WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 293rd installment in the series.

November 6-8, 1917: Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

“The abyss has opened at last,” wrote Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate Socialist politician in Russia’s provisional government. In his diary, he recounted the incredible events of November 6-8, 1917 (October 24-26 in Russia’s old Julian calendar, which is why they’re known as the “October Revolution”) when Lenin’s radical communist Bolsheviks launched a second coup attempt—and succeeded:

Bolshevism has conquered … it was all very simple. The Provisional Government and the first All-Russian Soviet were overthrown as easily as was the Czarist regime. Through their Military Committees of Revolution the Bolsheviki got control of the regiments. Through the Petrograd Workers’ Soviet they became masters of the working classes. These soldiers and Petrograd workmen commandeered all automobiles in the street, occupied the Winter Palace, Petropavlovskaia Fortress, the railway stations, the telephones, and the posts. To destroy the old government and to establish the new required only a bare 24 hours.

As Sorokin’s stunned account suggests, Lenin’s second attempt succeeded where the first had failed, due chiefly to better planning and organization combined with a more favorable—that is, increasingly disastrous—external political and military situation.

Although the July coup attempt failed, it succeeded in raising the Bolsheviks’ profile, adding tens of thousands of new members and giving it leverage on soviets (councils) representing workers and soldiers across Russia, including the main All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky remained weak and discredited by the failure of the summer offensive.

Other events also favored the Bolsheviks: in September 1917, facing General Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary” coup attempt, Kerensky was forced to release leading Bolsheviks from prison and allow the Bolshevik supporters in the Red Guard to arm themselves in order to suppress the Kornilov Rebellion. Kornilov’s abortive putsch stirred fears of military-led reaction among soldiers who feared the return of Tsarist discipline, further increasing their support for the Bolsheviks, while Kerensky’s clumsy handling of it alienated whatever support he could still claim in conservative and military circles.

In fact, following the mass resignation of his cabinet, Kerensky ruled as the virtual dictator of the Provisional Government. But his position was weak and he failed to crack down on the Bolsheviks, who had the support of other socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Impressed by Bolshevik commitment to action, and especially calls for peace, workers and peasants were switching their allegiance from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Party to Lenin’s party by the thousands. For his part, Lenin, still working in exile, signaled his commitment to political upheaval with his latest theoretical work, State and Revolution, calling for the destruction of the bourgeois state in its entirety.


Erik Sass

Then, in October (amid falling voter participation) the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ sections of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, reflecting factory workers’ growing disillusionment with the more moderate socialist parties. This gave them political cover to sideline the Ipsolkom, the moderate socialist leadership chosen by the All-Russian Soviet, in effect creating their own parallel Soviet organization—stacked with their own supporters, of course. The Bolsheviks began convening ad hoc local and regional conferences of Soviets, only inviting pro-Bolshevik representatives to create an appearance of democratic unanimity. The other members of the socialist leadership, Ipsolkom, protested the Bolshevik actions as illegitimate but were powerless to stop them, in part because their supporters were now armed and receiving more overt support from rank-and-file troops.

By this time military discipline had deteriorated sharply, according to Anton Denikin, a former Tsarist commander who would become one of the top “White” counter-revolutionary generals. In September 1917, Denikin described how he and his colleagues narrowly escaped a lynch mob, composed of soldiers who openly debated executing one of Denikin’s fellow officers after he injured a rank-and-file soldier:

The meeting continued. Numerous speakers called for an immediate lynching … The soldier who had been wounded by Lieutenant Kletsando was shouting hysterically and demanding his head … The crowd raged. We, the seven of us, surrounded by a group of cadets, headed by Betling, who marched by my side with drawn sword, entered the narrow passage through this living human sea, which pressed on us from all sides … passing the pools left by yesterday’s rain, the soldiers fill their hands with mud and pelt[ed] us with it. Our faces, eyes, ears, are covered with its fetid, viscid slime. Stones come flying at us. Poor, crippled General Orlov has his face severely bruised; Erdeli and I, as well, were struck—in the back and on the head.

A young Russian officer, Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, later recalled an alarming experience as an aristocratic junior officer trying to travel incognito:

I realized that travelling all by myself, in boxcars filled with all kinds of people, mostly deserters and soldiers, and travelling there in the uniform of an officer was very, very risky. So I had my shoulder epaulettes, showing my rank, detached from my coat. It was an officers’ coat lined with sheepskin that every officer was wearing, and many soldiers had stolen or requisitioned similar coats, and they were all undisciplined—just a crowd all staring at me, trying to guess who I might be. Some suggested that I might be an officer and if so, I should be immediately thrown out of the freight car while the train was moving.

Against this backdrop of growing indiscipline, the Bolsheviks had little trouble convincing disaffected soldiers in the soviets, many who had been demanding peace for months, to support its attempt to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government. They were aided in this by the Petrograd Soviet’s panicked decision to create a Revolutionary Committee of Defense when the Germans menaced the capital, which the Bolsheviks immediately suborned and turned to their own ends (ironically while receiving financial support from the German enemy themselves).

By the fall of 1917, Lenin felt confident enough to strike at the Provisional Government directly, using Kerensky’s hollow dictatorship as a foil to rally the support of workers and soldiers with the slogan, “all power to the Soviets!” In late October the Bolsheviks sent out invitations for the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which would form the Constituent Assembly, but once again only pro-Bolshevik deputies were included. After slipping back into Petrograd in mid-October, Lenin brushed aside objections from fellow Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev and argued in favor of a coup attempt that would precede the Second Congress of Soviets, hopefully taking their opponents by surprise.

