Did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?

Did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?

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All things considered and with perfect hindsight, did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?

I was inspired to ask this question after reading Paul Kennedy's rather amazing claims in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988). On p. 298:

In 1939 and 1940, the western Allies frequently considered the pros and cons of having Italy fighting on Germany's side rather than remaining neutral. On the whole, the British chiefs of staff preferred Italy to be kept out of the war, so as to preserve peace in the Mediterranean and Near East; but there were powerful counterarguments, which seem in retrospect to have been correct. Rarely in the history of human conflict has it been argued that the entry of an additional foe would hurt one's enemy more than oneself; but Mussolini's Italy was, in that way at least, unique.

And also on p. 340:

Had Italy also joined in the conflict in September 1939, its own economic deficiencies might have posed an excessive strain upon the Reich's slender stocks and, arguably, dislocated the chances for the German westward strike in 1940. To be sure, Italy's participation would have complicated the Anglo-French position in the Mediterranean, but not perhaps by much, and Rome's neutrality made it a useful conduit for German trade-which is why many of the planners in Berlin hoped that Mussolini would remain on the sidelines.

All things considered and with perfect hindsight, did the Allies benefit, by having Italy fight on Germany's side rather than remain neutral?


While the popular impression is that Germany had to "bail out" Italy more often than not, this does not mean they were a net burden on the Axis. On the contrary, Italy opened up the Mediterranean and African theaters of war that required an extensive diversion of resources, ships, aircraft, men, and material to fight in the very critical early years of the war. The campaign to clear the Mediterranean and then liberate Italy went on through the whole war. All that could have been instead fighting Germany.

Hostile Italians also prevented the Allies from using the Mediterranean as a "British lake" to safely supply the Pacific and the Soviet Union, as well as to stage raids and attacks on Southern Europe.

To avoid a "what if" answer that's frowned upon here, I'll instead go into the ways the Italians tied down Allied forces and delayed Allied victory.

The Regia Marina and Regia Aeronautica during WWII were a large, modern, and powerful threat, if not the best commanded, that required a diversion of large numbers of British ships, aircraft, and men to fight. This stretched the British even thinner than they already were.

Germany alone had no hope of combating the Royal Navy on the surface, but entry of Italy gave the Axis something closer to parity. The battles in the Mediterranean pulled away aircraft and anti-air artillery desperately needed for the Battle of Britain. They pulled ships away from the Battle of the Atlantic. The British Army was unable to defend Greece because they were busy fighting the Italians in North Africa and had to halt their successful offensive there to transfer troops to Greece ultimately suffering in both theaters. 100,000 British colonial troops were tied down fighting the Italians in East Africa.

It was during this critical stage of the war, 1940 to 1942, that Germany could have won. During this period the Italians were effective at tying down British resources.

The Italians also made it difficult for the British to use the Mediterranean as a British lake. It secured the German southern front against air attack and invasion. Without the Italians in the war, Britain's Mediterranean holdings could be used as a staging area for an invasion of Southern France or bombing German submarine pens in Western France.

Finishing off the Mediterranean theater required a huge invasion by both US and British forces. Operation Torch, Tunisia, and Sicily involved 500,000 troops and much of the Allied naval transport capacity fighting mostly Italians. While the Americans advocated invading France in 1943, the decision to invade Italy probably delayed the invasion of Europe by a year.

Even after the Italian Armistice, the march up the Italian peninsula remained a very costly distraction for the Allies. It's questionable what the end goal was. Germany could fight the Allies in strong defensive terrain and ultimately fall back to the defensive line of the Alps.

Without Italy in the war there would be no Mediterranean nor African nor Italian fronts to draw British resources away from Germany in the critical early years of the war, nor would there be an Italian liberation campaign to delay the invasion of Europe.

In addition to the direct effects, the Italians made the Mediterranean dangerous for use as a supply line to the Pacific and the Soviet Union.

After 1941, Allied ships wishing to reach the Pacific Theater quickly could avoid having to go around Africa by using the Suez Canal. Similarly, the Allies had a supply line to the Soviet Union, the Persian Corridor.

With Italy in the war this presented a terrible choice: run a gauntlet of Italian ships and aircraft in the Mediterranean in the hopes of getting there faster, or go all the way around Africa adding weeks to the journey and making themselves vulnerable to German U-Boats and surface raiders. Both required additional escorts. Both added risk and time to supplying these theaters.

These supply lines made it vital that the Italian navy and air force were dealt with drawing yet more forces away from fighting Germany and delaying supplies to the Pacific and Soviet Union.

ADDENDUM: Italy being in the war had a profound effect on the Pacific War. I picked up on this from Drachinifel's Drydock #43.

As above, a belligerent Italy drew away a significant portion of the British armed forces to defend their interests around the Mediterranean. This, in turn, left Britain's Pacific holdings thinly defended. Britain's plan was to essentially bluff. If attacked they would abandon their outlying holdings and fallback to Singapore, India, and Burma. Few reinforcements would be coming until the Mediterranean was under control.

The capture of the SS Automedon in Nov 1940, and her top secret documents outlining all this, gave the Japanese assurance that the British were a paper tiger. Emboldened by this information, the Japanese knew they could send the cream of their Navy on far-flung offensives without being concerned with a major British counter-offensive.

If, instead, the Italians were neutral this would have freed up significant assets to reinforce the British Far East, and allowed the British to take a more active and offensive attitude towards Japan.

ADDENDUM 2: Naval Historiographer Drachinifel and Military History Visualized did a piece on Italy's forgotten WW2 Victories? which expands on the impact of a hostile Mediterranean and the effect on the Pacific War and convoy battles.

In particular he points out…

  • The fast transports and escorts used in the defense and resupply of Malta.
  • The heavy units needed to counter the Italian Navy.
  • The 135 British ships lost in the Mediterranean.

Italy won just one major battle without Germany's help: the conquest of Somaliland.

Everywhere else, the Italians were beaten by the British… and sometimes even without British help. The Greek forces pushed them back into Albania, they were fought to a standstill in Yugoslavia.

The British forces defeated them in North Africa. In every case, this created a humongous risk for the Germans, who couldn't afford to let the British get a toehold on the continent. So the Germans, expending personnel and materiel, had to bail out the Italians every time.

So yes, the Italians inadvertantly helped the Allies.

As mentionned in the first answer, the Italians were parts of an important theater: the Mediterranean Sea.

One could argue that wit Italy remaining neutral, the Germans would have stayed out of the Mediterranean Theater. But the consequences would have been huge: With the neutrality of Italy, the Allies could use the sea as a short line of communications to Egypt (and thus India and Australia). The navy in mediterranean would have been only of a little help to the Atlantic battle, because frigates were more necesary than cruisers, destroyers or battleships. However these boats would have been an help to oppose the Japanese Navy.

The second point is that the South of France "free zone", would have been close to the English forces: thus, it is likely that the "Free zone" of Vichy would have not existed and that the Maghreb, along woth Syria and Lebanon would have fight to prepare a landing on the South Coast of France. Somehow, the Germans would have entered a battle for the Mediterranean Sea, but not with the good strategic position of the Italian terrotory.

So no, the Allies did not benefit of having the Italy enter the war on the side of Germany rather than remaining neutral.

Italy in the Second World War

The independent state of Italy emerged from a long nationalist struggle for unification that started with the revolution of 1848. The southern kingdoms of Sardinia and Sicily joined in 1866 and by 1914 only the Vatican and San Marino retained independence within Italy. However, a large Italian population remained within Austria-Hungary in the Trentino and Trieste regions.

By 1911 Italy had a population of 34.7 million. Although primarily an agricultural economy, there was considerable industry in the northern areas of the country. To feed its growing population, Italy needed to import some foods, notably grain from Russia and Germany.

Italy was a constitutional monarchy. Victor Emmanuel III had been king since 1900. People were appointed to the upper house of the National Assembly but the lower house was elected by universal adult male suffrage. The prime minister was Giovanni Giolitti but after the 1913 elections when socialists and radicals did well, he had a greatly reduced majority in the National Assembly.

Italy had been members of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary since 1882. However, this alliance was unpopular with large numbers of Italians and there was some doubt about Italy's military involvement in event of a war with members of the Triple Entente (Britain, France and Russia).

The Italian Government introduced military conscription in 1907. However, only about 25 per cent of those eligible for conscription received training and by 1912 there were only 300,000 men in the Italian Army.

Over 5.2 million men served in the Italian Army during the First World War. Italy's total wartime casualties was 420,000 killed and almost 955,000 wounded.

After the war Benito Mussolini attacked Vittorio Orlando for failing to achieve Italy's objectives at the Versailles Peace Treaty and helped to organize the various right-wing groups in Italy into the Fascist Party. The next prime minister, Francesco Nitti, also came under attack and he was forced to resign in 1920.

After a series of riots in 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Benito Mussolini in an attempt to prevent a communist revolution in Italy. Mussolini headed a coalition of fascists and nationalists and parliamentary government continued until the murder of the socialist leader, Giacomo Matteotti in 1924. Left-wing parties were suppressed and in 1929 Italy became a one-party state. Mussolini carried out an extensive public-works programme and the fall in unemployment made him a popular figure in Italy.

Italy controlled Eritrea and Somalia in Africa but had failed several times to colonize neighbouring Ethiopia. When Benito Mussolini came to power he was determined to show the strength of his regime by occupying the country. In October 1935 Mussolini sent in General Pietro Badoglio and the Italian Army into Ethiopia.

The League of Nations condemned Italy's aggression and in November imposed sanctions. This included an attempt to ban countries from selling arms, rubber and some metals to Italy. Some political leaders in France and Britain opposed sanctions arguing that it might persuade Mussolini to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Over 400,000 Italian troops fought in Ethiopia. The poorly armed Ethiopians were no match for Italy's modern tanks and aeroplanes. The Italians even used mustard gas on the home forces and were able to capture Addis Ababa, the capital of the country, in May 1936, forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to flee to England.

Adolf Hitler had been inspired by Mussolini's achievements and once he gained power in Germany he sought a close relationship with Italy. In October 1936 the two men signed a non-military alliance.

In 1939 Italy invaded Albania and soon afterwards Benito Mussolini signed a full defensive alliance with Nazi Germany (the Pact of Steel). However, Mussolini did not declare war on Britain and France until 10th June 1940.

