29 MARCH, 1918: It Came Out Of The Sky

Though the First World War was fought in and around many of Europe’s capital cities, a good few of which spent time under occupation by enemy forces, none of the continent’s self-proclaimed ‘great powers’ ever found its capital on the front line.  Their capitals did all suffer serious social, economic and political upheaval during the War.  London was also bombed, Berlin suffered serious privation, and shortages bit amid rampant political turmoil in Vienna and Rome, while St. Petersburg was engulfed by revolution and fleetingly threatened by the subsequent German invasion.  Only Paris spent the war years close to the actual fighting.

Right at the beginning of the conflict, occupation of Paris had been the German Army’s primary aim.  It had been a close-run thing and, with memories of German occupation during 1870-71 still relatively fresh, the city had spent the autumn of 1914 in a state of high, sometimes frantic alert. The situation had of course stabilised during the next three years, but with the front line about 100km to the east the city was never more than one military failure from disaster, a fact driven home by repeated German bombing raids.

Fear for Paris was in the forefront of French popular, military and political thinking with every subsequent crisis on the Western Front, so when the German spring offensives of 1918 brought fighting back to within 65km of Paris it was like 1914 all over again.  Martial law, evacuation of the Louvre, sandbags around monuments and blackout after dark – the city braced for an intensification of air raids and it came, but so did the Paris Guns.

The German Army had made use of giant ‘Big Bertha’ railway guns at the very start of the War, initially to attack fortresses on the way to France and then to attempt long-range bombardment of French civilian targets.  They had hardly been used since, but in the meantime the Krupps munitions company had been developing an even bigger adaptation.  Known in Germany as the Pariser Kanonen (Paris Gun) – or the Wilhelmrohr or the Wilhelm Geschütz (inevitably, William’s Barrel and William’s Gun) – it was technically the 380mm Max E Railway Gun and was specifically designed to attack Paris from previously impossible distances.

Three Pariser Kanonen were constructed, each with a 210mm barrel, lined to allow firing of a 120kg shell.  By shooting the shell into the stratosphere, where wind resistance was minimal, the guns could attack targets from a distance of about 130km.  Sounds impressive, and this was the ultimate in railway gun design, but it came with some severe operational drawbacks.

Check out my rod! Paris Gun in action, aiming for the stratosphere…

The gun was anything but accurate (although Paris is hard to miss), and it lacked the weight of projectile to cause serious damage when it did hit something.  It was also difficult and costly to use, because firing caused such severe erosion of the barrel that each shell had to be wider than the last and the propellant charge altered accordingly, until the barrel’s width reached about 240mm, after about twenty shots, and it had to be replaced.  None of this really mattered because the job of the Pariser Kanonen, like that of Europe’s growing heavy bomber fleets, was to test the theory that civilian morale would crumble under assault from the sky.

Ready for operation by the spring of 1918, and manoeuvred into position with the greatest secrecy during the opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht Offensive, the three Paris Guns fired their opening shots at Paris on 23 March.  The first shell struck the Place de la République at 7.20 in the morning, and by the end of the day the shelling had killed sixteen people and injured another 29.

Not quite lead story at the height of the German offensive, but close..

The immediate effects of the strike were everything German military planners could have wished for.  Even amid all that shocking news from the front, the Paris Guns caused an absolute sensation in Paris and across the Allied world, prompting fears of urban devastation to match that inflicted on battlefields by heavy artillery. Fear and outraged reached a crescendo, as did popular anxiety in Paris, on the afternoon of 29 March, Good Friday, when a shell collapsed the roof of the church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, just east of city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and exploded in the nave.  Though casualty figures vary, such is the nature of wartime propaganda, I’m going with 91 people killed, including a number of prominent figures, and another 68 injured, but the shock administered to Paris, and to France as a whole, went beyond details.

It came through the roof, obviously – St.-Gervais-Saint-Protais after the attack.