The Bolshevik leadership remained divided over the coup plan until the last minute, with Lenin and Trotsky pressing for an immediate attempt to seize power. The Bolsheviks shouldn’t expect the Second Congress of Soviets to seize power on its own behalf, he reasoned, but instead should present it with a fait accompli, leaving the Congress and the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, the Bolsheviks were forced to delay the coup repeatedly, ultimately launching it during the Second Congress of Soviets.

In early November the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of Defense sent out 200 commissars, most of them former junior officers who had been imprisoned for sedition, with instructions to rally Bolshevik sympathizers in the Petrograd garrison. A relatively small proportion of the garrison would respond to the call—about 8000 men, or 4 percent of all the troops in the Petrograd area—but this was enough, as the rest of the soldiers, who universally loathed Kerensky’s Provisional Government, opted to stay neutral.

With the Bolsheviks openly preparing for a coup, on the morning of November 6, 1917 Kerensky took belated action to defend the Provisional Government—but received no support from the army’s officer corps, which faulted his treatment of the imprisoned General Kornilov, whom they considered a patriot. Thus Kerensky was forced to order young cadets, a handful of Cossacks, and the “Women’s Battalion of Death” to defend key installations, while also ordering the arrest of the Revolutionary Committee of Defense to no avail. This just gave the Bolsheviks an excuse to proceed with the coup, to defend the Soviet against this “counterrevolutionary conspiracy.”

In Petrograd the coup came off so smoothly that many inhabitants didn’t notice at first. Under the direction of Trotsky acting through the Revolutionary Committee of Defense, soldiers and sailors in Bolshevik-controlled units seized control overnight of almost all the key buildings in Petrograd, including the telephone and telegraph exchanges, military staff headquarters, bridges, railroad stations, and post offices—gathering all of Petrograd’s communications and key transportation facilities in one swoop. Only the Winter Palace held out, with some ministers remaining after Kerensky fled the city in disguise on the morning of November 7, 1917, to beg frontline commanders for help.

The defenders of the Winter Palace held out bravely, forcing back several attempts by Bolshevik forces to capture the remaining government ministers, but at 10 a.m. Lenin went ahead with the proclamation of the seizure of power on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, along with vague promises of a “democratic peace” and “worker control of production.” Lenin presented the coup as a move on behalf of Russian soldiers and workers, aiming to secure the power of the Soviet won in March 1917—even though it was obviously a Bolshevik coup.

Finally, facing fire from both the neighboring Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the cruiser Aurora, both under Bolshevik control, the last holdouts at the Winter Palace gave up shortly after midnight on November 8. As a furious mob looted the palace, the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government were placed under arrest; Kerensky, still trying to drum up support from the Russian army, was deposed in absentia.

Moderate socialists in the Second Congress of Soviets, including Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, initially denounced the coup, but they were outnumbered by hand-picked Bolshevik delegates and sympathizers from the Left Social Revolutionaries, allowing Lenin to give a democratic veneer to the coup. The Congress of Soviets, in reality a Bolshevik-controlled rump assembly, duly approved his proposals to form a Council of People’s Commissars to run the country until the constituent assembly, immediately begin peace negotiations, and redistribute all commercially owned land. It also voted for a new Soviet leadership, Ipsolkom, which would control the upcoming constituent assembly.

Mayhem in Moscow

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly in Moscow, Russia’s main industrial city and the center of Russian arms production, where the Provisional Government’s defenders put up a surprisingly stiff resistance from November 7-15 (top, a Bolshevik patrol). Again, young officer cadets played a major role in the defense of the dying liberal regime, this time with more success, while soldiers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks were apparently slower to get involved. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Red Guard member working at a factory in a Moscow suburb, remembered receiving a breathless report from a fellow Bolshevik recently returned from the city, pleading with the soldiers’ council for help:

Sapronov outlined what he had seen on the streets of Moscow and reported that cadets and officers were laying siege to the Moscow Soviet in the mansion of the governor-general and the party committee in the Dresden Hotel. The district was still holding out, thanks to the selfless efforts of several dozen Red Guards, armed with revolvers, but they had neither rifles nor cartridges. He explained that similar street fighting was going on in Petrograd and asked for the soldiers’ help in overcoming the counterrevolutionary forces.

Of course it probably didn’t help that many of the Red Guards, including Dune himself, had never used firearms before:

We young people had never held a weapon in our hands before, and here we were, face to face with a real “cannon.” The long thick rifle was so heavy that we could barely hold it in a horizontal position on our shoulders. It was made still longer by the bayonet-saber. In addition, the several dozen thick cartridges with lead bullets were heavy enough to tear our pockets. As soon as dawn arrived, we resolved to study our weapons and use one cartridge on a test fire.

On November 8, 1917, after a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks briefly seized control of the Kremlin, the cadets successfully counterattacked, recapturing the historic fortress the following day. After a short-lived ceasefire, with more pro-Bolshevik troops on hand, on November 12, 1917 the Moscow Revolutionary Committee ordered a new attack, leading to a wave of violence across the city, including fierce fighting from building to building. Despite his lack of familiarity with his weapon, Dune found himself caught up in his first firefight with defenders of the Provisional Government near Lubianka Square, where he also saw his first combat death:

We ran to the other side, under shelter of the building itself, but couldn’t get inside, as this section of the street was under fire from the opposite direction. We had no alternative but to return fire. It was now daylight and we were clearly visible. The only cover we had were the iron posts of the street lamps, so we returned fire from behind them… Soon, seeing the futility of our shooting, I cried to him: “Come on, let’s get away.” It was only then that I noticed he was stretched motionless on the sidewalk, with his rifle lying across his body. While I ran for the nurse, I thought how easy and quietly a man can die, without words or groans. Perhaps he had had a premonition of something painful, for he had been humming a sad and melancholy tune as we were coming on the train, and he had walked along, weary and silent.

