The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.
With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 11th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)
April 13, 1912: Britain Forms the Royal Flying Corps
In the years leading up the First World War, weapons technology advanced with such breathtaking speed that it became impossible to imagine what combat in the next war would actually look like.
The first dreadnought battleship was built by Britain in 1908, with oil-powered dreadnoughts soon to follow; Britain developed the Vickers machine gun in 1912; and artillery achieved unprecedented size with the Big Bertha guns developed by Krupp for the Germans in 1912-1913. But possibly the biggest leap forward resulted from an American invention, the airplane, developed by Orville and Wilbur Wright from 1899-1903.
As with the other leaps in weapons technology, the newness of airplanes made it difficult to predict what early aerial warfare would look like. Although the Italians pioneered aerial bombardment (from airships) in Libya in 1912, most planes were still too small to carry substantial bomb payloads, and targeting was too primitive too allow real coordination with ground forces. But aviation still conferred undeniable advantages, especially by allowing observers to soar above the confusing “fog of war.”
Hot air balloons had been used as observation platforms in various wars of the nineteenth century; in land battles, planes could conduct reconnaissance of enemy lines and serve as artillery spotters, directing the fire of ground batteries on targets miles away; and at sea, airplanes and airships could assist fleets by scouring the sea for enemy naval units – a responsibility previously delegated to swarms of small vessels with less speed and visibility than aircraft.
Reach for the Sky
With all these potential applications, military aviation was clearly too important to be left to amateur enthusiasts like the Royal Aero Club and private industry (although these would still play an important role). To bring some order to its nascent air service, on April 13, 1912, the British government decided to establish a new branch that would be responsible for designing and building planes, training pilots, and planning and carrying out missions. The Royal Flying Corps, brought into existence by a royal warrant signed by George V, absorbed the Royal Navy’s handful of planes and the “Air Battalion” of the Royal Engineers. It initially consisted of a military (over land) division, a naval (over water) division, a flight school, established June 19, 1912, and a dedicated aircraft factory.
To illustrate how small the early air forces really were, when it was created the RFC consisted of 133 pilots manning 12 balloons and 36 airplanes – making it much smaller than the French air force, with 390 planes and 234 officers, and Germany’s, with 100 planes and 90 pilots. France, then the world’s leading aircraft manufacturer, also led the way in building new planes: in 1913, the last year before war broke out, Britain spent around $3 million on its air force, compared to $7.4 million for France, $5 million each for Germany and Russia, and a pathetic $125,000 for the United States.
With war looming, spending increased – triggering inevitable bureaucratic battles for control of the air force. In 1914 the Royal Navy – long the dominant military branch in pre-war Britain – demanded that the RFC’s naval wing be formally separated and established as its own Royal Naval Air Service; the division took place July 1, 1914. When war broke out shortly afterwards, the RNAS still dominated, with 93 planes and 727 personnel, versus 63 planes and 900 personnel for the remaining RFC.
Of course the bureaucratic ballet was far from over. Ironically the RNAS and RFC would be re-merged towards the end of the war, on April 1, 1918, to form the Royal Air Force. By that point their combined aviation assets had grown to a remarkable 22,000 aircraft and 290,000 personnel.
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 304th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
“We out here who knew that this thing was coming upon us, creeping nearer every day with its monstrous menace, held our breath and waited,” the British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote of Germany’s final offensive in the spring of 1918. “When at last the thing broke it was more frightful in its loosing of overwhelming powers than even we had guessed.”
“Operation Michael,” named for the fearful avenging archangel of the Bible, was chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s all-in gamble to end the war with a crushing blow against the Allies on the Western Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Central Powers’ victory over Italy at Caporetto enabled Ludendorff to transfer a million men from the defunct Eastern Front and elsewhere to the Western Front to carry out the attack.
The massive offensive targeted the British Army—now the stronger partner in the Anglo-French Alliance, with around 3.9 million soldiers under arms in March 1918, including 1.5 million on the Western Front, compared to around 2 million French soldiers total. By shattering the Allied line and driving a wedge between the French and British armies, Operation Michael would threaten the British Expeditionary Force with encirclement and the loss of its supply bases in the Channel ports, forcing the British to withdraw or be destroyed, hopefully followed by French capitulation (below, the ruins of the French village of Bapaume).
As Gibbs indicated, the impending German onslaught was common knowledge on both sides. Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, noted in his diary on March 20, 1918, “Each of the combatants seem to be almost completely aware of the designs of the other. Observation from the air, captured prisoners, listening posts, intercepted messages, the Intelligence Department … all help to make the information complete.” Gibbs reviewed the alarming intelligence gathered by the Allies in February-March 1918:
"Our flying scouts reported abnormal movements of troops on railways and roads far back behind the German lines. They reported new aerodromes established opposite our front, new hospitals, and field-ambulances … new ammunition dumps everywhere. Prisoners taken in our raids repeated the rumors in the German trenches of an offensive on so vast a scale that it would crush the British Army for all time …"
While the exact timing and location of the main thrust remained a closely guarded secret, on both sides everyone from top brass to the men in the trenches knew that the clash would likely determine the outcome of the war, not to mention the personal fates of countless combatants. John Jackson, a British soldier, remembered, “Any moment we expected a great attack by the enemy, but we did not know where or when the shock would come. The feeling of an impending battle was, however, in the atmosphere and everybody seemed strained and tense, waiting for we hardly knew what.” Similarly, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, wrote in his diary on March 19, 1918, “We are most conscious of the greatness of the moment, and have got into a terrific state of tension, and even when we have any time for rest, we genuinely can’t sleep any more, not for a second.”
