Wednesday, 21 March 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 3: Operation Michael 21st March 1918

German Infantry advancing through Saint-Quentin
March 1918
All along the Western Front expectation was high. The much anticipated German offensive was at hand, but where would the first, vital blow land? In estimating the probabilities, both Army Commanders-in-Chief had unwittingly contrived to leave the German chosen sector as their weakest. For Britain Haig was more concerned to protect the Pas de Calais and communications to the Channel ports than the southern end of his line. He was prepared to accept the weak position of Gough’s 5th Army in front of Saint-Quentin to keep his defences stronger in Flanders. Petain was pre-occupied with the danger to Paris of an assault through Champagne, and his vulnerability further to the south east. Although he had reserve Divisions available, as agreed with Haig, to support Gough’s army, they were placed too far south to reach the area rapidly in a crisis – and a crisis was shortly to develop. On 14th and 15th March British aircraft had reported on a concentration of German forces behind Saint-Quentin, so the warning signs were there, but in the eerie calm of 19th and 20th the weather was drizzle and mist and at dusk on 20th a dense fog set in. This enabled 30,000 German troops to infiltrate stealthily to their forward positions less than two miles from the British ‘blue’ line.

Before the term assumed its modern significance, an ‘eleventh hour’ warning of the German attack was issued along the British front at 2am on 21st March. At 4.30am followed an order to move men into position in the Battle (secondary) zone. Scarcely in time, for at 4.45 a devastating German artillery barrage commenced. Accurate fire landed all across the forward and battle zones, but also into the rear areas, up to 20 miles behind the front line. Large amounts of poison gas were added to the barrage. For good measure, a more general artillery attack took place all along the front from the Channel coast to the far south east section. In the fog covering the 3rd and 5th Army positions confusion reigned. Only wireless messages could be communicated, and these were slow and unreliable. Coincident with the opening of the barrage, the elite storm troopers surged forward to the British blue line, and rapidly made their way through to the deeper areas of the Forward Zone (see Previous Post 2/3/2018). As dawn arrived, the thickness of the fog allowed for no improvement in visibility. The fog was hazardous for both sides, but definitely conferred an advantage to the early German spearheads.
The red line shows the 21st March advances, the
orange shows the eventual limit of Germany's advance
Between 8am and 10am the main German infantry moved forward to exploit the holes punched in the British defences. The Tommies were already uncomfortable in their new, distributed, defence mode, compared to their usual ‘hold the line’ mode. Add to that the blanket of fog, with super-added poisonous gas clouds and ceaseless barrage and it is not difficult to understand how defenders were simply overwhelmed in so many places.
By 11am news was filtering through to Divisional HQs of large German incursions – the largest being in the marshy southern end of the 5th Army’s front on the Oise (where trouble had not been expected). Further bad news came from the Bapaume/Cambrai road area; Lagnicourt and Bullecourt in the northern half of the front (see map). At Ronssoy, in the centre, the attackers had broken right through the battle zone. This was very serious news, and such reserves as there were moved in to plug gaps as quickly as conditions allowed.
By early afternoon the fog had lifted, and the Germans were able to launch their planned supporting air attacks, targeting the remaining strong points in the forward zone. Desperate defence, much of it heroic but piecemeal, continued through the afternoon. The risk of a major rupture of the line between 3rd and 5th Armies grew alarmingly.* But the worst news came from south of St. Quentin. The German were well beyond the battle zone, and by evening had reached the Crozat canal (part of the longer Saint-Quentin canal, linking the Rivers Oise and Somme – see map).
At the northern end of the sector, Byng’s 3rd Army was holding hard to its positions. Byng had more men to hold a shorter section of the line, and his defensive positions were better prepared. Heavier casualties were inflicted on the attackers, and the deeper battle zone held firm (in some places only just). Most ground was lost between Demicourt and Croisilles (see map). One result of this (alongside a corresponding loss of ground to the south) was to accentuate the Flesquieres salient, increasing the risk of encirclement of the large number of troops inside it. The salient itself had a relatively quiet day, other than heavy repeated poison gas attacks, leaving its occupants confined and unaware of the major events to the north and south. (Haig finally ordered Byng to withdraw from most of the salient later that night).
As night fell, both sides looked to shore up their positions in preparation for the 22nd. In a tumultuous day, 32 British Divisions had been involved against 64 German, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Only on the disastrous first day of the Somme did the British have more casualties (49,000) in a single day than on this (38,000). As the attackers, the Germans were prone to heavier casualties, although on this first day the fog had afforded them a good deal of protection. Middlebrook estimates German day 1 casualties of Operation Michael at almost 40,000.
Right along the line the forward zone had been lost. The battle zone rear edge was just about intact along its length, except at the southern end where Gough’s men were authorised to make their stand behind the Crozat canal and its link to the Somme canal. The Royal Engineers moved in to prepare all the bridges for destruction.
As the 22nd March dawned, the heavy fog had returned, frustrating the British artillery’s hopes to stall the next German waves of attack. The beleaguered 5th Army had no relief at all, and stood vulnerable, outnumbered by four to one.

