March 1918

The Spring Offensive

By Alessandro Salvador

“With superhuman inhumanities, Long-famous glories, immemorial shames— And crawling slowly back, have by degrees Regained cool peaceful air in wonder— Why speak they not of comrades that went under?”

(Wilfred Owen – Spring Offensive)

The offensive launched by the German army in the spring of 1918, which went down in history as the Kaiserschlacht, the Kaiser’s or Emperor’s Battle, represented General Ludendoff’s last opportunity to reverse the fate of the conflict. 

From October 1917 onwards, Erich Ludendorff, the de facto leader of the German armed forces, began to evaluate the idea of a massive offensive that would rapidly bring the war to an end and possibly save German territorial gains. Underlying the decision was the awareness that Germany could not sustain a war of attrition over the long term and that soon the United States would deploy their expeditionary force, which was being trained in the United Kingdom, and their matériel resources.

Moreover, the closure of the Eastern Front would have enabled the Germans to move 48 divisions westwards, causing the balance of forces to weigh in German favour, with a total of 191 divisions as opposed to the enemy’s 178.

Despite the name with which it was remembered, the offensive was in fact the result of Ludendorff’s individual initiative, and it is precisely its strategic and organisational limitations that decided his fate. The heart of the operation was an offensive codenamed Michael, the objective of which was to break through the enemy lines at the hinge between the French and British forces then strike northwards, which would have either destroyed the British army or pushed it back over the English Channel. The idea behind this was to force the French to an armistice

Action got underway on 21 March 1918 with five hours of artillery bombardment during which almost ten thousand pieces of artillery were deployed. The Sturmtruppen (storm troopers), assault infantry units, were then sent forward. These took advantage of the morning fog to penetrate between the enemy lines to effect breakthrough points to which follow-up troops could then be sent.

The initial success was overwhelming: 255 square kilometres were occupied during the first day and the British expeditionary force suffered 55,000 casualties counting dead and wounded. Ludendorff however was swept away by enthusiasm, and as the operation continued it became increasingly clear that there were no clearly defined tactical or territorial objectives. Convinced that the British had been defeated, the General reinforced the southern units to prevent a possible influx of French reinforcements, but by doing so scattered his forces along several fronts of attack. When the operation ended on 5th April, British casualties were enormous and 90,000 soldiers had been taken prisoner. At the same time however, these losses did not inflict a decisive defeat, the Germans did not entirely succeed in their intent to separate the two enemy armies and the territories they gained proved to be of little strategic importance and were difficult to defend. The “Pyrrhic victory” of the first attack was repeated during successive offensives. The objective of Operation Georgette, launched on ninth April was to capture the Hazebrouk railway junction held by the British. Also in this instance, the rapid advance was thwarted by the failure to conquer the objective and left British logistics potential intact.  

At this point, the German command opted for a diversionary attack with the objective of drawing French troops into Flanders. The operation, codenamed Blücher-Yorck began on 27 May and its initial success, once again, convinced Ludendorff to change his objectives in progress. The diversionary attack turned into a large-scale offensive and, with the injection of further troops, advanced as far as 90 km from Paris. This, however, led the Germans to make the same mistake that had halted their offensive four years earlier; the advance produced a wedge (the so-called Blücher-Yorck salient) that exposed the Imperial armies to the Allies’ counter-offensive.

In an attempt to widen this wedge and link it with the one at Amiens, Ludendorff extended the Blücher-Yorck offensive with Operation Gneisenau, which commenced on 9 June with an attack along the River Matz. The initial impetus succeeded in overcoming strong French and American resistance, but a counter-attack at Compiègne just two days later brought the offensive to an untimely end. 

As a last resort, on 15 July, the Friedensturm Offensive (Peace Offensive) was launched, which enabled part of the German troops to cross the River Marne, but exposed the Blücher-Yorck salient to the risk of being cut off by the French counter-attacks. In the end the salient was evacuated and exhaustion of the German army, both in terms of manpower and matériel, led to the Imperial forces’ offensives losing their momentum once and for all.

