A League of Their Own

Thousands of curious spectators had gathered along the Rue du Rhône in Geneva at 11am, watching in earnest as the Swiss Federal Council and the State Council of the Canton of Geneva marched in slow procession, escorted by a small military contingent.  At their forefront, Swiss President Giuseppe Motta basked in the adoration of the crowd as the parade of Swiss dignitaries entered the giant Salle de la Réformation event center.

Inside, a collection of 241 delegates from 41 member nations (minus Honduras, whose delegation was still traveling), waited for Motta to take his seat as a honorary chairman at the dais.  The Acting President of the Assembly, Belgian politician Paul Hymans, rang a bell at 11:16am and declared the meeting open – the first official meeting of the League of Nations had begun on November 15th, 1920.

It had been a long and circuitous path to get to this day and the League’s first moments in formal existence (technically, the body had been organized in January of 1920 and had met in it’s proto form), exposed the flaws in it’s creation.  As League drafted a message of thanks to American President Woodrow Wilson, stating that they had gathered on this day at the American’s request, the United States was absent from the proceedings, as well as the Soviet Union, Germany and roughly another 44 sovereign nations that had either been excluded or had chosen to bypass the organization.  And the debates of the first day proved how fragile the newfound League could be, as France threatened to withdraw within hours when the subject of Germany’s admission was discussed.

In the air of the combative and disorganized proceedings, the ultimately prophetic words of Woodrow Wilson to the assembly could be heard:  “I can predict with absolute certainty that within another generation there will be another world war if the nations of the world do not concert the method by which to prevent it.”

The first meeting of the League of Nations – deep divides on policy could be seen from the literal first minutes of the organization

Depending upon one’s historical perspective, the events of November 15th, 1920 in Geneva either represented the end of a nearly 150 year path of diplomatic and small ‘r’ republican political progress or a revolutionary jump from nation states, to competing alliances, to finally a burgeoning sense of global, collective action.  The difference in historical narrative would eventually define those who chose to participate versus those who didn’t, and color the very notion of the purpose and powers of the League of Nations.  Continue reading

White Out

For the better part of six months, the fighting in the Donbas and Don regions of southern Russia and southeastern Ukraine had been a slowly turning meatgrinder of White Russians, Red Bolsheviks, Cossacks and Ukrainians of all political stripes.  Despite being the main front of the Armed Forces of South Russia (AFSR) with the Volunteer Army that had risen from the first days of Bolshevik rule, the Whites had been consistently outgunned and outmanned.  The Volunteer Army had at best 26,000-35,000 men, but were led by experienced Tsarist-era officers, including their commanding officer, General Anton Denikin.  The Bolshevik forces in the area numbered perhaps two-to-one to their White counterparts, but were generally less knowledgeable in military tactics and distracted by their role in invading and occupying the crumbling Ukrainian People’s Republic.  Both sides were increasingly mistrusted by an weary populace that had gone through five years of epic bloodshed and deprivation.

In mid-May of 1919, the tide however looked to turn.  Soldiers of the Volunteer Army and the “Don Army”, essentially Cossack shock troops, had won a number of victories but the Bolsheviks had always seemingly managed to regroup and counterattack.  Yet the Ukrainian front for the Reds had stalled, with the Ukrainians even able to regain some key territory, meaning fresh Bolshevik troops were being deployed elsewhere.  When the White Cossack cavalry attacked this time, the four Russian armies in the region collapsed, with the 9th Army in particular being cut in two and destroyed.  The path to central Ukraine and Russia now lay open.

On July 3rd, 1919, The White Russian movement was at it’s zenith and the Bolsheviks appeared to be at their military nadir.  Victorious across most of his front, General Denikin issued Directive No. 08878 to his armies – an attack on Moscow itself.  The goal was nothing less than the end of the Russian Civil War.

Bolshevik leadership – Lenin is pictured in the center

The political consolidation of the White Russian movement in the winter of 1918/1919 had done nothing to immediately impact the war on the ground.  The Siberian All-Russian Provisional Government of Admiral Alexander Kolchak remained massively removed from the southern Russian/Caucasus forces of the AFSR, but was nevertheless a small light of hope for any anti-Bolshevik forces at an otherwise dark stage in the Russian Civil War.  The Soviets had invaded almost all of their neighboring countries and were victorious on all fronts, including expanding out from their holdings in central Russia and clawing back gains from the small, disorganized White forces.  By the start of 1919, the Soviets looked as though they might reunify the Tsarist-era lands of the Russian Empire relatively quickly and expand their influence throughout Europe as Germany and then Hungary both experienced communist revolutions.  Continue reading


The flurry of telegram traffic between the various capitals of Europe in late June of 1919 was almost similar to the volume seen in the weeks before the Great War.  With the fifth anniversary of that cataclysm rapidly approaching, and no formal peace treaty having yet been signed and accepted, there was burgeoning nervousness that war might return to ravage Europe.  Despite months of Allied negotiations to craft terms of a final treaty with Germany, the German response had waivered between hostile rejection and begrudging acceptance.  Still, no German signature had touched the treaty, in part as no German politician wished to affix their name.  Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann (Friedrich Ebert had risen to the post of President of Germany with the newly announced Weimer Republic), spoke for all his colleagues when he said: “What hand should not wither that puts this fetter on itself and on us?”

The task fell upon Gustav Bauer, the next in line of authority as Schneidemann chose resignation as opposed to destroying his political legacy.  Even Ebert declared the treaty’s demands “unrealizable and unbearable,” decrying not only the punitive terms but the process in which the treaty had been crafted without any input from Germany or the former Central Powers.  This wasn’t a peace treaty but a division of war spoils and an unconditional surrender, or so Germany complained.  Bauer cabled the Allies, stating that he would sign the treaty if a handful of articles containing language about German culpability for the war and war crimes trials for the exiled former Kaiser be removed.  The Allied response was clear – sign the whole treaty within 24 hours or French troops would cross the Rhine and occupy Germany.  In desperation, the new Weimer government asked Paul von HIndenburg if the German army could potentially resist a renewed Allied offensive.  They likely knew the answer before even asking the question.

On June 28th, 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, 27 delegates representing 32 nations gathered to sign the final instrument of peace to end the First World War.  It had been exactly five years to the date of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.  Germany had sent their Foreign Minister to oversee the signing.  Gazing over the Foreign Minister as he signed was the gigantic self-portrait that Louis XIV had commissioned.  The portrait’s title spoke of the Allies dominance on this day – “The King Governs By Himself.”

