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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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.

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Did a Typo Help End World War II?
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When Geoffrey Tandy was summoned to Bletchley Park in 1939, he had no idea what to expect. A volunteer at the Royal Navy Reserves, Tandy wanted to serve Britain however he could as World War II threatened his country’s existence. But as a cryptogamist for the National History Museum, Tandy wasn’t quite sure where he fit in. Cryptogamists studied algae, a skill that wasn’t in high demand when it came to military strategizing.

Tandy was greeted by representatives for the Ministry of Defence, who seemed excited at the prospect of Tandy joining the top-secret efforts at Bletchley—too excited, really, about someone whose expertise was in seaweed.

At some point, it occurred to Tandy that the Ministry may have made a mistake. The exact details are lost to history, but it became clear that someone had mistaken his job of cryptogamist for a cryptogramist—a codebreaker, which is exactly what men like Alan Turing were doing at Bletchley. The mistake led to a moss specialist being deposited into one of the most intense covert operations of the war.

Generally useless to the group, Tandy did nothing for two years. Then something incredible happened.

In 1941, Allied forces torpedoed German U-boats and salvaged some important documents from the wreckages, including papers that instructed users of the German Enigma Machine how to unscramble messages. The problem: The papers were waterlogged, damaged, and in dire need of quick restoration before they could be put to use.

The Ministry needed someone who was an expert in drying out water-damaged, fragile materials. Someone who may have had training in preserving algae in such a manner. They needed someone like Tandy.

Using absorbent materials gathered from a museum, Tandy dried the pages and returned them to legibility. The Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, allowing Allied forces to get a glimpse of their strategy. The deciphering likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process.

It’s not quite clear how Tandy’s fortunate misplacement occurred. Did a recruiter see a typographical error, with Tandy’s occupation getting the extra “R”? Or did someone simply misread it? Either way, the misunderstanding turned out to be quite fortuitous. Referencing the story in a 2012 speech, British politician William Hague said it demonstrated “just how useful wide expertise can be.”

[h/t: @floschecther]

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WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails
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 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
Erik Sass

In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

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

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