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WWI Centennial: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 287th installment in the series.

September 5-9, 1917: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

September 1917 saw the chaos in revolutionary Russia reach a fever pitch, as a major new German offensive on the Baltic coast triggered yet another unsuccessful coup attempt against the beleaguered Provisional Government, which had just fended off a far-left uprising instigated by the Bolsheviks in July. This time it was a rightwing military revolt led by the recently appointed commander-in-chief General Lavr Kornilov (although Kornilov claimed it was actually intended to strengthen the Provisional Government against the rival Petrograd Soviet). The end result was to further discredit and destabilize the Provisional Government, now facing open opposition on both the left and right, setting the stage for the Bolsheviks’ final successful coup attempt in November 1917.

Fall of Riga

Kornilov was spurred to action in part by the German capture of Riga (now the capital of Latvia) on the Baltic coast – a major blow that brought the Germans closer to the Russian capital of Petrograd and threatened the breakup of the northern sector of the Eastern Front. An advance here would also shorten the frontline, freeing up German forces needed to fend off the British assault at Passchendaele on the Western Front.

The German Riga offensive wasn’t a walkover: while indiscipline and rock-bottom morale prevailed throughout the Russian Army, ordinary Russian soldiers were still willing to stand and fight in defense of their homeland, at least for now. However German superiority in morale – not to mention heavy artillery, aerial reconnaissance, and logistics – left little doubt about the final outcome.

Europe and the Near East, September 1917: Germans capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt
Erik Sass

The attack began on September 1, 1917 with a sudden, punishing bombardment by the artillery of the German Eighth Army, targeting the defensive positions of the Russian Twelfth Army behind the River (Daugava). As the shelling reached its climax German pioneers moved up with pontoon bridges and boats to ferry the assault force across the broad, fast-flowing river, in another testament to German engineering and tactical skill.

One German soldier, Dominik Richert, described the preliminary bombardment as well as the Russian response:

As it became brighter I was able to see the water of the Düna, which was flowing quite quickly here. The Russian position on the opposite bank was not yet visible as white fog prevented us from seeing further. We were all tense about what was about to happen. All at once, the German artillery, which had been concentrated here, started to fire. The shells whizzed over us and exploded on the other side of the river with a booming din. A number of mortars, mainly heavy ones that shoot two hundred-weight shells, joined the dance. There was such a crashing, whizzing and roaring that my ears started to hurt. As the sun rose, the fog gradually disappeared and I was able to see the Russian position on the opposite bank. It was completely shrouded in black smoke, constantly and everywhere there were abrupt flashes and enormous clouds of smoke shot into the sky… Then the Russian artillery started to fire, so that we were forced to duck down in the trench.

Like many of his peers, Richert knew little of the battle plan, and seemed to be just as surprised as the enemy by the sudden arrival of boats to ford the river:

In the middle of this din came the order: ‘Get ready!’ We looked at each other. ‘We can’t possibly swim the river!’ said some of my neighbours. Then behind us we heard a yelling as if horses were being driven forward. I looked back and saw that the bridge train was arriving. They rapidly drove the waggons, which were laden with metal boats… down to the river. A large number of sappers came up at the double behind them and in no time at all the boats were unloaded and in the water.

Then came the daunting task of crossing the river under fire:

It was very frightening on the water. We all ducked down into the boats. The shells whoosed overhead while under and around us the water gurgled. Wherever I looked the whole river was seething with boats which were heading as quickly as possible to the opposite bank. Russian shells landed between the boats in the river throwing huge columns of water into the air. Another boat upstream from our suffered a direct hit and sank in a few seconds. The occupants who had not been wounded fought with the waves for a short time and then all disappeared. It sent shivers up my spine.

Finally, after a seeming eternity spent crossing the water the attackers arrived at the opposite shore, where they were happy to discover the remaining defenders had already withdrawn:

Now we had to storm the Russian trenches. That was an easy task. We did not encounter any resistance at all. The trench had largely been flattened. Mutilated corpses of the Russian infantrymen were lying around. Every so often you would encounter an unscathed Russian sitting in the corner of a trench and he would raise his arms in the air when we appeared, in order to surrender.

Over the next few days the German offensive pushed forward from these bridgeheads over the Düna to the east of Riga, threatening to encircle the Russian Twelfth Army. However a fierce holding action, fought in large part by Latvian riflemen, held up the German attackers long enough for the Twelfth Army to retreat towards Petrograd, still mostly intact.

Nonetheless the fall of Riga on September 5, 1917 was a major defeat for the Russians and another demoralizing setback for the Allied war effort, which even official propaganda couldn’t sweep under the rug (top, German troops enter Riga). Marian Baldwin, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross in France, wrote home on September 8:

Isn’t the Russian news fierce? I’ve never seen anything like the way it has taken the punch out of every one. I was down at the Gare du Nord yesterday doing a little work for the Red Cross, distributing cigarettes, etc., among the outgoing French soldiers. We couldn’t seem to cheer them, and I didn’t see any of the usual smiles. The ray of light which the U.S. troops brought when they began coming over has, for the moment, been completely obliterated. The papers don’t deny that it is the worst blow the Allies have received since the war began, and it is as though a black cloud has descended upon every one.

