WWI Centennial: Germans Reopen Eastern Offensive, Americans Support Unified Command
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 302nd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
After three disastrous years, the 1000-mile muddy morass that was the Eastern Front enjoyed a brief respite from fighting from December 1917 to February 1918, as both sides agreed to an armistice while representatives of the Central Powers and the Soviets (dominated by Lenin’s Bolsheviks) began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Along with the Central Powers’ stunning victory over Italy at Caporetto in the fall of 1917, the armistice allowed the Germans to begin transferring around a million men to the Western Front, in preparation for one final knockout blow against the Allies in the spring of 1918, before American troops began to arrive in large numbers.
The situation on the Eastern Front, however, was far from settled. Although eager for peace, the Soviet representatives believed that the war should be ended without annexations or reparations, and were scarcely more willing than the previous short-lived Republic to give up Russian territory and population to foreign reactionary imperialists. Angry, chaotic peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk repeatedly broke up due to intractable disagreements (and produced an icy social atmosphere, as the Soviet representatives ceased to dine with their fellow negotiators in protest over their aggressive demands).
Seeing the Central Powers set on dismembering and dominating Russia’s former territories in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic, Lenin aimed to drag out negotiations in the hope that the communist revolution would spread to Germany and its allies (no longer a far-fetched notion). To gain time he dispatched Trotsky, a master prevaricator, to hold up the talks, while Bolshevik commissars encouraged Russian troops to fraternize with their foes across no man’s land, with an eye to spreading revolutionary incitement as well as undermining their morale and will to fight.
But the Germans soon lost patience with Trotsky’s delaying tactics, and on January 18, 1918, they presented an ultimatum with sweeping territorial demands, prompting Trotsky to walk out in a rage. To symbolize Russia’s determination to resist the unreasonable peace terms, he issued a new slogan, “no war, no peace,” meaning that Russia would continue passively resisting the Central Powers, in effect doubling down on the strategy of delay and exhaustion.
But Germany's next moves showed just how little leverage the Russian negotiators really had. Rather than reaching a compromise peace with the Soviet regime, the Central Powers simply recognized Russia’s former subject states as independent nations and signed peace treaties with them—converting them to client states along the way. In fact, Germany’s plan to reorganize Eastern Europe as “mitteleuropa,” an economic bloc under its hegemony, had been in the works for several years, and the opening moves came even before formal peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk began on December 20, 1917.
On December 8, under German and Austro-Hungarian prompting, Polish nationalists led by Jan Kucharzewski formed a regency council to rule the country until a suitable monarch could be found. On December 11 the Lithuanian “national council” declared its independence from Russia, and the following day German nobles in Estonia officially requested German “assistance” in the form of an army of occupation. On December 12-13 the German-backed Ukrainian Rada, or national council, rejected the Soviet seizure of power in Russia and headed off a planned Bolshevik coup in Kiev, prompting the Ukrainian Bolsheviks to establish a rival national government in Kharkiv, setting the stage for civil war in Ukraine. On December 27 the municipal council of Riga, Latvia declared independence and sought German “protection.” And on January 1, 1918, the Bolsheviks reluctantly recognized Finnish independence, although fighting raged between Finnish communist Red Guards and anti-communist White Guards in a civil war lasting from January to May 1918.
Peace negotiations with the new puppet states followed immediately, and on February 9, 1918 the Central Powers struck a separate peace deal with the embattled Ukrainian Rada, which desperately needed German help against the Ukrainian Bolsheviks. They signed the treaty over the bitter protests of Trotsky, who was completely powerless to stop them. The old Russian Army was no longer capable of offering resistance and the new Red Army, organized in February 1918, also faced spreading civil war behind the lines as new anti-communist White movements coalesced across Russia.