Ludendorff’s strategy centered on concentrating overwhelming numbers against a decisive point in the enemy line—in other words, brute force—in a bid to break through, end the stasis of trench warfare, and reopen war of maneuver (above, German troops on the Somme in March 1918). Altogether, Operation Michael would hurl a total of 67 German divisions in the Second, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Armies against the British Fifth and Third Armies as well the French Sixth Army, with the main blow falling on the British Fifth Army, numbering 26 divisions, giving the Germans an almost three-to-one advantage. If these attacks succeeded they would then proceed to the second phase, Operation Mars, with the Seventeenth and Second Armies pivoting northwest towards Arras, Albert, and Amiens in order to push the British north and crush them in a vise with the German Fourth and Sixth Armies, while the Eighteenth Army prevented the French from reestablishing contact with their allies.
Operation Michael would employ “infiltration tactics” on a large scale, in which storm trooper units armed with grenades, mortars, and machine guns would advance swiftly, exploiting surprise to penetrate enemy lines and create gaps that regular infantry following behind could widen and exploit (it would also incorporate a small number of Germany’s monstrous tanks, the A7V, developed belatedly and never built in sufficient quantities to be decisive; below, French soldiers with a ruined German tank). In addition to the tidal wave of men, the Germans assembled more than 1000 planes for the offensive, giving them local air superiority for artillery spotting, ground attacks against troops and vehicles, and aerial bombardment of rail hubs and supply depots. Most importantly, the Germans had assembled 6608 heavy guns and field artillery and 3534 trench mortars to deliver the most ferocious bombardment in history, using a new mathematical technique to target the guns without having to “register” or test fire them first, preserving the element of surprise.
Ironically, much of the fighting would take place on the old battleground of the Somme, where British and French forces had forced the Germans back at a huge cost in blood in summer and autumn 1916, prompting the Germans to conduct a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in spring 1917. The ravaged battlefield presented special challenges in terms of mobility and communications, including the difficulty of moving up artillery, ammunition and other supplies in the event of a successful advance. Nonetheless, Ludendorff was so confident of success that Kaiser Wilhelm II and his entourage traveled to observe the kaiserschlacht, or “emperor’s offensive,” which they hoped would be crowned with victory. Their hopes would be disappointed—but only after they had unleashed an apocalypse.
"AS IF THE WORLD WERE COMING TO AN END"
The storm broke at 4:40 a.m. on March 21, 1918, when a bright white rocket above St. Quentin signaled Germany artillery to begin raining shells on British and French trenches, strong points, and communications along a 43-mile stretch of front (below, footage of Operation Michael). The German guns fired an incredible 1.16 million shells in the first five hours alone, reaching 3.2 million by the end of the first day—more than the British had fired during the entire week preceding the Somme offensive, working out to an average 64 shells per second in the opening phase and 37 shells per second for the whole day. Around a third of the shells in the initial bombardment were gas shells of various kinds, including mustard gas and “buntkreuz” (variegated) shells, the latter typically containing phosgene mixed with sneezing or vomiting agents, intended to force enemy soldiers to remove their gas masks in order to expose them to the more poisonous gases.
Ernst Jünger, an infantry lieutenant, described the opening moments of the historic battle in his memoir Storm of Steel:
"Shortly before the show, the following flash signal was circulated: ‘His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.’ It was greeted with applause. The watch-hands moved round; we counted off the last few minutes … The tempest was unleashed. A flaming curtain went up, followed by the unprecedentedly brutal roaring. A wild thunder, capable of submerging even the loudest detonations in its rolling, made the earth shake. The gigantic roaring of the innumerable guns behind us was so atrocious that even the greatest of the battles we had experienced seemed like a tea party by comparison. What we hadn’t dared hope for happened: the enemy artillery was silenced; a prodigious blow had laid it out. We felt too restless to stay in the dugout. Standing out on top, we gasped at the colossal wall of flame over the English lines, gradually obscuring itself behind crimson, surging clouds."
Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, recorded the high spirits among artillery crews, reflecting widespread confidence in victory:
"At last we’re there, and with a crash our barrage begins from thousands and thousands, it must be from tens of thousands, of gun-barrels and mortars, a barrage that sounds as if the world were coming to an end … The gunners stand in their shirt-sleeves, with the sweat running down and dripping off them. Shell after shell is rammed into the breach, salvo after salvo is fired, and you don’t need to give fire orders any more, they’re in such good spirits …"
The German opening bombardment unfolded in 11 distinct stages and sub-stages, altogether lasting around five hours. These included, first, targeting communications and artillery batteries with high explosives and gas, then shifting to frontline trenches and secondary defenses with “registering” to confirm targeting, followed by howitzers raking the ground between the various British defensive lines to hit any soldiers who climbed out of the trenches to take shelter in shell holes (a defensive trick learned from the Germans). The howitzers then turned on enemy strongpoints, while field artillery hit the stretches of shell holes between the British trenches with more poison gas. Finally, all the German guns returned to targeting the British frontline defenses, laying down a wall of fire to create a “creeping barrage,” forcing the defenders to remain under shelter so the German storm trooper units and infantry could advance in relative safety.
Ordinary British and French soldiers on the receiving end of the German bombardment were understandably terrified by this volcanic onslaught. Unsophisticated British defensive tactics only increased the number of casualties, as around two-thirds of the British troops were deployed in frontline trenches, rather than further back in safer rear trenches, exposing them to the full brunt of the enemy barrage. The German guns also targeted British and French artillery with surprising accuracy, thanks to the new fireless “registering” techniques (above and below, British guns in action). Ivor Hansen, the British gunner, wrote in his diary:
"We felt that the whole German artillery was shooting directly at our Battery. Over the shells rained projectiles of all calibers, shrieking, screeching, whining, and moaning. Amid the hail of steel we could detect gas shells by their peculiar whine and sloppy bursting sound. This was the hottest bombardment I had ever experienced … Any moment we expected death, for the shells seemed to be making straight for us and as they screamed forward we crouched together against the side of the dug-out nearer the enemy."
However, the British troops held their frontline positions wherever possible, displaying remarkable bravery, according to Stanley Spencer, a British NCO:
"The enemy bombardment commenced at a little before 5 a.m. and before it was properly light. It consisted entirely of trench mortar bombs of all calibers as far as the front line was concerned, and at first was mainly gas rather than high explosive. It very soon reached a simply terrific intensity … compelling us to put on our gas respirators at once. Everyone felt sure that the great attack was coming at last, but there was no confusion and every man stood to his post and waited in readiness for whatever should happen next. As it became light a fairly thick white mist lay over No Man’s Land. In the trench itself the smoke and gas from the incessant deluge of trench mortar bombs, coupled with the condensation of moisture in the goggles of our respirators, made it impossible to see for more than a few feet ahead."
Back in the German trenches, the sound of thousands of guns firing in unison combined with the inferno of explosions and miasma of poison gas to create an otherworldly scene over the battlefield, according to Jünger:
"At our rear, the massive roaring and surging was still waxing, even though any intensification of the noise had seemed impossible. In front of us an impenetrable wall of smoke, dust, and gas had formed … Even the laws of nature appear to have been suspended. The air swam as on hot summer days, and its variable density caused fixed objects to appear to dance to and fro. Shadows streaked through the clouds. The noise now was a sort of absolute noise—you heard nothing at all. Only dimly were you aware that thousands of machine-guns behind you were slinging their leaden swarms into the blue air."
After five hours of furious shelling, the German storm troopers and infantry finally went “over the top” around 9:40 a.m. Despite all the orderly preparations, the waves of attackers soon became jumbled together amid the sheer momentum of their onslaught. Jünger described the weird combination of calm and chaos as they advanced:
"No man’s land was packed tight with attackers, advancing singly, in little groups or great masses towards the curtain of fire. They didn’t run or even take cover if the vast plume of an explosion rose between them. Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on the enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more. In the midst of these masses that had risen up, one was still alone; the units were all mixed up. I lost my men from sight; they had disappeared like a wave in the crashing surf."
As hoped, they found the enemy’s defensive positions totally obliterated in many places:
"We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy. The shredded wire entanglements provided no obstacle at all, and we cleared the first trench, barely recognizable as such, in a single bound. The wave of attackers danced like a row of ghosts through the white seething mists … There was no one here to oppose us."
By 2 p.m. attackers from the German Second Army were swarming over the British Fifth Army’s trenches, encountering fierce resistance in places, but still carried forward by sheer momentum:
"A man next to me lobbed hand-grenades at the British as they ran. A steel helmet took off into the air like a spinning plate. It was all over in a minute. The British leaped out of their trenches, and fled away across the field. From up on the embankment, a wild pursuing fire set in. They were brought down in full flight, and, within seconds, the ground was littered with corpses … Our success had a magical effect. There was no question of leadership, or even of separate units, but there was only one direction: forwards! Each man ran forward for himself."
Meanwhile, German engineers worked frantically building roads and leveling terrain, enabling field artillery to move forward over the pockmarked battlefield and support renewed infantry assaults.
