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Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

WWI Centennial: Last Christmas At War

Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 298th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

DECEMBER 25, 1917: LAST CHRISTMAS AT WAR

“Christmas was, of course, but a sorry season,” wrote Evelyn, Princess Blücher in Berlin, doubtless speaking for many across a war-torn continent, in her diary in January 1918. She added, “The days come and go, and we have already crossed the borderland and have left the gloom of the old year, only to enter the darkness of a new one. Every hour brings its fears, disappointments, and vague hopes, so that there is but little time for collecting one’s scattered ideas.” Her feelings reflected the general mood in Germany, judging from the testimony of Herbert Sulzbach, a German soldier on leave in Frankfurt. “The consequences of three and a half years of war are weighing heavily on the home country, and you see a great deal, in fact, a never-ending amount of distress," he wrote in his diary on January 12, 1918.

The Christmas of 1917, the fourth during the war (after Yuletides in 1914, 1915, and 1916) would also be the last—although no one could know that, or be able to foretell the epic events that would unfold before 1918 at last brought peace to a shattered world. Jack Martin, a British soldier deployed to Italy to help shore up Italian defenses after Caporetto, wrote in his diary on December 31, 1917:

Thus ends the year of grace 1917, a year of frightful agony and slaughter, of shattered hopes and broken lives; a year where humanity has sunk to incredible depths of inhumanity; a year that has brought tears to the eyes of the Recording Angel … Our souls have been scorched and seared by contact with hell and we yearn for the healing oil of peace.

While most ordinary people longed for peace, they expressed feelings of helplessness in the hands of fate and forces far larger than themselves. The war had long ago taken on a life of its own, defying human comprehension or control, and the end seemed to retreat further and further into an indefinite future. Vera Brittain, now approaching her third year as a volunteer nurse’s aid, recalled that by the beginning of 1918, “I no longer even wondered when the war would end, for I had grown incapable of visualizing the world or my own existence without it.”

RARE REPASTS

It’s worth noting that Christmas was still a time for joy and good cheer, at least for soldiers who were lucky enough to be “in billets” or on leave, where military authorities did their best to provide a traditional Christmas meal. This was easier for the Allies, as food was generally more plentiful in Britain and France than in the Central Powers, where the Allied “starvation blockade” and disruptions to agriculture and transportation were taking a heavy toll. (By the end of the war it is estimated that around 400,000 Germans had died from malnutrition or starvation.)

John Tucker, a British soldier, described festivities with plenty of food and alcohol (which, however, left him with a week-long hangover):

As the officers’ servants were taking their mess-cart to the large YMCA canteen at Arras for their Christmas supplies, we persuaded them to bring us two cases of port wine, some Vermouth, and to lend us a dozen glass tumblers. The cooks did an excellent job and conjured up a large roast dinner of turkey, vegetables, and Christmas pudding. Every man was given a small Bible from the Queen. These came in useful later as cigarette papers. We also managed to get a few Dutch cigars. We settled down at our table after dinner, with tumblers full of port, plenty of bread, cheese, and pickles, and naturally all got very jolly.

Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described their Christmas repast near Ypres: “A whole pig had been roasted and there were potatoes, onions, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding, apples, oranges, dates, nuts, cigarettes, and a double rum issue. During this orgy musical selections were given on a portable Decca gramophone.” (Below, a New Zealand commander carves the Christmas turkey).


National Library of New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

The holiday was even more bountiful for American troops, who benefited from the country’s vast breadbasket as well as the government’s determination to keep soldiers (and therefore their voting relations at home) as comfortable and happy as possible. And, of course, concerned family members also lavished gifts on soldiers with care packages. Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier with the Rainbow Division in France, wrote in his diary, “Mumsey and Maude sent me heaps. God bless ‘em both. Lordy, but I’m happy. Had a scrumptious dinner, duck, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, jam, pickles, slaw, doughnuts, peach pie, cake, figs, and coffee. Then they passed out chocolate, cigarettes and cigars. I’m so full I’m in misery.”

