Which document officially ended the First World War?

The First World War

Wolfgang Kruse

Apl. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kruse, born in 1957, is an academic senior counselor and adjunct professor in the field of Modern German and European History at the Historical Institute of the Distance University in Hagen. His main research interests include the history of the First World War, the history of the French Revolution, the history of the German and international labor movement and the history of the political cult of the dead. Among others, von Kruse has published: Wolfgang Kruse: The First World War, Darmstadt 2009 (history compact of the WBG).

At the end of 1918 the old order collapsed, its representatives had run down and surrendered without a fight. The revolutionary movement ended the rule of princes in Germany and paved the way for a democratic republic. However, it remained shaped by the pre-democratic structures as well as by the upheavals of the war.

"Germans remember!" - Historical caricature on the stab in the back legend

It would undoubtedly be too deterministic and also too simple if one wanted to state that the German Empire, founded in three wars by the "white revolutionary" (Lothar Gall) Bismarck, had to end in war and revolution. But it was not a historical coincidence either. The First World War, at the center of which was the German attempt to conquer supremacy on the European continent, ultimately led to the downfall of an empire that was ultimately unable to cope with the strains of the increasingly total war that required the tension of all social forces. There were also long-term, structural causes behind this. Internally, it had long been harder and harder for the empire to compensate for the escalating contradictions between the high level of modernity and dynamism of its socio-economic basis on the one hand, and the encrusted socio-political relations of domination stubbornly defended by traditional elites on the other. Against this background, the empire had developed claims to rule with its world politics, which despite all the modernization dynamics increasingly pointed beyond its own economic and social basis. This became more and more evident, especially during the First World War, and ultimately led to the total victory peace policy of the 3rd Supreme Army Command (OHL) in the erosion of the economic basis, social cohesion and the political legitimacy of the ruling order. The military and political collapse of 1918 was the result of this development, which resulted in the revolutionary replacement of the monarchy by a parliamentary-democratic republic.

The military collapse

When, on September 29, 1918, the OHL called on the Reich government to initiate armistice negotiations immediately, the military collapse that was now becoming clear came as a surprise to politicians and the public. At the beginning of the year, the German Reich and its allies had forced a comprehensive victory peace on Bolshevik Russia in Brest-Litovsk and subsequently brought the war opponents to the brink of defeat in the West with the spring offensives. No enemy soldier was on German soil; on the contrary, German troops controlled large territories in Europe. Nevertheless, the OHL was right when it came to the conclusion in its analysis of the situation that the military situation threatened to become hopeless.

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From the lecture of the major in the General Staff von dem Bussche to the parliamentary group leaders of the Reichstag on October 2, 1918

... In spite of this, the Supreme Army Command had to make the extremely difficult decision to declare that, according to human judgment, there is no longer any prospect of forcing peace on the enemy.
Two facts are decisive for the outcome: the tanks. The enemy uses them in unexpectedly large quantities ... where they occur surprisingly, the nerves of our people were often no longer up to them ... The success of the tanks is the result of the high number of prisoners, which so significantly reduce our strength and a faster consumption of reserves than before used to bring about, to explain. We were not in a position to oppose the enemy with the same masses of German tanks. To produce them was beyond the power of our extremely strained industry, or other important things should have been left behind.

The substitute situation has become completely decisive ... The ongoing substitution, recovery, combed out, will not even cover the losses of a quiet winter campaign. Only the recruitment of 1900 will increase the battalion strength by 100 members. Then our last human reserve will be used up ... These findings and the events gave rise to the decision of General Field Marshal and General Ludendorff to propose to his Magesty to the Kaiser to try to break off the fight in order to spare the German people and their allies further victims. Every 24 hours can worsen the situation and let the enemy see our real weakness.

Prince Max v. Baden, who did not know about this event, asked a participant to describe the effects of this opening:

The MPs were utterly broken. Ebert (MSPD, WK) went dead pale and couldn't get a word out, Stresemann (Nationalliberale, WK) looked as if something was going to happen to him, only Count Westarp (Conservatives, WK) protested against the unreserved acceptance of the fourteen points. Minister von Waldow (head of the War Food Office) is said to have left the room with the words: Now all that remains is to shoot a bullet through your head. - The "Pole" (MP from the formerly Polish parts of Prussia) Seyda came out first, beaming. The Independent Haase rushed to the Independent Ledebour with the word: Now we have them! "



From: Ernst Johann, Interior View of a War, p. 332f.

