WWI Centennial: The Tide Turns; the Romanovs are Executed
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 313th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
JULY 15-22, 1918: THE TIDE TURNS; THE ROMANOVS ARE EXECUTED
In the spring of 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff launched four huge offensives against the Allies on the Western Front, using troops freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front, in a desperate attempt to defeat Britain and France before American forces started to arrive in Europe in large numbers. Codenamed Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau, this series of attacks delivered powerful blows against the Allies and succeeded in conquering a large amount of territory, bringing the Germans alarmingly close to Paris—but failed to achieve the hoped-for strategic breakthrough.
With hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops arriving every month, and with Germany’s internal political situation nearing the breaking point, as spring gave way to summer Ludendorff had no choice but to keep rolling the dice in hopes that the Allies would make a mistake. His efforts culminated in the fifth German offensive, Marneschutz-Reims, (“Marne Defense-Reims”) launched on July 15, 1918—yet another attempt to force the French to move reinforcements south from Flanders, leaving the overstretched British Expeditionary Force vulnerable to a decisive German knockout blow in the north.
However, Ludendorff had finally met his match. The Allied commander-in-chief, the French general Ferdinand Foch, seemed to possess nerves of steel. Once again he refused to panic, and instead carefully husbanded his reserves in Flanders and in the Reserve Army Group of 55 divisions under General Émile Fayolle north of Paris, waiting for the perfect moment to launch a massive Allied counterattack. With the failure of Marneschutz-Reims from July 15-17, 1918, that moment had finally arrived: the surprise counterattack on July 18, supported by tens of thousands of American soldiers at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, would prove the turning point of the war.
The fifth (and final) German offensive supposedly had several purposes—although, like its predecessors, this may have simply reflected the muddled thinking of the German general staff. At the local level, simultaneous attacks by the German Seventh and Third Armies, both part of the army group commanded by the German crown prince Wilhelm, were supposed to capture the key rail hub at Reims in a giant pincer movement, easing the task of resupplying the German forces in the new salient extending south to the Marne River, previously conquered during Blücher-Yorck. At a strategic level, capturing Reims would straighten the German line and free up more German troops for subsequent attacks, while hopefully frightening the French into moving reserve forces that were then backing up the BEF in Flanders and Picardy. At this point Ludendorff would unleash another huge offensive, codenamed Operation Hagen, against the British by the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventeenth Armies, all part of the army group commanded by Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht. By splitting the French and British near Amiens and pushing the latter into the sea, there was still a chance Germany could win the war.
Ludendorff was betting on another big tactical victory, but the situation had changed since the dramatic advances of Michael, Georgette, and Blücher-Yorck. For one thing, he no longer enjoyed the key element of surprise. As the German salients ballooned out, it was relatively easy for Allied intelligence officers to guess where the next blows might land, and Reims, jutting into the German flank, was an obvious target. Additionally, German preparations for the offensive were hard to conceal from Allied aerial observers, reflecting the shifting balance of power in the air. The Allies had also finally adopted the German doctrine of defense in depth, leaving frontline trenches lightly held and keeping most of their troops further back, from which they could mount counterattacks once the initial enemy assault began losing momentum. Finally, the Allies had figured out the Pulkowski technique, used by the Germans to target artillery without having to test fire the guns to find the range (which gave away where an attack was coming), meaning they had a few surprises of their own up their sleeves.
The Allies stole the show right from the start with a surprise counter-bombardment by French artillery, beginning shortly after midnight on July 15, using additional artillery pieces brought up secretly and carefully hidden in the weeks before the attack. In line with the Pulkowski technique copied from the Germans, the French used meteorological and mathematical calculations to target the German frontline trenches where the attacking infantry were assembled, inflicting heavy casualties and threatening to disrupt the assault. One American soldier described the French surprise counter-barrage:
“Thousands of French guns broke the weeks of quiet and fired with an intensity that caused the atmosphere to shake with a constant rolling, unbroken sound. The deep roar of the heavy guns, smashing detonations of the middle calibers, and the bark of the 75’s coalesced with the vibrating swishing note of the departing projectile. It was a hellish music. To its accompaniment, the stars were snuffed out and the skies turned in blotches and splashes and flashes to red, yellow and green. The surface of the earth was like a shaking table.”