The treaty signing in the Hall of Mirrors – thousands of onlookers joined journalists and diplomats to oversee the brief ceremony

That any final terms of a peace treaty between Germany and the victorious Allies would be harsh could hardly have been a surprise.  The process of even arriving at an Armistice had seen Germany agree to give up most of their military and infrastructure, not to mention an occupation of the Ruhr by the French that increasingly looked tantamount to annexation.  Similar treaties/armistices with what remained of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had been debilitating as well, as both empires were stripped of their territories, their infrastructure plundered and their armies legislated into irrelevance.  Only post treaty/armistice violence would lessen some of the strongest terms, as the Hungarian revolution and the following Turkish War of Independence forced the Allies’ hand to renegotiate.  And in the winter and spring of 1919, Germany had no appetite or ability to militarily resistContinue reading


The first President of Hungary, Mihály Károlyi, had been forced to swallow many bitter pills in his short time in office.  The last appointed Hungarian Prime Minister by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Charles I, Károlyi had ushered the relative bloodless Astar Revolution (with a couple of notable exceptions) and Hungary’s full independence.  In short order, Károlyi watched the Allied powers disintegrated the lands of the ancient Habsburg regime by decree and by force.  The latest blow had arrived the day before with the arrival of the “Vix Note” – a communique from the French that Hungarian troops were expected to retreat even further than originally agreed upon in order for those lands to be seized by Hungary’s neighbors.

The note had caused Károlyi’s prime minister to resign on March 21st, 1919 as the Hungarians didn’t wish to agree to France’s demands but were in little military position to resist.  With his authority evaporating as quickly as Hungary’s borders, Károlyi proclaimed that the National Council, the legislative body through which he ruled, would attempt to form another government.  But as Károlyi was a determined anti-communist, only the center-left Social Democrats would be allowed as the organizing party.  The Social Democrats agreed on the same day and made a surprising announcement – Károlyi was resigning as President.

Mihály Károlyi had most certainly not told the Social Democrats he intended to resign.  And the Social Democrats had most certainly not told Károlyi that they had secretly entered into an alliance with the Hungarian Communist Party and had released their imprisoned leadership the night before.  Béla Kun, the Moscow-dispatched leader of the Hungarian Communists, immediately declared a Hungarian Soviet Republic, deposing and arresting Károlyi by fiat.  Kun then radioed Vladimir Lenin in Russia, telling him that a “dictatorship of the proletariat” had seized control in Budapest.

The fear of most nations around the world since the Russian Revolution of 1917 had arrived – a Communist dictatorship had taken hold in the heart of Europe.

The Astar Revolution – Hungary’s hopes for an Allied-supported government died a quick death, even with a pro-Allied leader like Mihály Károlyi at the helm

“I was certainly no adherent of the ancient regime, but it seems doubtful to me whether it is a sign of political shrewdness to beat to death the smartest of the many counts [Count István Tisza] and to make the stupidest one [Count Mihály Károlyi] president.”  – Sigmund Freud

Hungary’s fate was far from sealed as the Great War ended on November 11th, 1918.  It took a series of terrible moves from leadership to ensure the rise of a Soviet Republic.  Continue reading

To The Last Man

For the handful of Australian troops on watch at the Finschhafen District military headquarters in Morobe, New Guinea, January 5th, 1919 seemed to be as nondescript as the multitude of days, weeks, months and even years before it.  The region, formerly part of the provinces of German New Guinea, hadn’t seen meaningful combat in more than four years since Australian troops invaded and occupied the colony, driving out the Germans in some of the earliest combat of the Great War.  The brief campaign had been Australia’s first independent military action and had kept region out of the hands out of British or Japanese interests.

The sight greeting the Australians seemed more appropriate for 1914 than 1919 – a column of fully armed New Guinean native German troops, with a resplendently dressed Major in his pressed and cleaned field dress uniform – marching down the streets of Morobe, directly towards the headquarters.  Upon arriving at the front door, the German Major drew his sword and presented it to the Australian commanding officer.  Major Hermann Detzner and the last of his men would surrender – bringing to an end the longest, strangest quasi-guerilla campaign of the First World War.

Hermann Detzner – after the war.  His celebrity would be his undoing

Had Otto von Bismarck had his way, no German soldier would have set foot in New Guinea – or anywhere outside of Europe, for that matter.  The man nicknamed “the Iron Chancellor” for his mastery of 19th Century realpolitik had little time for the expensive vanity projects that were often the result of colonial expansion.  Overseas colonies required vast expenditures of resources without any guarantee of profit and could only further entangle Berlin in the foreign policies of France or Britain, all plainly without the naval might to secure such holdings.  In short – Bismarck sought to avoid precisely most of the military and foreign policy missteps that Germany ended up making in the 1880/90s.  But the allure of powerful financial interests, coupled with domestic political considerations (colonial policies sold well at the ballot box), pushed the Chancellor to embrace the establishment of private colonial ventures.  It would only be a matter of time before private German interests became part of the national interest and forced Germany to send engineers, laborers and finally soldiers overseas. Continue reading

“Bloody Christmas”

There was no Christmas cheer among the soldiers marching to the Reichskanzlei (Chancellery) in Berlin on December 23rd, 1918.  The men were from the Volksmarinedivision, the revolutionary paramilitary unit created, in theory, to defend the newly established Council of the People’s Deputies and the burgeoning German leftist revolution.  In reality, the Volksmarinedivision was closer to the Independent Social Democrats and the so-called “Spartacists”; the more militant wings of the new government that preached a political gospel similar to that of Russia’s Bolsheviks.  The Volksmarinedivision had ransacked the Kaiser’s old Berlin residence, the Stadtschloss, and encamped themselves there after looting or destroying much of the historic artwork of the building.  The Council of the People’s Deputies had protested the division’s actions, seeing them increasingly more as hooligans than soldiers.  In response, the Council ordered the Volksmarinedivision out of Berlin and to dismiss all but 600 of their men.  When the paramilitary group refused, the Council stopped their paychecks.

Lieutenant Heinrich Dorrenbach, the group’s commander and close ally to Karl Liebknecht of the Spartacus League, marched on the Reichskanzlei ostensibly to follow orders – he had the keys to the Stadtschloss in hand and was prepared to reduce his forces and leave the city, provided the government issue their backpay.  But no German politician would claim that they were authorized to pay Dorrenbach and his men, deferring the decision to Berlin’s Chancellor and the Chairman of the Council, Friedrich Ebert.  Ebert had no patience for the Volksmarinedivision, whom he considered thuggish radicals led by a “rootless adventurer.”  The issue of the Volksmarinedivision had been one of many that was quickly dividing the new government, and Ebert was vainly trying to mollify both the political left and right in his ad hoc administration.  Whether Ebert intended to pay the Volksmarinedivision eventually or not, he wasn’t going to be threatened into a decision.

Dorrenbach had his answer.  His men swarmed the Reichskanzlei, blocking the doors and access roads.  Another contingent marched to the Kommandantenhaus, the military headquarters for the city, looking to capture the city’s military commander, the politician Otto Wels.  The building’s guard, regular army troops, resisted and shots were fired.  It didn’t matter.  The superior numbers of the Volksmarinedivision had overwhelmed the government, taking Wels and other key political figures hostage.  The moment that Ebert and many members of the Council of the People’s Deputies had tried to avoid had arrived – the German revolution was about to turn bloody.