* This was the source of bitter controversy in the blame culture surrounding these events back in London later in 1918 and 1919.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Postcards from the heart of the Western Front

Road signs in Cambrai, at the heart of 1918 actions
Criss crossing the mainly deserted roads of 
northern France today it's apparent that very few buildings are more than 100 years old. Many civic buildings and churches have been lovingly restored but the signs of reconstruction are everywhere. Although maybe no more than 10-15% of the country was caught up in the carnage of German occupation, the impact was huge. To a country still hurting from the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany after the 1870 war this was a further affront and humiliation. The French, and by their Alliance the British military tactics tactics for three years were dominated by the desire to remove the invader from French soil. It was a terrible position to be in. British and French forces had to be be thrown against the formidable defences of the invader, or else accept the occupation. The many awful and attritional campaigns of 1915-1917 were, on this account, understandable but fruitless. 1918 brough drastic changes to the wretched status quo. Lines moved rapidly  - first to the east with the final German assaults, and then to the west in the dramtic efforts of the final 100 days. Within a few miles between Le Cateau to the east of Cambrai to Albert to its west battles from every year of the war are marked and remembered

Hard to blame the German artillery for this one - the amazing remnants of the Abbaye on the Mont St. Eloi. It lies to the north of Notre Dame de Lorette and Vimy Ridge, thus contributing a good strategic vantage point for much of the war.

At Le Cateau-Cambresis, below, British and German cemeteries lie alongside each other, separated only by a non-barbed hedge. The Britsh dead here are nearly all 'old contemptibles', victims of Smith-Dorrien's heroic stand against the German juggernaut at the beginning of the great retreat.
British on left, Germans on right

Battle of Cambrai 1917
Bullecourt, and the statue of 'Digger' representing the Australian forces who held on gallantly in the face of von Marwitz's fierce counter attacks in the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. The Bullecourt fighting was some of the fiercest, and the result shaped the Flesquieres salient, a focal point for Operation Michael that announced the German offensives in March 1918.

This multinational monument is on the edge of the village of Flesquieres, that formed the tip of the salient resulting from Cambrai. Facing east, the central concrete mound represents the Hindenburg line in the Cambrai sector, and the tank tracks represent the breakthrough by takns on the first day of Cambrai, with the footprints of the infantry who followed up the breach in the Hindenburg line.
The lower photo turns 180 degrees to the west, and a sign points out the landmarks to the west, whence came the British assault.
The tanks, alongside Byng's 3rd Army performed superbly on the first day, but as so often the actions were so severe that them men became exhausted; there were insufficient reserves to follow up the success, and the inevitable German counter attacks reclaimed much of the ground lost, at high price to both sides.

Operation Michael March 1918
The first of the German hammer blows of 1918 fell upon the positions of the 3rd and 5th Armies of the BEF. In particular Gough's 5th army, stretched out along weak positions inherited from the French line came under massive pressure in the first days, and was forced to concede a great deal of ground. In the midst of all this multiple acts of heroism occurred against formidable odds.
One remarkable instance was the courageous (bordering on reckless) leadership of Lt Colonel Dimmer who led his men, on horseback, in a Balaklava style counter attack against the oncoming might of German forces. Aged 34, and recently married, Dimmer was one of those larger than life characters who appear frequently in the annals of war. At the outbreak of war he had been in Africa. He immediately returned home and found himself a posting in the front line within weeks, and nhe won the VC in defence of the Ypres salient in Klein Zillebeke in November 1914. He continued to hold off the enemy from his machine gun post despite having been hit five times. He was back in the front line in no time and continued to lead by example until his sacrificial charge against the fateful German onslaught on 21st March 1918.