On the other side the heavy German artillery bombardment pounded the French frontline trenches with around 4.5 million shells on the first day alone, but this had relatively little effect on the French Fourth and Fifth Armies bearing the brunt of the attack. The frontline trenches were almost empty, with most of the French infantry waiting safely in a series of trenches in the “defense zone” to the rear. Elsewhere the Allies were less fortunate, as the French Sixth and Ninth Armies also received heavy fire, including American troops. John Miller, an American medical officer, wrote in his diary on July 17:
“Some fight! The barrage started at just midnight July 14th, and kept it up until 11 o'clock the next day and then they shelled steadily the rest of that day, that night and the following day (today). All our horses are dead, almost half the men, I think, were casualties and things are in a hell of a mess in general. The dressing station and surroundings are a sight. The damn woods is just about torn down and filled with dead men and horses. And they are beginning to smell pretty rank.”
The first wave of German storm troopers and infantry went “over the top” at 4:50 a.m., preceded by a double creeping barrage, a moving wall of artillery fire intended to force defenders to take cover until the attacking infantry were upon them. But once again, the creeping barrage had minimal effect, because the frontline trenches were unmanned. As the lead German storm troopers arrived to find the positions totally undefended—the first indication that the assault would not go to plan—French 75-millimeter guns, still considered the best field artillery in the world at that time, opened up on the tightly packed ranks of German infantry. Another American soldier recalled the bloody work done by French field artillery as the dawn lifted on July 15 (below, French machine gunners):
“Wave after wave of Germans swept across no man’s land in close formation. They came over half of the distance without any marked break and then the French opened up on them with 75’s that [had] been placed for just that purpose … The destruction was terrible and the advancing waves were torn and split apart. The great gaps were filled, only to be again torn and shattered by the direct artillery fire. Doggedly they kept pushing for war … but the force of the charge was gone and they were beaten back.”
An American sergeant described carnage all too typical of the war: “we had them stacked up in front of our wire two and three deep.” And Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, recorded similar impressions in his diary on July 15, 1918:
“Their Infantry came over in three huge waves and our 75’s, machine guns, and trench mortar batteries fired at ‘em point blank. The first wave was just naturally killed standing up. They came over shoulder to shoulder and couldn’t find room to fall down. The second and third waves suffered the same fate. Then our doughboys went out and took prisoners or finished up the ones that the artillery didn’t get.”
By 7:30 a.m. the Germans had progressed a few kilometers in places, paying a terrible price for these meager gains, as they ran headlong into a deep “defense zone” bristling with machine gun nests and strong points. Their own artillery was mostly unable to come to their assistance: They were simply out of range in some places; in others the German gun crews were already moving their pieces forward on the assumption that they had achieved another breakthrough, making it very difficult to set up the guns and start targeting them again.
Without additional artillery support, the German infantry attacks quickly lost their momentum, and by mid-afternoon the eastern half of the German pincer had stalled far short of its objective for the first day, indicating that the plan had already failed. The situation was even worse to the west, where the French counter-barrage had thrown the German Seventh Army’s attack into chaos—amplified by dauntingly ambitious objectives, which called for the attacking infantry to cross the Marne River on pontoon bridges.
Although the Germans had achieved remarkable success with these tactics before by crossing multiple river obstacles in Blücher-Yorck, their preparations for Marneschutz-Reims weren’t nearly as thorough, and the bridges were subjected to ferocious Allied artillery fire and aerial bombardment. As a result, six German divisions that managed to cross the Marne ended up temporarily stranded on the south bank without artillery or ammunition after the pontoon bridges were destroyed.