Enemy penetrations all along the British line threatened to isolate and cut off small groups of defenders remaining in intact trenches, but they continued to hold out with amazing grit, fighting hand-to-hand around trench traverses. However, there was no question about the eventual outcome, as the Germans committed wave after wave of new troops. Spencer described growing alarm as the German tide surged around his unit, bringing up field guns and mortars to deliver punishing close-range bombardments (above, German troops towing a light mortar):
"Very rapid advances had been made by the enemy during the morning on our flanks and we were thus left in the most uncomfortable position, being fired at from almost every side at once. I was standing in a fire bay at about 4 p.m. when one of these shells burst on the parados … A great flash of flame shot across the trench over my shoulder, straight at the feet of the man on the fire step. He fell backwards into the bottom of the trench, as the man by me and I both staggered and rolled over under the concussion of the explosion. My face was pitted with grit and powder and one or two tiny shell splinters entered near the corner of my left eye, but otherwise I was unhurt. The man by my side was hit in the back and the one on the fire step had his left foot completely burnt off. When I could properly open my eyes and look round I found that the first man had gone, but the other one was lying in the trench looking in a dazed sort of way at the charred grey stump at his ankle where his boot and foot had been a minute before."
By the end of the first day British troops were withdrawing under heavy fire, as often as not without orders and with no way to alert divisional headquarters to their movements. Paul Maze, a French liaison officer with the British Army, remembered the confusion of the retreat on March 21 (below, a British gun crew retreating):
"All communication appeared to have been severed. Avoiding the road, I strode into vagueness to look for our “brown line” about 800 yards north of the village. The visibility was very bad. I stumbled forward, thinking of the seriousness of the situation, a feverish anxiety growing all the while in my mind … The ground was marked everywhere with fresh shell holes; the uproar rising from the line had become alarming. Shapeless figures were running through the fog past me … Then men were under no illusion as to what they were in for."
Although the Germans had achieved a huge success by the standards of static trench warfare, there were already signs of trouble. Ominously, the advance was already very uneven, indicating that even with overwhelming force on their side, the battle was not going to plan.
While the German Second and Eighteenth Armies smashed through British and French defenses on the southern half of the battlefield with remarkable speed, to the north the German Seventeenth Army was stuck, held up by a determined British defense of the salient in front of Cambrai, recently the scene of a British surprise attack with tanks in November 1917. According to Ludendorff’s plan, the “Cambrai salient” had to be eliminated on the first day of the attack in order for the German heavy artillery to be transferred north for Operation Mars, the subsequent attack northwest, pivoting around Arras.
Ludendorff had no choice but to give the Seventeenth Army more time to achieve its initial objectives, but the delay gave the British and French more time to assess the situation and begin to react—critical breathing room, even if it were just a day or two. Further, as the German Second and Eighteenth Armies surged forward further south it would eventually threaten to open gaps in the German line of attack, leaving them vulnerable to Allied counterattacks.
The Germans were also paying a terrible price for their extraordinary gains, as retreating British and French forces assumed new defensive positions and inflicted extremely heavy casualties before withdrawing again (above, a French gun in action). Jünger himself witnessed several gruesome deaths as they exchanged fire with retreating enemy soldiers from an old British trench on the morning of March 22:
"One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured on to the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. His snore-like death-rattle resounded in lengthening intervals, and finally stopped altogether. I seized his rifle, and went on firing. At last there was a pause. Two men who had been just ahead of us tried to make it back over the top. One toppled into the trench with a shot in the head, the other, shot in the belly, could only crawl into it … The man with the wound in the belly, a very young lad, lay in amongst us, stretched out like a cat in the warm rays of the setting sun. He slipped into death with an almost childlike smile on his face."
Another German officer, Fritz Nagel, recalled endless lines of improvised ambulances filled with wounded headed for the rear as fresh reserve troops moved up:
"What almost made me sick was the traffic to the left of us coming back from the battle zone. It moved very slowly and I barely could stand the sight. Many of the vehicles were horse-drawn forage wagons and I believe they were put into service at the last moment when casualties began to exceed expectations. All of them were filled with severely wounded men lying motionless, pale and bloody looking. I had seen many wounded before, but not in such an awful parade, one vehicle after another without end. The sight shook me up and I became frightened. After a while I forced myself to look away."
RETREAT AND COLLAPSE
Despite the astronomical losses, the Germans retained a decisive advantage in manpower and artillery, and from March 22-27 the offensive ground remorselessly on, pulverizing Allied defenses and forcing retreat after retreat. In fact, over the next few days the Allies suffered one of the most stunning defeats of the war, with the collapse and virtual annihilation of the British Fifth Army (below, wounded British soldiers await transport).
The Germans bagged thousands of British and French prisoners and 400 heavy guns in the first day of the offensive alone. Private Alfred Grosch, a British soldier taken prisoner on March 22, wrote of the sad scenes as French civilians commiserated with their erstwhile defenders in his diary:
"Relentlessly onward we go. Back, back, right clear of the battlefield, moving all night … What a crowd: hundreds, perhaps thousands, French and English—a long column stretches down the road and behind us … we go through a village, the inhabitants line the road with pails of water, we drink as we pass. The women wring their hands at the sight of us, and when they can pass us a piece of bread quickly, so that our guards cannot see the action. We got to Guise; the castle on the hill is visible some way off. We enter the town, which, though in German occupation, is still full of French inhabitants. They rush into the ranks, push tobacco, bread, and food into our hands. One woman braves the guards, and rushes to me with a can of hot coffee, then she is gone. The men throw their caps to those who are without. Tears are in all eyes."
