WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front

German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 297th installment in the series.

December 17, 1917: Armistice on the Eastern Front

After overthrowing Russia’s feeble Provisional Government in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks moved swiftly to consolidate control of the country, purging political opponents, closing newspapers, shutting down rival power centers outside the Soviet—including the Constituent Assembly, sidelined on December 11—and installing their own representatives on local and regional Soviets across the country. Much of the work was carried out by the new secret police, the cheka (an acronym for “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," in Russian) under Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose paranoia and brutal methods soon made the old Tsarist okhrana look quaint.

But even with unlimited violence on demand to suppress dissent among workers, peasants, and rival socialists, the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev knew there was one constituency they couldn’t afford to alienate—the soldiers. After all, it was angry soldiers of the Petrograd garrison who had made the first revolution in March 1917, and it was soldiers and sailors who had brought the Bolsheviks to power in the November coup. Even in its disorganized and demoralized state, the Russian Army still dwarfed the Bolsheviks’ armed supporters in the Red Guard and cheka—and after a few mutinies there was no reason they couldn’t stage another.

In short, the Bolsheviks had to move swiftly to appease rank-and-file Russian soldiers, most of whom were still lukewarm in their support for the communist regime, or risk violent overthrow themselves. That meant meeting their main demand, a central promise of the Bolshevik platform since the war began: in a word, peace.

Reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Central Powers would take months of tortuous negotiations, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ reluctance to make major territorial concessions and crumbling authority over border regions of the fracturing empire, as well as discord between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire about the extent of their demands and the division of spoils.


Erik Sass

However, after their first meeting on December 3, 1917 at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, on December 15 the Bolshevik delegation scored their first domestic political victory, as the opposing sides agreed to an armistice on the Eastern Front, temporarily halting fighting so peace negotiations could proceed (top, the Russian delegation, led by Joseph Joffe, and the Central Powers delegation, led by the German chief commander on the Eastern Front, Max Hoffman). The armistice, which took effect on December 17, would last for 30 days with periodic renewals, effectively spelling the end of Russian participation in the First World War.

Meanwhile, large parts of Russia had descended into anarchy, as hundreds of thousands of deserters wandered the countryside, begging, stealing, and indulging in more violent criminality. The simple matter of boarding a train had become a life-threatening ordeal for civilians, according to Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina, who described the scene in Petrograd:

As soon as passenger trains were running again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognized. All timetables had been done away with, and every traveler, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting room till the train he intended to go by eventually started … When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train.

Later, the train became even more crowded as deserters crammed in:

The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillowcases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls … They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades … Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so.

The eagerness of soldiers and civilians alike to leave Petrograd was understandable, as conditions in the city—like in other big urban centers—were rapidly deteriorating. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist who supported the sidelined Constituent Assembly, wrote in his diary in December 1917:

The hand of the destroyer lies heavily on Petrograd. All commercial life is stopped. Shops are closed. In the factories discipline and authority have disappeared, the workers spending their time in vacuous conversation and oratory. Mounds of dirty snow block the streets. Night and day we hear the sounds of guns. Madness, plundering, and pillage lay waste the towns and even the country. There exists no longer any army and the Germans can walk in whenever they want.

Of course, conditions weren’t much better for ordinary people on the other side of the front—and they were possibly even worse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier on garrison duty in Riga, remembered the conditions endured by natives of the occupied city in the winter of 1917:

In the civilian population the hardship increased from day to day, and the poorest people could hardly get enough to survive. There was no source of income as all the factories were silent … Practically nothing could be delivered to the town from the parts of Russia that had previously been occupied by the Germans because they had used up so much that there was barely enough to keep the inhabitants alive. A large part of the population was seized by a limitless anger against the Germans because of the shortages, with the result that on several occasions German soldiers were murdered on outlying streets. We were not allowed to go out at night without loaded pistols.


