Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #54: A Legacy of Evil

When the Great War ended in November 1918 the Russian Civil War had already begun, and the Reds were losing. By the beginning of 1919 the entire northern Caucasus was dominated by the Whites under General Anton Denikin, while the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had become independent.  Northwestern Russia was still in the hands of the Allies, and White General Nikolai Yudenich had begun organizing an army in Estonia.  Siberia and the far east were controlled by the Allies, the Czech Legion and sundry White forces coalescing under Admiral Alexander Kolchak, who proclaimed himself Supreme Rule of Russia.  The low point for the Bolsheviks came in June 1919, when General Pyotr Wrangel took Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad) on the Volga River, only 200 miles from Moscow.


Close to crushing Bolshevism

What was the problem?  Well, the emerging Marxism-Leninism ideology and its repressive methods were not at all the popular, especially among the peasantry, who wanted their own land and could hardly understand the proffered benefits of communism.  As the Civil War developed, the violent repression of the Bolsheviks seemed, if anything, worse than that of the Czar, and the confiscation of food supplies for the Red Army created man-made famines that understandably dampened any peasant enthusiasm.  Men like Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin were not inclined to judicial process or mercy; threats and summary executions were the way to solve any problems.

Further, the Red Army was initially hardly a first class military force, despite the efforts of War Commissar Leon Trotsky (assassinated in 1940).  Workers could not be turned into effective soldiers overnight, and in any case many of the “recruits” were dragooned, essentially facing a choice of joining the cause or being shot.  Such men were hardly enthusiastic about fighting, especially when death threatened, and given the growing propensity on both sides to simply slaughter prisoners, surrender was hardly attractive.  The result was predictable: indiscipline, mutinies, desertions and flight in the face of the enemy.



The Bolshevik leadership of course saw this as the essential reason why the Reds were losing battles, and the solution was of course obvious: more terror.  In December of 1917 Lenin had created the All-Russia Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counter-revolution and Sabotage – the Cheka (forerunner of the OGPU, NKVD and KGB) – a merciless secret police to eliminate political opposition, and in 1918 Trotsky organized the Special Punitive Department of the Cheka.  These were detachments that followed the Red Army and set up tribunals to judge soldiers, including officers (and the odd political commissar), accused of retreating, deserting or not showing enough enthusiasm.  Summary execution was very frequently the result.


Cheka on parade


Cheka at work


Even these draconian measures could not fully do the job, and in August 1918 Trotsky had the Cheka begin creating the notorious “barrier” or “blocking” troops, whose job was to shoot soldiers who retreated without orders, which generally meant just retreating, orders or not.  These were men from reliable Red Army units, but the Cheka was also building up its own paramilitary forces, which would swell to over 200,000 by 1921.  This was the beginning of the “Red Terror” (better, the “First Red Terror”), which by the end of the Civil War had executed anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 (conservative estimates) people.

The Red Terror, under the leadership of the head of the Cheka, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, established the basic mechanisms – intimidation, torture, extrajudicial executions and a degree of arbitrariness – that would characterize the security apparatus of the Soviet Union.  This was deemed necessary for the dictatorship of the proletariat to survive and was supported and justified by the ideology of the Bolshevik leadership: “To overcome our enemies we must have our own socialist militarism. We must carry along with us 90 million out of the 100 million of Soviet Russia’s population. As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” – Grigory Zinoviev (executed in 1936). And even those committed to the Bolshevik cause were not safe: “Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.” – Martin Latsis (executed in 1937).


Iron Felix













Incidentally, a 15 ton statue of Dzerzhinsky was erected in 1958 in front of the Lubyanka, notorious home of the Soviet security apparatus from the Cheka to the KGB (and now of one of the directorates of the FSB, the current version of the Cheka).  It was torn down when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but a recent poll (2013) revealed that 45% of Russians want the statue re-erected.  Stalin would approve.


Felix before the Lubyanka

But the tide was turning. The White forces were generally as ruthless as the Reds, and their initial popularity quickly began to drain away. It also became clear that the major figures – Denikin, Yudenich, Kolchak, Wrangel – were not so much fighting for the restoration of the monarchy as for personal power. Further, the Red Army had the advantage of a central command and inside lines of communication, while the White armies essentially fought independently. And the Allies were leaving, as resurgent American isolationism and British war-weariness and near bankruptcy took hold; by the end of 1919 all significant Allied forces had left, except the Japanese, whose remaining forces were not withdrawn until 1925.

By the middle of summer 1919 the Red Army was larger than the White and capable commanders, like Mikhail Tukhachevsky (executed in 1937), were emerging and taking the offensive. On 14 October Tukhachevsky launched a counteroffensive after defeating the last White offensive on the eastern front and captured Omsk on 14 November. Kolchak’s forces began to disintegrate, and he surrendered his command to Ataman Grigory Semyonov (executed in 1946), who held the area east of Lake Baikal with Japanese support. The Japanese, however, began leaving in July 1920, and by September 1921 the remnants of Semyonov’s army, now little more than bandits, withdrew.


