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.

Clemenceau

Wilson

Germany faces the Fourteen Points

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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.

Rasputin

Rasputin

Alekseyev

Alekseyev

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

Venizelos

Venizelos

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