Those who escaped death or capture also found themselves marching for days on end without rest during the retreat. Jack Martin, a British sapper, described chaotic scenes and looting as battered British forces fell back on March 23, 1918:
"We were met by a continuous stream of retiring troops, fatigued almost to the point of absolute exhaustion, staggering along hardly knowing where they were going. Hot, tired horses pulling guns of all calibers while, on the gun limbers, artillerymen, who had been firing their guns for three whole days and nights, slept a precarious slumber in the continual danger of being jolted in the road and being trampled by the team immediately behind. At the camp we heard that the canteen at Achiet-le-Grand had been abandoned … leaving the canteen to the mercy of the troops. In a very short time it was utterly ransacked and I daresay it held at least £2000 worth of stuff … some of our fellows brought back two cases of whisky and numerous boxes of biscuits and cigarettes. From the top of the rise near the camp we could see the bursting shells approaching nearer but we did not get the order to move until the shells were dropping in the camp."
British officers managed to prevent the retreat from turning into a rout, at least at first, by staging desperate rearguard defensive actions, digging in temporarily to allow other units to retreat in relatively good order. But by the third day of the German offensive things began to fall apart. Stanley Spencer, a British NCO, described losing contact with his men as they retreated under fire on March 24:
"Shell after shell screamed over us to crash amongst the houses and along the road beyond us; great clouds of rolling black smoke rose and drifted across the village, while at the same time low-flying enemy aeroplanes raced overhead and poured machine-gun bullets among the crowds of men. Orders were at once given to scatter across the fields and our Company melted away in all directions. I did not see them again that day."
Mixed up with another unit, Spencer took part in repeated withdrawals over the rest of the day, falling back again and again as German planes directed artillery fire on to them with merciless precision, while the roads were jammed with retreating heavy artillery—a rare sight in the war, indicating how serious the situation had become (below, a British heavy gun in retreat):
"We spread out as a thin outpost line to the southeast of Barastre and the men began to dig themselves in with their entrenching tools on a forward slope of short grass. There was no cover whatever and the enemy shelling began shortly … Soon afterwards we retired to some higher ground about a quarter of a mile farther back … We had been there barely 20 minutes when enemy aeroplanes came over and spotted us. A few minutes later field gun (3-inch) shells began to burst all round. Second Lieutenant Lynch was soon killed … Further orders came up to retire again and we trailed back across the open country by platoons at wide intervals … The road itself was simply choked with transport, so tanks and batteries of artillery were hurrying across country. To the north and east dense clouds of black smoke were drifting across the sky from burning stores that could not be removed. To the south near Le Transloy great sheets of flame shot up from a long line of huts steeped in petrol."
As Spencer’s account indicates, planes now played a crucial role in “combined arms” tactics, serving as aerial artillery spotters, bombing enemy positions and transportation hubs, and strafing columns of troops with machine guns. Although the Germans had achieved temporary air superiority, British fliers still managed to inflict considerable damage on the attackers, who were suffering their own logistical problems. Nagel, the German officer, recounted one attack:
"On March 24 we got into another incredible traffic jam … This time British planes came roaring in, four or five at a time, strafing without mercy. None of our fighters were in sight. We had to open up and fire as best we could right over the heads of men and horses only a few feet away. Nearby infantry let go with machine guns. With few interruptions these fights and attacks continued all day long. To the left of us was the usual procession of the Red Cross vehicles. While we worried about the danger of these constant attacks from the air, I wondered how a wounded man must have felt, completely helpless in those wagons while machine-gun bullets spattered all around."
The struggle for air supremacy played out above their heads in countless “dogfights,” some involving scores of planes. Rudolf Stark, a German pilot, left this impressionistic description of a spiraling dogfight with a British squadron in his diary on March 24 (below, a British plane after an accident during takeoff):
"Turn, turn, turn, high and low. Tracer bullets cleave the air. Machine guns rattle everywhere, engines roar, bracing-wires groan and howl in dives. We are flying a big merry-go-round, one behind the other, so that we cover one another’s tails. I see a Sopwith attack the Albatros in front of me and shoot at him sideways. He breaks away and goes into a turn to escape. Our turns grow narrower and narrower … My tracer bullets skim along the edge of his fuselage, but again and again he pulls himself out of my sights. At last I get on the mark—a hit—petrol squirts out of the machine and hangs in a long streamer of haze from its tail. The Englishman is hit and goes down in a spin. I have no time to follow him down, because I am attacked at once. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Everywhere the rattle of guns. The air is thick with the threads of tracers, which are torn by propellers and twisted into all sorts of shapes by propeller winds. Turns, turns, turns, turns. Another English formation joins the dogfight, which becomes fiercer than ever. Turns, turns, turns, turns. I am standing still in space, and the world is going round me in crazy circles. Then I turn, and the world stands still."