Kolchak’s retreat








With Kolchak’s army crumbling the Reds could concentrate on the south, and an alliance was made with the anarcho-communist Free Territory of Nestor Makhno in the Ukraine. Denikin’s army was soon in full retreat back to the Don River, and in March 1920 an attempt was made to evacuate the troops across the Kerch Straights to the Crimea. It was a disaster. Only 40,000 of Denikin’s men made it across, leaving behind their horses, heavy equipment and 20,000 comrades to the Reds. Denikin surrendered his command to Wrangel, who reorganized the army in the Crimea and invaded the southern Ukraine in October.


Denikin’s evacuation






The Reds appealed once again to Makhno, despite the fact that they had been attempting to assassinate him, and Ukrainian troops aided in the defeat of Wrangel in November. Less than two weeks later Makhno’s staff and subordinate commanders were arrested at a conference in Moscow and executed. Makhno escaped, but the Red Army and Cheka forces descended on the Free Territory with a vengeance, conducting a massacre of anarchists; Makhno carried on a guerilla campaign until August 1921, when he and a few men fled into exile. Wrangel, meanwhile, was unable to defend the Crimea, but he was able to evacuate all his people from Russia by November 1920.


The Free Territory



The threat in the west was the new Polish Republic, where head of state Józef Piłsudski was seeking to extend Poland’s frontiers east into Belarus and the Ukraine. After sporadic fighting throughout 1919 he launched a major offensive on 24 April 1920 and was immediately met by a Russian counterattack that drove the Poles back to Warsaw. But in August they destroyed the Red force, and the Russians accepted a cease fire in October. On 18 March 1921 the Treaty of Riga awarded Poland large chunks of Belarus and the Ukraine; the rest was absorbed by emerging Soviet Union.



Finally, in the northwest Yudenich, having guaranteed the independence of Estonia, launched in October 1919 an Allied-supported offensive aimed at capturing St. Petersburg. They easily reached the approaches to the city on 19 October, but Trotsky refused to surrender the birthplace of Bolshevism, arming the workers and rushing troops from Moscow. Soon facing three times the original number of defenders and dwindling supplies, Yudenich retreated to Estonia.











By the beginning of 1921 it was clear the Reds had won the war and now controlled most of the former Russian Empire, but troubles remained. The Russian economy had essentially collapsed (only 20% of the pre-war level), and requisitioning of food supplies by both sides, coupled with droughts, brought on the famine of 1921-22, which killed anywhere from two to ten million. The result was endless peasant revolts, which were crushed with what was now the standard brutality; in March 1921 in sympathy with striking workers in St. Petersburg the garrison of the Kronstadt fortress revolted and was promptly overwhelmed by 60,000 troops under Tukhachevsky. The Civil War offically ended in June 1923, but minor resistance continued into the 30s.






The human cost of the Civil War is impossible to determine with any accuracy, but by any estimate it was staggering. The White Terror killed some 300,000, including 100,000 Jews, while the Reds killed or deported 300,000-500,000 Cossacks. Perhaps 1-1.5 million combatants died in battle and captivity or from disease, and 7-8 million civilians perished in massacres and from starvation and disease; in 1920 some 3 million died of typhus alone. By 1922 there were perhaps 7 million homeless “street children,” dramatically revealing the extent of the carnage.


Street children

On 30 December 1922 the Bolshevik controlled republics – Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Transcaucasia – signed a treaty establishing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By 1940 there would be 15 Republics, and as of 26 December 1991 there would be none. The de facto ruler of the new USSR was Vladimir Lenin, who was ruthless enough, but he died of a stroke in 1924 and Joseph Stalin took over and began eliminating all opposition and turning the workers’ paradise into a charnel house. Forced collectivization and rapid industrialization, for example, resulted in the man made Famine of 1932-1933, which left 7-8 million dead, and in just the two years 1937-1938 as many as a million people were executed. By Stalin’s death in 1953 anywhere from 20 to 30 million souls had perished due to his policies.


Lenin and Stalin 1922


The treaty creating the USSR



The face of evil





Report from the (Now Quiet) Fronts #53: A Legacy of Autocracy

(The major post-war political arrangements would not be confirmed until the Versailles Treaty of June 1919 and the Treaty of Trianon of June 1920, but most were in the air before that.)


The Great War dramatically changed the map and political culture of Europe.  Three large empires had collapsed: Romanov Russia, Hapsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey.  The result was the emergence of independent states in Eastern Europe, new French and British provinces in the Middle East and Africa and the general disappearance of autocratic monarchy in favor of dictatorships.

Europe 1923

Yugoslavia, composed of the Slavic provinces of the Austrian Empire, appeared, along with Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while the emasculation of Germany and the chaos in Russia allowed the formation of an independent Poland for the first time since the Third Partition of Poland in 1795.  While the Russian Civil War raged through 1918 and 1919, Belarus, the Ukraine and several pocket states in the Caucasus asserted their independence, only to be reabsorbed into the new Russian Empire with the triumph of the Bolsheviks and establishment of the USSR.  And Turkey was reduced to Anatolia and a toehold in Europe in the area surrounding Istanbul.

