Report from the Fronts #47: July 1918

Spring Offensive

July saw the last real offensive of the Imperial German Army in the west. Ludendorff wanted one more shot at drawing British troops in Flanders south in order to launch his Belgian offensive (Operation Hagen), though the previous operations had failed to do that.  On 15 July Operation Friedensturm (or the Second Battle of the Marne) began: 40 divisions of the First, Third and Seventh Armies were launched southwards to the east and west of Reims, which was too strongly fortified to assault.

The offensive ran into trouble even before it got started.  From prisoners and air reconnaissance the French leaned – like the Italians at the Piave – when and where the blows would fall and shelled the enemy troops in their assault trenches.  They had also learned from the Germans over the years, and east of Reims Fourth Army commander Henri Gouraud had prepared a serious defense in depth, the main trench line located several miles behind the forward strong points, beyond the range of the German guns.  Most of the French guns were behind the main line on reverse slopes, where they could only be spotted from the air, which was dominated by the Allies, and the initial German barrage did very little damage.

Henri Gouraud

Reaching the main line, the Germans were compelled to delay the assault in order to regroup and rest and bring up their own guns.  When they attacked the next morning, the undamaged French artillery tore them apart, as it did a second assault at noon.  A French counterattack later that same day, though failing to achieve a breakthrough, nevertheless made it clear to the Germans that this push was not likely to succeed.  They dug in.

The western arm of the offensive did better against the French Sixth Army, despite the barrier of the Marne River.  While German guns pounded the south bank for three hours, German troops swarmed across the river on rafts and boats and began constructing a dozen minimalist bridges under a rain of bombs (40 tons) from the French air force, demonstrating the relative ineffectiveness of aerial bombing.  By nightfall the Germans had established a substantial beachhead on the southern bank, and Ludendorff was delighted.

But not for long.  For all the usual reasons, now exacerbated by growing supply problems (especially food and gasoline) caused by the Allied blockade, the attack quickly began to falter.  On 18 July Ferdinand Foch, now Supreme Commander, launched a major counterattack (actually an already planned offensive against the now expanded German salient) comprising 24 French divisions, 2 British, 2 American and almost 500 tanks.  This was the Battle of Soissons, and on July 20 the Germans were forced back across the Marne, and Château-Thierry was retaken the next day.  By 6 August the Allies had retaken virtually all the salient and pushed the German line back to the Aisne-Vesle River line.


Incidentally, during the battle an Austrian dispatch runner in a Bavarian regiment was awarded the Iron Cross, First Class on 4 August, a rare decoration for an a lance corporal.  His name was Adolf Hitler.

Gefreiter (lance corporal) Adolf Hitler

Hitler, seated far right












The Spring Offensive had failed, and though it would take the Germans (or at least their military leaders) another three months to accept it, Germany had clearly lost the war.  While the offensive had obtained huge chunks (by Great War standards) of real estate, there had been no strategic breakthrough, neither in Flanders nor in the south.  The successes did little more than eliminate large numbers of the irreplaceable specialized assault troops and exacerbate the growing manpower problem by dramatically lengthening the German lines.  By the middle of July German rifle strength on the Western Front had finally fallen below that of the Allies, and the Americans were pouring in.  Ludendorff could hardly have failed to think of the million men he had left in the east; as he was being forced to withdraw on the Western Front, German soldiers were advancing in the Caucasus, more than two thousand miles to the east.

In the former Russian Empire things did not look promising for the Bolsheviks.  On 13 July the Czechs (remember the Czech Legion? – see Reports #44 and #45) took Irkutsk in Siberia and the next day Kazan in eastern Russia; they already controlled Vladivostok.  Probably the best military force in central Asia, the Czechs were generally successful against the fledgling Red Army and not ony encouraged various anti-Bolshevik groups but finally convinced President Wilson, already under Allied pressure, to send American troops to Vladivostok.  The Legion’s impressive successes also helped pump up Allied enthusiasm for the creation of a Czechoslovak state.