By the following morning it was clear that the attack had failed, leaving officers and rank-and-file soldiers alike thoroughly demoralized. Herbert Sulzbach, a German artillery officer, noted in his diary on July 16, 1918:
“Our morale is quite terrible, we can’t get the faintest glimpse of what is going on, and all we can guess is this great offensive hasn’t come off! ... We hear that our attack has in fact been repulsed by the French in this sector, with heavy losses. We feel really desperate.”
On July 17 Ludendorff agreed with the recommendation of crown prince Wilhelm’s staff and army commanders to go on the defensive, and the Germans successfully withdrew all six divisions from the south bank of the Marne. However, worse was to come: on July 18 Foch ordered French Tenth Army commander Charles Mangin, nicknamed “the Butcher,” to attack the western edge of the enemy salient northeast of Paris, held by the German Ninth Army, recently transferred from Romania.
AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT CHATEAU-THIERRY
The Tenth Army attack achieved total surprise thanks to Mangin’s unorthodox approach of sending the infantry over without prolonged artillery preparation, instead relying on hundreds of tanks for fire support and a brief “rolling barrage” to force enemy troops to take cover. As part of the Allied counterattack, Mangin also had nine American divisions under his command, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, 42nd (known as the Rainbow Division because its soldiers were drawn from all over the United States) and 77th. In this sector the American divisions—with a strength of 28,000 men each, around twice the size of European divisions—were distributed in a long arc beginning opposite Soissons and extending down to Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.
The rolling barrage began at 4:35 a.m., and thousands of American troops advanced close behind the creeping wall of fire, surging forward despite very heavy casualties from German gas, machine gun fire, and aerial ground attacks. The attackers soon succeeded in pushing the enemy out of their first defensive zone, forcing the Germans to send reinforcements from other parts of the front—spelling the definitive end of the German offensive (below, the Chateau-Thierry bridge, destroyed during the battle). On July 18, Sulzbach and his comrades were floored by the order to withdraw and redeploy to help fend off the surprise French counterattack on the Seventh Army:
“This order tells us everything, and we are speechless … So we are moving along behind the front; it looks as though we are being thrown into the largest enemy offensive of all time—and it was supposed to be our offensive! We couldn’t even have dreamed that this would happen—never.”
The Allied counterattack supposedly pushed Ludendorff to the edge of a nervous breakdown, although he eventually recovered his composure. It now became clear that his recent conquests, far from bringing them closer to victory, were a huge strategic liability, as the overstretched German armies had to hold hundreds of kilometers of new front, exposed to Allied counterattacks on all sides. The only answer was an immediate retreat from the Marne by the Seventh and Ninth Armies to more defensible positions to the north—in other words, giving up all the hard-won territorial gains of previous offensives. As the Germans withdrew from the Marne salient, the French offensive expanded to include advances by the French Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Armies, although Foch failed to achieve his goal of cutting off the German armies in the salient (below, a bridge at Chateau-Thierry destroyed in the battle).
Although the German armies mostly escaped intact, they suffered significant losses. Guy Bowerman, Jr., an American ambulance driver, witnessed the scenes following the German retreat with his comrades on July 19, 1918:
“It was here that our barrage must have caught a road-full of retreating Germans and what a hell-hole it must have been! Dead men, dead horses and demolished wagons and trucks are everywhere … Close beside the truck are the charred bodies of two men, beyond at the side of the road the bare leg of a man with a piece of a boot and a sock still around it sticks up from the bushes as if it had become stuck as the man hurried along and had pulled out of the socket … As we stood there waiting Bal came over, his face somewhat pale and there was no denying the sincerity of his words as he said ‘God! Bowie but this makes me sick.’”
For many Americans soldiers Chateau-Thierry and the Second Battle of the Marne were their first contact with the horrors of war. In a letter home written July 20, 1918, William Russel, an American pilot, tried to convey his feelings on seeing the battlefield from the air:
“Father, it is truly terrible beyond description—the once-beautiful country ravaged and pitted with shell holes, and the homes of the people who were happy so short a time ago, and the attractive buildings and churches either burning or already leveled to the ground in ruin. Very little has escaped the cruel fire of the large guns and the frightful destruction of a merciless enemy. This was my introduction to actual warfare, and my first impression was one of horror and stupefaction. It was far worse than I had thought, and truly, it seems to me that it is inconceivable to one who does not see it with his own eyes.”
Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer to the French Army, described the horrors of chemical warfare in a letter home on July 22, 1918:
“This mustard gas is a dastardly and damnable thing, frightfully blistering and burning the body, especially in the moist and hairy places, and making the most horrible sores. If enough gets into the lungs, it kills either at once or by a long and horrible, lingering death … In talking with some of the cases today that were burned 12 days ago, and are still suffering intensely and lingering between life and death, they said they would far rather lose an arm or leg.”
On July 23, the American medical officer Miller noted a horrifying scene with a few laconic remarks in his diary. “Crossed Marne today at about 3 o'clock on pontoon bridges. Horses and men still unburied. Saw one dead American machine gunner at Mazy with 160 dead Boches around him,” he wrote. “He did well.”
Another American surgeon was appalled by conditions near the front (above, American wounded at the Chateau-Thierry railroad station, converted into a makeshift hospital). “Hospitals were again swamped. Our field hospital with 200 beds was inundated by more than 3,000 wounded,” he noted. “Men lay in the streets outside in the wet and cold; many who might have been saved died from exposure, shock, and lack of care.”
Robert C. Hoffman, a medical officer with the U.S. 28th Division, conveyed the horror of seeing American wounded:
“The more pitifully wounded did not wish to live. They constantly begged doctors and nurses, sometimes at the top of their voices, to put an end to them. Some made attempts to end their lives with a knife or fork … One of the orderlies told me that a blinded man who was suffering greatly and did not wish to live had killed himself at one time with a fork. It was hard to drive it deep enough through his chest to end his life, and he kept hitting it with his clenched fist to drive it deeper.”
By July 22, the battle of Chateau-Thierry was over—but many considered these few days to be the turning point of the war, as Mangin’s offensive marked the end of German offensive capability, and with it any prospect of German victory. In fact the German chancellor at the time, George Hertling, later recalled:
“At the beginning of July, 1918, I was convinced, I confess it, that before the first of September our adversaries would send us peace proposals. … We expected grave events in Paris for the end of July. That was on the 15th. On the 18th even the most optimistic of us knew that all was lost. The history of the world was played out in three days.”
After months of skepticism, French commanders showered praise on American fighting spirit at Chateau-Thierry, with one reporting to the French high command, “The conduct of American troops has been perfect and has been greatly admired by French officers and men. Calm and perfect bearing under artillery fire, endurance of fatigue and privations, tenacity in defense, eagerness in counterattack, willingness to engage in hand-to-hand fighting—such are the qualities reported to me by all the French officers I have seen.”
On the other side, German troops were stunned and demoralized, not only by American fighting spirit, but also by the evident material superiority of the Allies, as demonstrated by massive French artillery power, carefully accumulated over the two years since Verdun. Sulzbach was at a loss for words to describe a French barrage on July 21, 1918:
“I don’t know the word indicating the difference in degree required to describe the wholly crazy artillery fire which the French turned on for the attack in the morning. The word ‘hell’ expresses something tender and peaceful compared with what is starting here and now … It’s as though all the barrages one had ever known have been combined to rattle down on us now.”
On July 23, Sulzbach endured another horrific bombardment. “At 4 a.m. a barrage suddenly began: the very earth was rumbling, and it seemed as though the world were coming to an end. You couldn’t hear what the next man was saying; it was indescribable,” he wrote. Faced with these overwhelming odds, and with troops starving and decimated by influenza, German morale was starting to collapse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, remembered his decision to defect to the French:
“On the following Wednesday, the 23rd of July 1918, we once again had a miserable lunch—burnt dried vegetables. NCO Beck and I were standing on our own up in the trench shoveling down the terrible much. Suddenly, in an abrupt outburst of rage, Beck took his canteen and its contents and flung it against the traverse near him. ‘Goddamit!’ he raged. ‘I’ve just about had enough of this!’ I pointed across towards the French front as if to say: ‘What do you think, Gustav?’ He suddenly looked at me and said: ‘Would you be willing to come?’”
