The Last Punch

The German and Austro-Hungarian troops stationed at Pskov near the modern Estonian border might have thought their orders were a mistake.  After months of inaction, as the Eastern Front fell quiet following the fall of the Russian Provisional Government the prior November, 53 divisions of the Central Powers were launching a massive offensive.  Despite hundreds of thousands of their soldiers having already departed for the Western Front, Berlin and Vienna were again on the march in the East.

The few Russian soldiers at the front were equally as shocked.  Many of them had already been demobilized and were waiting for transportation to take them home.  Leon Trotsky himself had announced just weeks earlier that the Soviets considered the war over, albeit without a formal peace treaty.

On February 18th, 1918, the last offensive of the Eastern Front, Operation Faustschlag (“Fist Punch”), would land like a prizefighter hitting air.  The offensive would seize hundreds of miles of new territory against almost no resistance, causing the Soviets to hurriedly began exploring the option they said they’d never consider – continuing to fight in the Great War.

German troops await orders to attack – Faustschlag would gain Germany a massive Eastern Empire within days


Beyond the myriad issues of internal political struggles and deprivations among the general populace, it was the issue of continuing the war that undermined the Russian Provisional Government.  Despite the promises of peace from the February Revolution that toppled the Tsar, the Provisional Government had stayed in the fight, even launching an offensive that July which failed almost as soon as it began.  While the Bolsheviks depicted the Provisional Government as fighting for the same imperial concerns as the Tsar, the government’s rationale was economical, not nationalistic.  St. Petersburg/Petrograd owed over 11 billion rubles to their Allied partners, and in order to secure additional funding, the Russians had shipped another 2 billion in gold to Britain and Canada as collateral.  Inheriting this financial mess from the Tsar and Duma, the Provisional Government attempted to create a new currency, which would quickly become mocked as “Kerenskys” after the embattled Prime Minister.  In short, the war was on it’s way to costing the Russians 50 billion rubles, all in an economy that was generating only 750 million rubles a month in tax revenue.  The Russian State was broke.   Continue reading

Points of Order

For three and a half years, President Woodrow Wilson had envisioned himself as Europe’s peacemaker.  From the earliest days of the conflict, through and even beyond his re-election campaign, Wilson had repeatedly held himself out as a potential mediator.  The President had taken a number of steps to try and intervene in Europe’s war, including trying to negotiate aid to starving Polish refugees on the Eastern Front and even drafting a peace memorandum which was delivered to the Entente in February of 1916.

The interest from Europe was not reciprocated.  The Germans and Russians had no interest in American aid to Polish citizens and the British and the French believed Wilson’s 1916 memorandum was little more than an election-year stunt.  To the rulers of Europe’s warring parties, the American President was either woefully naïve about the nature of the conflict or deeply politically cynical.  Wilson’s push for “peace without victory” had no support among the war’s leadership, but Wilson did raise a consequential point for the populaces of Europe – why was the war being fought in the first place?  And what did the combatants hope to get out of it?

On January 8th, 1918 before the U.S. Congress, Wilson would provide an American answer to the question of Europe’s conflict – fourteen points upon which peace, and a post-war world, could be built.

Part of the roots of the end of the conflict were laid with Wilson’s “Fourteen Points.”  Germany assumed the Allies final peace terms would mimic the less punitive terms of Wilson’s address


By the beginning of 1918, it had become apparent for Europe’s nations that support for the Great War – among civilian and soldier alike – had all but vanished.  Revolts, rebellions, mutinies and food riots had increasingly become standard as Europeans were demanding peace, or at least a worthy cause to explain the hardships they had endured.  The war’s leaders had no real response.   Continue reading

The Seventh Seal

In the modern era, there’s nothing to see in Santa Fe, Kansas.  The tiny town is now abandoned, with only a large feed lot marking what is otherwise considered a “ghost town” in the 21st Century.  There wouldn’t have been much more to notice in January of 1918, as Santa Fe was already crumbling, only two years away from disappearing completely.  But something within the town had caught the eye of Dr. Loring Milner – a flu-like virus unlike anything he had ever seen or read about.

In 1918, like today, influenza threatened the very young and the very old.  Those with compromised immune systems would typically be at risk for fighting off the worst strains of the flu.  What Milner was witnessing was the reversal of that script – a flu that attacked the healthiest adults and killed within days.  Those who were ill would develop a fever and become short of breath, with their faces turning blue from a lack of proper oxygen.  Lungs would fill with blood and caused catastrophic vomiting and nosebleeds, with victims literally drowning in their own fluids.  Milner and others suspected the virus might have come from the region’s livestock, but couldn’t be sure.  What Milner did know is that the virus was a killer and needed to be contained quickly, writing to and being published in Public Health Reports, the predominate medical journal of the day.  Few sources – in medicine or the media – paid attention.

The influenza Dr. Loring Milner discovered would soon blanket the globe with a death rate comparable to “The Black Death” of the bubonic plague.  What would become known as the “Spanish Flu” would spread over every continent, from major cities to tiny Pacific Islands and even the Arctic.  Amid a global war that would kill 20 million, an estimated additional 100 million people – 5% of the world’s population – would fall victim to the deadliest outbreak in human history.

Public gatherings all but shut down in the face of the deadly “Spanish Flu”


At every step, the narrative of the “Spanish Flu” meets misconception – from the origin, to the name, to even precisely what made this form of influenza so historically fatal.   Continue reading

The Big One

It was early in the morning in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 6th, 1917 but the burgeoning city’s harbor was already hard at work.

Although far from the front lines of Europe’s global conflict, Halifax had found itself as the tip of the spear of Canada’s involvement in the Great War.  Part of the United Kingdom’s economically vital Caribbean-Canada-Britain shipping triangle, the port was the starting point for numerous Atlantic convoys, as the city represented the end of the Intercolonial Railway system of Canada.  Raw materials, and raw recruits, boarded transports bound for Western Europe, as the port’s Bedford Basin provided protection against German U-boats prowling off the city’s shores.  Despite the proximity to the war, the conflict had been a sizable boon for Halifax, swelling the city’s population and coffers to undreamed-of proportions.

The sound of dueling ship’s whistles that 7:30am was hardly out of the ordinary.  The Norwegian freighter the SS Imo and the French cargo ship the SS Mont-Blanc were both in the harbor’s narrows, each telling the other, via their whistles, that they believed they held the right-of-way.  A collision was imminent.  What only some in the harbor knew was that the Mont-Blanc was laded with TNT, picric acid, highly flammable benzole, and guncotton.