In all – and again figures vary, largely because German records of the operation were later destroyed – the Paris Guns fired about 350 shells in four distinct phases between March and August 1918.  The first phase ended on 1 May, the second ran for two weeks from 27 May, the third for two days in July and the last from 5 to 9 August, after which the guns were moved away from the front as Allied counteroffensives threatened their positions.  The attacks killed a total of 256 Parisians and wounded another 625, but they never again provoked the hint of mass panic that had greeted their first week of operations.

The Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais disaster’s main long-term effect was to discourage Parisians from gathering in crowds.  Casualties diminished accordingly, and the city adapted to the threat in much the same way as cities attacked from the air have been doing ever since.  In one way that’s not really a fair comparison, because by 1918 aircraft were already subjecting cities to much heavier damage, more accurately delivered, than anything the Pariser Kanonen could inflict.  Then again, supporters of the theory always considered the impact of strategic bombing and its offshoots to be primarily psychological, and from that perspective the Paris Guns were yet further evidence that the theory was nonsense, or was until we all went nuclear.

The giant railway guns were never used again after August 1918, and although victorious forces made strenuous efforts to find them after the War, they and the relevant records were presumably destroyed to keep them out of Allied hands.  Despite their limited usefulness, they were not yet fully discredited as a strategic weapon, and the Hitler regime made unsuccessful efforts to revive the type during the Second World War.  Of course National Socialism was always impressed by the gigantic and thoroughly hooked on psychological warfare, excuses for its stupidity that can also be attached to the Luftwaffe’s civilian bombing campaigns during the Spanish Civil War and the Second Word War.   I’m not sure I can come up with any kind of excuses, revenge aside, for the thousand bomber raids carried out in the 1940s by the RAF, which replaced the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service on Easter Monday 1918.

As a postscript, and a curtain raiser to something grimly momentous, I should mention that while Parisians were scanning the sky during the spring shelling in 1918, a much more dangerous killer was flourishing under their noses.  The massive and deadly influenza crisis of the period is well known, but is generally placed in 1919 and 1920, the years of its peak power (especially in Britain and the USA), but the first of two overlapping epidemics had already begun, in Kansas, and was reaching France along with US troops.  The earliest cases attracted public notice in Paris during April 1918, and the flu would be a mounting problem in France for the rest of the year, killing more than 1,300 Parisians in October alone.  After a second strain of influenza struck from the east, reaching Germany later in 1918, the combined epidemic would erupt to kill at least 70 million people across the globe in the immediate postwar period – but that, as I keep saying, is another story.

21 MARCH, 1918: Stalemate Ends… Posterity Shrugs

As I never tire of pointing out, the Anglophone heritage industry treats the First World War as if everything beyond the Western Front was a sideshow, and therefore gets away with dismissing the whole conflict as an abhorrent waste of time, lives and resources. Stalemate on the Western Front hasn’t been the only key to the thesis – because the state of technology at the time created military stalemate on any front appropriate to trench warfare – but the battle lines in Belgium and northern France had been providing grist for its centennial certainties since the first Battle of the Marne in August 1914.

That changed on 21 March 1918, the day Germany launched the opening attack of its do-or-die spring offensives on the Western Front.  Known to the Allies at the time as the Second Battle of the Somme, the Ludendorff Offensive or the Michael Offensive (after its codename), often referred by modern English speakers as simply the Spring Offensive, and called Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) in Germany, it marked the end of the Western Front’s long and lamented static phase (though not of its horrors).  Trench lines would be firmly re-established during the summer, but they would never again rule the world at war.

The beginning of Kaiserschlacht was, in other words, a crucial turning point in the making of the modern world, yet you’re unlikely to be swamped with the same heritage fanfares that accompanied ghastly confirmations of the status quo like Verdun, the Somme or Passchendaele.  Sure, it was a German operation that didn’t reflect particularly well on Allied commanders, but neither of those factors has discouraged mawkish commemoration of other Western Front battles, and Allied command failures are usually guaranteed to spark a torrent of outrage and finger-pointing by our heritage industries. So what’s the difference?