Karl Liebknecht – Germany’s Lenin, at least in the eyes of many.  He lacked Lenin’s ruthlessness or political savvy, having often to be dragged along into decisions affecting the revolution

From the very beginning of the chaotic German end to the war, there was a fear in Berlin (and indeed, across Europe) that Germany was quickly staging their own rendition of the Russian revolution.  Continue reading

Black & White & Reds All Over

In the late hours of November 17th, 1918, the southern Siberian city of Omsk was suddenly abuzz with activity.  A key junction along the Trans-Siberian Railway and the meeting point between the railway’s northern and southern branches, Omsk had seen it’s fair amount of political activity for months as the Provisional All-Russian Government, informally known as The Directory, had established the city as it’s seat of governance.  Uniting many Socialist Revolutionary members (SRs) who had held power in the original Soviets and the elected Constituent Assembly, along with former Tsarist officers, the Directory appeared as the potential precursor for a unified White Russian political movement. 

The Directory even appeared on the verge of gaining international recognition as Vice-Admiral Alexander Kolchak, recently returned to Russia from various overseas diplomatic tours, had decided to join The Directory’s Council of Ministers as the Ministers of both War and the Navy.  Kolchak had originally returned to Russia via Japan with the intention of traveling to the other side of the empire to join the former Tsarist officer-led Volunteer Army.  Instead, the Vice-Admiral had cast his lot with militarily inferior, but politically more diverse Directory.  Kolchak was held in high esteem by the Allies, and the British in particular, with British Military Attaché General Alfred Knox saying of Kolchak that he had “more grit, pluck and honest patriotism than any Russian in Siberia.”

Omsk’s commotion this evening however wasn’t more would-be politicians but Cossack soldiers.  Moving throughout the city, one by one, many of the 14 ministers of the Directory were swooped up by the Cossacks and placed under arrest.  By the following morning, the few Directory members who were left understood what had occurred in the wee hours – Kolchak and his supporters had staged a coup, arresting most of the SR-aligned ministers and executives.  By a private vote, the remaining Ministers gave their consent to elect Kolchak the “Verkhovnyi Pravitel” or “Supreme Ruler” of Russia, consolidating all political and military authority under his office.

From the Caspian to the Pacific, the newly formed “Russian Republic” held one of the largest territorial empires on the globe.  And for better and for worse, the White Russian movement now had a singular leader.

Admiral Alexander Kolchak – he would be viewed as the defacto leader of the entire White Russian resistance, but in reality Kolchak was barely in charge of his own Siberian government and held little practical influence over the rest of the White armies or leaders

The end of the war in Europe meant nothing towards ending the growing Civil War in Russia.  Despite invoking fear across the former Russian Empire and in many capitals around the world, the ruling Bolsheviks controlled precious little territory.  In the west, Ukraine, Finland and the Baltic States had split away.  In the northern port cities, the Allies held sway, occupying large swathes of land that would be directly or in-directly governed by White Russian collaborators.  The Caucasus were losing some ground back to the Bolsheviks, but chunks of the region were still led by a loose confederation of ethnic governments, leftist Menshevik politicians and thuggish Cossack warlords.  And in the East, thanks to the Czechoslovak Legion and Allied intervention, the entire country from Azerbaijan to Vladivostok had been in the hands of the newly formed Provisional All-Russian Government.  The regions that lay in the hands of the Bolsheviks’ opponents were large – well more than half of the original Russian Empire – but the industrial base of the country and large population centers were mostly under Red control.  Continue reading

11th Hour

A heavy fog had enveloped Ville-devant-Chaumont, just north of Verdun, obscuring the view even just meters away for the American troops of the 313th Infantry Regiment of the 79th “Liberty” Division.  The regiment, called “Baltimore’s Own” due to the high number of locals from that city, was utterly exhausted having been on the front lines of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive for nearly two months.  They could hear the crackling fire of German machine guns ahead of them, but were more interested in the running footsteps to their rear.  It was a communique from their commanding officer to hold their position and to neither advance nor retreat until following orders were given.

The 313th was relieved, with one exception – 23 year-old Private Henry Gunther.  Gunther had left a fiancé and a successful early career as a banker in Baltimore when he was drafted.  The son of German immigrants, Gunther arrived in France eager to prove his patriotism yet quickly became discouraged amid the slaughter of the trenches.  Gunther wrote to a friend complaining of his life in France and encouraging his friend not to volunteer.  Army censors read the letter and demoted Gunther.  In response, the former banker began to volunteer for dangerous assignments to prove his loyalty, even being hit with shrapnel as a runner that could have sent him home.  Gunther refused; he still hadn’t regained his honor.

Injury and risky service didn’t return his rank or apparently his unit’s respect and it cost him at home.  Gunther’s fiancé wrote that she was ending the relationship, further sending Gunther into a spiral of reckless heroism.  His fellow soldiers noted that as the war seemed to be coming to an end Gunther became more and more withdrawn, perhaps knowing that his opportunities to find redemption or meaning amid the bloodshed were dwindling.  Gunther wasn’t going to obey any orders to hold his position on this day – he was going to attack.

On the other side of the line, the German machine gun nest saw a figure emerge from the fog, charging at them with a fixed bayonet.  They fired, careful to avoid hitting him, hoping that he’d stop or retreat.  Gunther jumped to the ground but quickly rose again, resuming his charge.  In broken english, the Germans yelled at Gunther, frantically waiving their arms to tell him to stop; “Baltimore’s Own” wouldn’t be discouraged.  At last, fearing for their own lives, the German machine gunners fired off a five-round burst, striking Gunther in the head, killing him instantly.

It was 10:59am on November 11th, 1918.  The last combat casualty of the Great War had fallen.

Henry Gunther’s grave site in France.  Gunther is widely acknowledged as the last combat death of the First World War before the armistice.  More would die in accidents or sporadic fighting after 11am, to say nothing of the war in the East

Four days earlier a far different sight could be seen by French soldiers in their trenches near the town of La Capelle.  Three large cars, each with the black eagle of Imperial Germany on their sides, approached the front lines with their headlights on. Two German soldiers were perched on the running boards of the lead car, one waving a white flag, the other, with a long silver bugle, blowing the call for ceasefire – a single high tone repeated in rapid succession four times, then four times again, with the last note lingering.  The German delegation to discuss an armistice had arrived.  Continue reading

Kiel Over

With only a couple of exceptions since the Battle of Jutland in the summer of 1916, the German High Seas Fleet had sat mostly at anchor at the Schillig roadstead off of the main German naval base in Wilhelmshaven.  Days of inactivity had turned to weeks, which turned into months, which transformed the expensive, mighty battleships of the Kaiserliche Marine into rusting hulks crewed by aggravated, bored sailors.  The attitude around Wilhelmshaven had only become worse in recent days as the U-boat fleet had been ordered to return to port as the new government of Max von Baden ended Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign as an American-requested prerequisite to armistice negotiations

But there was an air of excitement at Wilhelmshaven on October 24th, 1918.  Orders had come down from the Chief of the German Admiralty, Reinhard Scheer – the High Sea Fleet would prepare to launch it’s entire armada out into the North Sea.  18 Dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 14 light cruisers, 60 destroyers and torpedo boats and nearly 30 submarines would sail for the Thames Estuary to engage a numerically superior British Navy in the thick of their home waters.  The likely endgame was clear to German officers.  The Chief of Staff to the High Sea Fleet’s admiral wrote in his diary that the coming offensive was “a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle,” yet was necessary as “it would be the foundation for a new German fleet.”  

