During the second half of the XIX century, the heads of state and government traveled frequently on the railways, the fastest means of transportation at the time, aboard luxurious wagons turned into living rooms, workrooms, bathrooms, bedrooms etc.
Adolf Hitler will also use intensively his personal train, the Führersonderzug "Amerika" throughout the Third Reich during WWII!
Compiègne WWI battlefields memorial
This means of transportation, preserved during the Great War, explains why one of these carriages initially a dining wagon, reference number 2419D, went down into history as the wagon in which the Armistice of November 11th, 1918 – WWI, was signed between the Allied and German delegations.
History will nevertheless repeat itself again on June 22nd, 1940. This time between the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler and the French Vichy Regime of Marshal Petain. They will sign the Armistice on the same site as WWI! Worse, in the same carriage that will then be taken back to Berlin as a trophy of war and propaganda and burned down by the SS before the end of WWII.
Needless to say that WWI was a long-lasting murderous war until the signature of the Armistice on November 11th, 1918!
But how did we get to that turning point in the ending of the Great War?
Maneuver warfare, or manoeuvre warfare, was back then a military strategy to defeat the enemy by incapacitating their decision-making through shock and disruption. This military strategy very quickly came to a halt in the west during the Fall of 1914.
Why? After the victory of the Battle of the Marne, a four-year-long static warfare commenced on the western front, the battle of the trenches.
In the east, on the other hand, the wide spaces allowed the continuation of the maneuver warfare, which actually enabled the Germans to recover from a very difficult situation against the Russians.
In France, in the Champagne, Artois, Somme regions, along the famous Chemin des Dames, during the battle of the Aisne and Verdun any attempt to leave the trenches led straight away to bloody losses on both sides.
Meanwhile, in southern Europe, the Gallipoli peninsula campaign in the Ottoman Empire, the declaration of war of Italy and Bulgaria and the constitution of the Army of the Orient on the Salonika Greek Front extended the Great War conflict all the way to the Middle East and Africa.
Then the unrestricted submarine warfare, which started on February 1st, 1917, gave the European Great War conflict an international meaning with the United States of America joining the Triple Entente on April 6th, 1917.
But what surely motivated President Wilson was the famous Zimmermann telegram between Germany and Mexico which the British Intelligence had captured thru their spy network, at the time the most efficient in the world!
Irwin Laughlin, his wife Therese and children Gertrude / Alexander
Handwritten recollection by Irwin Boyle Laughlin, American Chargé d’Affaires in London
The story of the so-called Zimmermann-Mexico telegram, as far as the London Embassy is concerned is briefly this:
For a long time, beginning soon after the outbreak of the war, there had been a growing intimacy of relations between the Embassy and the British “Intelligence” Services, chiefly with the Bureau of Naval Intelligence, at the head of which was Captain – afterward Rear-Admiral Sir Reginald Hall, Commander Serocold assisting him. From that source the Embassy had received informally a flow of information of the greatest importance, which was generally imparted directly, but naturally without any concealment from the British Foreign Office of its transmission, though in its employment we had to use great discretion. It was always communicated either to Edward Bell, whom I had finally place in charge of the Intelligence Division of the Embassy when affairs had developed to the point of making the creation of such a division necessary, or to me.
One morning during the latter half of January 1917, the 17th to be exact, Hall telephoned me to ask if he might come to see me. This was unusual, as we had generally gone to his office. On receiving my assent, he appeared within a few minutes, sat down beside my desk and handed me some papers with the brief remark “Read that”.
It was the “Zimmermann-Mexico” telegram, which I read with astonishment and growing excitement and at once said to him: “This is something the Ambassador must see himself. Will you not give this permission and come to him yourself to show it to him?” He merely nodded but with emphatic assent, and I immediately took him in to Mr. Page’s office with which mine communicated directly by a private door.
The Ambassador read the documents with emotions similar to mine and said to Hall: “This must be sent immediately to Washington, and by telegraph! May I do so?” This was apparently exactly what Hall wanted and he at once consented. The message was then enciphered by Bell in our most secret code and dispatched in all haste to the President, who seemed to grasp its importance fully while wishing to be completely informed of all details touching it and requiring every sort of verification.
It is obvious that in order to use the information most effectively it had to appear as having been obtained by the Authorities of the United States in the United States, since we had not yet broken with Germany. For this reason, the Embassy had to reproduce in Washington, by telegraph, the original document in its German telegraphic form; the original cipher groups as well as the text in German; and this difficult task was accomplished by Bell by the use of our own English cipher alone.
