20/3/1918 Eve of Armageddon #1918Live

Peace with Russia has freed the Germans to transfer some 44 divisions to the Western Front. The Allies know that Ludendorff is planning an offensive to try to win the war before the Americans arrive in strength. But they do not know when or where the attack will come.

In fact, tomorrow is the day. German assault troops are now moving up to their attack positions, but doing so in conditions of utmost secrecy to mask their presence from the enemy. Troops have been marching by night, under strict orders to show no lights, and then hidden by day in forests or inside villages. Artillery pieces too are being moved to their firing positions, again camouflaged from the prying eyes of the British and French. German aircraft are patrolling above to chase away enemy observers and check that their men on the ground are keeping themselves properly hidden.

Ludendorff had hoped to attack in Flanders, in order to seize the Channel ports and cut off the British army, but it is too early in the year and the ground there is still waterlogged after the rains of winter. Instead the German blow will fall on British troops sitting astride the Somme, defending the gains of the 1916 battle and the territory abandoned by the Germans last year. Tomorrow’s offensive has no fixed objectives, which has disconcerted some of the field commanders who will have to command it. But Ludendorff hopes that a breakthrough will present opportunities that will allow him to destroy the Allied armies.

Officially the offensive is Operation Michael, but it has become known as the Kaiserschlacht, the Kaiser’s Battle. The morale of the assault troops is high: this is the attack that will end the war.

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

24/2/1918 Lenin accepts the Germans’ final peace terms

After Trotsky walked out of the Brest-Litovsk peace talks the Germans and Austro-Hungarians launched Operation Faustschlag, an offensive intended to force the Bolsheviks to accept their draconian peace terms. Their advance has faced little or no resistance, in a short time making gains that would have been unimaginable even a year ago. Meanwhile the Turks too are advancing unopposed into territory seized from them earlier in the war. Today the Turks arrive in Trebizond, where a Russian army brass band plays to welcome them into the city.

Yesterday Germany communicated its final peace terms to the Russians. The Germans are now demanding all the territory captured since the start of Operation Faustschlag, which means that Estonia will now be theirs as well as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and much of Byelorussia. Ukraine is also to be separated from Russia, notionally independent but effectively a German client state.

In Petrograd Lenin argues that if the German terms are rejected then even worse ones will be forced on Russia in a few more weeks, ones so draconian they could spell the end of Bolshevik rule. By threatening to resign he secures Trotsky’s abstention at the Bolshevik central committee, which votes to accept the peace, though Bukharin and his faction then resign in protest. The Soviet Executive then approves the peace proposals by 116 to 85 votes, with Left SRs and many of Lenin’s own party shouting “Judas!” at him.

Early today Lenin sends to the Germans an unconditional acceptance of their terms.

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Vladimir Lenin (Marxist Internet Archive: V.I.Lenin – Founder of the Soviet State (October 1917-1918))

22/2/1918 Turmoil in Petrograd as the German advance continues #1918Live

Germany and Austria-Hungary are meeting no effective resistance in their offensive against Soviet Russia. The advancing troops are able to move forward by train, stopping at each station to arrest the local Bolsheviks before moving on to the next. In just five days they have moved forward some 150 miles.

In Petrograd the enemy advance has caused chaos within the ruling Bolsheviks. One faction wants to wage revolutionary war against the Germans, though Soviet Russia’s lack of an effective military force makes this a somewhat unrealistic strategy. In a stormy meeting of the party’s Central Committee, Lenin managed to secure a majority in favour of accepting the German terms by persuading Trotsky to switch sides. He cabled his acceptance to the Germans but the Germans do not reply and continue their advance.

What now? In desperation Lenin changes tack and backs armed resistance to the Germans. But Soviet Russia’s Red Army is a pathetic militia, in no state to take on the enemy. In desperation the Bolsheviks appeal for help to the Allies, despite the opposition of those like Bukharin who fear the consequences of trucking with imperialists. The Allies meanwhile welcome the Bolsheviks appeal for help and withdraw their support for Kornilov‘s anti-Bolshevik army in southern Russia.

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Vladimir Lenin (Wikipedia)

Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky (Communist University – Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder)

18/2/1918 Germany pushes into Russia #1918Live

At Brest-Litovsk Trotsky shocked the Germans by rejecting their harsh peace terms but then informing them that Russia will fight them no more. The Bolsheviks hope that this ‘No War, No Peace‘ strategy will expose the Germans as naked aggressors if their army resumes its advance in the east, triggering revolution from Germany’s war weary working class.

Ludendorff is Germany’s Quartermaster General and the effective dictator of his country. He does not care about being seen as a naked aggressor; he wants the war in the East brought to an end as soon as possible so that he can concentrate his efforts on the Western Front offensive he is planning. Today German and Austro-Hungarian troops launch Operation Faustschlag, an offensive intended to force the Russians to sign the peace treaty. They encounter no meaningful resistance; by now the old Tsarist army has been disbanded and the recently established Red Army is in no position to take the field against the Kaiser‘s juggernaut. The Germans and their allies advance at a speed that would be unimaginable on the Western Front.