Acting clearly against the wishes of the civilian German government, and even the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche Marine had put into the motion the first pieces of what on paper would be the largest naval battle in human history – twice the size of the forces at Jutland if all ships became engaged.  It would end with their nation in defeat and engulfed in revolution.

German sailors – and a variety of civilian supporters – march in the major naval base in Kiel.  The “Kiel Mutiny” would become the first acts in the German Revolution that ended World War I

The condition of the German Navy had seemingly been both a source of concern and a blind eye for the Oberste Heeresleitung or German High Command.  

The sailors of the High Seas Fleet returning from Jutland on June 1st, 1916 were exuberant, having won a tactical victory and believing the congratulations sent to them by their Kaiser that they had “started a new chapter in world history” by defeating the vaunted British Royal Navy.  But the cost of Jutland – 11 ships – had precluded another significant campaign in the minds of the German command, and the High Seas Fleet had only left Wilhelmshaven three times since June of 1916, and only once since the fall of that same year.  Scheer, the commander of the High Seas Fleet until August of 1918, had in part led that charge, arguing that unrestricted submarine attacks were the only hope Germany had for winning the war on the seas.  As a result, outside of the U-boats, the Kaiserliche Marine had nothing to do but wait.  Continue reading

Veni Vidi Vittorio

It was night on October 23rd, 1918 as a series of rowboats silently dipped their oars in the waters of the Piave river in Italy.  The Piave had remained as quiet as the rowboats’ occupants since the Italian defensive victory that summer, halting and then repelling an Austro-Hungarian offensive launched with hopes of knocking Rome out of the war.  But the men aboard these boats were neither Italian or Austro-Hungarian, but British, members of the Honourable Artillery Company (an infantry battalion, despite the name) and the Royal Welch Fusiliers.  While neither company could be viewed as “special forces,” they were most certainly elite forces of the Crown as the HAC had it’s lineage back to 1087 and it’s Captain-General was officially listed as the King George V.    

Their assignment was to secure the series of islands on the Piave river that now constituted no-mans-land, starting with the largest island, Grave di Papadopoli.  The HAC and Fusiliers landed with bayonets fixed, sneaking and stabbing their away across the island before the soldiers of the Dual Monarchy were finally able to sound the alarm.  In a brief, but tough fight, with Italian diversionary troops even being defeated on the southern part of the island, Grave di Papadopoli was captured by Allied forces.  The stage was set for the following morning, the one year anniversary of the Italian army’s humiliating defeat at Caporetto, as 1.4 million Allied troops would throw themselves at 1.8 million Austro-Hungarians.  The result would be the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of the 600+ year Habsburg Monarchy.

Vittorio Veneto – a major Italian victory that in historical hindsight looks more like a case of Austrian collapse than anything else

By late October of 1918, it could be questioned whether or not a battle even needed to take place to bring about the end of Austria-Hungary’s participation in the Great War.  The same day as the Germans learned that President Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t mediate an armistice based on his Fourteen Points, at least not without strenuous pre-conditions, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Baron István Burián von Rajecz asked for similar terms from the Allies.  As Rajecz made his request, the Allies formally accepted Czechoslovakia into their alliance.  Trying to curry favor with the various ethnic groups now striving to break away from the Empire, Emperor Charles I issued an imperial manifesto that days later that would fundamentally changed the Austrian half of the government, giving autonomy to most ethnic states.  It wasn’t enough.  The literal next day, the Hungarian parliament passed a resolution ending the Austro-Hungarian partnership, despite having just renewed it for two years, and declared independence.  The Dual Monarchy was now a singular one (although the formal cancellation of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 wouldn’t happen until the end of the month).  What remained was rapidly falling apart.  Continue reading

Pèace de Résistance

Prince Maximilian von Baden, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, was likely as anxious as any member of the German government to hear that Berlin had finally received a response from American President Woodrow Wilson on October 14th, 1918.  Ten days earlier, Max, a relatively unknown liberal member of the Prussian nobility and former military staff officer, had publicly declared Germany’s willingness to engage in an armistice based around Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  The Prince of Baden had initially resisted the post when offered to him by Kaiser Wilhelm II, knowing full well that even the most generous possible terms of a future armistice would likely cost Germany dearly and Max was not interested in going down in history as the Chancellor who offered up Germany’s de facto surrender.

But following a crown council meeting on September 29th, 1918, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff had advised the Kaiser that nothing short of an armistice could save Germany as neither general could ensure the Empire’s ability to hold together what remained of the Western Front.  While there was debate as to what Germany expected from any armistice request – Ludendorff vacillated between viewing an armistice as defeat or as simply a delaying tactic that would allow the German army to regroup – Baden had been tasked with making the offer.  The prior Chancellor and government had resigned in protest to news that the Kaiser and his two top generals alone had decided to seek peace, believing that in Berlin’s parliamentary democracy only the Reichstag retained the right to matters of war and peace.  Although Baden’s appointment would appease the growing liberal sectors of the Reichstag, the Prince of Baden knew he would be viewed with suspicion by all factors of the parliament – a toady to the conservative Kaiser or as a weak-willed liberal seeking peace.

Baden and others hoped that an armistice based upon Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be temperate in it’s punishments.  The message they received on October 14th, 1918 crushed those hopes.  Wilson would not lead any armistice negotiations.  Indeed, there would be no negotiations and no armistice with the current construction of the German government.  If the Kaiser abdicated the throne and Germany stopped their “illegal and inhumane practices” of submarine warfare and scorched earth tactics as they retreated in France, only then could the fighting cease.  And any final terms would be dictate by the Allies as a whole, not with America as a mediator.

There would be no easy peace for Germany.  And the nation would wrestle with how much they were willing to pay to end the bloodshed.

Max von Baden – center, with mustache.  He would resign on the eve of the Armistice, as Germany was plunged into revolution

If there was one issue that the various heads of state and military leaders of the warring powers could agree upon by the fall of 1918 (with perhaps the prominent exception of Erich Ludendorff), it was that an armistice was not only necessary, but desired.  But what any armistice would look like or how it would come about were open questions with constantly changing answers.  Continue reading

A Meused – Part Two

Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer of the 120th Württemberg Landwehr Regiment’s 1st Battalion was hoping that his approaching adjutant was bringing good news that early morning of October 8th, 1918.  Most of the reports he had been given had been to retreat as American and French forces slowly but surely carved their way through the Argonne forest, albeit at great cost.  The news was indeed good – the Prussian 210th Reserve Infantry Regiment had arrived at the front, perhaps allowing Vollmer to counterattack.  The veteran German commander rushed 200 yards to the front to see his reinforcements.

What he saw was only 70 new men sprinkled among his own regiment, all with their weapons on the ground and eating instead.  Vollmer vainly attempted to get the men marching; they said they wouldn’t move until they had breakfast.  Only the sounds of gunfire and retreating Germans past a nearby hill rallied the 210th to set down their utensils.  One of the fleeing Germans shouted “Die Amerikaner Kommen!” as he ran past, prompting a handful of the 210th to throw up their hands in surrender.  Vollmer immediately grabbed his pistol and forced a few of them to pick up their weapons.  As he did, a few Americans ran at the German position, one of them shooting his M1911 semi-automatic pistol.  Vollmer and the rest of his men were sure this had to be the advance scouts of a larger American unit and after Vollmer had emptied his pistol without hitting the lead American – and seeing the American shoot several more of his men – he offered to surrender.