The largest man-made explosion in human history was about to occur – and claim or maim 11,000 civilians in the process.

The remains of Halifax – the largest man-made explosion in history until the nuclear bomb


The explosion would happen against a backdrop of one of the greatest challengers the Entente would face during the entire Great War – overcoming Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign.   Continue reading

“Jerusalem Before Christmas”

Since it’s founding in the 4th millennium BC, Jerusalem had known many masters.  In that time, Philistines, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Jews, Romans, Greeks, Europeans and Turks had all held claim to the ancient city – all part of being besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, captured and recaptured 44 times, and completely destroyed twice.

On November 17th, 1917, the British soldiers of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) began to stake their claim to the holy city’s history, marching to evict the Ottoman and German troops fighting to hold Palestine.  It would be the dénouement to a campaign that the British General Staff had resisted executing and on which David Lloyd George had staked his political capital.

British soldiers on the march in Palestine


Of the multitude of fronts that constituted the Great War, perhaps no front was as fundamentally impacted by the change of government in London in the winter of 1916 as the Middle East.   Continue reading

Red October

By 10am on November 6th, 1917, the soldiers of the Russian Provisional Government in St. Petersburg/Petrograd were taking a break from an already busy morning.  Earlier that day, thousands of loyalist troops had fanned out across the capital, seizing a number of newspaper offices – almost all of them Bolshevik-allied – under the charge of inciting insurrection.  Printing presses were destroyed, thousands of copies of the morning paper were burned, and arrest warrants were issued for dozens of authors and publishers.  Among the arrest warrants were many of the leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, including the body’s newly elected president Leon Trotsky.

The morning’s events were playing out as an almost exact repeat of the Provisional Government’s crackdown against the Bolsheviks during the “July Days” crisis just months earlier.  In the course of nearly four months, Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky’s government had outlawed the Bolsheviks, released them when the capital was threatened with a military coup during the Kornilov Affair, and now had gone back to attempting to jail the movement that had dominated the Soviets and was now openly preaching a doctrine of overthrowing the government.

In July, the capital had cheered Kerensky’s strong hand against the agitating Bolsheviks.  Now, they seethed with rage that Kerensky appeared to be overthrowing the soldier and worker appointed Soviet.  In July, the Bolsheviks had panicked – Lenin had fled the country and many of the movement’s leaders either went underground or froze with inaction.  Now, armed with the very weapons Kerensky had given them just a month earlier for a potential defense of St. Petersburg/Petrograd, the Bolsheviks struck back.

Vladimir Lenin address a crowd in St. Petersburg/Petrograd.  Lenin was instrumental in pushing the Bolsheviks towards a policy of overthrowing the Provisional Government


If the February Revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II had created a political vacuum in the capital, the Kornilov Affair that September had exposed how little that vacuum had been filled by the Provisional Government.

Despite his immense oratory skill and political acumen, Alexander Kerensky had become a leader without followers.  Kerensky had risen from the chaos of the initial revolution by securing the support of the delegates of both the Soviet (where he had been elected vice chairman) and the Provisional Government (where he had once been in the Duma).  But Kerensky’s unwaivering support for continuing the Great War had slowly robbed him of allies.  The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks who dominated the early Soviets had lost considerable ground for their support of the Provisional Government.  By the fall of 1917, the SRs and Mensheviks had lost most of their leadership positions within the Soviet as the Bolsheviks had largely taken over – a process sped up by the release of most of their leadership by Kerensky that September.  Even members of the Soviet who had resisted joining the Bolsheviks, like Trotsky, were now willing to ally themselves to the best organized political party in Russia.    Continue reading

The Supremes

The attendees at Rapallo, Italy – a collection of civilian and military leaders of the Allies – were understandably nervous on November 5th, 1917.  The Russians appeared on the verge of quitting the war.  The French Army had been nearly crippled in mutiny.  The British were still bloodletting at the Third Battle of Ypres.  And the hosting Italians were in the middle of their disastrous Battle of Caporetto, which was rapidly destroying an entire Italian army.

With most of the significant Prime Ministers of the Allied war effort in attendance, David Lloyd George unveiled his solution to the present crisis – an Allied War Council.  For almost all of the parliamentary-allied nations, a War Council had been created to oversee the conflict, with powers and goals separate from the running of each ally’s domestic affairs.  What George was proposing was a similar structure, staffed by members of each of the prominent Allies (minus Russia and Japan).

By the end of the conference on November 7th, 1917, the Allies had birthed the Supreme War Council.  The blueprint of true, inter-allied cooperation had been created.  But the construction of a workable military alliance would prove a far more difficult project.

The Supreme War Council – the group itself was largely useless, but it’s creation  foundation of inter-Allied cooperation that would win the war


The concept of Allied cooperation was far from new to the members of the Entente in 1917.  Indeed, many of the failings of the alliance over the past three years were the result of diplomatic and military “cooperation.”

The Chantilly Conferences of 1915 and 1916 had been the Entente’s first attempts at coordinating their offensives.  With the first conference including almost all the Entente players at the time – Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia and Russia – the sheer size of the conference, to say nothing of the disparate goals of the participants, made any meaningful conclusions all but impossible.  Holding the carrot of their financial strength and military aid, Britain and France quickly found themselves dictating terms to their allies.  In principle, the Chantilly Conferences were to coordinate the Entente’s 1916 offensives.  In practicality, the conferences solidified Britain and France’s military wishes while holding their allies to the unrealistic terms of launching attacks at London and Paris’ command.    Continue reading

Promises for Tomorrow

The Entente had made no shortage of promises as their soldiers had fought across the globe.

The Russians had been promised Constantinople.  The Italians had been promised chunks of the Austo-Hungarian Empire.  The Japanese had been promised Germany’s Pacific territories.  The Arabs had been promised independence.  And the British and French had made promises between themselves to divide up the rest of their opponent’s colonial lands.  That many of the promises contradicted themselves was hardly a matter – sorting out the various treaties was a concern for victors, not the vanquished.  And the war appeared far from won.

The letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lionel Walter Rothschild on November 2nd, 1917, could easily appear as simply another promise the Entente could cast off following the war.  The letter was short – only a page long – and exceptionally vague given the contents.  “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” Balfour stated in his letter one of Britain’s most prominent Jewish leaders, “and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

In three brief paragraphs, Britain set the road-map for an entirely different Middle East – and the conflicts that would define the next century.