Partitions of Poland

The new Polish Republic

The dismemberment of the Austrian Empire













The German Empire was a special case.  Though possessing minorities of Danes, French and especially Poles on its western and eastern frontiers, it was overwhelmingly ethnic Germans and could not “collapse” as its neighbors did.  Like the former provinces of the Austrian and Russian Empires, Germany would have its frontiers redrawn along ethnic lines, according to the mandate of President Wilson. Consequently, Germany lost the northern part of Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark and Posen to Poland, which was given access to the Baltic Sea by creating a “corridor” along the Vistula River to the now “free” city of Danzig (Gdańsk).  This of course separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany, a perfect recipe for future trouble.

Post-war Germany

Pre-war Germany



















But Germany had another problem: France.  87% of the population of Alsace-Lorraine was German-speaking (it was conquered by Louis XIV), but even President Wilson could see that the French would never accept anything less than a full restoration of the province to France.  This was a question of honor, and the territory was returned to France, despite the wishes of many of the inhabitants; some French politicians even demanded the incorporation of the Rhineland into France.  Altogether, Germany lost 25,000 square miles of territory and 7 million people.

French, British and Italian territorial demands apart, restructuring Eastern Europe along ethnic lines was not at all easy, given the intermingling of ethnic populations and historic claims to territory.  The biggest loser was Hungary, whose frontiers were settled by the Treaty of Trianon, dictated by the Allies in 1920.  The new Hungarian Republic lost 72% of the territory and 64% of the population of antebellum Kingdom of Hungary, mostly to Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.  Granted, the Kingdom had a huge non-Hungarian population, but the Treaty left 3.3 million (31%) ethnic Hungarians outside the Republic.  Romania, on the other hand, was a big winner, gaining Transylvania, Bessarabia and Bukovina and thus doubling the size of the Romanian state.

Hungarian losses

Romanian gains








Under the influence of the Allies, especially America, all these new political entities, including Germany, began their post-war existence with parliamentary governments, either as republics or limited monarchies.  Like America attempting to create a democratic government in Afghanistan, this was wishful thinking on a grand scale.  None of these polities had any real experience with democracy, and they were ill-equipped to deal with the turbulent 1920s.  Despite the attempt to draw boundaries according to ethnic lines, there was immediately dissatisfaction with the new frontiers; old territorial claims could not so easily be discarded.  A number of local wars promptly broke out, confronting the new civil governments with serious strain and threats, especially from successful military leaders.

The Versailles Treaty established an international body for Europe, the League of Nations, but such an organization was before its time and lacked the powers necessary to enforce its decisions.  Even President Wilson, the major supporter of the League, could not convince an isolationist Congress to join the organization.   If France and Britain were reluctant to challenge Hitler in the late 1930s, they certainly had no interest in going to war in the 1920s because of border conflicts in Eastern Europe.

There was also the looming presence of the new Soviet Empire, eager to regain czarist provinces lost during the defeat and following Civil War and ready to support communist movements throughout Europe.  Unsurprisingly, the typical response was official and unofficial repression of these political groups (and ethnic minorities), leading inevitably to attacks on other political opponents and more authoritarian governments.  These trends were then exacerbated by the worldwide Depression, which caused economic hardship and further destabilized society, creating more support for strong leaders who could solve problems that seemed beyond elected parliaments.  And of course, a suffering population was more than ready to blame the ethnic and religious “others” in their midst.                

As the leader of the defeated Central Powers and occupier of eastern France and Belgium (and for the French as the victor of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71), Germany was a special case. Much more than the other Allies, France wanted revenge, crippling reparations and the emasculation of Germany for all time to come, an approach to peace that almost guaranteed the failure of the new democratic republic.  French demands could only strengthen the German far right, which was already gaining popular support in its increasingly violent struggle against the communists.

They also fanned the flames of resurgent German nationalism and the growing myth of the Dolchschoẞ (“stab in the back”), the idea that the German military did not lose the war but was betrayed by the civilian government that succeeded the Kaiser.  The men who signed the Armistice and the later Treaty of Versailles were the “November criminals,” who had stabbed Germany in the back, and the anti-democratic forces, especially Hitler’s National Socialists, seized upon this nonsense to attack the Weimar government.

Philip Scheidemann, November criminal

Matthias Erzberger, November criminal

A Jew delivering the stab in the back

Scheidemann and Erzberger administering the stab in the back











As a result of all these pressures, aided by the emergence of the fascist Third Reich, by the middle 1930s only two states in Central and Eastern Europe possessed functioning democratic governments: Finland and Czechoslovakia (despite its multi-ethnic population).  Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia all had authoritarian governments.  And Europe was again on the brink of war.

The Great War also altered the cultural landscape of Europe, essentially eliminating courts and royalty as well as the last continental empires. The sense of European peace and security that had existed since the fall of Napoleon evaporated, replaced by a growing nervousness as Europe left centuries of tradition behind.  The shock that the Great War delivered to European civilization can hardly be overestimated; as F. Scott Fitzgerald would later say in Tender Is the Night, “All my lovely beautiful safe world blew itself up.”  Coincidentally, the emergence in the early years of the twentieth century of relativity and quantum physics shattered the well understood and orderly universe of classical physics, dragging science itself into the brave new world of confusion and uncertainty created by the Great War.

