The Central Empires Whine For Peace
( Originally Published 1918 )
THE Allied victories in France during the months of August and September of 1918, led to a new peace offensive among the Central Powers. It was very plain to the German High Command, as well as to the Allied leaders, that Germany's great ambitions had now been definitely thwarted. It seems clear that, in spite of the hopeful and encouraging words which they addressed to their own armies, the expert soldiers, who were controlling the destinies of Germany, understood well the conditions they were facing. Putting aside all sentiment, therefore, they deliberately set out to obtain a peace which would leave them an opportunity to gain by diplomacy what they were sure that they were about to lose on the field of battle. They had made pleas for peace before, but their pleas had been rejected.
The Allied leaders were fighting for a principle. They could not be satisfied with a draw. They could not be satisfied if Germany were left in a position which would enable her after a rest of a few years to renew her effort to impose her will upon the world. It was unanimously recognized that the war must be carried on to the very end. The Allies took this position when the fortunes of war seemed to have gone against them, when Russia was defeated, Roumania and Serbia crushed, and the German lines in France were approaching the capital. It was unlikely that now, when Germany was suffering defeat and every day was yielding the Allied armies encouraging gains, there should be any change in the strong de-termination of the Allied leaders. Nevertheless, it was necessary to make the attempt.
On September 15th, the Austro-Hungarian Government addressed a communication to the Allied Powers and to the Holy See suggesting a meeting for a confidential and non-binding discussion of war aims, with a view to the possible calling of a peace conference.
The official communication from the Austro-Hungarian Government was handed to Secretary of State Lansing in Washington at 6.20 o'clock on September 16th.
At 6.45 the following abbreviated reply of the United States Government was made public, by the Secretary of State:
I am authorized by the President to state that the following will be the reply of this government to the Austro-Hungarian note proposing an unofficial conference of belligerents. "The Government of the United States feels that there is only one reply which it can make to the suggestion of the Austro-Hungarian Government. It has repeatedly and with entire candor stated the terms upon which the United States would consider peace, and can and will entertain no proposal for a conference upon the matter concerning which it has made its position and purpose so plain."
Arthur J. Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, in a statement made September 16th said : "It is incredible that anything can come of this proposal.... This cynical proposal of the Austrian Government is not a genuine attempt to obtain peace. It is an attempt to divide the Allies." Premier Clemenceau in France took similar grounds, and stated in the French Senate: "We will fight until the hour when the enemy comes to understand that bar-gaining between crime and right is no longer possible. We want a just and a strong peace, protecting the future against the abominations of the past." Italy joined with her Allies and declared that a negotiated peace was impossible.
The refusal on the part of the Allies to respond to the Austrian peace proposal evidently greatly disturbed the German leaders. The continued German reverses, and the surrender of Bulgaria had taken away all hope. They were anxious to conclude some kind of peace before meeting irretrievable disaster. They therefore determined to appoint as Chancellor of the Empire some statesman who might be represented as a supporter of an honest peace, and Count von Hertling, whose previous utterances might put under suspicion any peace move coming from him, was removed and Prince Maximilian of Baden appointed as his successor on September 30th.
Prince Maximilian was put forward as a Moderate, in accordance with the evident purpose of the government to continue peace proposals. He was the heir apparent to the Grand Ducal throne of Baden, and was the first man in public life in Germany to declare that the Empire could not conquer by the sword alone. He did this in an address to the Upper Chamber in Baden, of which he was President, on December 15, 1917. "Power alone can never secure our position," he said, "and our sword alone will never be able to tear down the opposition to us."
At the same time he made an attack upon the ideals set up by President Wilson. "President Wilson," he continued, "after three years of war gathers together all the outworn slogans of the Entente of 1914, and denounces Germany as the disturber of the peace, proclaiming a crusade for humanity, liberty and the rights of small nations." Then, forgetting that the United States had entered the war nearly a month after the abdication of the Czar of Russia, he added: "President Wilson has no right to speak in the name of democracy and liberty, for he was the mighty war ally of Russian Czardom, but he had deaf ears when the Russian democracy appealed to him to allow it to discuss peace conditions." The Baden address created a great sensation all over Germany, which was increased when in an interview in January he declared that all ideas of conquest must be abandoned, and that Germany must serve as a bulwark to prevent the spread of Bolshevism among the western nations.
