The Great War – 18-24 January, 1918

As January 1918 and another winter rolled on, both the Allies and the Central Powers still believed a favourable outcome to the war could be achieved. The views of the opposing sides however were from different perspectives: the Allies believing victory remained a possibility while for the Central Powers the view was more one of avoiding defeat.

The entry of the United States into the war in April 1917 had helped the Allies withstand their most difficult year. This was, to a large extent, counter balanced by Russia entering peace negotiations with the Central Powers in the aftermath of the October Revolution, effectively ending the war on the Eastern Front handing victory to the Germans.

For the Allies, the loss on the Eastern Front forced serious defensive preparations on the Western Front – something they were not well accustomed to at that point in the war. There was also the offer from the Central Powers for the Allies to engage in the peace negotiations underway with Russia. It was, it seemed, the point in the war where ‘…the war might have ended with a mutual recognition of exhaustion.’[1]

Notwithstanding, as Britain’s top military leader noted at the time of Britain’s refusal to join the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, “with the vast potential supply of men in America there should be no doubt of our winning.”[2] While the question of “when” victory would be achieved remained unknown, Allied Command remained optimistic.

From the Central Powers perspective, the collapse of Russia and its exit from the war kept alive Germany’s optimism that it could escape defeat. Events in Russia combined with the delay in the deployment of large numbers of American troops to France led General Ludendorff, in January 1918, to decide that conditions were ripe for an all-out attack in France to compel the Allies to meet Germany’s terms in the west.

Germany had to act quickly, before the Americans arrived in force, but if it did, it could still avoid defeat. Victory in the east thus led German leaders to focus not on the possible merits of a compromise peace with the remaining members of the Allied coalition, but on the window of opportunity they thought they had in the west to win the war.[3]

The German High Command seized the opportunity to plan for the redeployment of its Eastern Front divisions to the west and an offensive that, to this point, had been the province of the Allies. The German High Command even entertained the possibility that the peace negotiations with Russia would cede Poland and some Baltic States to Germany thus providing a pool of reinforcements not just from prisoners of war captured by the Russians but also from Poland and Ukraine.

‘It was even possible that the diminishing man-supply for the armies of the Central Powers might be replenished from an immense reservoir – there might now be available not merely the prisoners of war previously lost to Russia (including 1,800,000 from the Austro-Hungarian armies) but the Poles and possibly the Ukrainian Russians.’[4]

For the Allies, alliances and pre-war agreements began to unravel. Lenin’s new Soviet government, installed after the October Revolution in Russia, published details of secret agreements relating to post-war influence in the event of an Allied victory. Publication of the details adversely affected the Allies’ moral authority forcing British Prime Minister, Lloyd George to clarify Britain’s war aims on 5 January 1918.

‘Britain, he said was not seeking to destroy Germany. However, the independence of Belgium and the restoration of Alsace-Lorraine to France were non-negotiable elements of any post-war settlement. Austria-Hungary should grant self-government and democracy to those of its nationalities that wanted them. Poland should become independent. Turkey might retain the genuinely Turkish parts of its empire but no more…and an international organisation should be established to reduce armaments and the probability of wars in the future.’[5]

Added to the pressure Lloyd George was receiving at home, ‘…The Dominions, passive participants in 1914, increasingly demanded a voice,’[6] the Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes chief amongst them. The challenges facing Lloyd George were further compounded three days later when US President Wilson issued his Fourteen Points effectively usurping Lloyd George’s authority.

Wilson’s vision, enunciated in a speech to a joint sitting of the US Congress, outlined his vision for a stable, long-lasting peace in Europe, the Americas and the rest of the world. Wilson’s proposal called for the victorious Allies to set unselfish peace terms with the vanquished Central Powers of World War I, including freedom of the seas, the restoration of territories conquered during the war and the right to national self-determination in such contentious regions as the Balkans. Several points addressed specific territorial issues in Europe, but the most significant sections set the tone for post-war American diplomacy and the ideals that would form the backbone of US foreign policy as the nation achieved superpower status in the early 20th century.

One of Wilson’s purposes in delivering the Fourteen Points speech was to present a practical alternative to the traditional notion of an international balance of power preserved by alliances among nations—belief in the viability of which had been shattered by World War I—and to the Bolshevik-inspired dreams of world revolution that at the time were gaining ground both within and outside of Russia.[7]

Wilson’s Fourteen Points were viewed as liberal, democratic and idealistic, an were met with contempt by Australia’s Prime Minister. For Hughes the world was not one of idealism ‘…but of realism, raw power, ceaseless conflict and Manichaean oppositions.’[8] Hughes had little time for war’s “johnny come lately’s” and had no intention of surrendering Australia’s rights to the spoils of victory should it be the Allies. Hughes saw total victory as the only acceptable outcome with Australia receiving its share of the rewards included retaining German New Guinea.

As the war ground on for the men at the front, military operations were slowly beginning to play a subordinate role to political manoeuvrings.

 

[1] Beaumont J, Broken Nation, Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2013, p. 394

[2] Kennedy R, Peace Initiatives, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/home/, Accessed: 16 January 2018

[3] Ibid

[4] Bean C.E.W, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Vol V, The AIF in France 1918, Angus and Robertson Ltd, Sydney, 1938, p. 93

[5] Ibid, p. 395

[6] Millman B, War Aims and War Aims Discussions (Great Britain and Ireland), https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/war_aims_and_war_aims_discussions_great_britain_and_ireland. Accessed 16 January 2018

[7] This Day In History, Fourteen Points, http://www.history.com/, Accessed: 15 January 2018

[8] Beaumont, op. cit., p. 396