Mussolini already had over a million men in the Italian Army based in Libya. In neighbouring Egypt the British Army had only 36,000 men guarding the Suez Canal and the Arabian oilfields. On 13th September, 1940, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and five Italian divisions began a rapid advance into Egypt but halted in front of the main British defences at Mersa Matruh.

In October 1940, Benito Mussolini declared war on Greece. Attempts by the Italian Army to invade Greece ended in failure. The war was also going badly in North Africa. Although outnumbered, General Archibald Wavell ordered a British counter-offensive on 9th December, 1940. The Italians suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back more than 800km (500 miles). British troops moved along the coast and on 22nd January, 1941, they captured the port of Tobruk in Libya from the Italians.

By the end of 1941 Italy was totally dependent on Nazi Germany. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Galaezzo Ciano, became increasingly dissatisfied with the way Mussolini was running the country. After a series of heated arguments with Mussolini, Ciano resigned in February, 1943.

At the Casablanca Conference Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt discussed ways of taking Italy out of the war. It was eventually decided to launch an invasion of Sicily, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, south-west of Italy. It was hoped that if the island was taken Benito Mussolini would be ousted from power. It was also argued that a successful invasion would force Adolf Hitler to send troops from the Eastern Front and help to relieve pressure on the Red Army in the Soviet Union.

The operation was placed under the supreme command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Harold Alexander was commander of ground operations and his 15th Army Group included General George Patton (US 7th Army) and General Bernard Montgomery (8th Army). Admiral Andrew Cunningham was in charge of naval operations and Air Marshal Arthur Tedder was air commander.

On 10th July 1943, the 8th Army landed at five points on the south-eastern tip of the island and the US 7th Army at three beaches to the west of the British forces. The Allied troops met little opposition and Patton and his troops quickly took Gela, Licata and Vittoria. The British landings were also unopposed and Syracuse was taken on the the same day. This was followed by Palazzolo (11th July), Augusta (13th July) and Vizzini (14th July), whereas the US troops took the Biscani airfield and Niscemi (14th July).

General George Patton now moved to the west of the island and General Omar Bradley headed north and the German Army was forced to retreat to behind the Simeto River. Patton took Palermo on 22nd July cutting off 50,000 Italian troops in the west of the island. Patton now turned east along the northern coast of the island towards the port of Messina.

Meanwhile General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army were being held up by German forces under Field Marshal Albrecht Kesselring. The Allies carried out several amphibious assaults attempted to cut off the Germans but they were unable to stop the evacuation across the Messina Straits to the Italian mainland. This included 40,000 German and 60,000 Italian troops, as well as 10,000 German vehicles and 47 tanks.

The loss of Sicily created serious problems for Benito Mussolini. It was now clear that the Allies would use the island as a base for invading Italy. A meeting of the Fascist Grand Council was held on 24th July and Galaezzo Ciano got support for his idea that Italy should sign a separate peace with the Allies. The following day Victor Emmanuel III told Mussolini he was dismissed from office. His successor, Pietro Badoglio, declared martial law and placed Mussolini under arrest.

On 3rd September, 1943, General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army landed at Reggio. There was little resistance and later that day British warships landed the 1st Parachute Division at Taranto. Six days later the US 6th Corps arrived at Salerno. These troops faced a heavy bombardment from German troops and the beachhead was not secured until 20th September.

While the Allies were arriving in Italy, Adolf Hitler sent Otto Skorzeny and group of airbourne commandos to rescue Mussolini, who was being held in the Abruzzi Apennines. Mussolini was soon freed and Skorzeny flew him to safety. After a short spell in Germany Mussolini was sent to Gargagno in German-occupied northern Italy where he established the fascist Salo Republic.

On 23rd September 1943, Pietro Badoglio and General Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Italian surrender aboard Nelson off Malta. The German Army continued to fight ferociously in southern Italy and the Allied armies made only slow progress as the moved north towards Rome. The 5th Army took Naples on 1st October and later that day the 8th Army captured the Foggia airfields.

In danger of being captured by the German forces, Badoglio and the Italian royal family were forced to escape to Pescara where a government was set up under the protection of the Allies. On 13th October the Italian government declared war on Germany.

General Albrecht Kesselring now withdrew his forces to what became known as the Gustav Line on the Italian peninsula south of Rome. Organized along the Garigliano and Rapido rivers it included Monte Cassino, a hilltop site of a sixth-century Benedictine monastery. Defended by 15 German divisions the line was fortified with gun pits, concrete bunkers, turreted machine-gun emplacements, barbed-wire and minefields. In December 1943, the Allied suffered heavy loses while trying to capture the monastery.

In January 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General Harold Alexander, Supreme Allied Commander in Italy, ordered a new Cassino offensive combined with an amphibious operation at Anzio, a small port on the west coast of Italy. The main objective of the operation was to cut the communication lines of the German 10th Army and force a withdrawal from the Gustav Line.

Attacks on Monte Cassino on 17th January resulted in the Germans reserves moving to the Gustav Line and on 22nd January troops led by General John Lucas landed at Anzio. Lucas decided not to push straight away to the Alban Hills. This enabled General Heinrich Vietinghoff to order the 14th Army to return to the area and contain the 6th Corps on the Anzio bridgehead.

On 12th February the exhausted US Army at Cassino were replaced by the New Zealand Corps. Alexander now decided to use these fresh troops in another attempt to capture Cassino. General Bernard Freyberg, who was in charge of the infantry attack, asked for the monastery be bombed. Despite claims by troops on the front-line that no fire had come from the monastery, General Harold Alexander agreed and it was destroyed by the United States Air Force on 15th February, 1944.

Once the monastery had been bombed, the German Army moved into the ruins. As Basil Liddell Hart pointed out later in his book The Other Side of the Hill the bombing "turned out entirely to the tactical benefit of the Germans. For after that they felt free to occupy the ruins, and the rubble provided mud better defensive cover than the Monastery would have been before its destruction. As anyone with experience of street-fighting knows, it is only when buildings are demolished that they are converted from mousetraps into bastions of defence."

On 18th May, 1944, Allied troops led by General Wladyslaw Anders (Polish Corps) and General Alphonse Juin (French Corps) captured Monte Cassino. This opened a corridor for Allied troops and they reached Anzio on 24th May. The German defence now began to disintegrate and General Harold Alexander ordered General Mark Clark to trap and destroy the retreating 10th Army. Clark ignored this order and instead headed for Rome and liberated the city on the 4th June.

After the capture of Rome Pietro Badoglio resigned and Invanoe Bonomi formed a new government. In an attempt to unite the country against Benito Mussolini, Bonomi's government included long-time campaigners against fascism such as Carlo Sforza , Benedetto Croce and Palmiro Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party.

The Allied armies now pursued the German 10th Army and took Grosseto (16th June), Assisi (18th June), Perugia (20th June), Florence (12th August), Rimini (21st September), Lorenzo (11th October) until being held on the Gothic Line in the northern Apennines. The arrival of winter weather meant that a renewed offensive did not begin until 9th April, 1945.

On 23rd April the 8th Army began to cross the River Po at Mantua. German resistance now began to collapse and Parma and Verona were taken and partisan uprisings began in Milan and Genoa.

With Allied troops approaching, Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, attempted to escape to Switzerland. They were captured at Lake Como by Italian partisans on 27th April, 1945. The following day they were shot and their bodies displayed in public in Milan.

German resistance came to an end on 29th April and General Karl Wolff , who had unofficially been negotiating with the Allies for some time, signed a treaty of unconditional surrender at Caserta on 29th May. Two days later General Heinrich Vietinghoff, commander of all German troops in Italy, agreed to the terms signed by Wolff at Caserta.

Was Spain Neutral or a Nazi Ally in World War Two?

Francisco Franco is the figure second from the right. Nazis Karl Wolff and Heinrich Himmler, and Spanish minister Ramon Serrano Suner also feature.

Non-belligerent - A nation or person that is not engaged in a war or conflict.

Neutral - An impartial or unbiased state or person.

Spain’s official stance of non-belligerence during World War Two is best taken with a pinch of salt. While its reasons to stay uninvolved appear legitimate, in reality Spain was arguably the most involved out of all “neutral countries”.

“Non-belligerent” normally refers to a state or country that does not get involved in a war, normally resulting in their neutrality. Spain’s reason for not officially getting involved was, of course, the Spanish Civil War.

This was a bloody civil war fought from 1936-1939 between the Republicans and the Nationalists. From an ideological perspective, the Spanish Civil War could be considered a precursor to World War Two and almost foreshadowed the end to the fragile equilibrium established in Europe.

On one side you had the Republic government. They were largely liberals and fought against the conservative Nationalist rebels. The Soviet Union provided the Republicans with significant military assistance, although France and Britain were more wary about supporting them. The Republic also received volunteer International Brigades from Western Europe and the U.S. More broadly, many in Europe saw the Spanish conflict as a threat to the peace that had settled in Europe and wanted to prevent the spread of the Nationalists’ fascist-linked ideology.

The Nationalists’ rebellion started off as a failed military coup but resulted in their leader, General Francisco Franco, becoming dictator of Spain. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany both provided military aid, not only to support the Nationalists but also as a military testing ground for new weapons they hoped to later use.

The rebels won in 1939 and General Franco was made Head of State. While General Franco leaned heavily ideologically to Nazi Germany and the Axis countries, he was careful to appease the Western allies for trading reasons.

The main way in which Spain entered World War Two was through volunteers. The side with which each man volunteered largely paralleled the side on which they had fought during the Spanish Civil War. Over 18,000 nationalist men volunteered to fight for the Axis Powers, on the condition they would be fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union rather than against the Western Allies. By doing this, General Franco assisted and repaid Hitler while maintaining peace with Western Europe and the U.S.

Conversely, as a result of losing the civil war, many of the Republicans went into exile and fled to refugee camps in southern France. At the outbreak of the Second World War, they joined French forces to fight against the Axis Powers. It is estimated that over 60,000 Spaniards joined the French resistance alone. Just over 1,000 Spaniards (largely the communist leaders) fled to the Soviet Union and fought alongside the Red Army after the invasion in 1941.