Vargny sur Somme
This beautiful cemetery was an unexpected find on the west bank of the Somme between Ham and Peronne. This area was hammered by the Germans after they broke through the 5th Army defence zones on 21st March 1918. The British withdrew to the line of the Crozet Canal before taking up positions to keep the Germans on the east bank of the Somme, which in this section flows almost due north. Nearly all of the 1000 British men in this cemetery died trying to stop the Germans at the Somme crossings on 22nd and 23rd March 1918
Approaching Vargny from the North, it shimmers in
the distance until becoming recognisable as a CWG cemetery

The view from the southern end. Indescribably
peaceful and moving

Friday, 2 March 2018

"Kaiserschlacht" 2: Build up to Operation Michael

Gen Oskar von Hutier
Brought stormtroopers to the
Western Front
A successful first phase was essential to Ludendorff’s grand plan, which was larger and more ambitious than any attempted by either side on the Western Front to date. In the planning stages he had considered four options: either side of the Verdun salient (codenamed Castor and Pollux); through Belgian Flanders, south of Ypres (George); through Arras and French Flanders (Mars); and through the Saint-Quentin sector (Michael). For reasons set out in the previous blog Ludendorff settled on Michael, although extending its scope to include part of the Mars sector from just south of Vimy Ridge. Ironically, there was no plan for an initial route through Champagne – the shortest route to Paris. We have seen how Petain’s understandable concern to protect this area led to the extension of the British line a further thirty miles southwards to the marshy upper Oise region west of La Fere. The upshot of this was that the entire hammer blow of Operation Michael would fall upon vulnerable British defences. The tensions at the top of British command between Haig and Lloyd George further undermined the British forces by impeding development of co-ordinated planning by the fledgling Supreme War Council.

Along the 70 miles of Operation Michael front, the
Germans outnumbered the British by 2.5:1

 The operational ‘Michael plus’ battlefront stretched for seventy miles, more or less due south from north of Arras to La Fere (see Map).* The terrain in Spring would be less hostile than the clay swamps of Flanders. A series of valleys and their rivers ran east to west at intervals. In the northern part the rivers flowed east towards the Belgian coast, but further south they flowed to the west, mainly as tributaries of the Somme or Oise. There were some important areas of high ground and one critical section – the Flesquieres salient – created as an outcome of the Cambrai battles three months earlier. There was a westward bulge in the line in front of the town of Saint-Quentin. Breakthrough here would allow te Germans to fan out to the north west towards Peronne and the 1916 Somme battlefields; and south westwards towards Ham (also on the Somme) to block any moves north by the French to support the British. South of Saint-Quentin the front wound down to the canals and marshes around La Fere, and it was not anticipated that there would be major activity there.
The German preparations were typically detailed and meticulous. Intensive training of the elite storm troops entrusted to make the initial breakthrough was accompanied by artillery work planned in painstaking detail by the brilliant artillery supremo of the German military, Georg von Bruchmuller. This was to be war of movement, and not only would the regular infantry follow up the breaches made by the storm troops, but light artillery would follow closely, laying down pinpoint creeping barrages. Most of the ground to be attacked initially had been held by the Germans before their withdrawal to the Hindenburg line (see Post 4/1/2017). They knew the ground well and were able to plan their shooting ‘by map’ as well as direct observation.
Col. Georg Bruchmuller
German Artillery Supremo
As previously noted a German force of almost a million men was organised by Ludendorff into two army groups. Prince Ruprecht’s northern group comprised two armies – the 17th and the 2nd. The former was commanded by Otto von Below, veteran of the defensive operations against Allied offensives of 1915 and 1916, and of the overwhelming German offensive at Caporetto in late 1917. Another Prussian, Georg von der Marwitz, also a Western Front veteran, commanded the latter. He had led the dramatic German counter-attack at Cambrai. Both men knew well their areas and their opponents. Von Below’s first objective was Bapaume; von Marwitz’s was Peronne (see map). The southern army ‘group’ of Crown Prince Wilhelm comprised only one army, the 18th.  Its commander was Oskar von Hutier, and he was new to the Western Front. His reputation had been made on the Eastern Front, and it was his eponym given to the storm trooper tactics – so important in the coming battle – after he had first implemented them in the capture of Riga in 1917. Von Hutier’s mission was to break through from Saint-Quentin, capture Ham, and then form a flank to prevent French reinforcements coming north to support the British. All the German Divisions had been brought up to strength with fresh (but experienced) troops.

