Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917–21

By Prit Buttar
Osprey Publishing, 2017
Terrence J. Finnegan, Reviewer

German Troops Occupy Riga, September 1917

Prit Buttar's monumental four volumes on the Eastern Front published over the past five years conclude with The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917–21. This overlooked subject covering the largest front of the Great War was hard to accurately research because of the Soviet legacy in Russia after World War I and the Warsaw Pact bloc of nations after World War II. Whatever data available from the nations addressed in this history, Austria being the only exception, was tainted with political rhetoric that didn't lend credence to telling the true story. Thanks to works such as Buttar's four volumes, one can at least have a more complete understanding of the complicated world of nations being born, cultural alignments being addressed, and the wars that never ended despite the feeling that war to end all wars came through on 11 November 1918.

For one such as myself, doing research on this region for a soon-to-be-published assessment on aerial reconnaissance over the Eastern Front in WWI, attention to Buttar's work is essential. His research is superb and the details uncovered are impressive. The fourth volume covers a lot of ground in the 480 pages—commencing on 22 January 1917 with demonstrations in Petrograd and ending with 12 October 1920 with the peace treaty between Poland and Bolshevik Russia.

Buttar's third volume, Russia's Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, covered the military operations of the Brusilov Offensive and German/k.u.k. Army operations against Romania extensively. He now shifts to the Northern Front, addressing key battles such as Riga and Operation Albion in The Splintered Empires. This gives the reader better geographical focus on the evolving disintegration of the Russian Empire involving nearby Petrograd and the ensuing civil war.

A little known chapter on the occupation of western Russia from Riga to the Crimean Peninsula is also addressed, though lightly. This history shows that leading up to and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in March 1918, most of the elite German forces moved west to participate in the monumental OPERATION MICHAEL against British and French forces. How the remaining German and k.u.k. Army occupation forces dealt with that region, particularly in light of the chaotic situation between the Bolsheviks and White Russians, is a subject worth further exploration.

Coverage of the break-up of the German and Austria-Hungarian empires is succinctly described in a spirit reminiscent of Winston Churchill's later (1945) letter to President Roosevelt, warning that "When the war of the giants is over. the war of the pygmies will begin." Buttar describes the earlier war of the pygmies with details on what happened to Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and finally Poland after the Great War. All these stories are better known to the world today with the demise of the Soviet bloc.  For scholars on Eastern Europe this section of The Splintered Empires should be required reading.

In this centennial year of the Paris Peace Conference and the signings of the Versailles Treaty and its sister agreements, discussion on what was decided by the “giants” of 1919 has been covered in extensive detail by other authors. Buttar doesn’t delve much into these treaties, since he is telling a story with a regional focus.  However, their impact on Eastern Europe is still felt today. A more concerted effort to incorporate these broader arrangements in The Splintered Empires might have provided the reader with a more helpful context for understanding the considerable detail he provides on the "war of the pygmies".

Terrence J. Finnegan

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