Russia in 1918

The Czech Legion also played an inadvertent role in the fate of the Romanov dynasty.  The immediate royal family had since May been imprisoned in Ipatiev House (renamed the House of Special Purpose) in Yekaterinburg, which the Czechs and other Whites were approaching in early July.  Lenin and others had discussed execution, but Lenin wanted to put Nicholas on trial first.  With the enemy driving on Yekaterinburg local Soviet officials dispatched an emissary to Moscow, but there is no hard evidence that an official reply was ever sent, and the local commander, Yakov Yurovsky, determined to carry out an order for execution from the Ural Regional Soviet.

Yakov Yurovsky

Ipatiev House









In the early morning of 17 July Nicholas, Alexandra, their daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, the heir, Alexei, and four attendants, a maid, cook, footman and doctor, were hustled into a 20 x 16 foot basement room, where they were told to wait for transportation out of the town. A bit later Yurovsky and nine others, mostly local Chekists (secret police), entered, read the death sentence and began blasting away with handguns, each having been assigned a target.  The whole business immediately turned into a macabre farce, emblematic of much Soviet police work for the next three decades.

Ivan Kharitonov, cook

Ama Demidova, maid

Eugene Botkin, doctor

Alexei Trupp, footman

The Romanov family

Nicholas was promptly killed, inasmuch as all the assassins, despite their assigned targets, apparently wanted to kill the Czar, and Alexandra went next with a single bullet to the head. Then complete chaos broke out as the shooters filled the room with bullets, and within minutes dust and smoke (one of the guns used black powder) made it impossible to see.  Yurosky ordered the firing stopped, the smoke was allowed to clear, and the executioners then discovered that all five children were still alive, only one of them even injured.

The execution chamber

The Bolshevik Keystone Cops then switched to bayonets, since the fusillade had awakened many of Ipatiev House’s neighbors, and this was supposedly a secret operation. But because of the ineptness (and in some cases drunkenness) of the men and the immense quantity of jewels sewn into the family’s clothing (18 pounds were recovered), bayonets were far from satisfactory, and shooting resumed, this time more effectively to the head.  Some twenty minutes after the shooting had first begun, the royal family and the retainers were finally dead.  Only Alexei’s dog, Joy, survived, to be rescued by a British officer.

The black comedy of errors then continued as Yurovsky made to dispose of the bodies. At the first site, an abandoned mine pit, the waiting hired help were all drunk and angry that they had no chance to rape the women, and once the bodies were put in the shaft, it was found to be too shallow.  The next morning the corpses were loaded on a truck and the following day driven to a second site, but the truck got stuck in the mud, and an exasperated Yurovsky had his men dig a shallow grave, into which nine of the bodies were dumped after being mutilated to disguise them.  Alexei and a sister were burned and their smashed bones buried a short distance away.

Where the truck got stuck and the bodies buried

The Soviet government could not under any circumstances allow Nicholas or his son to fall into the hands of the Whites, and even losing control of the Romanov women was politically dangerous. But the poor planning and ineptitude of the Bolsheviks, combined with their seemingly innate cruelty, turned a pressing political question into a massacre of innocents, emphasized by the slaughter of 14 more Romanovs and 13 retainers in the next three months.  Lenin allowed the public announcement of Nicholas’ execution, but the murder of the rest was denied until 1926, when it was blamed on others.  Poetically perhaps, three of the assassins were later shot by the Cheka’s successor, the NKVD.

In less dramatic news from the former Russian Empire, on 26 July most of the French Expeditionary Force arrived at Murmansk, joining the British forces already there. On the same day, far to the south in Azerbaijan, the Bolshevik government in Baku was overthrown by a coalition of other Russian groups and replaced with the Central Caspian Dictatorship, which would survive until September.

Remember Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askaris, dodging and fighting a quarter million Allied troops in East Africa? Pursued by large formations of the King’s African Rifles and hard pressed for ammunition, on 1 July he attacked a superior force defending Namaccura in southern Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique) and captured a huge amount of ammunition, rifles, food and liquor.  He allowed his men a day to attack the liquor: “The risk of a wholesale ‘jollification’…was gladly taken.”