The roots of the Second World War are clearly found in the Great War and its immediate aftermath.  The Treaty of Versailles, especially the financial demands, almost guaranteed that the Weimar Republic would not survive, at least not as a democratic entity.  The Bolshevik Revolution and emergence of the Soviet Union threatened Eastern Europe and helped fuel the rearmament of Germany, which under Hitler was increasingly focused on the east.  And when the crisis approached in the late 1930s, the horrific losses of the Great War certainly contributed to the inclination towards appeasement rather than early and robust action against Hitler.  The First and Second World Wars might be viewed as a single war with a twenty year pause, a European civil war that ended with two non-European powers, the USSR and the USA dominating the continent.

Incidentally, on 3 October 2010 Germany paid off the last of the Great War reparations.

Report from the Fronts #51: November 1918: Armistice

(If you want more on the end of the fighting, try Joseph E. Persico, Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour, an excellent read.  Note: though the hostilities are ending, the war is not, so there will be a few more Reports.)

It is a crime that operations continued on the Western Front when the Germans were clearly defeated and begging for an armistice.  The Allies already held all the cards, but they were wrangling among themselves.  The French, British and Italians were less than enthusiastic about Wilson’s Fourteen Points with their emphasis on self-determination and drawing boundaries according to ethnicity; they already had secret treaties and plans for the post-war environment that satisfied their own interests.  Nevertheless, thousands of men would have to die when the war was obviously over.  So the Battle of Valenciennes began on 1 November and ended with capture of the city on the 3rd, and on 6 November the Americans took Sedan.  On 5 November Marshal Foch was made supreme commander of all forces fighting against Germany.

The end

To the southeast the Serbians retook Belgrade on 1 November, and King Peter I returned three days later, to be crowned King of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (at least until 1921).  The Italians seized Trieste on 3 November, and a day later the Battle of Vittorio Veneto came to an end; the Austrians suffered 80,000 casualties and some 450,000 prisoners, the Italians and allies about 40,000 casualties.  And that same day all hostilities between the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Allies ceased, and the Italians occupied not only the territory they had lost but also the North Tyrol, Innsbruck, Gorizia, Istria and Dalmatia.

King Peter I

Italians landing in Trieste










The end was also coming for the German Empire, as revolts began breaking out across Germany.  On 3 November the Allies finally agreed to the German proposal for an armistice, as mutiny was exploding among the sailors of the fleet at Kiel.  On 24 October Admiral Franz von Hipper ordered preparations for a final battle against the British and moved part of the High Seas Fleet to Wilhelmshaven, where some sailors refused to obey orders or actually mutinied.  The resistance was defused without violence and the ships returned to Kiel, but the sailors there were also not interested in sacrificing their lives for a pointless foray.

Admiral Franz von Hipper

Hipper’s plan for the last battle










On 1 November 250 sailors held a meeting, which was followed the next two days by large open-air demonstrations, in which workers and civilians participated.  Local troops fired into the crowd, killing some, and on the 4th more troops were sent in, but these soldiers either refused to obey orders or actually joined the revolt.  By the end of the day some 40,000 sailors, soldiers and workers controlled Kiel and Wilhelmshaven.  On 7 November Bavaria was declared a republic, and the revolt spread to Berlin two days later.  The German Revolution had begun.

The Revolution begins

Sailors on strike







Reaction at the highest level followed quickly.  On 9 November it was announced that the Kaiser would abdicate (the abdication was signed on the 28th), and the next day he went into exile in Holland, where he would remain until his death in 1941.  The almost 900 year old Hohenzollern dynasty (at least as rulers) and the 47 year old Second Reich came to an end.  On 12 November Emperor Karl I of Austria, no longer having an empire, was compelled to abdicate, and left for Switzerland in March 1919 and died in Madeira in April 1922.  The thousand year old Holy Roman Empire and the 51 year old Austro-Hungarian Empire were gone; on the same day Karl abdicated a German-Austrian republic was proclaimed.

Wilhelm II

The now dapper Kaiser in exile

Prince Georg Friedrich, current heir to the Prussian throne

Karl I

Karl von Hapsburg, current heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne











And the war was finally ending.  On 3 November Austria agreed to the Armistice of Villa Giusti with the Allies, which effectively ended the war for Austria, and on the same day the Allies accepted Germany’s armistice proposal. The German delegation arrived at the Allied General Headquarters and were ushered into a specially prepared railway car in the Forest of Compiègne (Foch wanted no press or angry Frenchmen present) on 8 November.  They were informed by Foch that they had three days to consider the Allied demands, which were nonnegotiable, and with little choice – Germany was starving from the blockade – the armistice was signed at 5:10 am on 11 October.  The war was over.

Allied leaders at the Wagon

The signing of the Armistice

The Wagon at Compiègne 1940

The Wagon in Berlin 1940










Well, not quite.  The armistice would not take effect until 11:00 am, exactly at the moment Foch’s 72 hour deadline ended.  Whether the Allied commanders considered a delay in order to come up with the nifty “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is unknown, but many professional soldiers, like Foch himself and General Pershing, who wanted their troops to keep fighting and gain ground that was already due to be handed over.  Officers’ careers could still be furthered, and in the case of the Americans, even at the grunt level, there was still glory to be won.  So, men continued to die.

