Category: eastern front

One of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, dresse…

One of the Austro-Hungarian soldiers, dressed as Santa Klaus, celebrating Christmas with his comrades, probably in the trenches of his regiment. Note the other costumed characters: what appears to be a man in womens’ clothes, blackface and chains similar to the Dutch Zwarte Piet, and a crouching man dressed as Krampus the Christmas devil.

German Advance Into Russia Continues

German troops in Minsk.

February 20 1918, Minsk–Forty-eight hours had passed since hostilities had resumed on the Eastern Front, and as of yet there was no sign of effective Russian resistance.  On February 20, German forces entered Minsk without opposition, an advance of around fifty miles.  German forces also crossed the ice from Moon [Muhu] Island onto mainland Estonia, putting them within striking distance of Reval [Talinn], and, the Russians feared, perhaps Petrograd beyond.  The Bolsheviks began preparing for a defense of the city and their revolution as a whole; Lenin privately knew it was useless, but needed to give the appearance of doing something while the Germans approached.  He knew that he had to capitulate to whatever terms the Germans offered, but none were forthcoming as of yet; the only reply to Trotsky’s radio message was that negotiations by radio were unacceptable.  Perhaps the Germans intended to have the Bolsheviks “beaten to death,” as the Kaiser demanded.

Today in 1917: Arabs Begin Raiding Hejaz Railway

Today in 1916: Verdun: The Day Before
Today in 1915: Churchill Forms “Land Ships” Committee

The first attack by the Russian troops after…

The first attack by the Russian troops after the Revolution resulted in the capture of Dzikie Łany, a fortified summit south-west of Tarnopol (the Austro-Hungarian partition of Poland), 13 September 1917. The victorious troops were composed of Siberian regiments, and the first line was accompanied into action by the writer and war correspondent Dr Grondijs, who secured this photograph. This photo shows the second wave of the attack waiting to advance. The officer seen standing on the bank is Lieutenant Glouschkoff, killed in action an hour later.

Germans Invade Russia After Calling off Armist…

Austrian troops enter Kamianets-Podilskyi in the first days of the offensive.

February 18 1918, Lutsk–At first, Trotsky’s unilateral proclamation at Brest-Litovsk that the war was over was welcomed in Germany.  However, a few days later, at a meeting of the German Crown Council, the Kaiser demanded that the Bolsheviks be “beaten to death,” that large annexations should be secured, and Russia should be effectively dismembered.  This “plan” soon attracted the support of Hindenburg & Ludendorff, who favored large annexations to feed the German war machine, perhaps reaching as far as the Caucasus.  The civilians present were horrified–establishing a new empire in the East would take resources and manpower that would be needed in the West, and would make any negotiated settlement with the other Allies impossible.  Gaining an empire to prepare for a war in the future was pointless; any gains in the east would be more than offset by the fact that Austria-Hungary, who had learned their lesson, would not join them again.

Nevertheless, the Kaiser and military had their way, and on February 16 the Germans gave the Russians 48 hours notice that they would be calling off the armistice; this was less than the week required by the original armistice terms, but the Germans justified this by saying that the Russians had already violated the armistice by demobilizing and moving troops away from the front.  The Germans had, of course, redeployed troops themselves, but still had 53 (second-rate) divisions available.  The Russians, on the other hand, had effectively disbanded their own army; while some troops remained near the front, they were not prepared or willing to put up a fight.  The new Red Army, only four days old, mainly existed on paper; what few forces it did have were busy fighting the Ukrainians or Cossacks.

On February 18, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians began their advance, meeting little more than token resistance all along the front.   In the north, German forces tasked with taking the rest of the Baltic coast secured the key rail junction of Dvinsk [Daugavpils] on the first day.  In the center, they moved towards Minsk and Smolensk, hoping to threaten Moscow.  In the south, the Germans had officially signed a peace treaty with Ukraine, but given the threat they faced from the Reds, the Rada actually welcomed the German advance; Lutsk fell on the first day.

Soon, the Germans were advancing using the Russians’ own railways, often at the rate of over thirty miles per day.  General Hoffmann, commanding the operation, wrote:

It is the most comical war I have ever known.  We put a handful of infantrymen with machine guns and one gun onto a train and rush them off to the next station; they take it, make prisoners of the Bolsheviks, pick up a few more troops, and so on.  The proceeding has, at any rate, the charm of novelty.

The Germans captured large stores of materiel left behind by the Russian army, taking over 1500 guns in the first three days.  As the Russian forces had melted away, only around 9000 PoWs were captured in the same timeframe.

Many of the Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were sent into a panic; for nearly a week, they had thought that Trotsky’s gambit had worked.  Trotsky, realizing he had gambled and lost, through his support behind Lenin, and an emergency meeting of the Central Committee narrowly approved an immediate acceptance of the last German peace offer; despite all the evidence, Bukharin and his supporters still urged a revolutionary war.  

That evening, Trotsky broadcast a radio message to the Germans:

Sovnarkom lodges a protest over the German government’s movement of troops against the Russian Soviet Republic, which had declared the state of war ended and had started to demobilize its army on all fronts…Sovnarkom finds itself forced, in the situation that has arisen, to declare its readiness formally to conclude peace on the terms the German government demanded at Brest-Litovsk.

The Germans’ demands had grown in the meantime, however; even this capitulation would not be enough.

Today in 1917: German Captain Violates Orders, Strikes Out on Own in East Africa

Today in 1916: German Kamerun Surrenders
Today in 1915: Italian Parliament Opens Amid Protests

Ukraine Signs Peace with Central Powers as Bol…

The signing of the treaty with Ukraine at Brest-Litovsk.

February 9 1918, Kiev–The Bolshevik forces diverted from the Don reached the east bank of the Dnieper in early February.  They proved too late to save their comrades who had risen up in the city itself the week prior, but after several days of shelling it became apparent that the forces loyal to the Ukrainian Rada would not be able to hold the city; early on the morning of February 9, the Bolsheviks entered the city unopposed.  The Bolshevik commander immediately began retribution against pro-Rada forces in the city, telling the city bluntly: “Here is the power which we have brought from the far north at the point of our bayonets.”

The fall of Kiev did not deter the Ukrainian negotiators at Brest-Litovsk, nor their counterparts on the other side of the table.  That evening, Ukraine signed a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers, recognizing Ukraine’s independence and establishing its western frontier.  The most notable provision of the treaty was that the Austrians traded Chelm (in modern day Poland) for the promise of significant quantities of grain, to relieve the Austrian food crisis.  This outraged Austria’s Polish population, who saw Chelm as rightfully theirs; protests would break out in Cracow the next day.  The signing of the treaty would permanently soured relations between Austria and her Polish population.

Today in 1917: Operation Alberich

Today in 1916: Serbian Army Completes Evacuation
Today in 1915: Russian Duma Reopens Briefly

German dead soldiers in destroyed trenches o…

German dead soldiers in destroyed trenches on the Eastern Front, date unknown.

Russian troops resting in captured Austro-Hu…

Russian troops resting in captured Austro-Hungarian trenches, summer 1916.

Cossacks receiving instruction in the use of…

Cossacks receiving instruction in the use of heavy machine guns from British officers of Royal Naval Air Server Armoured Car Section who were attached to the Russian Armoured Car Division in Galicia, summer 1917.

Romanians Occupy Bessarabia

January 23 1918, Chișinău–Like many outlying regions of Russia populated by ethnic minorities, Bessarabia (an area roughly corresponding to modern Moldova) split off from Russia after the October Revolution, with the

Sfatul Țării (National Council) declaring its autonomy on December 15.  However, the Bessarabian government had difficulty maintaining control; the Bolsheviks did not want to give up control of Bessarabia, and their influence was strong among the Russian troops returning home from the Romanian front.  The Romanians attempted to make sure that the Russian troops were disarmed before crossing the Prut into Bessarabia, but this was not always achieved; on January 20, fighting even broke out between Romanian and Russian troops, until the latter decided to surrender to the Germans.

The Bessarabian government appealed for aid from the Allies.  Worried that the Romanian government’s territorial ambitions, they initially asked for assistance from any available volunteer forces formed from Austrian prisoners of war.  However, the forces available were not sufficient, and they reluctantly announced that they were willing to accept Romanian aid.  The Romanians had their own reservations; intervening in Bessarabia would make the front line weaker in case the Germans called off the armistice, and crossing into Russian territory might provoke a war with their former Allies.  However, the Romanians desperately needed supplies from Bessarabia, and hoped to include the mostly Romanian-speaking territory into their country after the war.  Even if the final peace settlement with the Central Powers was not in their favor, gains in Bessarabia could make sure they got something out of the war.

On January 18, Bolshevik forces seized the Bessarabian capital of Chișinău, and the Sfatul Țării fled.  In response, on January 23, Romanian forces crossed the Prut, and within three days were able to enter Chișinău.  They spent the next two months occupying the rest of the country, facing opposition from Bolsheviks and Ukrainians.  Nevertheless, the operation would only cost the Romanian army 125 killed, cheap by First World War standards.

Today in 1917: Destroyer Action off Holland

Today in 1916: British Attack Senussi in Western Egypt 
Today in 1915: Austrians Begin Winter Offensive in the Carpathian Mountains

Sources include: Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I

Austria Deflects Russian Peace Term Proposals

December 25 1917, Brest-Litovsk–With an armistice having been concluded, the Russians and the Central Powers now turned to the question of a final peace.  Negotiations opened at Brest-Litovsk on December 22, with Joffe, Russia’s lead negotiator, proposing essentially a more detailed version of Russia’s basic peace proposal since the overthrow of the Czar–a peace without indemnities or annexations, and of self-determination for long-oppressed peoples.  Czernin, the Austrian Foreign Minister, replied when the negotiations reopened on Christmas.  He largely accepted Russia’s points in style, but in substance managed to work them into his favor.  Self-determination, while important, should be a matter for each country to work out–Austria-Hungary’s complex problems with its nationalities was not a matter for the peace conference.  Similarly, Germany’s colonies should be returned to her as part of a peace without annexations, and their future was an internal German matter.

Despite these caveats, the Russians still saw Austria’s response as a good sign–that the Bolsheviks, for example, might still have a free hand in the Ukraine, or even that Latvia or Lithuania could be returned for them to sort out.  Privately, on the other hand, the Austrians were convinced that they needed Poland, at the very last, with Czernin telling Emperor Charles as much in a letter on the same day.  The Germans had more expansive aims, and the next day told the Russians in no uncertain terms that they would continue to occupy what they had taken in the Baltic until peace was restored in Europe; afterwards, plebiscites would be conducted (under German supervision) to decide their future.  This was not what the Russians were hoping for:

Joffe looked as if he had received a blow to the head….Pokrovsky said, with tears in his eyes, it was impossible to speak of a peace without annexations when about 18 [provinces] were torn from the Russian Empire.  In the end the Russians threatened to break off the conference and depart.

Today in 1916: “Joan The Woman” Premieres In New York

Today in 1915: The Only Christmas Truce of 1915
Today in 1914:  The Peace At Christmas; The War At Christmas

Sources include: Prit Buttar, The Splintered Empires.