But what of the British defence arrayed against this formidable threat? Several differences were apparent, the most important of which was the differing state of the infantry battalions. The British were either (relatively) inexperienced or exhausted – or both.  The British Army had four sources for its battalions and divisions: the dwindling numbers of regular army men; the Territorials; the volunteer ‘Kitchener’ army, and the Empire Divisions. The ten British Empire Divisions were, perhaps, the best and fittest of all (e.g actions at Pozieres, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele), but the regulars and territorials had the most experience.
Haig had less than three months to reorganize his forces and defend the line. On this front of seventy miles he deployed two armies – the 3rd, commanded by Byng and the 5th, led by Gough. As the map shows, Sir Julian Byng’s army comprised 14 Divisions charged with covering 28 miles from north of Arras to the southern end of the Flesquieres salient. Byng had succeeded Allenby in June 1917 (see Post 3/12/17), and had planned the attack at Cambrai, which had such mixed results. He was encouraged by Haig to withdraw from the Flesquieres salient in order to shorten his defensive line by three miles. This was an offer, rather than an order, and one that he rejected on the basis that the ground had been so hard won by his men. (A questionable decision, as it left many men vulnerable to encirclement by a flanking or pincer movement). Sir Hubert Gough’s army was responsible for holding forty miles of front from the southern end of the Flesquieres salient to La Fere on the River Oise. Gough’s star had been on the rise since the later actions on the Somme until the battles for Passchendaele, where not only his men but also his reputation had taken a battering. His depleted and weary army had been moved south to take over this section of front from the French. Such replacements and reinforcements as he was given were from the volunteer army Divisions, and also he was given three of cavalry, repurposed to makeshift infantry Divisions. Gough was thus expected to hold a much longer section than Byng with fewer (and inferior) forces. This was a conscious decision by Haig – Byng’s section, closer to the Channel ports, was more important to hold. Byng’s army had been in position for more than a year and was well dug in. By contrast, Gough’s unfortunate men inherited rather meagre ‘attack’ trenches from the French and had to start their defensive preparations from scratch.

Haig and his staff had a hectic three months during which they had to re-organise and restructure depleted divisions, but also switch from attacking to defensive formations. They had learned something from the German innovations, and determined to create a zonal defence system along the whole of their front (although they could not hope to match the sophistication of the the German defences). The front line trenches formed the “Blue Line’ at the front edge of a Forward Zone, and they were lightly held (relatively). Behind them were machine gun nests, and deep in the Forward Zone were heavily armed redoubts and battalion command positions. Some way behind the Forward Zone lay the main Battle Zone, and between the Zones was placed light artillery. The gap between the Zones varied along the front, but was such that the artillery could be withdrawn into the Battle Zone if necessary. Barbed wired protect the front of the Battle Zone; then came trenches named the Red Line. As per the Forward Zone, behind the trenches were redoubts and battalion positions. The Battle Zone was the most populated and was the core of the British defensive mind set. A third line, including the Brown Line of trenches was planned to the rear of the Battle Zone, in front of the reserves, field casualty stations and HQs etc. However, in most places this zone was partially completed at best. In Gough’s section, despite their valiant efforts, even the Battle Zone was far from finished when the hostilities commenced.
Ludendorff had been anxious to launch Operation Michael as soon as possible, in February. Such was the complexity and intensity of preparation that Prince Rupprecht pleaded, successfully, for a delay to 1st March. Weather conditions then supervened (as they had with Haig so often before) and 21st March was finally agreed upon. Diversionary attacks, particularly around Verdun, maintained the uncertainty, but the last few days for both sides brought an air of ‘unnatural calmness’. It was a calm before the perfect storm. Around one million German troops with more than ten thousand artillery pieces were ready to break.
*Its scope was huge compared with the British and French 1916 Somme offensive along a 16 miles front.

