WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front

German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 297th installment in the series.

December 17, 1917: Armistice on the Eastern Front

After overthrowing Russia’s feeble Provisional Government in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks moved swiftly to consolidate control of the country, purging political opponents, closing newspapers, shutting down rival power centers outside the Soviet—including the Constituent Assembly, sidelined on December 11—and installing their own representatives on local and regional Soviets across the country. Much of the work was carried out by the new secret police, the cheka (an acronym for “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," in Russian) under Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose paranoia and brutal methods soon made the old Tsarist okhrana look quaint.

But even with unlimited violence on demand to suppress dissent among workers, peasants, and rival socialists, the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev knew there was one constituency they couldn’t afford to alienate—the soldiers. After all, it was angry soldiers of the Petrograd garrison who had made the first revolution in March 1917, and it was soldiers and sailors who had brought the Bolsheviks to power in the November coup. Even in its disorganized and demoralized state, the Russian Army still dwarfed the Bolsheviks’ armed supporters in the Red Guard and cheka—and after a few mutinies there was no reason they couldn’t stage another.

In short, the Bolsheviks had to move swiftly to appease rank-and-file Russian soldiers, most of whom were still lukewarm in their support for the communist regime, or risk violent overthrow themselves. That meant meeting their main demand, a central promise of the Bolshevik platform since the war began: in a word, peace.

Reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Central Powers would take months of tortuous negotiations, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ reluctance to make major territorial concessions and crumbling authority over border regions of the fracturing empire, as well as discord between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire about the extent of their demands and the division of spoils.


Erik Sass

However, after their first meeting on December 3, 1917 at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, on December 15 the Bolshevik delegation scored their first domestic political victory, as the opposing sides agreed to an armistice on the Eastern Front, temporarily halting fighting so peace negotiations could proceed (top, the Russian delegation, led by Joseph Joffe, and the Central Powers delegation, led by the German chief commander on the Eastern Front, Max Hoffman). The armistice, which took effect on December 17, would last for 30 days with periodic renewals, effectively spelling the end of Russian participation in the First World War.

Meanwhile, large parts of Russia had descended into anarchy, as hundreds of thousands of deserters wandered the countryside, begging, stealing, and indulging in more violent criminality. The simple matter of boarding a train had become a life-threatening ordeal for civilians, according to Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina, who described the scene in Petrograd:

As soon as passenger trains were running again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognized. All timetables had been done away with, and every traveler, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting room till the train he intended to go by eventually started … When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train.

Later, the train became even more crowded as deserters crammed in:

The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillowcases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls … They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades … Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so.

The eagerness of soldiers and civilians alike to leave Petrograd was understandable, as conditions in the city—like in other big urban centers—were rapidly deteriorating. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist who supported the sidelined Constituent Assembly, wrote in his diary in December 1917:

The hand of the destroyer lies heavily on Petrograd. All commercial life is stopped. Shops are closed. In the factories discipline and authority have disappeared, the workers spending their time in vacuous conversation and oratory. Mounds of dirty snow block the streets. Night and day we hear the sounds of guns. Madness, plundering, and pillage lay waste the towns and even the country. There exists no longer any army and the Germans can walk in whenever they want.

Of course, conditions weren’t much better for ordinary people on the other side of the front—and they were possibly even worse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier on garrison duty in Riga, remembered the conditions endured by natives of the occupied city in the winter of 1917:

In the civilian population the hardship increased from day to day, and the poorest people could hardly get enough to survive. There was no source of income as all the factories were silent … Practically nothing could be delivered to the town from the parts of Russia that had previously been occupied by the Germans because they had used up so much that there was barely enough to keep the inhabitants alive. A large part of the population was seized by a limitless anger against the Germans because of the shortages, with the result that on several occasions German soldiers were murdered on outlying streets. We were not allowed to go out at night without loaded pistols.


Erik Sass

More ominously, back in “free” Russia, the Bolsheviks faced the opening phases of a civil war, as the Cossack ataman (leader) Alexei Kaledin led a rebellion on the Don Cossacks beginning December 9, while the conservative general Lavr Kornilov, Mikhail Alexeyev, and Anton Denikin soon organized a “Volunteer Army” in southern Russia—one of the first “White” forces to oppose the Bolsheviks. Thanks to Trotsky’s organizational genius the Bolsheviks managed to scrape together a new Red Army in an astonishingly short amount of time. But the future would deliver many more setbacks, including a civil war that, along with a devastating famine, claimed 7 million lives before the Bolsheviks finally established supremacy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

12 Things to Know About Crazy Horse

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Crazy Horse, or Ta-Sunko-Witko, was a legendary warrior and Lakota Oglala leader who defended Oglala land and helped defeat General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. “We preferred our own way of living,” Crazy Horse reportedly said. “We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.” Learn more about the Lakota war chief.