Erik Sass

More ominously, back in “free” Russia, the Bolsheviks faced the opening phases of a civil war, as the Cossack ataman (leader) Alexei Kaledin led a rebellion on the Don Cossacks beginning December 9, while the conservative general Lavr Kornilov, Mikhail Alexeyev, and Anton Denikin soon organized a “Volunteer Army” in southern Russia—one of the first “White” forces to oppose the Bolsheviks. Thanks to Trotsky’s organizational genius the Bolsheviks managed to scrape together a new Red Army in an astonishingly short amount of time. But the future would deliver many more setbacks, including a civil war that, along with a devastating famine, claimed 7 million lives before the Bolsheviks finally established supremacy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

11 Fascinating Facts About the War of the Roses

The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
The Battle of Towton (1461) during the War of the Roses.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It's no secret that George R. R. Martin looked to history for inspiration for A Song of Ice and Fire, his epic, still-in-process series of fantasy novels that serves as the basis for HBO's Game of Thrones, which will end its eight-season run in May. (The Black Dinner of 1440 and the Massacre of Glencoe, for example, served as inspiration for the series' infamous Red Wedding.) One of Martin's main influences was the War of the Roses—three decades of bloodshed and animosity between the House of Lancaster and the House of York, two rival branches of the English royal family. So before the fight for the Iron Throne subsides—at least on TV—let's take a look at its real-life historical counterpart.

1. The War of the Roses started in 1455 and lasted until approximately 1485.

The War of the Roses wasn't one long, continuous conflict; it was a series of minor wars and civil skirmishes interrupted by long periods that were mostly peaceful, if politically tense (which is why it's frequently referred to as the Wars of the Roses, rather than the singular War). After the opening battle—the First Battle of St. Albans—broke out on May 22, 1455, there wasn't another major showdown until the Battle of Blore Heath erupted four years later. And the years between 1471 and 1483 were a time of relative peace in England. Things did heat back up in 1483, as the Yorkist ruler Richard III began clashing with Henry Tudor, an exiled Lancaster nobleman. Tudor prevailed over his foe at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and then took the crown as King Henry VII. Two years later, in 1487, the Battle of Stoke Field essentially ended the Yorkist cause, which some consider to be the true end of the War of the Roses.

2. The War of the Roses was initially known as "The Cousins' War."

The conflicts didn't come to be called the "Wars of the Roses" until long after the actual fighting stopped. Throughout the 15th century, the House of York used white roses as an emblem, and by 1485, the House of Lancaster had become associated with red roses. In the 1560s, a British diplomat discussed "the striving of the two roses." William Shakespeare baked the convenient symbolism into his play, Henry VI, Part I, (which was most likely written in the 1590s). Later, a 1646 pamphlet called the medieval York/Lancaster struggle "The Quarrel of the Warring Roses." Then David Hume's 1762 History of England popularized the term "Wars Between the Two Roses." From labels like these, the now-ubiquitous "War of the Roses" phrase evolved.

3. The War of the Roses was caused by a struggle between a deposed King Henry VI and his cousin Richard, the Duke of York.

King Henry VI of England.
King Henry VI of England.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After England lost virtually all of its French holdings in 1453, King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. The Lancastrian monarch seemingly lost his ability to speak, walk unassisted, or even hold up his own head. (What happened is unclear; some suggest that he was stricken by a depressive stupor or catatonic schizophrenia.)

Henry VI clearly wasn't fit to rule, so his cousin Richard, the Duke of York, was appointed Lord Protector and Defender of England in his stead. York's political muscle unraveled when Henry VI recovered on Christmas Day 1454; his desire to regain power set the stage for the First Battle of St. Albans a few months later.

4. After being killed during one battle in the War of the Roses, the Duke of York had a fake crown placed upon his severed head.

During the May 1455 battle at St. Albans, York met and defeated Henry VI's Royal Army with a superior force of 3000 men. In the aftermath, the king was forced to restore York as England's Lord Protector—but York didn't hold the job for long. After some violent clashes against the supporters of Henry VI's biological son (with whom the Duke was a rival for the throne), York died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. As a final insult, his disembodied head was mounted on Micklegate Bar in the city of York—and decorated with a phony crown made of paper (or possibly reeds).