As far as I can tell – and because we’re talking mass psychology, this is only guesswork – downplaying the spring offensive of 1918 is another symptom of the need to define the First World War as fundamentally atypical of our civilisation.  As I mentioned last week, the syndrome encourages focus on whatever makes the whole thing look like a crazy aberration.  The Somme and Verdun fit the thesis, along with smaller disappointments like Cambrai, but this was different.  The product of a logic that had nothing to do with attrition, Kaiserschlacht featured dramatic territorial shifts and, though not in itself decisive, instigated fundamental and irrevocable change to the balance of power on the Western Front.  Those may be reasons for playing it down, but they don’t look to me like good ones so here’s a quick run-though.

The background should be fairly familiar to anyone in touch with the War’s progress so far.  The German Third Supreme Command needed a big win, and needed it soon.  With Germany’s war effort already stretched to the point of socio-political breakdown, trade warfare was failing and the Americans were coming, so from Berlin’s perspective nothing less than a definitive victory on the Western Front could stave off ultimate defeat once the US Army joined the battle.

Ludendorff, always the strategic and tactical mainspring of the Third Supreme Command, recognised that the French Army was unwilling (and probably unable) to undertake major offensives, and regarded the British as the main obstacle to success in France.  He planned to attack in the Somme sector, at the join of the two Allied armies’ defensive positions, in the hope of separating them.

The Allies were meanwhile in no position to launch an offensive on the Western Front.  British and French commanders were still rebuilding their armies after the hugely expensive failures of 1917 (the Nivelle Offensive in the spring and Haig’s autumn offensive in Flanders), and the attempt to establish a unified command system through the Supreme War Council had so far generated nothing but bickering among the Allies.  Though German troop transfers to France from the Eastern Front were noted, Germany’s simultaneous commitment to the occupation of Eastern Europe was taken as evidence that the German Army was still too weak in the west to mount a successful offensive.

This wasn’t quite true.  German manpower strength on the Western Front had increased by 30% since November 1917, while Allied numbers had fallen by a quarter, leaving sections of the British line, especially those furthest from the Channel coast and closest to the French sector, with relatively sparse defences.  Ludendorff ranged a total of 63 German divisions in three armies (General Below’s 17th, Marwitz’s 2nd, and the 18th under master tactician General Hutier) along a 90km front between Arras and La Fère.  The northern third of the attack zone was defended by fourteen division’s of General Byng’s British Third Army, backed by the majority of British reserves, while the rest was defended by the twelve divisions of General Gough’s Fifth Army, strung out across 60km of frontline and short on reserves.

Elaborate German efforts to maintain secrecy worked to the extent of leaving the Allies unaware of the forthcoming attack’s scale, and when it was launched, with support from 6,000 artillery pieces, the ‘infiltration tactics’ pioneered by Hutier worked as well as they had done under trials in Latvia (3 September, 1917: Trial By Fire).  Helped by a thick morning mist, protected by strong air support and a ‘creeping barrage’, German infantry enjoyed spectacular early success against Gough’s thin, poorly organised defences, and were held only at the far north of the sector, around Arras.

The offensive was as high-tech as war could get in 1918…
… but that wasn’t so very high-tech.

With his right wing melting away, Gough attempted a withdrawal to secondary positions on 22 March, but retreating units did a bad job of destroying bridges and causeways as they went, allowing Hutier’s troops to pursue at speed and forcing another retreat.  By 25 March the whole British Fifth Army had retired some 40km to the west, dragging Byng’s Third Army along with it, and on 27 March the first of Hutier’s units reached the town of Montdidier, about 65km beyond their start point.

Nice going – and by Western Front standards, astonishing.

So far, so spectacular, and now the German Army had Paris in its sights for the first time since the summer of 1914.  Ludendorff went for it.  During the opening attacks, most German strength had been concentrated against Arras, and the 17th Army continued to attack there until 28 March without making significant progress.  Hutier was meanwhile ordered to pause pending a turn towards Paris, and the central German force, the 2nd Army under Marwitz, was sent into the gap between the two British armies, towards Amiens.