1. “CRAZY HORSE” WAS NOT HIS FIRST GIVEN NAME.

Born around 1840 to Lakota parents, Crazy Horse was originally named Cha-O-Ha, or Among the Trees. (His mother, however, insisted on calling him “Curly.”) When Cha-O-Ha reached maturity, he was given the name held by his father and grandfather—Ta-Sunko-Witko, or Crazy Horse.

2. HE RAN AWAY WITH A MAN’S WIFE AND WAS SHOT IN THE FACE ...

In the 1860s, Crazy Horse fell in love with a married woman named Black Buffalo Woman and convinced her to run away with him. When her husband found out, he chased down the lovers and attempted to shoot Crazy Horse. Thankfully, just before the man pulled the trigger, Crazy Horse’s close friend, Touch the Clouds, knocked the gun upward. Instead of hitting Crazy Horse in the chest, the errant bullet hit him in the jaw.

3. ... AND THEN PROMPTLY FELL IN LOVE WITH ANOTHER WOMAN.

After Crazy Horse was shot, a woman named Black Shawl was sent to help him heal. Once again, Crazy Horse fell in love. They married and had a daughter, who died when she was a toddler.

4. HE GOT HIS FIRST TASTE OF BATTLE THANKS TO A WANDERING COW.

In 1854, a loose cow wandered into a Lakota camp in present-day Wyoming. The cow did not last there long: Somebody killed it, butchered it, and shared the meat among the community. Shortly after, Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan and 29 U.S. troops arrived at the camp with the intention of arresting whoever “stole” the cow. Eventually, they shot and killed the Lakota chief, Conquering Bear. In response, the Lakota killed all 30 soldiers. A young Crazy Horse saw it all, and the event stoked his distrust of white people.

5. AFTER THE MASSACRE, CRAZY HORSE WENT ON A VISION QUEST.

It was common for young men of the plains tribes to seek visions, which were something like instructions to fulfilling one’s destiny. After refusing to eat or drink for four days, Crazy Horse began to see visions from another world: He learned that if he lived simply and refused war trophies, and adopted an ethos of simplicity, he would never be harmed in battle. With only one exception, it’s said that Crazy Horse was never injured in ensuing wars.

6. CRAZY HORSE'S GREATEST BATTLES WERE PROMPTED BY AMERICA'S LUST FOR GOLD.

The U.S. government broke many of the treaties it signed with Native Americans because it was hungry for gold. In 1863, explorer John Bozeman blazed a trail to Montana's gold fields through Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe territory that an 1851 treaty made off-limits to whites. Tensions rose. In 1864, Colorado militiamen murdered more than 200 peaceful Cheyenne, the majority of whom were women and children. In the years following, Native American tribes began seeking revenge against white soldiers who failed to respect treaties.

On December 21, 1866, Captain William Fetterman led about 80 men from Wyoming's Fort Phil Kearny, a large garrison built to protect white emigrants and gold seekers. Crazy Horse planted decoys along their route. Fetterman’s men followed—and rushed into the grips of 1000 hiding warriors. All of the U.S. soldiers were killed. (The Americans called it the Fetterman Massacre, but the Lakota called it the Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands.)

7. A BROKEN TREATY BROUGHT CRAZY HORSE AND CUSTER INTO CONFLICT.

The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie declared that the Black Hills of South Dakota belonged to the Sioux, but the agreement was broken just six years after it was signed—all because prospectors had discovered gold in the region. In 1874, the government sent General George Armstrong Custer to lead a surveying party there. When the Sioux wouldn't sell these lands, the government ordered them onto smaller reservations, which the Native Americans refused. These events would lead to Crazy Horse’s greatest battles.