The Balfour Declaration – the short document altered the structure of the Middle East


The concept of a Jewish homeland – a political goal of the Jewish movement of Zionism – had been debated for decades, if not nearly a century.  For many of the Jewish leaders in Europe, the question was not if the Jews should settle into a nation state of their own, but where.    Continue reading

Disastro

The thuds heard across the Italian line at 2am on October 24th, 1917 were not the usual sounds of artillery.  No explosions followed, only the clanking sound of canisters falling from the sky.  The hiss that followed was unmistakable – the release of poison gas.

The weary Italian troops in their trenches had been prepared for this eventuality and were armed with gas masks.  But the front line trenches were in a valley, with no wind and fog, meaning the gas would linger on the ground.  Italian troops began to panic, knowing their masks would only last a couple of hours, at most, before the chlorine-arsenic would literally melt the plastic and allow the gas into their lungs.  As Italian troops attempted to retreat, the Austro-Hungarian line erupted in artillery fire, striking down entire units.  German mountain troops, armed with the new more portable 08/15 Maxim machine gun and flamethrowers stormed the Italian trenches, improving upon the same tactics the Germans had first experimented with at Verdun.  The Italians were overwhelmed.

Near the Slovenian town of Caporetto, the Italian army would be dealt one of the most decisive blows in the entire Great War.  The military and political effect would alter the strategy of the entire Entente and leave scars on the Italian psyche that persist to the modern age.

Italian prisoners at Caporetto – it was one of the largest surrenders in Italian military history


With modest exceptions, the Italian front had largely stayed the same since Italy’s entry into the war in the spring of 1915.

Despite achieving a relative breakthrough at the Sixth Battle of Isonzo in the late summer of 1916, Italian forces had again found themselves deadlocked against the mountainous front lines of the Austro-Hungarians.  In offensive after offensive, the Italian army either gained no ground or made minor gains for equal or greater casualties than their Austro-Hungarian opponent.  By the summer of 1917, the reality of the Italian front had become painfully clear to both the Allies and Central Powers – changing the status quo would likely require outside intervention.  The only question was which side would accept their ally’s help first?    Continue reading

Gallipoli on the Baltic

For a conflict that had unleashed countless examples of technological marvels – airplanes, poison gas, flamethrowers, tanks – coordination, not innovation, appeared to be the missing elixir for all the major combatants.

Each military breakthrough had been tentatively tested by the warring parties, often in isolation.  The Germans had little idea how powerful poison gas would be; as a result, the earliest uses saw little territorial gain despite the weapon’s terrifying potential.  Britain’s faith in the tank had slowly evolved to trying to throw entire fields of the diesel beasts against trenches – moves that would leave dozens of them exposed to artillery fire and picked off, one by one.  The campaigns of aircraft bombing or naval landings saw more failures than successes with General Staffs resistant to change despite the horrendous casualties.

But on October 12th, 1917 off the West Estonian Archipelago in the Baltic Sea, the destructive potential of intra-service coordination would be witnessed.  A modestly-sized German amphibious invasion would coordinate naval and air power, as well as the sort of infiltration tactics the Germans had experimented with at Verdun and Caporetto.  The result would be more than another German victory on the Eastern Front, but a preview of the future of warfare.

German troops load onto a landing boat – Germany had no doctrine of naval landings and very little history of attempting any


By the fall of 1917, Germany’s armed forces had proven themselves victorious against Russia on every battlefield but one – the Baltic Sea.

From the beginning of the Great War, Berlin’s General Staff had hoped to eliminate the Russian Baltic Fleet, thus protecting German iron ore shipments from Sweden while freeing up naval units to combat the British Royal Navy.  Russian minesweepers had coated the Baltic while British submarines, operating out of Russian ports, continually harassed German vessels.  Clearing the Russians out of the Baltic could reap other benefits as well – allowing for German units to be moved by ship behind the Russian line and or even threaten St. Petersburg/Petrograd with an invasion.   Continue reading

An Affair to Vaguely Remember

To describe St. Petersburg as in a state of chaos on the night of September 10th, 1917 would hardly differentiate the date from any other in the city’s post-Tsar existence.  Already twice in 1917 had the capital appeared on the brink of revolution, successfully casting off Nicholas II in March and enduring a Bolshevik-inspired series of violent protests in July.  In between, St. Petersburg/Petrograd had suffered from continued crippling deprivation and political dysfunction as the Provisional Government and elements of the various Soviets battled for control of the city and the country.

But for the first time in ages, St. Petersburg’s chaos came with a sense of political unity, however temporary it might be.  The latest threat to the capital wasn’t monarchists or Communists, but something far more terrifyingly tangible – a massive Russian army marching to end the political battles of the Soviets and Provisional Government by removing them both and placing the empire under a military dictatorship.

Yet the narrative of the conservative and royalist Russian military attempting to crush the nation’s fledgling democracy would become only muddier as the days progressed.  General Lavr Kornilov, the appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, claimed he was acting on orders from the Provisional Government’s Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky.  The Bolsheviks and some members of the Soviets claimed Kerensky was orchestrating the entire affair to bolster his position, or was trying to remove the Soviets by force.  Kerensky believed it was an international conspiracy to remove him due to his leadership role within the Petrograd Soviet and leftist leanings.

It was a rorschach revolution – with all sides seeing what they wanted to believe – and a revolution Kerensky hoped to end on September 10th with a telegraph to Kornilov, dismissing him from his post with orders to return his army to their barracks.  Kerensky believed he had put the issue to bed; Kornilov believed Kerensky had already been overthrown and that the telegraph had forged by revolutionaries.  The stage appeared set for Russia’s third revolution in 1917.

Gen. Lavr Kornilov – the full extent of the motivations for his quasi-coup are shrouded in mystery


For an army that had experienced a near total collapse, Lavr Kornilov was a poor choice to lead it.

The debacle of the Kerensky Offensive the previous July had led to a breakdown of the Eastern Front, with Central Powers forces advancing with little to no opposition.  Aleksei Brusilov, the reformist general who had been exceptionally popular with his men, had been dismissed by Kerensky following Brusilov’s insistence on the return of capital punishment for disobedient soldiers.  “Only the application of capital punishment will stop the decomposition of army and will save freedom and our homeland,” Brusilov implored Kerensky.  Brusilov was hardly eager to crush the Soviets – in fact, he held a number of left-leaning sympathies that further isolated him within the army, on top of his half-Polish lineage – but the old cavalry hand knew that sometimes the riding crop had be used.  For his blunt assessment, Brusilov was sent into retirement and his deputy, Kornilov, was appointed in his place.   Continue reading

Senseless

For every major combatant in the Great War by the mid-summer of 1917, the strategy seemed obvious – wait.

