Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 1914

It's August 1914.  A crisis that might have led to a third Balkan War has instead exploded into a continent-wide, and then a world-wide, conflict.  By the end of the month Russia, France and Great Britain are at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  Because those nations rule much of the globe, the war extends beyond Europe to Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and colonial troops are on their way to assist their mother countries in the battles raging on the continent.  Germany invades Belgium, Russia invades East Prussia, and Great Britain sends an army across the Channel to join the French and Belgians.  Two German warships escape the British in the Mediterranean.  Japan joins the war, and the German East Asia Squadron flees across the Pacific.  British ships attack the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea.  Austrian ships bombarding the coast of Montenegro are attacked by British and French naval forces from Malta. The Austro-Hungarian Army gets its nose bloodied in its first attack on Serbia.  The United States declares its neutrality and begins a two and a half year struggle to define what that means.  Pope Pius X dies of heart disease in the Vatican and Mrs. Wilson succumbs to Bright's Disease in the White House.  The President appoints Attorney General McReynolds to the United States Supreme Court, where he will gain a reputation for being racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and reactionary.  The Panama Canal is officially opened to commercial traffic.


Germans Celebrate the Declaration of War . . .

. . . and See Their Soldiers Off to the Front

Fears of a continent-wide European war were realized this month.  Germany's ultimatum to Russia on the last day of July was followed by a declaration of war on August 1 and a German demand that France declare its neutrality.  The French cabinet responded by ordering mobilization.  German troops entered Luxembourg on August 2.  On August 3, Germany severed diplomatic relations with France and issued an ultimatum to Belgium demanding free passage of its army through that country.  In a personal message to King George, Belgium's King Albert appealed for assistance from Great Britain in defending its independence and neutrality.

Sir Edward Grey

On August 3, British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey addressed the House of Commons.  He read King Albert's plea for assistance and asked the members to consider whether it would be wise for Britain to abandon its traditional policy of opposing domination of the European continent by a single power.  He also warned that Britain's "moral position" would be at risk if it stood by and allowed the subjugation of Belgium and France. Among his concerns is the arrangement made with the French to divide naval responsibilities, pursuant to which France concentrated its fleet in the Mediterranean while the Royal Navy undertook the defense of the English Channel and Atlantic coasts of France.  It would be dishonorable, Grey suggested, for Great Britain under these circumstances to fail to come to France's aid in a war with Germany.

 The German Army Enters Belgium . . .

. . . and Britons Celebrate the Declaration of War in Trafalgar Square

German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on the morning of August 4.  Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg spoke the same day in the Reichstag, admitting that Germany's action violated international law but insisting that "necessity knows no law."  The Reichstag responded by approving war credits.  The vote was unanimous: even the Social Democratic Party, the largest in the Reichstag and previously opposed to war, supported the measure, Hugo Haase, the party's leader, declaring that "we will not desert our Fatherland in its hour of need."  The British government responded by issuing an ultimatum to Germany demanding that it cease its invasion by midnight German time (11:00 P.M. in London).  As the deadline expired, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey looked out the window of the Foreign Ministry at the gas lamps being lit on the street below and was heard to say "The lamps are going out all over Europe.  We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Lord Kitchener

Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum, is Great Britain's highest ranking military officer and greatest war hero.  On August 4, he was brought into the British cabinet as Secretary of State for War.  Between August 12 and August 17, a British Expeditionary Force formed under the command of General Sir John French was landed on the French coast and deployed on the left flank of the French army.  The Canadian Government has been advised by the British War Office that the 21,000 Canadian troops on their way to England will be sent into the firing line as soon as they arrive.  On August 28, Lord Kitchener announced in the House of Lords that Indian troops would also be employed.

German Troops in Liege

The German army occupied the city of Liege on August 6, but the forts surrounding the city held out until August 17, delaying the German timetable.  The Belgian government withdrew to the coastal city of Antwerp on August 17, and on August 20 German troops occupied Brussels. As the German Army advanced through Belgium, it was delayed further by the necessity to reduce the forts around Namur, in a siege that lasted from August 20 to 24, and by battles fought on August 21 with the French at Charleroi and on August 23 and 26 with the British at Mons and Le Cateau.  The confusingly named General French wanted to pull his British Expeditionary Force out of the line, but was overruled by Lord Kitchener, who crossed the channel and ordered the BEF commander to continue to support the French Army.  At month's end German forces were on French soil but the Allies appeared to be withdrawing in good order.

