Letters and written correspondence played a vital role in maintaining the flow of communication during World War One, along with the postal service, which provided a crucial link between British troops on the front line and the rest of the world.
As we approach the Centenary of the end of the First World War, Royal Mail has partnered with world-renowned historian Sir Richard J. Evans to identify five key pieces of written correspondence that marked the end of the conflict in November 1918.
Letter One: Bulgaria Collapses
The State Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Paul von Hintze, Berlin, to the Representative of the German Foreign Office at the Army Grand Headquarters, Spa, Ambassador Baron von Lersner.
“According to the most recent reports from Bulgaria we must give up the game there. From a political point of view, therefore, there is no point in our keeping our troops there, let alone reinforcing them. On the contrary, it would be politically desirable to evacuate them from Bulgaria itself, so that we do not push the Bulgarian government over to the side of the enemy.”
Background from Sir Richard Evans: The collapse of Bulgaria led directly to a German request for an armistice on 6 October. By this time, the military situation had made it necessary fully to accept the terms offered by the Allies as a basis for talks. The German military leadership, hoping to secure better terms, agreed to the formation of a new, democratic government led by the liberal, Prince Max von Baden.
These terms were formulated by US President Woodrow Wilson, who was now calling the shots as American forces and resources flooded onto the war-weary Western front. Wilson had previously issued his 14 Points for peace, which included: the evacuation of all occupied territory, the ending of secret diplomacy, the right to self-determination of all nations, the formation of an independent Poland from territory ceded by Germany, Russia and Austria, the creation of a League of Nations, and other - in retrospect - idealistic conditions for the post-war world.
In a speech delivered on 27 September 1918 Wilson reinforced these points. The German government did not accept the 14 Points outright in its communication of 6 October, only regarding them as a basis for negotiations. Following the collapse of Bulgaria, the new German government sent a formal request to Wilson to bring the hostilities to an end.
Letter Two: The Germans Request an Armistice
German Imperial Chancellor (Prince Max von Baden) to President Wilson
“The German Government requests the President of the United States of America to take steps for the restoration of peace, to notify all belligerents of this request, and to invite them to delegate plenipotentiaries for the purpose of taking up negotiations. The German Government accepts, as a basis for the peace negotiations, the program laid down by the President of the United States in his message to Congress of January 8, 1918, and in his subsequent pronouncements, particularly in his address of September 27, 1918. In order to avoid further bloodshed the German Government requests to bring about the immediate conclusion of a general armistice on land, on water, and in the air.”
Background from Sir Richard Evans: As the influence of Germany and its allies continued to deteriorate, the British and French governments were able to press Wilson into making his terms for an Armistice harsher.
In his third note to the German government, Wilson insisted that the armistice terms must make it impossible for the Germans to renew hostilities, and declared he would not negotiate with a ‘monarchical autocrat’ - thus effectively requiring the abdication of the Kaiser. Prince Max von Baden forced the resignation of the German military leadership, and negotiations began in earnest.
However with increasingly unpopular and ineffective leadership, worsening conditions in the Empire and a disintegrating Italian front following the Italian victory at Piave, at this point Germany’s principal ally, the Habsburg Empire of Austria-Hungary, was forced to withdraw from the conflict. This marked the death-knell for the Central Powers.
The surrender of Bulgaria also threatened the Habsburg Empire from the south and east, and in the following weeks, one part of the Empire after another effectively declared its independence. Revolutions broke out everywhere, and Karl, like Emperor Wilhelm of Germany, was forced to abdicate and go into exile.
Letter Three: Austria-Hungary Leaves the War
The Austro-Hungarian Emperor Karl to Kaiser Wilhelm II.
It is my duty, heavily though it lies upon me, to inform you that My People are neither able nor willing to continue the war.
I do not have the right to oppose this wish, since I no longer hope for a favourable outcome. The moral and technical preconditions for it are lacking, and useless blood-letting would be a crime that my conscience forbids me to commit.
Internal order and the monarchical principle will be seriously imperilled if we do not immediately bring the fight to an end. Even the most intimate feelings of brotherhood and friendship must give way in the face of the consideration that I must save those states with whose fate Divine Providence has entrusted me.