Askaris on the march


East African campaign

Fully equipped, Lettow-Vorbeck was now in a position to cross the Zambesi River and invade Rhodesia, but he knew that was what his pursuers expected and instead moved northeast toward them. The Allied troops lost complete track of him for two weeks, during which time he crossed the Namirrue River and turned west and then north, passing right through the enemy columns.  By the end of July his force was back in German East Africa, having once again eluded immensely superior forces.

In other news, on 6 July Italian and French troops began an offensive north in Albania and seized Berat four days later; on the 22nd the offensive ground to a halt.  Meanwhile, more pocket states were jumping on the bandwagon: on 12 July Haiti declared war on Germany, followed by Honduras a week later.  On 3 July the figurehead Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire died and was succeeded the next day by the equally powerless Mehmed VI, who reigned until 1 November 1922, when the Sultanate was abolished and the last Sultan sent into exile.

Mehmet V

Mehmed VI

Mehmed VI leaving the palace










Finally, an irony: on 17 July the German submarine U-55 sank the RMS Carpathia, the vessel that had rescued the bulk of the survivers of the RMS Titanic in 1912.


RMS Carpathia

Carpathia going down

A Just Peace

(The current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks engineered by Secretary of State John Kerry reminded me of similar negotiations that took place some seventy years ago.)

In a deal brokered by the American Secretary of State the German Chancellor today announced that Minister for Foreign Affairs Joachim von Ribbentrop would be traveling to Warsaw in an attempt to revive the peace process with Poland, which has been occupied by German troops since the 1939 war. Chancellor Hitler repeated his commitment to the “two state solution” but cautioned that “minor adjustments” would have to be made to the pre-1939 frontiers.
The Chancellor insisted that there be no preconditions for the talks, a clear attempt to circumvent the question of the Polish Right of Return. “Everything is on the table,” said Ribbentrop, noted for his earlier arrangement of a peace agreement with the Soviet Union. “We are willing to discuss every issue, even the difficult ones, in order to secure a just and lasting peace that will provide for the security of both the German Reich and the Polish people. We will settle for nothing less.”
Ribbentrop’s enthusiasm and optimism is, however, not shared by some observers. “There are simply too many serious problems that the Poles have shown no inclination to address,” explained Governor-General Hans Frank, who is opposed to the “two state solution” because it would eliminate the Reich-supported Governorate General, which he administers. “Our construction projects in the Governorate General have produced jobs for Poles and raised their standard of living in areas such as Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek and Belżec.”
A particularly thorny issue is the German settlement program. It is estimated that there are some two million Germans living in the occupied territories, two thirds of them brought in as new settlers. The remaining third are pre-war inhabitants rescued from Polish terrorism. The settlements are widely considered a violation of international law, particularly the fourth Hague Convention, but the Reich contends that Poland has never really been a defined national state and consequently international conventions are not applicable.
The creation of a Polish state would pose a serious problem for these Volksgenossen. Remaining in their homes would result in their being an oppressed minority, especially considering the primitive nature of Polish society and culture, which naturally views Germans with envy and hatred. But most would resist leaving their homes and land, which could only lead to violence, especially since the Poles have less regard for life than the Germans and other civilized peoples.
The case is also made that most of the territory claimed by the Poles is in fact German. The issue of West Prussia and Posen is of course clear to everyone: this obviously German territory was stolen from the Reich by the Versailles Treaty and must be returned. More controversial is the land that comprises central Poland. While this area has not been part of the modern German state, it was once German territory, as evidence by the large number of Germans living their prior to the 1939 war. It was inhabited by Germans as long ago as the third century, when the area was controlled by Vandals, Goths, Burgundians and other groups that made up “Germania,” which stretched from the Rhine to beyond the Vistula.
This is, however, an extreme view, and the Chancellor has indicated a willingness to make concessions to the Poles, such as granting them Warsaw and Lodz. In return the Poles must publically recognize the existence of the Reich as a “German” state. Any new Polish state would of course be demilitarized, and the Reich would maintain control of key strategic areas, such as the Vistula River. Such measures would be necessary to protect the Reich from any attacks emanating from Polish territory.
The Chancellor meanwhile commented on the current situation, denying emphatically that the condition in the Governorate General could be characterized as “apartheid.” He pointed out that the areas and roads restricted to Germans are solely for the purpose of protecting the population from Polish terrorism, and he explained how these measures also helped protect the Poles, who could be hurt by the high speed roads and unfamiliar machinery.
Finally, Chancellor Hitler addressed the recent bombing of Cracow. “Terrorists throwing rocks at German citizens cannot be allowed to go unpunished or the violence will only spread. If the casualties in Cracow seem disproportionately large, it is of course because the terrorist criminals were using innocent civilians as human shields.” He also noted that indefinite detention is in complete accordance with the laws of the Reich, as is the use of moderate physical pressure in obtaining information that could well save lives, both Polish and German. “We are not barbarians!”