5. Pope Pius II tried—and failed—to ease political tensions during the War of the Roses.

The Pope wanted to enlist King Henry VI as an ally in a potential crusade against the Ottomans. Unfortunately for His Holiness, the War of the Roses was keeping Henry plenty busy at the time. So in 1459, Pius II sent clergyman Francesco Coppini to England with instructions to ask for the king's support—and if possible, negotiate peace between Houses York and Lancaster. Instead, Coppini became a Yorkist sympathizer who vocally denounced the Lancastrian cause.

6. Early guns were used in some battles of the War of the Roses.

Swords and arrows weren't the only weapons deployed during the War of the Roses. At archaeological sites dating back to the 1461 Battle of Towton (a Yorkist victory), broken pieces of early handheld guns have been recovered. It's suspected that the devices would have blown themselves apart when fired, making them dangerous to wield. Regardless, primitive guns also saw use at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth.

7. After defeating Henry VI, King Edward IV was betrayed by a former ally—and his own sibling.

King Edward IV
King Edward IV.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Edward, one of the sons of the slain Duke of York, deposed Henry VI in 1461 to become King Edward IV. One of the men who helped him do so was Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. But the earl soon had a falling out with the new king and, in 1470, Warwick helped put Henry VI back on the throne after teaming up with Queen Margaret of Anjou and George, the Duke of Clarence (who was also Edward IV's brother). The Yorkist king went into exile, but he returned with a vengeance in 1471.

Despite their rocky past, the two brothers reconciled and worked together to overcome the Warwick-led Lancastrian forces at the Battle of Barnet. This victory, and a later triumph over Queen Margaret's men, enabled King Edward IV to regain the crown. (Sadly, in the end things didn't work out for the Duke of Clarence—he was executed for treason in 1478.)

8. Edward IV's wife, Elizabeth Woodville, took sanctuary in Westminster Abbey twice to escape enemies during the War of the Roses.

One reason why Warwick soured on King Edward IV was because he didn't approve of the young ruler's chosen spouse. In 1464, Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville, a widowed mother of two who was five years his senior (and whose first marriage had been to a Lancastrian knight). From October 1, 1470 to April 11, 1471, during Edward's exile, Elizabeth and her daughters holed themselves up in Westminster Abbey, where they declared sanctuary. During her stay, she gave birth to a son, Edward V. Elizabeth would return to the Abbey for another prolonged stay that began in 1483. Edward IV had died earlier that year, and by taking sanctuary in the Abbey once again, Elizabeth was now looking to protect herself and her children from a man she deeply mistrusted: The late king's younger brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester.

9. Two young princes disappeared during the War of the Roses.

In the wake of King Edward IV's death, the Duke of Gloucester—who'd been a high-ranking Yorkist commander at the Battle of Tewkesbury—was named Protector of England. Then on July 6, 1483, he was crowned as King Richard III. His claim to the throne was not uncontested: Edward IV had two sons, aged 12 and 9, who were staying in the Tower of London at the time. No one knows what happened to the boys; they were last seen alive in the summer of 1483. King Richard III is frequently accused of having the boys murdered, though some suspect that they were killed by another ambitious royal, Henry Tudor. It's also possible that the boys fled.

10. Henry Tudor ended the War of the Roses through marriage.

The York Rose, the Lancaster Rose, and the Tudor Rose.
iStock.com/Rixipix

After his forces defeated Richard III's at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Henry Tudor was crowned Henry VII—some say at the exact spot where Richard III was killed. After he was officially crowned, Henry VII wed Elizabeth of York, King Edward IV's daughter, in 1486.

This marriage is part of the reason Houses Lancaster and York are synonymous with roses today, though both used many non-floral emblems (loyalists of Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI, identified themselves by wearing swan badges, for example, and Yorkist Richard III made a white boar his personal logo). After his marriage to Elizabeth of York, Henry VII was able to portray himself as the grand unifier of two enemy houses. To symbolize this, he introduced a new emblem: A white flower with red trim called the “Tudor Rose.”