Therefore I am announcing to You that I have taken the irrevocable decision to seek within 24 hours a separate peace and an immediate armistice.
I can do no other, my conscience as Ruler commands me to act.
In faithful friendship,
Background from Sir Richard Evans: By the end of October, the Germans had been left without allies, and were unable to fight on alone. Facing advancing enemies in the West and South, they had no alternative but to accept whatever armistice terms they were offered by the Allies.
The new German government sent Matthias Erzberger - Minister without Portfolio - to France to conclude terms. The delegations met in a railway carriage parked in a siding.
The government hoped that as a civilian well known for his opposition to a continuation of the war, Erzberger would be treated sympathetically by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the French supreme commander of the Allied forces. However, it quickly because clear that Foch and his chief of staff had expected top-ranking German military officers, and that there was no room for compromise or negotiation.
The First Sea Lord Sir Robert Wemyss headed the British delegation, and his deputy, Rear-Admiral Sir George Price Webley Hope, was also present in the railway, inspiring the next letter in our series, carried by the Army postal service back to England.
Letter Four: The Germans Sign The Armistice
Rear-Admiral Sir George Hope to Lady Hope,
A Train in Compiègne Forest, Friday, 8 November 1918
Sir Robert Wemyss reached Paris this morning, and we got off after lunch, in three cars, arriving at Marshal Foch’s headquarters about 4. Wemyss went in to see him fir a few minutes and we then went on to General Du Caine’s château for tea. He is the Principal British Liaison Officer.
We arrived at the station of Senlis at 5 p.m. and embarked in our train, and as soon as the Marshal arrived the train started for a destination unknown to us. We got here about 7, and are in a siding in the middle of a beautiful forest, cut off from the world except by telephone. We dined after we stopped and then met the Marshal and his staff. He has only got half a dozen – General Weygand, his chief of staff, and others whose names I don’t yet know. They are all as charming as possible, and we are most comfortable.
The British have a wagon-lit to ourselves with all possible conveniences: there are several other wagon-lits and a dining saloon, the Marshal’s own saloon, and one or two saloon cars fitted up as offices, typing and telephone rooms.
The Bosches ought to have arrived at midnight but only got here at 7 a.m. in a train similar to ours, which pulled up in a siding about 100 yards away.
As soon as they arrived Weygand went to their train and intimated that, if they wished to see the Marshal, he would be disposed to receive them in his train at 9 a.m. exactly.
The party consists of four plenipotentiaries and two officer interpreters. There are two civliians – Erzberger, the Catholic Liberal Deputy and Secretary of State, Minister Count Oberndorff (a diplomat), Major-General von Winterfeldt and Captain Vanselow of the German Navy. The Bosches evidently wish to make it principally a civilian affair, and the French and we are very angry with them for only sending military and naval officers of a rather subordinate rank.
At 9 a.m. the party approached in single file and got into the conference carriage where, with the exception of Foch and Wemyss, who remained in the Marshal’s saloon, we received them stiffly but courteously. The Bosches looked most uncomfortable and rather nervous. Weygand then said he would announce their arrival to the Marshal and went to fetch him. Foch and Wemyss then entered and exchanged salutes and we lined up on each side of the table.
Foch then asked the reason for their visit and they said they had come to hear the Allies’ propositions for the creation of an Armistice. The Marshal then said he had no propositions to make so Oberndorff read an extract from President Wilson’s last despatch. That would not do for Foch and he asked them definitely to state if they had come to ask for an armistice. On their saying such was the case, Foch asked for their credentials and he and Wemyss retired to examine them.
On their return, Foch asked Erzberger to introduce the members of the mission and then did the same for us. He then informed them that he was empowered by the Allied Governments to communicate to them the terms on which the Armistice would be granted. The terms were then read out to them and evidently made them squirm, but they were probably prepared for most of them as they must know the present military position and the state of mutiny in the fleet. When the reading of the terms was completed Winterfeldt had the cheek to ask for a suspension of hostilities in order to save further loss of life. Of course Foch refused and they then asked for copies of the terms, for facilities to send a radio message to their Government. This was agreed to, and they then retired till 4.30, when we meet them again to go through the clauses.
Erzberger was very nervous at first and spoke with some difficulty, the general awfully sad, the diplomat very much on the alert, and the naval officer sullen and morose.