Paris in its sights… railway guns were about to make a comeback.

Exhaustion, supply difficulties and the British Third Army halted the 2nd Army’s advance around Villers-Bretonneux, some 20km short of Amiens, on 26 March, and Marwitz paused to regroup for a renewed attack.  The obvious Allied reaction – bringing the nearby French Army into the battle – was delayed by French c-in-c Pétain’s reluctance to commit his forces to battle (a position that persuaded Haig to back the more aggressive Foch as overall Allied commander of reserves), but General Fayolle’s French reinforcements did reach the front in time to halt a second German attack on 30 March.

A final attempt to break through to Amiens was launched by fifteen German divisions – some of them in a state of utter exhaustion – on 4 April, and its failure convinced Ludendorff that the opportunity for strategic success had passed.  He called off Operation Michael next day and switched the focus of attack to Flanders, where the next phase of the offensive, known as the Lys Offensive, opened on 9 April and followed a similar, if less spectacular pattern over the course of nineteen days.

For a while there, it had looked to both sides as if Kaiserschlacht might win the War at a stroke – but although brilliant tactics, careful preparations and a degree of enemy lassitude had delivered a rapid advance and created an enormous bulge in the Allied line, the German Army had failed to break through into undefended country. This was partly because the German armies, stretched to their limits and worked beyond the point of exhaustion, simply ran out of steam, but the same old, technologically based problems were still fundamentally to blame.  As long as an attacking army in 1918 faced organised defenders, it was doomed to suffer insurmountable supply and mobility problems as soon as it crossed into enemy territory.

That doesn’t mean Kaiserschlacht was just another failed offensive, as the more simplistic heritage commentaries are apt to suggest. The two weeks of mayhem that followed its launch cost the German Army some 250,000 casualties it really couldn’t afford, and it would never again be truly fit to fight a powerful, well-equipped foe. Although the Allies lost almost as many men their resources for recovery were by now infinitely deeper, while the undoubted shock provided by the sudden territorial collapse of late March prompted reform of the Allied command system, triggered a radical reassessment of material requirements for the campaign in the US, and temporarily reversed the noisy growth of war weariness in France and the UK.

In other words, although many other factors would influence the fate of both sides on the Western Front during the next few months, the stalemate was finally broken a hundred years ago today.  So where’s that fanfare…?

12 MARCH, 1918: All Quiet On The Eastern Front?

What they used to call the West or the First World, and is now just a moderately influential segment of the planet’s G20 oligarchy, has been obsessed with trench warfare for more than a hundred years. You can see why.  In France, Italy, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Poland, you name it, life in trenches during the First World War was a graphic illustration of Hell, as inflicted upon itself by the proud civilisation of our forebears.  That’s a very nasty skeleton in the West’s cupboard, and we’ve been falling over ourselves ever since to dismiss it as a hideous anomaly, so noisily scratching our navels about it for a century or more has been an important prop for our self-image and for our image to the rest of the world.

The psychological impulse to focus on the ‘madness’ of trench-bound carnage has had its corollary in a tendency to downplay those aspects of the First World War that didn’t fit the image.  A post-War thesis dominated by the concept of pointless stalemate would have struggled to convince if it took full account of all those ways, military and otherwise, in which the First World War was a whirlwind of hugely significant change.  The opposite was true during the War, when the impulse to play down any idea of pointless stalemate required propagandists on all sides to give maximum publicity to the sweeping victories and eye-catching derring-do of ‘sideshow’ campaigns.  That’s one reason why the middle of March 1918 looked like a time of world-shaping geopolitical transformation to contemporaries, while most modern heritage narratives treat it as a logistic and diplomatic interlude, a mere preamble to great battles to come in France and Italy.