11. Richard III's body was found under a parking lot in 2012.

 King Richard III.
King Richard III.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard III was not destined to rest in peace. In the centuries following the Battle of Bosworth, the dead king's body went missing. In 2012, an archaeological team rediscovered the former king's remains beneath a parking lot in Leicester, England. DNA testing helped confirm their identity. Richard III's well-documented scoliosis was clearly visible in the spinal column, and it was concluded that he had died of a blow to the skull. The much-maligned ruler was given a ceremonious reburial at Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

20 Slang Terms From World War I

A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
A. R. Coster, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

One of the subtlest and most surprising legacies of the First World War—which the United States entered more than 100 years ago, when the country declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917—is its effect on our language. Not only were newly named weapons, equipment, and military tactics being developed almost continually during the War, but the rich mixture of soldiers’ dialects, accents, nationalities, languages, and even social backgrounds (particularly after the introduction of conscription in Great Britain in 1916) on the front line in Europe and North Africa produced an equally rich glossary of military slang.

Not all of these words and phrases have remained in use to this day, but here are 20 words and phrases that are rooted in First World War slang.

1. Archie

Apparently derived from an old music hall song called Archibald, Certainly Not!, Archie was a British military slang word for German anti-aircraft fire. Its use is credited to an RAF pilot, Vice-Marshall Amyas Borton, who apparently had a habit of singing the song’s defiant chorus—“Archibald, certainly not! / Get back to work at once, sir, like a shot!”—as he flew his airplane between the exploding German shells on the Western Front.

2. Basket Case

While it tends to be used in a fairly lighthearted way today (usually describing someone who constantly makes stupid mistakes, or who crumbles under pressure), the original basket case is an unexpectedly gruesome reminder of just how bloody the War became. In its original context, a basket case was a soldier who had been so badly injured that he had to be carried from the battlefield in a barrow or basket, usually with the implication that he had lost all four of his limbs.

3. Blighty

Derived from vilayati, an Urdu word meaning "foreign," blighty is an old military nickname for Great Britain. It first emerged among British troops serving in India in the late 19th century, but didn’t really catch on until the First World War; the Oxford English Dictionary records only one use in print prior to 1914. A "blighty wound" or "blighty one" was an injury severe enough to warrant being sent home, the English equivalent of a German Heimatschuss, or “home-shot.” Self-inflicted blighty wounds were punishable by death, although there are no known reports of anyone being executed under the rule.

4. Blimp

As a military slang name for an airship, blimp dates back to 1916. No one is quite sure where the word comes from, although one popular theory claims that because blimps were non-rigid airships (i.e., they could be inflated and collapsed, unlike earlier rigid, wooden-framed airships), they would supposedly be listed on military inventories under the heading “Category B: Limp.” However, a more likely idea is that the name is onomatopoeic, and meant to imitate the sound that the taut skin or “envelope” of a fully inflated airship makes when flicked.

5. Booby-Trap

Booby-trap had been in use since the mid-19th century to refer to a fairly harmless prank or practical joke when it was taken up by troops during the First World War to describe an explosive device deliberately disguised as a harmless object. Calling it “one of the dirty tricks of war,” the English journalist Sir Philip Gibbs (1877-1962) ominously wrote in his day-by-day war memoir From Bapaume to Passchendaele (1918) that “the enemy left … slow-working fuses and ‘booby-traps’ to blow a man to bits or blind him for life if he touched a harmless looking stick or opened the lid of a box, or stumbled over an old boot.”

6. Cooties

As a nickname for body lice or head lice, cooties first appeared in trenches slang in 1915. It’s apparently derived from the coot, a species of waterfowl supposedly known for being infested with lice and other parasites.

7. Crump-Hole

Crump is an old English dialect word for a hard hit or blow that, after 1914, came to be used for the explosion of a heavy artillery shell. A crump-hole was the crater the shell left behind.

8. Daisy-Cutter

Before the War, a daisy-cutter had been a cricket ball or baseball pitched low so that it practically skims along the surface of the ground. The name was eventually taken up by troops to describe an artillery shell fitted with an impact fuse, meaning that it exploded on impact with the ground rather than in the air thereby causing the greatest amount of damage.

