It’s March 1918. The nation whose mobilization against Austria-Hungary and Germany propelled Europe into the World War in 1914 is now the first nation out of the war. Rid of the Tsar and under a new Bolshevik government, Russia signs without negotiating or even reading the humiliating Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Then, recognizing the geographical vulnerability of Petrograd, the Bolsheviks move their capital to Moscow. Germany, now free to concentrate on the Western Front, mounts a major offensive in France. The long-range “Paris Gun” begins raining destruction on the French capital. British Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill, in France when the German offensive begins, returns to Whitehall and joins a War Cabinet meeting, then returns to France and tours the front with Premier Clemenceau. As their armies are driven back, the Allies give Marshal Foch the responsibility of coordinating military operations on the Western Front. Great Britain and France appeal to the United States to speed movement of American troops to Europe and to use them to reinforce Allied units already in the field rather than wait for independent American units to be formed. Great Britain encourages Japan to send troops to Vladivostok to safeguard Allied war supplies and secure the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Daylight Saving Time begins in the United States. Bernard Baruch is made Chairman of the War Industries Board with broad powers to govern production, purchase and delivery of war supplies. A virulent strain of influenza breaks out at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, bringing an end to the war between Russia and the Central Powers. Recognizing that it was out of military options and preferring to be perceived as the victim of cruel aggression rather than as party to a dishonorable agreement, the Bolshevik government of Russia refused even to negotiate, instructing its representatives to sign whatever was presented to them. The actual signing, therefore, was an anticlimax. Russian Foreign Minister Trotsky did not appear in Brest-Litovsk, and resigned his position on March 8. German Foreign Secretary Richard von Kuhlmann was also absent, in Bucharest negotiating the terms of Rumania’s withdrawal from the war. In the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia surrendered vast amounts of territory, comprising her most productive agricultural and mineral resources and over one-third of her pre-war population, including Poland, White Russia, the Baltic States, Finland, and the Ukraine. She also agreed to surrender most of her naval bases on the Baltic and to disarm her Black Sea fleet. Her Bolshevik government, meanwhile, concerned about the vulnerability of Petrograd to attack, moved the capital to Moscow on March 9. On March 5, Foreign Minister Trotsky told the Associated Press that the Russian government was prepared to withdraw as far as the Ural Mountains if necessary rather than risk the defeat of the revolution.
Russia’s capitulation has freed Germany to concentrate its military resources on the Western Front. In addition to the soldiers and equipment now available for redeployment, Germany has large supplies of artillery pieces, machine guns and other combat equipment captured from the Russians during the recent advance. Movement of troops, weapons, ammunition and supplies from east to west has been facilitated by improvements made to the German railway system since the war began. The British and French armies have been weakened by the protracted struggles at Verdun, the Somme, and Passchendaele, and the Italians are still recovering from Caporetto. The United States has been in the war for almost a year, but at the beginning of the month had only six divisions in France. The German offensive on the Western Front began on March 21 with massive artillery bombardments followed by attacks designed to drive the British from the Somme and the French from the Aisne, positions that have remained largely unchanged since the war of movement ended in the fall of 1914. The Germans crossed the Somme on March 24, then drove the French back from the Aisne and captured Montdidier on March 27. On March 26, in a conference at Doullens, the Allies agreed to give Marshal Foch authority to coordinate the action of all the Allied armies on the Western Front. Lacking actual command authority, he urged General Gough, the commander of the British Fifth Army, to take a stand in front of Amiens, and General Petain, the commander of the French Army, to ensure that no gap opened between the French and British forces. Nevertheless the German advance continued until March 30, when British, Canadian and Australian troops halted the German advance on Amiens and mounted a successful counterattack at Moreuil Wood.
Beginning at eight o’clock on the morning of March 23, Paris was bombarded by 240 mm shells fired from behind German lines, over 100 kilometers (62 miles) away. Because ordnance experts believed no gun in existence was capable of delivering a 240 mm shell that far, many at first wondered whether the attack had been carried out by unseen aeroplanes or by secret gun emplacements near Paris. The possibility that the shells might have been fired from a French or British gun seized by traitors or mutineers was also considered. It now appears, however, that the Germans have developed a gun of extremely long range, capable of reaching Paris from well behind German lines. In a Swiss magazine article published March 30, a German authority says Paris is being bombarded by a gun with a barrel twenty meters long and a projectile that attains an altitude of thirty kilometers (18.6 miles) before descending like a meteor on its target about three minutes after being fired. The gun was in action again on March 29, bombarding a Paris church during Good Friday services and killing seventy-five worshipers. More bombardment on Easter Sunday afternoon killed one Parisian and wounded another.
When the German offensive began, Winston Churchill was in France on his fifth visit to the front since becoming Minister of Munitions last July. He returned immediately to London and reported to Prime Minister Lloyd George on March 23, joining a meeting of the War Cabinet later that day. On March 28, at the Prime Minister’s request, Churchill returned to France to assess the ability of the French to mount a vigorous counterattack to relieve pressure on British forces and prevent a German breakthrough. He went directly to Premier Georges Clemenceau in Paris, and on March 30, as British forces mounted their counterattack at Moreuil Wood, Churchill and Clemenceau visited French and British positions on the front line.