AMERICANS AT WAR AND AT SEA

Christmas at war was a new experience for most Americans, following the country’s entry into the conflict in April 1917. Like their European peers, ordinary American soldiers found the holiday an occasion for reflection. William Russel, an American soldier in the transport section of the U.S. Army Air Force in France, wrote home the day after Christmas, “It is the first Christmas that I have ever been separated from those whom I love, and instead of being a day of festivity, it has changed to a day of thought, and one that will linger in my memory for years, if I am spared.” Later, he noted, “Christmas and New Years have passed, and I must confess it is a sort of relief to have them over. Although both were happy days in so far as the hospitality and very kind treatment by friends went, yet there was an indescribable lonesomeness which made them strange.” (Below, volunteers fill stockings at a U.S. Army hospital in France).


National Library of Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

While Christmas was a time for contemplation, the war remained an enigma with undeniable but sometimes inexpressible significance for humanity and the individual’s inner life. Julia Stimson, an American volunteering as a nurse in France, wrote home in December 1917:

Oh I wish I could tell you what all this is meaning, as I see it. Maybe some day I can, for every day I am seeing things more clearly, but as yet I can’t write it all down—after a while perhaps. We talk about it, from time to time, some of us, every once in a while, and oh, dear people, no greater thing can ever come into any one’s life than this chance of ours—to get away from little things and self and to know what the things of the Spirit are, and what true values really are.

In 1917 thousands of Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, spent the holiday at sea aboard ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, rendered even more unusual and nerve-wracking by the constant threat of U-boat attack. In fact U-boats sank 400,000 tons of shipping in December 1917 alone—a decrease from earlier in 1917, thanks to the Allies’ adoption of convoy tactics as well as the vigilance of destroyers armed with depth charges.


Erik Sass

By the end of 1917 the shipping struggle was finally starting to turn in the Allies’ favor, due in large part to the massive production of American shipyards, which churned out millions of tons of new shipping. However, net losses from U-boat attacks continued through the first quarter of 1918, and from the perspective of the British Admiralty, the end of 1917 was one of the most perilous moments of the war. For ordinary British and French people, the continuing losses during this period resulted in shortages and rising prices for things like sugar and tobacco.


Erik Sass

Even when Allied convoys made it through unscathed, the experience of crossing the Atlantic under constant threat was unique and unforgettable for American soldiers. Morris Dargan, a railway engineer from Oregon, wrote to his sister describing safety measures on board:

You have asked me whether or not we saw any submarines. No, we didn’t see any, but all through the submarine zone we wore life preservers at all times. We wore them at meals, on the deck, in the hold and in bed. We had lifeboat drill a couple of times each day and were not allowed to throw anything overboard, lest a “sub” would sight it and follow our trail. We were not permitted to talk loudly or to smoke on deck after night, etc.

As always, travelers were impressed by the majesty of the sea, tempered by the menace below the waves. Daniel Poling, a Christian lecturer and temperance advocate en route to the Western Front to observe conditions and speak to troops at YMCA canteens, recalled his winter crossing:

The great liner had reached the danger zone. She drove ahead through the night with ports closed and not a signal showing. Under the stars, both fore and aft, marines watched in silence by the guns. Each man wore or had by him a life-preserver, and there was silence on the deck. Quietly I stood by the rail, and watched the waves break into spray against the mighty vessel’s bow. The phosphorescent glow bathed the sea in wondrous light all about; only the stars and the weird illumination of the waves battled the darkness; there was no moon. It was hard to realize that out there somewhere silent watchers waited to do us hurt.