In the six hours between the signing of the armistice and its implementation both sides suffered, conservatively, 11,000 casualties of which some 2700 were deaths.  The last British soldier to be killed was George Ellison, shot in the vicity of Mons around 9:30, while the last Commonwealth soldier to die, Canadian George Price, bought the farm at 10:58 in an advance north of Mons.  Augustin Trébuchon, the last poilu, was killed at 10:50 during an assault across the Meuse River,  The man recognized as the last soldier to die in action in the Great War was an American, Henry Gunther, who in the last 60 seconds of the war charged at a German machine gun; the surprised Germans attempted to wave him off and finally cut him down.  No one seems to know who the last German soldier was.

George Ellison

George Price

Augustin Trébuchon

Henry Gunther










The war in Africa, however, went on.  Lettow-Vorbeck and his askaris in the bush were not exactly easy to contact, and on 1 November they invaded Rhodesia and took the town of Kasama on the 9th.  Hostilities finally came to an end on 14 November, and the German force in Rhodesia surrendered on the 25th, two weeks after the armistice.  By that time Lettow-Vorbeck’s army consisted of 30 German officers, 125 other ranks, 1168 askaris and about 3500 porters.  They had led a quarter million Commonwealth troops on a merry chase for four years.  Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany a hero, the only undefeated German commander, and though he was an ardent nationalist, he opposed Hitler, suposedly once telling the Führer to fuck hmself.  He was given a state funeral upon his death in 1964.

Surrender of Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck in Berlin 1919

The Lion of Africa in 1935











Meanwhile, the Germans were going home.  On 18 November the last German troops crossed the French frontier (they would be back in 22 years) and the Belgian frontier on the 26th (ditto).  Brussels was reoccupied by the Belgian army on 18 November, followed three days later by the government.  British and American troops crossed into Germany on 24 November, followed by the French two days later; the day before the French had entered Strasbourg in Alsace-Lorraine, lost to Germany almost 50 years earlier.

A peace treaty would not be signed until June 1919, but modern eastern Europe was already emerging from the ruin of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  On 1 November Hungary formed its first independent government, under Mihály Károlyi, and on the 16th declared the 400 year Hapsburg monarchy abolished and the establishment of the First Hungarian Republic.  On 14 November Professor Masaryk was elected the first President of the Czechoslovak Republic, and on the 23rd the Yugoslav National Council voted for union with Serbia and Montenegro, which union was approved by the Montenegrin National Assembly on 29 November.

Proclamation of the Hungarian Republic


Mihály Károlyi

Tomas Masaryk

Austro-Hungarian Empire by ethnicity



All was now quiet on the Western Front, but violence continued in the east.  On 1 November the new Second Polish Republic under Józef Piłsudski went to war with the momentarily independent Ukraine, seeking new territory in the east, especially Galicia. The war would end in a Polish victory in July 1919, when the Ukrainians would join Poland in the Polish-Soviet War that began in February 1919.

Poland March 1919

Józef Pilsudski

And there was the Russian Civil War, born of the Great War.  On 18 November in Omsk Admiral Alexander Kolchak declared himself the Dictator of Russia and began collecting White forces to combat the Reds.  To the west the other major White leader, Anton Denikin, had by November gained control of all the territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  It was beginning to appear that the Bolsheviks were doomed.

Alexander Kolchak

Anton Denikin










Finally, on 9 November the British and French issued a joint declaration regarding the disposition of the former Ottoman territories of Syria and Mesopotamia, a telling sign that they had their own agendas for the post-war world.  President Wilson’s self-determination apparently did not extend to non-Europeans.

Disposition of the Ottoman Empire



Report from the Fronts #39: January 1918

The new year brought no particular hope for the Allies.  The disaster of Caporetto and the exit of the Russians in fact boded ill, and the Allied command was looking to 1919 for a victory.  The Central Powers had eliminated Russia from the war and could bring more troops west, but they were on the verge of starvation because of the Allied blockade and would need to take some action soon.

January saw no major fighting – the winter in France and Flanders was exceptionally cold – and most of the action was diplomatic.  At Brest-Litovsk the Russians were discovering just how much a peace was going to cost them, and on 5 January ceased negotiations, demanding they be conducted at Stockholm.  Three days later they resumed the talks, only to withdraw again on the 23rd and then reengage on the 30th.  Dissension was growing among the Bolshevik leadership, and some wanted to wait until the expected worker revolutions broke out in Europe.

On 6 January a delegation from the Ukraine, which was seeking a separate peace with the Central Powers, arrived.  In the wake of the February Revolution in March 1917 the Ukrainians had begun organizing their own state, and while this development was tolerated by the Provisional Government, the new Bolshevik regime was definitely unenthusiastic, despite its proclamation of self-determination in the former empire.  As is still clear in the 21st century, the Ukraine occupied a special place in the Russian heart: though possessing a different culture and language, it was considered “south Russia” and the birthplace of Russia itself – Kievan Rus’.  And Lenin desperately needed Ukrainian grain.  Two decades of nightmare were about to begin for the Ukrainian people.