What should have been the decisive battle to end the war petered out to nothing. Numerous factors contributed to the failure of the Kaiserschlacht. Ludendorff’s responsibilities for not having carefully planned the tactical and territorial objectives and his failure to coherently follow his own plans sparked criticism in the post-war years. The continual changes in objective produced huge losses and needlessly scattered attacks without bringing any tangible advantages.

In this context, compared with its enemies, the human and materiel limitations of the German army counted a great deal. The almost nine hundred thousand soldiers lost by the Allied forces were soon replaced, thanks also to help from the Americans. German casualties were lower, albeit marginally, however many of the soldiers lost were from the assault troops, a well-trained élite unit and were practically impossible to replace.

Brest Litovsk

Di Wojciech Łysek

"La pace di Brest ci è stata imposta sotto la minaccia di una pistola. (...) Ci siamo sentiti obbligati (...) abbiamo deciso di tenervi fede solo fino a quando il proletariato tedesco non insorgerà."
(Karl Radek, 15 ottobre 1918)

Uno dei principali problemi affrontati dai bolscevichi dopo il colpo di stato di ottobre fu la guerra in corso. A tal fine emisero l'8 novembre 1917 il "Decreto sulla pace", in cui chiedevano la fine della guerra "senza annessioni e indennità". Un ruolo altrettanto importante nel portare avanti i colloqui di pace venne svolto dalla "Dichiarazione dei diritti delle nazioni della Russia" del 15 novembre 1917, che comprendeva il principio del diritto all'autodeterminazione delle varie nazionalità della Russia. Pochi giorni dopo, il 29 novembre, il cancelliere del Reich Georg von Hertling dichiarò che questi atti potevano essere considerati sufficienti per avviare i negoziati.

I tedeschi si aspettavano che la conclusione di una pace separata avrebbe permesso loro di trasferire truppe sul fronte occidentale. Era una questione importante, poichè sempre più divisioni americane giungevano in Francia. L'accesso alle risorse dell'Europa orientale era importante per i tedeschi anche in termini di approvvigionamenti alimentari e disponibilità di materie prime per l'industria, alla luce del fatto che le condizioni degli imperi centrali perggioravano costantemente.

Le trattative tra la delegazione sovietica e quelle tedesca, austro-ungarica, bulgara e turca iniziarono il 3 dicembre 1917 a Brest-Litovsk. La tregua fu firmata il 15 dicembre ed entrò in vigore il 17 dicembre alle 12:00 su tutto il fronte orientale dal Baltico al Mar Nero e nel Caucaso. Si presumeva che sarebbe durata fino al 1 gennaio 1918, alle 2:00. Se necessario, sarebbe stata estesa automaticamente fino a quando una delle parti non l'avesse denunciata con un preavviso di 7 giorni. Le parti concordarono di non trasferire le truppe a meno che ciò non fosse avvenuto prima della firma del cessate il fuoco. I bolscevichi in questo modo intendevano smentire le accuse di collusione con il comando supremo tedesco. Ciononosante, i tedeschi emisero comunque l'ordine di trasferire le proprie divisioni sul fronte occidentale.

La risposta dell'Intesa ai negoziati unilaterali tra la Russia e gli imperi centrali fu espressa dall'ambasciatore britannico a Pietrogrado, Sir George Buchanan, sulle pagine della stampa russa. Egli dichiarò: "non abbiamo rancori e non ne avremo [tuttavia] stiamo considerando l'applicazione di eventuali sanzioni. Il fatto che il Consiglio dei Commissari del popolo ha negoziato con il nemico senza una precedente conultazione con gli alleati significa rompere gli accordi del settembre 1914. "

I negoziati di Brest possono essere suddivisi in tre fasi. La prima durò dal 22 al 28 dicembre 1917, nel corso del quale furono discusse le questioni politiche. In seguito, la delegazione russa fece ritorno a Mosca per richiedere istruzioni presso il Consiglio dei Commissari del popolo. La seconda fase (9 gennaio - 10 febbraio 1918) fu dominata dal dibattito all'interno della commissione economica e legale, in particolare dal 18 al 30 gennaio 1918. Il terzo periodo di colloqui ebbe luogo, dopo 20 giorni di pausa, dal 1 al 3 marzo 1918.

La delegazione tedesca era guidata dal segretario del Reich per gli affari esteri, il barone Richard von Kühlmann e dal generale Max Hoffman - rappresentante del quartier generale. La delegazione austro-ungarica era composta dal ministro degli affari esteri, conte Ottokar Czernin, mentre per gli alleati minori vi erano il gran visir turco Talaat Pasha e il ministro della giustizia bulgaro Christo Ivan Popov. A loro volta, i negoziatori russi furono inizialmente presieduti da Adolf Joffe e dalla metà di dicembre da Leon Trotsky. I suoi membri comprendevano anche Lew Kamieniew, Mikaił Pokrowski e Lew Karachan.

Inizialmente, la delegazione russa insitè sul principio di una pace universale, senza annessione e indennità. La strategia bolscevica era mirata ad un effetto propagandistico, nella speranza che una rivoluzione scoppiasse in Europa. Il barone R. von Kühlmann accettò le condizioni dei bolscevichi (compresa la pace senza annessioni, il diritto delle nazioni all'autodeterminazione e la rinuncia al risarcimento) a condizione che tutti le applicassero. Poiché ciò non avvenne, la delegazione tedesca si sentì svincolata dalle richieste bolsceviche. In risposta, a metà dicembre, Trotsky fu inviato capo della delegazione russa forte del suo talento oratorio e della conoscenza della lingua tedesca. Egli sfruttò queste competenze spostando la pressione dei negoziati da specifiche questioni territoriali, in cui la posizione della Russia era debole, su principi generali, dove avrebbe potuto ottenere un vantaggio rispetto alla Germania.

Di fronte al prolungarsi delle trattative, gli imperi centrali presentarono il 25 dicembre 1917 la richiesta finale che comprendeva cessioni territoriali per un totale di 150.000 km2. Quest'area comprendeva le terre polacche, le province baltiche e parti della Bielorussia e dell'Ucraina. A causa dell'opposizione bolscevica, i negoziati furono interrotti per dieci giorni.

Nella seconda fase, gli imperi centrali mirarono chiaramente ad imporre una pace separata alla Russia. Pertanto, il 1 ° gennaio 1918, una delegazione ucraina arrivò a Brest per fare pressioni sui russi. Essa rappresentava il Consiglio centrale ucraino che il 20 novembre 1917 aveva proclamato l'indipendenza della Repubblica popolare ucraina. Il 9 gennaio 1918, R. von Kühlmann dichiarò che non potevano essere accettate le condizioni dei bolscevichi quando tutte le parti non erano coinvolte nei negoziati di pace. Gli imperi centrali riconobbero il Consiglio centrale come rappresentante dell'Ucraina e il 12 gennaio Trotsky fece lo stesso. L'obiettivo era di fare pressione sulla Russia bolscevica. Il 9 febbraio 1918, la Germania e l'Austria-Ungheria firmarono un accordo con la delegazione ucraina, in base al quale gli imperi centrali avrebbero ricevuto forniture alimentari, in particolare grano. In cambio, gli imperi centrali concessero all'Ucraina i territori del Chelm. Questa decisione - insieme all'assenso nella costituzione di una regione ucraina in Galizia orientale e Bucovina come parte dell'impero austro-ungarico - pose fine all'orientamento pro-austriaco nella società polacca.

Il 10 febbraio 1918, Trotsky pubblicò una dichiarazione conosciuta come "Né Pace né Guerra". Egli dichiarò che la Russia non avrebbe firmato la pace, ma che considerava cessato lo stato di guerra con gli imperi centrali. A questa dichiarazione senza precedenti seguì la ripresa delle ostilità da parte tedesca il 18 febbraio. Lo stesso giorno, dopo discussioni tempestose, il Comitato centrale del partito bolscevico, con 7 voti contro 5, prese la decisione di firmare il trattato. Lenin inviò personalmente un telegramma a Berlino accettando le condizioni di pace. Tuttavia, per diversi giorni le truppe degli imperi centrali continuarono la loro marcia verso est. In risposta, il 21 febbraio, il governo bolscevico emise il proclama "La patria socialista in pericolo", che mobilitava la nazione contro gli invasori degli imperi centrali. L'appello incontrò grande sostegno tra la popolazione e furono formate le prime unità dell'Armata Rossa. Nelle vicinanze di Narva e Pskov queste unità bloccarono l'avanzata tedesca il 23 febbraio 1918. Questa giornata divenne in seguito la festa dell'Armata Rossa. Fino al 3 marzo il fronte si stabilizzò sulla linea che va da Narva a nord, attraverso Psków, Orsza e tra Mogilev e Kiev, 220 chilometri più a est del 18 febbraio.

A sua volta, il 23 febbraio, la Germania emise un ultimatum che chiedeva il ritiro delle truppe russe dall'Estonia, dalla Finlandia e dall'Ucraina. Nella notte tra il 23 e il 24 febbraio 1918, il Consiglio dei commissari del popolo decise di accettare le condizioni tedesche. Lenin descrisse la situazione in modo conciso: "Chiunque è contrario all'azione immediata, anche se è una pace aristocratica, rischia di porre fine al potere sovietico". Nessuno dei dirigenti bolscevichi voleva andare a Brest. La delegazione comprendeva membri secondari del partito guidati da Georgij Vasil'evič Čičerin, aristocratico e nipote del diplomatico zarista, che sostituì L. Trotsky come commissario per gli affari esteri.

Conformemente al trattato di Brest, firmato il 3 marzo 1918, la linea di confine che separava la Russia bolscevica dalle aree occupate dagli imperi centrali correva ora dal Golfo di Riga lungo il fiume Daugava e la ferrovia di Lida e lungo il Nemunas fino a Mostów nella provincia di Grodno, per proseguire più a sud fino a Prużany e ad est di Rokitno. La Turchia occupava le province di Kars, Ardahan e Batumi nel Caucaso. I bolscevichi riconobbero il Consiglio centrale ucraino ritirandosi da quella regione. In totale, la Russia perse oltre 1 milione di km2. Il trattato impose la smobilitazione dell'esercito e della flotta mentre tariffe doganali vantaggiose per la Germania garantivano loro profitti unilaterali nel commercio. Fino alla fine della guerra i tedeschi mantennero comunque 700.000 soldati nell'est. Le dure condizioni imposte dagli imperi centrali a Brest-Litovsk inflissero un duro colpo ai sostenitori di una pace senza vincitori tra le potenze dell'Intesa.

Il trattato di Brest restò in vigore fino all'11 novembre 1918, quando gli imperi centrali furono sconfitti. Il 13 novembre 1918 il Comitato esecutivo centrale dell'Unione Sovietica annullò il Trattato di Brest. Questa decisione riaccese le speranze nella Russia bolscevica per lo scoppio di una rivoluzione in Europa. Ciò è confermato da un frammento di volantino comunista del 1918: "la pace non è data dal trattato contro-rivoluzionario di Brest, ma è l'origine di nuove lotte. (...) Nella parte orientale dell'Europa la fiaccola della rivoluzione sociale continua a bruciare, diffondendo le sue scintille in tutto il mondo capitalista ".

Brest Litovsk

By Wojciech Łysek

"The peace of Brest was imposed on us under the threat of a gun. (...) We felt obliged (...) we have decided to stick to our promise only until the German proletariat will not rise."

(Karl Radek, 15 October 1918)

One of the main problems faced by the Bolsheviks after the October coup was the ongoing war. To this end, on 8 November 1917 issued the "Decree on Peace", in which they called for the end of the war "without annexation and indemnity". An equally important role in carrying out peace talks was carried out by the "Declaration of the Rights of the Nations of Russia" of 15 November 1917, which included the principle of self-determination of the various nationalities of Russia. A few days later, on 29 November, Reich Chancellor Georg von Hertling declared that these acts could be considered sufficient to start negotiations.

The Germans expected that the conclusion of a separate peace would allow them to transfer troops to the Western Front. It was an important issue, as more and more American divisions arrived in France. Access to Eastern European resources was also important for the Germans in terms of food supplies and availability of raw materials for industry, in light of the fact that the conditions of the Eentral Empires constantly worsened.

The negotiations between the Soviet and the German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish delegations began on 3 December 1917 in Brest-Litovsk. The truce was signed on 15 December and entered into force on 17 December at 12:00 on the entire Eastern front from the Baltic to the Black Sea and the Caucasus. It was assumed that it would last until 1 January 1918, at 2:00 am. If necessary, it would be extended automatically until one of the parties denounced it with seven days notice. The parties didn't agreed to transfer troops unless this had occurred before the ceasefire signature. The Bolsheviks in this way intended to deny the allegations of collusion with the German supreme command. Nevertheless, the Germans issued the order to transfer their divisions on the Western Front.

The response of the Entente to the unilateral negotiations between Russia and the Central Powers was expressed by the British ambassador to Petrograd, Sir George Buchanan, on the pages of the Russian press. He declared: "we have no grudges and we will not have any, [however] we are considering the application of some sanctions.The fact that the Council of People's Commissars has negotiated with the enemy without a prior consultation with the allies, means breaking the September 1914 agreements."

The Brest negotiations can be divided into three phases. The first lasted from 22 to 28 December 1917, during which political issues were discussed. Later, the Russian delegation returned to Moscow to request instructions at the Council of People's Commissars. The second phase (9 January - 10 February 1918) was dominated by the debate within the economic and legal commission, in particular from 18 to 30 January 1918. The third period of talks took place, after 20 days of break, from 1 to 3 March 1918.

The German delegation was led by the Secretary of the Reich for Foreign Affairs, Baron Richard von Kühlmann and General Max Hoffman, representative of the headquarters. The Austro-Hungarian delegation was composed of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Count Ottokar Czernin, while for the other allies there were the Turkish Grand Vizir Talaat Pasha and the Bulgarian Minister of Justice Christo Ivan Popov. In turn, the Russian negotiators were initially presided over by Adolf Joffe and from mid-December by Leon Trotsky. Its members also included Lew Kamieniew, Mikaił Pokrowski and Lew Karachan.

Initially, the Russian delegation insisted on the principle of an universal truce, without annexation and indemnity. The Bolshevik strategy had a propagandistic purpose, in the hope that a revolution would break out in Europe. Baron R. von Kühlmann accepted the conditions of the Bolsheviks (including peace without annexation, the right of nations to self-determination and the renunciation of compensation) on condition that all the contenders would applied them. Since this did not happen, the German delegation felt free from the Bolshevik demands. In response, in mid-December, Trotsky was sent at head of the Russian delegation strong to his oratorio talent and knowledge of the German language. He exploited these skills by shifting the pressure of negotiations from specific territorial issues, where Russia's position was weak, on general principles, where it could gain an advantage over Germany.

Faced with the prolongation of negotiations, the Central Empires presented on 25 December, 1917 the final request that included territorial transfers for a total of 150,000 km2. This area included the Polish lands, the Baltic provinces and parts of Belarus and Ukraine. Due to the Bolshevik opposition, the negotiations were interrupted for ten days.

In the second phase, the Central Empires clearly aimed to impose a separate peace on Russia. Therefore, on 1 January 1918, an Ukrainian delegation arrived in Brest to put pressure on the Russians. It represented the Ukrainian Central Council which proclaimed the independence of the Ukrainian People's Republic on 20 November 1917. On 9 January 1918, R. von Kühlmann declared that the conditions of the Bolsheviks could not be accepted until when all the parties would have not been involved in the peace negotiations. The Central Empires recognized the Central Council as the representative of Ukraine and on 12 January Trotsky did the same. The goal was to put pressure on Bolshevik Russia.

On 9 February 1918, Germany and Austria-Hungary signed an agreement with the Ukrainian delegation, according to which they received food supplies, particularly wheat. In exchange, the Central Empires granted the Chelm territories to Ukraine. This decision - together with the assent of the establishment of an Ukrainian region in eastern Galicia and Bucovina as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire - ended the pro-Austrian orientation in Polish society.

On 10 February 1918, Trotsky published a declaration known as "Neither War nor Peace". He declared that Russia would not sign the peace, but that it considered the state of war ceased with the Central Empires. This unprecedented declaration followed the resumption of hostilities by the German side on 18 February. On the same day, after stormy discussions, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, with 7 votes against 5, took the decision to sign the treaty. Lenin personally sent a telegram to Berlin accepting the conditions of peace. However, for several days the German troops continued their march eastward. In response, on 21 February, the Bolshevik government issued the proclamation "The socialist homeland in danger", which mobilized the nation against the invaders. The appeal met great support among the population and the first units of the Red Army were formed. In the vicinity of Narva and Pskov these units blocked the German advance on 23 February 1918, which would later became the Red Army Day. Until 3 March, the front stabilized on the line from Narva to the north, through Psków, Orsza and between Mogilev and Kiev, 220 kilometers further east than 18 February.

In turn, on 23 February, Germany issued an ultimatum calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia, Finland and Ukraine. On the night between 23 and 24 February 1918, the Council of People's Commissars decided to accept the German conditions. Lenin described the situation concisely: "Anyone who is opposed to immediate action, even if it is an aristocratic peace, risks ending the Soviet power". None of the Bolshevik leaders wanted to go to Brest. The delegation included secondary party members led by Georgij Vasil'evič Čičerin, aristocrat and nephew of the tsarist diplomat, who replaced Trotsky as commissioner for foreign affairs.

In accordance with the Treaty of Brest, signed on 3 March 1918, the boundary line separating Bolshevik Russia from areas occupied by Central Powers now ran from the Gulf of Riga along the Daugava River and the Lida Railway and along the Nemunas to Mostów in the province of Grodno, to go further south to Prużany and east of Rokitno. Turkey occupied the provinces of Kars, Ardahan and Batumi in the Caucasus. The Bolsheviks recognized the Ukrainian Central Council by withdrawing from that region. In total, Russia lost over 1 million km2. The treaty imposed the demobilization of the army and the fleet while tariffs advantageous for Germany guaranteed their unilateral profits in the trade. Until the end of the war the Germans still maintained 700,000 soldiers in the east. The harsh conditions imposed by the Central Empires in Brest-Litovsk, struck a blow to the supporters of a peace without winners among the powers of the Entente.

The Brest treaty remained in force until 11 November 1918, when the Central Empires were defeated. On 13 November 1918, the Central Committee of the Soviet Union annulled the Treaty of Brest. This decision rekindled hopes in Bolshevik Russia for the outbreak of a revolution in Europe. This is confirmed by a fragment of a communist flyer of 1918: "peace is not given by the counter-revolutionary treaty of Brest, but it is the origin of new struggles. (...) In the eastern part of Europe the torch of the revolution Social continues to burn, spreading its sparks throughout the capitalist world ".

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