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WWI Centennial: Germans Reopen Eastern Offensive, Americans Support Unified Command

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 302nd installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After three disastrous years, the 1000-mile muddy morass that was the Eastern Front enjoyed a brief respite from fighting from December 1917 to February 1918, as both sides agreed to an armistice while representatives of the Central Powers and the Soviets (dominated by Lenin’s Bolsheviks) began peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Along with the Central Powers’ stunning victory over Italy at Caporetto in the fall of 1917, the armistice allowed the Germans to begin transferring around a million men to the Western Front, in preparation for one final knockout blow against the Allies in the spring of 1918, before American troops began to arrive in large numbers.

Europe, February 1918
Erik Sass

The situation on the Eastern Front, however, was far from settled. Although eager for peace, the Soviet representatives believed that the war should be ended without annexations or reparations, and were scarcely more willing than the previous short-lived Republic to give up Russian territory and population to foreign reactionary imperialists. Angry, chaotic peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk repeatedly broke up due to intractable disagreements (and produced an icy social atmosphere, as the Soviet representatives ceased to dine with their fellow negotiators in protest over their aggressive demands).

Seeing the Central Powers set on dismembering and dominating Russia’s former territories in Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic, Lenin aimed to drag out negotiations in the hope that the communist revolution would spread to Germany and its allies (no longer a far-fetched notion). To gain time he dispatched Trotsky, a master prevaricator, to hold up the talks, while Bolshevik commissars encouraged Russian troops to fraternize with their foes across no man’s land, with an eye to spreading revolutionary incitement as well as undermining their morale and will to fight.

But the Germans soon lost patience with Trotsky’s delaying tactics, and on January 18, 1918, they presented an ultimatum with sweeping territorial demands, prompting Trotsky to walk out in a rage. To symbolize Russia’s determination to resist the unreasonable peace terms, he issued a new slogan, “no war, no peace,” meaning that Russia would continue passively resisting the Central Powers, in effect doubling down on the strategy of delay and exhaustion.

But Germany's next moves showed just how little leverage the Russian negotiators really had. Rather than reaching a compromise peace with the Soviet regime, the Central Powers simply recognized Russia’s former subject states as independent nations and signed peace treaties with them—converting them to client states along the way. In fact, Germany’s plan to reorganize Eastern Europe as “mitteleuropa,” an economic bloc under its hegemony, had been in the works for several years, and the opening moves came even before formal peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk began on December 20, 1917.

On December 8, under German and Austro-Hungarian prompting, Polish nationalists led by Jan Kucharzewski formed a regency council to rule the country until a suitable monarch could be found. On December 11 the Lithuanian “national council” declared its independence from Russia, and the following day German nobles in Estonia officially requested German “assistance” in the form of an army of occupation. On December 12-13 the German-backed Ukrainian Rada, or national council, rejected the Soviet seizure of power in Russia and headed off a planned Bolshevik coup in Kiev, prompting the Ukrainian Bolsheviks to establish a rival national government in Kharkiv, setting the stage for civil war in Ukraine. On December 27 the municipal council of Riga, Latvia declared independence and sought German “protection.” And on January 1, 1918, the Bolsheviks reluctantly recognized Finnish independence, although fighting raged between Finnish communist Red Guards and anti-communist White Guards in a civil war lasting from January to May 1918.

Diagram of the Russian Civil War, February 1918
Erik Sass

Peace negotiations with the new puppet states followed immediately, and on February 9, 1918 the Central Powers struck a separate peace deal with the embattled Ukrainian Rada, which desperately needed German help against the Ukrainian Bolsheviks. They signed the treaty over the bitter protests of Trotsky, who was completely powerless to stop them. The old Russian Army was no longer capable of offering resistance and the new Red Army, organized in February 1918, also faced spreading civil war behind the lines as new anti-communist White movements coalesced across Russia.

But even after stripping Russia of Poland, the Baltic states, Finland, and Ukraine, the German delegation led by Eastern Front chief of staff Max Hoffmann wanted more, including vast swaths of Russian territory in what is now Belarus and the Caucasus. For his part, in February 1918 Trotsky clung hopefully to his slogan of “no war, no peace,” still believing it might be possible to wear the Germans down and foment international revolution.