Polish terrorist

Polish terrorist

Ambassador Ribbentrop

Ambassador Ribbentrop

Polish negotiator

Polish negotiator

Magic Fire and Empty Pockets

John Wayne as Wagner

John Wayne as Wagner

Wednesday was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), easily one of the greatest composers ever to have picked up a pen.  There appears to be no middle ground with Wagner; he is either despised or adored by serious music aficionados.  I am in the adoration camp and believe that he was in fact the greatest composer ever, certainly of opera – or music drama as he calls it.  I consider Der Ring des Nibelungen to be the supreme achievement of western music; for me the sweetest, most moving moment in all opera comes in Die Walküre, when Brünnhilde tells Sieglinde that she is carrying in her womb the greatest hero of all time, Siegfried, and his theme is heard for the first time.  Chuck Berry is very cool, of course, but Wagner provides the aesthetic shiver.

While many of his theoretical writings on music, especially his ideas on Zukunftsmusik (“music of the future”), are a bit strange (Did he really believe sculptors and painters would be satisfied just producing props, sets and backdrops for opera?), there is no question that his operas do indeed mark a towering advance in music.  Contrary to general practice, his carefully crafted librettos were written by himself, and there is consequently in the Ring and his mature operas an unprecedented intimacy between the words and the music surrounding them.  What the characters are singing is for the first time – at least to this degree – utterly important, which is probably why the increasing use of supertitles in opera houses has stirred renewed interest in the composer.

Wagner also broke ground in the music of his later operas, pushing the traditional tonal systems to their limits and dramatically influencing the next generation of composers, such as Gustav Mahler.  Ultimately, his work led to the often blatantly atonal “music” of twentieth century composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  His use of leitmotivs or musical themes certainly points the way to cinematic music.

Behind this incredibly beautiful music, however, is a miserable human being.  Wagner was domineering, and his opinions (on just about everything) were rarely affected by counterarguments and were expressed whether desired or not.  He shamelessly used his friends, constantly borrowing money that would never be repaid and squandering it on luxuries.  One might say that after music debt was the second constant in his life.  He essentially deserted his first wife, Minna Planer, and had a conspicuous affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of his greatest benefactors.  He produced three children with Franz Liszt’s daughter, Cosima, while she was still married to his loyal conductor Hans von Bülow, who finally allowed a divorce so that Cosima might became Wagner’s bride.  In short, he seemed to think the world owed him a living, and given the music he created, I think it did.

What Wagner is best known for, certainly among those who have no familiarity with his music, is his anti-Semitism, something that might have been forgotten amidst all the other anti-Semitism of the nineteenth century but for the fact that he actually wrote about it and especially because Adolf Hitler loved his music.  A great deal of energy has been spent looking for the traces of anti-Semitism in his works, focusing on figures like Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger and the Mime and his colleagues in the Ring.  There is no evidence whatsoever for this, and Wagner was so wrapped up in the dramas and characters he was presenting that it seems unlikely he would consciously model them after Jews.  And if there is anti-Semitism lurking behind figures and ideas in his operas, it is so subtle and subjective that it certainly does not matter to those who love the music.