Meanwhile, March 23, 1918 brought a new kind of terror to French civilians, as the Germans unleashed “Langer Max,” better known as the “Paris Gun” or “Big Bertha”—actually a collection of seven repurposed ultra-long-distance naval artillery pieces, supported by cables and capable of hitting targets up to 75 miles away. The advance of the German Eighteenth Army in the south enabled the Germans to build special rail spurs and circular concrete emplacements northeast of Paris, from which the gun dropped shells on the French capital.
Coming at the rate of about one every quarter-hour, the first shells shocked and mystified Parisians, who at first blamed very high altitude bombers or even enemy agents hiding in their midst. William Graves Sharp, the American ambassador to France, remembered the reaction to the first shells falling on Paris on March 23, 1918: “People were stupefied … it was stated that there was not the slightest sound made by them in passing through the air. They simply dropped from space like some huge meteorite, without its warning trail of light…”
The Paris Guns had no real military impact, inflicting mostly symbolic damage. The worst incident occurred on March 29, 1918, Good Friday, when a shell caused the roof of the St-Gervais-et-St-Protais Church to collapse on the congregation, killing 91 churchgoers (below, damage to the church).
The long-distance shelling, striking defenseless people at random, certainly inspired fear and revulsion against German “barbarity,” but like aerial bombardment of civilian populations, it never succeeded in provoking mass panic and civil disorder, as hoped. Instead targeted civilians quickly grew acclimated to the periodic destruction, according to Marion Gregory, a volunteer interpreter working with American nurses in France, who soon adopted the blasé attitude of Parisians:
"It began at 7:30 in the morning and went on all day at intervals of 15 minutes, no one knowing what it was. We all thought for hours it was the long-expected daylight raid, and for the first time I went to the cellar; but an hour under ground, with a candle the only light, was enough for me, and I went up again to the apartment … The shops and public offices were all closed; and the Metro stopped running that day; but the next day when they learned the unbelievable news that they were fired on from the very front, the great people of Paris settled down once more to the normal things of life, paying no heed to the constant firing of “La Grosse Berthe”—she became a part of everyday life."
More serious from a military perspective were the crowds of refugees fleeing villages in the path of the German advance, who competed with retreating British and French troops for space on small, primitive roads. Many observers compared the exodus to the first days of the war, when Belgian and French peasant families fled the invaders for the first time, and now were forced to give up their homes again. Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, described the pathetic scenes as they rushed to the front to reinforce the Allied line:
"Dozens of high-sided French carts come through the village lumbering on towards the rear, piled high with all manner of household effects and grandmothers or grandfathers jammed amongst the load. Hundreds of overladen wheelbarrows trundle through the village with poor, lonely old men and broken-hearted women shoving all their earthly possessions before them … And poor lost little kids seeking protection. Pinned inside one boy’s pocket is a crumpled piece of paper bearing the penciled address of a woman in Abbeville. Night, and ready to move forward at any minute … Away on the horizon we see the gun flashes and, here and there, the steady glow of a burning village."
And still the onslaught continued in the south over the old Somme battlefield and beyond on March 25-27, as the British Fifth Army simply shattered and disintegrated under the mighty hammer blows of the German Eighteenth and Second Armies. Martin, the British sapper, described the continuing retreat amid freezing temperatures on March 25—a horrible ordeal for everyone, but especially so for the wounded:
"The opening of the barrage at dawn woke us and we found our blankets and heads covered with white frost … The traffic on the road was increasing every minute and soon it began to flow over into the fields on either side. Hundreds of wounded men were struggling to get back. All kind of wagons and limbers and civilian carts had been requisitioned to carry them back to hospital but the quantity of transport was insufficient; consequently, all those who could walk or even only hobble had to do so."
Spencer left a similar account of that fateful day:
"We had no line trenches or communication trenches and could not stir a foot from our shell holes except in the open; we had no more food and no reserve of ammunition; we had no supporting troops behind us and no artillery at all; and we had not even seen one of our own aeroplanes for days … Soon after 10 a.m. a runner got through from the right to say that the line had broken and the men were in full retreat … Still we hung on, though the barrage became heavier … Then the machine-gun barrage that swept over us seemed to double in intensity, so that we could scarcely hear each other shout above the drumming and chatter of the guns and the scream of the bullets. After two or three minutes of this deluge of fire … scores of the enemy sprang to their feet and came leaping down the hill towards us, some shooting as they came … That was the end. I saw no man hold up his hands in surrender but everyone turned and ran."
By March 26, as the remnants of the British Fifth Army streamed north (soon to be incorporated into the new Fourth Army) the Germans had finally succeeded in driving a wedge between the British Expeditionary Force to the north and the French Army to the south—bringing the Allies to the brink of total collapse. The British Third Army had lost contact with the French Sixth Army, and the route lay open for the Germans to seize Amiens, the central logistics hub of the Western Front.
