabbed in the back,” by the socialist politicians of the Great War, bizarre ideas that France was just months from victory when it was “sold out” by the left-wing.

In 1929, comes the Depression. In Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria, right-wing parties take power, or firm that which they already have. As Germany and Austria-Hungary become more moderate, and the USA remains staunchly isolationist, western Europe starts looking darker. Of all the European nations, Germany and the UK are the least hard hit by the Depression, since they’ve colonies to generate wealth (or exploit, if you like to see it that way).  Nonetheless, in 1928, upon the repealing of the Land Army Decree laws, a bunch of fascist hoodlumsin Munich attempt to take over the state government. The ringleaders are arrested, tried for treason, and shot (In OTL, the Imperial Government had the death penalty for insurrection and treason; the Weimar government did not).

As comes the 1930s, Europe is divided into two camps: the moderate monarchs, or constitutional monarchies, in Austria-Hungary, Germany, Britain, Spain and Imperial Russia, and the fascist republics, or de facto republics, in Italy, France, Greece and Bulgaria.

Kornilov’s Russia, after ten years of recovery, feels itself on its feet enough to publicly call for the Ukraine, “Little Russia,” and the Baltics to be returned to Russia. Germany, and its various client Princes, give this call the cold response it might expect. It’s at this point that Imperial Russia and France’s relationship begins to warm once more, despite their ideological differences.

In 1932, comes the Spanish Civil War, fought between the Loyalists, followers of King Carlos, the Republicans, and the Fascists, led by Generalissimo Franco. Franco is supported by Italy and France; the King, by Britain and Germany. Of these, France sends its airforce, and some modern armour, to fight on its favoured side; Britain and Germany send “volunteer brigades.” It’s the first demonstration of what modern warfare might look like: brutal. In 1937, the Spanish Civil War ends, with a narrow Loyalist victory.

Over this time, the expectation develops in the British General Staff, though not in their politicians or public, that another European War is approaching.


Some may consider this scenario far-fetched. For example, there are those who say Clemenceau “would never sue for peace!” I say, well, it is very easy for us, gazing into space considering the words we read, to say, “never give up! It’s only another million casualties, so what?” Also, some argue that Gallic pride means they would not compromise; I would argue that Gallic pride means they’d rather not have to be saved by American help. When the Cabinet, the people, and the army are all crying for peace, can one man hold the straining fabric of a nation together? In any case, I have Clemenceau against it, the intiative coming from Poincare.


For those who doubt the policies of Ludendorff, or that he’d rise to such power, I say that Ludendorff and Hindenburg effectively were the German government for the last two years of the war; Hindenburg being the willing puppet of Ludendorff, and both arranging for the dismissal of “defeatist” officers – though, obviously, dismissing the Crown Prince was beyond their powers. Ludendorff’s political attitudes were shown well by his time in Swedish exile, where he wrote a book beginning the myth that Germany was “stabbed in the back” by its left-wing element (though, interestingly, the left didn’t rise up in revolt until Ludendorff himself had already handed power to the Reichstag, telling them the war couldn’t be won), and by the fact of his participating in Hitler’s Munich beer Hall Putsch, and being elected a Nazi Party representative to the Reichstag in 1924. Hitler did not invent the “stab in the back,” myth, or German militarism, or racism.


For those who doubt that fascist parties could come to power in France, I can only answer that I believe that not only do men shape their circumstances, but that circumstances can call forth men who suit them. More humiliating and frustrating than defeat, is an “almost victory.” A defeat will cause you to reassess yourself; an almost victory leads you to believe you should have persisted last time, to blame someone for not carrying it through properly. Men can be broken and made by what happens to them, as well as to shape it.



Note: except for Petain’s telling the Cabinet that the war cannot be won, all other quotes are real.

http://www.shotatdawn.org.uk/flanders.offen.htm, N. Offenstadt, 2000; concerning executions for mutiny in the French Army.

http://www.churchill-society-london.org.uk/, various, 2002; concerning W. Churchill, and a general detailed timeline of the Great War.

http://www.ku.edu/~kansite/ww_one/photos/greatwar.htm#TOP, various, 2002; photos of the Great War

http://users.tibus.com/the-great-war/figures.htm; Brtish figures for the expense of the Great War.

http://www.firstworldwar.com; much information about the Great War, including interesting bios of many of the leading figures.

G Hosking, A History of the Soviet Union, Fontana Press, London, 1990

P Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Unwin, London, 1988

D Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon, Pelican, 1966

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