Primary Documents - Sir Frederick Maurice on the Allies' Decision to Accept an Armistice

Monument honouring the dead near Compiegne Reproduced below is an extract from General Sir Frederick Maurice's post-war account of the closing period of the war, The Last Four Months, published in 1919.  In this extract Maurice addressed the prevailing controversy which debated whether the Allies had been premature in agreeing an armistice with beaten Germany.

It had been argued that allowing Germany to negotiate an armistice before the Allies had beaten the German Army on German soil enabled German military leaders to claim that the Army had not been beaten in the field but had been 'stabbed in the back' by political upheaval at home.  This in turn rendered negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference more difficult than they otherwise might have been.

While Maurice acknowledged the validity of this argument he ultimately discounted it on the basis that Allied supply lines were essentially over-extended at the time the armistice was agreed, and that further military advances would have resulted in starvation in the Allies' front lines.

General Sir Frederick Maurice on the Allied Decision to Accept an Armistice on 11 November 1918

An extract from The Last Four Months by Sir Frederick Maurice (1919)

The opinion is widely held that the Armistice of November 11th was premature.

It is argued that we had the German armies at our mercy, and that the foundations of peace would have been more sure if we had ended the war by forcing the surrender in the field of a great part of those armies, or, failing that, had driven our beaten enemy back across the Rhine and followed him into the heart of Germany.

The reception of the German troops by the German people, their march into the German towns through triumphal arches and beflagged streets with their helmets crowned with laurels, and the insistent statements in Germany that the German armies had not been defeated, that the Armistice had been accepted to save bloodshed, and to put an end to the sufferings of the women and children aroused amazement and disgust in the victors.

There was very real anxiety lest after all we had failed to convince Germany that war did not pay; it was felt that we ought to have brought the realization of what war means home to the German people in their own country, and that, had we done so, the long-drawn-out negotiations in Paris would have been concluded more speedily and more satisfactorily.

It is worth while, therefore, examining the situation as it was at the time of the Armistice, and considering the case as it presented itself to the men who had to decide whether hostilities should cease or not.

There is no question but that the German armies were completely and decisively beaten in the field.  The German plenipotentiaries admitted it when they met Marshal Foch, and von Brockdorff-Rantzau admitted it at Versailles, when he said after the Allied peace terms had been presented to him: "We are under no illusions as to the extent of our defeat and the degree of our want of power... We know that the power of the German army is broken."

Even if these admissions had not been made, the condition of the German lines of retreat to the Rhine is conclusive evidence of the condition of their armies.  Every road was littered with broken-down motor-trucks, guns, machine guns and trench mortars.

Great stacks of supplies and of military stores of all kinds were abandoned.  Every railway line was blocked with loaded trucks which the Germans had been unable to remove.  The sixty miles of railway in the valley of the Meuse between Dinant and Mezieres was filled from end to end with a continuous line of German freight trains carrying guns, ammunition, engineering equipment, and other paraphernalia.  On the Belgian canals alone over eight hundred fully charged military barges were found.

It is beyond dispute that on November 11th the lines of communication immediately behind the German armies had been thrown into complete disorder by the streams of traffic which were converging on the Meuse bridges, disorder greatly intensified by the attacks of the Allied airmen.

The German armies, unable to resist on the fighting front, could no longer retreat in good order, partly because of the congestion on the roads and railways behind them, which not only hampered the movements of the troops, but prevented the systematic supply to them of food and ammunition, partly owing to the fact that there were not horses left to draw the transport of the fighting troops.

If ever armies were in a state of hopeless rout, the German armies were in the second week of November, 1918.  The morale of the troops was gone, the organization of the services on which they depended for their needs had collapsed.  This being so, why did we allow the German armies to escape from a hopeless position?  Why did we not at once follow up the military advantage which we had gained at such cost?

In order to get an answer to these questions I visited the fronts of the Allied armies shortly after the conclusion of the Armistice.  I there found, after travelling down the line from north to south, that amongst the fighting troops of the Belgian, British, French and American armies the opinion was unanimous that they had got the Germans on the run and could have kept them on the run indefinitely, or until they laid down their arms.