Diplomacy is where the term ‘non-belligerency’ is distinguished from absolute neutrality. While volunteers technically assisted both the Allies and Axis during World War Two militaristically, General Franco also provided the Axis Powers with both economic assistance and useful intelligence. In 1940, Franco signed the Protocol of Hendaya, which provided for close cooperation among the governments of Spain, Italy and Germany.

Furthermore General Franco and Hitler engaged in numerous talks discussing the possibility of active involvement in the war and the issue of Gibraltar. This was an area of Spain in British control that Hitler was keen to seize. However General Franco repeatedly refused entry to German soldiers, arguing that the United Kingdom and its colonies still posed a major threat to Spain. In these discussions, General Franco often demanded too much in return for active entry into the war. Whether this was simply desperation considering Spain’s war-torn state, or a way of delaying irreversible actions, it resulted in a lack of official action. Among his other demands, General Franco asked for a large supply of grain to feed its population, which Germany could not provide. Pressure to invade Gibraltar was only relieved in 1941 when Hitler focused his attention on the Eastern front by invading the Soviet Union. After a meeting on October 23, 1940 to discuss details about the alliance between Spain and Germany, Hitler was famously quoted telling Mussolini: "I prefer to have three or four of my own teeth pulled out than to speak to that man again!” This suggests that despite ideological similarities, the two leaders had a hard time making definite agreements.

Allied Trade Pressure

Like most countries during World War Two, Spain was struggling economically. People were starving and it relied heavily on trade and imports to support itself. The Allies worked hard to ensure Spain could not afford to actively enter the war and used trading blockades and economic incentives to enforce that.

Portugal and Spain had long had an alliance, therefore Portugal provided Spain with the much needed grain to ease its food shortages. However, to put pressure on Spain, America and Britain reduced Spain’s access to oil. All told, considering its economic and social depression after the Civil War, entering World War Two would have led to economic pressure which could have effectively brought the country to a halt.

Great Britain also followed a policy of "building a network of mutual interests and creating the conditions, thanks to which any breakup between the two countries would mean a key loss for Spanish trade and industry.” This largely dictated Spanish movements towards the Western Allies during the war.

As a result of tactical trade blockades and other agreements, over the war Spain was inescapably dependent on the United States and Great Britain.

A cowardly ending

Despite its seemingly favorable views towards the Axis Powers in the early years of the war, General Franco changed his tune as Hitler’s indestructible façade began to slip and victory for the Allies seemed inevitable. It was only when this happened that Spain reverted back from ‘non-belligerence’ to true neutrality and began to act that way.

However, this quick change of tact didn’t mean they could escape the consequences of favoring the Axis. As a result of their cooperation with Nazi Germany, not only militaristically but also economically, Spain was isolated by the major powers in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Although Roosevelt had promised Spain would not suffer sanctions from the United Nations as a result of their alliance, the U.S. president died in April 1945, leaving Truman to take power, who was less forgiving of General Franco. That being said, with the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s, the US later saw conservative Spain as more of an ally against the rise of communism, rather than a threat.

In conclusion, while it is clear that Franco’s Spain did favor the Axis Powers of the war, it did not technically become involved in the war. Its conduct during World War Two combined flexibility on who her allies were with a desperation to survive. After such a damaging Civil War, Spain was not in the position to wholly side with either the Allies or Axis Powers. It begs the question, therefore, that if they had been a fit state, who would they have chosen? And does that make them any better?

Did you find this article interesting? If so, you can read about the Spanish Civil War in our book –

The United Kingdom and Appeasement

Vivid memories of the horrors and deaths of the World War made Britain and its leaders strongly inclined to pacifism in the interwar era, exemplified by their policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany, which led to the German annexation of Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia.

Learning Objectives

Explain why Prime Minister Chamberlain followed the policy of appeasement

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • World War I was won by Britain and its allies at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment to avoid war at all costs.
  • The theory that dictatorships arose where peoples had grievances and that by removing the source of these grievances the dictatorship would become less aggressive led to Britain’s policy of appeasement.
  • One major example of appeasement was when Britain learned of Hitler’s intention to annex Austria, which Chamberlain’s government decided it was unable to stop and thus acquiesced to what later became known as the Anschluss of March 1938.
  • When Germany intended to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, Britain and other European powers came together without consulting Czechoslovakia and created the Munich Agreement, allowing Hitler to take over portions of Czechoslovakia named the Sudetenland.

Key Terms

  • Anschluss: The Nazi propaganda term for the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.
  • appeasement: A diplomatic policy of making political or material concessions to an enemy power in order to avoid conflict.
  • Munich Agreement: A settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers, for which a new territorial designation “Sudetenland” was coined.

The Policy of Appeasement

World War I was won by Britain and its allies at a terrible human and financial cost, creating a sentiment that wars should be avoided at all costs. The League of Nations was founded with the idea that nations could resolve their differences peacefully. As with many in Europe who had witnessed the horrors of the First World War and its aftermath, United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was committed to peace. The theory was that dictatorships arose where peoples had grievances, and that by removing the source of these grievances, the dictatorship would become less aggressive. His attempts to deal with Nazi Germany through diplomatic channels and quell any sign of dissent from within, particularly from Churchill, were called by Chamberlain “the general policy of appeasement.”

Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement emerged from the failures of the League of Nations and of collective security. The League of Nations was set up in the aftermath of World War I in the hope that international cooperation and collective resistance to aggression might prevent another war. Members of the League were entitled to assist other members if they came under attack. The policy of collective security ran in parallel with measures to achieve international disarmament and where possible was based on economic sanctions against an aggressor. It appeared ineffectual when confronted by the aggression of dictators, notably Germany’s Remilitarization of the Rhineland and Italian leader Benito Mussolini ‘s invasion of Abyssinia.


The first European crisis of Chamberlain’s premiership was over the German annexation of Austria. The Nazi regime was already behind the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in 1934 and was now pressuring Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg. Informed of Germany’s objectives, Chamberlain’s government decided it was unable to stop these events and acquiesced to what later became known as the Anschluss of March 1938. Although the victorious Allies of World War I had prohibited the union of Austria and Germany, their reaction to the Anschluss was mild. Even the strongest voices against annexation, those of Fascist Italy, France, and Britain, were not backed by force. In the House of Commons Chamberlain said that “The hard fact is that nothing could have arrested what has actually happened [in Austria] unless this country and other countries had been prepared to use force.” The American reaction was similar. The international reaction to the events of March 12, 1938 led Hitler to conclude that he could use even more aggressive tactics in his plan to expand the Third Reich. The Anschluss paved the way for Munich in September 1938 because it indicated the likely non-response of Britain and France to future German aggression.

Photo of Jews washing the streets with Germany soldiers looking over them.

Immediately after the Anschluss, Vienna’s Jews were forced to wash pro-independence slogans from the city’s pavements.

The Sudetenland Crisis and the Munich Agreement

The second crisis came over the Sudetenland area of Czechoslovakia, home to a large ethnic German minority. Under the guise of seeking self-determination for the Sudeten Germans, Hitler planned to launch a war of aggression on October 1, 1938. In an effort to defuse the looming crisis, Chamberlain followed a strategy of pressuring Prague to make concessions to the ethnic Germans while warning Berlin about the dangers of war. The problems of the tight wire act were well-summarized by the Chancellor the Exchequer Sir John Simon in a diary entry during the May Crisis of 1938:

In a letter to his sister, Chamberlain wrote that he would contact Hitler to tell him “The best thing you [Hitler] can do is tell us exactly what you want for your Sudeten Germans. If it is reasonable we will urge the Czechs to accept and if they do, you must give assurances that you will let them alone in the future.”

Out of these attitudes grew what is known as the Munich Agreement, signed on September 30, 1938, a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers. The purpose of the conference was to discuss the future of the Sudetenland in the face of ethnic demands made by Adolf Hitler. The agreement was signed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses and banks were situated there along with heavy industrial districts. Because the state of Czechoslovakia was not invited to the conference, it considered itself betrayed and refers to this agreement as the “Munich Betrayal.”

Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated and agreed to abide by the agreement. The settlement gave Germany the Sudetenland starting October 10 and de facto control over the rest of Czechoslovakia as long as Hitler promised to go no further. On September 30 after some rest, Chamberlain went to Hitler and asked him to sign a peace treaty between the United Kingdom and Germany. After Hitler’s interpreter translated it for him, he happily agreed.

Munich Agreement: From left to right: Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany.

Did Germany really make a serious peace proposal in Dec 1916?

I am very grateful to Britain At War, Illustrated History of the Third Year of the Great War: 1916, without which I would not have sought out, and found the speech offering Germany’s peace proposal in Dec 1916. Thanks to Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914� by R Chickering.

The intolerable strains of the war showed on all sides. Britain, the only major nation that had been at war without conscription, introd­uced it in early 1916. Depleted manpower resources forced governments throughout Europe to begin deploying women in various hitherto male-only jobs on the home front. Signs of popular disillusionment with the ongoing conflict, such as labour unrest and food riots, were more common. By 1916 End-The-War voices had been everywhere.

Although their armies were killing each other’s young men by the mil­lions, the warring sides in WW1 remained in almost constant diplomat­ic contact. How bizarre! As early as Feb 1916, newspapers were des­crib­ing an attempt by German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to make a peace proposal through Pope Benedict XV. His proposal and its stipulations were further explained by Count Julius Andrassy in Budapest in April, but the Allies dismissed it out of hand because of it was fundamentally calling for a return to pre-war boundaries, leaving only the fate of Germany’s overseas possessions in dispute.

In Nov the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne circ­ulated a letter calling for a negotiated peace in the name of saving civil­is­ation, but it was loudly damned by most British statesmen. One other proposal followed the death of Austrian Kaiser Franz Josef I in Nov 1916, when Kaiser Charles I took over. The new Emp­er­or’s offer interested American President Woodrow Wilson enough to remain strictly neutral until April 1917, when it became clear that Austria-Hungary would not break its alliance with Germany. Only then did the USA join the Allies against the Central Powers.

Ultim­ate­ly the peace initiatives failed and the war went on. And on.

But we would have expected the Central Powers’ (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) public offer to negotiate in Dec 1916 to be taken very seriously. On 5th Dec 1916 the Imperial German Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, delivered an address in the Reichstag in which he stated the willing­ness of the German Empire, under certain conditions, to consider the question of peace with its enemies. Hollweg included the text of a note which the Imperial Govern­ment had submitted, through neutral govern­ments, for consid­eration by the Entente Powers (Great Britain, France and Russia). An identical note was likewise submit­ted on the same date by Germany's allies.