To illustrate the exacting nature of Washington’s requirements, very proper in the circumstances, they first demanded the actual German cipher code book of which the British had got possession. It had been taken among the effects of the German Consul-General at Shiraz (Iran), Herr Wilhelm Wassmuss, without its importance been recognized, and had been discovered by Hall in examining Wassmuss’s papers after they had been sent to London, and when this proved impracticable it was arranged that Bell should go to Hall’s office and himself verify from the book each cipher group of the German message.
All this enabled our Government to be absolutely certain on every point and to take steps to meet every complication that might arise in the public use of the information without revealing the facts that had led to their possession of the knowledge; all of which was so thoroughly done that neither the British nor the American public – nor even the German government – ever had the slightest suspicion that there was anything in the affair other than the facts, all exactly true, which the American authorities made public.
According to what Hall told me the British Authorities in Mesopotamia had by a lucky change obtained possession through the carelessness of a fleeing German official of a copy of a cipher code which the Germans believed to be absolutely safe and fully safeguarded. This supplied the British not only with the means of reading German messages sent in this particular cipher but of working out variations that were founded on it, and it is a curious fact that throughout the war the Germans seemed to be entirely ignorant of the extent to which their various ciphers were read.
In their pursuit of German messages, the British managed to obtain through agencies in the City of Mexico copies of the cipher text of various telegrams received by the German Legation there, and among them was the communication in question, which had been telegraphed from Washington by Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff. Its translation revealed the course of its transmission from the Wilhelmstrasse as follows: The German Government had an understanding with the pro-Boche Swedish Foreign Office by which telegram duly enciphered in Germany and unintelligible to the Swedes were transmitted to Stockholm, recoded in the Swedish official code and telegraphed to the Swedish Minister in Washington with instructions for their secret delivery to Bernstorff, who thus easily received over British cables telegrams which would otherwise have been stopped. The Zimmermann-Mexico message was one of these, and since we were officially neutral at the time it reached him there was no difficulty at all in his following his Government’s instructions to forward it to Mexico, which he did by telegraphing it in the ordinary way, open to him without restriction.
When therefore Washington was made aware of all this by the London Embassy, they had only to demand from the Washington telegraph office a copy of the telegram on its files in order to be fully protected in any action they saw fit to take. There was no necessity for them to explain their power of translating it and all the many other Boche telegrams which they subsequently got from the telegraph companies and deciphered.
There is no doubt that Wilson’s knowledge of this document had a powerful effect on his action in breaking diplomatic relations with Germany a very short time later. It either gave him the weapon he may have thought he needed to assure himself of the adhesion of the West and South-West, or it forced his hand in making the break, since he would have had to face the practical certainty that the British would have published the news if he did not act on it. As a matter of fact, he telegraphed a most complimentary and thankful message to the Ambassador assuring him of the great value this information had been to him and he later sent through Mr. Page a personal expression of gratitude to Hall, and if I remember rightly wrote the latter a letter of thanks as well, though this was not quite off his own bat, the Embassy having suggested it indirectly.
On the publication by the United States of the Zimmermann telegram the German authorities appear to have been so completely taken aback that they made no attempt at a denial, contrary to their usual custom of flatly denying everything to their disadvantage; but the bewildered attempts they made to discover the culprit among themselves were most diverting.
They at once dispatched in every direction telegram, which were intercepted by the British and deciphered and given to the Embassy, in which they took to task every possible one of their diplomatic officers they thought might have been responsible. The frantic explanations of these wretched creatures, none of whom was in any way to blame, were equally amusing. The funniest of all came from Eckert, the German Chargé d’Affaires in Mexico. He wailed in reply that he could not be the guilty one as the only person in his Mission who had access to the cipher was a certain Chancellor whom he named whose unquestionable loyalty he called the German Foreign Office themselves to witness; that this man deciphered each message unassisted and brought the only existing copy to Eckert’s bedroom in the dead of the night where “he read it to me in a low voice and after I have memorized it, we burn the papers and scatter the ashes”.
This revelation also had serious consequences for the Swedes, for they had been caught red-handed in one of the most serious of diplomatic offenses, that of the wanton misuse of the courtesy of privileged communications between a Government and its diplomatic agents which pass unquestioned and without scrutiny by friendly governments on the implicit understanding that their complaisance is not being abused.
