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Campaigns of World War One:
The Eastern Front  1917-1919


1917


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In March unrest at home and within the Russian army had led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the establishment of a Provisional government with the moderate Alexander Kerensky appointed Minister of War. The other Allies welcomed this move for their rhetoric of fighting for democracy was seen as hollow when propping up the regime of the autocratic Czar. With the leaders of most radical movements in exile, the call to continue the War remained strong in Petrograd, though there was a less enthusiastic reaction from the soldiers at the battlefront.

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Even though mutinies continued to deplete the ranks of Russian armies, Kerensky assembled what loyal forces he could and ordered the resupplied army under Brusilov to renew his offensive aimed at Lemberg in June. Though the new Russian offensive initially met with some success, a number of units refused to fight. While the reorganized Romanian army to the south aiding this campaign broke through the Austro-Hungarian line, it could not be properly exploited when the Russian advance quickly slowed and was then checked. After the Germans launched a counterattack in August the Romanians held but the Russian army in this sector completely disintegrated and fled back across the Zbruch River. Bad morale had taken its toll on the Russians but the Germans were not in a good position to exploit this situation.

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With many Russian troops unwilling to fight, Kerensky chose the Czech Legion to participate in the second Brusilov offensive because of their ardor for independence. It was to be their first major participation in battle. Using stormtrooper tactics they broke through the Austro-Hungarian lines at Zborov in June. Even though the campaign ended in failure, they used their small success to their advantage, calling upon authorities to use more Czech prisoners of war to expand the Legion.

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With little fear that his flank would be attacked due to poor Russian morale, General Oscar von Hutier launched an offensive through Courland in early September. It met with little resistance as expected until it reached the heavily fortified port of Riga. In a joint operation with the German High Seas Fleet, a highly organized attack was launched that used generous amounts of stormtrooper tactics combined with poison gas. By mid-October the Germans had taken this important port. This was the last major battle on the Eastern Front as what was left of the Russian army was unwilling fight.

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With the hope that Vladimir Lenin would cause further instability in Russia they transported him by rail from his exile in Switzerland to the Baltic Sea in April. From there he sailed to Sweden, returning to St. Petersburg by way of Finland. After Leon Trotsky arrived from New York in May they created a considerable amount of unrest but the Bolsheviks were violently suppressed after the July Days protests. The unrest would inspire a military revolt against the government by General Kornilov, now Supreme Commander, but this only led to Kerensky rearming the Bolsheviks to put it down. With Kerensky weakened and the Bolsheviks strengthened, they would succeed in seizing power in Russia through armed revolution that November. It did not take long for vicious fighting to erupt between the armed Red forces of the Bolsheviks and supporters of the Czar. Disfranchised generals and officers began to head south into the Ukraine where Kornilov organized an armed volunteer White resistance at Novocherkask.

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By December the Bolsheviks had signed an armistice with the Germans taking Russia out of World War One, but this was not to bring and end to the fighting. Seeing the growing White threat in the Ukraine, they deployed a force that included Red Guards to eradicate them. Both sides found further support in the region, and an armed civil war began to rage by the end of the year and into the next. There are many Russian postcards depicting these revolutionary times but they nearly all date from the Soviet era.



1918


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Though technically out of the war, the Bolshevik government opposed German plans to permanently seize much of Russia’s former western empire as they could, and they refused to sign a peace treaty. Stalling for time in hope that the revolution would spread to Germany, their stance of no peace no war eventually led the Germans to pressure them further by renewing their military offensive in February. The Bolsheviks, already embroiled in Civil War could not put up an adequate defense, which allowed the Germans to seize Livonia, Estonia, and much of the Ukraine. After Kiev fell in early March, the Bolsheviks finally signed a final peace deal in March at Brest-Litovsk; believing they would not have to honor any treaty made with a defeated Germany. After ceding territory to Germany their armies advanced further to occupy Crimea, Georgia, and Finland. The Bolsheviks moved their capitol to Moscow fearing the Germans might seize Petrograd despite the Treaty. With peace at hand in the East, Germany could now begin transferring troops to reinforce the Western and Italian Fronts. Transported with these troops were revolutionary ideals that would help to undermine German discipline in the West.

