FEBRUARY 1918

 

FEBRUARY 1918

Western Front

Owing to reduced daylight and the need to stay alive against winter conditions in the trenches,

all was quiet on the Western Front.

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Eastern Front

The Battle of Rarancza was fought between Polish Legionnairess and Austro-Hungary, from 15th to 16th February 1918, near Rarancza in Bukovina, the present day border between Poland and the Ukraine, and ended with a Polish victory. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which was being negotiated did not appear to benefit the idea of a nation state for Poland. This treaty, signed between the Central Powers and the Ukrainian People’s Republic on 9th February 1918, transferred the province of Chelm, which the Poles believed should be under Polish control, to the Ukrainian state. The Polish forces, part of the Austro-Hungarian Army stationed on the border of Bessarabia, were increasingly restless. Having received the information about the treaty on 12th February 1918, and expecting further weakening of the Polish units, they decided on the 24th February 1918 to join forces with the Polish First Army Corps in Russia by crossing the Austro-Hungarian front lines. Polish units, mostly 2nd and 3rd Regiment under the command of Jőzef Haller de Hallenburg, attempted to break through the Austrian lines on 15th to 16th February 1918. Austrian forces were ordered to stop them, and fighting ensued in several places but the main Polish units broke through the Austro-Hungarian Army near Rarancza and the Legionnaires won the battle.

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Operation Faustschlag was a Central Powers offensive against Bolshevik Russia and began on the 18th February 1918 when the temporary armistice between Germany and Russia lapsed. It was the last offensive of the Eastern Front. Russian forces were unable to put up any serious resistance due to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War. The armies of the Central Powers therefore captured huge territories in the Balkans, Belarus and Ukraine. The German Chief of Staff, General Max Hoffman, signed a peace treaty with the Ukrainian People’s Republic on the 9th February 1918 and announced an end to the cease-fire with Russia, leading to the resumption of hostilities. On the 18th February 1918, the German and Austro-Hungarian forces began a major three pronged offensive. Their northern army advanced from Pskov towards Narva, the central army pushed toward Smolensk and the southern army towards Kiev. The northern army captured the key Daugavpils junction on the first day. This was soon followed by the capture of Pskov and securing Narva on the 28th February 1918, the central army advanced towards Smolensk. On the 21st February 1918, Minsk was captured together the headquarters of the Russian Soviet Western Army Group. The southern forces broke through the remains of the Russian Southwestern Army Group, capturing Zhitomir on the 24th February 1918. The Germans captured the Russian town of Pskov on the 28th February 1918. The Germans secured Kiev the capital of Ukraine on the 2nd March 1918. The Central Power’s armies advanced over 150 miles (249 km) within a week, facing no serious resistance. German troops were now within 100 miles (160 km) of Petrograd, forcing the Soviets to transfer their capital to Moscow. The rapid advance occurred because German soldiers used Russian railways to advance eastward.

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The Germans landed on the mainland of Estonia on 18th February 1918 and marched into Haapsahu on 21st February 1918. They occupied Valga on 22nd February 1918, Pernau, Valjandi, Tartu on 24th February 1918, Tallinin and the rest of Estonia was occupied on the 25th February 1918.  The last town in Estonia to be taken was Narva on the 4th March 1918.

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On the 10th February 1918, Leon Trotsky, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, withdrew from the peace negotiations of the Brest-Litovsk Conference. His withdrawal was on the grounds that the German imperial ambitions were for territorial gains and repatriations. The Russian Soviet hoped to proclaim a revolutionary war against Germany in order to inspire Russian and European workers to fight for socialism. This opinion was shared by Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who then were the Bolshevik’s junior partners in a coalition government. Germany responded to the Russian withdrawal from the talks by no longer observing the temporary ceasefire and on the 18th February 1918 resumed military operations. When the Red Army was formed in January 1918, its weaknesses were soon apparent. It had insufficient men and knowledgeable officers to continue the war against Germany. Questioning whether Germany was in a position to fight on because of German civil unrest, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik government, had hoped for a speedy Soviet revolution in Germany and other parts of Europe. He quickly decided that the imperial government of Germany was still firmly in control and that, without a strong Russian military, an armed conflict with Germany would lead to the collapse of the Soviet government in Russia. If faced with a German ultimatum, Lenin advocated signing a separate peace treaty. On the other hand Trotsky was dead set against any peace treaty arguing that the olunteer Red Army had successes against Polish forces, Russian White forces in the Don region and Ukrainian forces as proof that the Red Army could repel German forces. Trotsky’s position was between these two Bolshevik factions. Like Lenin, he admitted that the old inherited Russian military was unable to fight. But he agreed with the Left Communists that a separate peace treaty with an imperialist power would be a terrible morale blow to the Soviet government, wiping out all its military and political successes of 1917 and 1918. When Germany resumed military operations on the 18th February 1918, it became clear, within a day that the German army was capable of conducting offensive operations and the Red Army detachments were no match for it. In the evening of the 18th February 1918, Trotsky and his supporters abstained from the debate and Lenin’s proposal was accepted. The Soviet government sent a message to the Germans accepting the final Brest-Litovsk peace terms. The Germans did not respond until the 24th February 1918, but the terms were so harsh that even Lenin thought that Russia had no choice but to fight on. But in the end, the committee again voted on the 24th February 1918 to accept German peace terms. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on the 3rd March 1918, removing Russia from the Great War.