The result in England was that this courtesy was withheld from Sweden thence forward until the end of the war. How far this restriction was applied in the United States I do not know.
Note: The Zimmermann Telegram was a secret diplomatic communication issued from the German Foreign Office in January 1917 that proposed a military alliance between Germany and Mexico. If the United States entered World War I against Germany, Mexico would recover Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico! The telegram was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence.
Zimmermann coded message and then deciphered
Russia by then was shaken by revolutionary unrest and forced to abandon its Allies late Fall 1917 giving the opportunity to the Germans to call back its units from the east and carry out massive offensives in the west between March and July 1918.
Needless to say, that the arrival of the Americans and the massive deployment of tanks progressively restored the balance to the benefit of the Triple Entente, the Allies.
. On July 18th, 1918 the Allies launched a massive counteroffensive, which caused the general withdrawal of the German armies and led to the Armistice agreement on November 11th, 1918 in Compiègne, France.
The negotiation of the WWI Armistice took place in Compiègne, France between the following country representatives.
- German diplomat, representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Graf von Oberndorff - Germany
- General of the Imperial Army, Detlof von Winterfeldt - Germany
- Officer of the Imperial Navy, Ernst Vanselow - Germany
- Minister, head of the delegation, Matthias Erzberger - Germany
- Rear Admiral George Hope, second British representative – Great Britain
- First Sea Lord, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy, Rosslyn Wemyss – Great Britain
- Commander-in-Chief of the Western Front, Marshall Ferdinand Foch - France
- Major-General of the Allied Armies, Maxime Weygand - France
Inside the wagon were also present:
- Captain Hauptmann Geyer for Germany
- Captain Walter T. Bagot for Great Britain
- Captain, John Peter Ralph Mariott for Great Britain
- Captain Jean Martin Gallevier de Mierry for France
- Commandant Emile Riedinger for France
But before we talk about the signing of the Armistice, Normandy American Heroes wants history to speak to you, to resonate, to have a meaning!
Europe dominated the world at the beginning of the XX century.
On the eve of what is known as the Great War, the colonial disputes in Africa and other continents between the great powers of the Old Continent had finally been settled.
However, the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Germany in 1871 still remained an important issue for the French public opinion even though the government felt it was no longer a political priority! It is somewhat an issue even today for some of Normandy American Heroes friends of Alsace who tell us that some German tourists act as if Alsace was still part of Germany...
Technological progress had led to an industrialization era of Europe, contributing to reinforce the economic systems interdependence.
The countries of Europe were financially, politically and economically stable, there was no sign whatsoever that a generalized conflict was going to break out in 1914.
Back then, Europe had two distinct opposing alliance systems.
- The Triple Entente: France, Russia and Great Britain
- The Triple Alliance: German, Austria-Hungary and Italy
These alliances were supposed to be of defensive nature and obliged each country to support its allies in the event of a war.
After the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 pushing the withdrawal of the Ottoman Empire and consequently the expansion of Serbia supported by Russia, this was considered a serious threat to the Austria-Hungary sovereignty.
The situation became increasingly dangerous as time went by, especially as tensions intensified with various disputes over specific borders (Germany / Denmark, Austria-Hungary / Romania etc.…) and unsatisfied nationalist movements revendications!
All these incidents carried the potential risk of an international crisis.
Franz Ferdinand and his family
On June 28th, 1914, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was mortally wounded in Sarajevo. Came, a few weeks after, frightful consequences!
- Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on July 28th, 1914, with the support of Germany.
- Russia in retaliation mobilized its troops against Austria-Hungary and Germany on July 30th, 1914
- Austria-Hungary and Germany countered by declaring war against Russia on August 1st, 1914
- France, in solidary with Russia, mobilized its troops
- Germany then declared war against France on August 3rd, 1914
- Germany then purposely violated Belgium neutrality,
- Great Britain solidary of France entered the conflict
- Italy was then the only country which decided to stay cautiously neutral, perhaps due to the signed Treaty of London?
The Triple Alliance and Triple Entente unanimously predicted this was going to be a short war, which would last at most a few months. How wrong were they all going to be!
The mobilization within Europe at the outbreak of the war for the Triple Entente and its allies, Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro was approximately 12 ½ Million men.
The French government immediately realized, with almost 9 million men going to war, that it was crucially important that the women replace the men in the fields, factories etc.
Even though the vast majority of women were not on the front, a few thousands were actually sent there working as nurses, ambulance drivers or even driving military vehicles!