A large American with a red mustache, broad features and a freckled face approached Vollmer and accepted the surrender of the men under Vollmer’s direct command.  It was only then that the German realized no American reinforcements were coming.  132 Germans had surrendered to (then) Corporal Alvin York and six other soldiers.  The Americans were beginning to learn how to fight and win in the trenches.

Alvin York – he would become one of the most famous individual soldiers in American history, but his post-WWII politics (he was in favor of attacking the Soviet Union) had him fall from public view

The Americans had been served their first real taste of defeat in the opening days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, as the German counterattack badly bloodied the 35th Division to the point of nearly destroying it.  Among the many casualties had been Lt. Col. George S. Patton who was personally leading from his 304th Tank Brigade.  Patton had been frustrated with the inability of his tanks to advance and rounded up some men in a nearby trench to dig out his stuck tanks.  One of the soldiers questioned the wisdom of exposing themselves to German artillery for Patton’s tanks – Patton replied by striking the soldier in the head with a shovel.  Even Patton remarked in his diary that he may have killed the man, who did not get up after being struck.  Patton’s willingness to expose himself and others to dangerous conditions would catch up with him that very same day, as Patton would be hit in the leg with a machine gun bullet that tore a wound the size of a silver dollar through his buttocks.  If not for the courage of his orderly, Private Joe Angelo, Patton would have bled to death near the town of Cheppy in the forests of the Argonne.  Continue reading

A Meused – Part One

Sunrise was still many hours away when the densely packed forest of the Argonne on the Western Front lit up with the whistles and cracks of fired and exploding artillery on September 26th, 1918 (the same day as the Saint-Quentin Canal offensive).  The mountainous and wild woodlands of the Argonne had been scarred by the war, but plenty of trees remained standing.  The thick forests became shrapnel as the Allied artillery groped to find and destroy the Hindenburg Line trenches that protected the southern flank of the critical Sedan rail junction along the Meuse river.  As the Germans huddled in their positions, awaiting the inevitable infantry attack, they at least felt confident knowing the Allies would have to make their way across large sections of open terrain; perfect targets for machine guns and artillery.

Opposing them would not be the usual assortment of weary British soldiers or beleaguered French troops.  15 divisions of American “doughboys” would lead the charge, with 31 French divisions fighting alongside – 1.2 million Allied soldiers in all.  The American divisions were twice as large as any European counterpart, but for many of the young men in the trench, this would be their first significant action in the Great War.  Over the next 47 days, the United States would get it’s first – and last – taste of the horrors of the trench system of the Western Front.  Reputations would be won and lost, including multiple Medals of Honor for the battle.  And the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would claim more American lives than any battle in the nation’s history*.

American troops ready to march on the Argonne

For the better part of a year after their declaration of war, the United States’ participation in Europe’s death struggle had matched the dismissive evaluation of former German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg who declared that American support of the Allies would only result in the “delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.”  And for the part better of 1917, America struggled to even match that analysis. Continue reading

On the Line

The Canal de Saint-Quentin, the waterway that connected the River Oise and the Somme, had been one of the great engineering marvels of the 19th Century.  At first a sleepy little spillway during the 1700s, the Napoleonic Era saw the canal widened and given more depth, with a series of locks and tunnels that turned the route into the busiest man-made waterway by freight in France until the 1960s.

By the fall of 1918, the Canal de Saint-Quentin found itself a part of another major engineering marvel, this time of the 20th Century – the Hindenburg Line.  Indeed, the canal was viewed by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impenetrable section of the entire line, as between the canal’s rushing waters and the Hindenburg Line’s mixture of barbed wire, trenches and massive, reinforced concrete defenses, the ability to cross the Line was for all intends and purposes impossible.  Any attacker would have to wade through the canal under fire, limiting the ability to get tanks and heavy equipment across while going through an additional a no-man’s-land covered by machine guns and artillery.  Given the Great War’s track record of amphibious operations and plans, an offensive against Saint-Quentin seemed borderline suicidal.

As September 26th, 1918 was about to become September 27th, 1,044 British field guns and howitzers and 593 medium and heavy guns lashed out at Saint-Quentin, along with 30,000 poison gas shells in the largest British bombardment of the war.  The barrage was to open the way for the first wave of 30 British/Australian divisions and 2 American divisions, with the inexperienced Americans tasked to charge in first.  The attack had been hotly contested at the highest levels of the Allied governments and even mid-level British officers thought the offensive was nothing more than a “sacrificial stunt” to vainly attempt to keep Germany on the ropes as they retreated from their Spring Offensive gains.  

For the first time, the fearsome Hindenburg Line would be fully engaged by the Allies.  The momentum of the war rested upon the outcome.

The remains of the one of the Hindenburg Line’s bunkers

One hardly had to be clairvoyant in late September of 1918 to see that the Great War was finally, mercifully, coming to a head.  Since their “Black Day” in Amiens in early August, the German army had been in a headlong retreat back to the Hindenburg Line, surrendering tens of thousands of prisoners as well as miles of ground that had cost them a million men earlier in the year.  The Austro-Hungarian attempts at forcing a conclusion in Italy had been stymied, the Ottomans were being driven out of the Middle East with horrific casualties and the Bulgarians were in the process of surrendering.  The Central Powers were no longer on the verge of collapse – they were actively collapsing. Continue reading

Judgement Day

The transformations of four years of war were readily apparent at 1am in the skies above Al-Afuleh in Palestine on September 19th, 1918.  One British Handley Page 0/400 bomber flew over the city, the headquarters of the Ottoman/German command for Palestine in the Jezreel Valley, dropping it’s payload of sixteen 112-pound bombs.  Four years earlier, the first “heavy” bomber in aerial history, the French Voisin III, could carry one 132-pound bomb, dropping it indiscriminately with little to no accuracy.  Aerial operations in 1914 were reconnaissance-focus; by 1918, both sides were using planes in intra-service coordination to attack and overwhelm their enemy’s lines.  With a singular strike, the Handley Page bomber destroyed the telephone exchange and main railway station, serving communications between the Ottoman/German High Command and their soldiers.

A few hours later, the British army roared to life, with 385 field guns lashing out at the Ottoman line.  A massive coordinated campaign of artillery, cavalry, infantry and Arabian guerillas would destabilize what remained of the Central Powers’ position in Palestine, destroying two Ottoman armies and reducing the Ottoman morale to dust.  As had happened to the Germans and the Bulgarians, now the Turks would face a killing stroke that would set in motion the end of their Empire.  It would be a fitting conclusion to a battle chosen by the British because of the proximity to the ancient city of Megiddo – or as it was known in Hebrew, Armageddon.