8. HIS LEADERSHIP AT THE BATTLE OF ROSEBUD SPELLED CUSTER'S DOOM.

In 1876, the U.S. Department of War ordered all Lakota onto reservations. Crazy Horse refused. Instead, he led 1500 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors in a battle against Brigadier General George Crook, whose men were attempting to approach Hunkpapa Lakota chief Sitting Bull’s encampment at Little Bighorn. The battle was a strategic victory for Crazy Horse: It sent Crook's army packing and deprived George Custer’s Seventh Cavalry of much-needed reinforcements. Had Crazy Horse failed, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which followed shortly after, may have turned out differently.

9. HIS PERFORMANCE AT THE BATTLE OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN WAS LEGENDARY.

And we mean legendary—nobody is sure what, exactly, Crazy Horse did. But there are rumors. An Arapaho warrior named Water Man said Crazy Horse “was the bravest man I ever saw. He rode closest to the soldiers, yelling to his warriors. All the soldiers were shooting at him, but he was never hit.” Another Native American soldier said, “The greatest fighter in the whole battle was Crazy Horse.”

10. HE WAS STARVED INTO SURRENDERING.

After the Battle of the Little Bighorn, two of the battle’s primary leaders—Sitting Bull and Gall—left for Canada. Crazy Horse remained in America. It was a life-changing decision. At the time, Colonel Nelson A. Miles was hellbent on forcing all Native Americans onto reservations, and through the winter of 1876 and 1877, Miles hit the Lakota where it hurt: Buffalo herds were decimated, and the winter became especially hard for Crazy Horse’s people. After a long period of cold and hunger, Crazy Horse surrendered. He was sent to a reservation at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

11. HE WAS STABBED TO DEATH.

In September 1877, Crazy Horse left the reservation without permission. (His wife had become ill and he had attempted to take her to her parents.) Fearing that the warrior might return to battle, General Crook ordered him arrested. During his arrest, Crazy Horse struggled, and a soldier thrust a bayonet into his body. It was a fatal blow. As Crazy Horse bled, he was offered a cot, but he turned it down. He died on the floor.

12. IF COMPLETED, THE CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL COULD BE THE WORLD'S LARGEST SCULPTURE.

Under construction since 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, the Oglala Lakota chief in the late 1930s, as a response to Mount Rushmore. Today, the memorial—built by a non-profit that refuses government funding—is still incomplete. When it is finished, the monument carved into the side of South Dakota’s Thunderhead Mountain will stand 563 feet high.

10 Things You Might Not Know About The Battle Of The Bulge

Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images
Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images

On October 11, 1943, Dwight Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery made a bet about the future of World War II. The war, Ike wagered, would be over by Christmas Day 1944—and he put £5 on it (which would be just under $100 in today's dollars). A year later, he must have felt pretty good about his chances: The Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 had paved the way for a series of other Nazi defeats in France and neighboring countries; meanwhile, the Soviet Army was hammering away on the eastern front. Hitler's army was caught in a vice, and the screws were tightening.

Ultimately, however, Ike lost. On December 16, 1944, Hitler’s last major offensive campaign against the Western Allies began with a vengeance. Exploiting the weakly-defended Ardennes forest, the Nazis carved out a triangular slice of former Allied territory in Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany. Hitler’s men wouldn’t be pushed back to their start point until January 25, 1945. By then, the Americans and Germans had respectively suffered around 81,000 and 100,000 casualties. Hitler had thought this attack might force the western Allies out of mainland Europe, allowing him to concentrate on beating the Soviets. Instead, it strengthened Allied resolve. Read on to find out more about what we in the States call “the Battle of the Bulge.”

1. REPORTER LARRY NEWMAN COINED THE NAME “BATTLE OF THE BULGE.”

Larry Newman was a war correspondent working on behalf of United Press International and the International News Service. On December 30, 1944, he met with American General George Patton to talk about the German counterattack. Newman wanted to give the fight a catchy name that wasn’t too formal. While looking at some war maps, he was struck by the bulging swell of German troops and coined the phrase Battle of the Bulge. Other journalists (particularly those working in the U.S.) were quick to adopt the new name. Germany’s military referred to their campaign as “The Ardennes Offensive”; the Allies officially called their response “The Ardennes Counteroffensive.”

2. HITLER’S ADVISORS THOUGHT IT WAS MISGUIDED.

The Führer’s ambitious goal was to sweep through the Ardennes and then take the port city of Antwerp, Belgium—and along the way, his advancing men would cut the Allied forces in half while decimating their ranks. Hitler believed he could negotiate favorable terms for an armistice with Britain, France, and the U.S. once Antwerp fell.