From today’s ‘Western’ perspective the Allies appeared becalmed a hundred years ago, but at the time they were perceived – internally and from the outside – as extremely busy with vital work.  Allied propaganda was making plenty of noise about the process of equipping and preparing the American Expeditionary Force, and claims that US participation would finally break the deadlock on the Western Front seemed more convincing than those attached to every spring and autumn offensive since early 1915.  Meanwhile citizens of the British Empire – and to a lesser degree those of France, Italy and the (essentially anti-imperialist) USA – were being serenaded with the siren song of imperial invincibility.

Every success, however small, of the British-led armies in Mesopotamia and Palestine was given a big propaganda fanfare, with plenty of pompous references to the crusades and, for audiences accustomed to applauding advances measured in yards, stress on distances gained.  A century ago today, for instance, General Allenby’s forces were reported as having advanced a relatively massive three miles along the coast of Palestine, and two days earlier they had made headlines for an advance of almost two miles along the road to Nablus.  Unlike the constant stream of small-detail ‘good news’ being transmitted from the main European fronts, these were clear and verifiable achievements, the kind that made a noticeable difference to regional maps, generated optimism about the prospects for the post-War empire and made excellent vicarious prizes for patriots back home.

Wartime prizes like Jerusalem and Baghdad do retain a residual presence in our folk memory despite popular history’s selective amnesia, partly because one way and another the British held onto them for some time afterwards, partly because they did turn out to have immensely important geopolitical effects during the next hundred years, and partly because winners never quite stop talking about their victories.  Losers are a different matter.

The West’s heritage commentators have effectively dismissed the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria from the War by March 1918.  Though well reported and well known at the time, the momentous internal meltdown of Habsburg power and the Ottoman Empire’s mad leap into the political cauldron of Transcaucasia long ago disappeared from any popular narrative. Germany, though still part of the narrative, is viewed from a Western perspective that pigeonholes this part of March as a period of intensive preparation for the big, exciting offensive on the Western Front planned for later in the month.  By contrast, newspapers of the day gave plenty of space to troubles in Austria-Hungary and Transcaucasia, and even more to the other thing the German high command had going on in March – the occupation of Eastern Europe.

The peace finally agreed at Brest-Litovsk had, as discussed a few days ago, freed the German Third Supreme Command to chase one of its most treasured dragons, the belief that apparently inevitable defeat by superior enemy resources could be reversed by rapid exploitation of an eastern empire.  By that time the German Army faced very little serious competition in the region.  Its virtually unopposed advance towards Petrograd, Operation Faustschlag, had been suspended when its aim – Bolshevik acceptance German peace terms – had been achieved on 24 February, but any idea that Germany would respect the nominal independence of satellite states agreed by the treaty was instantly killed off.  German forces reached the Estonian capital, Tallinn, on the same day, found it occupied by nationalist politicians and marched in to take control anyway.

With German forces only about 150km from Petrograd, Lenin’s government moved its capital to Moscow on 12 March, a permanent change that proved unnecessary in the short term.  The need for rapid returns argued against any attack on a target as defensible and turbulent as Petrograd, so the northern arm of the German Army on the former Eastern Front, shrinking as units were transferred to France, concentrated on control and exploitation of the Baltic States, Belarus and Finland.  Further south, peace with the Bolsheviks was the signal for a German invasion.

An unstable cocktail of competing nationalist, socialist and Bolshevik elements – too complex and fluid to describe in anything but excruciating detail, and not my business here – was undermining German establishment of an expanded Ukrainian puppet state, and the German Army’s southern wing (including Austro-Hungarian forces under German command) began advancing east almost as soon as the ink was dry at Brest-Litovsk.  Again able to overwhelm pockets of poorly armed, organised and motivated resistance without much need for fighting, German and Austro-Hungarian forces swept through the Ukraine, occupying the Russian Navy’s Black Sea base at Odessa on 13 March, and pushed on towards the Crimea.