British troops advance with air cover – the modern ability of airpower to attack ground forces would set a historic precedent at Megiddo

The capture of Jerusalem in late 1917 had been a welcome victory for an Allied war effort that appeared to be falling apart.  In a few sharp battles, British General Edmund Allenby had driven the Turks out of southern Palestine with thousands of casualties to few losses of his own.  Where the British had been stymied in the Sinai and Gaza for years, racking up losses of tens of thousands of men, in six months Allenby had gutted the Ottoman line, destroyed entire armies and all for the loss of perhaps just over 3,000 men.  Accuracy, speed and guile had been Allenby’s tools and they had worked wonders against veteran Turkish soldiers and accomplished German commanders like Erich von Falkenhayn and Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein.  But the victories hadn’t meant the end of the Palestinian campaign and Allenby would now face his greatest opponent – the British War Office.  Continue reading

A “Good Field” On Which To Die

The guns that roared to life across the Bulgarian/Greek lines in Northern Macedonia on September 14th, 1918 had been expected for some time.  What had been a relatively quiet front for the better part of three years since the Allied landings at Salonika had come to life since late May of 1918 as the “Allied Army of the Orient”, a cosmopolitan assortment of divisions cobbled together from Britain, France, Italy, Serbia and finally Greece, slowly began to advance.  Opposing them had once been an equally mixed grand alliance of Central Powers divisions, which had slowly melted away into just two depleted Bulgarian armies.

800 Allied artillery pieces struck the Bulgarian trenches at Dobro Pole (“Good Field”) and Allied aircraft bombed the supply chain behind the line.  The barrage would continue into the next day, doing little direct damage to the Bulgarian line but carving up the barbed wire defenses and clearing paths through no man’s land.  In many ways, the Allied offensive looked the same as literally dozens of others over the past four years on battlefields across Europe and the Middle East.  But as Allied soldiers finally hit the Bulgarian trenches, suffering tough casualties, the outcome was profoundly different.  The Bulgarians broke.  Like the Germans in Amiens just a month earlier, the average Bulgarian soldier no longer wanted anything to do with the Great War.  

What had been hoped to be a minor Allied offensive to regain ground lost to the Bulgarians earlier in the war turned into a rout.  And the first of the Central Powers would fall.

Bulgarian trenches – Bulgaria had managed to hold off a massive Allied army largely by themselves for nearly years

In many ways, the Salonika Front had been frozen in place since late 1916 as first the Central Powers, and then the Allies, had tried in vain to quickly end what had become yet another tertiary front sapping men and materials badly needed elsewhere.  The Germans had coordinated with Greek King Constantine to allow German and Bulgarian troops to invade Northern Macedonia in an attempt to expel the Allied encampment at Salonika.  The move prompted the overthrow of the Greek monarchy and an Allied counteroffensive that regained some of the lost Macedonian territory but otherwise locked the two sides into the same positions they’d share until the summer of 1918.  Forces for both sides would come and go as needs on other fronts dictated, with the Russians leaving Greece with the fall of the Tsar and the Turks leaving as their Arabian and Mesopotamian Empires collapsed.  But the battles were few and far between, with the Allies referring to the front as “Muckydonia” due to it’s mud and boredom and the Germans mockingly calling Salonika “their largest POW camp.”  Continue reading

The Black Day

There was little visibility in either side’s trenches in Amiens at 4:20am on August 8th, 1918.  Between the last of the night sky and a thick fog that rolled into the battlefield in northern France, spotting any movement was at a premium.  Despite the distance between the trenches being larger than usual at nearly 500 yards (usually trenches were only 50 to 250 yards apart), the Germans felt they had a good understanding of the disposition of the British forces across from them.  While elsewhere on the newly established lines of the Western Front the Germans were either fortifying or retreating to more defensible positions following their Spring Offensive, at Amiens German troops sat largely in place.  Other than increased aerial bombing in the area, the Germans believed their intelligence that the Allies would counterattack elsewhere.  They had even held a raid that penetrated 800 yards into the Allied trenches just days earlier and had seen no evidence of an Allied build-up.

The crashing weight of 32 divisions of British, Canadian, Australian, French and American troops utterly broke the German line that morning.  Erich Ludendorff would call August 8th, 1918 “the black day of the German Army” and the Allies would eventually know the attack as the start of the “100 Days Offensive” – the last 100 days of the Great War.

British soldiers ride a tank at Amiens.  The battle saw the successful deployment of hundreds of tanks

As July of 1918 began to wind down, the positions of both the German and Allied armies were becoming clear.

German numerical superiority had vanished, with the Germans holding 207 divisions in France and Belgium and the Allies having 203 divisions to meet them.  Worse for Germany, an increasing number of these Allied divisions were Americans, meaning those divisions were typically twice as large as in any European army.  In terms of pure manpower, Germany was probably now in the minority in the West.  The German High Command estimated that they’d need at least 200,000 new soldiers a month just to make good on the rate of loss they were experiencing in France.  The next annual class of 18 year-old draftees was only 300,000 in total, and perhaps only 70,000 wounded German soldiers would be physically able to return to duty.  Germany was literally bleeding to death.  Continue reading

Belyy Russkiy

It was barely after midnight on July 17, 1918 when the former royal family of Russia had been disturbed from their sleep.  Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and a handful of members of the royal entourage had made their home in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains just a couple of months earlier, all under the intense and abusive watch of Bolshevik guards.  After the abdication in February of 1917, Nicholas II had lived in relative comfort as the Provisional Government allowed them a standard of living comparable to their former reign, even attempting to negotiate the Tsar’s relocation to Britain.  But with the rise of the Bolsheviks, Nicholas II and his family were now prisoners of the State; their fates a topic of debate at the highest levels of the Soviet government.

In Yekaterinburg, the Romanovs lived in rooms with sealed and painted over windows, and were given two half-hour periods outside the house where they sat in a tiny garden surrounded by 14-foot walls.  “Luxuries” like butter and coffee had been cut out of their meals.  No visitors or newspapers were allowed, nor was any conversation allowed with the 300 guards assigned to watch them, all under the threat of being shot and other verbal abuse.  Surviving diary entries from the family show a slow realization towards their eventual fate.

As the family and their remaining servants gathered in the basement of home, ostensibly to be evacuated due to the advancing Czechoslovak Legion, the head guard read from a letter:

“Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

Before the family could react beyond Nicholas II asking “What?”, the guards opened fire.  The tiny basement quickly filled with smoke, ricochets and screams.  When the gunshots stopped, the guards realized how poor their aim had been – outside of the Tsar and his wife, most of the family and others were still alive.  Over the next 20 minutes, the guards shot and stabbed the children and servants, mutilating and sexually abusing the bodies.  The remains were stripped, covered in Sulphuric acid, lye, then burned and buried.  Such was the level of concern over giving the advancing Czechoslovaks and the burgeoning White Army any standard bearer upon which to rally – even a royal corpse.

The last act of the House of Romanov was among the first acts of the Russian Civil War.