The Germans had reached such a conclusion months earlier, retreating behind the Hindenberg Line while waiting for their unrestricted submarine warfare and Russian collapse to change the dynamics of the conflict.  The French had just recently embraced a similar change – as the mutiny of their armies following the Nivelle Offensive brought Paris to the brink of defeat.  Even Russia, now reeling from their own failed Kerensky Offensive saw the relative wisdom of simply trying to hold on and wait for the American armies in France to save the war.

In London, the strategy of patience appeared to be favored as well.  The War Cabinet and David Lloyd George were ready to wait until enough tanks could be produced – and enough American “doughboys” had arrived – to restart serious offensive actions on the Western Front.  But the view was far from unanimous.  Field Marshal Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) continued to believe in the increasingly discredited belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse.  Another offensive, Haig believed, and the Germans could potentially surrender miles of territory as they had earlier in the year.  A well-timed strike in Flanders, Haig theorized, would also captured German naval bases on the Belgian coast, ending the damage Berlin’s U-boat campaign had done to British shipping.

Seemingly no one supported the concept.  Flanders was notorious for fall flooding, which would be occurring within weeks of the proposed campaign.  French soldiers were unreliable allies and the terrain was far from suitable for the tanks the British were willing to commit.  Yet seemingly no one was willing to say no to Haig.

On July 31st, 1917, one of the grisliest campaigns of the First World War would begin in Flanders.  David Lloyd George would later say that what would be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, or the Battle of Passchendaele, was a “senseless campaign” and “one of the greatest disasters of the war.”

Quagmire – Passchendaele would be defined by the endless mud


It was somewhat fitting that the Ypres would ultimately represent a turning point for the British strategy in France, for it had represented the beginnings of the static, trench warfare that defined the Great War.

The First Battle of Ypres in Flanders in October of 1914 had marked the end of the warfare of maneuvers, as both the Entente and Germany found themselves locked into battles of attrition – each side charging the other’s trench in desperate bids to break the newfound deadlock.  For the cost of over 100,000 men, the combatants discovered that the hope of a war colluded by Christmas was a fantasy.   Continue reading

The Point of Light

There was little reason for the German and Austro-Hungarian units on the Romanian front to believe they would see action again anytime soon.

Devastated by counteroffensives following their entry into the war the previous summer, and now seemingly completely dependent on Russian support, Romanian troops clung to what little territory remained of their state.  Despite the overwhelming concentration of men – 9 armies, 80 infantry divisions, 19 cavalry divisions and 1.8 million combatants in all – the front was but a minor theater in the massive war in the East between the Central Powers and Russia.  How could a nation incapable of producing more than one bullet per soldier per day defend itself, let alone launch an offensive?

On July 22nd, 1917 at town of Mărăști, Romania did precisely that – and would punch a 22-mile wide and 12-mile deep hole in the Central Powers’ line.


Romanian troops advance – the Romanian offensives of 1917 were the most successful (by territory) of any Entente operation that summer

Only months after their entry into the Great War, Romania had lost nearly 1/3rd of their mobilized forces and more than half of their territory.  The nation had lacked the industrial infrastructure to resupply their troops and what little heavy artillery they had was lost during the German/Austro-Hungarian/Bulgarian/Ottoman counteroffensives in the fall of 1916.  If not for the presence of one million Russian soldiers, Romania would be driven out of war as fast as she had entered it.    Continue reading

Divisible

There was very little international fanfare as five signatories placed their ink to paper on July 20th, 1917 on the Greek island of Corfu.  The signers, a mixture of Serbian politicians and Croatian nationalists, had pledged their post-war political unity under the banner of the Serbian Karađorđević monarchy.  But this was no “Greater Serbia” as the nationalists who had started the Great War had envisioned.  Rather, the signers saw their new state as a constitutional monarchy that would unite the Slovenian, Serbian and Croatian peoples in a free nation.  “This State will be a guarantee of their national independence and of their general national progress and civilization, and a powerful rampart against the pressure of the Germans”, the Declaration proclaimed.

With the conclusion of the ceremony, the nation of Yugoslavia had been born.  It had been the product of nearly a century of political idealism in the face of ethnic rivalry.  And before the ink even dried, the seeds of another near century of political division and bloodshed in the Balkans had already been planted.

A modest attendance – only five signatures are on the Corfu Declaration, and they represented only around a dozen members of the “Yugoslav Committee” that had pushed for the unification of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes in one nation


From the battle of Kosovo in 1389, which robbed the Serbs of their independence from the Ottoman Empire, to the Balkan Wars of the 1910s that had set the region’s then-modern boundaries, Serbian nationalism had literally defined most of the Balkan’s history.  By the summer of 1917, it had also cost Serbia everything.

The influence of the terrorist group The Black Hand had corrupted sections of the Serbian military and intelligence services and led to the assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  The Black Hand, and their sympathizers, had long dreamed of a “Greater Serbia” that encompassed vast tracts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Ferdinand stood not only as the heir to the hated Habsburg throne, but as a political threat due to Ferdinand’s support of unification of the Slavic people under a third crown alongside the Austrian and Hungarian titles.

The Archduke’s murder had brought death across the globe, but in few places worse than Serbia.  57% of the nation’s male population would be killed or wounded during the conflict and Serbia was now suffering in occupation by the Central Powers.  What remained of the Serbian army sat in Salonika as a small part of a vast listless Allied army.  And what Serbian government still existed did so in exile in Corfu, left with little to do but issue powerless decrees.

Austro-Hungarian propaganda: “Serbia Must Die!”

Prime Minister Nikola Pašić wasn’t interested in pushing around paperwork while awaiting the end of the war.  A formidable politician for 40 years, Pašić had been Serbia’s Prime Minister since 1904 and was viewed as a political opponent of the Serbian “Court Party” of the government that had, in theory, supported the same aims as The Black Hand.  While the historical record conflicts Pašić’s claim to not knowing about the smuggling of The Black Hand terrorists into Bosnia who eventually shot Ferdinand, Pašić’s political history would not place him as a likely ally to the group.  In either case, the cause of “Greater Serbia” had effectively destroyed the country – it was up to men like Pašić to envision it’s rebuilding.