But German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s plans for a massive spring offensive on the Western Front sometime in March would require a total of a million troops, meaning Germany had to bring matters to a conclusion on the Eastern Front immediately to free up the necessary numbers. On February 18, the Germans resumed the offensive on the Eastern Front, effectively “pushing at an open door,” as there was no longer much in the way of defenders in most of the trenches, while local nationalist movements more or less welcomed the Germans.

On February 21, slowly advancing Central Powers forces captured Minsk and Rovno, followed by Pskov, Reval (Tallin), and Dorpat on February 25. The Germans correctly calculated that eventually the Bolsheviks would cede significant territory rather than face the loss of core Russian lands: on February 26, with imperialist troops menacing the capital Petrograd, Lenin decided to capitulate to the German peace terms (top, Germans occupy Kiev in March 1918).

AMERICANS SUPPORT UNIFIED COMMAND

America’s vast new influence over European affairs made itself felt in military matters early on, as the top U.S. commander demanded a big shake-up of the joint arrangements previously made by Britain, France, Belgium, and Italy for the prosecution of the war—and the European allies hurried to comply.

After arriving in France in June 1917 and setting up the American Expeditionary Force headquarters at Chaumont, U.S. General of the Armies John “Black Jack” Pershing clearly indicated his determination to preserve American control of its own soldiers in the European conflict, as demanded by the United States of America’s absolute sovereignty and total freedom from all entangling alliance obligations. But he was willing to allow American divisions and regiments to fight alongside British and French troops, provided they remained under their own officers.

The Americans also recognized that the sheer size and complexity of the war on the Western Front required a high degree of coordination between Allied forces if they were to obtain victory, and also had soldiers’ traditional fear of “divided councils” resulting in confusion, wasted effort, and needless loss. To lead this vast effort, President Wilson and General Pershing supported the creation of a Supreme War Council, followed not long after by the appointment a Supreme Allied Commander (the post went to the aggressive but pragmatic Ferdinand Foch, one of the heroes of the Miracle on the Marne).

America’s growing control over Allied policy was reflected in the fact that, after the disastrous Battle of Caporetto in November 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George first went to Wilson to drum up support for the creation of the new Supreme War Council. At a subsequent meeting in Versailles from January 30-February 2, 1918, Pershing and American representatives then supported the granting of executive powers to the Supreme War Council.

In a speech on February 19, 1918, Lloyd George confirmed that the new concentration of power in the Supreme War Council came at the Americans’ behest, while reassuring his fellow Parliamentarians that the Allies were broadly in agreement on the prosecution of the war:

"There is absolutely no difference between our policy and the policy of France, Italy, and America in this respect. In fact, some of the conclusions to which we came at Versailles were the result of very powerful representations made by the representatives of other governments, notably the American government. That policy is a policy which is based on the assumption that the Allies hitherto have suffered through lack of concerted and coordinated effort … That is the reason why, after the Italian defeat, the Allied governments, after a good deal of correspondence and of conference, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to set up some central authority, for the purpose of coordinating the strategy of the Allies. At the last conference at Versailles it was decided, after days of conference, to extend the powers of that body."

Later, in Parliament's House of Commons, Lloyd George returned to the American role in empowering the Supreme War Council, though in necessarily opaque terms:

"I hesitated for some time as to whether I should not read to the House the very cogent document submitted by the American delegation, which put the case for the present proposal. It is one of the most powerful documents—I think my right honorable friends who have had the advantage of reading it will agree with me—one of the ablest documents ever submitted to a military conference, in which they urged the present course, and gave grounds for it. I think it is absolutely irresistible, and the only reason I do not read it to the House is because it is so mixed up with the actual plan of operations that it will be quite impossible for me to read it without giving away what is the plan of operations."

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

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WWI Centennial: The Spanish Flu Emerges
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 308th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

May 22, 1918: THE FIRST PHASE OF THE SPANISH FLU EPIDEMIC

Although doctors, epidemiologists, and medical historians still debate where the infamous 1918 flu pandemic originated, the most recent evidence seems to support the theory that it started in the United States—first emerging in rural Haskell County, Kansas before spreading to Camp Funston, now Fort Riley, a U.S. Army training camp in the northeastern part of the state that was home to more than 50,000 enlisted men.