The Ukrainian delegation at Brest-Litovsk

Others were leaving the one-time Greater Romanov Co-Prosperity Sphere.  After the abdication of Czar Nicholas in March 1917 Finland declared itself autonomous, inasmuch as the personal union between Finland and Russia was based on the monarchy.  When the Bolsheviks announced self-determination on 15 November, the Finish Parliament declared complete sovereignty and on 6 December passed a Declaration of Independence, which the Soviet government accepted on 4 January.  Poland was occupied by the Germans, and Belarus and the Baltic and Caucasian states would soon be departing.

Signatures on the Finish Declaration of Independence

Incidentally, the Bolshevik leadership demonstrated in January that it was also unconcerned about self-determination in Russia.  On the 18th a supportive crowd marched on the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, where the Constituent Assembly, elected in November, was to meet.  They were shot at by government soldiers, but the Assembly convened anyway, surrounded by troops, who finally forced the meeting to adjourn around 4 AM.  The next day the Assembly was dissolved by the Bolshevik government, which had no need for a freely elected parliament.

The Tauride Palace

The meeting place in the Palace







Finally, in a speech to Congress on 8 January President Wilson outlined his Fourteen Points for a just settlement of the war.  The first point called for “open covenants, openly arrived at,” a provision that the Allies, with all their secret treaties, were not amused by, though Lenin, who had revealed all the Russian treaties, thought the document enlightened.  The French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, who was less interested in Wilson’s idealism than squeezing every last pfennig out of Germany, responded to the Fourteen Points with Le bon Dieu n’en avait que dix ! (“The good Lord had only ten!”).  Nevertheless, the Points would serve as a basis for negotiating the peace treaty at Versailles after the war.



Germany faces the Fourteen Points

Reports from the Front #6: September 1915

September 1915 saw the Austrian-German tide in the east slow down because of lengthening lines of communication, but by the beginning of that month the Russians had already lost all of Poland and 750,000 prisoners. Perhaps more important than these losses was a change in command. On 5 September the Supreme Commander of all Russian forces, Grand Duke Nicholas Nickolaevich, was sacked by the Czar. He was a decent soldier but seemingly incapable of controlling the unprepared and fragmented command structure of the Russian army, which was loaded with incompetent appointees. In his place Czar Nicholas appointed…himself. A bigger blunder could hardly have been made.

Grand Duke Nicholas

Grand Duke Nicholas

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the uniforms

The Czar and the Kaiser, who seem to have put on the wrong uniforms

In reality the head of the Stavka, General Mikhail Alekseyev, managed the war, but by assuming supreme command the Czar had identified himself with the conduct of the war, regardless of whether he actually had anything to do with it. And the conduct of the war under Alekseyev was terrible. He clearly did not understand modern warfare and in any case could do little about the corruption and incompetence of the officer class, much of which stemmed from nepotism and court intrigue. Now the Czar, who already had a rep for not being overly concerned about the welfare of his people and had no idea how to wage a war, would take the blame, especially as his presence at the front advertised the fact that he was indeed in command. As defeats mounted and life became even more miserable for the average Russian soldier, it was only natural that he be blamed, particularly since it was easy to believe the Czar was being jerked around by his unpopular German wife, Alexandra, and the notorious “monk” Rasputin. With this decision Czar Nicholas stepped closer to the abyss of the Revolution.





Empress Alexandra

Empress Alexandra

With a new El Supremo on 7 September the Russians launched a counter offensive at Tarnopol, in the far south of the front; nine days later it was abandoned. On 16 September the Germans captured Pinsk, and two days later they took Vilna, threatening to break open the northern front. Italy’s entry into the war helped by drawing Austrian forces to the southwest, but nevertheless, by the end of the month things were looking grim for the Russians.

Moving east

Moving east

Meanwhile, the Balkans were lighting up with diplomacy as the neutrals were considering their options. On 22 September Bulgaria ordered general mobilization in the wake of reaching a favorable frontier agreement with the Turks, who wanted Bulgaria in the war on their side. The Bulgarians were seeking territorial expansion, especially at the expense of the Serbs, and finally decided the Central Powers were the better bet. The Greeks, who had little love for the Turks (and had over a million fellow Hellenes in western Turkey) and now feared the Bulgarians, began negotiations with the western allies, asking for a guarantee of 150,000 allied troops. At least the Greek Prime Minister, Elefthérious Venizélos, did; King Constantine I was seriously pro-German. Nevertheless, on 23 September the Greeks began to mobilize, and the next day the French and British agreed to send troops. On 27 September the King secretly gave in to the allied deal, but the following day the Greek government (minus Venizélos) formally refused the allied help and Constantine went along. This would ultimately lead to the “National Schism,” a veritable division of Greece between the monarchists and the supporters of Venizelos.

Constantine I in a German uniform

Constantine I in a German uniform



On the Western Front the lazy, hazy days of summer came to end with the fall offensives. On 25 September the French opened the Second Champagne Offensive, while to the north they and the British began the Third Battle of Artois (the Battle of Loos was the British component and saw the first use of gas by them). Do these names seem familiar? They are the same sectors of the front attacked back in May, and the result would be the same. Granted, there were good strategic reasons to mount this offensive, but why should anyone expect it to succeed this time, when in fact the German defenses in depth were far more developed now? The battles would last into October and November and achieve nothing but casualties. This is the sort of wishful thinking that would characterize the decisions of the chateau generals for the next several years.

