WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front

German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 297th installment in the series.

December 17, 1917: Armistice on the Eastern Front

After overthrowing Russia’s feeble Provisional Government in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks moved swiftly to consolidate control of the country, purging political opponents, closing newspapers, shutting down rival power centers outside the Soviet—including the Constituent Assembly, sidelined on December 11—and installing their own representatives on local and regional Soviets across the country. Much of the work was carried out by the new secret police, the cheka (an acronym for “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," in Russian) under Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose paranoia and brutal methods soon made the old Tsarist okhrana look quaint.

But even with unlimited violence on demand to suppress dissent among workers, peasants, and rival socialists, the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev knew there was one constituency they couldn’t afford to alienate—the soldiers. After all, it was angry soldiers of the Petrograd garrison who had made the first revolution in March 1917, and it was soldiers and sailors who had brought the Bolsheviks to power in the November coup. Even in its disorganized and demoralized state, the Russian Army still dwarfed the Bolsheviks’ armed supporters in the Red Guard and cheka—and after a few mutinies there was no reason they couldn’t stage another.

In short, the Bolsheviks had to move swiftly to appease rank-and-file Russian soldiers, most of whom were still lukewarm in their support for the communist regime, or risk violent overthrow themselves. That meant meeting their main demand, a central promise of the Bolshevik platform since the war began: in a word, peace.

Reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Central Powers would take months of tortuous negotiations, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ reluctance to make major territorial concessions and crumbling authority over border regions of the fracturing empire, as well as discord between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire about the extent of their demands and the division of spoils.


Erik Sass

However, after their first meeting on December 3, 1917 at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, on December 15 the Bolshevik delegation scored their first domestic political victory, as the opposing sides agreed to an armistice on the Eastern Front, temporarily halting fighting so peace negotiations could proceed (top, the Russian delegation, led by Joseph Joffe, and the Central Powers delegation, led by the German chief commander on the Eastern Front, Max Hoffman). The armistice, which took effect on December 17, would last for 30 days with periodic renewals, effectively spelling the end of Russian participation in the First World War.

Meanwhile, large parts of Russia had descended into anarchy, as hundreds of thousands of deserters wandered the countryside, begging, stealing, and indulging in more violent criminality. The simple matter of boarding a train had become a life-threatening ordeal for civilians, according to Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina, who described the scene in Petrograd:

As soon as passenger trains were running again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognized. All timetables had been done away with, and every traveler, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting room till the train he intended to go by eventually started … When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train.

Later, the train became even more crowded as deserters crammed in:

The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillowcases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls … They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades … Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so.

The eagerness of soldiers and civilians alike to leave Petrograd was understandable, as conditions in the city—like in other big urban centers—were rapidly deteriorating. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist who supported the sidelined Constituent Assembly, wrote in his diary in December 1917:

The hand of the destroyer lies heavily on Petrograd. All commercial life is stopped. Shops are closed. In the factories discipline and authority have disappeared, the workers spending their time in vacuous conversation and oratory. Mounds of dirty snow block the streets. Night and day we hear the sounds of guns. Madness, plundering, and pillage lay waste the towns and even the country. There exists no longer any army and the Germans can walk in whenever they want.

Of course, conditions weren’t much better for ordinary people on the other side of the front—and they were possibly even worse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier on garrison duty in Riga, remembered the conditions endured by natives of the occupied city in the winter of 1917:

In the civilian population the hardship increased from day to day, and the poorest people could hardly get enough to survive. There was no source of income as all the factories were silent … Practically nothing could be delivered to the town from the parts of Russia that had previously been occupied by the Germans because they had used up so much that there was barely enough to keep the inhabitants alive. A large part of the population was seized by a limitless anger against the Germans because of the shortages, with the result that on several occasions German soldiers were murdered on outlying streets. We were not allowed to go out at night without loaded pistols.


Erik Sass

More ominously, back in “free” Russia, the Bolsheviks faced the opening phases of a civil war, as the Cossack ataman (leader) Alexei Kaledin led a rebellion on the Don Cossacks beginning December 9, while the conservative general Lavr Kornilov, Mikhail Alexeyev, and Anton Denikin soon organized a “Volunteer Army” in southern Russia—one of the first “White” forces to oppose the Bolsheviks. Thanks to Trotsky’s organizational genius the Bolsheviks managed to scrape together a new Red Army in an astonishingly short amount of time. But the future would deliver many more setbacks, including a civil war that, along with a devastating famine, claimed 7 million lives before the Bolsheviks finally established supremacy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Facts About the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

qingwa/iStock via Getty Images
qingwa/iStock via Getty Images

On Veterans Day, 1921, President Warren G. Harding presided over an interment ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for an unknown soldier who died during World War I. Since then, three more soldiers have been added to the Tomb of the Unknowns (also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) memorial—and one has been disinterred. Below, a few things you might not know about the historic site and the rituals that surround it.

1. THERE WERE FOUR UNKNOWN SOLDIER CANDIDATES FOR THE WWI CRYPT. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

To ensure a truly random selection, four unknown soldiers were exhumed from four different WWI American cemeteries in France. U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger, who was wounded in combat and received the Distinguished Service Medal, was chosen to select a soldier for burial at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington. After the four identical caskets were lined up for his inspection, Younger chose the third casket from the left by placing a spray of white roses on it. The chosen soldier was transported to the U.S. on the USS Olympia, while the other three were reburied at Meuse Argonne American Cemetery in France.