Static stalemate? Quiet preparations for a future offensive elsewhere? I don’t think so…

The Crimean peninsula occupies an obviously important strategic location on the northern Black Sea coast, and is good arable land, making it a bone of contention between competing states and empires since pretty much the dawn of recorded history.  Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Goths and the Ottoman Empire were just some of the powers to exercise control over Crimea before the Russian Empire annexed it from the latter in 1783.  Fear of greater Russian expansion at the expense of the Ottomans lay behind the excuses for the Crimean War (October 1853 to February 1856), during which an alliance of Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire (OK, and Sardinia) besieged and eventually took Sevastopol, the peninsula’s purpose-built fortified naval base.  Still Crimea’s greatest claim to fame in the Anglophone world, largely thanks to Florence Nightingale and the Light Brigade, the war laid waste to the region’s agricultural, village-based economy, which was slow to recover and remained essentially tribal in 1914.

Since the collapse of the Russian Empire in late 1917, the Crimea had been through the same kind of political spasms that had afflicted other imperial provinces with ambitions for self-government.  Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-led Bolsheviks and indigenous Tatar Moslems had all claimed the right to form a new state, and the latter had declared an independent Crimean People’s Republic in mid-December 1917.  The Tatar state had been overthrown by a series of Russian-sponsored Bolshevik coups during January, but a Bolshevik regime had barely come into existence when the German eastward advance began in early March.  Despite a fresh declaration of independence in late March, intended to marshal internal support and put legal barriers in the way of the invaders, the regime was crumbling in the face of opposition from all sides when the German Army entered Crimea on 13 April.

The 20th century took longer to reach some parts of the world than others: Ukrainian nationalist troops in 1918.

Accompanied by Ukrainian nationalists and welcomed by many Tatar villages as a welcome respite from the Bolsheviks, German forces were in effective control of Crimea by early May, when they entered Sevastopol unopposed, seizing those units of the Russian Black Sea fleet that had stayed in port (and hoisted Ukrainian flags in the hope of being left alone).  German authorities remained in control until the Armistice but soon lost local support as the need to provision the Fatherland outweighed the desire to promote regional independence as a bulwark against any future Russian incursions.  A Crimean regional government was formed on 25 June, but although it maintained a separate identity from the Ukraine throughout the occupation it was an entirely puppet regime headed by a Lithuanian Moslem (or Livka Tatar) in German pay, Maciej Sulkiewicz.

Political instability meant corpses in the Crimea. These were executed by Bolsheviks.

The Sulkiewicz government fell within two weeks of the Armistice, and was followed by a social democrat, anti-Bolshevik regime that was itself replaced by a Soviet regime in April 1919, after Allied anti-Bolshevik forces had landed in Crimea and departed without taking any action.  As the Russian Civil War ebbed and flowed across the former Empire, White Russian forces under counter-revolutionary leader General Wrangel drove the Bolsheviks from Crimea in June, and held the peninsula until November 1920.  Crimea then passed a relatively stable seventy years as part of the USSR, punctuated by another spell as a multinational battlefield during the Second World War, and followed by twenty-plus years as part of an independent Ukraine.  We all know what happened next.

This particularly vague ramble has been a reminder that the First World War reached a lot further than the entrenched stalemates of Western Europe, and that many of Eastern Europe’s modern tensions have roots that go deeper than Soviet history.  It’s also a passing introduction to the kind of chaos you can expect once the Russian Civil War gets up a head of steam, and a sympathetic nod to theTatars, Russians, Ukrainians and smaller ethnic groupings of the Crimean peninsula.  Like the people of Poland, the Baltic States and the Balkans, they live in lands condemned by accidents of history and geography to serve as the battlegrounds of empires.

3 MARCH, 1918: Neither War Nor Peace

At the end of a cold, hard winter in Britain,  the weather was turning mild and dry.  The ice and snow of the previous April were still fresh in the memory so nobody was taking good conditions for granted, but rain or shine one thing was certain in early March 1918:  with spring on the way, the fighting season was coming.