Another participant, Anna Litveiko, then a teenager, remembered nursing wounded Bolshevik fighters in the besieged offices of the Moscow Soviet:

All of a sudden there was a loud noise. Shattered glass fell all over the floor, and someone started moaning. Someone else shouted: “We’re being shot at from an armored car!” Everyone rushed down the street. We did, too. Outside, everybody was shooting at an armored car that was standing right in front of the building. There was so much shooting that I was totally confused. I had my Smith & Wesson in my hand… While I was trying to decide where to aim, the armored car fired one last round and quickly disappeared.

The arrival of artillery on the Bolshevik side finally settled the issue, forcing the pro-government Committee of Public Safety to surrender on the afternoon of November 15, 1917. Spared the fate of cities destroyed by the First World War, much of Moscow lay in ruins after the fighting. Dune described the scene in the Moscow telephone exchange, where pro-government defenders had holed up:

When the occupied building had been cleared of all the prisoners, we were told to go around the rooms in search of any people still hiding and to collect weapons and cartridges that had not been handed over. We couldn’t get to the top floor, as the staircase had collapsed after the explosion of the shell. The other floors were intact, but the windows of all the rooms were either smashed or peppered with bullet holes. Under a layer of dust, plaster, and broken glass, the parquet floors no longer shone. Tables and cupboards had been moved from their original places. Apparently people had been sleeping on some of them, for pillows and stacks of paper were piled on them. Everything else—inkwells, pens, pencils, rulers, a lot of clean paper—was strewn on the floor.

The Bolsheviks had triumphed in Petrograd and Moscow, and soon set to work gaining control of local and regional soviets across Russia. But their support outside the big cities was scant, and large parts of the countryside soon descended into quiet anarchy, as peasants appropriated landlord land and waited for the chaos in the cities to pass. Meanwhile Russia was still at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, and despite their calls for immediate peace talks, Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership didn’t have a realistic program for a negotiated settlement (reflecting their hope that the Bolshevik coup would trigger a worldwide communist revolution).

Finally, for ordinary and elite Russians alike, the Bolshevik coup came amid worsening conditions, according to Sorokin, who lamented the situation in Petrograd in the winter of 1917:

Everything is closed, schools, shops, banks, offices. Hunger is everywhere increasing. Kerensky is defeated. The Bolsheviki have taken the banks, state and private, and my former friend Pyatakoff has been made Commissary of Finance. From the front come new tales of horror … Our army is now a wild flying mob which destroys everything that stands in its path. German invasion is inevitable.

It wasn’t long before Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed their true faces, crushing dissent and imprisoning hundreds of “bourgeois” and “liberal” figures without charges. They also moved quickly to stamp out free speech, triggering protests from their Socialist comrades—to no avail. Sorokin himself was forced to go on the run after writing a signed column criticizing the Bolshevik coup:

Invasion of editorial offices and printing plants have become an everyday routine. Bolshevik soldiers destroy copy and even presses. As a matter of form, we obey orders to cease our publications, but they reappear immediately under slightly altered names … Today again I narrowly escaped arrest. As I entered the courtyard of our building a band of persecutors followed me, some going to the office, other remaining at the gate. Fortunately, they did not know me by sight, and as it was dark I lingered outside devising plans of escape.

See the previous installment or all entries.

WWI Centennial: Allies Rebuff German Armistice Offer

William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License
William Rider-Rider, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // IWM Non-Commercial License

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 321st installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

OCTOBER 4-14, 1918: ALLIES REBUFF GERMAN ARMISTICE OFFER

The Central Powers were in total collapse. At a crown council on September 29, 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff warned Kaiser Wilhelm II that defeat was imminent and insisted that they must request an armistice from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson on the basis of his “Fourteen Points” and repeated calls for “peace without victory,” in hopes of gaining more lenient terms than they would receive from vengeful French and British governments. Even at this late date, however, Ludendorff still didn’t envision peace negotiations, let alone German surrender. He simply hoped for a pause in the fighting, banking on exhaustion in the enemy camp to win some breathing space in which he might reconstitute the shattered German armies (above, German soldiers taken prisoner by Canadian troops during the Battle of Canal du Nord, September 27-October 1, 1918).

Although the Allies were indeed exhausted after four years of war, Ludendorff badly underestimated their determination to continue, reflecting the political will of civilian populations who had sacrificed so much and now expected to achieve a decisive victory. Meanwhile, Ludendorff’s personal prestige at home was plunging. Stunned by the sudden admission of defeat and angry over Ludendorff’s continued interference in matters that were properly the business of the civilian government, Chancellor Georg Hertling tendered his resignation, triggering another political crisis just as Germany needed steady leadership.

On October 1, the Reichstag approved Kaiser Wilhelm II’s appointment of Prince Max of Baden, the monarch’s second cousin, as chancellor with responsibility for requesting an armistice from Wilson. At first Baden hoped to wait until German armies had regained some French territory to use as bargaining chips, but on October 3, 1918, commander in chief Paul von Hindenburg (technically Ludendorff’s superior) confirmed that the situation was critical, requiring immediate action by Baden to save what was left of the German Army.