But even after stripping Russia of Poland, the Baltic states, Finland, and Ukraine, the German delegation led by Eastern Front chief of staff Max Hoffmann wanted more, including vast swaths of Russian territory in what is now Belarus and the Caucasus. For his part, in February 1918 Trotsky clung hopefully to his slogan of “no war, no peace,” still believing it might be possible to wear the Germans down and foment international revolution.
But German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s plans for a massive spring offensive on the Western Front sometime in March would require a total of a million troops, meaning Germany had to bring matters to a conclusion on the Eastern Front immediately to free up the necessary numbers. On February 18, the Germans resumed the offensive on the Eastern Front, effectively “pushing at an open door,” as there was no longer much in the way of defenders in most of the trenches, while local nationalist movements more or less welcomed the Germans.
On February 21, slowly advancing Central Powers forces captured Minsk and Rovno, followed by Pskov, Reval (Tallin), and Dorpat on February 25. The Germans correctly calculated that eventually the Bolsheviks would cede significant territory rather than face the loss of core Russian lands: on February 26, with imperialist troops menacing the capital Petrograd, Lenin decided to capitulate to the German peace terms (top, Germans occupy Kiev in March 1918).
AMERICANS SUPPORT UNIFIED COMMAND
America’s vast new influence over European affairs made itself felt in military matters early on, as the top U.S. commander demanded a big shake-up of the joint arrangements previously made by Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy for the prosecution of the war—and the European allies hurried to comply.
After arriving in France in June 1917 and setting up the American Expeditionary Force headquarters at Chaumont, U.S. General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing clearly indicated his determination to preserve American control of its own soldiers in the European conflict, as demanded by the United States of America’s absolute sovereignty and total freedom from all entangling alliance obligations. But he was willing to allow American divisions and regiments to fight alongside British and French troops, provided they remained under their own officers.
The Americans also recognized that the sheer size and complexity of the war on the Western Front required a high degree of coordination between Allied forces if they were to obtain victory, and also had soldiers’ traditional fear of “divided councils” resulting in confusion, wasted effort, and needless loss. To lead this vast effort, President Wilson and General Pershing supported the creation of a Supreme War Council, followed not long after by the appointment a Supreme Allied Commander (the post went to the aggressive but pragmatic Ferdinand Foch, one of the heroes of the Miracle on the Marne).
America’s growing control over Allied policy was reflected in the fact that, after the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in November 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George first went to Wilson to drum up support for the creation of the new Supreme War Council. At a subsequent meeting in Versailles from January 30-February 2, 1918, Pershing and American representatives then supported the granting of executive powers to the Supreme War Council.
In a speech on February 19, 1918, Lloyd George confirmed that the new concentration of power in the Supreme War Council came at the Americans’ behest, while reassuring his fellow Parliamentarians that the Allies were broadly in agreement on the prosecution of the war:
"There is absolutely no difference between our policy and the policy of France, Italy, and America in this respect. In fact, some of the conclusions to which we came at Versailles were the result of very powerful representations made by the representatives of other governments, notably the American government. That policy is a policy which is based on the assumption that the Allies hitherto have suffered through lack of concerted and coordinated effort … That is the reason why, after the Italian defeat, the Allied governments, after a good deal of correspondence and of conference, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to set up some central authority, for the purpose of coordinating the strategy of the Allies. At the last conference at Versailles it was decided, after days of conference, to extend the powers of that body."
Later, in Parliament's House of Commons, Lloyd George returned to the American role in empowering the Supreme War Council, though in necessarily opaque terms:
"I hesitated for some time as to whether I should not read to the House the very cogent document submitted by the American delegation, which put the case for the present proposal. It is one of the most powerful documents—I think my right honorable friends who have had the advantage of reading it will agree with me—one of the ablest documents ever submitted to a military conference, in which they urged the present course, and gave grounds for it. I think it is absolutely irresistible, and the only reason I do not read it to the House is because it is so mixed up with the actual plan of operations that it will be quite impossible for me to read it without giving away what is the plan of operations."