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Austro-Hungarian troops advance into Kamianets-Podilskyi (Wikipedia: Operation Faustschlag)

1/1/1918 1918, year of decision? #1918Live

For the Germans, 1917 was to have been the year the war ended in victory: the escalated U-boat campaign would force Britain to make peace, after which France and Russia could be picked off at the Germans’ leisure. But the projections as to how much damage could be inflicted by the U-boats were over-optimistic, as were calculations regarding British resilience to attacks on their trade. The U-boats failed to end the war and they have instead brought the USA into the war on the side of the Allies. Now the Americans are raising an army whose size will tip the balance in Europe if it arrives before the war’s end.

The Germans had one unexpected stroke of luck in 1917. Revolution broke out in Russia, with unrest spreading from the urban centres to the countryside and the Russian army. The Russians became increasingly unable to continue the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary; following their seizure of power the Bolsheviks agreed an armistice with the Germans and are engaged in negotiations towards a peace treaty at Brest-Litovsk.

Russia’s collapse means that the Germans are now free to redeploy men from the East. Ludendorff, Germany’s Quartermaster-General, plans to use these to launch a final offensive on the Western Front, one that will defeat the British and French before the Americans arrive in strength. This will be Germany’s last throw of the dice: if the offensive fails to bring an end to the war then Germany’s defeat will be unavoidable.

For the Allies, 1917 was mostly a terrible year. The Italians are still reeling from their defeat at Caporetto and are barely able to continue the war. On the Western Front the French offensive on the Chemin des Dames failed so badly that the French army came close to collapse. The British have made gains against the Turks, but the Middle East is a side show; their main effort on the Western Front at Ypres saw large numbers of men die horribly for no good purpose. Now the British and French know that the Germans are preparing something big for the spring. With their own armies exhausted, the Allies have no option but to hope that they can contain the German attacks until the American armies arrive.

It looks therefore like 1918 will decide the war’s outcome. Either Ludendorff’s offensive will win victory for the Germans, or it will fail, dooming Germany to defeat (though perhaps not until 1919).

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Erich Ludendorff (Wikipedia)

31/12/1917 The horrors of war in German East Africa #1917Live

The outcome of this war will no doubt be decided in Europe, but the conflict nevertheless stretches its tentacles further afield. By now Germany’s overseas colonies have mostly been overrun, but in German East Africa Lettow-Vorbeck still flies the flag for the Kaiser, despite his isolation from the Fatherland and the much larger forces the British Empire is deploying against him. Lettow-Vorbeck’s army is mostly composed of locally recruited African troops, with a small number of white German officers in command. At this stage his main goal is not to defeat his enemies but to keep his army in the field, thereby preventing the Allies from transferring the troops he is fighting to the Western Front.

The armies deployed in East Africa are tiny compared to those seen in Europe. The casualties they suffer in combat are insignificant in comparison to those seen at Verdun or Passchendaele. But this is not some kind of clean war devoid of human suffering. For the native population of German East Africa, this war has been an utter disaster. Lettow-Vorbeck is keeping his army in the field by confiscating the food supplies of the local civilian population. As a result, famine and pestilence stalk the land. Some 300,000 people have died from the famine since the war’s start, roughly 5% of the colony’s pre-war population.

Lettow-Vorbeck is not just taking the people’s food: he is also taking their men. Some of these are press-ganged into his army to make up the numbers lost in the fighting, but more are seized as labourers. The poor roads and the vulnerability of horses to the Tsetse fly mean that men make the best carriers of an army’s essentials.

The British too are press-ganging a vast number of labourers from their colonies to serve in East Africa. Like the Germans, the British are treating these labourers effectively as slaves. They are also underfeeding them relative to their African soldiers, with the result that the labourers are severely malnourished and thereby vulnerable to disease. The African labourers pressed into service by the British have a higher mortality rate than infantrymen serving on the Western Front.

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British troops and African bearers (Wikipedia: East African Campaign)

See also: How The Great War Razed East Africa

7/12/1917 Cambrai: a bloody draw but a German victory on points

The battle of Cambrai is now winding down. The German counter-attack hit the British hard and Haig had to order a withdrawal from most of his men’s gains to prevent a complete collapse. The British still hold a small slice of the territory they captured but the Germans to the south have pushed beyond their original frontline. Both sides have taken around 45,000 casualties in the fighting.

For the British the battle has proved dispiriting. The initial successes (thanks to tanks and well-targeted artillery) could not be sustained and the German counter-attack has shown what the enemy is still capable of on the Western Front. For the Germans meanwhile the second part of the battle has raised their morale, showing that Hutier‘s infiltration tactics are as effective against the British as they were against the Russians and Italians. Ludendorff is looking forward to applying them in his spring offensive next year, which he hopes will bring the war to a victorious end.

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Knocked out British tank & map (Remembrance Trails of Northern France: the Battle of Cambrai)