Like other flu epidemics, the 1918 H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, was a zoonosis—a disease that spreads from animals to humans. Researchers studying the natural history of the 1918 flu believe it may have first spread from wildfowl, domestic poultry, or livestock to farmers in Haskell County, many of whom lived in sod houses in proximity to their animals. After a local epidemic there in January and February 1918, the flu appears to have traveled with conscripted men to Camp Funston, about 300 miles to the east.

On March 4, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at one of the Camp Funston kitchens, reported sick with a high fever, becoming the first documented case of this flu. The virus spread quickly over the next few weeks, surely facilitated by conditions including cold, drafty barracks, communal showers, latrines and canteens, and physically taxing training regimens. Additionally, in an age before widespread car and air travel, many new recruits had never traveled far from their homes in Kansas or elsewhere in the rural Midwest, meaning their immune systems were vulnerable to new diseases.

By the end of the month, the hospital at Camp Funston was overwhelmed with more than 1100 cases of the flu (below, the emergency ward at the camp). But the virus mutated over time and became stronger. Thus, this first phase of the pandemic, which spread around the world in spring and summer of 1918, was much milder than the second phase, which began in the fall of that year and killed far more people.

U.S. Army recruits at Camp Funston, 1918
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Wartime conditions provided ideal vectors for contagion, as hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved between army bases and then to port cities on America’s eastern and gulf coasts, where they awaited transport to Europe. In mid-March outbreaks were under way in Camp Forrest and Camp Greenleaf, both in Georgia; a month later the epidemic had spread to two dozen army bases and training camps, and also surfaced in the civilian populations of 30 of the country’s biggest cities.

U.S. Army training camps, 1918
Erik Sass

The virus made its first appearance on European soil in April 1918 at Brest and Bordeaux, two of the main ports of disembarkation for American troops arriving in France. Once again conditions on the continent helped speed the spread of the virus, including shortages of food and fuel, which left millions of soldiers and civilians cold and malnourished. Men in the trenches were jammed together in squalid conditions, and soldiers on leave as well as those working in supply and transport units could spread the disease to civilians or carry it with them back to the trenches. Meanwhile, many doctors had been conscripted into military service, leaving civilians with few options for medical care.

Also commonly known as the three-day fever or the grippe, the virus got the misleading nickname Spanish flu because it was first reported in the Spanish press on May 22, 1918 (as a neutral country, Spain hadn’t imposed wartime censorship like the combatant nations). Madrid’s ABC newspaper announced the arrival of the epidemic in Spain, probably carried by migrant laborers returning from France, with a headline noting the virulence but otherwise not expressing much alarm. Shortly afterwards King Alfonso XIII briefly fell ill, and the Spanish newswire service Agencia Fabra reported to its partner Reuters, “A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported.”

The mild form of the flu would continue spreading around the world through the later summer of 1918, when the far deadlier second phase took over beginning in September. It swept over both sides of the war with hardly a delay, skipping over No Man’s Land with captured prisoners as well as through people traveling to neutral countries. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, recalled that in July 1918 the relatively mild version of the flu was largely dismissed by German military authorities, who had much bigger problems on their hands:

"Some soldiers had started to feel unwell for several days without anyone knowing what was wrong with them. Then we read in the newspapers about a new illness called the Spanish flu, because it had started in Spain. Now we knew. More and more soldiers were infected and shuffled around looking half-dead. Although they reported sick, hardly any of them went to hospital, as it had been declared that no more people should be classified as having minor illnesses or being lightly wounded—there were only the seriously wounded and the dead."

Later Richert fell ill himself, and experienced firsthand the brusque and unsympathetic medical treatment that tended to prevail on both sides during the war:

"I went to report sick immediately as the flu had now got worse and I had become quite hoarse. There were about a hundred men standing outside the house where the doctor examined people. NCOs were examined first. You could hardly call it an examination. You were asked what was wrong. When I had answered, the medical NCO gave me a peppermint tablet about the size of a penny and the doctor said: ‘Make some tea for yourself. Next please!’"

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

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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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