 French Soldiers Cheered as They March Off to War

The French plan for war against Germany, called Plan XVII, was implemented on August 6 with an offensive in Alsace.  Mulhouse was captured on August 8, but recaptured by the Germans on August 13.  An offensive into Lorraine that began on August 14 failed, as did an attack in the Ardennes Forest a few days later, due in part to the necessity of withdrawing French forces to meet the growing threat posed by the German attack in the north.

As this summer's diplomatic crisis unfolded, it was unclear where Italy stood.  A member of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, her relations with Austria-Hungary have been strained by territorial disputes going back to the wars of Italian unification.  On August 1, immediately following Germany's declaration of war on Russia, the Italian government notified Germany and Austria-Hungary that it did not regard its membership in the Triple Alliance as requiring it to come to their assistance in the present circumstances. On August 3 it issued a formal declaration of neutrality, relieving France of the necessity of defending another frontier.  Italy remains under intense pressure from Germany and Austria-Hungary to come to their assistance, including promises of territorial compensation.

General Alexander Samsonov

The Schlieffen Plan, devised in 1905 by German General Alfred von Schlieffen to fight a two-front war against Russia and France, assumed that Russia would be slow to mobilize and that Germany could and should therefore seek a quick victory over France before concentrating its attack on the Eastern Front.  This month, however, as the German Army moved through Belgium and into France in accordance with Schlieffen's plan, the Russians mobilized quickly and attacked the Germans with two armies in East Prussia.  The First Army, commanded by General Pavel von Rennenkampf, advanced to the north of the Masurian Lakes and on August 20 inflicted a defeat on the German Eighth Army, under the command of General Maximilian von Prittwitz.  Prittwitz proposed to retreat to the Vistula, but was overruled by the overall German commander, General Helmuth von Moltke, who replaced Prittwitz with General Paul von Hindenburg and Hindenburg's deputy, General Erich Ludendorff.  Under its new command, the Eighth Army attacked to the south and destroyed the Russian Second Army near Tannenberg on August 30 before the First Army, separated from the Second by the lakes, could join the battle.  General Alexander Samsonov, the commanding general of the Second Army, walked into the woods after the battle and shot himself.

Serbian Marshal Radomir Putnik

War is also raging in the Balkans, where it all started.  Austria-Hungary was already at war with Serbia when the month began, and the two-front nature of its strategic challenge was underscored when it declared war on Russia on August 6.  On August 7, Montenegro declared war on Austria-Hungary, and the next day Austrian warships bombarded Antivari, a Montenegrin seaport.  They were cut off and attacked on August 16 by an Anglo-French naval force that succeeded in sinking one of the Austrian ships and driving the other away, but was forced by the end of the month to return to Malta, leaving the Adriatic in Austrian hands.  On August 12, the Austro-Hungarian army invaded Serbia by crossing the Drina River from Bosnia, but was met in the vicinity of Cer Mountain by Serbian forces under the command of Marshal Radomir Putnik and turned back with heavy losses.  By month's end, the Austrians had retreated back across the Drina and Serbian forces had crossed the Sava River, west of Belgrade, to occupy the Hungarian town of Zemun.

H.M.S. Amphion

The first shots in the naval war were fired on August 5 when the British cruiser H.M.S. Amphion sank a German minelayer in the English Channel.  The next day, the Amphion struck a mine and sank, killing or wounding 132 British sailors and twenty-seven German crewmen from the minelayer who had been rescued by the Amphion the previous day.

With the onset of war, transatlantic sailings of German vessels have been cancelled.  Further isolating Germany, on August 5 a British cable steamer in the North Sea and a British cruiser in the Atlantic Ocean east of the Azores located and severed a total of seven telegraph cables connecting Germany with North America and with other European nations.

