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.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Allied Strategic Developments early 1918

The Supreme Allied War Council
meeting atVersailles in 1918
A new year saw the Allies needing to up their game to deal with the concentration of German forces on the Western Front. Previous years' meetings had focused on co-ordination of the Allies own breakthrough, whereas it was now clear that the Allied response in the west would have to be a defensive one. Haig's overoptimistic reports could no longer hide the serious losses and lack of strategic progress in Flanders. Furthermore, throughout 1917 the picture that had slowly and eventually emerged from Russia was a deeply disturbing one. Although wishful thinking had persisted for some months after the February revolution that Russia could remain as a significant partner in the Allied cause, by the end of the year all hopes were gone. The Bolsheviks were being lined up for a punitive armistice (thinly disguised as a Treaty) at Brest-Litovsk, and the Russian army was inactive and in ruins. Another Allied conference to agree on dates and priorities for the 1918 season was clearly not going to be appropriate. Previous posts (see 13/11/2017 and 21/12/2017) described the agreement to establish a Supreme Allied War Council to be based in Versailles, and it was scheduled to hold its first executive meeting on 30th January 1918. The focus would be the Western Front, and the unpalatable news that it might be as late as autumn before significant American forces could bolster the Allied defences there. 

In early January, Lloyd-George took advantage of a speaking engagement with the Trades Unions to re-frame Britain’s objectives for the war. Gone were any references to destruction of the German, Austro-Hungarian or Turkish empires. The objectives were much the same, but stated more positively – restoration of occupied territory in France, Belgium, Italy, Serbia and Montenegro; restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France; independence for Poland and for any aspiring nations within Austia-Hungary; and further east Britain wanted to see separate states for Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Arabia. Constantinople would remain the capital of Turkey, but the waters surrounding and the Dardanelle straits should become international. Reparations for war damage would be required, and an international ‘war prevention’ organisation created. Of course, the German government would take little notice of it, but they did pay heed to a similar document issued by the US President Wilson just a few days later. Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’, published on 8th January were:
·       Open covenants of peace and no secret diplomacy in future
·       Absolute freedom of navigation in peace and war outside territorial waters
·       Removal as far as possible of all economic barriers
·       Adequate guarantees for the reduction of national armaments
·       An absolutely impartial adjustment of colonial claims, the interests of those peoples concerned having equal weight
·       All Russian territory to be evacuated, and Russia given full opportunity for self-development, the Powers aiding
·       Complete restoration of Belgium, in full and free sovereignty
·       All French territory freed and the wrong done by Prussian in 1871 in the matter of Alsace Lorraine righted
·       Re-adjustment of Italian frontiers on lines of nationality
·       Peoples of Austria-Hungary accorded an opportunity of autonomous development
·       Rumania, Serbia and Montenegro evacuated, Serbia being given access to the sea, and relations of Balkan states settled on lines of allegiance and nationality
·       Non-Turkish nationalities in the Ottoman empire assured of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles to be permanently free to all ships
·       An independent Polish state
·       A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.
Wishful thinking? Certainly Wilson’s greatest hope was the fourteenth point – the creation of a League of Nations, to promote democracy, weaken imperial power and preserve peace. Idealistic, as we well know by now, but it received a positive, if disingenuous response from the Chancellors of Germany and Austria-Hungary. They were facing difficult domestic conditions, particularly in Austria, where Vienna was largely incapacitated by unrest and strikes. Both Cernin, for Austria-Hungary, and Hertling, for Germany, gave gushing responses in public statements about the principles, whilst rejecting points concerning territory and nationalist aspirations.

Lloyd-George was also determined to push his own military agenda, rather than listen to Haig, or the increasingly isolated CIGS Sir William Robertson. He chose the Supreme Allied Council meeting in Versailles in late January to do this. Largely due to Lloyd-George’s disruptions, this committee produced (in military aspects) a camel rather than a thoroughbred horse. Predictably, the agenda was dominated by the defensive plan for the Western Front. There was agreement about the need for a unified command, and the majority, including the generals, wants a supremo, generalissimo to take control. Lloyd-George was against this, despite (or perhaps because of) support for it by both Haig and Robertson. He argued successfully for a compromise that in the end suited nobody. A military executive, with Marshall Foch at its head would be allocated a force of thirty Divisions made up from the Allied armies, and have discretion over its deployment as the German plans revealed themselves. This was never likely to be a success, but Lloyd George was not finished. He insisted that the British advance through Mesopotamia and Palestine should not be compromised by shifting resources to France (this at a time when Ludendorff was moving forces from Rumania, Bulgaria and Turkey to maximise his strength on the Western Front). Finally he used the meeting to pursue his own domestic agenda. He informed Robinson bluntly of his decision that the senior representative of the British Military on the Council should not be the CIGS, but a separate position. He offered Robertson the choice of either, but not both. Robertson, who believed the opposite, decided to resign - as Lloyd-George must have hoped he would. This neatly ended several differences Lloyd-George had with his CIGS. The most important was an impasse over whether all available British reserves should be transferred to France, as Haig was demanding (more of this in a future episode).  It was hard on Robertson – the first man to rise from the rank of private to the very pinnacle of the British Army. He had laboured unceasingly for the cause for over two years since Kitchener’s fall from favour, and now paid the same price – probably for being too supportive of Douglas Haig and for Lloyd-George’s understandable unwillingness to risk another Passchendaele.
Sir Henry Wilson, the new CIGS
A better fit with Lloyd-George,
he had better political skills than
the soldier's soldier, Robertson.
Sir Henry Wilson, the new CIGS, was much more to Lloyd-George’s taste. At the same time as appointing Wilson as CIGS, Lloyd-George moved Lord Milner within the cabinet, creating the post of Secretary of State for War. He now had two new (and strongly supportive) senior advisers.

Shortly after the dysfunctional Versailles summit, President Wilson made a further contribution, outlining four principles as preconditions for peace. Each dealt with the importance of allowing self determination and peoples’ sovereignty rather than service under the yoke of oppression. More worthy principles. This time the German Chancellor Hertling seemed less interested – probably because Germany had just secured its access to the resources of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and the Baltic states. More important still, a secret session of the Reichstag held in January had been promised by Ludendorff that Germany was poised for certain and outright victory on the Western Front.