Not everyone was headed to Europe. Josephine Therese, an American singer returning to America in December 1917 after being interned in Germany for thirteen months, described her Christmastime voyage back to the U.S., which managed to have some exciting incidents even though no U-boats attacked the ship:

We took the safest possible course, swinging in a wide circle northward, which carried us close to Greenland, and the voyage was uninterrupted by Prussian sea perils and otherwise uneventful, except for a few minor incidents, such as a knife duel between two Bulgarians in the steerage, which ended by one throwing the other overboard, never to be seen again … Despite this tragedy, we arrived with the same number of passengers … for a baby was born en route—also in steerage.

Though spending Christmas aboard ship was certainly novel, most people who found themselves at sea on the holiday were not eager to repeat the experience. Briggs Adams, an American soldier crossing the Atlantic, noted that the common affliction of seasickness made it hard to spread holiday cheer:

The day before Christmas it began to get pretty rough, and that night the ship rolled so that it was impossible to sleep a wink, for it was a continual fight to keep from rolling out of the bunk. Half the ship was sick [on] Christmas. They decorated the dining room up a bit with paper and flags, but it only made the absence of Christmas greens the more noticeable. There wasn’t one Christmasy thing the whole day … never again will I spend Christmas on the sea.

ENCOUNTERING HORROR

Of course, the ocean voyage was only the beginning of the new experiences facing American soldiers and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of war. Like their European counterparts before them, their first encounters with death and destruction at the front would be etched in their memories forever, although later these horrors became commonplace and routine. Preston Gibson, an American serving in the ambulance corps, wrote home about the scenes around first-aid posts near the Aisne in November 1917:

Near one called Bascule, about half-a-mile from the third line, we found a great number of dead piled up in the road—horses and men. Some of the bodies had to be pulled off the road in order to make it clear for traffic. Besides the bodies that were lying stretched in different positions, some with their heads off, some with chests torn and ripped open, I saw two mounds of dead Chasseurs at Ferme Hemeret, about 15 or 20 in each mound, one body piled on top of the other. Some lay as if in slumber; the faces of others were contorted by the great agony they had passed through; others were in most grotesque positions.

Sudden, sweeping personal losses were a regular part of life in wartime, as Americans were discovering. Coningsby Dawson, an American who had volunteered in the Canadian Army, wrote home in November 1917:

Last week I met one of my gunners on leave. He was standing on the island in Piccadilly Circus. I learnt from him that every officer who was with me at the battery when I was wounded has since been wiped out. Even some who joined since have been done for … Among the killed is poor S., the one who was my best friend in France. You remember that he had a young wife and his first baby was born in February. He used to carry the list of all the people I wanted written to if I were killed, and I had promised to do the same for him … All this was told me casually in the heart of London’s pleasure with the taxis and buses streaming by.

Though French and British troops were more familiar with conditions at the front and somewhat inured to the awful sights, the death and destruction never ceased to horrify even the most hardened soldiers (below, British troops on the Ancre, early 1918). John Jackson, a British soldier, described shell-holes behind the front in December 1917:

These holes were often 10 or 12 feet deep and full up at this time with dirty, slimy water. At the bottom of them in many cases could be seen the bodies of dead men and mules, together with parts of ammunition wagons, the whole creating a stench that was rotten, and sickening.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Francis Buckley, a British soldier, recorded similar scenes near Passchendaele, Belgium, in mid-December 1917:

The shell-holes were often full of German dead—I counted nearly 100 within a quarter of a mile of Dan Cottages. And on the forward wooden tracks used by our transport, the ground reeked like a slaughter-house. Fragments of everything just swept off the tracks. The limbs and bodies of the pack-mules lying sometimes in heaps, sometimes at intervals, all along the route.

Conditions at the front often required regular contact with corpses. After recovering from his holiday hangover, the British soldier Tucker described the sickening but very common state of trenches near Cambrai, recently the scene of a short-lived British success with a surprise attack by tanks:

Often there was a soft, rubbery feeling under foot similar to standing on an inflated mattress; this would indicate a dead body in the bottom of the trench, having been trampled deeper in the mud by the feet of perhaps hundreds of men passing over it. Sometimes an arm or leg would be protruding. No one had time or inclination to do anything about this. It soon became a common experience and accepted with indifference.