A year earlier, the immediate preamble to fighting season had seen huge shifts in the world’s geopolitical landscape triggered by the February Revolution in Russia and, a few weeks later, the declaration of war by the United States.  Those seismic events had not been permitted to derail Allied military planning.  They contributed only tangentially to the collapse of French General Nivelle’s ill-conceived spring offensive on the Western Front, and bore little or no responsibility for the more prolonged, British-led failure around Ypres in the autumn – but, along with the autumn collapse of the Italian Army’s positions around the Isonzo, they did inform an atmosphere of strategic uncertainty among Allied commanders when it came to planning their campaigns for 1918.

Almost a year later, on 3 March 1918, the long, somewhat bizarre peace negotiations between the Russian Bolshevik regime and the Central Powers reached their conclusion with an agreement that gave the pre-War worldview one more kick into oblivion.  Again, the Allies didn’t let the swerve alter their major offensive plans – but that was because they didn’t really have any.

Allied offensive strategy on most land fronts didn’t require much in the way of deep thinking in early 1918.  The Eastern Front was lost, as was the Caucasian Front, while the Allied army in Salonika was too far from anywhere to help win the War and was anyway an operational shambles, pinned to the spot by diplomatic and regional priorities.  Strategic priorities around the British-led Palestine and Mesopotamian Fronts were simple enough, and attempts to divert strength from them to address crisis on the Russian frontiers were already in the process of melting down (17 February, 1918: Follow That Figment!), while the relatively minor colonial business in East Africa had long since become a purely tactical struggle.

On the Italian Front, now a genuinely international enterprise with the arrival of British and French reinforcements during the late autumn, holding a line and rebuilding an army were the names of the game.  The Western Front was, as ever, ripe for the bi-annual exercise of offensive ambition, especially given the arrival of US forces in the theatre, but the need to cooperate in Italy had forced Allied strategists into a joint command structure, and once it had settled the Italian crisis the Supreme War Council turned into a forum for unproductive inter-Allied bickering.

British c-in-c Haig was all in favour of another spring offensive, as was his government, but his French counterpart, Pétain, was determined to preserve fragile armies by adopting a defensive posture until overwhelming (i.e. American) force could be brought to bear.  That left a lot of riding on the attitude of the US Army’s commander in Europe, General John J Pershing, and Pershing definitely had attitude.

John J Pershing – definitely the kind of general you name a tank after.

Born in 1860 and the US Army’s most experienced combat commander, ‘Black Jack’ Pershing had fought in the Indian wars, Cuba, the Philippines and, most recently, Mexico.  His appointment to command the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in May 1917 was no surprise to anybody, and he arrived in Europe the following month, long before almost all of his troops.  By the time he was promoted full general in October, Pershing needed all the seniority he could claim as he fought off repeated and increasingly frustrated demands from British and French commanders for the use of US troops as they reached the theatre, to reinforce Allied units on the Western Front.

A strong and confident character, in no danger of being overawed by Old World grandees, Pershing refused to use his army – which was still shipping to Europe en masse and would pass 500,000 men in April 1918 – as anything but a single national force.  Apart from an understandable desire to remain in direct command of his troops, two basic tenets sustained his resistance.  For one thing, he believed that his well fed, energetic, enthusiastic troops could, used en masse, defeat the tired old German Army in the field – and that sending his ‘Doughboys’ piecemeal into ill-planned battles alongside exhausted allies was a waste of their war-winning potential.  Secondly, and in many ways more importantly, Pershing held to the principles under which the United States had entered the War.

It’s impossible to overstate the sense of perilous embarkation on an unprecedented journey that accompanied US commitment to the First World War.  We’re very familiar with the USA’s more recent readiness to appoint itself world policeman, but in 1918 that was something startlingly new and had to be handled with care.  It was symbolically important, both inside and outside the US, for the AEF to operate as a national army, emphasising both national unity and the USA’s continued separateness from the imperialists it existed to oppose.  The same symbolism lay behind the USA’s belligerent status, at war against Germany and Austria-Hungary (though not Bulgaria or the Ottoman Empire), but fighting alongside the British and French, not as an ally but as an ‘associated power’.  As far as Washington and Pershing were concerned, associated powers couldn’t and didn’t operate under joint command.