It wasn’t a foolproof strategy. Field Marshall Walther Model didn’t think the Germans had enough troops for the assault. Privately, he said the plan “doesn’t have a damned leg to stand on.” Others warned that Antwerp would be almost impossible to defend even if it was somehow captured. Hoping to change Hitler’s mind, Model and his fellow Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt suggested that he try to take back Aachen—a German city under Allied occupation—instead of going after Antwerp. Hitler ignored them.

Military historian Peter Caddick-Adams says the dictator’s choice was politically motivated. On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg almost did the Führer in by hiding a bomb at one of Hitler’s strategy meetings. Though Hitler survived, he worried that the assassination attempt had raised questions about his competence as a leader—and believed that a decisive win over the Allies would heal his reputation. “The genesis of Hitler’s plans to launch the Bulge is his grappling to retain control of the direction of military affairs and prove to the Third Reich that he’s still the man at the top,” Caddick-Adams said in an interview with National Geographic.

3. GENERAL PATTON’S INTELLIGENCE OFFICER SAW IT COMING.

The narrative spun in most history books is that Germany’s Ardennes Offensive caught the Allies completely by surprise—but that’s not quite accurate.

While it's true that Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley later admitted they hadn’t foreseen the scale of Hitler’s massive attack, there was one U.S. intelligence officer who did anticipate the blow: Colonel Oscar W. Koch. A member of General Patton’s staff, Koch had been keeping track of German tank divisions throughout the winter of 1944. The colonel knew there were 15 such divisions in total, but only five of these were accounted for in early December. Where were the others? At a December 9 briefing, Koch told Patton that the Germans might be planning a huge counteroffensive through the Ardennes, just to the north of Patton’s Third Army. When the Ardennes Offensive started, Patton was ready for it and had his men pivot northwards, hammering Germany’s southern flank.

Other American generals in the region were totally unprepared. Koch’s fellow intelligence specialists had access to the same facts, but they interpreted them differently. Since Hitler had been losing ground in France and Belgium for so long, it was assumed that his western forces were basically spent. Other than Koch, almost no one thought Germany was able or willing to mount a large-scale offensive campaign. Years later, Koch wrote, “The Allied failure leading to the tragedy of the Bulge, was in evaluation and application of the intelligence information at hand.”

4. BASEBALL TRIVIA WAS SERIOUS BUSINESS AT AMERICAN CHECKPOINTS.

Both prior to and during the battle, English-speaking German troops disguised themselves in pilfered Allied uniforms and snuck behind enemy lines—and when the scheme was discovered, panic rippled through the American ranks. So at checkpoints, U.S. army units would quiz each other with pop culture questions like “Who plays center field for the Yankees?” and “What’s Mickey Mouse’s girlfriend’s name?” General Bradley once had to prove his identity by “naming the then-current spouse of a [movie star] named Betty Grable,” and another time nearly got in trouble when he correctly identified Springfield as the capital of Illinois—because the questioner was holding out for Chicago. On another occasion, Brigadier General Bruce C. Clarke was detained after he misidentified the Chicago Cubs as an American League baseball team.

5. WHEN ASKED TO SURRENDER, BRIGADIER GENERAL ANTHONY MCAULIFFE REPLIED WITH A FOUR-LETTER WORD.

By December 22, German forces had surrounded the town of Bastogne, Belgium, trapping 14,000 American soldiers and about 3000 civilians. At roughly 11:30 a.m., Nazi General Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz sent four men to deliver a message to Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, head of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division. Explaining that the town was encircled by “strong German armored units,” Lüttwitz gave McAuliffe two hours to surrender peacefully. When he learned that the Germans wanted him to raise the white flag, McAuliffe grumbled “Nuts!” This amused some of his staffers, who persuaded him to put that little interjection in his formal reply. Here’s McAuliffe’s actual written response to General Lüttwitz:

“December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S!

Signed,

The American Commander.”

Lüttwitz’s messengers didn’t understand the slang and were told McAuliffe was basically saying “Go to hell.” The isolated Americans in Bastogne held off the German siege until General Patton forced his way into the city with reinforcements on December 26.

6. COLD-RELATED INJURIES HIT EPIDEMIC LEVELS.

Members of the American 82nd Airborne Division trudging through the snow behind a tank during the Battle of the Bulge
Keystone/Getty Images

“I was from Buffalo, I thought I knew cold,” Warren Spahn, a baseball Hall of Famer who served in WWII, later said. “But I didn’t really know cold until the Battle of the Bulge.”