But Ludendorff’s ambition and opportunism proved to be the downfall of Operation Michael. To the north the Seventeenth Army was still stuck, slogging slowly forward near Arras on the northern end of the offensive. As a result, Ludendorff eagerly threw his reserves behind the successful advance of the Eighteenth Army, even though its original mission had simply been protecting the German southern flank against French counterattacks. In other words, the main effort (by the Seventeenth Army) had failed, while a support operation (by the Eighteenth Army) had snowballed, in a classic example of “mission creep.” In the middle the Second Army, assigned the task of conquering Amiens, soon became overextended trying to support both the stalled Seventeenth Army to the north and the Eighteenth Army racing ahead in the south.
Even worse, the German advance had outstripped their own supply lines in the south: by March 27, some of the lead German forces were up to 40 miles from their rail supply lines, leaving the transport of artillery ammunition—the lifeblood of the offensive—to horse-drawn wagons and scarce trucks. At the same time, the French were moving up two whole armies, the First and Third, to plug the gap with the British, and the Allies signaled their determination to continue the fight with the choice of the aggressive general Ferdinand Foch, a hero of the Miracle on the Marne, as supreme commander of all Allied forces (above, British guns).
Now, as the German offensive sputtered, Ludendorff made another desperate gamble: even though Operation Michael had fallen short of its original objectives, on March 28 he launched Operation Mars, the northern attack, in a long-shot bid to regain initiative.
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 303rd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
MARCH 3, 1918: THE TREATY OF BREST-LITOVSK
After seizing power in November 1917, Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Kamenev, and Zinoviev made it a top priority to end the war with the Central Powers, fulfilling one of the party’s key political promises (especially for millions of Russian soldiers, their most important constituency). But even these cynical apparatchiks, who claimed to harbor no illusionary nationalist sentiments, found that making peace was easier said than done.
Bolshevik negotiators first sat down with their opposite numbers at Brest-Litovsk during an armistice declared in December 1917, but were just as reluctant as the previous, short-lived republic to give up the huge chunks of territory demanded by Germany and its allies as the price of peace. Instead lead negotiator Trotsky, who opposed major territorial concessions, proclaimed his slogan “no war, no peace,” signaling his plan to use equivocation and delay to drag out negotiations until the Central Powers either agreed to compromise or, hopefully, succumbed to the worldwide communist revolution the Bolsheviks were sure was imminent.
However, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff was in no position to dally, as he urgently needed to free up around a million troops for his planned spring offensive on the Western Front, aiming to defeat Britain and France before American troops began to arrive in substantial numbers. After signing separate peace treaties with Ukraine, the Baltic states, and Finland, in February 1918 the impatient Germans reopened the offensive against the dissolving Russian Army, brushing aside what few pockets of resistance remained and threatening to take even more territory than they had demanded in peace negotiations—and quite possibly toppling the Soviet regime while they were at it.
Realizing they now faced an existential threat, Lenin dismissed the objections of Bolshevik colleagues including Trotsky and Bukharin and their allies in the Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SR), arguing that their main goal had to be consolidating power in Russia, even if it meant giving up huge amounts of territory to the Central Powers. With Petrograd itself now under threat, in late February Lenin finally carried the day with a majority vote in the Bolshevik central committee (albeit by the thinnest of margins).
The result was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918 in the city of the same name—one of the most punitive peace agreements in history, in which the Russians gave up Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, the latter divided into Courland and Livonia (top, the treaty translated into five different languages). Supposedly independent, all these new nations actually became German satellite states, as reflected in the fact that several “invited” Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to assume the throne in a “personal union.”
Brest-Litovsk also rewarded Germany’s allies, though more modestly: Austria-Hungary received part of Ukraine and a guarantee of Ukrainian food supplies, staving off starvation in the Dual Monarchy at least temporarily, while in the Caucasus the Ottoman Empire won back the lost province of Kars, Batum and Ardahan. The Turks also helped themselves to Azerbaijan, giving the Ottoman Empire access via the Caspian Sea to the Turkic homeland in Russia’s former Central Asian provinces, another step toward fulfilling Enver Pasha’s dream of “Pan-Turanism,” or reuniting the Turkic peoples under Ottoman leadership. The Turks immediately set about occupying the ceded areas and other territory as well, soon spelling the end of the short-lived Transcaucasian Federation, which had refused to recognize the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. However, the Turks and Germans couldn’t agree who would get Georgia (so it went to the stronger Germans, who took Crimea and sent troops to occupy Georgia via the Black Sea in May-June 1918).
The treaty was a body blow for Russia, as the Central Powers intended, marginalizing and isolating the vast eastern realm from the rest of Europe and forcing it back on its sparsely populated Siberian hinterland. Among other losses, the ceded territories included over a quarter of the Russian Empire’s prewar population, half of its industrial production, and almost 90 percent of its active coalmines, as well as vital rail hubs and the Ukrainian breadbasket, one of the most fertile agricultural areas on Earth. In fact, the economic clauses of the treaty allowed German business interests to take over much of the Russian economy’s private sector and exempted them from the Bolsheviks’ sweeping
“nationalization” of Russian industry and commerce.