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The seizing of so much Russian territory led to a massive seizure of resources such as iron and coal, but none were as important as foodstuffs that proved crucial in preventing widespread starvation in Germany, though it also contributed to famine in Russia. While the Allies often depicted the act of looting and pillaging on cards to show examples of German barbarity, German publishers depicted similar images but for them it represented acts of salvation. The gathering of resources in this newly acquired territory was so important to their survival that it forced Germany to keep a large occupation force in place to secure the turbulent region, which would be missed on the Western Front. While many Russians had deserted there were still many soldiers under arms, and they posed a potential threat. Trotsky had been organizing them into a new Red Army, and by September they were already in action against White forces at Kazan.

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While the new Red army was pushing back the White volunteers in the Ukraine, they were nowhere near strong enough to oppose the large German presence in the region. The Germans were not only interested in restoring order, they now began to openly oppose the Bolsheviks they helped put in power and support the Whites. The Ukrainian government was replaced by a pro-German regime headed by the monarchist General Pavlo Skoropadsky. White leaders were facing a dilemma; they desperately needed weapons but supply lines from Western Allies were not yet established. The most expedient source for weapons was from the Germans, which some gladly accepted but others loyal to the old alliance were vehemently opposed to making any deals with their former enemy.

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With the breakup of Imperial Russia after the October Revolution, the south of the Grand Duchy of Finland turned into the Finnish Socialist Worker’s Republic. By the beginning of 1918 they became embroiled in a civil war with the White Finns to the north led by General Carl Mannerheim. The Whites began an offensive in March winning the Battle of Tampere, and after being reinforced by German units in April, Helsinki was taken. About the same time the British began landing marines at Murmansk to protect the large quantities of Allied supplies stockpiled there. They wished to open up a new front against Germany, and as more Allied troops arrived during the summer, Archangel was taken in August. After the Americans arrived in September the political climate grew more complicated. While the Bolsheviks considered the Allied presence a hostile move, the Red Finish Legion fought by their side against German backed White Finnish troops. Clashes would then erupt between the interventionist forces and Red Guards until stopped by winter weather.

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Growing tensions with the Germans led Trotsky to believe that it was time to begin spreading the Bolshevik revolution to Germany at the point of the bayonet. By late November Russia would nullify the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and invade the puppet states that Germany had set up on former Russian lands. The Red Army first began attacking German troops in Estonia, advancing until January 1919 when they were unexpectedly stopped by growing opposition from local national forces. Ukrainian Socialists also overthrew the pro-German Skoropadsky government at this time, though they would come to fight Russian Bolsheviks in an attempt to form their own independent state. Former collaboration with Germany would turn this into a very bitter struggle. Poles fearful that the victorious Allies would not be able to force territorial concessions to resurrect a new Polish State began an uprising against Germany at the end of December. As Russia was confronted with civil war, its entire western border was consumed with chaos as new states tried to emerge.



1919


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After the Poles seized Posen, intense fighting continued between them and Germany until a truce was signed in February. Sporadic fighting did not end until the Treaty of Versailles settled Poland’s borders in June. Territory from German Pomerania and Silesia, as well as Austrian Galicia was turned over to the new Polish State. Germany was also forced to give up the territorial gains granted by their treaties with the Bolshevik government of Russia, though many of these lands had already separated from Russia to become independent states.

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The Hapsburg Empire had already broken up on its own with Austria and Hungary going their separate ways after the Hungarian Revolution of October 1918. The Czechs and Southern Slaves had also declared their independence. The Treaty of Versailles would only legitimize the facts on the ground though it played an important role in establishing and altering borders that everyone was forced to recognize, at least temporarily. This was especially true regarding the new States of Czechoslovakia and Poland. Many armed struggles had already broken out before the Paris Peace Talks even ended in attempts to seize more territory. These fights over borders would continue in the years to come.

Fighting continued also continued in Russia between interventionist forces based in Murmansk and Red Guards. The Allies would pull out in October 1919, but clashes between the Red Army and While Finnish forces would continue.




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