Tens of thousands of women volunteering as nurses in field hospitals as well as larger convalescent centers at home also directly experienced the horrors of war, treating badly wounded and dying men. Still serving as a V.A.D. in France, Brittain wrote home on December 5, 1917:

We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case—to say nothing of 10 cases—of mustard gas in its early stages—could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard- colored suppurating blisters, with blinded eyes—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently—all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke … and yet people persist in saying that God made the war, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.

THE SPECTER OF DISEASE

Disease was a common killer from the beginning of the war, with typhus, dysentery, malaria, and gas gangrene killing hundreds of thousands and incapacitating millions more across Europe, the Middle East, and other theaters of war. Over the course of the war typhus, carried by ubiquitous body lice, killed 200,000 people in Serbia alone, out of a total population of 3 million, as well as 60,000 Habsburg prisoners of war. During the Russian Civil War, just beginning, typhus would kill an estimated 3 million people from 1918-1922.

But even these losses would pale in comparison to the scourge nature would unleash on the world in 1918-1920, in the form of the highly contagious and breathtakingly deadly influenza epidemic. Although it became known a the “Spanish flu” due to reports of the high death toll in neutral Spain, where the press was free from wartime censorship, the flu was a global pandemic that killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people—more than the war’s own total of around 20 million.

The flu was a natural phenomenon, but wartime conditions undoubtedly played a major role in enabling its spread, and may also have made it more deadly. Throwing together millions of soldiers—most of them young men who had never been far from home and therefore lacked immunity to new diseases—in cold, drafty barracks and tents, with primitive communal canteens, latrines and showers, provided perfect breeding grounds for the flu as well as other diseases. The movement of millions of human beings around the world also provided an ideal vector for the virus to reach distant populations. And bringing together large numbers of people from different places may have enabled several flu viruses to swap DNA and become even more dangerous (the flu epidemic actually unfolded in two main stages, the second far more lethal).

As 1917 drew to a close, no one could have predicted the unprecedented global flu epidemic about to scour the planet, but many observers noted the sharp uptick in communicable disease around this time. Already, during the American Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico, army doctors recorded outbreak of a mysterious ailment causing severe bronchitis in troops stationed in northern Mexico and along the southwestern border region; some of these troops later returned to Fort Riley, Kansas—site of the first recorded flu outbreak in March 1918.


Erik Sass

There’s no way to know whether the two events were linked, but there’s little doubt that all the conditions for an epidemic were in place, including food and fuel shortages in Europe which left people physically weakened and cold (below, snow at Hooge, Belgium, on New Year’s Day). Although better off than their counterparts in the Central Powers, Allied soldiers and civilians often went hungry too, due to shortages and supply disruptions. Martin, the British soldier in Italy, wrote on December 10, 1917:

The rations are so short that the cooks have to be most careful in issuing them—as long as every man gets the same there can be no complaint … Before allowing any plate to be removed we demand to know if any one has any objection; thus we avoid the possibility of any subsequent criticism or complaint … We cannot say that we are suffering actual starvation but most assuredly we know the pangs of continual hunger. For breakfast we get a plate of porridge or a slice of bacon, for dinner, bully stew but no potatoes and once or twice we have had boiled rice.


Archives New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Paris in January 1918, Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer born in France, noted that in the city, “Deaths from pneumonia have occurred by dozens daily.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the winter of 1917-1918 was one of the coldest on record in North America, blanketing even southern camps in snow and freezing rain. On December 1, 1917, August P. Gardner, a former congressman from Massachusetts and the son-in-law of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote to Joseph P. Tumulty, a secretary to President Wilson, about conditions at Camp Wheeler, Georgia:

There have been 100 deaths from pneumonia and 11 deaths from other causes at this camp. Of this number 96 have occurred within the last three weeks. To my mind the explanation is fairly simple. The following are the conditions as I see them: Between October 16th and 30th, we received about 10,000 drafted men from Camp Gordon, Camp Pike, and Camp Jackson. With the exception of about 3000 from Camp Pike, they came without overcoats, in cotton outer garments, and cotton underclothes; some without blouses. None of them had had experience in sleeping out-of-doors and none were accustomed to camping out … Being from rural areas, many had never had measles, and this disease spread rapidly. Better soil in which to sow the seeds of pneumonia could not be imagined. The Base Hospital at Camp Wheeler is calculated for 500 patients, and over three times this number of sick men were of necessity thrust upon it.

Similarly, Paul Elliott Green wrote home from Camp Sevier, South Carolina, on November 22, 1917, “We are quarantined for an indefinite time on account of measles, pneumonia, and meningitis. Many poor boys have died, as many as six in one night.” And Kenneth Gow, an officer in training in Camp Wadsworth, wrote home on December 14, 1917:

The thermometer has remained in the vicinity of 6 degrees since the first of the week, and we have about 8 inches of snow on the ground. It is impossible to keep warm. Everything is frozen up, and we have to melt snow for water to wash in. On Tuesday afternoon the regiment was suddenly ordered out on an inspection evening parade by some Regular Army inspecting officers. We stood for an hour shivering in a blinding snowstorm from the North, with a biting wind driving the snow into our eyes and ears.

THE LOOMING RECKONING

Even while unaware of the impending natural disaster, the Allies had plenty to fear as 1918 dawned. Italy’s defeat at Caporetto and Russia’s withdrawal from the war opened the way for Germany to transfer around a million men to the Western Front, where they would unleash a titanic assault in the spring in an attempt to settle the war before large numbers of American troops began to arrive in Europe. No one could predict the shape or direction of the German attack, but there was no question—it was coming, and the final result would depend in large part on how quickly America could ride to the rescue.

Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in a village outside Paris, confided in a letter home, “I don’t deny that I study the map today with a nervous dread of what is before us on the road.” Morris Dargan, the railway engineer from Oregon, warned in a letter home that “next spring … will mark the most momentous hours of the whole war.” Russel, the American soldier serving in the air force supply corps in France, noted, “The French are so down to bone and sinew, and have so little physical strength left … of course, there is great anxiety as to what the late winter and early spring may bring.” And Katharine Morse, an American volunteering in canteens for soldiers, noted disturbing talk that France was all but beaten:

And underneath all this runs another rumor, still darker, still more disquieting. The French, the gallant French, they say, are "laying down.” They are ready to make peace at any price. They are played out, sick to death of it all! “Forty-two months in the trenches!” cried a sergeant en permission last night; “It is enough! I am through. Let the Americans do it!” And this feeling, they tell us, is widespread. The people see our soldiers day after day, in the training camps, inactive. “What are they here for?” they are asking. “Why don’t they fight? Are they going to wait until it is all over?”

On the other side, the recent victories in Russia and Italy held out the hope that all the sacrifices might not be in vain after all. Adolf Hitler, then a regimental messenger on the Western Front, later wrote in Mein Kampf:

Towards the end of 1917 it seemed as if we had got over the worst phases of moral depression after the front. After the Russian collapse the whole army recovered its courage and hope, and we were gradually becoming more and more convinced that the struggle would end in our favor … The Italian collapse in the autumn of 1917 had a wonderful effect; for this victory proved that it was possible to break through another front besides the Russian.

But the Germans were in a race against time, and not just because of the prospect of American troops starting to arrive in force. They also faced growing anger on the home front, due to the murderous toll of the war, which by the beginning of 1918 had claimed the lives of around 1.3 million soldiers, and the terrible privations faced by civilians, increasingly blamed on the German government and military as well as the enemy. In her final diary entry of 1917, Blücher noted with unease, “If the war continues much longer the people will follow Russia’s example and take the matter into their own hands.”

This would be the year of reckoning.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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