Few could have seen the eventual fate of post-war Europe in the summer of 1917.  For Pašić, a reborn Serbia would need allies against the Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians, and a crumbling Russia, Serbia’s long-time ally, hardly appeared able or willing to perform the role of protector.  If Serbia was going to survive, she would need ethnic allies, which by necessity meant Serbian nationalism had to be checked.  Serbia would offer a nation guided by self-determination for their ethnic neighbors.  The concept wasn’t new – in fact, it went as far back as the French Revolution.

“Serbian National Day” – honoring their 1389 defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire


For Croatian intellectuals of the early 19th century, the Balkan ideal was a unification of all southern Slavic peoples, or “Yugoslavism.”  The name itself was a combination of the Serb-Croat word “Yugo” or “southern” and Slavic.  With the French Revolution propelling ideas of self-determination, Croatian politicians and writers fixated on a mythical unification of all southern Slavic people whose ethnic distinction would merge in a Balkan melting pot that would look like, perhaps not surprisingly, a culturally Croatian nation.  As such, the concept of “Yugoslavism” held little appeal to Serbs, Slovenes and Bosnian Muslims.

The unification of Italy would re-ignite the fire of “Yugoslavism” in the late 1870s.  For Serbia, Yugoslavia might represent a similar grand unification and allow Belgrade to play the role of the Kingdom of Sardinia and Piedmont as providing the political and military heft to a new empire.  For the first time, Serbs and Croats spoke of “Yugoslavism” as political goal, albeit with vastly different interpretations of who would be the dominant political and cultural force in such a joint nation.  Coupled with the example of the alliances of the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, the hazy 19th century dream of a single Slavic state appeared as a potential reality in the 20th century.

In a cruel irony, the war that would unite the Croats and Serbs had been launched by a Yugoslav, not Serbian, nationalist.  “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs,” said Gavrilo Princip at his trial.  “I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”  That defining principle would be shared by the signers in Corfu.

From the early, heady days of the war – Serbia held out against Austria-Hungary far longer than most anticipated, but at tremendous cost


Nikola Pašić would have an additional motivation to find Croatian allies before the end of the war – the territorial promises made to Italy.

The 1915 Treaty of London that had brought Italy into the Great War had contained what Britain and France likely considered colonial scraps.  However, the Treaty also granted Italy large chunks of the coastal region of Dalmatia, which was currently under Austro-Hungarian rule.  Beyond the fact that Dalmatia was culturally Croatian, if Italy controlled the region, it would again relegate any future Serbia as landlocked.  Belgrade wasn’t about to trade a hostile Austro-Hungarian neighbor for a hostile Italian one.  Serbia could hardly make a claim on Dalmatia, but Croatian nationalists could.

Ante Trumbić would become the Croatian face of the new Yugoslav nation.  A former Austro-Hungarian mayor, Trumbić had been exiled due to his support for a Croatian-Slovenian Yugoslavia, even starting a “Yugoslav Committee” with the sole purpose of lobbying the Allies for support.  Trumbić needed an influencial ally; Pašić needed a moderate Croat he could sell to Serbian nationalists.  Together, they created most of the foundation of the Yugoslavian State.

Ante Trumbić

The Corfu Declaration embodied, on paper, the best principles that the Western Allies claimed to be fighting for: guaranteed universal male suffrage, territorial indivisibility, religious freedom, and full legal equality for the three national denominations.  The details of the new state were vague, but considering the territory that they hoped to govern was still ruled by their Central Powers opponents (and promised to one of their nominal allies), the Declaration was more a statement of intent than definitive plan.  The marker had now been set – the Allies stood for the independence of ethnic states ranging from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.  In a brief two years, the goals of London and Paris had shifted from dividing colonial territory to a redrawing of the map of the world into smaller and smaller states.


The unity of the Corfu Declaration would not even survive to the actual founding of the Yugoslav State.

Pašić would soon tell Trumbić that calling the new nation “Yugoslavia” was good for domestic consumption, but that in international affairs “Serbia” ought to represent all three ethnic groups.  It soon became clear that the proposed Constituent Assembly that would rule Yugoslavia would be tilted in favor of Serbian control and would have little veto power against the Serbian monarchy.  Despite being given the post of the first Foreign Minister of Yugoslavia (Pašić would be the first Prime Minister), Trumbić voted against the 1921 Yugoslavian Constitution, decrying the document’s enshrinement of Serbian hegemony.

Division Multiples – more and more ethnic groups now sought nations of their own

By the 1930s, Trumbić was out of power in Yugoslavia and could only offer his emotional support as King Alexander embraced a royal dictatorship that formally renamed the nation as “Yugoslavia” and stripped numerous Serbs from power, at last balancing out the power structure Trumbić and other Croats thought they had agreed upon in 1917.  It would be a preview of the post World War II era of the nation as only dictatorial power could seemingly prevent one group from dominating the others.

In his last media interviews Trumbić expressed regret he ever signed the Corfu Declaration, claiming he wished the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never disappeared.

Nothing Is Written

Apart from it’s mountainous view, the concrete blockhouse atop Abu el Lasan was an otherwise forgotten roadmark within the Arabian desert on July 2nd, 1917.  Situated between the small town of Ma’an and the port of Aqaba on the Red Sea, the blockhouse was home to a Turkish battalion, recently arrived to drive out the handful of Arab rebels.  The size of the Turkish force was likely unnecessary given that the few Arabs scattered with the battalion’s arrival, but since the rise of the so-called “Arab Revolt” the previous summer, more and more Turkish regulars had been dispatched to try and re-occupy the lands of the Hejaz.

As the Turkish battalion made camp, the surrounding hills of Abu el Lasan revealed their own occupants – hundreds of rebels from the northern Howeitat tribe of Bedouin Arabs.  Led into battle by their Sheikh, Auda ibu Tayi, the tribesmen overwhelmed the Turks, slaughtering 300 of their number – the majority while trying to surrender.  For the loss of only 2 men and a handful of wounded, the path to Aqaba had been cleared.  Four days later, as British warships pounded the port city and Ibu Tayi’s men marched against scant Ottoman resistance, Aqaba fell.  The last Turkish port on the Red Sea was in the hands of the Entente – and had been delivered by Arab forces acting largely independently of their British allies.

News of the operation would capture the attention of the world due to the promotional skills of it’s brainchild – British Military Intelligence officer and adviser to the Hashemite Army of the Arab Revolt, T.E. Lawrence.  Lawrence had almost not survived the battle at Abu el Lasan.  While Auda ibu Tayi suffered several gazing shots, Lawrence found himself thrown from his camel at the beginning of the fight.  His Arab compatriots rushed to his side to find Lawrence unharmed but his poor animal with a gaping bullet wound to the head.  For despite the dashing persona Lawrence would soon encourage among the world’s press, Lawrence was actually quite poor at riding or fighting – he had accidentally shot his camel in the back of the head.