The weather for most of the battle was, in a word, brutal. Hitler saw it as a strategic opportunity: He timed his Ardennes offensive for mid-December, to coincide with an outbreak of freezing rain, subzero temperatures, and dense fogs—conditions that would make it difficult for the Allies to use their aircraft to attack German ground divisions.

Many U.S. troops found themselves ill-equipped for the frozen hellscape. Standard-issue American combat boots were not waterproof and keeping one’s socks dry could be a challenge. (Frozen soil was another problem for Allied troops who had been ordered to dig out trenches.)

Altogether, the U.S. ranks saw more than 64,000 cases of “cold injuries” like trench foot and pneumonia during the brutal European winter of 1944-1945. Thousands of these occurred in the Bulge.

7. KURT VONNEGUT WAS CAPTURED IN IT.

Like the protagonist of his most famous book, Vonnegut—then a 22-year-old private with the U.S. 101st infantry division—was captured at the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, then taken to Dresden, where he was imprisoned at a facility called Slaughterhouse Five. “Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of [General Courtney Hodges’s] First Army,” he recalled in a letter to his family. “The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren’t much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I’m told, but I’ll be damned if it was worth it.” While at Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut—again, like Billy Pilgrim—survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

8. PATTON SENT OUT THE MOST FAMOUS CHRISTMAS CARDS IN MILITARY HISTORY.

On December 14, 1944, just two days before the battle started, General Patton summoned Reverend James H. O’Neill, Chaplain of the Third Army, to his office in Nancy. By then, murky skies and heavy precipitation had reached the Ardennes and Patton recognized them as a military disadvantage. So the general asked O’Neill to come up with “a prayer for good weather.” According to Patton's memoirs, O’Neill resisted at first. “It usually isn’t a customary thing among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill fellow men,” O’Neill allegedly said. To this, Patton replied “Chaplain, are you trying to teach me theology, or are you Chaplain of the Third Army? I want a prayer.”

O’Neill retold the story differently. He claimed that a week earlier Patton had called and asked for a prayer, and O’Neill accepted the challenge at once. When O’Neill couldn’t find an existing prayer that fit the circumstances, he penned a new one. “Almighty and most merciful father,” it began, “we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle.” Patton had this printed on around 250,000 Christmas cards for his men. Each one also bore the following note from the General: “To each officer and soldier in the Third United States Army, I wish a Merry Christmas. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We march in our might to complete victory. May God’s blessing rest upon each of you on this Christmas Day.”

The cards went out on December 22. Within 24 hours, the skies had cleared well enough for the Third Army to proceed toward Bastogne (though there was still plenty of snow). A grateful Patton proclaimed, “That O’Neill sure did some potent praying. Get him up here. I want to pin a medal on him.” The next day, Patton presented O’Neill with a Bronze Star Medal.

9. DURING THE BATTLE, THE SOVIETS LAUNCHED A MAJOR ATTACK ON HITLER’S EASTERN FRONT.

At its zenith, the German “bulge” into Allied terrain was around 50 miles deep and 70 miles long. Hitler’s men—despite their impressive start—would lose every inch of ground they’d gained by the battle’s end date: January 25, 1945. A costly aircraft raid on New Year’s Day contributed to their defeat, as did fuel shortages and shifts in the weather. While the Bulge was shriveling away, the Red Army began its Vistula-Oder Offensive in Eastern Europe. The campaign kicked off on January 12, 1945 and would last through February 2. In it, over 2 million Soviets moved westward, taking cities like Warsaw and Krakow out of the Third Reich’s hands. The Red Army came within 50 miles of Berlin itself—and on January 27, it liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Unable to endure sustained pressure from the Soviets and Western Allies, Germany surrendered without condition on May 7, seven days after Hitler took his own life.

10. THE U.S. MILITARY EXPERIMENTED WITH INTEGRATION.

Some 1.2 million African-Americans served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. They performed a wide range of duties, but in most circumstances, black combat troops weren’t permitted to fight “shoulder to shoulder” with their white counterparts. However, in response to personnel shortages in the Ardennes, General Eisenhower invited black soldiers to volunteer for service on the front lines. More than 2200 soldiers who took him up on the offer were chosen to fight. During the battle, the army set up companies consisting of both white and African-American platoons. Segregation would be reinstated once the Bulge came to a close, and Truman wouldn’t commit the armed services to integration until 1948.

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