“Should our enemies refuse to enter peace negotiations – and we have to assume that this will be the case – the odium of continuing the war will fall on them. War-weariness will then grow and generate new support for the elements that are pushing for peace. In Germany and among its Allies, too, the desire for peace has become keen. The rejection of our peace offer, the knowledge that the continuation of the struggle is inevitable thanks alone to our enemies, would be an effective means of spurring our people to utmost exertion and sacrifice for a victorious end to the war”.

Soon after its victory in Romania, the German peace offer was seen as ambiguous, and arrogant, in tone. It produced only cynicism in the Allied camp, and its failure eased the way towards even greater German ferociousness regarding submarine warfare.

Why was Germany prepared to give up very little, if it truly wanted peace? Why did the Germans assume the Allies would refuse to enter peace negotiations, before the speech had even been delivered? Why did the Germans insist that Belgium and Alsace-Lorraine were to remain German, or have pro-German governments? Historians have suggested that the German peace offer of Dec 1916 was a real one, but so inflexible that it could only have been made as a public relations exercise to imp­ress the Neutral Nations. It was felt that the original peace prop­os­als made in August 1914 were still the same and only ones that were on offer in December 1916. Two years of killing (650,000 dead or wounded from the British and French armies, and 500,000 German soldiers killed or wounded) apparently did not modify governmental thinking, on either side of the war.

In return, the Entente Powers stated the condit­ions upon which they would consider pursuing peace with the Central Powers. Herbert Asquith had resigned as British prime minister and his successor, David Lloyd-George, reaffirmed the British and French resolve that “an acc­eptable peace could only come with the outright defeat of Germany”. So Lloyd-George rejected the German offer of peace negot­iations and called for the Allies to redouble their efforts against the Cen­tral Powers. By Christmas, the Germans had counter-attacked succ­ess­fully in Romania and occupied Bucharest. Soon after, the Czar was dead, the revolution was commanding its generals’ attention and the Russian soldiers were called home.

I actually think the Allies refused to negotiate a peace settlement in Dec 1916 for a rather insane reason. The peace offer apparently in­dicated a real weakness on the German side and rather than increasing the probability of peace, the offer actually diminished it. Ironic­al­ly, and dangerously as it turned out, it emboldened the Allies and made them bel­ieve that Germany was about to fall apart, from deaths, starv­ation, inflation and internal divisiveness.

If only France and Britain had pursued the German peace offer more vigorously in Dec 1916. If only they had asked the grieving widows and mothers of Cape Town, Toronto, Delhi and Perth, instead of asking elderly male parliamentarians about national honour and brilliant victories yet to come. In August 1914 the combatants could not have known that millions of teenage soldiers and civilians would be massacred on both sides - by December 1916, they certainly did!

WW2 Aircraft: British Gliders

Airspeed Horsa

Britain’s primary combat glider, the Airspeed Horsa, shared the American CG-4’s general configuration and service history. Like the U.S. Waco, the Horsa was first flown in 1941. Also like the CG-4, it had a hinged nose to facilitate loading troops and small vehicles. With a two-man crew and capacity of twenty-five troops, it was capable of heavier loads than the Waco, partly due to its larger size (8,370 pounds empty and eighty-eightfoot wingspan). Tow speeds are listed between 100 and 150 mph.

Horsas were committed to combat in the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 and, like the Waco, figured prominently at Normandy and Operation Market-Garden, the Holland operation of September 1944. Some 355 gliders were involved in the British airborne phase of Overlord, with a hundred pilots killed or injured.

Total Horsa production was 3,655 aircraft.

General Aircraft Hamilcar

Recognizing the need for armored support of airborne forces, the British Air Ministry requested a large glider that could deliver a seven-ton light tank or forty troops. Named for the Carthaginian general, the Hamilcar entered service in 1942 and usually carried a Tetrach tank. With a 110-foot wingspan and thirty-six-thousand-pound gross weight, it was the largest and heaviest glider built by any of the Allied powers. Of some four hundred Hamilcars produced, seventy were employed in Normandy. Others were flown in the Arnhem operation three months later.

The War on Bollywood

The Minister of Chaos

Purgatory at Sea

The people who commissioned those monuments—and who read those books, played those records, bought that sheet music—weren’t thinking short-term. They believed the Great War would remain great in the American consciousness for eternity, that future generations would sooner forget Bunker Hill and Lookout Mountain than Belleau Wood and the Argonne Forest. They believed, more than anything, that it was Americans who had won that war. How surprised they would be, less than a century later, to find all those old books languishing unread and to discover that few Americans are writing new ones, because Americans now largely believe—when they think about the subject at all—that their country just didn’t do all that much in the First World War.

And those Americans of yore would be justified in their surprise. While it is certainly too much to say the Yanks won the Great War by themselves, it is indisputable that the Allies would not—could not—have won the war without the United States. Although America was not, at that time, widely regarded as a world power, the nation made three indispensable contributions to the Allies’ victory over the Central Powers in World War I.

1914–16: Money and Materiel

When Europe collapsed into war in the summer of 1914, many Britons expected that the United States would soon enter the conflict on their side although the U.S. wasn’t a British dominion—as were Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, all of which declared war on Germany when Britain did—there was a strong belief that the spirit of Anglo-American kinship would move the former colony to join the fight anyway. No one, not even Germans, dared imagine that America might enter the war on Germany’s side, despite the strong economic ties and generally friendly relations the two nations enjoyed (going back to the Revolutionary War, when many German officers volunteered for the Continental Army), and despite the fact that in 1914 more Americans traced their ancestry to Germany than to any other country (which is still true in 2014). The best the Central Powers could hope for was that America might sit this one out.

And it did, at the outset. Most Americans favored neutrality, and President Woodrow Wilson obliged them. He even adopted a rather muscular definition of neutrality, which he articulated to Congress on August 19, 1914:

At the same time, though, no one—at least no one in a position to make policy—believed that neutrality meant you couldn’t do business with both sides. Quite the contrary: in the America of 1914–16, it was regarded as a violation of neutrality for the government to prevent Americans from trading with any of the combatant nations. In theory, American manufacturers were free to sell munitions to the highest bidders, whoever they might be.

But only in theory. The British had the largest and most powerful navy in the world in 1914—they really did rule the waves back then—and quickly established an impenetrable blockade against the Central Powers, one that held up until the armistice. So while Americans were free to sell all the war materiel they liked to Germany, Germany had no way to take delivery and, therefore, little interest in buying. Fortunately for U.S. manufacturers, the Allies had a tremendous appetite for American arms and armaments: the United Kingdom, for example, spent about half—half—its war budget in the United States. Arthur Guy Empey, an American who served with the British army in France, recounted in his best-selling 1917 memoir, Over the Top, seeing in Flanders “a never-ending stream of men, supplies, ammunition, and guns pouring into the British lines,” among them a great convoy of steam-powered tractors pulling enormous howitzers.

Britain’s war budget, as you might imagine, was quite large even half of it was much more than the British could finance on their own. “Neutral” American bankers, though, had plenty of cash on hand, and were happy to lend Britain all it needed (at healthy interest rates, naturally). And not just Britain: France borrowed so heavily from U.S. banks (primarily the House of Morgan) that repaying the loans nearly destroyed its economy after the war. And so, from the outset of hostilities, America and the Allies had a symbiotic relationship that was essential to the course of combat. Without American war materiel—and the American money to purchase it—the Allies could never have come close to matching the productive capacity of Germany, the world’s leading industrial power at the time if they hadn’t, they would have lost the war well before 1917.

Germany, meanwhile, unable to trade with the United States, employed more-surreptitious methods to curtail the Allies’ advantage. One was sabotage, dispatching secret agents to destroy American-made war materiel before it could be delivered to Britain or France. (In the most notorious incident, in 1916, saboteurs at a munitions depot near Jersey City set off an explosion—felt in Philadelphia, heard in Maryland—that destroyed hundreds of tons of armaments bound for Europe.) Another was unrestricted submarine warfare against ships thought to be carrying munitions to the Allies. It was these U-boat attacks that ultimately drove Wilson to reconsider his policy of neutrality and to prevail on Congress to declare war against Germany in April 1917.

1917: The Menace of Manpower

Given the role that German U-boats played in drawing the United States into the war, many Americans believed at first that their country’s main military contribution would be naval. Within weeks, however, Britain and France would send officials to Washington to persuade the War Department that what the Allies really needed was men in the trenches, and lots of them. Two and a half years of trench warfare had taken a terrible toll on their ranks.

General John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), was fine with that—with some caveats. For one thing, the United States didn’t have much of an army yet—fewer than 200,000 men when the country entered the war—and would need time to build one. And more time to train it. Pershing made clear that he would not allow Americans to fight until they were ready, and he planned to be conservative in making that judgment. When they were ready, they would fight only in American divisions, under American commanders. Pershing didn’t want them parceled out to British and French units as replacements he knew that colonial and dominion soldiers were often put in indefensible positions to distract the enemy from British and French troops and, as a result, took very high casualties.

But if the British and French were unhappy about Pershing’s decrees—and they were—they could take comfort in the number of troops the general expected to raise: 4 million. They spread that figure around, hoping to foment panic in the German high command.

It worked. The Central Powers—which, in Europe, at least, really meant the Germans, as the Austro-Hungarian army had proved itself largely ineffective since the war’s earliest days—had been surrounded and outnumbered from the start. Still, they had managed to hold their own, because the margin of difference (at least on the western front) wasn’t that great, and the Germans had superior industry, technology, and—most historians would concede—soldiers and generals. But 4 million fresh American troops would surely tip the balance in the Allies’ favor, and the Germans knew it.

They also knew—besides its saboteurs, Germany had an excellent network of spies in America—that those doughboys wouldn’t reach France for a while. Russia was teetering knocking the Russians out of the war would enable Germany to shut down the eastern front and transfer half a million seasoned soldiers to France before the Americans arrived in force. This would allow German troops to launch a massive offensive and win the war in the nick of time.