Sunday [10 November]
Here we are still in the same place and are no farther at present as the courier did not pass the lines till after 2 yesterday afternoon.”
Background from Sir Richard Evans: As Foch made clear, there was no negotiation; the Germans simply had to accept the terms offered.
Wilson outlined that he expected the Kaiser to abdicate - which he did on 9 November - and as a mutiny staged by German sailors objecting to their officers’ decision to sail the fleet into the North Sea and go down fighting, developed into a nationwide revolution, the Social Democrats - who had long opposed the war - came to power.
Eventually, in 1919, the Paris Peace Settlement imposed harsh terms on Germans, which again they were forced to accept. This included the cession of 13 per cent of the territory of the Reich, the creation of a new state of Poland, and the payment of huge financial reparations for the damage caused in the German occupation of northern France, Belgium and Luxemburg.
Letter Five: German Forces in East Africa Learn of the Armistice
Lieutenant-General Sir Jacob van Deventer to Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, intercepted by German forces on 13 November 1918.
To be fwded. Via M.B. cable and despatch rider.
Send following to Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck under white flag. The Prime Minister of England has announced that an armistice was signed at 5 hours on Nov. 11th, and that hostilities on all fronts cease at 11 hours on Nov. 11th. I am ordering my troops to cease hostilities forthwith unless attacked, and of course I conclude that you will do the same. Conditions of armistice will be forwarded to you immediately I receive them. Meanwhile I suggest that you should remain in your present vicinity in order to facilitate communication. –General van Deventer.
Background from Sir Richard Evans: The British postal service was responsible for mail not only within Europe but also in other theatres of war, such as East Africa. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, German commander in Tanganyika, had waged a successful guerrilla campaign against the British since the beginning of the war. His troops had intercepted this letter. He could not believe that the Kaiser had abdicated and got in touch with the British High Commissioner asking for confirmation.
Eventually he was given credible evidence that this was not a ruse designed to trick him into abandoning the struggle, and signed a formal cessation of hostilities on 25 November 1918. In the following peace settlement, all the German colonies were mandated by the League of Nations to other countries; Tanganyika went to the British, becoming independent in 1961 and then joining with Zanzibar in 1964 to form the state of Tanzania.
Sir Richard J. Evans commented: “The First World War was a vast global conflict in which effective communication was often a matter of life or death; and the written word - alongside the postal service -played a crucial role in this.
From organising military communications by letter or telegram, to distributing millions of private letters and postcards from troops to loved ones at home, postal service personnel sorted and distributed all manner of letters in many theatres of war ranging from the Dardanelles to Africa, the Somme to the Middle East. Their contribution was vital for morale and deserves to be remembered and marked on this momentous occasion.”
Mark Street, Head of Campaigns at Royal Mail commented: “As one of the guardians of the written word, we seek to mark the role played by the postal service in major historical events. As these letters attest, the role of letters and telegrams played a crucial role in maintaining the flow of communication on all sides during the First World War – and perhaps more potently, bringing it to an end.”
A Brief History Of British Mail During World War One:
- On the eve of war the postal service not only handled a yearly total of 5.9 billion items of mail but was responsible for the nation’s telegraph and telephone systems. Many of these services changed as a result of the First World War and the Post Office was crucial to both Britain’s communications and war effort during this great conflict.
- The postal service had its own battalion comprised entirely of postal staff: the Post Office Rifles (POR). Receiving hundreds of gallantry awards and one Victoria Cross, approximately 12,000 men joined the colours with the POR.
- Responsible for army mails in all theatres of war, the Army Postal Service not only handled mail between Britain and forces abroad but coordinated communications between units at the front. With the onset of trench warfare, all mail bound for troops on the Western Front were sorted at the London Home Depot by the end of 1914. During the war the Home Depot handled a staggering 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels.
- In France, the Army Postal Service established base depots at Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais and mail was carried with munitions on supply trains to the front. In 1917 over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day. Germany, Austria and other combatant nations also had their own field postal services, but an investigation carried out after the war concluded that the British postal service was by far the most effective.
- With nearly a quarter of the workforce enlisted with the army, thousands of temporary workers were drafted in by the postal service, which included 35,000 women.