In the early morning hours of October 4, 1918, Baden sent a telegram to Washington, D.C., requesting an armistice based on the “Fourteen Points,” including Germany’s evacuation of Belgium and France, free navigation of the seas (implying an end to both German submarine warfare and the Allied “starvation blockade”) and self-determination for the ethnic minority populations of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. Mindful of Wilson’s demands that Germany also adopt a democratic government, Baden had already included members of the hated socialists in his cabinet to provide at least the appearance of parliamentary democracy.

The German armistice request gripped the world, giving Allied soldiers and civilians hope that the war might soon end. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the scene in provincial France as the news spread in a letter home, writing, “You should have seen this village and all the villages in France. Every street was lined with people all in one position, bent over a paper. All the world was reading the Paris papers. Men, women, youths, soldiers, Americans. They devoured the papers with the great news. It is the only news they are interested in.”

The world was longing for peace, but the Germans soon discovered that Wilson wasn’t about to fall for Germany’s divide-and-conquer gambit by agreeing to an armistice without first consulting Britain and France. With German armies in retreat all along the Western Front, America’s allies were in no hurry to take the pressure off, urging the president to allow enough time for all the Allied representatives to meet to discuss armistice terms in order to present a united front to the enemy. Wilson himself was deeply distrustful of German intentions, correctly doubting that the Kaiser and his hardline generals would give up Alsace-Lorraine or ethnic Polish territory in East Prussia, as implied by the Fourteen Points. He was also infuriated by the continuation of German U-boat warfare against civilian vessels, including the sinking of the mail boat RMS Leinster on October 10, 1918, resulting in the deaths of at least 564 civilians, many of them women and children.

On October 14, 1918, Wilson responded to Baden’s armistice request (and a subsequent German communiqué on October 12) with a note that quickly deflated German expectations. While explaining that the actual conditions of an armistice would be set forth jointly by all the Allies, Wilson also insisted that a ceasefire would only be granted once Berlin agreed to terms that made it impossible for Germany to continue the war in the event that subsequent peace negotiations failed—in effect, it called for unilateral German disarmament. He also insisted on Germany’s immediate cessation of “illegal and inhumane practices” including submarine warfare and scorched-earth tactics by retreating German forces in France and Belgium. Finally, Wilson reminded Baden of his earlier demand that Germany give up its authoritarian form of government—which he blamed for German militarism—and create a true democracy.

Wilson’s conditions, calling for Germany’s unconditional surrender and the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy, shocked Ludendorff and Wilhelm II, who still hoped to cling to power after the war as a constitutional monarch. In fact, Ludendorff reversed himself (perhaps encouraged by a temporary slowdown in the Allied offensive, as John “Black Jack” Pershing’s disorganized and inexperienced U.S. First Army had become bogged down in the Meuse-Argonne in early October) and insisted that Germany should fight on, predicting that the Allies’ civilian populations would demand their own governments make peace within a few months—proof that Germany’s warlord was increasingly out of touch with reality.

Although they had rejected the first German armistice request, Allied leaders correctly interpreted the ceasefire offer as evidence that victory was near, requiring them to formulate their own armistice terms and peace conditions. The inter-Allied discussions that followed were complex, given the number of countries and players involved, as well as the various internal divisions and power struggles. In France, for example, in September-October 1918, Premier Georges Clemenceau quarreled with both President Poincaré, the head of state, and supreme military commander Ferdinand Foch about who had the ultimate authority to set forth armistice terms. In the end, the irascible premier succeeded in asserting his constitutional authority, but also agreed to most of Foch’s demands, including German withdrawal behind the Rhine and cession of at least three strategic bridgeheads across the river to the Allies as insurance against resumption of hostilities.

At the same time, the public disclosure of the initial armistice offer left no doubt in the minds of ordinary German soldiers and civilians that defeat was imminent, further undermining morale and accelerating the process of disintegration and political collapse. One German soldier wrote home bitterly on October 13, 1918, in a letter held back by the military censors:

“The main thing is that the swindle and the murdering has an end. We do not have to care whether we stay German or become French, we are now finished anyway. You at home will have an even better insight than we out here. If it does not come to an end right now, there won’t be nothing left of Germany at all.”

Not everyone was ready for peace, however, and many proud Germans could hardly believe that defeat was near. In a diary entry on October 15, 1918, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, expressed despair over Wilson’s note:

“It is presumptuous and makes exorbitant demands. One can hardly find words to express the indignation with which every German must now be filled. They want to humiliate us to death! This hypocrite Wilson, this perverter of justice, this ‘friend of peace’ and ‘idealist.’ Whatever are we to do? How splendid, if we had the strength and power, to say ‘No,’ but that will hardly be possible … The burden of a terrible nightmare lies on everyone. Everybody’s honor has been smirched, and the ignominy is too much to bear … My god, who would have thought it would end like this?”

Sulzbach’s feelings of indignation were hardly as universal as he imagined. Millions of working-class German soldiers and civilians were now in a revolutionary ferment. Clifford Markle, an American POW in Germany, noted the following exchange between a German worker and another American POW in October 1918:

“A conversation between one of the Americans who was a machine gunner and a German soldier who worked in the factory typifies the feeling at that time. The German asked the American if he operated a machine gun, and when the Yank replied in the affirmative, the Boche said, ‘We expect to revolt soon; will you handle a machine gun for us?’”