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The German offensives in quick succession in the spring and early summer of 1918 brought territorial gains that had not been possible since the end of the War of Movement in 1914. But a decisive breakthrough could not be achieved, mainly because there was only an inadequate supply. And when the Allied troops, which were now strengthened by the growing US armed forces, were much better supplied and equipped, counterattacked in the summer, the completely exhausted German soldiers no longer had much to counter them. On August 8th, which went down in war history with the words of General Ludendorff as the "black day of the German army", the Allies at Amiens achieved a decisive breakthrough through the German front line, which could only be absorbed by large-scale retreats. At the same time the front began to dissolve. Since they had reached the end of their strength and now completely lost the belief in a victory, there was a kind of "covert military strike" (Wilhelm Deist) of the German soldiers: Many now refused to leave the trenches to fight, whole troops let themselves be captured voluntarily; About one million soldiers made their way home independently, and the first soldiers' councils began to be formed. After the judgment of Major Ludwig Beck, only a "spider web of fighters" held the front together.

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Excerpt from the American note of October 23, 1918 to the Reich government

But he (Wilson) feels it is his duty to declare lately that the only armistice he would consider legitimate to propose to them would be one that would leave the United States and the Powers associated with it in one position in which they are able to add sufficient strength to any agreement that would have to be made to make a resumption of hostilities on the part of Germany impossible. [...]

The President feels that it would not be sincere if he did not emphasize, as clearly as possible, why extraordinary safeguards are required. As significant and important as the constitutional amendments appear to be, of which the German State Secretary for Foreign Affairs speaks in his note of October 20, it does not follow from them that the principles of a government responsible for the German people have now been fully adopted, or that a guarantee exists or is being considered so that the system change and the implementation of the measures, on which an agreement has now been partially reached, will be permanent. In addition, it is not exactly clear whether the crux of the present question has been hit. It is possible that future wars have now been brought under control. But the present war wasn't. And it is about the present war. It is clear that the German people have no means of ordering that the German military authorities submit to the will of the people, that the power of the King of Prussia should control the politics of the Reich hold, it is still indestructible that the decisive initiative still rests with those who have been the rulers of Germany up to now.

Feeling that all world peace now depends on speaking clearly and acting sincerely and clearly, the President considers it his duty, without making any attempt to soften words that might be considered harsh, to say that the peoples of the world have no confidence in the words of those who have ruled German politics up to now, and also to emphasize that in making peace and trying to undo the endless sufferings and injustices of this war, the government of the United States can negotiate with none other than the representatives of the German people, which offer better guarantees for a true constitutional attitude than the local rulers of Germany.

If negotiations now have to be made with the military rulers and monarchist autocrats of Germany, it can and must only have the prospect that we will later also have to do with them in regulating the international obligations of the German Reich. Then Germany cannot negotiate any peace conditions, but must surrender. These essential things cannot be left unsaid. Please accept the expression of my special respect.

Signed Robert Lansing



From: Gerhard A. Ritter and Susanne Miller (eds.), The German Revolution 1918-1919. Documents, Hamburg 1975, pp. 18-20.

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Added to this was the increasingly obvious collapse of the allies. In September, both the Bulgarian and Turkish fronts were breached across the board in the Balkans. Bulgaria has already requested a ceasefire. Austria-Hungary also made an offer of peace to the Entente on September 14th and urged Germany to agree to an armistice, which the new Reich leadership finally proposed officially to the Entente on October 4th at the urging of the OHL. The peace negotiations were to take place on the basis of the 14-point program in which American President Woodrow Wilson laid down his demands for the right of peoples to self-determination, freedom of world trade and the establishment of a League of Nations in January 1918. But ending the war was not as easy as the government and OHL imagined. For the victorious Allied powers first demanded far-reaching concessions and, above all, were not prepared to negotiate the terms of an armistice with the representatives of the old Prussian-German military monarchy. On the other hand, their demands for territorial renunciation and democratic reorganization were rejected on the German side as unconditional surrender and gave rise to considerations about a continuation of the war.