Germany is not the only nation whose international trade has been affected by the outbreak of war.  The sudden unavailability of merchant ships to transport grain and other commodities has caused export trade in the United States to come to a virtual standstill.  Legislation is under consideration for the United States Government to provide war risk insurance and to purchase and operate merchant vessels, including German ships, that are now effectively embargoed in American ports   The situation is most acute at Gulf Coast ports such as Galveston and New Orleans, where elevators and storage facilities are filled to capacity with grain bound for South and Central America.  The legislation is opposed by private shipowners who object to government participation in the shipping business.  Government ownership and operation of steamship lines, however, is not entirely unprecedented: the Panama Railroad Company, which operates ships as well as the railroad, is controlled by the Government.  Another complication may be more serious.  Under the Declaration of London the transfer of an enemy ship to a neutral flag after the outbreak of war is recognized as valid only if the new owner can demonstrate that the transfer was not made in order to avoid capture.  It might be difficult, and certainly awkward, for the United States Government to try to make that case in an Allied prize court.

The View from the Goeben: British Ships In Pursuit

Goeben (left) and Breslau at the Straits

Among the colonial forces expected to fight in the Allied cause are Algerians to be brought across the Mediterranean to join the French Army.  When war broke out, the first and most urgent mission of the French Navy was to escort and protect troop ships ferrying those troops between Algeria and Marseilles, a mission facilitated by Italy's decision to remain neutral but complicated by the absence of two French dreadnoughts that were absent from the Mediterranean escorting the French President and Prime Minister on their visit to St. Petersburg.  Also of concern was the presence in the Mediterranean of two German warships, the battle cruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau, under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Souchon.  The principal task of the British Mediterranean Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Archibald Berkeley Milne, was to assist the French Navy and in particular to watch Goeben and Breslau.  As they were doing so, the British missed two opportunities to attack and destroy the German ships: once on August 4 because Great Britain's declaration of war had not yet taken effect; and again on August 6, as the German ships were in port in Messina, because it would have violated Italian neutrality.  Successfully blocking Souchon's exit from Messina west to Algeria, the British allowed the Germans to escape to the east, where they reached the entrance to the Dardanelles on August 10.  As a neutral, Turkey could not allow passage of German ships through the straits, but that difficulty was overcome by transferring the ships to the Turkish Navy, a solution viewed as appropriate retribution for Britain's refusal at the end of July to allow British shipyards to deliver two new battleships to Turkey.  Goeben and Breslau, still manned by German crews but flying the Ottoman flag and bearing their new names of Jawus Sultan Selim and Midilli, were transferred to the Ottoman Navy on August 16.  A week later, Admiral Souchon was named Commander-in-Chief of the Turkish Navy.

British Sailors Watching a German Cruiser Sink at the Battle of Heligoland Bight

The end of the month saw the first major naval battle of the war in Europe.  The German High Seas Fleet is stationed at Heligoland Island, Wilhelmshaven, and in other harbors in the Heligoland Bight, the southeastern corner of the North Sea.  On August 28, British cruisers and destroyers under the command of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt and submarines under the command of Commodore Roger Keyes attacked German ships during their regular patrols.  The attack was supported by additional cruisers under the command of Vice Admiral David Beatty.  The support of Beatty's battle cruisers proved crucial to the outcome, but the failure of the Admiralty to keep the British commanders informed of the presence of friendly forces resulted in confusion and near-tragedy.  The German response was also uncoordinated, however, and at the end of the day the Germans had suffered significant losses: three light cruisers and one destroyer sunk and three other light cruisers damaged.

Premier Okuma Shigenobu

Premier Okuma Shigenobu of Japan, the principal naval power in the Pacific, announced on August 5 that if the war was carried into Pacific waters Japan would assist Great Britain in accordance with the Anglo-Japanese Naval Agreement of 1902. On August 16, Japan presented an ultimatum to Germany demanding that it withdraw from China, including the surrender of the leased territories of Kiau-Chau, on the Shantung Peninsula in the Yellow Sea.  It gave Germany one week to answer.  When the deadline expired on August 23 without a response, Japan declared war.  A declaration of war against Austria-Hungary followed on August 25.  Two days later, Japanese and British naval forces blockaded Tsingtao, the principal city of the leased territories.