Which they did—except for that last part. It took Germany longer than expected to secure a peace treaty with Russia, and by the time it did, on March 3, 1918, the fledgling AEF already had several fighting divisions—about 25,000 men apiece—in France. Anxious to get the offensive under way before even more Americans showed up, Germany launched its attack less than three weeks later. That was barely enough time to get all the troops in place, and not nearly enough time to establish adequate supply lines or even to plan the offensive with any precision. Yet the Germans pushed ahead, gambling that the advantages of speed and surprise would compensate for these shortcomings.

The Spring Offensive of 1918, as it is now remembered, succeeded magnificently—too magnificently, really. The Germans got so far ahead of their own supply lines that they were soon beset by crippling shortages. What’s more, they overran their initial objectives so quickly that they found themselves floundering, with no idea what, exactly, to do next. While it appeared on the surface to have paid off handsomely, that great gamble the Germans had taken because of the threat of 4 million fresh doughboys actually left them confused, directionless, hungry, and ill-equipped—vulnerable.

And the first of those doughboys were already in a position to exploit that vulnerability.

1918: Military Might

The Germans, seeing their Spring Offensive falter, held out one last hope: that they might inflict so much damage upon the untested American Expeditionary Forces in battle that the doughboys could lose their will to fight or even succumb to defeat. And indeed, in the two armies’ first major encounter, on April 20 at Seicheprey, in northern France, German shock troops caught the Americans by surprise and quickly took the town, along with nearly 200 prisoners. But within hours, the Americans rallied and recaptured it then U.S. troops went on the attack and drove the Germans out of Cantigny on May 28 and, a few days later, repelled the Germans at Chateâu-Thierry. The Germans moved into Belleau Wood, a dense, strategically located forest nearby, where they had formidable defenses. The French, reluctant to follow the Germans into such a place, asked Pershing to send in an American division to root them out Pershing, perhaps unaware of how dangerous the position was, dispatched the Second Division, which included two regiments of marines. The battle lasted nearly three weeks and claimed nearly 10,000 American casualties. (More marines were killed or wounded at Belleau Wood than in the service’s entire 143-year history to that point.) But in the end, it was a grand triumph for the American forces—militarily and psychologically.

The Germans regrouped and launched a vast assault across the Marne River, where French and British troops had stopped them four years earlier. This time, they made great advances—everywhere except at the critical western end of the line, only about 40 miles from a panicked Paris, where the American Third Division stopped them cold at the river’s edge. (To this day, the division is known as “The Rock of the Marne.”) It was the Germans’ last offensive of the war: three days after they failed to move the Rock of the Marne, American and French troops launched a counteroffensive that would ultimately drive them out of the area entirely. The Germans would remain on the defensive until the war ended.

Though they could no longer win the war outright, they still hoped—quite reasonably—to achieve a stalemate, dragging out the fighting and weakening their enemies’ will to the point that they could dictate the terms of a cease-fire. Both sides expected the war to rage well into 1919, especially considering how fiercely the Germans clung to every bit of ground and how dearly they made the Americans pay for every inch. Then, in early September 1918, the Expeditionary Forces caught the Imperial German Army by surprise at Saint-Mihiel, in northeastern France, and captured more than 200 square miles—including many towns the Germans had occupied for four years—in just two days. The American troops followed this with their greatest offensive of the war, the Meuse-Argonne, to the west. Some 1.2 million Americans fought there by the time the battle ended, at 11 a.m. on the 11th of November, 26,277 of them had been killed. It remains, to this day, the deadliest battle in American history—but it was also a great American victory, and a crucial one. As much as anything else that fall, Meuse-Argonne forced Germany to plead for an armistice.

This isn’t to say the U.S. won the war on its own. But America’s three major contributions, going back to 1914, unquestionably guided the war’s course. Without the United States, the Allies, at best, would have fought to a stalemate.

So why have Americans forgotten the first worldwide war, and their pivotal role in it? The answer starts with an uncomfortable truth: Although it ended in victory, World War I proved to be more of a traumatic experience than Americans were prepared to deal with. In just 19 months, the United States lost more than 116,000 men in the War to Make the World Safe for Democracy many more would die in later years slowly and painfully, from the lingering effects of bullets, shrapnel, poison gas, and what was then called shell shock.

For a while, it seemed, Americans comforted themselves by staging parades, building monuments, and otherwise honoring their doughboys, dead and living. But hard times can make people introspective, and by the onset of the Great Depression, many Americans found themselves wondering just what, exactly, all those young men had died for it was obvious, by then, that much of the world was still not safe for democracy, and might never be. Americans no longer cared to talk or think about the Great War even veterans felt that way, as I discovered while interviewing dozens of them (ranging in age from 101 to 113) more than eight decades after the armistice. Americans who lived through the Great War, typically born and raised in meager circumstances, tended to believe that everyone had troubles, and you shouldn’t attract attention to your own. American authors, who had cranked out books on the war for a while after it ended, stopped writing about it, ceding the history of America’s role to anyone else who cared to address it.

That turned out to be the British, who never tired of writing about the trauma of the Great War, and who alone continued to do so in Americans’ mother tongue. Unfortunately for Americans, many in Britain were still upset over the U.S. refusal to enter the war in 1914 and, taking a dim view of the Expeditionary Forces’ accomplishments in 1917 and 1918, portrayed its generals as incompetent, its officers as ineffective, and its soldiers as poorly trained, ill-disciplined, and inconsequential. (Some British historians still hold this view today.) The Americans, these skeptics held, arrived only near the end, too late to do anything but claim credit they didn’t deserve. Many Americans—even those who had lost someone Over There—seem to have taken that to heart and accepted it as gospel. And believing that, why would they care to remember the war?

Perhaps now the war’s centennial will encourage Americans to reexamine their nation’s part in the Great War. Perhaps they’ll rediscover that America’s role was, in fact, indispensable. A few of them might even choose to write about it.

Germany and Oil

Post by Peter H » 27 May 2005, 16:25

Mexico provided around half of German imported oil needs pre 1939,but after that date new surces of supply were needed.

As a highly developed industrial state, Germany was dependent even in peacetime on external sources for an adequate supply of oil. Even though Germany’s 1938 oil consumption of little more than 44 million barrels was considerably less than Great Britain’s 76 million barrels, Russia’s 183 million barrels, and the one billion barrels used by the United States, in wartime Germany’s needs for an adequate supply of liquid fuel would be absolutely essential for successful military operations on the ground and, even more so, in the air.For Germany, it was precisely the outbreak of the war in 1939 and the concurrent termination of overseas imports that most endangered its ability to conduct mobile warfare.

German oil supplies came from three different sources: imports of crude and finished petroleum products from abroad, production by domestic oil fields, and syntheses of petroleum products from coal.

In 1938, of the total consumption of 44 million barrels, imports from overseas accounted for 28 million barrels or roughly 60 percent of the total supply. An additional 3.8 million barrels were imported overland from European sources (2.8 million barrels came from Romania alone), and another 3.8 million barrels were derived from domestic oil production. The remainder of the total, 9 million barrels, were produced synthetically. Although the total overseas imports were even higher in 1939 before the onset of the blockade in September (33 million barrels), this high proportion of overseas imports only indicated how precarious the fuel situation would become should Germany be cut off from them.

At the outbreak of the war, Germany’s stockpiles of fuel consisted of a total of 15 million barrels. The campaigns in Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France added another 5 million barrels in booty, and imports from the Soviet Union accounted for 4 million barrels in 1940 and 1.6 million barrels in the first half of 1941. Yet a High Command study in May of 1941 noted that with monthly military requirements for 7.25 million barrels and imports and home production of only 5.35 million barrels, German stocks would be exhausted by August 1941. The 26 percent shortfall could only be made up with petroleum from Russia. The need to provide the lacking 1.9 million barrels per month and the urgency to gain possession of the Russian oil fields in the Caucasus mountains, together with Ukrainian grain and Donets coal, were thus prime elements in the German decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941.

The smallest of the Russian oil fields at Maikop was captured in August 1942, and it was expected that the two remaining fields and refineries in Grozny and Baku also would fall into German hands. Had the German forces been able to capture these fields and hold them, Germany’s petroleum worries would have been over. Prior to the Russian campaign, Maikop produced 19 million barrels annually, Grozny 32 million barrels, and Baku 170 million barrels.

Grozny and Baku, however, were never captured, and only Maikop yielded to German exploitation. As was the case in all areas of Russian production, the retreating forces had done a thorough job of destroying or dismantling the usable installations consequently, the Germans had to start from scratch. In view of past experience with this type of Russian policy, such destruction was expected, and Field Marshal Hermann Göring’s staff had begun making the necessary preparations in advance. But a shortage of transport that was competing with military requirements, a shortage of drill equipment as well as drillers, and the absence of refining capacity at Maikop created such difficulties that when the German forces were compelled to withdraw from Maikop in January 1943 in order to avoid being cut off after the fall of Stalingrad, Germany had failed to obtain a single drop of Caucasian oil. Nevertheless, the Germans were able to extract about 4.7 million barrels from the Soviet Union, a quantity that they would have received anyway under the provisions of the friendship treaty of 1939.

Even before the Russian prospects had come to naught, Romania had developed into Germany’s chief overland supplier of oil. From 2.8 million barrels in 1938, Romania’s exports to Germany increased to 13 million barrels by 1941, a level that was essentially maintained through 1942 and 1943.7 Although the exports were almost half of Romania’s total production, they were considerably less than the Germans expected. One reason for the shortfall was that the Romanian fields were being depleted. There were other reasons as well why the Romanians failed to increase their shipments. Foremost among these was Germany’s inability to make all of its promised deliveries of coal and other products to Romania. Furthermore, although Romania was allied with Germany, the Romanians wished to husband their country’s most valuable resources. Finally, the air raids on the Ploesti oil fields and refineries in August 1943 destroyed 50 percent of the Romanian refinery capacity. Aerial mining of the Danube River constituted an additional serious transportation impediment. Even so, Romanian deliveries amounted to 7 million barrels in the first half of 1944 and were not halted until additional raids on Ploesti had been flown in the late spring and summer of 1944.