Unsurprisingly, the humiliating treaty was deeply unpopular in Russia, as attested by the fact that none of the Bolshevik leadership wanted to accept responsibility for it—Trotsky gave up his position as foreign minister to avoid signing it—as well as the decision by the Bolsheviks’ Left SR allies to resign from the Sovnarkom, the Soviet governing body, in protest. However, the Russian Army had basically ceased to exist while Allied offers to help the Bolsheviks resurrect the Eastern Front, perhaps with the help of freed Czech POWs in the Czech Legion, were too little, too late, so there was no one to resist the steady advance of the Central Powers’ forces into the ceded areas.
The treaty, which made Russia into a German client state and freed the Germans to focus on the Western Front, marked the final rupture between the Allies and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who had already alienated France and Britain by repudiating around $6.5 billion of foreign debt accumulated by the former Tsarist regime as well as the Provisional Government and the Republic. The Bolsheviks, who renamed themselves the Communist Party on March 8, deepened the rift with propaganda and financial support for revolutionary subversion around the world, inciting soldiers to mutiny and encouraging local communist movements to overthrow the governments of the Allies and Central Powers alike (the Germans were particularly incensed that Bolshevik agitation continued uninterrupted despite the peace treaty).
For their part the Bolsheviks still distrusted German intentions, fearing the erstwhile foe might yet decide to topple the Soviet regime, which was, after all, openly plotting revolution in Germany. Thus on March 9, 1918 the Bolsheviks relocated the Soviet capital from vulnerable Petrograd to more distant Moscow, the medieval seat of Russian power, symbolically undoing Peter the Great’s mission to make Russia part of Europe along the way.
Like the rest of Russia Moscow was in the grips of chaos, but the Bolsheviks, safe behind the massive stone walls of the Kremlin, didn’t seem to mind, according to Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist politician who described conditions in the new (old) capital:
"Throngs of refugees pouring into the town, Bolshevist officials trying to force communist doctrines on people who abhor them, peasants illegally bringing in and selling food and bread, and thereby saving the population from starvation, wrangling politicians and intellectuals, all these, together with the excited masses, give the impression of a furiously boiling pot. Many houses have been burned, many more damaged, many walls marked with bullets and bombs … Something had to be done to stay the hand of destruction, and quickly, for the morale of the populace was beginning to break down. Crazed with hunger, peasants and workers had already begun to strike, riot, and plunder. The Bolsheviki did nothing to restore peace."
In March, Sorokin and his wife tried to leave Moscow for a quieter town on the Volga, but met a typical scene that has come to symbolize the chaos of the Russian Civil War:
"At the station nobody could tell us when the train would start, but a huge crowd was waiting to rush it as soon as it arrived. After seven hours it rolled into the station, and then ensued a spectacle quite indescribable. The whole enormous crowd rushed madly forward, jamming, pressing, fighting, shrieking, climbing one man on top of another, and finally seizing places, in the train, on top of the wagons, on the platforms between wagons, and even on the brake beams underneath. As for my wife and me, we got no places at all, but were obliged to go back to our lodgings."
Conditions elsewhere were little better and often much worse, as the Bolsheviks and their White foes together unleashed a reign of terror against enemies real and imagined across Russia. The Bolshevik regime’s campaign of mass murder was excused by emergency decrees originally issued during the renewed German offensive, ordering Red Guards and the new cheka secret police to execute suspected enemy agents on the spot without trial, let alone a right of appeal.
Although the Red Terror didn’t officially begin until September 1918, mass executions were already commonplace by the spring of that year; ultimately the communist regime would execute around 200,000 alleged traitors, former Tsarist officials, and “class enemies” before the terror ended in 1920. The female soldier Maria Bochkareva, better known as Yashka, who narrowly escaped execution in early 1918, described one killing field where the Bolsheviks had murdered scores of political opponents and other undesirables:
"We were led out from the car, all of us in our undergarments. A few hundred feet away was the field of slaughter. There were hundreds upon hundreds of human bodies heaped there … We were surrounded and taken toward a slight elevation of ground, and place in a line with our backs toward the hill. There were corpses behind us, in front of us, to our left, to our right, at our very feet. There were at least a thousand of them. The scene was a horror of horrors. We were suffocated by the poisonous stench. The executioners did not seem to mind so much. They were used to it."
On this occasion Bochkareva was saved by a mid-ranking communist official who pulled her out of the lineup at the last minute; she would later be executed by the Bolsheviks in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia on May 16, 1920.
The anti-Bolshevik Whites committed very similar atrocities in areas they controlled. Forcing prisoners to disrobe before they were shot seems to have been a favored tactic to humiliate and dehumanize them on both sides, although the executioners may also simply have wanted warm coats and boots for themselves. Eduard Dune, a Latvian volunteer in the Red Guard, remembered coming across a mass grave where White partisans had murdered scores of prisoners:
"They pointed to a little hillock in the distance, saying that it was the mass grave of our men. None of the wounded had been taken prisoner; there were only dead men … Somehow I couldn’t believe a man could kill an unarmed prisoner, still less one who was wounded … On one occasion the special train did stop between two stations after we noticed three corpses tied to a pillar with telephone wire. Their bodies were covered with blood, and they were dressed in their underpants and sailors’ striped undershirts."