Lawrence his men pose for a photograph after Aqaba – Lawrence was always very conscious of his media image, and that of the Arab Revolt


By the summer of 1917, what had been missing in the Arab Revolt were Arabs.  There were no shortage of military advisers under the banner of Sharif Hussein bin Ali.  French Muslim officers and former Ottoman commanders populated the ranks of the conventional Sharifian Army and the tribesmen-based Hashemite Army under the control of Hussein’s sons Abdullah and Faisal.  But their combined forces reached fewer than 30,000 men at their apex, many of whom were former Ottoman soldiers from across the Turkish empire who had deserted while stationed in the desert.  Despite the £220,000 a month the British were pouring into the rebellion (the equivalent of £11,470,000/month now), the Arab Revolt had failed to attract many supporters or win many victories.   Continue reading

July Daze

Recently arrived by rail, Russian troops by the thousands off-loaded themselves in St. Petersburg on the night of July 5th, 1917.  For days, the capitol had been rocked by increased protests from Bolshevik supporters, whose ranks had now included armed soldiers chanting “all power to the Soviets.”  Not even the local Soviet leadership could apparently calm the growing mob, who screamed back at the group’s representative “take power, you son of a bitch, when it is handed to you!”  For the second time in 1917, St. Petersburg looked ready for a coup.

But the Provisional Government of Russia was determined to not make the same mistakes as the Tsar had just months earlier.  Loyalist troops quickly swarmed the offices of Pravda and the Bolshevik Central Committee, shutting both organizations down.  Warrants for the arrest of Vladimir Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were authorized, forcing the Bolsheviks to flee the city or go underground.  The general St. Petersburg public, tired of the constant protests and street violence they increasingly associated with the Bolsheviks, cheered the Provisional Government’s swift hand.  Even the most liberal members of the government began endorsing violent retribution to protesters and disorderly soldiers.

By July 7th, 1917, St. Petersburg was as quiet as it had been since the start of the Great War.  The proto-democratic Provisional Government had crushed their fiercest internal opponent while launching an offensive against the Central Powers that the government believed would save the war effort.

On both counts, they would be sadly mistaken.

The “July Days” protests – the Provisional Government saw the protests as a Bolshevik-inspired coup.  More likely, it was a fairly spontaneous series of protests over the lack of improvement of living conditions and getting Russia out of the war


The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II following the events of the “February Revolution” had left St. Petersburg/Petrograd (the city’s name had been changed at the start of the Great War as to avoid sounding “too German”) as a capitol nearly void of actual political power.   Continue reading

Broken China

In the early morning hours of July 1st, 1917, Peking was a capital on the edge.

From the beginning of the Great War, China had debated whether or not to enter the conflict, even going so far as offering the British 50,000 troops to invade the German colonial city of Tsingtao.  But internal divisions – both within China and among the Entente – kept Peking on the sidelines of a war occurring in their own backyard.

For the past year, the debate over the war had divided the capital between President Li Yuanhong and Premier Duan Qirui.  Yuanhong, the successor to General-turned-President-turned-Emperor-turned-President again Yuan Shikai, wanted to keep China out of Europe’s squabbles.  Qirui saw an opportunity to exert Chinese power abroad in hopes of securing European alliances that might undo the various concessions the nation had endured, including the “Twenty-One Demands” foisted upon them by Japan in 1915.  But despite his internal popularity with Peking’s politicians and various warlords, few wanted to follow Qirui into war.  Yuanhong had seemingly put an end to the debate as he dismissed Qirui from power.

The troops that entered Peking that morning were not supporters of Qirui, nor were they loyalists to the otherwise unpopular central government.  The troops of General Zhang Xun had an entirely different future for China in mind – a return to the Imperial model and restoration of the Qing Dynasty.  The shape of the war in Europe would depend on the outcome of a coup in China.

Pro-Qing Dynasty troops await orders


The dissolution of the nearly 300-year reign of the Qing Dynasty in 1912 had left China with a massive power vacuum.  Rebellious southern provinces, various generals and pro-republican politicians each had sought power for themselves, with little unifying an already fractured empire.  One man had appeared capable of bringing together such disspitate parties  – General Yuan Shikai.  Through alliances, guile and force, Shikai positioned himself as the first President of the newly formed Republic of China.   Continue reading

Beach Party

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For the better part of a year and a half, the British General Staff had tinkered with the plan.  The lessons of failed offensives and technological innovations had repeatedly changed Sir Douglas Haig’s tactics but not his overall strategy.  On June 18th, 1917, the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces signed off on the most ambitious amphibious attack since Gallipoli – an invasion behind the German line via the beaches in Belgium.

Massive newly designed landing crafts would drop off 13,500 British troops, tanks, artillery and even a motorized machine-gun unit.  Coupled with a joint British/Belgian/French offensive from Ypres, Haig had envisioned a quick strike behind the fearsome new Hindenburg Line, driving deep the behind German front to sow confusion, forcing what the British believed were weary German defenders to abandon their fortified trenches.  For a commander who was already earning the gruesome moniker of “Butcher” for his seemingly callous disregard for British lives, Haig appeared invested in finding a solution to the trenches short of yet another frontal assault.

The offensive had been silently built up for months, hence the codename of Operation Hush.  Yet for all of the supposed secrecy, within 24 hours of the offensive’s approval, the Germans would know exactly what the British intended – and would counter it.


Operation Hush – a naval-based flanking maneuver designed to finally circumvent the German trenches, the operation would be batted around the halls of the London War Office for almost two years

Since the earliest days of the Great War, Britain had obsessed over the opportunities that the Belgian coast provided their armies.  As early as October of 1914, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had advocated for a naval landing behind the recently occupied Belgian front.  Even officers as relatively cautious as the British Expeditionary Force’s first commander, Sir John French, backed the concept until it was shelved for the similar Gallipoli operation.    Continue reading

48 Hours

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

After a year that had seen carnage on a historical scale, the opening salvos around the Chemin des Dames region of Western France almost appeared as modest.  850,000 men, a joint Franco-British task force, lashed out against Germany’s Hindenburg Line with 7,000 guns and 160 tanks on April 16th, 1917.