The October reforms

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Letter from the Vice Sergeant and later Social Democratic Minister of Justice Gustav Radbruch from the French front to his wife Lydia, autumn 1918

October 7, 1918

[...] Because of the low strength of the companies, each battalion will in future only have 3, the fourth will be split up. This was the fate of my old company because it simply couldn't get out of its shelters during the recent attacks. Another company was sick except for five men; It was similar with a third, and only one company finally took to the assault. The mood is for peace at all costs and will probably not be whipped up even by the most unfavorable conditions. The view is everywhere: Any hour can bring the truce, the conditions will probably be terrible. (Compensation for everything!), But we will hardly be able to do otherwise now. Hopefully our people will be spared further fighting and losses before the armistice. To suffer losses for a lost cause so immediately before peace is reached must be dreadful for loved ones. Everything has also become quiet again.


November 5, 1918

Tomorrow evening we'll come in peace. They were difficult days, of course less for me than for our people, who are utterly exhausted. Three companies reported sick in corpore, in a more or less blatant form of insubordination. The losses we suffered for nothing in these last days of the war had nervously brought the exhausted old people to total collapse. [...]


November 13, 1918

The armistice brought us out of a dangerous situation. Had it failed, the American attack would have taken place immediately and we would have been left without any support, as the young troops were on strike behind us. Our men were difficult to persuade to take up positions at all after hearing that the 178s had refused to relieve us and almost left the position. [...]



From: Gustav Radbruch, letters. Edited by Erik Wolf, Göttingen 1968, p. 66f.

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On October 3rd, a new government had already been formed under Chancellor Max von Baden, which now also included representatives of the majority parties in the Reichstag, including the majority Social Democrats. This formation of the new government had been politically prepared by the majority parties in the Reichstag, but at the same time it represented a demand of the OHL, which absolutely needed a ceasefire, wanted to accommodate the demands of the Allies and at the same time, in the words of Ludendorff, the "leftist parties the odium of this peace treaty" and wanted to prepare the stab in the back legend. The constitutional reforms finally passed by the Reichstag at the end of October brought about a formal legal transition from constitutional to parliamentary monarchy. However, it was still unclear how the political balance of power should be designed, especially the relationship between the representatives of the people and the emperor who remained at the top of the state. The state of siege and military rule persisted for the time being, the war never came to an end. Fantasies of a possibly necessary "final battle for life and death" (Max v. Baden) were widespread among the leadership elites, and with Wilhelm II's flight to the military headquarters on October 29, "back to the core of the Prussian military state, so to speak" (Hans-Ulrich Wehler), also seemed to be preparing a counter-attack domestically. But it did not get to that. The confusing political scene was put on a completely new basis at the beginning of November, when Germany was hit by a revolution and only the prerequisites for a definitive break with the old order and a fundamental new beginning were created.

The revolution

Demonstration in Unter den Linden on November 9, 1918: Troops join the strikers. In the background the old library and the Kaiser Wilhelms palace. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

The revolutionary movement, especially of workers and soldiers, which swept away the princely rule in Germany at the beginning of November 1918 and forced an immediate armistice, began among the sailors of the high seas. Politically charged mutinies had already broken out here in 1917, which resulted in harsh reprisals - among other things. five sailors were sentenced to death and two of them were executed - knocked down. When the naval war command wanted to let the capital ships in Kiel run out for a last major battle on October 29, the sailors refused, allied themselves with the workers of the coastal cities and spontaneously formed workers 'and soldiers' councils here, as soon as in other cities as well Were carriers of the revolution. At first, the councils wanted above all to force an immediate end to the war, the abolition of the military hierarchy and the lifting of the state of siege.But soon their political demands went far beyond that and aimed at the overthrow of the monarchy. On November 7th, the King of Bavaria was forced to abdicate by a popular movement led by USPD politician Kurt Eisner, and the princes of the German federal states followed within a few days. On November 9th, the revolutionary movement also reached the capital of Berlin. The USPD leadership and the revolutionary leaders had actually planned the overthrow for November 11th, but two days before a largely unorganized uprising of the masses created new facts. The emperor fled into exile in Holland, Chancellor Max von Baden handed over his office to the majority Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert. His party comrade Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the republic at the Reichstag, followed by the Spartacist Karl Liebknecht, who proclaimed the socialist republic at the palace. Government power was now taken over by the "Council of People's Representatives", which was formed equally by the SPD and the USPD under the joint leadership of Friedrich Ebert and Hugo Haase.

