WORLD WAR ONE       home | history

Revolution and more Failures, 1917

German workers were now putting in fourteen-hour days. During 1916, food riots occurred in approximately thirty German cities. In 1916, according to official German counting, 121,114 Germans had starved to death in 1916, up from 88,232 in 1915 – deaths the Germans attributed to the British blockade. But there had also been a decline in Germany's farm production because of men and horses having been taken from farms for the war effort. Premature frosts killed the potato harvest. The winter of 1916-17 would be known as the Turnip Winter. And short of coal, like the French, German civilians would be shivering in their homes.

In Russia there was disappointment with the tsar's leadership and with the war. In early March 1917, on his train near the front, Tsar Nicholas had no military that would defend his rule against the unrest that had erupted. At the Kronstadt naval base just outside Petrograd, sailors were killing their officers. The tsar abdicated for himself and his young son. He wrote a message of good-bye to his "dearly beloved" troops. The Duma, a representative body that had been powerless under the tsar, was recognized as Russia's governing body — the Provisional Government (provisional until a Constituent Assembly could be formed).

The Provisional Government had Nicholas arrested at his headquarters and put on a train that took him to his palace just outside Petrograd. Here Nicholas and his family were under house arrest, but the Tsar and his family were pleased to be united again and living in the comfort that the Tsar's private wealth and servants made possible. The Provisional Government chose to stay in the war as a member of the anti-German coalition that included France and Britain and in April would also include the United States. A demonization of Germany was prevalent in Russia and the Provisional Government, but not so much among the common soldiers at the front, suffering in the cold not far from common German soldiers.

In France a leading general, Nivelle, thought he had a formula for a successful offensive against the Germans: a massive, denser, creeping bombardment that would break down the German defenses. He declared that if he did not create a breakthrough within the first 48 hours he would stop the offensive rather than shed more blood. He opened his offensive on April 5. And it didn't work, but he couldn't face the reality of his failure and pushed on with the offensive's slaughter. Weary French soldiers, fed up with what they believed were government lies about the war, mutinied, led by older veterans of the war. Soldiers being transported to the front ganged up on their officers, against military policemen and against railway men taking them to the front. An entire division that had fought at Verdun refused to go into battle, and the revolt spread to half the French army.

The British in France also went on the offensive, hoping to pull German troops away from the French offensive, and it was costly in British lives and accomplished nothing. There were holes in the frontline that the French had been defending, but the Germans were not appraising the enemy lines. The French high command managed to keep the rebellion of their troops a secret from the outside world. Nivelle was replaced by someone who believed in a defensive strategy: General Henri Pétain.

A British offensive in Flanders began on June 7. Its primary goal was to clear the Belgian coast of Germany's submarine bases. But it won no appreciable ground. Bombardments had destroyed water drainage in the area, and with the heavy rains the battlefields had become soft mud and contiguous pools of water-filled shell holes. Men easily sank up to their waists. Movement was most difficult, but the British commander, Douglas Haig, ordered the advance to anyway, and by November the British had lost another 300,000 as dead or wounded.

Neither were the Italians doing well on their front. In May, thirty-eight Italian divisions were massed along its mountainous front against 14 Austrian divisions. An Italian offensive gained little ground. The Italians lost 157,000 in dead and wounded and the Austrians 75,000 (approximately the number of Union and Confederate dead in the entire US Civil War.) In August, Italy launched its second offensive of the year. The Austrians fell back. German troops went to their rescue. In October, a combined German and Austrian counter-offensive broke through the Italian line. A great battle was fought at the little town of Caporetto. The Italians fell back in a rout — more the fault of Italy's military leaders than its rank and file. Some Italian units fought with bravery and determination, but the breakdown of their front against Austria broke their morale.

The unexpected collapse of the Italian front was more than the Germans had been prepared for. The Germans and Austrians were unable to exploit it. Six French and five British divisions arrived in Italy and shored up the Italian defense line along the Piave River. Meanwhile, the war had become more popular with the Italian public as they sought revenge against their nation's humiliation.

In November came the Bolshevik Revolution — very much a part of the war. The Bolsheviks took power in the name of the councils (soviets) that had appeared with the overthrow of the tsar. Bolshevik power derived from its opposition to the war while the liberal Provisional Government was seeing danger mainly from German aggression. The Provisional Government's attempt at an offensive back in July, encouraged by President Wilson, had failed, contributing to the Bolshevik success.

Writes the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa:

The Bolsheviks swept into power in the October Revolution but had no practical plans to reestablish order. As crime continued to escalate and violent alcohol riots almost drowned the revolutionary regime, they redefined it as “counterrevolutionary activity,” to be dealt with by the secret police, whose harshly repressive, extralegal means of enforcement helped pave the way for a Communist dictatorship.

The Germans had found some hope in Russia's withdrawal from the war. By the end of 1917, they still had their submarine bases in Belgium, but the British and Americans were using a naval convoy system, with depth charges and underwater listening devices. The Germans wanted to concentrate on defeating the French and British on the Western Front. With the United States in the war the Allies had an overwhelming superiority in manpower. The US could produce enough to sustain the Allied cause indefinitely while Germany's economy was strained and blockaded. Russia's withdrawal from the war was of little help for the Germans. They were being overwhelmed militarily.

CONTINUE READING: Ludendorff's Failed Offensives and an Armistice

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