2. SIMILARLY, TWO UNKNOWN SOLDIERS WERE SELECTED AS POTENTIAL REPRESENTATIVES OF WWII.

One had served in the European Theater and the other served in the Pacific Theater. The Navy’s only active-duty Medal of Honor recipient, Hospitalman 1st Class William R. Charette, chose one of the identical caskets to go on to Arlington. The other was given a burial at sea.

3. THERE WERE FOUR POTENTIAL KOREAN WAR REPRESENTATIVES.


WikimediaCommons // Public Domain

The soldiers were disinterred from the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. This time, Army Master Sgt. Ned Lyle was the one to choose the casket. Along with the unknown soldier from WWII, the unknown Korean War soldier lay in the Capitol Rotunda from May 28 to May 30, 1958.

4. THE VIETNAM WAR UNKNOWN WAS SELECTED ON MAY 17, 1984.

Medal of Honor recipient U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Allan Jay Kellogg, Jr., selected the Vietnam War representative during a ceremony at Pearl Harbor.

5. BUT THE VIETNAM VETERAN WASN'T UNKNOWN FOR LONG.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to advances in mitochondrial DNA testing, scientists were eventually able to identify the remains of the Vietnam War soldier. On May 14, 1998, the remains were exhumed and tested, revealing the “unknown” soldier to be Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie (pictured). Blassie was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972. After his identification, Blassie’s family had him moved to Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis. Instead of adding another unknown soldier to the Vietnam War crypt, the crypt cover has been replaced with one bearing the inscription, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”

6. THE MARBLE SCULPTORS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MANY OTHER U.S. MONUMENTS. 

The Tomb was designed by architect Lorimer Rich and sculptor Thomas Hudson Jones, but the actual carving was done by the Piccirilli Brothers. Even if you don’t know them, you know their work: The brothers carved the 19-foot statue of Abraham Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial, the lions outside of the New York Public Library, the Maine Monument in Central Park, the DuPont Circle Fountain in D.C., and much more.

7. THE TOMB HAS BEEN GUARDED 24/7 SINCE 1937. 

Tomb Guards come from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment "The Old Guard." Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military. They keep watch over the memorial every minute of every day, including when the cemetery is closed and in inclement weather.

8. BECOMING A TOMB GUARD IS INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT.

Members of the Old Guard must apply for the position. If chosen, the applicant goes through an intense training period, in which they must pass tests on weapons, ceremonial steps, cadence, military bearing, uniform preparation, and orders. Although military members are known for their neat uniforms, it’s said that the Tomb Guards have the highest standards of them all. A knowledge test quizzes applicants on their memorization—including punctuation—of 35 pages on the history of the Tomb. Once they’re selected, Guards “walk the mat” in front of the Tomb for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on the time of year and time of day. They work in 24-hour shifts, however, and when they aren’t walking the mat, they’re in the living quarters beneath it. This gives the sentinels time to complete training and prepare their uniforms, which can take up to eight hours.

9. THE HONOR IS ALSO INCREDIBLY RARE.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Guards are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over. For the record, it seems that Tomb Guards are rarely female—only three women have held the post.

10. THE STEPS THE GUARDS PERFORM HAVE SPECIFIC MEANING.

Everything the guards do is a series of 21, which alludes to the 21-gun salute. According to TombGuard.org:

The Sentinel does not execute an about face, rather they stop on the 21st step, then turn and face the Tomb for 21 seconds. They then turn to face back down the mat, change the weapon to the outside shoulder, mentally count off 21 seconds, then step off for another 21 step walk down the mat. They face the Tomb at each end of the 21 step walk for 21 seconds. The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change ceremony begins.

The Kansas Shoe Salesman Responsible for Veterans Day

Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The reason we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11th dates back to 1918, when an armistice between the Allies and Germany was signed that essentially ended World War I. The first Armistice Day was celebrated the following November 11th.

World War I was billed as the war to end all wars, but of course it didn't. So by the 1950s, with so many American men and women veterans of World War II and the conflict in Korea, some thought the term "Armistice Day" was outdated.

A new day

There's a shoe salesman from Emporia, Kansas, who probably isn't in many history books, but he deserves at least a paragraph. In the early 1950s, a gentleman by the name of Alvin King thought Armistice Day was too limiting. He had lost family in World War II, and thought all American veterans of all wars should be honored on November 11th. So he formed a committee, and in 1953 the city of Emporia, Kansas, celebrated Veterans Day.

Ed Rees, Emporia's local congressman, loved the idea and took it to Washington. President Eisenhower liked King's idea, too. In 1954, Eisenhower formally changed November 11th to Veterans Day and invited some of Emporia's residents to be there when he signed the bill. King was one of those invited, but there was one problem: he didn't own a nice suit. His veteran friends chipped in and bought him a proper suit and paid his way from Kansas to the White House.

In 2003, Congress passed a resolution declaring Emporia, Kansas to be the founding city of Veterans Day.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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