Im Westen nur Dummheit

Im Westen nur Dummheit

There was an allied attack in the Cameroons on 8 September, but otherwise, in Afrika nichts Neues. On 1 September Germany agreed to demands by the United States to limit submarine warfare; she would later be more desperate.

And that’s what happened 100 years ago this month.

Reports from the Front #5: August 1915

August was a good time to be on the Western Front: neither side launched any serious assaults on the trench lines. It was also a good time to be on the Eastern Front, if you happened to be German or Austrian. The Gorlice-Tarnów offensive, which Falkenhayn had launched at the beginning of May, continued its rapid advance eastward, destroying Russian units all along the line. This operation was remembered by the Russians as the “Great Retreat,” but that retreat, accelerated by the Stavka (the Russian supreme headquarters) saved the army from any large encirclements, especially in the Warsaw salient. On 5 August the Central Powers took Warsaw, on 25 August Brest-Litovsk and on 26 August Byelostok. The Russians were now being squeezed out of Poland.

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

Poniatowski bridge (Warsaw) destroyed by the Russians

German cavalry enters Warsaw

German cavalry enters Warsaw

Moving east

                                      Moving east

They were not doing so well on the Turkish front either, and on 3 August they evacuated the Van district, which they had captured in May. The Turks reoccupied the area on 5 August, but the next day they faced a serious challenge hundreds of miles to the west. On 6 August the western allies reopened the Gallipoli campaign, landing two fresh divisions at Suvla Bay, just north of “Anzac cove.” The plan was for the two beachheads to unite, seize the surrounding heights before the Turks could bring up reinforcements and then cross to the east coast of the peninsula, trapping the Turkish forces to the south.

Suvla Bay

                                  Suvla Bay

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli - not the cigarette holder

Kemal in the trenches at Gallipoli – note the cigarette holder

Liman von Sanders

          Liman von Sanders

The allied failure at Suvla Bay

             The allied failure at Suvla Bay

The plan failed utterly, not so much because of the quick reaction of the (German) Turkish commander, Liman von Sanders, and the equally able Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, but because of the incompetence of the British command. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Herbert Kitchener (of Omdurman fame), refused to appoint a younger general and instead saddled the Suvla landing with the inexperienced and 61 year old Frederick Stopford, who was asleep when the assault began and visited the beach only once. He left the operation in the hands of his subordinates, many of whom were also lethargic, and although the two beachheads were joined, inactivity, confusion and conflicting orders prevented the troops from controlling the heights. By the middle of August the battle was essentially over, and another static trench line had been established on the peninsula. By this time there were over 500,000 allied and 300,000 Turkish troops involved in the campaign.

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Aussies in a captured Turkish trench

Lord Kitchener

                    Lord Kitchener

Yes, that's Kitchener

               Yes, that’s Kitchener

Off in the west 10 August saw the culmination of the Second Battle of the Isonzo, which ended like the First: little gained beyond mammoth casualties on both sides. More important, on 21 August Italy declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of London, signed by Italy and the Triple Entente on 26 April, had lured the Italians into the war with promises of Austrian territory and a protectorate over Albania, but it also confirmed Italy’s possession of the Dodecanese Islands in the Aegean (just off the coast of Turkey) and provided that “in the event of total or partial partition of Turkey in Asia, she ought to obtain a just share of the Mediterranean region adjacent to the province of Adalia (on the south coast of Turkey)…” Diplomatic promises apart, the Italian government apparently felt that being in an actual state of war with Turkey would enhance her position when it came time to dispose of the Ottoman Empire.

Fighting on the Italian front - Austrians

    Fighting on the Italian front – Austrians

And so it was in August 1915, an excellent month for the Central Powers.


Reports from the Front #2: the East – August 1914 to May 1915

(Yes, the maps are hard to read because of the small size, but I have no idea how to make them bigger or create a link to the original.  But I will continue to include them – I like maps.)


While the men on the Western Front were quickly learning about industrialized warfare, in the east, where the front ran for almost a thousand miles from the Baltic to the Black Sea, things were a bit different.  Because of the difficulty of fortifying and manning such a long line, the war was more fluid, with impressive breakthroughs that the generals in the west kept spending men on but could not achieve.  On the other hand, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies were far inferior in quality and their communications more primitive, which meant that while penetrating enemy lines was much easier, sustaining any advance was more difficult.  Austrian troops would need constant help from the Germans.WWOne24[1]

On 12 August Austria invaded Serbia with 270,000 troops, a fraction of their total operational force of some two million, and they faced a poorly equipped Serbian army, whose entire operational strength at the time was about 250,000 men.  Nevertheless, despite two more Austrian invasions, by the middle of December virtually nothing had changed – except the loss of men: 170,000 for Serbia, 230,000 for Austria.  Even without a static front industrialized warfare did not come cheap.

