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.

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