On March 23, Lloyd George sent a telegram to Lord Reading, his ambassador in Washington, directing him to explain to President Wilson that the British “cannot keep our divisions supplied with drafts for more than a short time at the present rate of loss” and that Britain would be “helpless to assist our Allies if, as is very probable, the enemy turns against them later.” The telegram told Reading to “appeal to President to drop all questions of interpretation of past agreements and send over infantry as fast as possible without transport or other encumbrances. . . . [I]f America delays now she may be too late.” Lord Reading went at once to the White House, where the President received him and asked what he could do. Lord Reading asked him to tell General Pershing that American troops already in France should be sent as reinforcements to British and French units without waiting until they were numerous enough to form brigades or divisions of their own. Wilson replied that he had the constitutional authority to decide the question, and that he would issue the necessary orders.
On March 27 Lloyd George sent another telegram to Lord Reading, this one for public consumption. At a dinner in his honor at the Lotos Club that evening, Lord Reading read the telegram to the assembled guests. It read “We are at the crisis of the war. Attacked by an enormous superiority of German troops, our army has been forced to retire.” Although “the dogged pluck of our troops has for the moment checked the ceaseless onrush of the enemy,” the battle “is only just beginning.” “The French and British are buoyed with the knowledge that the great Republic of the West will neglect no effort which can hasten its troops and its ships to Europe,” but it is “impossible to exaggerate the importance of getting American reinforcements across the Atlantic in the shortest possible space of time.” After reading the telegram, Lord Reading gave an extended speech, interrupted by frequent and enthusiastic applause, in which he saluted the United States for joining the British and French in “a war in which the very sacred principles upon which humanity is based are at stake.” He said “we are as resolute as ever . . . that, come what may, we will fight on as we are fighting for liberty — that which is dearer even than life itself,” and rejoiced that “we can now walk with you in the path which all humans with great ideals would wish to tread.” Lord Reading was followed by speakers who expressed their strong support for the sentiments he had expressed, including New York Governor Charles Whitman and former Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the 1916 Republican Party candidate for president.
The Bolshevik takeover in Russia and the ensuing withdrawal of Russia from the war have had consequences beyond freeing Germany to concentrate its military efforts on the Western Front. War supplies shipped by the Allies to Russia are now stranded in Siberia and in the Arctic regions of Russia near Finland. In addition, a force of Czech and Slovak partisans, recruited by the Russians to fight against Austria-Hungary in the interest of Czechoslovak independence, is struggling to reach the Pacific coast so it can rejoin the war. On March 8 British Minister of Blockade Lord Robert Cecil urged Japan to take necessary steps to safeguard Allied interests on the Pacific coast of Russia, potentially including occupation of Vladivostok, the eastern terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. France and Italy are believed to support the British request, but President Wilson has advised the British and Japanese governments that the United States does not believe conditions in Russia justify Japanese intervention.
On the last Sunday of March (March 31 this year), pursuant to legislation President Wilson signed into law on March 19, all clocks in the United States were set forward one hour. The nation has been assured that the “daylight saving plan,” which several European countries have already adopted, will go into effect without any disorganization or impairment of existing conditions. Trains will run as usual, and every other feature of daily life will remain unchanged. Americans simply moved their clocks forward before going to bed Saturday night and should now be able to forget about daylight saving until the last Saturday of October, when the process will be reversed and the nation will return to “sun” time. Among the promised benefits of daylight saving time are conservation of coal, gas, and other sources of heat and light; improved health due to the additional hour available for recreation every day; and improvement in the training conditions for the fighting forces.
While the Overman Bill expanding the President’s powers to reorganize and coordinate government agencies is pending in Congress (see last month’s blog post), President Wilson has decided not to wait for its passage but to do as much as possible by executive action. On March 5 he announced the reorganization of the War Industries Board under the chairmanship of Bernard N. Baruch. In a letter delivered to Mr. Baruch the day before, the President outlined the new functions of the Board, which include making the final determination of all questions of priority in production and deliveries to all agencies of the United States Government and to the Allies. As Chairman, Mr. Baruch is vested with the sole authority to determine all questions except the determination of prices, with the other members of the Board acting “in a co-operative and advisory capacity.” In the determination of prices the Chairman is to be governed by the advice of a committee including other members of the Board as well as the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, the Chairman of the Tariff Commission, and the Fuel Administrator. “In brief,” the letter concludes, Mr. Baruch’s new responsibilities mean that he “should act as the general eye of all supply departments in the field of industry.”
An Army cook at Camp Funston, Kansas was diagnosed with influenza on March 4. By month’s end, hundreds more soldiers at the base, which is a major training ground for American troops on their way to Europe, have reported sick.
March 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, April and May 1918
New York Times, March and April 1918
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians In War and Revolution 1914-1918
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy
David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
This article is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at:
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