Friday, 9 February 2018

"Kaisershlacht" - The Kaiser's Battle. 1: Background

Erich Ludendorrf in 1918
Kept tight command over his masterplan
Following the exertions and traumas of the Western Front in 1917, the Allied and German Armies were all close to exhaustion. The Germans were, however, in better shape for two main reasons. Firstly, through fighting defensively their casualties were a little more than half of the French and British combined figure of an estimated 1.5 million. Secondly, they were able to bring fresh (but war hardened) reinforcements from the Eastern Front (see Posts 10/12/2017 and 22/1/2018).
Ludendorff’s grand plan was for an all or nothing offensive and breakthrough, using his new predominance of numbers, to knock the British and French Armies out of the war in four months, before a significant force of Americans could arrive in France.
For calculated political reasons, Ludendorff chose to name the campaign Kaiserschlacht – the Kaiser’s Battle. Although he had also convinced the Reichstag with his plans, he preferred to use the monarchy to be nominal head of the military rule that he and Hindenburg  were now exercising. He kept Royals as head of the two army groups given responsibility for the breakthrough – Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria to the north and Crown Prince Wilhelm (See post 5/2/2016) to the south.

At the end of October 1917 the Allied armies on the Western Front outnumbered the German defenders by 186 Divisions to 150, and 95% of those Division were British or French. By March 1918 the position was reversed – 169 Allied Divisions faced 192 German*. Not only had the Germans brought reinforcements from the Eastern Front, but the British and French had lost Divisions transferred to Italy and the Middle East. Some Divisions had too many losses to continue and their survivors were transferred to bolster other weakened Divisions. Qualitatively the British were facing fresher and more experienced opponents. Of those involved in the Kaisershlacht only 9 British Divisions had not been involved in the exhausting Third Ypres battle, whereas 68 German Divisions had not **. Ludendorff’s plan details were kept secret until as late as possible, but involved attacking in strength along a broad front of more than sixty miles, seeking for weak points that could be exploited with rapid advances by storm-troopers – as had happened at Caporetto (see Post 13/11/2017). No problem for him that the Allies suspected a major onslaught, provided they did not guess its location - anywhere between Belgium in the north or Belfort at the southern limits of the Western Front. In fact he had already made his decision that the main strike would be in the Somme area, where he saw the junction between French and British commands. His plan was to drive a wedge between British and French, such that he could push the British towards the Channel ports, where they would have to surrender or withdraw.  The French armies would be blocked from supporting the British and, in turn, would fall back on Paris and be overwhelmed. His plan had something of the Schlieffen about it (see Post 13/11/2014) – the British, hemmed into the Pas de Calais would be the equivalent to Russia in Schlieffen’s original.
By the end of the German counter-attacks in December 1917, Haig had come to expect that the Western Front tables would be turned in 1918, and that he would have to wage defensive war for the first time since 1914. Petain also realised this, and their joint planning took on an urgency to improve defences along the front. Petain was still pre-occupied with the fragility of his positions at the Aisne, in Champagne and around Verdun. He persuaded a reluctant Haig that the British should take over more of the line. It was a fateful decision. In early January 1918, the right hand (southern) limit of the British sector had been held by Byng’s 3rd Army just south of Arras, including its residual gains in the Flesquières salient from the Cambrai action. By the end of the month the British line had extended south by a further forty miles – south of St. Quentin and down to Barisis on the River Oise. Charged with holding this new sector was Gough’s 5th Army, transferred from Ypres, and it was a big ask. While Byng’s army would be holding the sector immediately to the north, roughly from Arras to Cambrai, Gough was being asked to hold the new sector south from Cambrai to Barisis. Byng had 14 Divisions to hold 28 miles of front; Gough had 12 Divisions and 3 Cavalry Divisions to hold 42 miles. This total of 29 Divisions was ranged against 76 German Divisions.
Prince Rupprecht.
Commanded two of
the 3 Kaiserschlacht
Gough’s army was weakened by the campaign for Passchendaele, and morale had not fully recovered. Haig recognised this, and he did give Gough permission for a withdrawal position under duress (Byng had no such latitude). For one thing, Haig expected the main German blow to come to the north; and for another the country behind Gough was less vital than the coastal areas of France and Belgium. Petain was also less anxious about Gough’s section than the Aisne or Champagne, but he did agree in February to position his reserves to provide rapid support to Gough if necessary, while Haig kept his reserves further north.

The upshot of all this was that Ludendorff’s first great hammer blow was now destined to fall entirely on the British 3rd and 5th Armies rather than at the junction of French and British commands. But the junction between Gough and Byng was to prove as unstable as any British French line. 