Even with the addition of the Romanian deliveries, overland oil imports after 1939 could not make up for the loss of overseas shipments. In order to become less dependent on outside sources, the Germans undertook a sizable expansion program of their own meager domestic oil pumping. Before the annexation of Austria in 1938, oil fields in Germany were concentrated in northwestern Germany. After 1938, the Austrian oil fields were available also, and the expansion of crude oil output was chiefly effected there. Primarily as a result of this expansion, Germany’s domestic output of crude oil increased from approximately 3.8 million barrels in 1938 to almost 12 million barrels in 1944.10 Yet the production of domestic crude oil never equaled in any way the levels attained by Germany’s other major supplier of oil, the synthetic fuel plants.

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/>Army Gen. John Pershing arrives in Boulogne, France, on June 13, 1917. (Library of Congress)

The astonished Frenchmen had encountered a German armistice delegation headed by a rotund forty-three-year-old politician and peace advocate named Matthias Erzberger. The delegation was escorted to the Compigne Forest near Paris where, in a railroad dining car converted into a conference room, they were met by a small, erect figure — Marshal Foch — who fixed them with a withering gaze.

Foch opened the proceeding with a question that left the Germans agape. “Ask these Gentlemen what they want,“ he said to his interpreter. When the Germans had recovered, Erzberger answered that they understood they had been sent to discuss armistice terms. Foch stunned them again: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make.“

No proposals, perhaps, but he did have demands. Foch’s interpreter read aloud the Allied conditions, which struck the Germans like hammer blows: All occupied lands in Belgium, Luxembourg, and France — plus Alsace-Lorraine, held since 1870 by Germany — were to be evacuated within fourteen days the Allies were to occupy Germany west of the Rhine and bridgeheads on the river’s east bank thirty kilometers deep German forces had to be withdrawn from Austria-Hungary, Romania, and Turkey Germany was to surrender to neutral or Allied ports 10 battleships, 6 battle cruisers, 8 cruisers, and 160 submarines. Germany was also to be stripped of heavy armaments, including 5,000 artillery pieces, 25,000 machine guns, and 2,000 airplanes.

The next demand threw the German delegates into despair. Though the German people already faced starvation, the Allies intended to paralyze the enemy’s transportation by continuing its naval blockade and confiscating 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 railway cars, and 5,000 trucks. The translator droned on through thirty-four conditions, the last of which blamed Germany for the war and demanded it pay reparations for all damage caused. Foch informed Erzberger that he had seventy-two hours to obtain the consent of his government to the Allies’ terms, or the war would go on.

On average, 2,250 troops on all sides were dying on the Western Front every day. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal,’ Erzberger pleaded, “do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.“ The appeal fell on deaf ears. Before the meeting, Foch had described to his staff his intention “to pursue the Feldgrauen [field grays, or German soldiers] with a sword at their backs“ to the last minute until an armistice went into effect.

To Pershing the very idea of an armistice was repugnant. “Their request is an acknowledgment of weakness and clearly means that the Allies are winning the war,“ he maintained. “Germany’s desire is only to regain time to restore order among her forces, but she must be given no opportunity to recuperate and we must strike harder than ever.“

/>November 1918: Peace celebrations in the U.S. following the end of the First World War. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As for terms, Pershing had one response: “There can be no conclusion to this war until Germany is brought to her knees.“ The French and British Allies might be exhausted and long for peace, but Pershing saw his army akin to a fighter ready to deliver the knockout punch who is told to quit with his opponent reeling but still standing. Conciliation now, he claimed, would lead only to future war. He wanted Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The Germans finally yielded and signed the armistice at 5:10 on the morning of the eleventh, backed up officially to 5 a.m. and to take effect within Foch’s deadline: the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour of 1918. Pershing’s postwar claim that he had had no official knowledge of the impending armistice before being informed by Foch’s headquarters at 6 a.m. was disingenuous. The moment when the fighting would cease had been clear from the time Foch handed Erzberger the deadline, information to which Pershing was privy. On the evening of November 10 and through that night, news of the impending end was repeatedly affirmed from radio transmissions received at Pershing’s AEF headquarters in Chaumont.

After the general was apprised that the signing had taken place, the order going out from him merely informed subordinate commanders of that fact. It said nothing about what they should do until 11 o’clock, when the cease-fire would go into effect. His order left his commanders in a decisional no man’s land as to whether to keep fighting or spare their men in the intervening hours.

The generals left in that limbo fell roughly into two categories: ambitious careerists who saw a fast-fading opportunity for glory, victories, even promotions and those who believed it mad to send men to their deaths to take ground that they could safely walk into within days.

Congressman Fuller’s mention of the loss of marines that final day referred to an action ordered by Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall, Pershing’s commander of the V Corps. No doubt had clouded Summerall’s mind as to how all this talk of an armistice on the eleventh should be treated. The day before he had gathered his senior officers and told them, “Rumors of enemy capitulation come from our successes.“ Consequently, this was no time to relax but rather to tighten the screws.

Summerall, a fifty-one-year-old Floridian, had spent three years teaching school before entering West Point. By the time he arrived on the Western Front he wore ribbons from the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the Boxer Rebellion. He was a severe, unsmiling, some said brutal man who liked to turn out in prewar dress uniform with copious medals, gilded sashes, and fringed epaulettes — suggesting a viceroy of India rather than a plain American officer.

Because he had taught English, Summerall prided himself that he possessed a literary turn of phrase. “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move,“ he told his subordinates as he ordered them to cross the Meuse River on the war’s last day. “Only by increasing the pressure can we bring about [the enemy’s] defeat. . Get into action and get across.“ His parting shot was: “I don’t expect to see any of you again, but that doesn’t matter. You have the honor of a definitive success — give yourself to that.“

Was he referring to ending his present command over them, or foretelling their fate? In either case, Summerall was spurring them on to defeat an already defeated enemy, whatever the cost.

/>Charles P. Summerall, who commanded V Corps as a two-star general under Gen. John Pershing during World War I. (Army)

Among replacements rushed to the Meuse was Private Elton Mackin, 5th Marine Regiment. Soon after America entered the war, Mackin had read an article in the Saturday Evening Post about the Marine Corps that lured the baby-faced nineteen-year-old to enlist. He had thus far survived 156 days at the front, beginning with his regiment’s bloody baptism in the battle for Belleau Wood. Whether he would survive the last day depended on General Summerall’s decision, and the human price it would exact.

In the gray hours before dawn on November 11, Mackin’s regiment stumbled out of the Bois de Hospice, a wood on the west bank of the Meuse. The night was frigid, shrouded in fog and drizzle as the Marines tried to find their way to the river in the gloom. Army engineers had gone before them, throwing flimsy bridges across the water by lashing pontoons together, then running planks over the top. The first signs that the Marines were headed in the right direction were the bodies they stumbled upon, engineers killed attempting to construct the crossings.

At about 4 a.m., the Marines reached the first pontoon bridge, a rickety affair thirty inches wide with a guide rope strung along posts at knee height. They could see only halfway across before the bridge disappeared into the mist. Beyond, nothing was visible but the flash of enemy guns. The Marines began piling up at the bridgehead, awaiting orders. A major blew a whistle and stepped onto the bridge. As the men crowded behind him, the pontoons began to sink below the water sloshing about the men’s ankles. The engineers shouted to them to space themselves before the span collapsed.

Enemy shells began spewing up geysers, soaking the attackers with icy water. German Maxim machine guns opened fire, the rounds striking the wood sounding like a drumroll, those hitting flesh making a “sock, sock, sock“ sound. The span swung wildly in the strong current. Mackin saw the man ahead of him stumble between two pontoon sections and vanish into the black water.

The German guns’ bullets continued knocking men off the pontoons, like ducks in a shooting gallery. Still, the Americans kept coming. By 4:30 a.m. the marines and infantrymen of the 89th Division had taken Pouilly on the river’s east bank. In the remaining 6 1/2 hours they were to storm the heights above the town and clean out the machine gun nests.

As day broke, Mackin watched a runner come sprinting across the bridge. The message from General Summerall’s headquarters read only, “Armistice signed and takes effect at 11:00 o’clock this morning.“ Again, nothing was said about halting the fighting in the meantime. Mackin survived to write of his experience. But the Meuse River crossings had cost more than eleven hundred casualties in the hours just before the war’s end.

Numerous members of Congress, including Fuller, had received appeals from families wanting to know why such pointless expenditure of life had been allowed to happen. Congress had already created a Select Committee on Expenditures in the War Department to investigate procurement practices, the sufficiency and quality of weaponry, and waste and graft in supplying the AEF. To this body, the House decided to add a “Subcommittee 3“ to investigate the Armistice Day losses.

Royal Johnson, Republican from South Dakota, was appointed chairman to serve with another majority member, Republican Oscar Bland from Indiana, and a minority member, Daniel Flood, a Virginia Democrat. Johnson’s interest in the task assigned him was intensely personal. He was barely out of uniform himself. At age thirty-six, Johnson had taken leave from the House of Representatives and enlisted as a private in the 313th Regiment, ‘Baltimore’s Own,’ rising through the ranks to first lieutenant and earning the Distinguished Service Cross and Croix de Guerre.

Among the ranks of the 313th engaged on armistice morning was Henry N. Gunther, a fine-looking soldier in his mid-twenties, erect, with a clear-eyed gaze and a guardsman’s mustache that suggested a British subaltern rather than an American private. Gunther, however, had had difficulty with Army life. He came from a heavily German neighborhood in east Baltimore where the culture of his forebears remained strong. When the United States went to war, Gunther and his neighbors began to experience anti-German prejudice. In this poisonous atmosphere, Gunther felt no impulse to enlist. He was doing nicely at the National Bank of Baltimore and had a girlfriend, Olga Gruebl, who he intended to marry.

Nevertheless, Gunther was drafted five months after America entered the war. His closest pal, Ernest Powell, became platoon sergeant in Company A, while Gunther was appointed supply sergeant. “Supply sergeants were traditionally unpopular,“ Powell recalled. “Army clothing in the war, as they said at the time, came in two sizes — too large and too small.“ Supply sergeants took the brunt of the soldiers’ gripes, and Gunther began keeping to himself, his enthusiasm for army life well controlled.

After arriving in France in July 1918, he wrote a friend back home to stay clear of the war since conditions were miserable. An army censor passed the letter along to Gunther’s commanding officer, who broke the sergeant to private. Gunther then found himself serving under Ernie Powell, once his co-equal, a chafing humiliation. Thereafter, Powell observed Gunther becoming increasingly brooding and withdrawn.

