WWI Centennial: Germans Reopen Eastern Offensive, Americans Support Unified Command

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

Europe, February 1918
Erik Sass

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.

Diagram of the Russian Civil War, February 1918
Erik Sass

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."

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

15 Incredible Monuments That Honor American Soldiers

Getty
Getty

Memorial Day honors the brave men and women who have given their lives in the nation’s armed forces. One fitting way to recognize that sacrifice is to visit a monument dedicated to their service. Though many monuments honoring U.S. veterans are located in Washington, D.C. or Arlington, Virginia, there are memorial sites to visit around the world, each offering a beautiful and distinctive tribute.

1. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier // Arlington, Virginia

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/sharrocks

No one knows for sure which American soldier rests under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. The unidentified soldier died in France while fighting a World War I battle, and his remains were interred at the site of the Washington, D.C. monument in 1921. The unidentified soldier was chosen to represent the many American soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. Engraved on the snow-white marble tomb are the words, “Here rests in honored glory, an American soldier known but to God.” Eventually, an unknown soldier from World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War were also interred (though the Vietnam soldier was eventually identified and moved by his family to a cemetery in St. Louis).

2. The National World War II Memorial // Washington, D.C.

National World War II Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/NoDeRog

The National World War II Memorial, which opened in 2004, honors the 16 million members of the U.S. armed forces who served during World War II, the more than 400,000 soldiers who died, and the civilians who worked at home to support the war effort. The entrance to the Washington, D.C. memorial features 24 bronze bas-relief panels illustrating how the war affected the lives of those who fought and those who waited for soldiers to return. A wall of more than 4000 gold stars pays tribute to the lives lost, and 56 granite columns noting U.S. states and territories, split into two-half circles, encompass a pool fitted with fountains.

3. The Korean War Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Korean War Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/Png-Studio

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is an outdoor monument located near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It commemorates the sacrifices of the 5.8 million Americans who served in the U.S. armed forces during the three-year Korean War. During that period 54,246 Americans died and 103,284 were wounded. The memorial is distinctive because of the 19 larger-than-life stainless steel statues of poncho-clad soldiers that occupy a triangular field, as well as for the black granite memorial wall covered in etchings of National Archives photos.

4. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial // Washington, D.C.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, D.C.
iStock/vmbfoto

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial pays tribute to those soldiers who were killed or went missing in action during the Vietnam War. The memorial consists of three parts: The Memorial Wall, the bronze Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and The Three Soldiers statue. The wall is actually two walls that stretch almost 300 feet and contain 58,000 names, according to the date of casualty. The Women’s Memorial honors the 265,000 women who served, many of whom were nurses. The Three Soldiers shows the camaraderie between soldiers from different backgrounds while serving their tours of duty.

5. The Marine Corps Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Marine Corps Memorial Iwo Jima Statue, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/FrozenShutter

The Marine Corps Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, does not pay tribute to a specific war but rather the dedication of Marine Corps members. The bronze statue at this monument may be the most famous and easily recognizable of all U.S. war memorials. It is modeled on a photograph of six soldiers who raised an American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945, an action that symbolized the end of World War II. The memorial is dedicated to the Marines lost in all U.S. wars, as well as those who served with them. The base of the memorial lists every major battle that Marines have fought in.

6. The National Memorial Arch // King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

National Memorial Arch, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
iStock/Delmas Lehman

The National Memorial Arch commemorates the difficult winter endured by General George Washington and his Revolutionary War forces when camped at Valley Forge. Paul Philippe Cret’s design for the 60-foot high arch was inspired by an arch built for the ancient Roman emperor Titus. Located in Valley Forge National Historical Park, the arch was dedicated in June 1917. Inscribed at the top is a quote from George Washington which refers to the winter his troops spent there: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery.”

7. The Air Force Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Air Force Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
iStock/hillwoman2

The Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia honors the service not only of the men and women of the United States Air Force, but also the Aeronautical Division and Aviation Section of the U.S. Signal Corps and all other aeronautics and air corps services. The memorial’s design evokes images of flight, and the stainless steel spires glisten on sunny days and are illuminated by individual light sources at night. At the west entrance, statues of two soldiers stand guard, symbolizing patriotism and power.

8. African American Civil War Memorial // Washington, D.C.

African American Civil War Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Gareth Milner, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

During the Civil War, more than 200,000 African-American soldiers served in the United States Colored Troops. The African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C. tells the story of these 19th-century heroes and commemorates their service with a bronze statue titled "The Spirit of Freedom." The memorial also includes a curved wall inscribed with the names of the men who fought in the war. The accompanying museum’s African American Civil War Memorial Registry documents the family trees of more than 2000 descendants of the people who served.