Russian infantry

Russian infantry

Serbian infantry

Serbian infantry

Austrian infantry

Austrian infantry

Meanwhile, on 17 August the Russians invaded East Prussia, but the Russian Second Army was annihilated by Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg at the Battle of Tannenberg from 26 to 30 August; the Russian commander, Alexander Samsonov, shot himself.  The engagement actually took place near Allenstein, 19 miles to the east, but as a symbol of revenge for the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights in 1410 it was named after Tannenberg.  Hindenburg and his chief of staff, Erich von Ludendorff (who would become virtual dictator of Germany in 1918), then took the Eighth Army east and in the First Battle of the Masurian Lakes from 7 to 14 September destroyed the Russian First Army as well,

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

despite being heavily outnumbered.  Russian troops were driven from German soil and would not return again until late 1944.

Alexander Samsonov

Alexander Samsonov

Battle of Tannenberg

Battle of Tannenberg


The major problem for the Russian army was incompetent and corrupt officers.  The individual soldier was tough and at least initially willing to fight for his country, despite its oppressive and brutal government, but he was very badly led and constantly short of supplies.  Not only were Russian industry and transportation far less developed than that of her allies and Germany, but selling army supplies was a thriving practice among senior officials and army officers.  (One is perhaps reminded of the current Iraqi army.)  Further complicating any advance into Germany – and vice versa – was the broader Russian railway gauge, which would plague the Wehrmacht in the next war.

On the other hand, as the Serbian campaigns demonstrate the Austro-Hungarian army was nothing much to write home about either.  On 23 August the Austrian First Army met the Russian Fourth Army near Lublin on the border between Russian Poland and Austrian Galicia (parts of modern Poland and Ukraine), inaugurating the Battle of Galicia.  The Fourth Army was driven back, as was the Fifth Army immediately to the southeast, but unfortunately for old Franz Joseph, in the southernmost sector of the front the Russians actually had an able commander, Aleksei Brusilov, who broke the Austrian advance.  Defeat turned to flight, making the Austrian gains in the north untenable, and when the battle ended on 11 September, the Russian front had advanced a hundred miles to the Carpathian Mountains.  The heart of the Austrian army had been ripped out, and the Germans were forced to send troops to Austria’s defense and thus limit their advance into Russian Poland.

Aleksei Brusilov

Aleksei Brusilov

Battle of Galicia

Battle of Galicia

A month and a half of war in the east demonstrated what everyone had already suspected: the Germans were good and the Austrians and Russians were not.  The Germans had lost 24,000 men, including captured, the Austrians 684,000 and the Russians a 605,000.  But the Russians now occupied Galicia, balancing the disaster in the north and perhaps keeping Nicky on his throne a bit longer.

The Russian supreme command was in fact contemplating an invasion of Silesia, which would expose the flanks of the Germans in the north and the Austrians in the south.  The Germans got wind of this, and Hindenburg, now supreme commander in the east, sent the Ninth Army under August von Mackensen southeast to forestall the invasion.  The Russians countered by ordering the Fifth Army to forget about Silesia and withdraw to the area of Łódź to deal with the threat from von Mackensen, who struck Paul von Rennenkampf’s First Army (yes, he is a Russian) on 11 November.  Thus began the Battle of Łódź, which went on until 6 December, when the Germans finally gave up trying to capture the city.  The Russians then nevertheless moved east towards Warsaw to establish a new defense line, and Rennenkampf, who had already been accused of incompetence at Tannenberg, was canned.  Another 35,000 Germans and 90,000 Russians down the tubes.

Paul von Rennenkampf

Paul von Rennenkampf

August von Mackensen

August von Mackensen

Battle of Lodz

Battle of Lodz

On 7 February Hindenburg resumed the offensive with a surprise attack in the midst of a snowstorm and drove the Russians back some seventy miles, inflicting heavy casualties and accepting the surrender of an entire Russian corps.  But a Russian counterattack halted the advance, and the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes ended on 22 February with the Germans down 16,200 men and the Russians 200,000.  Well, one death is a tragedy, 50,000 is a statistic.  More uplifting (if you happened to be a German or an Austrian), on 2 May von Mackensen, now commanding Austrian forces, began an offensive near Gorlice and Tarnów (southeast of Krakow); this was the beginning of a push that would ultimately become known from the Russian point of view as the Great Retreat of 1915.

In other news from the east during the first ten months of the war, on 29 October the weakling Ottoman Empire, seeking to regain territory lost in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, shelled the Black Sea ports of Sevastopol and Theodosia.  There had been no declaration of war, and the two warships, recently acquired from Germany, were under the command of German officers, who may have acted on their own.  Seeking another front against Russia, the Germans had been putting pressure on Turkey to enter the war and found a willing accomplice in the most powerful man in the Empire, War Minister Ismail Enver, better known as Enver Pasha, who admired the German army.  In any case, Russia declared war on 1 November, promptly followed by Serbia and Montenegro, and before the Turks could negotiate Britain and France also declared war on 5 November.  In response the titular head of government, Sultan Mehmed V, declared war on Britain, France and Russia, and on 14 November the head sky-pilot of the Empire, the Sheikh ul-Islam, issued a series of fatwas that declared this to be a jihad, a holy war against the infidel enemies.  Now the Turks were in on the fun.  Only the Italians were missing.

Sultan Mehmed V

Sultan Mehmed V

Enver Pasha

Enver Pasha

 Der Drei Kaiser Bund

Der Drei Kaiser Bund

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