/>Irish Guardsmen stand at their post five minutes before the Armistice, near Maubeuge, northern France. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Armistice Day, the 313th had been engaged in nearly two months of uninterrupted combat. At 9:30 that morning, the regiment jumped off, bayonets fixed, rifles at port, heads bent, slogging through a marshland in an impenetrable fog toward their objective, a speck on the map called Ville-Devant-Chaumont. Its advance was to be covered by the 311th Machine Gun Battalion. But in the fog, the gunners had no idea where to direct their fire, and Company A thus moved along in an eerie silence. Suddenly, German artillery opened up, and men began to fall.

At sixteen minutes before 11, a runner caught up with the 313th’s parent 157th Brigade to report that the armistice had been signed. Again, the message made no mention of what to do in the interim. Brigadier General William Nicholson, commanding the brigade, made his decision: ‘There will be absolutely no let-up until 11:00 a.m.’ More runners were dispatched to spread the word to the farthest advanced regiments, including Gunther’s. The 313th now gathered below a ridge called the Côte Romagne. Two German machine gun squads manning a roadblock watched, disbelieving, as shapes began emerging from the fog. Gunther and Sergeant Powell dropped to the ground as bullets sang above their heads.

The Germans then ceased firing, assuming that the Americans would have the good sense to stop with the end so near. Suddenly, Powell saw Gunther rise and begin loping toward the machine guns. He shouted for Gunther to stop. The machine gunners waved him back, but Gunther kept advancing. The enemy reluctantly fired a five-round burst. Gunther was struck in the left temple and died instantly. The time was 10:59 a.m. General Pershing’s order of the day would later record Henry Gunther as the last American killed in the war.

To question officers as to why men like Gunther had been exposed to death at literally the eleventh hour, the Republicans on Subcommittee 3 hired as counsel a recently retired army lawyer, Samuel T. Ansell. A forty-five-year-old West Pointer, Ansell had served as acting judge advocate general during the war and left the Army specifically to take the congressional job for the then-substantial salary of twenty thousand dollars per year.

His first move was to have all senior American commanders who had led troops on the Western Front answer these questions: ‘What time on the morning of November 11, 1918, were you notified of the signing of the armistice? What orders were you and your command under with respect to operations against the enemy immediately before and up to the moment of such notification and after notification and up to 11 o’clock? After receipt of such notification did your command or any part of it continue to fight? If so, why and with what casualties? Did your command or any part of it continue the fight after 11 o’clock? If so, why and with what casualties?’

Ansell proved a fire-breathing prosecutor, ill concealing his premise that lives had indeed been thrown away on the war’s last day. Among the first witnesses he called was Pershing’s chief of operations, Brig. Gen. Fox Conner. Proud, ruggedly handsome, and a wily witness, Conner admitted that, pursuant to Foch’s order to keep the pressure on, one American army, the 2nd under Lt. Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, had actually moved an assault originally planned for November 11 up to November 10 “to counteract the idea among the troops that the Armistice had already been signed“ and “to influence the German delegates to sign.“

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Not all commanders shared the view that Germany had to be pressured to sign. For days the Germans had shown no stomach to engage the Allies and carried out only rear-guard actions as they fell back. On armistice morning, the commander of the 32nd Division, Maj. Gen. William Haan, received a field telephone call from his subordinate commanding the 63rd Brigade asking permission to attack in order to straighten out a dent on his front. Haan retorted that he did not intend to throw away men’s lives on the war’s last morning to tidy up a map. The 32nd initiated no attacks while Haan’s men waited and took losses only from artillery fire.

Hotshot commanders nevertheless managed to find reasons to advance. Stenay was a town held by the Germans on the east bank of the Meuse. The 89th Division’s commander, Maj. Gen. William M. Wright, determined to take Stenay because “the division had been in the line a considerable period without proper bathing facilities, and since it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.“ Thus, placing cleanliness above survival, Wright sent a brigade to take the town. As the doughboys passed through Pouilly, a 10.5cm howitzer shell landed in their midst, killing twenty Americans outright. All told, Wright’s division suffered 365 casualties, including sixty-one dead in the final hours. Stenay would be the last town taken by the Americans in the war. Within days, it too could have been marched into peacefully rather than paid for in blood.

Bland, the other Republican on Subcommittee 3, knifed quickly to the heart of the matter when his turn came to question General Conner. “Do you know of any good reason,“ Bland asked, “why the order to commanders…should not have been that the Armistice had been signed to take effect at 11 o’clock and that actual hostilities or fighting should cease as soon as possible in order to save human life?“ Conner conceded that American forces “would not have been jeopardized by such an order, if that is what you mean.“

Bland then asked, regarding Pershing’s notification to his armies merely that hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m., “Did the order leave it up to the individual commanders to quit firing before or to go ahead firing until 11 o’clock?“ “Yes,“ Conner answered. Bland then asked, “In view of the fact that we had ambitious generals in this Army, who were earnestly fighting our enemies and who hated to desist from doing so . would it have been best under the circumstances to have included in that order that hostilities should cease as soon as practicable before 11 o’clock?“ Conner answered firmly, “No sir, I do not.“

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“How many generals did you lose on that day?“ Bland went on. “None,“ Conner replied. “How many colonels did you lose on that day?“ Conner: “I do not know how many were lost.“ “How many lieutenant colonels did you lose on that day?“ Conner: “I do not know the details of any of that.“ “I am convinced,“ Bland continued, “that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life. . “

Conner, visibly seething, retorted, “The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.“

Bland shot back, “I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.“ With that, Conner was dismissed.

Also called to testify was the second highest ranking officer in the AEF, Lt. Gen. Hunter Liggett, who had commanded the First Army. Under questioning by the subcommittee’s counsel, Liggett admitted to Ansell that the only word passed along to the troops was that “the Armistice had been signed and hostilities would cease at 11 o’clock, Paris time.“ Ansell forced Liggett to agree that orders from AEF headquarters had left subordinate commanders in the dark as to their next course of action.

The corpulent old general shifted responsibility to the commander on the scene “to judge very quickly from whatever was going on in his immediate neighborhood.“ Coupling Foch’s “keep fighting“ order and Pershing’s relaying of it, Ansell said, “I have difficulty to discover authority in any division commander under the terms of those two orders to cease advancing or cease firing on his front before 11 o’clock no matter what time he got the notice announcing the Armistice.“ Ansell added, suppose such a commander concluded: “I am in a situation where I can desist from the attack, and I am going to do so and save the lives of the men. Would you consider he had used bad judgment?“ Liggett did not hesitate: “If I had been a division commander, I would not have done that.“

At that point subcommittee Chairman Johnson interjected a personal experience in France occurring soon after the armistice while he was visiting a hospital: “I met several subordinate officers who were wounded on November 11, some seriously. Without exception, they construed the orders which forced them to make an attack after the armistice as murder and not war.“ Asked if he had ever heard such accusations, Liggett answered, “No!“ With that, he too was dismissed.

Brigadier General John Sherburne, former artillery commander of the black 92nd Division who had returned to civilian life, provided the Republican members of the subcommittee with what they most wanted: the views of a decorated noncareer officer who felt no obligation to absolve the army. A white officer with the division, Sherburne described the joy his black troops expressed near midnight on November 10 when the sky “was lighted up with rockets, roman candles, and flares that the Germans were sending up.“

This persuasive evidence of the approaching end was further confirmed, he said, when soon after midnight a wireless message intercepted from the Eiffel Tower reported: “The Armistice terms had been accepted and … hostilities were going to cease. My recollection is that in that wireless message the hour of 11 o’clock was stated as the time.“ Sherburne’s testimony made clear that the men in the trenches had persuasive information nearly twelve hours in advance that the war’s end was at hand, though Pershing had told Congress that he had had no knowledge that the armistice was about to be signed until he was notified at 6 a.m.

At Ansell’s urging, Sherburne went on to describe how he and his operations officer, Captain George Livermore, author of the letter to Congressman Fuller, had then telephoned divisional, corps, and army headquarters to find out, since the armistice had been signed, if an attack by the 92nd from the Bois de Voivrotte set for that morning could be called off. All up and down the chain of command, Sherburne testified, he was informed that the order stood. Ansell asked the effect of this order on the troops. “I cannot express the horror that we all felt,“ Sherburne said. “The effect of what we all considered an absolutely needless waste of life was such that I do not think any unit that I commanded took any part in any celebration of the armistice, and even failed to rejoice that the war was over.“

“Who in your judgment was responsible for this fighting?“ Ansell asked. Sherburne hesitated. “It is pretty poor testimony to have gossip,“ he answered. Ansell pressed him to go on. Sherburne then said:

I cannot feel that Gen. Pershing personally ordered or was directly responsible for this attack. If there is any obligation or liability upon him it is from not stopping what had already been planned. . Our Army was so run that division and brigade and even corps commanders were piteous in their terror and fear of this all-pervading command by the General Staff which sat in Chaumont. . They did not look upon human life as the important thing. In this, to a certain extent, they were right you cannot stop to weigh in warfare what a thing is going to cost if the thing is worthwhile, if it is essential. But I think on the 9th and the 10th and the 11th they had come pretty near to the end of the War and knew they were pretty near the end. But they were anxious to gain as much ground as possible. They had set up what, in my opinion, is a false standard of excellence of divisions according to the amount of ground gained by each division. . It was much like a child who had been given a toy that he is very much interested in and that he knows within a day or two is going to be taken away from him and he wants to use that toy up to the handle while he has it. . A great many of the Army officers were very fine in the way that they took care of their men. But there were certain very glaring instances of the opposite condition, and especially among these theorists, these men who were looking upon this whole thing as, perhaps one looks upon a game of chess, or a game of football, and who were removed from actual contact with the troops.

It was, Sherburne went on, difficult for conscientious officers to resist direction from Chaumont, no matter how questionable. He admitted that even in a situation where his own life was at stake, he would have yielded to pressure from the general staff. “I would far rather have been killed,“ he told the subcommittee, “than to be demoted.“

The 33rd was another division engaged to the last minute. As the unit’s historian later described the final day:

Our regimental wireless had picked up sufficient intercepted messages during the early hours of the morning to make it certain that the Armistice had been signed at 5 o’clock that morning and the fact that the prearranged attack was launched after the Armistice was signed…caused sharp criticism of the high command on the part of the troops engaged, who considered the loss of American lives that morning as useless and little short of murder.