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The Balkans

In the Balkans, Romania was allied to Russia, Britain and France against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria and Turkey. When Russia withdrew from the war after the October Revolution, Romania was almost completely surrounded by the Central Powers. Romania was forced into negotiating an armistice, and on the 6th February 1918 Germany’s ultimatum made their negotiations complicated owing to the territorial demands of the Central Powers. By the 27th February 1918 Romania accepted the German ultimatum regarding the peace terms, which was signed on the 7th May 1918 under the Treaty of Bucharest.

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Middle East

The British began their assault to secure Jericho on the 19th February 1918. Having captured Jerusalem in December 1917, winter rains put an end to campaigning, and this lull in the fighting offered the opportunity for the captured territories to be consolidated. General Sir Edmund Allenby, commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) planned to capture the territory east of Jerusalem stretching to the Dead Sea. The Jordan Valley to the east of Jerusalem was Allenby’s exposed right flank and the area was garrisoned by Turkish troops entrenched on the hill tops. On the 20th February 1918, three infantry columns advanced. The column in the centre, captured their objective on the main Jerusalem to Jericho road. On the left, the 181st Brigade was only able to advance 2.5 miles (4 km) to be about halfway to The Mount of Temptation by nightfall. On the right, the 179th Brigade column marched towards the south of Jericho, but arrived too late for the attack. By 08.15 the advanced trenches had been captured, and the British forces had fought their way up to the summit of the hill. At 10.00 the British infantry captured the dominating position on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, but a strong counter-attack drove them off. The summit was finally secured at about 12.30 when heavy artillery helped the desperate attackers to capture their objective. Meanwhile, at 03.30 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade led the Australian 1st Light Horse Brigade on their advance to El Muntar. The advance guard moved from Bethlehem along the ancient road to the valley near El Muntar hill, followed by their brigade and 1st Light Horse Brigade. They zig-zagged three miles (4.8 km) down to the valley floor while Turkish soldiers on the height of El Muntar watched their approach. Because of the terrain it was hours before the long column could deploy for the attack. By 06.00 all the New Zealand Mounted rifles were in the valley. They attacked Turkish positions astride the Mar Saba-Jericho road and by 14.00 they had occupied all their positions forcing the Turkish defenders to fall back to Nebi Musa. But Nebi Musa was strongly held by the Turkish soldiers supported by artillery, which made it impossible to move on, and the attack was postponed until the next day. Meanwhile, at dusk, the Australian Light Horse brigade began its descent. They moved down a goat track which fell 1,300 feet (400 km) in two miles (3.2 km) to get into position to attack Nebi Musa from the rear. The journey was successfully completed by midnight. On the 21st February 1918, under cover of darkness, the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade advanced north along a very rough track and by daylight was just east of the Nebi Musa position. They made a dismounted attack while the British infantry attacked Nebi Musa from the rear. The Mounted Rifles Regiment occupied Nebi Musa at daylight to find the Turkish garrison had withdrawn with their guns. When the 1st Light Horse Brigade reached the floor of the Jordan Valley near the Dead Sea, it turned north towards Jericho. A single troop of the 3rd Light Horse Regiment entered Jericho at about 08.00 to find the Turkish garrison had withdrawn.

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Other Theatres

On the 1st February 1918, in the Austro-Hungarian navy, an unsuccessful mutiny started in the Fifth Fleet division at the Bay of Cattaro their naval base in the Adriatic Sea. As the Great War progressed, the effects of wartime economics and social disorganisation undermined the discipline of Austro-Hungarian soldiers and sailors. Hunger, cold and naval inaction resulted in complaints, desertions and strikes. The Russian Revolution had fuelled revolutionary propaganda in Austro-Hungary, which spread among soldiers and workers. Sailors on about forty ships had joined the mutiny, and initial demands for better treatment were soon replaced by political demands and a call for peace. The mutiny failed to spread to other ships. On 3rd February 1918, the loyal Third Fleet arrived and together with coastal artillery engaged in a short and successful skirmish against the mutineers. About 800 sailors were imprisoned, dozens were court-martialled and four seamen were executed.

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