Vice Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee

The only substantial German naval force outside European waters is the East Asia Squadron, based when war broke out at Tsingtao.  Commanded by Admiral Count Maximilian von Spee in the armored cruiser SMS Scharnhorst, it includes another armored cruiser, SMS Gneisenau, and three light cruisers: Emden, Leipzig and Nurnberg.  When war broke out, the squadron was dispersed in various locations in the Western Pacific.  Because likely Japanese hostility made it impossible for him to return to Tsingtao, Admiral Spee ordered his squadron to concentrate at Pagan Island in the Northern Marianas, a German colony.  After dispatching Emden on a commerce raiding mission in the Indian Ocean, he took his squadron east, arriving at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands (another German colony) on August 20.  On August 22 he proceeded to Majuro Atoll, on the far eastern edge of the Marshall Islands, where he learned that Japan had declared war on Germany.  He was joined at Majuro by additional ships that had escaped Tsingtao ahead of the arrival of the Japanese fleet.  Deciding that the west coast of South America, in addition to being a relatively hospitable region for obtaining coal and other supplies, was also a promising area for attacking Allied shipping, he took his squadron in that direction.  At month's end, he was on an easterly course, out of touch with the world somewhere in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

Further demonstration of the global nature of this war came on August 26, when British and French forces captured the German colony of Togoland on the Atlantic coast of Africa.


Ellen Axson Wilson

With her husband and daughters at her side, Mrs. Woodrow Wilson died in the White House on August 6.  She was suffering from Bright's Disease.  For months she had worked for passage of a slum clearance bill for the District of Columbia.  On the morning of the day she died, she told her husband that this was her last wish, and before death came news was brought to her bedside that Congress had passed the bill.

 Secretary of State Bryan

The United States issued a formal Declaration of Neutrality on August 4.  On August 5, invoking its status as a signatory to the Hague Convention, it tendered its good offices as a mediator to the warring nations.  Other than non-involvement in military operations, the precise meaning of United States neutrality remains to be determined.  For example, two American corporations have contracts to build submarines for the British Government to be delivered in sections.  The administration has been advised that, while delivery of completed submarines would be unneutral under international law, delivery of unassembled parts would not.  Secretary of State Bryan has nevertheless persuaded President Wilson to ban the delivery, arguing that it would violate the spirit of neutrality.  Bryan's notion of neutrality goes even further.  He believes that its "spirit" requires a ban on all loans to belligerent nations on the ground that "money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands everything else."  Accordingly, on August 15, the State Department responded to an inquiry from J.P. Morgan & Co., following a request by the French Government for a loan, by saying that in the judgment of the Government "loans by American bankers to any foreign nation which is at war is inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality."

President Wilson provided additional insight into his own thinking when he issued a statement to the American people on August 19.  He gave Americans a "solemn word of warning" that "the United States must be neutral in fact as well as in name during these days that are to try men's souls," and that "we must be impartial in thought as well as in action, must put a curb upon our sentiments as well as upon every transaction that might be construed as a preference of one party to the struggle before another."

S.S. Ancon Entering the Canal

The Panama Canal was formally opened to world commerce on August 15.  The Panama Railroad steamship Ancon was the first ship through, making the transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific in ten hours.

The ongoing revolution in Mexico reached another milestone this month as the provisional president of Mexico, Antonio Carvajal, stepped down on August 15.  The victorious Constitutionalist forces, led by Venustiano Carranza, entered Mexico City without opposition on August 19.

James C. McReynolds and Thomas W. Gregory

President Wilson nominated Attorney General James Clark McReynolds to the United States Supreme Court on August 19.  McReynolds will fill the vacancy caused by the death last month of Justice Horace Lurton.  Thomas Watts Gregory has been appointed to succeed McReynolds as Attorney General.  Gregory has been serving as a Special Assistant Attorney General with the principal responsibility of supervising anti-trust litigation against the New Haven Railroad.

Pope Pius X

Pope Pius X died on August 20.  Born Giuseppe Sarto in 1835, he was elected pope in 1903 when the front-runner, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, was vetoed by Cardinal Jan Puzyna de Kosielsko on behalf of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, exercising a power traditionally granted to Catholic monarchs to have their say in papal elections.  The outbreak of the war, which greatly distressed the Pope, is believed to have hastened his death.

August 1914 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, September and October 1914
New York Times, August 1914

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Philip Blom, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914
Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill Volume II: Young Statesman, 1907-1914
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson's Neutrality
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
Max Hastings, Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Holger H. Herwig, The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson's Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
John Keegan, The First World War
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914
Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War
Michael S. Neiberg, Dance of the Furies: Europe and the Outbreak of World War I 
Kenneth Rose, King George V
George Malcolm Thomson, The Twelve Days: Two Weeks in Europe's Fatal Summer
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram