French Chasseurs alpins on patrol.
French Chasseurs alpins on patrol.
Former Tsarist officers labor in Petrograd. In February and March 1918, War Commissar Leon Trotsky called for imperial officers to help lead the new Red Army. 8,000 volunteered to escape unemployment and to to continue fighting the Germans. Later in the war, however, Trotsky was forced to conscript ex-imperial officers. Although officially “military experts,” many of the Red Army’s leaders were closer to hostages, as their families would be held accountable if officers failed or defected to the anti-Bolshevik Whites. This system proved effective and created stable, competent leadership for the Red Army.
February 25, 1918 – Russian Army Demobilized, Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army Formed
Pictured – Are you among the volunteers?
Was the Bolshevik revolution to be stillborn? On February 23, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin convinced the Bolshevik Central Committee to accept peace with Germany. The terms were devastating: Russia lost all claims to the Baltic, Ukraine, and Finland, while the Germans would keep the land they had occupied since breaking the armistice. Germany also demanded the Russian Army be demobilized. The Bolsheviks only agreed to peace after a stormy session where Lenin threatened to resign if no conclusion was reached.
The peace was to be signed in March, but already its effects were clear. It put Petrograd almost in German hands; the Bolsheviks would have to leave for Moscow. Moreover, even if peace was made with the Germans, the soviet regime could obviously not be left defenseless in the face of its many enemies. With the Russian army gone now both officially and quite literally, scattered in every direction by the Central Powers’ invasion, a new army had to be formed.
That week the Bolsheviks began calling for volunteers for a new revolutionary army. 60,000 workers in Petrograd signed up to be a part of the Workers’ and Peasents’ Red Army. Trotsky appealed to former imperial officers to sign up as well. Over 8,000 did. Although few Russian officers sympathized with the October Revolution, most of them had been left unemployed, while they also desired to continue fighting against the Germans. Despite these initial recruiting successes, morale remained low. Thousands of men deserted quickly, leaving the Red Army with a strength of only 150,000 men by March. Worse, organization was hap-hazard. Many units elected their own officers, and the Bolsheviks had abolished the military’s rank structure. In battle against experienced German troops the nascent Red Army stood no chance.
Otto Liman von Sanders (1855-1929), center, pictured with Oswald Boelcke, right, before his death in 1916, and another pilot.
February 25 1918, Damascus–Since his dismissal from overall command of German forces, Falkenhayn had been increasingly sidelined–first to Romania, and then to command the new joint Turko-German Yildirim Army Group in the Middle East. The original plan for Yildirim had been to retake Baghdad, but this was eventually called off; Falkenhayn’s more ambitious plans for another attack across the Sinai were forestalled by Allenby’s own very successful offensive in Palestine in the fall of 1917. As a result, Falkenhayn’s chief accomplishment of his Ottoman service was the loss of Jerusalem and most of the rest of Palestine. On February 25, Falkenhayn was dismissed and replaced by Liman von Sanders, who had had overall command of the successful Turkish defense at Gallipoli. Falkenhayn was sent to command the Tenth Army in Belarus, where he would command the German occupation of the area for the remainder of the war.
Ultimately, neither Falkenhayn nor Liman von Sanders were quite up to the task of defending against the British. One of Liman von Sanders’ Turkish staff officers would write:
The policy of Falkenhayn was defense by maneuver; that of Liman defense by resistance in trenches. Falkenhayn never fully realized how difficult maneuver was to troops short of transport on bad roads; Liman never realized that ground in Palestine had not the value it had at Gallipoli.
Sources include: Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon
Today in 1917: U-Boat Sinks Laconia, Kills Two Americans
February 24 1918, Petrograd–Over the last six days, the Germans had moved at a rapid pace, in many places advancing over 100 miles; by February 24 they were quickly approaching Reval [Talinn] and Pskov. With the threat of further advances looming, the Germans issued an 48-hour ultimatum on February 22 with their new peace terms. The courier carrying the ultimatum did not reach Petrograd until February 23, however, leaving the Bolsheviks with a single day to consider the offer, or risk the Germans rescinding the “olive branch” entirely and pushing on to Petrograd. While the Germans had no plans to push beyond the Narva, the Bolsheviks had no way of knowing this.
The terms themselves were far harsher than what had been offered earlier in the month. Russia was to relinquish all rights to Finland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Ukraine, and the territory taken from Turkey in 1878, and evacuate all remaining forces from those areas. Various economic concessions and payment of indemnities was also demanded.
Lenin, who had wanted to accept the more lenient German terms, again urged capitulation, threatening to resign if he did not get his way. Still, Bukharin argued for a revolutionary war against the Germans, while Lenin dismissed this as nonsense:
Only those who are blind or intoxicated by phrases can close their eyes to the fact that the policy of a revolutionary war, without an army, brings grist to the mill of our bourgeoisie….Let everyone know: he who is against an immediate, even though extremely onerous peace, is endangering Soviet power.
We are compelled to endure an onerous peace. It will not halt the revolution in Germany and in Europe. We shall set about preparing a revolutionary army, not by phrases and exclamations (after the manner of those who…have done nothing even to halt our fleeing troops), but by organizational work, by deeds, by creation of a proper, powerful army of the whole people.
The Central Committee ultimately sided with Lenin by the slimmest margin possible. Trotsky, whose “no war, no peace” policy had directly led to the German invasion, abstained.
Early on the morning of February 24, the Bolsheviks sent a radio message to the Germans indicating their acceptance of the proposed terms. While the Russian delegation proceeded back to Brest-Litovsk, and the last details were hammered out, the German advance continued unabated.
Today in 1917: British Retake Kut
Today in 1916: Germans Advance and French Prepare to Evacuate Verdun
Today in 1915: French Lose First Warship of the War
February 24, 1918 – Volunteer Army Begins the “Ice March” to Escape Red
Pictured – The White forces in South Russia were weak and unpopular in 1918, but their “Ice March” to escape the Bolsheviks stands out as an amazing military campaign against far superior forces.
On February 24, the Bolsheviks agreed to accept peace with Germany. In a stormy session of the ruling council, Lenin, Trotsky, and another young politician named Josef Stalin managed to whip up 116 votes against 85 to accept a brutal German peace that would annex much of Russia’s eastern border. At one point Lenin had threatened to resign if the vote went against him.
The Germans were now the great enemies of the revolution. There were others too, however, although at the moment they were small and weak. The Bolshevik’s main Russian challenger was a group of officers who called themselves the Volunteer Army down in Rostov, in the territory of the Kuban Cossacks. Here around 4,000 men at most had gathered around a set of schemers, Generals Kornilov and Alekseev, who refused Lenin’s authority.
The Volunteer Army did not seem like a great threat. On February 23rd Red forces captured Rostov, after separatist Cossack forces had melted away and their hetman, General Alexei Kaledin, shot himself. This put the little Volunteer Army at risk of being surrounded by great masses of Red Guards advancing on the Don. On the 24th, Kornilov and Alekseev began to march into the steppes with their small army and whatever civilians chose to join them. They ventured further south into the Kuban, hoping to drum up support. Because of superior Red forces, they had to avoid railroads, trekking instead by foot in the freezing Russian winter. At the moment the Russian Civil War looked over before it had even begun.
A railway-mounted 12 inch gun of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
The medal awarded to the survivors of the Ice March: a crown of thorns pierced with a sword.
February 23 1918, Rostov–While Russia was being overrun from the west by the almost-unopposed German advance, the Red forces on the Don were still finding success. Of course, the scales of the forces involved differed greatly–the Germans had 53 divisions on the Eastern Front, while the Whites had, at best, 4,000 men. With what little Cossack resistance there was melted away after Kaledin’s suicide, the Reds were able to enter Rostov with little opposition on February 23, and Novocherkassk two days later.
Alexeyev’s and Kornilov’s Volunteer Army, outnumbered by the Reds, marched off into the steppe, heading south towards the Kuban River–more remote and with its own host of Cossacks that they hoped would be friendlier to their cause. The Volunteer Army, and those civilians who chose to follow it rather than risk reprisals by the Bolsheviks, now had to march through open country and deep snow in the height of winter. They needed to deliberately avoid any railways, by which the Reds could easily bring large forces to near against them, as well as any large towns, which were likely loyal to the Reds as well.
The Volunteer Army’s so-called “Ice March” eventually grew into a legend among Russian emigrés from the Civil War. Denikin, who would eventually command the force would wax grandiloquently: “We went from the dark night and spiritual slavery to unknown wandering–in search of the bluebird.”
Today in 1917: British Bridge the Tigris
A French poilu breaks American soldiers into trench life. Note how much taller the American soldiers are. Although the “Sammies” were inexperienced, these fit young men embodied the strength of the Entente’s powerful new ally, and inspired many French and British tired by long years of war.
February 23, 1918 – First American Attacks on the Western Front
Pictured – The Americans are in it now.
As the Allies coped with horrible news from Russia, where German soldiers were advancing hundreds of miles, there was a hidden bright spot in the newspapers. Readers of the Times were surely tired of articles about trench raids and artillery battles, but there surely must have been some interest to read that a small group of Americans had gone into action on the Western Front.
Two American officers and twenty-four men had volunteered to accompany a French raid on the German trenches. American companies were being slowly parceled into the front-lines, egged on my experienced French and British trainers. The “Sammies” were green, but they were also eager to fight. On the 13th American artillerymen had taken part in a six-hour rolling barrage before a French attack. The raid on the 23rd lasted half an hour and took twenty-five Germans prisoners. For the Americans, it was a great morale booster, and The Times commented that while “the actual occasion was not of much importance – February 23 is one of the dates that will always be remembered in the history of the war.”