While the Allies waited for (and by and large equipped) the gathering AEF, the desperate gamblers of the German high command had been planning their own do-or-die offensive in France, but were waiting on an official end to the war against Russia. Thanks to Soviet commissar for foreign affairs Leon Trotsky’s pursuit of ‘neither war nor peace’, more simply described as stalling tactics, it had been a long wait, but German patience had run out in mid-February.

On 9 February the Central Powers had concluded a separate treaty with the Ukraine, recognising its independence under a pro-German puppet regime (21 April, 1917: Anarchy in the Ukraine), and Trotsky had responded by yet again suspending negotiations at Brest-Litovsk.  The German Third Supreme Command, driven by Ludendorff’s obsessive pursuit of territorial gains for economic exploitation, was all for retaliation with a full resumption of hostilities and the capture of Petrograd.  It was restrained by the politicking of German foreign minister Richard Kühlmann, who had always regarded Ludendorff’s ambitions as unrealistic, and who used his industrial and royal connections to force a compromise on the grounds that too much aggression might rekindle Russian military resistance in the theatre.  The result was Operation Faustschlag, a limited German attack that opened on 17 February and advanced some 250km in two days without meeting serious opposition.

Faustschlag was enough for Lenin.  He had been giving qualified support to Trotsky’s position, but with former Russian provinces moving towards independence and counter-revolutionary forces organising for civil war, survival of the Bolshevik regime was now his overriding priority.  After Trotsky had quit Brest-Litovsk to become commissar for war, the Bolshevik delegation finally agreed to German peace terms on 19 February.

Conquest by pen:  the signing ceremony at Brest-Litovsk.

The treaty duly signed on 3 March had nothing to do with the conciliatory approach favoured by Kühlmann and an increasingly panic-stricken Kaiser, but expressed the Third Supreme Command’s imperial ambitions in full.  Leaving aside the wealth of detail dedicated to German economic exploitation, it forced the Bolsheviks to recognise Poland, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Belorussia and the Ukraine as German spheres of influence, depriving the former Russian Empire of some 30 percent of its population, while the Ottoman Empire was granted full control of the Caucasus.  The Soviet regime also agreed to cease all interference in the internal affairs of lost territories.

Ambitious? Ludendorff? Germany’s new empire from March 1918.

Predictably denounced by the Allies (and associated powers), the treaty also provoked resentment in Sofia and Vienna with its overt concentration on purely German interests.  It was obviously unpopular in Russia, but in fact made little difference to the Soviet position, both because the annexed territories were in effect already lost and because the Bolsheviks proceeded to ignore non-interference agreements at every opportunity.  Needless to say it subjected East European and Caucasian peoples to varying degrees of military occupation and economic exploitation, but in many ways the states that suffered the most from the deal made at Brest-Litovsk were its supposed beneficiaries.

The Ottoman Empire was seduced into squandering resources it really couldn’t spare on a disastrous attempt to establish control over Transcaucasia, and Ludendorff’s ambitions for an eastern empire kept between one million and 1.5 million German troops (estimates vary) busy with its immediate administration.  Their efforts may or may not have gone on to provide the long-term economic salvation envisaged by the Third Supreme Command, but their absence would prove fatal to the German Army’s forthcoming spring offensive in France, and that failure that would render the question academic.

While the millions at war braced for the next instalment of military cataclysm, while the BEF chafed at the bit, the French waited for the Americans, the Americans waited for their army to get up to strength and the German Army planned a last, great offensive on the Western Front, a watershed moment was being signed into modern European history.  The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk brought the war on the Eastern Front to an official end, freed Ludendorff’s fatal ambition to leap a bridge to far, and plunged the whole of Eastern Europe, along with Russia, into a long, painful period of war and revolution.  As such it raised the curtain on a whole bunch of other stories, many of which the Anglophone world has been ignoring for decades, and seems worth remembering a hundred years on.