The years 1917–1918 witnessed one of the great transformations of the geopolitical world. The First World War was in full swing when, very rapidly, everything suddenly seemed to be different. The first absolutely key event in this transformation was the American decision to intervene in the war, because it really brought to an end a very, very long separation of America from Europe’s affairs.
Russian Revolution and Treaty of Brest-Litovsk
Another great change of the year 1917 was the Russian Revolution. Of all the different competing groups in Russia, the only group contending for power that promised that if they came to power, the war would end, was the Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. Hence, they enjoyed temporary popularity and were able to seize the government that October.
Once the Bolsheviks gained power in St. Petersburg, which they renamed Leningrad later, they set about negotiating a treaty with the Germans to get out of the war. This treaty was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on March 3, 1918, which acknowledged Russian defeat, and handed over a large part of the Russian Empire on the Eurasian border to Germany.
In Russia, some people continued to support the czar, while many continued to support the democratic republic—which had temporarily replaced the czar before being, in turn, overthrown by the Bolsheviks; these collectively got the term “the White Russians”.
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Attempts to Get Russia Back in the War
From the points of view of Britain and the United States, it was a powerful motive to get the Russians involved in the war again, so that Germans would have to continue to fight a two-front war.
Britain and America, therefore, made the fateful decision to send troops into Russia to help the White Russians against the “Reds”—the Bolsheviks.
(It was a fateful decision, and a long-term harbinger of the Cold War; it was one of the events that established the principle within the Soviet Union of a bitter hatred and dislike of the Americans and the British.)
American and British soldiers were there until 1920, but they were unsuccessful in suppressing the Red revolution, and bringing Russia back into the war.
The Germans were, therefore, victorious on the eastern front, and that enabled Germany to launch a powerful offensive in the west. In the spring of 1918, they could bring all their men and equipment and artillery from the eastern front, and deployed it in an overpowering attack on the west.
Their offensive was as disastrous to the Anglo-French-American forces as the very first German offensive of the war had been, back in 1914. In fact, American soldiers arrived just in time to repel this advance, which came within a few miles of overrunning Paris itself. After a slow start—after about the first year of the war, during which America had been very rapidly rearming—America finally had about a million men in action by April of 1918.
American Success against the Germans
Their first successes against the German advance at Cantigny and Belleau Wood were great morale builders for all Allied armies, who were, by then, feeling desperate.
Admiral William Sims, the American Navy commander, had come over and got into conversations with Admiral John Jellicoe. It was Admiral Sims who persuaded the Royal Navy to introduce a convoy system in the North Atlantic.
Instead of sending fast cargo ships across the ocean alone, he meant to, instead, bunch the ships together in convoys, which were limited to the speed of the slowest vessel, but which—because they were surrounded by escort vessels—were more likely to repel submarine attacks.
Sure enough, they did find that the convoy system was less costly in terms of the number of ships that were sunk. The American Navy also helped lay a great minefield in the North Sea, to make it very difficult for German submarines to get out of their Baltic and North Sea ports into the open waters of the North Atlantic.
In those ways, the Americans played an important naval role in the war as well.
End of the Fight
On September 12, 1918, during a great Allied counterattack, for the first time, the American forces enjoyed a major all-American offensive at San Miguel, south of Dunn, and they followed up with the Muse-Argonne offensive in the fall of 1918, sustaining very heavy casualties in September.
Tens of thousands of Americans were killed, but contributed to pushing back the Germans, and eventually forced them to sue for a lull in the fighting, with a view to a peace treaty. The armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. That was the day on which the fighting came to an end.
The reason the Germans consented to an armistice on November 11 was partly because they were being driven back, and partly because they saw a chance of getting a judicious peace.
By then, Germany’s allies—Turkey, the Austro-Hungarian Empire—were dropping out of the war, exhausted by the conflict. The Kaiser himself abdicated, and a German republic was declared. It was the German republic that actually agreed that the fighting must end.
Common Questions about the End of First World War
The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed on March 3, 1918, acknowledged Russian defeat, and handed over a large part of the Russian Empire on the Eurasian border to Germany.
An armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. That was the day on which the fighting came to an end.
The reason the Germans consented to an armistice on November 11 was partly because they were being driven back, and partly because they saw a chance of getting a judicious peace. By then, Germany’s allies were dropping out of the war, exhausted by the conflict. The Kaiser himself abdicated, and a German republic was declared.