Though it is hardly a justification, Wagner’s anti-Semitism was very common among enlightened Europeans in the nineteenth century, and it lacked the crude characteristics of the grass roots hatred found in the rural areas.  Wagner certainly did not advocate pogroms or separation and lived in the part of Europe where Jewish assimilation was most advanced.  Since many of his friends were in fact Jewish, he could hardly support violence or other extreme measures against them.  His campaign against the music of the Paris composer Giacomo Meyerbeer has more to do with Wagner’s initial envy of Meyerbeer’s success and what he perceived as unjust treatment by the popular composer than it did with Meyerbeer’s Jewishness.  Wagner was plainly annoyed and frustrated by the popularity of Meyerbeer’s operas, which he considered inferior to his own vision and works.  And there were many Jews in music, such as Gustav Mahler, who could easily ignore Wagner’s various shortcomings and see only the musical genius.

Wagner as the über-anti-Semite chiefly derives from two developments after his death.  The first was the emergence of Haus Wahnfried, the Wagner residence in Bayreuth, as a notorious center of anti-Semitism, presided over by his widow, Cosima, until her death in 1930.  She herself may not have been seriously anti-Semitic, but her establishment certainly attracted a number of unsavory characters, like the racist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who married one of the Wagner daughters and took up residence in Bayreuth.

The second and far more important development was the association of Wagner with the Third Reich.  Hitler was surely aware of Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but the attraction was the music, which would have held him spellbound even if the composer had never uttered an anti-Semitic word.  Wagner’s obvious German nationalism and connection with Teutonic myth would have appealed to Hitler more than the anti-Semitism.  The fact that there was virtually no one else in the Nazi hierarchy that had any desire to sit through a Wagnerian opera suggests a lack of identity between National Socialism and the music of the future.

Abetting Hitler’s love of Wagner was the composer’s daughter-in-law Winifred’s love of Adolf Hitler.  Her husband, Siegfried, died the same year as his mother, and Winifred became the pro-Nazi mistress of Wahnfried, where Hitler would be a regular visitor.  She would only go so far when it came to the master’s music – she refused to put swastikas on the shields of the Gibichungen in Die Götterdämmerung – but Hitler’s frequent presence at Bayreuth and the clear affection between him and the family – he was “Wolfie” – forever bound Wagner to the Reich.

And Wagner’s attitude to Hitler?  He certainly would have applauded the ultra-nationalism and the final unification of all Germans, and one might guess he would find the pomp and incredible showmanship of the Nazi state very attractive.  Humiliating the French would likely also appeal to him.  But Wagner was a revolutionary, not just in his music but also in politics, at least in his youth, and he participated in the anti-monarchy revolts of 1848 and was forced into exile in Switzerland.  Once successful he seems to have retreated to some degree from these sentiments, especially when a monarch, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, showered him with money, and the creation of the German Empire pleased him.  Yet, it is hard to see Wagner enthusiastic about the absolute and particularly vulgar dictatorship established by Hitler, and for all his anti-Semitism I find it impossible to believe that the soul manifested in his music could abide the Final Solution.

But in the end – who cares?  Were Wagner himself a mass murderer, the music would still be the music and that is all the matters.  Modern Israel has had an unofficial ban on performing Wagner, which is simply silly.  The messenger is not the message.  And in any case Wagner is unwittingly performed: the traditional wedding march (“Here Comes the Bride”) comes from Lohengrin.

Finally, a little known connection between Wagner and America.  The American Centennial Commission in 1876 commissioned Wagner to write a piece of music for the occasion, resulting in the obscure American Centennial March, clearly not one of the master’s great compositions.  He himself said the best thing about the piece was the $5000 he was paid for it.