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Karl Liebknecht's notes on the preparations for November 9, 1918

October 25, 1918. The extended party executive committee (with advisory board) of the USP decides to appoint Liebknecht to the party executive committee.
L. is ready to accept the appeal if the USP changes its program and tactics at an immediately called party congress in the interests of the “Internationale” group (Spartakusbund) and safeguards it by designing its leadership accordingly. After a lengthy negotiation, L. declares that he will find out more about the latest developments in the USP, which it has been claimed to have led to a complete agreement with the views of the International Group, and, if this examination leads to a different opinion, that he will be informed wanting to do; L. asks the party executive committee to comment on his proposal just in case. - This matter has been suspended since then.

October 26th. Meeting of the workers' council. Resolution: to work together with the Spartakusbund in the forthcoming actions, to undertake separate measures only with mutual consent; Expansion of the workers 'council through workers' shop stewards from the Spartakus group and several members of the Spartakuszentrale (for workers 'council and executive committee of the workers' council). Whenever national defense is proclaimed, it should go all out. "All or nothing!" […]

30th of October. Berlin's central board of the USP rejects Sunday demonstrations. “All or nothing” - that is, nothing. Our view that there are possibilities, intermediate stages between the previously usual demonstrations and the revolutionary final struggle, in which the maturing of the conditions for the final struggle can accelerate, is again ironicized and rejected as revolutionary gymnastics, as in other deliberations. L. is against the mechanical view, which places too much emphasis on technical preparation. The mass movement is the only essential thing. Large crowds on the streets are also strongest against the military and police, even when unarmed. They complicate the police or military use of weapons and are the strongest pressure to fraternize (brotherhood) or at least demoralize the armed power. [...]

November 2nd, early. Executive Committee of the Workers' Council: On November 4th, the whole thing is to be gone. We vigorously for it.

November 2nd, evening. Workers' Council: Unfavorable sentiment reports from the Revolutionary Obleute. Night session. The technical preparation for Monday (November 4th) will be impossible. Motion of the board: “To postpone the matter, workers' council should meet again on Wednesday, November 6th. Technical preparations are still necessary, organization, etc. to be supplemented. ”It is stated that the workers' council almost exclusively covers the metal industry and does not cover this completely. If “everything”, then we do it; if “nothing”, then not. In the event that not "everything" should be decided, so our request, in order to save what can be saved:

On Tuesday at the latest at 9 o'clock in the morning to go into a mass strike, followed by armed demonstrations, under the increasing slogans in the course of the action: "Immediate peace and lifting of the state of siege - Germany socialist republic - formation of a government of workers and soldiers' councils ".

Of course also leaflets etc. to soldiers.

Another request from another party: sympathy (solidarity) strikes against the convocation.

Resolution in which only the representatives, workers' representatives, vote: "Everything" rejected by 19 votes to 22; our motion rejected against 2 votes; Postponement to Wednesday. November 3rd, early. L. at Ledebour, Däumig, etc. (USP-Führer, WK), in order to call a workers' council for Sunday or Monday in order to enforce earlier decisive action. On November 3rd, two meetings of closer corporations were rejected - wait, etc. The two chairmen (the chairmen) Barth and Müller then explain to L. that the postponement is useful in their opinion; technical preparations were still to be made, etc. Even if the vote of the chairmen had resulted in a majority for "everything", the action was ruled out, since for this one needed the overall mood of at least the overwhelming majority of the workers. On November 4th, 5th. L.'s request to strike before Monday (November 11th) refused. Thursday and Friday are wage payment days. The workers could not be brought out there. L.'s view that this could not apply to the revolutionary era is rejected as impractical.