The 81st Division took the severest blow that morning. One of its regimental commanders had told his men to take cover during the last hours, only to have his order countermanded. With forty minutes left in the war, the troops were ordered to “Advance at once.“ The division reported 461 casualties that morning, including sixty-six killed.

The Army claimed to have put a hundred clerks to work on the subcommittee’s request for the number of AEF casualties that occurred from midnight November 10 to 11 o’clock the next morning. The figures provided by the adjutant general’s office were 268 killed in action and 2,769 seriously wounded. These figures, however, failed to include divisions fighting with the British and French north of Paris and do not square with reports from individual units on the ground that day. The official tally for the 28th Division, for example, showed zero men killed in action on November 11, but in individual reports from field officers requested by the subcommittee, the commander of one brigade alone of the 28th reported for that date, ‘My casualties were 191 killed and wounded.’ Taking into account the unreported divisions and other underreported information, a conservative total of 320 Americans killed and more than 3,240 seriously wounded in the last hours of the war is closer to the fact.

By the end of January 1920, Subcommittee 3 concluded its hearings. Chairman Johnson drafted the final report, arriving at a verdict that “needless slaughter“ had occurred on November 11, 1918. The full Select Committee on Expenditures in the War chaired by Congressman W.J. Graham initially adopted this draft.

Subcommittee 3’s Democratic member, Flood, however, filed a minority report charging that Johnson’s version defamed America’s victorious leadership, particularly Pershing, Liggett, and Bullard. Flood saw politics at work. The country had gone to war under a Democratic president. By 1918 the Republicans had won control of Congress, and it was they who had initiated the Armistice Day investigation. By the time the inquiry ended, Wilson’s hopes for the United States’ entering into the League of Nations were fast sinking and critics were questioning why America had gone to war in the first place.Flood suspected that the Republicans on the subcommittee were inflating the significance of the events of the last day, “trying to find something to criticize in our Army and the conduct of the war by our government.“

The committee, he claimed, had “reached out for those witnesses who had grievances. . ” As for Ansell, whom he repeatedly referred to as the “$20,000 counsel,“ he had “been permitted to browbeat the officers of the Army.“ Flood also hinted that the lawyer had left the War Department, “with whom he is known to have quarreled,“ under a cloud. Finally, Flood argued that the select committee had been created to investigate wartime expenditures and not to second-guess generals on “matters beyond the jurisdiction of the committee.“

Flood’s dissent, with its patriotic ring, found enough sympathy that Chairman Graham took a rare step. He recalled the already approved Johnson report. Three hours of acrimonious debate followed.

In the end, Johnson bowed to pressure not to hold up the select committee’s report any further, and on March 3 he struck from his draft any imputation that American lives had been needlessly sacrificed on Armistice Day. The New York Times took the Dan Flood view, editorializing that the charge of wasted life “has impressed a great many civilians as being well founded. . [But,] the civilian view [that] there should have been no shot fired if the commander of a unit had been notified of the signing is, of course, untenable. . Orders are orders.“

American forces weren’t alone in launching assaults on the last day. The British high command, still stinging from its retreat at Mons during the first days of the war in August 1914, judged that nothing could be more appropriate than to retake the city on the war’s final day. British Empire losses on November 11 totaled some twenty-four hundred. The French commander of the 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two simultaneous orders that morning: one to launch an attack at 9 a.m., the other to cease fire at 11. Total French losses on the final day amounted to an estimated 1,170.

The Germans, in the always-perilous posture of retreat, suffered some 4,120 casualties. Losses on all sides that day approached eleven thousand dead, wounded, and missing.

Indeed, Armistice Day exceeded the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day, with this difference: The men storming the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on November 11, 1918, lost their lives in a war that the Allies had already won.

Had Marshal Foch heeded the appeal of Matthias Erzberger on November 8 to stop hostilities while the talks went on, some sixty-six hundred lives would likely have been saved. In the end, Congress found no one culpable for the deaths that had occurred during the last day, even the last hours of World War I. The issue turned out much as General Sherburne predicted in his testimony. Soon, except among their families, the men who died for nothing when they might have known long life “would all be forgotten.“

When Palestinian Arabs and Jews fought the Nazis side by side

Less known, however, is the story of the thousands of Palestinian Arabs who disregarded the mufti’s pro-Axis policies and instead opted to fight against Adolf Hitler’s henchmen.

Prof. Mustafa Abbasi, a historian at Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel, has found that some 12,000 Arab Palestinians volunteered to serve in the British army during the Second World War in North Africa and Europe, often fighting side by side with Jews.

Abbasi’s findings were published in a recent issue of the Cathedra periodical titled “Palestinians Fighting the Nazis: The Story of Palestinian Volunteers in World War II.”

“Many of the (Arab Palestinians) lost their lives, others were wounded and many are still missing,” Abbasi’s research reads. “It appears that an important and central portion of the Palestinian public believed that it was necessary to stand on the British side, to postpone nationalist demands, to fight as one against the Germans and their allies, and to demand recompense at the end of the war.”

Significant scholarly attention has been devoted to the Jewish volunteers who served in the British army and later formed what was known as the Jewish Brigade from 1944 to 1946, where historians estimate that 30,000 Palestinian Jews served. But there is scant reference to the thousands of Arab Palestinians who did the same.

“They didn’t accept the mufti’s policies, who met with Hitler and tried to get some kind of promise (of a state),” Abbasi tells The Media Line. “The Arabs and the Jews were in mixed units and fought together.”

Abbasi’s research is based on primary and secondary sources from the British National Archives, Hagana Archives, Central Zionist Archives and local Arab newspapers from the time.

According to him, the mufti lost much of his support among the Palestinian Arab population after 1937. That year, the British police issued a warrant for his arrest owing to his role in the 1936-1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. To evade arrest, Husseini fled the country and took refuge in French Mandatory Lebanon, the Kingdom of Iraq and later fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

Abbasi decided to research the matter of Palestinian volunteers after discovering that his own maternal grandfather had volunteered in the British army during the war. He believes this chapter of history has mostly been overlooked due to Palestinian historiography focusing on the opposition to Zionism and the struggle with British rule.

“We’re talking about a very painful subject matter for many families who lost sons and nobody mentions them,” Abbasi says. “A large part didn’t want to say that their sons were in fact on the British side (during World War II).”

Economic incentives

While some Arab Palestinian volunteers were motivated to fight against Nazism for ideological reasons, Abbasi notes that economic motives were the deciding factor for the majority. In fact, many of those who applied to recruitment offices were poor villagers or city dwellers. The British army provided benefits to those who served, including low-priced food, clothing and medical care.

Dr. Esther Webman, a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, says that many Arabs at the time had mixed feelings toward Nazi Germany but that a minority were indeed fascinated by Hitler’s ideology.

“(The Arabs) thought that Germany was a kind of tool that could bring them independence, since Britain and France weren’t really showing any signs that they intended to evacuate the region at the time,” Webman says.

She added that the Germans were viewed by some as the “savior of the Palestinians” following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British government expressed support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

The mufti was among those who held this view, Webman says, and he attempted to pose as the leader of the Palestinians, Muslims and the Arab world.

“(Husseini) was recognized by Arab leaders,” she says. “He attended conferences and meetings and so on and so forth, but he really didn’t have the power and after the war, in retrospect, he was seen by many Palestinian intellectuals and others as a person who harmed the Palestinian cause rather than helped it.”

Nevertheless, even though he lost some of his influence after 1937, Webman asserts that Husseini continued to have a following and “encouraged violence.” His followers, she says, “would terrorize other Palestinians with different views.”

Unlike the mufti, his political adversaries in Palestine – such as the influential Nashashibi clan – were prepared to compromise with the British and allow for the land to be divided into two areas, one Jewish and one Arab.

“There were a whole range of attitudes toward Nazi Germany,” Webman says. “Unfortunately, the image of the mufti and his collaboration with the Nazis kind of paints everything else, which is really unrepresentative of the situation.”

‘Many questions to be answered’

So why is the story of Arab Palestinian soldiers fighting the Nazis not more widely known?

“The whole topic (in academia) of Nazi Germany and the Middle East or Arab responses to Nazi Germany and to Nazism and fascism started really only in the late 1990s,” Webman says. “It’s not that it was excluded intentionally, but now it is really part of a growing area of research and many questions remain to be answered.”

Dr. David Motadel, an associate professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), discusses the Palestinian soldiers in his book “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War” (Harvard University Press, 2014).

“It is correct that there has never been a major public debate about these soldiers,” Motadel says. “The same is true for other volunteers from the imperial world who fought in the Second World War. The contribution of colonial soldiers to the war effort has been marginalized in our popular narratives of the Second World War.”

He describes the number of Palestinian soldiers in the British army as “relatively small” compared to the numbers of volunteers from other parts of the empire.

“The British Indian Army, for example, grew to more than two million men during the war,” Motadel says. “Still, Arabs played a major role in the Allied war effort. We should not forget the legendary Arab Legion of Transjordan, which fought under British command in different parts of the Middle East.”

From French North Africa, he says, 134,000 Algerians, 73,000 Moroccans and 26,000 Tunisians helped the Allied forces liberate Europe.

Like Webman, Motadel argues that the Arab reaction to Nazism “is difficult to assess” due to the diverse range of opinions and the absence of a dominant narrative.

“In Mandate Palestine, parts of the Arab population sided with Nazi Germany – the enemy of their imperial oppressor,” he says. “We should not underestimate, as in other parts of the imperial world, anti-British resentments. Yet, on the other side… there was also much criticism of Europe’s authoritarian regimes and sympathy for the Allied cause.”

One of the main divisions that emerged at the time was between the influential Husseini family, which supported the Axis efforts, and its rivals, the Nashashibi clan, which supported the Allied powers.

For Abbasi, one of the goals of his research is to shed light on a lesser-known chapter of 20th century history and expose how Arab Palestinians and Jews once worked together.

“In the history of two peoples in this land, there are positive periods filled with cooperation,” Abbasi says. “If we did this in the past, it’s possible that we can do the same in the future. It all depends on us.”

Article written by Maya Margit. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line

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