9. Dingbat

In the 19th century, dingbat was used much like thingummy (the British term for thingamajig) or whatchamacallit as a general placeholder for something or someone whose real name you can’t recall. It came to be used of a clumsy or foolish person during the First World War, before being taken up by Australian and New Zealand troops in the phrase "to have the dingbats" or "to be dingbats," which meant shell-shocked, nervous, or mad.

10. Dekko

Like blighty, dekko was another term adopted into English by British troops serving in 19th-century India that gained a much larger audience during the First World War; the Oxford English Dictionary has no written record of the term between its first appearance in 1894 and 1917. Derived from a Hindi word of equivalent meaning, dekko was typically used in the phrase "to take a dekko," meaning "to have a look at something."

11. Flap

"To be in a flap," meaning "to be worried," dates from 1916. It was originally a naval expression derived from the restless flapping of birds, but quickly spread into everyday English during the First World War. The adjective unflappable, meaning unflustered or imperturbable, appeared in the 1950s.

12. Iron Rations

The expression iron rations was used as early as the 1860s to describe a soldier’s dry emergency rations, which typically included a selection of hard, gritty provisions like rice, barley, bread, biscuits, salt, and bacon. During the First World War, however, the term came to be used as a nickname for shrapnel or shell-fire.

13. Kiwi

The UK declared war on August 4, 1914, and New Zealand joined immediately after. By August 29, New Zealand had successfully captured Samoa—only the second German territory to fall since the war began. Within months, New Zealand troops, alongside those from Australia, began to arrive in Europe. They quickly gained the nickname Kiwis, as an image of New Zealand’s national bird was featured on many of their military badges, emblems and insignias. Incredibly, some 100,444 total New Zealanders saw active service during the First World War—equivalent to 10 percent of the entire country’s population.

14. Napoo

English-speaking soldiers frequently found themselves serving alongside French-speaking soldiers in the First World War, often with little chance of one understanding the other. So when French soldiers would exclaim il n’y a plus! meaning “there’s no more!” the English soldiers quickly commandeered the expression and Anglicized it as napoo, which they took to mean finished, dead, or completely destroyed.

15. Omms-n-Chevoos

English troops arriving in France in 1914 were unceremoniously loaded onto basic railway transport carriages marked with the French notice “Hommes: 40, Chevaux: 8” on their doors. The notice designated the carriage’s maximum occupancy (“40 men, 8 horses”), but for those English troops with no knowledge of French, the carriages themselves became known as omms-n-chevoos.

16. Pogey-Bait

Pogey-bait was candy, or a sweet snack of any kind, among American and Canadian troops. No one is quite sure where the term comes from, but the first part could be pogy, a nickname for the menhaden fish (i.e. literally “fish-bate”), or else pogue, a slang word for a non-combatant or weakly soldier.

17. Shell-Shock

Although the adjective shell-shocked has been traced back as far as 1898 (when it was first used slightly differently to mean “subjected to heavy fire”), the first true cases of shell-shock emerged during the First World War. The Oxford English Dictionary has since traced the earliest record back to an article in The British Medical Journal dated January 30, 1915: “Only one case of shell shock has come under my observation. A Belgian officer was the victim. A shell burst near him without inflicting any physical injury. He presented practically complete loss of sensation in the lower extremities and much loss of sensation.”

18. Spike-Bozzled

Spike was used during the First World War to mean “to render a gun unusable.” Spike-bozzled, or spike-boozled, came to mean "completely destroyed," and was usually used to describe airships and other aircraft rather than weaponry. Exactly what bozzled means in this context is unclear, but it’s probably somehow related to bamboozled in the sense of something being utterly confounded or stopped in its path.

19. Strafe

One of the German propagandists’ most famous World War I slogans was "Gott Strafe England!" or “God punish England," which was printed everywhere in Germany from newspaper advertisements to postage stamps. In response, Allied troops quickly adopted the word strafe into the English language after the outbreak of the War, and variously used it to refer to a heavy bombardment or attack, machine gun fire, or a severe reprimand.

20. Zigzag

Zigzag has been used in English since the 18th century to describe an angular, meandering line or course but during the First World War came to be used as a euphemism for drunkenness, presumably referring to the zigzagging walk of a soldier who had had one too many.

This article originally appeared in 2014.

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