The famed Marie Curie was a symbol among others. Twice a Nobel Prize winner, she designed a mobile radiological ambulance that provided better care for the wounded by being able to identify precisely the location of shrapnel’s or fractures of a soldier.
Those four long years of the women contributing to the safeguard of the French economy, will give them later on in time their rightfulness to emancipation.
As for the Triple Alliance, they only had at first 6 million men but once the Ottoman Empire joined the conflict, they totalled 20 million men.
The Great War known as World War I
Both the French and British authorities called upon all their colonies to join forces and fight in WWI. Soldiers came to the battlefields of Europe from:
- New Zealand
- South Africa
- China…even the Indian Army was mobilized and will fight with great honor
For the Germans, it was crucial to beat France quickly in order to be able to concentrate its forces on the Russian front.
The plan of attack which had had been adopted by the chief of the Imperial German General Staff, General von Schlieffen, in 1905, was to violate Belgium neutrality and invade France from the north.
The main objective was to encircle the French army which would then have no choice but to surrender, all this in just six weeks!
The French did execute Plan XVII, adopted in 1912, which was to deploy rapidly their armed forces into Germany before the enemy could mobilize its reserves.
But the consequences for the French were disastrous with a defeat in the Battle of the Frontiers at the cost of 330,000 casualties!
To say the least, nothing happened as expected!
The French army had no choice but to retreat. Luckily for the French and Paris, General von Moltke was ordered to move several German divisions up to the east to counterattack the Russians. Paris was therefore saved, and the Allies were able to launch a counteroffensive.
The race to the English Channel (North Sea) had begun!
From mid-September to the end of October 1914, both sides tried unsuccessfully to outflank each other all the way to the English Channel, the infamous “Race to the Sea”.
Fierce murderous fighting took place along the Lys river on the borders of France and Belgium and the Yser river (France) putting early November the belligerents to a standstill deadly position: The “Trench Warfare”.
To put it mildly, the trench warfare became the symbol of the ever-long-lasting war!
While in the east, soldiers fought in the fields, in the west soldiers were digging trenches rendering the front line totally static.
Coal miners and workers from the London Underground were recruited into tunneling companies of the Royal Engineers.
In the French Army, miners from the Nord and Pas-de-Calais regions were also recruited for the same purpose, dig, dig, dig!
Both sides buried themselves in a very dense network of well thought out network of trenches along the 750 km long front going from the English Channel (France) all the way to Switzerland (Basel). History will repeat itself as some years later the French built the Maginot line and the Third Reich, the Siegfried line!
Due to the rain and horrific weather conditions, battlefields turned into mud baths and British soldiers often referred to it as covered with porridge! The famous British war poet Wilfred Owen evoked the horror of it all by describing the mud as an “octopus of sucking clay” that prevented the soldiers from moving on.
In the trench’s huge rats as big as rabbits boldly ran about. The Germans called them “Leichenratten” (corpse rats). Needless to say, it was a vision of hell for the soldiers in the trenches.
For four long years, this motionless trench warfare will not give the opportunity to either sides to gain any ground significantly, but it did kill a lot of soldiers! Most of these deaths and the worst injuries incurred by the Germans and Allies were due to the artillery which also played a very important role in the final surrender of the enemy.
Two of the WWI battlefields that Normandy American Heroes recommend its guests to discover while traveling on one of our European tours (1 to 2 days)
Battle of Verdun
General Erich von Falkenhayn, commander-in-chief of the German armies, had planned to attack on February 12th, 1916. But snowy rain and knife-edged fog forced him to postpone his assault. Given the French unpreparedness, Verdun would undoubtedly have fallen very quickly without this fortunate delay.
Lieutenant-Colonel Emile Driant, 61 years old, defended the forward position of the Bois des Caures. He had tried to alert the military authorities of the imminence of an attack! Deputy for Nancy, he even went to Paris but in vain.
On February 21st, he lost 900 of his 1300 soldiers and died the next day after a heroic defense.
In just two days, the Germans will have fired 80,000 shells on the 1 km square zone of Bois des Caures!
On February 21st, 1916, the Germans launched a powerful offensive on Verdun, threatening to break through the front line. Taken totally by surprise, the French army withdrew, Fort Douaumont fell on the 25th of February 1916.
In total 60 million shells will fall on Verdun in just over 300 days, that's a total of 6 shells per m2 on the front!