Crown Prince Wilhelm
Nominally in command
of one Kaiserschlacht army
Above all the 3rd and 5th armies (supported by other small armies of pioneers, Chinese labourers and forced labour PoWs) had rapidly to construct  more complex defences to withstand new German tactics. The 3rd Army had been in position for more than a year, and knew their conditions well. Poor Gough’s army had just arrived from the horrors of Passchendaele, and they inherited French trenches that were barely adequate for attacking, let alone defending. At least they found the ground dry, but various ingredients were adding up to a perfect storm.

*And British Divisions had shrunk to an establishment of 10 Battalions rather than 13 because of the continuing heavy losses.
** Martin Middlebrook The Kaiser’s Battle  p43

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Brest-Litovsk Conference and Treaty

Leon Trotsky in 1918. started
well at Brest-Litovsk, finished
In the early days following the Bolsheviks seizure of power, their consistent policy of withdrawal from the war rebounded on them rapidly. The ideological stance of the party was that a global proletarian revolution would inspired by their example, and that would soon lead to the laying down of arms by the other main combatant countries. There was indeed much war weariness in each of those countries – Germany, France and Britain – but their leaders had a firmer grip on events than Kerensky’s Provisional Government, and the resources to counter any unrest. In particular the military leadership of Germany (now virtually a dictatorship, as the Kaiser shrunk to bit part player) had no intention of missing out on the new opportunity to exploit the collapse of Russia. This was the non-ideological reality that posed great danger.

Lenin was quick to recognise Russia’s vulnerability to further German invasion. Half of his Bolshevik ruling central committee, led by Bukharin, argued for a revolutionary war by peasants and workers to any German invasion, both to save the revolution and to inspire the global proletariat. Lenin pressed his view that a predominantly peasant army would not be capable of waging war against the might of Germany to protect the revolution. Negotiating peace with Germany was imperative. It would buy time for the Bolshevik party to consolidate its position and to build up its own army, thereby protecting the revolution at home, even if delaying revolution elsewhere. In debate, Lenin’s view prevailed, as usual. However, Bukharin’s group remained strongly opposed and Trotsky – after years in exile working for global revolution – was only grudgingly onside with Lenin’s position. So, Russia’s negotiations with the Central Powers (aka Germany) started from very weak positions – militarily and politically.

