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.
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.
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.
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.