White Cossacks charge – the Cossacks were the initial backbone of the White Army

The historic descriptor of the loose confederacy of activists, politicians and generals that opposed the Bolsheviks as the “White” Russian movement could be seen as truly apt.  If “white” as a color is often seen as formless, bland, lacking contours and definition, so to was the nature of the “White” Russian resistance to the “Red” Bolsheviks that took power in the fall of 1917.  While later definitions of the Whites would oversimplify them as a conservative, reactionary force, the White movement constituted political leaders ranging from Mensheviks, to Social Democrats, Monarchists, and ultra-nationalist militias.  The Whites were a movement without philosophical grounding or even consistent political leadership, with most efforts to organize failing and leading to dictatorial control from former Tsarist generals and local warlords.  At their core, to be a “White” often simply meant to stand in opposition to the Bolsheviks. Continue reading

Early Sedition

It was a typically sweltering summer day in Canton, Ohio on June 16th, 1918, but it hadn’t stopped an estimated 1,200 locals, bolstered by a healthy contingent of press, from gathering in a city park.  Nor had it stopped the day’s speaker, former 4-time Socialist candidate for President Eugene Debs, from wearing a heavy tweed jacket and buttoned vest, sweating profusely as he spoke.  At 62 years of age, Debs had barely recovered from an illness in time for his midwestern anti-war speaking tour and looked worse for the wear.  His audience was a Socialist convention picnic and federal agents wandered through the crowded, randomly demanding draft cards.  

Debs, always the political firebrand, heaped praise on the Bolshevik Revolution and defended three local Socialists who had been recently imprisoned for speaking out against the war.  “They have come to realize,” he intoned, “that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

Two weeks later, Debs would find himself arrested under the same charges and become the most well-known defendant against the recently-passed Sedition Act.  

Uncle Sam picks up a variety of individuals – an IWW supporter, a Sinn Fein activist and a “traitor”

While the Sedition Act of 1918 – and it’s precursor, the Espionage Act of 1917 – most assuredly had their roots in America’s involvement in the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson’s interest in far-reaching legal authority related to the domestic end of national security pre-dated the American declaration of war.  In late 1915, as Europe’s war raged on, Wilson delivered his State of the Union, declaring:

“There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt …  Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

Continue reading

Solstice of the Habsburgs

The anxiousness in the Austro-Hungarian trenches along the Piave river in Italy was obvious at 2:30am on June 15th, 1918.  In 30 minutes, hundreds of thousands of men, supported by nearly 7,000 pieces of heavy artillery, would launch themselves at the Italian line as part of a massive, nearly one-million man offensive designed to finally push Italy out of the war.  Despite the rapidly increasing political disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, if Italy could be dealt one more major blow like they had received the preceding fall at Caporetto, the Dual Monarchy’s last major remaining front would close, perhaps meaning that the Empire could successfully negotiate their way out of the war.  Coupled with Germany’s gains in France as part of their Spring Offensive, a glimmer of hope that the war could be conventionally won, despite all evidence to the contrary, was seen.  The Empire had staked everything on this offensive – either it would be one of the greatest moments in the Dual Monarchy’s history, or it would be a failed gamble that would hasten the polyglot Empire’s end.

At 2:30am, the Piave roared to life with the crashing sounds of artillery.  The offensive wasn’t suppose to begin for another half-hour.  It was Italian artillery.  Rome knew exactly what was about to occur – and was throwing their own million-man army into the attack.

A Bridge Too Far – crossing the Piave would become the major hurdle in the offensive

The disaster of Caporetto had shaken the Italian army – and society – to its core.  305,000 casualties, essentially one whole Italian army group, had been destroyed and the Austro-Hungarians sat on the doorstep of the Italian plane.  Only the Piave river blocked any further advance and if Vienna could cross it, there would be no natural boundaries to prevent them from driving deep into northern Italy and capturing most of the Italian industrial base.  Such a strike would almost guarantee that Italy would be forced to sue for peace. Continue reading

A Question of Survival

By the standards of the Great War, the Turkish army that was encamped near Sardarabad in Eastern Armenia was an after-thought.  13,000 Turkish and Kurdish soldiers, with 40 pieces of heavy artillery (albeit many outdated cannons), sat waiting to continue the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the rapidly disintegrating Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic on May 21st, 1918.  With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk having effectively broken up the Russian Empire, the fate of the Caucasus lay in a state of political flux, with the Turks, Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and even Germans vying for a measure of control of the oil-rich region.  The political vacuum had emboldened the Turks to invade and the fledging Transcaucasian Republic lacked the resources – and political will – to challenge it.  By May of 1918, most of Western Armenia had been conquered and Eastern Armenia looked ripe to fall as well.

The call to defend what remained of Armenia echoed throughout the countryside.  “Carts drawn by oxen, water buffalo, and cows jammed the roads bringing food, provisions, ammunition, and volunteers” as thousands of Armenians rallied at the capitol of Yerevan.  For the civilians of Yerevan, defeat would not just mean a loss of political independence but very likely the loss of their lives.  The Turkish invasion had continued the Ottoman policy of Armenian genocide which had already claimed up to 1.5 million Armenian lives.  For in the words of one British historian, if the Armenians failed to stop the Ottoman invasion “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”

The remains of Armenian victims

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”  – Adolf Hitler

The fate of the Armenian people had been part-and-parcel of Europe’s general concern of the treatment of Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire since the mid-19th Century.  Having defended the Ottomans against the Russians, including fighting for the Turks in the Crimean War, Britain and France began to question the relative wisdom of propping up a regime in Constantinople that so plainly repressed the rights of fellow Christians.  As subsequent revolts occurred throughout the Ottoman Empire, freeing Christian populations like the Serbs and Greeks, while prompting even greater restrictions and cruelties from the Turks in response, Western Europe began applying pressure to the Ottomans lest they lose support in their wars against the Tsar. Continue reading


The rail station at Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains was busy on May 14th, 1918.  With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk recently signed, hundreds of thousands of Central Powers POWs were being transferred back to their home countries.  Amid the thousands of Hungarian troops awaiting their westbound trains at Chelyabinsk were a different assortment of soldiers, trying to travel the opposite direction – the men of the Allied-aligned Czechoslovak Legion.

The 40,000 men of the Czechoslovak Legion had been fighting for the Russians just months earlier and with the fall of the Tsar and then the Provisional Government, were now looking for a way to get to France to continue their fight for independence from the Dual Monarchy.  But with every major Russian port in the West blocked by the Central Powers, the Legion had little choice but to make the arduous journey eastbound to the Siberian port of Vladivostok where they could board Allied ships for yet another lengthy trip to Europe.  Having 40,000 armed men trek across their nation was hardly welcome news to the Bolsheviks, who barely controlled the former Russian Empire in the first place.  Both highly suspicious of the Czech’s motivations but also eager to get them out of the country, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin had concocted an arrangement to provide transportation for the Legion to Vladivostok, provided the Legion mostly disarm.  The Legionnaires didn’t trust the Bolsheviks, but the Russian chapter of the larger Czechoslovak National Council – the political arm of Czech and Slovak independence – saw few other options.  The Legion could be disarmed and shipped home or imprisoned.  And given that the Austro-Hungarian authorities often executed the Legionnaires as spies or rebels, imprisonment in Russia could lead to be turned over to Vienna and almost certain death.