There can be no doubt that the appointment of Prince Maximilian was a definite attempt to seek peace. It was thought that he would be recognized by the Allied leaders as an honest friend of peace, and that any effort he would make would be treated with respect. He was, however, a vigorous supporter of the Kaiser and of German autocracy, and while his appointment might mean that Germany was desirous of peace it did not mean that she had changed her ways. Three days before the appointment of Prince Maximilian, President Wilson in an address delivered in the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, had re-stated the issues of the war, declaring (1) for impartial justice, (2) no leagues within the common family of the league of nations, (8) no selfish economic combination within that league, and (4) all international agreements and treaties of every kind must be made known in their entirety to the rest of the world.
Prince Maximilian, coming into power undoubtedly for the purpose of arranging a peace, proceeded at once to make a new peace offer. He based his action on President Wilson's speech and on October 4th sent to President Wilson, through the Swiss Government, the following note:
The German Government requests the President of the United States to take in hand the restoration of peace, acquaint all the belligerent states with this re-quest, and invite them to send plenipotentiaries for the purpose of opening negotiations. It accepts the pro-gram set forth by the President of the United States in his message to Congress on January 8th, and in his later pronouncements, especially his speech of September 27th, as a basis for peace negotiations. With a view to avoiding further bloodshed the German Government requests the immediate conclusion of an armistice on land and on water and in the air.
He followed this note on October 5th with an address before the German Reichstag, of which the following are the most important points :
In accordance with the Imperial decree of September 30th, the German Empire has undergone a basic alteration of its politic leadership. As successor to Count George F. von Hertling, whose services in behalf of the Fatherland deserve the highest acknowledgment, I have been summoned by the Emperor to lead the new government. in accordance with the governmental method now introduced I submit to the Reichstag, publicly and without delay, the principles by which I propose to con-duet the grave responsibilities of the office. These principles were firmly established by the agreement of the federated governments and the leaders of the Majority Parties in this honorable House before I decided to assume the duties of Chancellor. They contain therefore not only my own confession of political faith, but that of an overwhelming portion of the German people's representatives—that is, of the German nation—which has constituted the Reichstag on the basis of a general, equal, and secret franchise and according to their will.
Only the fact that I know the conviction and will of the majority of the people are back of me, has given me strength to take upon myself conduct of the Empire's affairs in this hard and earnest time in which we are living. One man's shoulders would be too weak to carry alone the tremendous responsibility which falls upon the government at present. Only if the people take active part in the broader sense of the word in deciding their destinies, in other words, if responsibility also extends to the majority of their freely elected political leaders, can the leading statesman confidently assume his part of the responsibility in the service of folk and Fatherland.
My resolve to this has been especially lightened for me by the fact that prominent leaders of the laboring class have found a way in the new government to the highest offices of the Empire. I see therein a sure guarantee that the new government will be supported by the confidence of the broad masses of the people, without whose true support the whole undertaking would be compelled to failure in advance. Hence what I say to-day is not only in my own name, and those of my official helpers, but in the name of the German people.
The program of the majority parties, upon which I take my stand, contains first, an acceptance of the answer of the former Imperial Government to Pope Benedict's note of August 1, 1916, and an unconditional acceptance of the Reichstag resolution of July 19th, the same year. It further declares willingness to join the general league of nations based on the foundation of equal rights for all, both strong and weak. It considers the solution of the Belgian question to lie in the complete rehabilitation of Belgium, particularly of its independence and territorial integrity. An effort shall also be made to reach an understanding on the question of indemnity.
The program will not permit the peace treaties hitherto concluded to be a hindrance to the conclusion of the general peace. Its particular aim is that popular representative bodies shall be formed immediately on a broad basis in the Baltic provinces, in Lithuania and Poland. We will promote the realization of necessary preliminary conditions therefore without delay by the introduction of civilian rule. All these lands shall regulate their constitutions and their relations with neighboring peoples without external interference.
He went on to point out the progressive political developments in Prussia and declared that the "Message of the King of Prussia promising the democratic franchise must be fulfilled quickly and completely."
President Wilson did not find Prince Maximilian's proposal wholly satisfactory, and on October 8th he sent a reply in which, after acknowledging the receipt of the proposal, he inquired of the Imperial Chancellor whether the meaning of the proposal was that the German Government accepted the terms laid down in his address to the Congress of the United States and in subsequent addresses; and whether its object in entering into discussions would be only to agree upon the practical details of their application. He also suggested that so long as the armies of the Central Powers were upon the soil of the governments with which the United States was associated, he would not feel at liberty to propose a cessation of arms to those governments. He also inquired whether the Imperial Chancellor was speaking merely for the constituted authorities of the Empire, who had so far conducted the war.
President Wilson's reply aroused much difference of opinion among the Allies, but on the whole was regarded as a clever diplomatic move.
The German Government responded to these questions of the President on October 12th, by a message signed by Dr. W. S. Soif, who had just been appointed Imperial Foreign Secretary. In this reply the German Government declared that it did accept President Wilson's terms ; that it was ready to comply with the suggestion of the President and withdraw its troops from Allied territory, and that the German Government was representing in all its actions the will of the great majority of the German people.
Germany had, indeed, made enormous con-cessions, and the German people appeared to have taken for granted that such an offer would be accepted. An Amsterdam despatch declared: "People in Berlin are kissing one an-other in the street, though they are perfect strangers and 'shouting peace congratulations to each other. The only words heard anywhere in Germany are `Peace at last."!
The President, however, had been struck by the news coming in from day to day of new atrocities in France, and of new cases of sub-marine murders, and in his reply of October 14th, he declared that while he was ready to refer the question of an armistice to the judgment and advice of military advisers of the government of the United States and the Al-lied governments, he felt sure that none of those governments would consent to consider an armistice as long as the armed forces of Germany continued the illegal and inhuman practices which they were persisting in. He also emphasized the fact that no armistice would be accepted that would not provide absolutely satisfactory safeguards and guarantees of the maintenance of the military supremacy of the armies of the United States and of the Allies in the field. The President also called the attention of the Government of Germany to that clause of his address on the Fourth of July in which he had demanded "the destruction of every arbitrary power that can separately, secretly and of its single choice disturb the peace of the world, or, if it cannot be presently destroyed, at least its reduction to virtual impotency." He declared that the power which had hitherto controlled the German nation was of the sort thus described, and that its alteration actually constituted a condition precedent to peace.
This answer of the President was greeted with approval in the United States and every-where in the Allied countries. It meant that the Imperial Power 'of Germany was not to be allowed to hide itself behind a so-called reorganization done under its own direction. As one of the Senators of the United States ex-pressed it: "It is an unequivocal demand that the Hohenzollerns shall get out."
During these negotiations the Allied armies under Marshal Foch had been driving the enemy before them. When Baron Burian was making his peace offer on behalf of Austria-Hungary the Americans were engaged in pinching off the St. Mihiel salient, and about that date the British were launching their great attack on the St. Quentin defenses. The re-ports of the great Allied drive indicated a constant succession of Allied victories.
On September 19th, the British advanced into the Hindenburg line, northwest of St. Quentin, and on September 20th, while the American guns were shelling Metz, the British were advancing steadily near Cambrai and La Bassée.
Day by day the advance proceeded. On September 28th, the first American army smashed through the Hindenburg line for an average gain of seven miles, between the Meuse and the Aisne Rivers on a twenty-mile front. On September 27th, the French gained five miles in an advance east of Rheims, and the British were attacking in the Cambrai sector on a fourteen-mile front, crossing the Canal du Nord and piercing the Hindenburg line at several points. On September 28th, the Americans reached the Kriemhilde line, while the British were close in on Cambrai. On September 30th, the British took Messines Ridge, while the French were still advancing between the Aisne and Vesle Rivers. On October 1st, the French troops entered St. Quentin and the British took the northern and western suburbs of Cambrai. During the next week an enveloping movement was instituted north and south of Lille. On October 5th, the Germans evacuated Lille, on October 9th the British took Cambrai.
In these drives the American colored troops played a conspicuous part. The entire Three hundred and sixty-fifth regiment, composed wholly of colored troops, was later awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre, or War Cross, by the French Government. It was a well-deserved honor, for the boys of the Three hundred and sixty-fifth bore themselves with great gallantry in the September and October offensive in the Champagne sector and suffered heavy losses. In conferring the Croix de Guerre, the citation dealt in considerable detail with the valor of particular officers and praised the courage and tenacity of the whole regiment.
The Germans were retreating in Belgium day by day, under the attacks of the Belgian and French armies. On October 11th the Germans evacuated the Chemin des Dames. On October 16th the Germans began the evacuation of the Belgian coast region and each day increased the number of Belgian towns once more in Allied control.