On the other side, Allied soldiers and civilians were hopeful that peace would come soon, but also cautious in their expectations to avoid disappointment. Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote home on October 14, 1918:

“Maybe by the time you get this, everything will have been settled up and we shall be getting ready to go home again. I sincerely hope so altho’ it is too good to be true and I am afraid all the time that the whole thing is only a dream and that nothing will turn of it at all. It would be too wonderful for anything if we should be able to get home for Christmas and have the whole thing over with.”

Guy Bowerman, an American ambulance driver, recorded a poignant encounter with a French soldier desperate for peace in his diary entry on October 9, 1918:

“He had been, he said (he spoke English perfectly) in the war four years during which time he had been in the signal service and three times wounded. He was not yet 26 and was engaged to a beautiful young Parisienne whom he was to marry the moment the war was ended. This very morning in the midst of rumors of peace and an armistice at midnight, orders had come for him to report to an infantry battalion which was new in the lines and … was to attack at four tomorrow morning. Now as you can see, he continued, if they sign the armistice tonight there will be no attack tomorrow or ever again. This he repeated either because he wished us to grasp the full significance of it, or because it held so much for him—life, love, and happiness … No one spoke as he stood there trying to master his emotions and regain his self control … but as he walked slowly thru the door we called our … word to him, “Good luck old man.’”

Tragically, the death and destruction would continue for another month, claiming tens of thousands of lives in the final awful spasm of the conflict. One American soldier recorded terrible scenes on the Meuse-Argonne battlefield:

“You had to do some fancy footwork to avoid stepping on the dead that covered the ground. I had never before seen so many bodies. There must have been a thousand American and German dead in the valley between the two ridges. They were an awful sight, in all the grotesque positions of men killed by violence … Once I looked down and was terribly shocked. There was a young German soldier with red hair and freckles, eyes staring at the sky—and he looked just like me.”

On October 15, 1918, Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (“Rainbow”) Division noted in his diary that, despite all the setbacks, the Germans were still resisting fiercely. “Was talking to a wounded Cpl. out of the New York Regiment,” he wrote. “He said the Bosche are fighting like tigers up here. Said it’s the worst that he’s run up against yet … I guess it’s fight to the finish. Well, if diplomats can’t settle it, soldiers can.”

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

WWI Centennial: Central Powers In Collapse

Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 320th installment in the series. Buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 26-OCTOBER 1, 1918: CENTRAL POWERS IN COLLAPSE

The surprise attack by the British Army on August 8, 1918, rued by German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff as “the black day of the Germany Army,” inaugurated a relentless series of blows by Allied armies, including a wide British advance from Flanders to the Somme as well as the American liberation of the St. Mihiel salient to the east. At first Ludendorff still clung to the hope that Germany might use occupied territory in Belgium and northern France as a bargaining chip for a negotiated peace—until a series of climactic events between September 26 and October 1, 1918 left no doubt that Germany and the other Central Powers were now truly in the midst of final, catastrophic collapse.

BREAKTHROUGH ON THE WESTERN FRONT

After months of preparation, on September 26, 1918 Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch unleashed the biggest coordinated strategic offensive of the war—and human history to that date—on the Western Front, sending Allied troops into action all along the line from the North Sea coast to Verdun, in many places against the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line. All told, the final offensive on the Western Front pitted Allied armies with a total strength of around 5 million men—including 1.7 million French, 1.5 million British, 1.2 million American, and 150,000 Belgian soldiers, although not all these forces were deployed at once—against about half that number of German defenders.

In the north, Foch had formed a new Flanders Army Group commanded by King Albert of Belgium, composed of the Belgian Army, the French Sixth Army, and the British Second Army, which would attack on both sides of Ypres. To the south, the rest of the British Expeditionary Force would launch an all-out push stretching from Lille to the Somme. To the southeast, the French Army would follow up the victories of July and August with an attack from the Somme to Champagne, and the American First Army would launch the eastern end offensive with its biggest action of the war so far, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Western Front, September 28, 1918
Erik Sass

The carefully staged offensive would unfold in several phases, with the Americans attacking first in the Meuse-Argonne region on September 26, followed by the British First and Third Armies attacking together towards Cambrai, scene of the short-lived Allied victory in November 1917, on September 27. Next, the Flanders Army Group would pounce on September 28, and finally, the British Fourth Army and French First Army would attack along the Somme on September 29. All these actions would see infantry assaults closely coordinated with artillery, air power, and tanks, showcasing the “combined arms” tactics that came to dominate 20th century warfare.

As usual, the Allies tried to enforce strict secrecy about the timing and location of the offensive, meaning hundreds of thousands of troops had to endure night marches to conceal their movements from enemy airplanes. William Bell, a British officer in charge of scavenging war materiel, wrote in his diary on September 26:

“It was a long time before I got accustomed to the noise of the traffic last night; for the sound of steady tramping of men, of the erratic purring of the motor-lorries, and of the clatter of the horses and mules, continued far into the night. And the traffic was still pouring northward in a never-ending torrent when I first became conscious this morning.”

