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.