The first delegation set out from Petrograd on 16th November 1917. Brest-Litovsk was a historic but miserable city, largely obliterated by three years of warfare, situated in (today’s) Belarus, close to the (today) Eastern Polish border. For such a complex and delicate mission, the composition of the delegation was unprecedented:  three senior Bolsheviks led by Yoffe, an ally of Trotsky, and an assortment of representative, purely symbolic, revolutionaries – soldiers, sailors, workers, women and peasants. Indeed the peasant was added almost as an afterthought, when Yoffe’s car (en route to Warsaw station) picked up a peasant sheltering from the snow in a roadside hut. Having briefly established the man’s revolutionary credentials, Yoffe added him to the delegation!
On arrival at Brest-Litovsk they found a large group ranged opposite them. Although completely dominated by the Germans, it included political and military representatives also of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey, all eager to press the Russians for their own purposes. Despite their protests none of the newly declared independent states of the Baltic, Ukraine or Finland were represented. Poland’s status and wishes were completely ignored.
The first task was to agree an armistice, pending a formal treaty. This was wanted by all those present at the conference, for their own reasons, but Lenin’s ‘Decree on Peace’ had been overoptimistic in expecting the other Allied nations to send delegates, or be interested in an armistice. That was a non-starter. Although spontaneous local ceasefires were occurring along the Russian front, there were no instances recorded anywhere else, and on 3rd December the Russian delegation reluctantly signed an armistice that was confined to the Russian front and for one month only (Lenin had wanted six months). Two days later, the remaining Rumanian forces at the extreme east of the front were obliged to follow suit. At this point Lenin decided to dispense with Yoffe (and the superfluous revolutionary delegates) and send Trotsky to take over. He urged Trotsky to use his formidable rhetoric and cunning in stalling the peace talks. Trotsky had great success initially with his filibustering, running rings around his opposite number, the German Foreign Secretary and distinguished diplomat Baron von Kuhlmann. By the new year the German Military Command in Berlin (i.e. Ludendorff) was losing patience, and took advantage of the arrival of a Ukraine national delegation at the conference to rack up the pressure on Trotsky. 
Richard von Kuhlmann.
German Foreign Secretary
Tortoise to Trotsky's hare.
Ukrainian independence had been declared in November (see Post 21/12/2017) but Kharkov and eastern Ukraine were being occupied by Russian forces (sound familiar?). Germany and Austria-Hungary, needing Ukraine badly as a vassal state rich in food and industrial resources, were happy to respond positively to requests for support from the Ukrainians. They threatened Trotsky with the annexation of Ukraine as a protectorate unless a peace treaty was signed rapidly. Trotsky called for an adjournment and hurried back to Petrograd to report to Lenin.* A crucial meeting of the Bolshevik central Committee was held on 11th January 1918, where the three factions fought for their positions. The largest, Bulkarin’s, continued to argue for a revolutionary war against Germany to inspire world revolution. Trotsky, speaking for the second group, supported international revolution, but knew that a peasant army had little chance of resisting the German forces. He coined a slogan “No war, no peace” and suggested Russia should simply walk away from the conference. The smallest group supported Lenin’s demands for immediate signing of peace terms. He argued that delay would worsen the situation, and within a short time the Germans would sweep away the Bolsheviks and their revolution. Faced with defeat in the vote, Lenin was forced to side with Trotsky to avoid (what he saw as) Bukharin’s suicidal proposals.
Trotsky returned to Brest-Litovsk armed with the “No war, no peace” slogan, and instructions to play for more time. Remarkably, he spun things out for three more weeks before Ludendorff sent an ultimatum - either to sign the treaty on offer, or face resumption of the war next day. Trotsky’s bluff was called, but he astounded the conference by announcing that Russia was leaving the war, and would not sign the treaty. With that he left Brest-Litovsk and returned to Petrograd**.
Once the delegates had recovered from the shock, Ludendorff ordered Kuhlmann to announce that Germany and Austria-Hungary would resume hostilities on 18th February, two days hence. This duly happened, and within five days the invaders had captured up to 150 miles of territory along great sections of the Eastern Front, meeting virtually no resistance.
Now a febrile and panicky session of the Central Committee in Petrograd raged for hours, with resignations threatened from all sides.  At midnight on 21st February an offer of peace was sent by telegram to Brest-Litovsk. Some last minute appeals to the Allies for support became irrelevant when the German peace terms arrived on 23rd. They exacted harshly punitive terms (that would rebound on them at Versailles in 1919), demanding all occupied territory, including that gained in the past few days. In effect, Germany was annexing all of  Ukraine, Poland and most of the Baltic states.
Lenin forced through the humiliating vote of acceptance at the Central Committee, winning only with the support of Trotsky. Later on that day the vote was ratified in a stormy meeting of the Soviet executive, by 116 votes to 85. Lenin left the meeting with shouts of ‘Traitor’ and ‘Judas’ ringing in his ears.

The Brest-Litovsk Treaty was finally signed on March 3rd (the main terms are summarised below). Russian’s humiliation was complete. Within days, fearful of German proximity, Lenin moved the government to Moscow. Within a few months the nightmare of civil war would envelop what remained of Russia.
All the Central Powers gained material advantage from the treaty, but less than they had hoped. For Germany the main advantage was military, handing Ludendorff more resources and flexibility for the planning of his masterstroke on the western Front.

Brest-Litovsk Terms
Kuhlmann finished on top in his duel with Trotsky:

*Bolshevik Russia ceded the Baltic States to Germany (they were to become German vassal states under German rule).
*Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine (to become a vassal state of Germany)
*Russia ceded its province of Kars Oblast in the southern Caucasus to Turkey.
*Reparations (financial) from Russia to Germany would follow later in 1918

Poland was not mentioned in the treaty, as Germans refused to recognize the existence of any Polish representatives.
Russia lost 27% of its arable land; 26% of the railway system; 33% of the manufacturing industries, and 75% of coalfields

* the unfolding of this crisis is described graphically in Figes’ marvellous book The People’s Tragedy pp543-548

** The method in Trotsky’s apparent madness was that he still held out hopes that an attack by Germany on a ‘peaceful’ and defenceless Russia would provoke sufficient outrage in Berlin to trigger an uprising.