AMERICANS LAUNCH MEUSE-ARGONNE OFFENSIVE

The general offensive kicked off with the Franco-American assault in the Meuse-Argonne on September 26, 1918, which helped tie down German reserves, setting the stage for the British, Belgian, and French attacks further west. Although the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was a decisive victory for the Allies, it came at a very heavy cost in American blood, with 26,277 U.S. soldiers killed by the end of the battle on November 11. That makes it the bloodiest campaign U.S. history, prompting some contemporary observers and historians to criticize the American Expeditionary Force commander, John “Black Jack” Pershing, for being reckless with American lives in order to prove American fighting mettle to the Allies.

In fact, the Americans suffered from a number of handicaps. Because the Allies had agreed to prioritize transportation of American combat troops across the Atlantic, Pershing lacked the large staff needed to coordinate the movement of large numbers of troops, guns, and supplies. Unfortunately, Foch’s plan for the general offensive required the American First Army, numbering around 600,000 men, to move from the newly liberated St. Mihiel salient 60 miles west for the Argonne attack in just one week, resulting in widespread confusion and delays (once again, Pershing had agreed to rush the offensive to placate the Allies).

As always, conditions were miserable as well as dangerous, with unending rain and mud the commonest complaints of American soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. John Miller, an army dentist and medical officer wrote home:

“In all this time you live outdoors in all kinds of weather, and sometimes you get so damned wet and cold and miserable you wonder if anyone ever was warm enough to be comfortable and had enough to eat. You never build a fire because in the daytime the Germans would see the smoke and at night they’d see the light. And then Fritz comes over about every night in his bombing machines and drops bombs around in among your pup tents. You should hear those things land! When they strike a building there is just a cloud of dust and when that clears away there is just a big hole in the ground where the building was.”

The Americans enjoyed the advantage of thousands of trucks and other motor vehicles, but these presented issues of their own, including massive fuel consumption and inevitable breakdowns. Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, described the huge nighttime movements in preparation for the attack, as well as large numbers of mechanical casualties, on September 24:

“By day the roads are pretty vacant and my car roared along unhampered. But by night there begins a tremendous flow of iron along the arteries of this front. Guns and shell trucks, tractors, horses dragging metal things, and the men bearing iron arms fill the roads and “proceed up.” By day the road is clear again, the only evidence of its night travail being wheels, broken gear, and every little while entire smashed trucks shoved into the ditch—casualties of the night.”

The Americans faced other problems, some of their own making. Pershing had just used his best divisions in the St. Mihiel Offensive, meaning the forces available for the Argonne offensive were inexperienced or tired. American divisions, roughly twice the size of European divisions, maneuvered awkwardly both behind the lines and in battle, with supply of food and fuel presenting special difficulties. The Americans also relied heavily on new communications technology, including telephones, telegraph, and wireless radio—by the end of the war the AEF’s network had grown to more than 100,000 miles of telephone and telegraph wire—but this proved vulnerable to enemy fire. U.S. forces were still mastering the art of battlefield signaling with flares, heliographs, and other traditional means. As a result, American units often became mixed up on the battlefield (click for archival footage of U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive).

On the plus side, however, the Americans were relatively well supplied with artillery and ammunition, including 700 tanks, by the French and British, thanks to Foch and the French commander Philippe Petain. With this huge numerical and material superiority, Pershing was confident his doughboys and devil dogs, armed with American fighting spirit, could break through the enemy’s strong sequential lines of defense, albeit with heavy casualties.

“IT CANNOT BE DESCRIBED, IT CAN ONLY BE FELT”

The battle opened at 2:30 a.m. on September 26, 1918 with another record-breaking barrage: 2417 guns fired 4 million shells over the course of the battle. One American soldier remembered the opening bombardment:

“We had two hours to wait. It was cold and damp, and I hugged the ground to keep from shivering. We were tired to the bone, but we could not sleep. Indeed, who wanted to sleep in such a scene as that. It cannot be described, it can only be felt. The big guns behind us were booming and lighting up the sky with their flashes, and the Boche was answering back, and we could hear the great missiles of death singing out over our heads in a multitude of monotones. Just before dawn the lesser guns opened up like the barking of many dogs, and then the whole world was filled as if with the noise of great machinery grinding out death.”

As Lieutenant Francis “Bud” Bradford remembered, “by 2 a.m. we were ready. A half hour’s tense wait. At 2:30 the barrage cut loose. For three hours a solid sheet of flame lit up all behind us. O God, O God, the poor devils on the other end.”

At 5:55 a.m. the first wave of men from nine American divisions went over the top, and made swift progress against scant opposition at first, as the Germans had wisely abandoned their frontline trenches. Resistance began to stiffen after the first several miles, however, including “strong points” consisting of heavily fortified machine gun nests in concrete emplacements. Subsequent waves of Americans followed. Bradford remembered their turn:

“At 8:30 we went over, a link in the grand attack. Another battalion was in the lead. About 10 the first morning, prisoners commenced to come in. They were an inspiring sight, to say the least. Shells were breaking through us, and every now and then machine guns flattened us to the ground, but we kept on without losses until the evening of the first day. We were lying in what had once been a town when five Boche planes swooped over us and dropped bombs into the company, killing two men and wounding a third.”

Marines advance at Meuse-Argonne, WWI
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After a rapid initial advance, however, disorganization and lack of experience began to take a toll, as American units became hopelessly jumbled. One officer lamented, “The failure of liaison and all mechanical means of communication cost the lives of many brave men in the front lines in the course of the battle.” He recalled:

“Whole battalions, led by commanders with a poor sense of direction, wandered from their proper line of advance, sometimes to bring up in another division’s sector or to find themselves moving southward. Battalions lost their companies and platoons escaped from their companies … Many platoons went their own way the entire forenoon without having seen another American unit or without having any sort of idea where they were. The constant effort to seek contact with the flanks of adjacent units became a more engrossing occupation even than dealing with the enemy.”