9. The Women in Military Service for America Memorial // Arlington, Virginia

Women in Military Service for America Memorial, Arlington, Virginia
Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Women In Military Service For America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, honors the 3 million women who helped defend the nation during its almost 250-year history. The memorial honors their service with exhibits, film, and a Memorial Register, which preserves the stories of more than 258,000 women. The memorial features a neoclassical curved retaining wall, a reflecting pool, and an education center, where a roof of glass tablets is inscribed with quotes by and about the women who defended their country. The memorial was dedicated in 1997.

10. The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial // Washington, D.C.

American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
iStock/amedved

The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington D.C. is the first national memorial dedicated solely to disabled veterans. Leaving the battlefield alive did not mean the battle was over for many American servicemen and women—more than 4 million veterans have been injured in the line of duty, and those injuries can profoundly affect their post-service lives. The memorial's 48 etched-glass panels display the stories of these soldiers. At the center of the memorial, which opened in 2014, is a star-shaped fountain and triangular infinity pool, which constantly recycles water. A ceremonial flame stands at the core of the memorial that is located just east of the U.S. Capitol Building and the Botanic Gardens.

11. The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument // Brooklyn, New York

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Brooklyn, New York
iStock/Alex Potemkin

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument may not be one of the best known of the nation’s memorials, but it honors the 11,500 American prisoners of war who died aboard British war ships during the Revolutionary War. Some of the prisoners who died under the terrible shipboard conditions are buried underneath the monument. The monument’s granite Doric column was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, who designed both Manhattan's Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The 100-foot column stands in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and was dedicated in 1908.

12. Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial // Colleville-sur-Mer, France

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, France
iStock/Edward Haylan

Some impressive monuments to the service of America’s soldiers can also be found in other countries. France has a total of 11 cemeteries and monuments dedicated to the service of U.S. soldiers, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer is located on a bluff overlooking one of the Normandy beaches that U.S. troops landed on during the Normandy invasion. The 172.5-acre cemetery contains the graves of 9387 soldiers, many of whom lost their lives on D-Day. The memorial has a semicircular colonnade with a bronze statue in the center called the "Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves." A garden to the east features inscriptions of the names of 1557 soldiers who lost their lives during the Normandy campaign but could not be found or identified.

13. Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial // Margraten, Netherlands

The 65.5-acre Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial is located in Margraten on the route German troops used to retreat after U.S. forces liberated the Netherlands. The memorial features a tall tower facing a reflecting pool. At the base of the tower is a statue of a mourning woman that represents the losses suffered during war. Visitor buildings feature engraved military operations maps, a Court of Honor with a reflecting pool, and Tablets of the Missing, which has 1722 names. The burial area is the resting place for 8301 of the nation’s military members.

14. United Nations Memorial Park // Busan, South Korea

United Nations Memorial Park, Busan, South Korea
iStock/Im Yeongsik

The United Nations Memorial Park in the South Korean city of Busan was dedicated in 2013. The memorial park contains 2300 graves of service members from 11 countries. Altogether, 1.7 million U.S. military personnel served during the Korean War, and although 33,739 died in battle, most were reinterred in the United States. Only 36 graves of U.S. soldiers remain in Busan; the American monument on the site reads, “This monument is to the American men and women who gave their lives in defense of the freedom of the Republic of Korea 1950-1953.” The park’s main gate, dedicated in 1966, illustrates the concept of Earthly life growing toward heaven.

15. The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial // Cambridge, UK

The Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial honors the service of U.S. soldiers in during World War II and was dedicated in 1956. Notable Americans buried or memorialized there include Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the older brother of President John F. Kennedy, and musician Glenn Miller. The curved cemetery has 3809 headstones, and the wide mall of reflecting pools has a chapel. A new visitor’s center, which opened in 2014, offers information about air campaigns carried out during the war, including two large marble maps laying out military plans.

Remains of World War II Soldier From Texas Finally Identified Nearly 75 Years After His Death

Lexey Swall/Getty Images
Lexey Swall/Getty Images

More than 400,000 American service members died in World War II, and decades after the war's end in 1945, more than 72,000 of them remain unaccounted for. As the Associated Press reports, the remains of one World War II soldier who died in battle 74 years ago were recently identified in a Belgian American cemetery.

Private first class army member John W. Hayes, originally from Estelline, Texas, was fighting for the Allied Powers in Belgium in early 1945. According to witnesses, he was killed by an 88mm gun on a German tank on January 4. The military recorded no evidence of his remains being recovered.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a government organization responsible for recovering missing soldiers, suspected that an unidentified body found near the site of Hayes's death and buried in 1948 might be Hayes. In 2018, the agency exhumed the body from a Belgian American military cemetery and analyzed the DNA. Tests confirmed that the grave had indeed been that of John W. Hayes. Now that Hayes has been identified, his body will be transported to Memphis, Texas, and reinterred there on June 19.

Thanks to advances in genetic technology, the government has successfully identified the dozens of World War II military members decades after their deaths. Recently, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency used DNA analysis to identify 186 of the sailors and marines who perished at Pearl Harbor.

[h/t MyHighPlains.com]

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