Of course the effect on Russian morale was even more pronounced. After the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive, the loss of Riga seemed to show that the Russian Army was essentially unable to defend the homeland. Meanwhile conditions for ordinary soldiers had hardly improved, and in many cases worsened, since the February (March) Revolution. Finally the infamous Order No. 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917, which effectively abolished military rank and with it officers’ authority, encouraged mutiny and insubordination and resulted in a steady stream of dispirited officers resigning their commissions and going home.

Charles Beury, an American representative of the YMCA who visited Russia during this period, painted a portrait of complete disarray in the military:

The demoralization was most noticeable in the army. That fundamental characteristic of any army – discipline – was gone… It was quite unusual to see soldiers marching in uniform ranks. On the contrary, masses of these men were aimlessly wandering about the streets, eating sunflower seeds, overloading the street-cars, and crowding, without tickets, into first-class compartments on passenger trains… In many places we noted the lack of authority of superior officers… Many officers had been shot by their men in payment of old scores…

With disaster looming, the Provisional Government appeared irrelevant while the Petrograd Soviet seemed more concerned with “protecting the revolution” than fighting the external enemy. Against this backdrop one of the last bastions of conservatism in Russia mounted a final, desperate attempt to restore order – and failed spectacularly.

The Kornilov Revolt

For months rumors had been circulating of a military coup to replace the feeble Provisional Government and crush the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet. The flashpoint for the failed military revolt came when Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky asked Kornilov, recently appointed commander-in-chief, to move troops loyal to the Provisional Government from the front to Petrograd in order to shore up the government’s authority versus the Soviet, increasingly dominated by radical socialists including Lenin’s Bolsheviks (below, Kornilov).

Kornilov, reasoning that such half-measures were no longer appropriate, instead led a large force of loyal troops in a march on Petrograd with the intention of purging the Provisional Government of radical elements, suppressing the Soviet, and calling a new Constituent Assembly, claiming that he was doing so at Kerensky’s invitation. However this action was far more extreme than Kerensky had envisioned, and the prime minister feared (probably with good reason) that Kornilov in fact meant to establish himself as a military dictator. Kornilov also earned the hatred of troops loyal to the Soviet with his support for the reinstatement of capital and corporal punishment within the Army.

Unfortunately for the coup plotters, Kornilov’s plans were an open secret, allowing the Provisional Government and Soviet to take measures to suppress it. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, at the time a 19-year-old junior officer, noted that the coup preparations were widely known in Petrograd, giving the whole thing a distinctly amateurish feel: “… Conspiracy? But what kind of conspiracy was it? Once when I went to have lunch in one of the restaurants… all the people I met there were also discussing the details of the same conspiracy… This plot and the impending coup seemed to me very childish, and childish it was.”

Nonetheless the Kornilov Revolt threatened to galvanize conservative opposition to both the Soviet and the Provisional Government. Anton Denikin, commander of the southern sector of the Eastern Front, recorded Kornilov’s message to the Russian people after Kerensky tried to remove him from command, moving him to open revolt:

People of Russia. Our great Motherland is dying. Her end is near. Forced to speak openly, I, General Kornilov, declare that the Provisional Government, under pressure from the Bolshevik majority in the Soviets, is acting in complete accordance with the plans of the German General Staff and simultaneously with the landing of enemy troops near Riga, is killing the Army, and convulsing the country internally. The solemn certainty of the doom of our country drives me in these terrible times to call upon all Russians to save their dying native land… I, General Kornilov, son of a peasant Cossack, announce to all and everyone that I personally desire nothing save the preservation of our great Russia, and vow to lead the people, through victory over our enemies, to a Constituent Assembly, when they themselves will settle their fate and select the form of our new national life. I cannot betray Russia in the hands of her ancient enemy – the German race! – and make the Russian people German slaves… People of Russia, in your hands lies the life of your native land!

Faced with this apparent attempt at counter-revolution, Kerensky took the extreme – and extremely unwise – measure of arming radical forces loyal to the Soviet, including the Bolsheviks, who had already been building their own paramilitary force in the form of the Red Guards. He also submitted to the Soviet’s demand that the government release leading socialists imprisoned after the unsuccessful Bolshevik coup attempt in July, including Trotsky. Kornilov and his associates were imprisoned by socialist troops loyal to the Soviet, and dozens of officers suspected of supporting the counter-revolution were arrested.

Ever the opportunist, Kerensky then presented himself to the conservative elements of Russian society as the only force able to contain the looming Bolshevik menace. In the short term this move allowed Kerensky to make himself virtual dictator of Russia, while declaring the country a Republic as a fig leaf for this power grab – but in reality it spelled the end of his authority, as both left- and rightwing factions now distrusted him for what they viewed as serial betrayals. Bolshevik power was growing by leaps and bounds: by the end of September 1917 Lenin’s party had 400,000 members, up from 24,000 at the beginning of the year.

The days of the Provisional Government were clearly numbered. On September 13, 1917, the anonymous Englishman believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary:

As the Kornilov attempt to bring order has failed, I will tell you what I foresee now, for the cards are shuffled again. Kerenski is already in the hands of the Soviet. The Soviet now have virtually full power, and the Bolsheviki will become more daring and try to turn out the Government; then would come anarchy, with 70,000 workmen fully armed. With the Bolsheviki are all the criminal classes. The failure of Kornilov has completely knocked me over, yesterday I could not walk. I still foresee an ocean of blood before order comes.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

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

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

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

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

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

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

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHIFTING BALANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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