The mood was tense at Chelyabinsk as the Hungarians and Legionnaires kept their distance, trading barbs and threats.  One of the Hungarians threw an object at one of the Legionnaires, striking him.  In an instant, the two sides were attacking one another in open warfare.  The Legion quickly defeated the Hungarians and took over the rail station.  And when the Bolsheviks intervened, arresting several members of the Legion and threatening execution to any who refused to disarm, the rest of the Legionnaires stormed the jail and key points in the city, freeing their comrades.  Chelyabinsk was now effectively in Czech hands.  The Legion was going to war in Russia.

The Czechoslovak Legion train – they would travel nearly 6,000 miles just to get onto a boat and start the next leg of their journey

The Legionnaires represented a country that didn’t even exist and had struggled to gain political and military support for nearly four years of war.

The concept of encouraging ethnic minorities to undermine the various powers at war had been adopted by almost every combatant from even the earliest days of the conflict.  The Dual Monarchy had supported Polish guerilla units even before the Great War, the Germans had backed Afrikaners on numerous occasions, the Turks would back the Senussi, the British armed the Arabs and both sides attempted to woo or threaten the many ethnicities of the Caucasus and Persia.  Sowing discontent among the Czechs and Slovaks of Vienna’s polyglot empire would appear par for the course as soon as it was clear that the dream of a world war over by Christmas was not to be. Continue reading

The Free Lord

As the German Spring Offensive raged on the ground, so to did the action in the air on April 21st, 1918.  Above the Somme, as German forces drove relentlessly into the British line, a handful of German and British aircraft dueled for air superiority.  A young Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May, had fired a few bursts from his machine gun at one of the Germans.  The German evaded his shots and May quickly noticed a distinctive red, Fokker Dr.I triplane begin to chase him.  This was May’s only second day in combat and he immediately knew he was being pursued by arguably the most famous pilot in the world, Manfred von Richthofen – the “Red Baron.”

May fled as quickly as he could back into British territory, knowing full well he stood little chance against the German ace credited with 80 aerial victories.  Richthofen normally would have broken off the pursuit – he had always told his fellow pilots not to overzealously follow a single target – but May had fired upon Richthofen’s cousin and the “Red Baron” appeared out for blood.  May’s friend, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, saw his fellow Canadian airman was in trouble, and despite the long odds against winning, engaged the German.  In the cluster of gunfire from planes, and anti-aircraft rounds from the ground, Richthofen was struck – a bullet tearing open his chest.  But his aircraft seemingly managed a rocky landing behind the British line before finally crashing against trees.  Nearby Australian troops rushed to see what they could find.  Richthofen had smashed himself against the butt of his machine gun and flight controls.  He had likely died before even fully landing his plane.  

The man that Erich Ludendorff had said “was worth as much to us as three divisions” and had terrified Allied airmen was no more.  

Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron.  With 80 confirmed victories, Richthofen was the winningest pilot of the Great War.  The next highest was French pilot Rene Fonck with 75.  20 confirmed victories were required to be viewed as an “ace”

One of the more notable quotes in film history comes from director John Ford’s classic film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where a small town newspaper editor, pressed with new information that changes a decades-old story that launched various careers, states “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  For Manfred von Richthofen, whose career resides between the hagiographic coverage the German press lavished upon him and a heavily edited autobiography that still managed to hint at layers of personal torment, it’s difficult if not impossible to sort fact from legend.  In roughly two-and-a-half years, Richthofen rose from obscurity to one of the most famous men in the world.  By the time of his death at only 25 years of age, Richthofen was the highest scoring ace of the Great War, had collected 25 medals from four different countries, and was a best-selling author.  He was also a shell of a man who started the war; far more morose and erratic and suffering from a serious head injury. Continue reading

All These Worlds Are Yours, Except Mitteleuropa

While Germany was hitting the Western Allies with hundreds of thousands of men and millions of rounds of artillery, their Austro-Hungarian ally was launching a far less impactful volley of words in the heart of their own nation.  Austrian Foreign Minister Count Ottokar von Czernin had arrived at the Vienna City Council on April 2nd, 1918 to attempt to give an inspirational speech and rally the falling support of the Habsburg’s polyglot empire.  

Czernin’s stemwinder specifically attacked France’s new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, as the major obstacle to peace with the Allies.  Clemenceau had certainly drawn a hardline in the wake of the mutinies of 1917, stating that France’s policy would be “la guerre jusqu’au bout” (war until the end), echoing Britain’s David Lloyd George commitment to nothing less than total victory.  But Czernin’s attack wasn’t merely personal but also proclaimed that Clemenceau’s boasts didn’t reflect the true will of France because the prior administration had reached out to the Dual Monarchy in an attempt to sue for peace the year before.

An outraged Clemenceau quickly revealed the truth – it had been Austria-Hungary which had attempted to make a separate peace in early 1917.  And the proof came in the form of letters and communications from none other than the newly crowned Emperor himself, Charles I.

Charles I – for his attempt to end the war, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004 and known to the Catholic Church as Blessed Karl of Austria

Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Maria had never intended to become the Emperor of the Dual Monarchy.  At his birth, he was the great-nephew of Karl Joseph and quite a distance removed from any realistic considerations towards obtaining the crown.  Karl studied science at a public school and then politics and law during his service in the army, becoming more of an educational dilettante than a man dedicated to any particular field.  HIs years of work had won him few accolades but neither had he acquired any detractors.  In some ways, Karl was a model member of the royal family – dutiful, friendly, family-oriented and deeply religious. Continue reading

The Kaiser’s Battle: Part Two

Despite the potential dangers of touring a front-line trench, Winston Churchill had more reasons to be grateful for his early-morning assignment.  Gallipoli had tarnished his once promising political career, forcing the one-time First Lord of the Admiralty and key war-time cabinet member to a parliamentary backbencher with little voice in the conduct of the war.  Churchill had decided instead to join the Army, being given the command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front.  The unit saw little action, doing nothing for Churchill’s standing.

Only the fall of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s government gave Churchill a second chance.  David Lloyd George invited Churchill back into the good graces of the war council, even giving Churchill the Ministry of Munitions – the same role that George had rode to fame, rescuing his own once morbid political career.  As the Minister of Munitions, Churchill was touring near the meeting point of the British and French line; a position that had been in flux as the French dealt with mutiny and the British struggled to assume responsibility for more sectors of the Western Front.  British units were at half their paper strength in this area and morale had been badly shaken by the course of the war on other battlefields.  In the dark of the morning of March 21st, 1918, Churchill described what he heard:

“And then, exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear…the enormous explosions of the shells upon our trenches seemed almost to touch each other, with hardly an interval in space or time…The weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before.”

3.5 million German shells rained down over the next five hours.  The opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) had begun.  It would be the first of four separate offensives that would usher in the end of the Great War, and provide previews of the future horrors of the next world war.

German soldiers await their advance from their trench – despite the significant ground gained by the Germans in their Spring Offensive, they also suffered tremendous casualties 

While the planning of Germany’s spring offensive had been haphazard and far from discrete (the British had known a major attack would be launched against them weeks in advance), the initial strike was nearly strategically and tactically brilliant in it’s execution. Continue reading