The consequences were deadly, according to the same observer, who witnessed an entire battalion mowed down while advancing against enemy trenches that were still intact:

“From every direction, German machine-gun fire assaulted them. Many of them crumbled at once. The second wave—which included me—lay waiting to follow them, horrified by their dying screams … The next few minutes were among the worst of the war for me as we lay helpless to aid, listening to our friends being torn to pieces by gunfire.”

Soldiers resting during Meuse-Argonne offensive, WWI
U.S. Army Signal Corps, National Archives and Records Administration, U.S. Army Reserve // Public Domain

Unfortunately, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Americans’ eagerness to prove themselves resulted in mistakes that cost the lives of Allied troops as well (above, American troops from the 77th Division resting on October 15, 1918 during the continuing offensive). W.H. Downing, an Australian soldier, angrily recalled their surprise at discovering that the Americans preceding them had actually advanced too far ahead, leaving the Germans to reoccupy trenches again behind them:

“Two of its companies, finding no one at the place where they expected to ‘leap-frog’ the Americans, went on, thinking the latter to be a little farther ahead … They had walked into a trap. The Germans had waited until they were inside, and had closed the exits. But they found that entrapping Australians was like shutting their hand on a thistle. Nevertheless, by the time our men had cut their way out, they had lost two-thirds of their number, and this was before their part in the battle had begun. At length, pushing through the desultory fire, we entered Bellicourt. It was full of Americans. What had occurred was now apparent. Following the custom of most troops with more spirit than experience, they had gone as far as their feet would take them, and in their impetuous haste had neglected either to throw bombs down the dugouts or to capture their occupants. Consequently, the enemy came out of the earth and cut them off.”

Despite these setbacks the Americans made steady progress, paying for every yard they advanced with blood. Bradford recalled hard, uneven fighting in the days to come:

“For two days we chased the Germans across five miles of devastated territory, through rain and mud and hunger. Now we moved steadily forward, now we were held up, now we were exploring enemy works, now digging in against counterattack. The evening of the second day the battle lagged. Our artillery could not keep pace with us. The resistance was stiffening.”

At the same time, Americans were fighting in spots all along the Western Front, with U.S. divisions fighting alongside European comrades in the French Army and British Expeditionary Force as the Allied attack unfolded along hundreds of miles of no man’s land, piercing the legendary Hindenburg Line in multiple places (more archival footage of American forces in action here). Everywhere the devastation of war left an indelible impression on Americans, many still relatively new to the conflict’s horrors. In the west, Kenneth Gow, an American soldier, recalled advancing behind the retreating Germans near the Somme battlefield in a letter home:

“The country is wrecked. Once beautiful cities are just heaps of brick and debris, not a living thing to be seen, even the trees all shot off, leaving nothing but stumps, which look like ghosts in the moonlight. The graveyards are turned upside down by terrific shell-fire. The ground is covered with all the signs of a great battle—smashed guns of every calibre, wrecked tanks, dead horses, and here and there a dead Boche overlooked by the burying parties.”

To the north, Guy Bowerman Jr., an American volunteer ambulance driver, described the spectacular scene of battle surrounding Ypres in the pre-dawn hours of the combined multinational assault by Belgian, French, British (and American troops on September 28, 1918:

“The country is perfectly flat and as we were stopped in the center of a semi-circle of trenches we could see clearly what was perhaps the most awe-inspiring and splendid spectacle which we shall ever be privileged to see. “Arrives” and “departs”; red, white, and green star shells shooting at all angles across the blue-gray horizon; a munition dump burning with a huge dull red glow which was reflected in a patch of high-hung pinkish dawn clouds, and all these [kaleidoscopic] colors blazing forth among a terrible, soul-shivering roar as the thousand guns sent their shells screeching towards the lines where they fell with a terrifying sickening ‘crump’ burning a bright hole in the night, and added their smoke to the haze which made the rising sun blood red. We were rudely awakened from our trance (for such sights as these have rare hypnotic power) by a shell which came screaming towards us and as we threw ourselves flat exploded nearby sending a shower of dirt and small stones upon us.”

Later Bowerman added:

“The terrain is without doubt the most desolate, God-forsaken portion of this Earth. A veritable no man’s land 15 miles wide filled with shell holes, water, blackened tree stumps, and demolished concrete blockhouses. Across this waste there is but one path—a sickening pretense of a road which winds its shell-holed, muddy, splashy way past caved-in trenches, water-filled gun emplacements, and huge mine holes which resemble volcanic lakes.”

As shocking as the experience of battle was for American troops, the Allied onslaught was even more demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, leaving no doubt that Germany was staring defeat in the face. However, social coercion and the threat of punishment would keep the machinery of war going for a few more weeks. Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat, wrote in her diary during a visit to Munich on September 29, 1918:

“Today I noticed an especially scared look on the faces of those around me, and on my inquiring what had happened they told me that the Allied troops have made another combined offensive and have managed in places to break through the Hindenburg line … And yet, with ruin starting at them on all sides, there are still people here who continue to protest that everything stands well, and that anyone who spreads a report to the contrary will be punished with five years’ imprisonment with hard labor.”