DEATH OF THE ROMANOVS
As the First World War entered its final phase on the Western Front, the Russian Civil War, which would claim around 3 million lives by 1923, was just beginning, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” (Bolsheviks) against the “Whites” (a coalition of conservative anti-Bolshevik forces, most led by former Tsarist generals). By mid-1918 the chaos was deepening as the vast realm hurtled off a cliff. July brought the first foreign interventions with Allied occupations to Russia’s far north and Far East, intended to protect war materiel provided by the Allies to the former Provisional Government from capture by the Germans or Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, a dozen small regional factions had formed, operating independently of both the Reds and Whites, including the Czech Legion, now consolidating its control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Both sides exercised utmost brutality as the government lapsed once again into arbitrary tyranny. Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting, noted worsening conditions in Bolshevik-controlled areas, as well as the glaring disparity between Bolsheviks and the rest of the population:
“The Bolsheviks did not suffer from these hardships. They had special facilities for getting what they wanted, and money in abundance, so they could pay the fancy prices that the underhanded dealers demanded for those articles which they still managed, in some mysterious way, to produce. The unfortunate people who were not in Bolshevik service could get no work, and these lived by selling the last of their belongings, most of which was clothing.”
Buxhoeveden described how the Bolsheviks extorted valuable possessions from members of the “bourgeoisie,” now deemed enemies of the people and therefore fair game, but also more humble folk:
“Merchants and the bourgeoisie were put into prison for even the slightest infringement of the regulations, and their relations, knowing the treatment they would be exposed to, hastened to pay bail for them. As there was no ready money available, their womenfolk sold the last bits of jewelery they still possessed, but paid whatever was the sum demanded. Gradually the arrests extended also to less prominent people.”
Justice, never secure in Russia before the war, was now a naïve dream, Buxhoeveden continued:
“Trials were a farce. There were no longer any regular law courts; the old penal code was abolished and no other existed. For every kind of offense people were brought before a revolutionary tribunal, the members of which were all appointed by the Soviet and consisted almost exclusively of Red guardsmen. These men were instructed to give their judgments according to their ‘revolutionary conscience,’ as there were no staple laws.”
The steep descent into anarchy accelerated on the night of July 16-17, 1918, with the Bolsheviks’ brutal summary execution of the Romanov royal household, including the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, and a number of courtiers who accompanied them into exile. Held prisoners in Yekaterinburg, the Romanovs were executed at the explicit order of Lenin, prompted by fears that the approaching Czech Legion might liberate the former royal family, raising the prospect of a restoration by sympathetic pro-royal White forces.
Pavel Medvedev, one of the soldiers guarding the family, recalled the sad scene as the royal family, including the 13-year-old former heir to the throne Alexei, were suddenly roused from their sleep in the modest home where they had been living before being led to the basement where they were shot, bayoneted, and clubbed to death:
“During my presence none of the Tsar’s family asked any questions. They did not weep or cry … When the room (which adjoins the store room with a sealed door) was reached, Yurovsky ordered chairs to be brought, and his assistant brought three chairs. One chair was given to the Emperor, one to the Empress, and the third to the heir … It seemed as if all of them guessed their fate, but none of them uttered a single sound … At this moment 11 men entered the room … Yurovsky ordered me to leave, saying, ‘Go on to the street, see if there is anybody there, and wait to see whether the shots have been heard.’ I went out to the court, which was enclosed by a fence, but before I got to the street I heard the firing. I returned to the house immediately (only two or three minutes having elapsed) and upon entering the room where the execution had taken place, I saw that all the members of the Tsar’s family were lying on the floor with many wounds in their bodies. The blood was running in streams. The doctor, the maid, and two waiters had also been shot. When I entered the heir was still alive and moaned a little. Yurovsky went up and fired two or three more times at him. Then the heir was still.”