The operation, the brainchild of France’s newly promoted commander of it’s northern armies, Robert Nivelle, had all the hallmarks of the sort of offensives that had dominated the Western Front since 1915 – massive artillery bombardments, human waves attacks, gruesome casualties and continued stalemate.  Only the reaction of the men who participated would differentiate the assaults from the dozens that had preceded it.

A general with the penchant towards the dramatic, Nivelle had promised that he could bring about the end of the deadlock in the West within 48 hours of the first shots fired from his offensive.  Instead, he would usher in the near total collapse of the French military.


French troops, in gas masks, await orders to go over the top.  By the start of 1917, 1 million Frenchmen, out of a population of 40 million men of all ages, had died in the Great War

By the spring of 1917, the dividing lines in the Great War appeared less to be between the Entente and Central Powers, then between those nations willing to adapt and those who stubbornly refused to change.    Continue reading

The Yanks Are Coming

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For almost two and a half years, the crew of the German auxiliary cruiser SMS Cormoran had sat in Apra Harbor in the U.S. territory of Guam.  The cruiser, captured from the Russians off of Korea early in the war in 1914, had stopped in Guam in December of that year in an effort to resupply themselves with coal.  With the United States a neutral power, and the island already significantly short of coal, the Cormoran‘s request was refused.  Since then, the ship had sat at anchor while the German crew settled on the island, awaiting the end of the war in tropical peace.

On April 7th, 1917, the Germans noticed that the 3 seven-inch guns on nearby Mount Tenjo had been turned to face them.  The schooner the USS Supply pulled close to the Cormoran, and demanded the ship surrender.  The Germans promptly set to work attempting to scuttle the vessel instead.

In response, the U.S. opened fire over the Cormoran‘s bow.  Fearing the Americans would soon overpower the ship’s crew, the speed of the Cormoran‘s scuttling was hazardously increased.  An early explosion would led to the deaths of 9 crew members and make Apra Harbor the Cormoran‘s final resting place.

Just hours earlier – a day earlier by the time difference from Washington – the United States had formally declared war against Germany.  America had joined the Great War.

The U.S. enters the First World War – a variety of factors had led to this eventual decision…


 

“It is a war against all nations…The challenge is to all mankind. Each nation must decide for itself how it will meet it….

 

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

—President Woodrow Wilson, addressing Congress, April 2nd, 1917

It was an address Woodrow Wilson had fought against having to make.  The president who had “Kept Us Out of War,” and as recently as the end of 1916 believed he could negotiate an end to Europe’s bloodshed, had rapidly seen the nation’s appetite for neutrality vanish with the publication of the Zimmerman Telegraph a month earlier.  The tide towards war had been building far before that, as Wilson told crowds in October of 1916 that “this is the last war of the kind, or of any kind that involves the world, that the United States can keep out of.”  Having just been inaugurated for a second term on a platform of peace, Woodrow Wilson now stood before Congress asking for a declaration of war.   Continue reading

Barbed Wire Disease

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For the German prisoners of war in Souilly, a French commune in the Meuse near Verdun, life behind enemy lines hadn’t been much better than their previous life in the trenches.

Operating as unpaid laborers, the German POWs dug trenches and roads eleven hours a day, seven days a week.  A dysentery outbreak in the camp months earlier had decimated their ranks, as French supplies and medical care struggled to meet the prisoner’s needs.  Even the basic safety of the prisoners was willfully neglected as POWs were forced to perform their roles right on the frontlines, often under German shellfire.

News of such treatment had been suppressed in France – the army’s Commander-in-Chief, Robert Nivelle (who hadn’t taken much care with his own men’s lives in Verdun), brazenly lied to Paris about the practice – but news had trickled back to Germany.  In response, the Germans publicly announced that newly captured French POWs would no longer be transferred back to Germany but kept on the frontlines as quasi-human shield laborers.  If the French would move their German prisoners further back, and not expose them to gunfire, the Germans would do the same.  With German authorities allowing French prisoners to write letters home, detailing the conditions they faced at the front under their nation’s own artillery fire, public pressure quickly mounted in France to move the German POWs.

On March 27th, 1917, the French government agreed to Germany’s demands, despite objections from London and Nivelle.  By June of 1917, no POWs remained at the front on either side.  It was a small gesture of deescalation in the increasingly dehumanizing treatment of POWs in the Great War.


German POWs in France

European history had given relatively little insight into how to manage the problem of hundreds of thousands of enemy prisoners for an indefinite period of time.  Prior to the wars of the Napoleonic era, most armies were made up almost exclusively of professional soldiers, providing a sort of collegial basis for the treatment of those captured on the battlefield.  Prisoners were usually quickly exchanged via the “cartel” system, which placed monetary values on prisoners based on rank.  Thus those who surrendered would often find themselves soon back with their armies, having been traded for a man of equal rank, money, or both.   Continue reading

The “Brilliant Victory”

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Night had only begun to settle over Gaza for the ANZAC Mounted Division on March 26th, 1917.  The division, part of a 22,000-man operation to build upon the British victory at Romani in the summer of 1916, had accomplished its objective of defending the main advance of British infantry against any Ottoman counterattack.  Only 12 hours into the offensive, Gaza had been effectively surrounded, and by dusk, units such like the Mounted Division had even captured outlying portions of the city.

Despite the ferocity of some of the German-led Ottoman counterattacks, the Commonwealth units held their ground.  The British infantry had captured the hill of Ali al Muntar, overlooking the rest of Gaza, while holding over 460 German and Ottoman prisoners, including a divisional commanding general.  The British held the high ground and all the access points to the city.  The campaign for Palestine might be over before it even started.

Instead, the ANZAC Mounted Division – along with the entire defensive screen of forces – were told to retreat.  The threat of 12,000 Ottoman soldiers to the battle’s east had been deemed too great a threat to the British supply lines.  Rather than risk a fight, the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) command chose to disengage.  The irate men of the Mounted Division cursed that “victory [had been] snatched away from them by the order to withdraw.”

In addition to the elements and the Ottomans, Britain would have to confront its own generals in the Middle East.

The Ottomans on the march – the Empire was in retreat on all fronts and their men were asked to hold Palestine against a growing British force


With revolution in Russia, and strategic inertia in France, the Middle East appeared to be the only front that saw the armies of the Entente victorious at the start of 1917.

Following the debacle at Kut, a joint British/Indian army had successfully marched to Baghdad by the spring of 1917, putting a practical end to the Mesopotamian campaign with the capture of the city in early March.  And the Arab Revolt of the summer of 1916 had managed to drive the Ottomans out of a series of coastal towns dotting the Red Sea, while sowing rebellion among the various tribes of Arabia.