On the 5th of November. [...] at Däumig and then at the meeting of the executive committee, once again suggesting acceleration, especially because of Kiel and so on. - declined. November 6th. Workers' Council: L.'s urgent motion to strike on Friday the 8th. Neither the “technical preparations” nor the mass of leaflets (that is, those calling for action, signed by the members of the Action Committee) are decisive; a few copies are sufficient for each company if the content ignites. Further hesitation, highly dubious - because of the movement in the Reich, the danger of disorganization and spies, and the danger that the Scheidemanns might seize the movement - rejected.

November 7th. Meeting of the executive committee of the USP and advisory board with executive committee. We (Liebknecht and Pieck) demand: the faster the better, even if before Berlin. It turns out that the province had been ordered by Berlin couriers not to advance to Berlin, and that therefore action in the Rhineland, where it was planned for Saturday, was postponed.

Liebknecht proposes that the gatherings to celebrate the Russian Revolution, which are forbidden, be organized into a large rally by gathering those pouring out into one place. The motion is rejected against L.'s and Düsseldorf's vote - “all or nothing”; speakers should not try to speak despite the prohibition; they are not supposed to go to the meeting places at all; it should not be hindered, but nothing should be done either. You want to wait and see how things develop. L.'s proposal is called forcing. Düsseldorf accuses Berlin of not doing what it demands of the province itself.

Since November 3rd, Däumig, Barth, Müller, etc. have stereotypically countered all demands for an acceleration of the action: Everything is now prepared for November 11th; it is technically impossible to make the revolution earlier! All of L.'s protests against this grossly mechanical conception ricocheted off until the objective conditions overran the super-clever revolutionary manufacturers.

Early on November 8th, Franke was at Liebknecht's, who explained to him that it was impossible to wait any longer, otherwise the government socialists would come before us; the masses can no longer be held. The planned executive committee meeting is disrupted by the police, - Däumig arrested, L. aborted; L. meets with Herzfeld and Dittmann (USP leader, WK), to whom L. also communicates his demand to strike out immediately. "The government socialists will surely get ahead of us and embarrass us in front of history and ourselves."

On November 8th, immediate action was finally unanimously set for November 9th, but refused to make a signed leaflet (request to do so). Nevertheless, two leaflets were issued on the morning of the 9th; one by Liebknecht and Meyer (Spartakus, WK) (without the help of L., who was blown off by the police, but with subsequent approval, although it did not contain everything necessary); second, one signed by Barth, Ledebour, Liebknecht, Müller, Pieck, etc.



From: Gerhard A. Ritter and Susanne Miller (eds.), The German Revolution 1918-1919. Documents, Hamburg 1975, pp. 64-67.

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Philipp Scheidemann, Proclamation of the Republic, November 9, 1918. (© DRA) (& copy DRA)
The old order collapsed, its representatives had run down and surrendered without a fight. The repeatedly ventilated plans to lead the soldiers at the front against the revolution turned out to be a chimera in view of the tendency towards disintegration in the army. The revolutionary movement of workers' and soldiers' councils, which were soon joined by people's and peasants' councils, ended the rule of princes in Germany and established a democratic republic. Their efforts going beyond this were by no means aimed, as has long been believed, towards a reorganization based on the Bolshevik model, which was initially aimed at only by a small minority. The great majority of the councils did not want any sovereignty, let alone a council dictatorship, but a parliamentary republic. As became clear at the central Reichsrätekongress from December 16 to 21, 1918, they saw themselves as organs of revolutionary transition, but they also combined efforts towards a fundamental democratization of administration, military, justice and economy as well as the socialization of key industries.

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Memories of General Wilhelm Gröner, Ludendorff's successor as Quartermaster General, of the Supreme Army Command and the armistice on November 9th and 10th, 1918

On the evening of November 9th, the armistice terms arrived at Spa, with 72 hours to be answered, almost half of which had already passed. [...]