On the American front in particular, where there were large numbers of troops ready and eager to go forward who had not yet taken part in a great battle, there was a very strong feeling that they had been robbed of the fruits of victory.

When, however, I inquired the opinion of those behind the fighting fronts who were responsible for feeding the troops and keeping them supplied with all that was necessary to enable them to march forward, I heard a different story.

Everywhere I was told that the Allied armies, which were on or were marching towards the Meuse, had on November 11th reached, or very nearly reached, the farthest limit at which for the time being they could be kept regularly supplied.

The reasons for this were twofold.  In the first place the Allied lines of communication grew steadily longer as the Germans were driven back, and even before our victorious advance began the state of the railways and the amount of rolling stock in France had caused anxiety.  For four and a half years the railway systems of Northeastern France had been strained to the limit of their capacity, and the effects of that strain were beginning to be serious in 1918.

Both we and the Americans had made great efforts to improve and extend the railway systems in our respective zones.  During 1918 the British military railway administration in France built or reconstructed 2,340 miles of broad-gauge and 1,348 miles of narrow-gauge railways, while to supplement the French rolling stock we sent to France 1,200 locomotives and 52,600 cars.

The shipment across the Channel of such cumbrous and heavy objects as locomotives and trucks was a slow and difficult business, and the needs of the armies were always growing faster than were the resources of the railways.

If these were our difficulties, those of the American army were greater, owing to the rapid growth of the army during the latter half of the year 1918, the shortage of shipping capable of crossing the Atlantic, and the necessity of giving first place to the transportation of troops and of war material.

Up to the end the railways tinder American control in France suffered from a deficiency in rolling stock, and had great difficulty in meeting the demands of the large forces engaged in the Meuse-Argonne battle at the end of an ever-lengthening line of communications.

The French armies, which in the middle of September had been extended along the outside of the great bow made by the German lines between St. Quentin and Verdun, had the longest distances to advance in following up the German retreat, and before the advance began the French Government had cut down the railway transportation in the interior of the country to the bare minimum necessary for the preservation of the industrial and social life of France, and even then was unable to meet the full demands of the French armies and to supplement the railway material which Great Britain and America had been able to produce.

The Belgian armies had hardly any resources of their own and no means whatever of developing their means of transportation.  The result of all this was that the mere lengthening of the Allied lines of communications by the German retreat, apart altogether from any other action by the enemy, threw a very great strain upon the Allied railway administrations.

The Germans were, however, very active and skilful in damaging the roads and railways before they retreated, and this damage was extended by the destructive power of the artillery of both sides.  Every railway bridge, large or small, was blown up, the railway embankments were cut, long stretches of track were destroyed, the stations were burned down, and the telegraph lines were almost obliterated and the instruments removed.

The Germans had left behind them mines buried under the railway lines, and these exploded often after the first damage had been repaired and the trains were running, with the result that there was constant interruption to the traffic.  One of our Army Commanders told me that, owing to the constant explosion of mines behind his front, during the last stages of the advance of his army his railhead was retreating faster than his troops were advancing.

The consequence of this was that on November 11th, despite the most strenuous and devoted work by all concerned in the repair and working of the railways, the farthest points at which supplies could be delivered by rail were from thirty-five to fifty miles in a direct line behind the front, and often double this distance by road.

This gap had to be bridged by the motor transport, which, of course, had to use the roads.  But the destruction of the roads by the Germans was as thorough as their destruction of the railways.  Not only were the bridges destroyed, but mines were sprung at every crossroad.

I remember counting eleven mine craters on three miles of the main road between Le Quesnoy and Mons.  This damage could only be very roughly repaired, while the wet weather and the heavy traffic of the German retreat and of our advance increased the work of destruction.

The heavy motor lorries, loaded with supplies and ammunition, had to plough their way slowly through these broken roads from the railheads to the troops, and return to the railheads to fill up.  At the time of the Armistice the motor lorries were working in double and treble shifts, and the strain upon them caused by the bad roads and the incessant work was such that in the Fourth Army on November 11th more than half of the lorries at the service of the army had broken down.

The troops were receiving no more than bare necessities, and at one time had with them nothing more than the day's food carried by the men.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

'minnie' was a term used to describe the German trench mortar minnenwerfer (another such term was Moaning Minnie).

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