Yet these campaigns, while providing much need victories for a war-weary Entente, had proved themselves to be little more than costly distractions.  The Arab Revolt had to be completely underwritten by London, and (thus far) hadn’t been able to win without British support.  Baghdad had been the first prominent capital within the Central Powers to fall, but the operation had required over 800,000 men with 250,000 casualties – and the Ottomans looked no closer to surrender as a result.    Continue reading

A Tsar Is Torn

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

Cramped in the rail-yard of the Pskov station, the Tsar’s Imperial Train made for quite a sight.  The train carried ten carriages: a sleeping-car for the Tsar and Tsarina, a saloon car, a kitchen, a dining car, carriages intended for the grand dukes and other family, the children’s car, cars for the Tsar’s retinue, as well as cars for railway servicemen, servants, luggage and workshops.  The ornately designed cars stood out like a sore thumb amid the largely industrial city.

But on midnight of March 15th, 1917 (or March 2nd, by the old Russian Gregorian calendar), the attention of the citizens and soldiers of Pskov were not on the garish train, but it’s occupant – Tsar Nicholas II.  Having rushed back from his command headquarters in Mogilev, some 400 miles away from St. Petersburg/Petrograd, at the repeated urging of the capital’s political and military leadership, Nicholas II found his path home blocked by rebelling soldiers.  Instead of arriving back at his seat of power, Nicholas II had been forced to retreat to Pskov.

Three days earlier, Nicholas had fumed with indignation that the Chairman of the Duma had described the scene in St. Petersburg as “anarchy.”  The Tsar called such warnings “nonsense,” declaring he wouldn’t even reply to such communications.  Now, Nicholas II’s military and Duma allies were grimly explaining the consequences of the Tsar’s inaction.  St. Petersburg was completely in control of the rebels and a makeshift coalition of forces there had declared themselves the legitimate Provisional Government of Russia.  Further violent crackdowns seemed out of the question.  Any federal troops sent to St. Petersburg only joined the rebels.

Tsar Nicholas II asked Army Chief Nikolai Ruzsky what he should do.  “Abdicate,” Ruzsky replied.  Hesitating for but a few moments, Nicholas agreed.  Russia’s 370 years of Tsarist rule was about to end.

The “February Revolution” – hundreds of thousands of protesters flooded St. Petersburg/Petrograd, prompting the fall of the Tsarist regime


By the spring of 1917, the surprise was not that Tsarist Russia collapsed, but that it had endured for as long as it did.    Continue reading

Total War

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

For months, the rumors had trickled through the Entente lines in France.  From the highest levels of government, down to the individuals soldiers in their trenches, talk had persisted that after a year of bloodshed, and the loss of over 960,000 dead, the German army might finally begin to retreat.

On March 14, 1917, the rumors appeared to become facts.  Following several weeks of localized German retreats, the British 4th Army at Sailly-Saillisel in the Somme region began to spot the early signs of a massive German withdrawal.  Cautiously, British and French units began to advance – the Germans had used similar withdrawal tactics in 1914, luring Entente soldiers into salients and then attacking at the edges of the withdrawal; a sort of Great War pincer maneuver.  Yet as the British and French occupied territory long since lost, no counter-attack occurred.  Almost 10 miles past the original front, the armies of the Entente met at Nesle, their forces so congested into the abandoned front that the resulting march halted due to the traffic jam.

For the Entente, the retreat signified Germany’s weakening position.  In reality, the Germans had retreated behind a nearly impregnable wall of concrete bunkers and interlocked defenses.  After nearly three years of war, Germany was learning from the slaughter of the trenches.  The newly built German line might have been formally called the Siegfriedstellung or Siegfried Position, but as the brainchild of the Chief of the German General Staff Paul von Hindenburg, the “Hindenburg Line” would be the lynch-pin of Germany’s solution to the conflict – an embrace of “total war.”

Hindenburg (left) and his deputy, Ludendorff. Their reputation as military geniuses extended beyond the ranks of the Central Powers


From the earliest days of the Great War, German strategy had been to force a conclusion on the Western Front.  Whether represented by offensives such as the Schlieffen Plan or Verdun, the German General Staff had operated under the assumption that France and Britain could be knocked out of the war.  Despite ample evidence that Russia was the far weaker of the major powers of the Entente, General Staff Chief Erich von Falkenhayn had persistently vetoed shifting German resources to the East.  The pure vastness of Russia – in terms of territory, manpower and apparent indifference to casualties – had historically bested other commanders.  Falkenhayn was determined not to join their company.

By the fall of 1916, such views had changed along with the General Staff’s leadership.  In a conflict that had disgraced countless generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff had risen by their successes on Berlin’s secondary front.  Winning battles against the Russia juggernaut with far fewer men, and despite being encumbered by the failings of their Austro-Hungarian ally, Hindenburg and Ludendorff were seen as the ideal candidates to solve the bloody dilemma of the Western Front.    Continue reading

Sunk

We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series.  Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.

German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg was uneasy as he approached the podium in the Reichstag on January 31st, 1917.  Despite having done more than perhaps any other figure in Europe to ensure the Great War, Bethmann-Hollweg’s support for the conflict had slowly dissipated.  Only weeks earlier, the aging Chancellor had been forced to offer the outline of negotiations by rebellious German legislators eager to bring the bloodshed to an end.

Now, Bethmann-Hollweg was finding himself forced to announce a policy he had long fought against – the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare.  While the policy had done more to turn the tables of war in favor of Germany than any other action of their armies, Bethmann-Hollweg feared a continued policy of sinking any and all ships would eventually bring the United States into the conflict.  Three weeks earlier, the leaders of Germany’s Navy had met with the Kaiser and implored Wilhelm II to restart submarine operations.  The nation was starving to death and Berlin’s U-boats were the other weapon that could return the devastation of the blockade in-kind.  The Kaiser agreed.

Bethmann-Hollweg told the assembled delegates that the U-boat campaign would renew the following day, February 1st, 1917.  “We have been challenged to fight to the end,” the Chancellor intoned.  “We accept the challenge. We stake everything, and we shall be victorious.”

A submarine’s view of the war – German U-boats would sink tremendous numbers of British commercial vessels during the Great War


For a weapon that nearly decided two World Wars, the Unterseeboot or U-boat was barely a consideration in Germany’s naval program.    Continue reading