On the morning of the 10th, the conditions were communicated to all department heads of the General Staff for examination and comment. Their judgments went to the chief of the operations department, who gave me a lecture together with the chief quartermaster. The three of us then went to the Field Marshal. (Hindenburg, WK) The result of our discussion was sent to Berlin as a report and encrypted to General v. Winterfeldt sent to Compiègne. In dry words, the Reich government was informed that after the events at home had taken the army's back security, the O.H.L. no longer had the option of rejecting the armistice demands or of using arms to force an improvement in the situation. The government drew the conclusions and accepted the terms.

The army command deliberately took the position of rejecting responsibility for the armistice and all subsequent steps. From a strictly legal point of view, it only did so with a limited right, but it was important to me and my staff to keep the gun clean and the general staff unencumbered for the future. But even today I am convinced that without a revolution at home we could have put up resistance at the frontier; It seems to me very doubtful whether the nerves of the homeland would have held out for a defense behind the Rhine; militarily it was conceivable. For the final battle you need a home that stands behind the army; under this condition we could try to enforce better conditions.

The way things had actually worked out in November, however, a change in the situation could no longer be brought about by the army. [...]



From: Gerhard A. Ritter and Susanne Miller (eds.), The German Revolution 1918-1919. Documents, Hamburg 1975, pp. 64-67.

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Most of these goals could not be implemented, mainly because the leadership of the majority social democracy, which had long been integrated into the old system, did not use the scope for further democratization, which historians had differently assessed, and postponed the reorganization until the National Assembly elected in January 1919. Here, in cooperation with the middle-class middle parties of the "Weimar Coalition", which became necessary in view of the majority situation, it was no longer able to achieve many of its own goals. The majority of the trade unions also did not pursue a revolutionary anti-capitalist policy when, on November 9, 1918, they put their cooperation with employers, which had begun during the war, on a new basis by forming a joint central working group. In the further course of the revolution, these developments led to a radicalization of parts of the council movement, whose uprisings were finally brutally suppressed in the spring of 1919 by military units and newly formed volunteer corps. Instead of social democracy, a more conservative republic emerged.

The aftermath of the war

After all, the revolution of 1918 cleared the way for the establishment of a democratic republic, which, however, continued to be shaped by the pre-democratic structures of the empire and the upheavals of the war. The Weimar Republic thus emerged as a child of war and defeat, and it was deeply shaped by it. In general, the post-war order created by the victorious powers in the negotiations on the suburbs in Paris was inadequate in many respects and fueled the already heated national conflicts, especially in Central Europe. In Germany, the dictation provisions of the Versailles Treaty, which were rejected by all parties, not only strengthened foreign policy revisionism. The democratic republic was also in the continuity of the world war ideology with its confrontation of "Western" society and civilization on the one hand, "German" culture and "national community" on the other hand, above all by the political right as imposed by the victors, " un-German "order rejected. On the political left, on the other hand, disappointment about the results of the revolution, which were seen as inadequate, dominated. The split into a social democratic and a communist party, which was now becoming more and more apparent, further weakened the workers' movement. The early years of the republic were thus marked by civil war-like conflicts in which the violence of the war found its domestic political continuation. Nevertheless, it finally succeeded in stabilizing the new order. And in the mid-1920s, when the idea of ​​the "golden" 20s arose, it was by no means clear whether the democratic awakening into modernity or its opponents would prevail in Germany.

Selected literature:

Karl-Ludwig Ay, the emergence of a revolution. The popular mood in Bavaria during the First World War, Berlin 1968.

Boris Barth, stab in the back legends and political disintegration. The trauma of the German defeat in the First World War 1914-1933, Düsseldorf 2003.

Francis L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918-1919, Cologne 1973.

Jörg Düppler (ed.), End of the war 1918. Event, effect, aftermath, Munich 1999.

Ulrich Kluge, The German Revolution 1918/19. State, politics and society between World War I and the Kapp Putsch, Frankf./M. 1984.

Eberhard Kolb, The Peace of Versailles, Munich 2005.

Klaus Schwabe, German Revolution and Wilson Peace. The American and German peace strategy between ideology and power politics, Düsseldorf 1971.

David Stevenson, With our Backs to the Wall. Victory and Defeat in 1918, London 2011.