BULGARIA ASKS FOR PEACE

The massive, coordinated Allied offensive on the Western Front was just one of several crippling blows against the Central Powers during the pivotal days of late September and early October. In a surprising development, one of the most crushing defeats came in the long-neglected Balkan front, in the Macedonian mountains north of the Greek city of Salonika, where a combined Allied attack resulted in the collapse of the threadbare Bulgarian Army and Bulgaria suing for peace terms.

Europe, September 1918
Erik Sass

Following the disastrous fire that destroyed most of Salonika in August 1917, the Allies repaired port facilities and supply lines while French commander Franchet d’Espèrey carefully conserved his manpower, benefiting from Greece’s entry into the war on the Allied side. By September 1918 d’Espèrey’s multinational Army of the Orient included six French divisions, six Serbian divisions, four British divisions, nine Greek divisions, and one Italian division. The beleaguered Bulgarians, who had never really recovered from the disastrous Second Balkan War, were further depleted by demands from Germany and Austria-Hungary to carry out garrison duty in conquered enemy territories like Serbia, Albania, and Romania.

Beginning on September 15, 1918, 700,000 Allied troops mounted a concerted offensive in Macedonia ranging from Monastir to the Vardar River Valley, followed by a combined British, Serbian, and Greek attack that captured Lake Doiran on September 17 and 18. A last-minute plan by German and Bulgarian commanders to stage a withdrawal and surprise counterattack against the Allies quickly unraveled, as the withdrawing Bulgarian and German forces refused to stop retreating and fight, turning the feint into a rout.

On September 24, 1918 the Bulgarians officially asked for an armistice, followed by another request on September 26. But they were rebuffed by d’Espèrey, who was determined to liberate Serbian land by arms and hold Bulgarian territory as insurance for good behavior. Finally, d’Espèrey signed an armistice declaration on September 29, as Allied forces led by French cavalry occupied Uskub (today Skopje, the capital of Macedonia) close on the heels of the retreating Bulgarians and Germans. One French cavalry officer recalled the chaotic scenes in the multiethnic, multilingual city:

“There were clouds, however, which did not follow the rising fog. They were smoke clouds caused by fires burning in the city’s Turkish district, in the Greek district, in the Serbian, and even in the Bulgarian district … Cypresses, set ablaze by the flames from nearby houses, were burning like giant torches. Ammunition dumps were exploding, shooting up huge red and black flames. The railroad station was aflame too. As expected, our attack fully surprised the enemy, whose troops were retreating in disorder and kept shooting in a haphazard manner from the northern and western ridges.”

Despite the violence and destruction, the city’s Serbian inhabitants were glad to see the Allied liberators:

“The city’s leader met us at the entrance, behind a white flag and accompanied by French and Italian soldiers. The latter had escaped from Bulgarian prisoner camps, and had been hidden and fed by the local population. Both the Serbian notables and the soldiers were shouting enthusiastically. The population’s emotion was deeply moving; the women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy.”

Bulgaria’s imminent surrender struck a dire blow to the Central Powers’ strategic position. The small Balkan kingdom had long been the only geographic corridor connecting Germany and Austria-Hungary in Central Europe with the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. With Bulgaria out of the game, it would become much more difficult for Germany to continue supplying the Turks with war materiel—just as the Allies finally threatened to penetrate the Turkish homeland in Anatolia.

ARABS LIBERATE DAMASCUS

The British and Arab victory at Megiddo, when British cavalry from the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and camel-mounted warriors from the rebel Arab Army encircled and destroyed the remaining Turkish armies in Palestine, left the way open to Damascus, the legendary capital of medieval Muslim caliphates. The British, recent conquerors of Baghdad, Gaza, and Jerusalem, hoped to add another ancient entrepot to their list of conquests—but for political reasons they allowed irregular forces loyal to the Arab Army commander Prince Feisal and his advisor, the pro-Arab British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, the honor of liberating the city.

With the remnants of Turkish forces in Palestine beating a hasty retreat north, Arab rebels in the city raised the flag of the “independent Syria” as British cavalry entered Damascus on October 1, 1918, putting the Allies within striking distance of the Turkish homeland in Anatolia. The fall of the fabled city was yet another heavy symbolic blow to the Central Powers, making it clear that the Ottoman Empire, too, was on its last legs (though perhaps not as badly off as Austria-Hungary, already in the advanced stages of disintegration).

There was no government in the liberated city, which also still held around 15,000 Turkish and German soldiers who had deserted, or were too wounded or ill to move and were left behind in the retreat, making the city a dangerous, chaotic place. Lawrence described the spectacular scenes that greeted him as he approached the newly liberated city on October 1, 1918:

“As the Germans left Damascus they fired at the dumps and ammunition stores, so that every few minutes we were jangled by explosions, whose first shock set the sky white with flame. At each such roar the Earth seemed to shake; we would lift our eyes to the north and see the pale sky prick out suddenly in sheaves of yellow points, as the shells thrown to terrific heights from each bursting magazine, in their turn burst like clustered rockets. I turned to Stirling and muttered ‘Damascus is burning,’ sick to think of the great town in ashes as the price of freedom.”

Fortunately, the damage inflicted by the retreating Turks and Germans on the historic city was far less than they feared:

“When dawn came we drove to the head of the ridge, which stood over the oasis of the city, afraid to look north for the ruins we expected. But, instead of ruins, the silent gardens stood blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun … A galloping horseman checked at our head-cloths in the car, with a merry salutation, holding out a bunch of yellow grapes. ‘Good news! Damascus salutes you.’”

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

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