Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December 1914

As the year 1914 comes to an end, the World War is five months old and is already unprecedented in geographic scope and its widespread destruction of lives and property.  In December Austria-Hungary attacks Serbia again; this time it occupies Belgrade, but only temporarily.  In the South Atlantic, the long journey of the German East Asia squadron comes to an end as it rounds Cape Horn and approaches the Falkland Islands.  German ships from the High Seas Fleet cross the North Sea to bombard three towns on the east coast of England, barely escaping destruction on the way home.  On the Western Front, in the first major offensive since the opposing armies reached the North Sea, French forces attack German positions in the Champagne region of France.  The new Pope calls for the warring nations to lay down their arms, and in some parts of the Western Front peace breaks out, temporarily, on Christmas Day.  For the first time in history, aircraft carriers launch an airstrike.  In the United States, the short (post-election) session of the Sixty-third Congress begins.  (The Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution, designed in part to eliminate such "lame duck" sessions, will be adopted in 1933.) 


Artist's Rendering of King Peter Reentering Belgrade

This month saw another failed Austro-Hungarian attack on Serbia.  In an offensive that began last month, the Austro-Hungarian Army succeeded in reaching and occupying Belgrade on December 3.  In doing so, however, it weakened its right flank, and a Serbian counter-offensive begun the same day in the vicinity of Arandjelovac inflicted a devastating defeat on the Austro-Hungarian Army, which abandoned Belgrade and withdrew across the Drina River into Bosnia.  The Serbs reoccupied their capital on December 15.

Admiral Sturdee

The German East Asia squadron's long journey across the Pacific ended this month at the Falkland Islands, where it encountered a British naval force under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee.  Until recently Chief of the Naval General Staff, Sturdee was an early casualty of last month's change of command at the Admiralty in which Admiral Jackie Fisher replaced Prince Louis of Battenberg as First Sea Lord.  Relieved of his post just as word reached London of the disastrous defeat of Admiral Cradock's squadron off the coast of Chile, Sturdee was given command of naval forces in the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with orders to pursue and destroy the German East Asia Squadron wherever it could be found.  The East Asia squadron, meanwhile, replenished its coal supply in Chilean ports and rounded Cape Horn on December 1.  On December 6, anchored at the eastern end of the Beagle Channel, Admiral von Spee made a fateful decision not to proceed directly to Germany but first to conduct a raid on the British Falkland Islands, which he believed to be undefended.  As he approached the eastern end of the Falklands on December 8, Spee discovered Admiral Sturdee's task force, which had arrived the day before and included the South Atlantic cruiser squadron and two additional battle cruisers Sturdee had brought with him from England.  In the ensuing chase, the British, faster and with more firepower than the Germans, sank Spee’s flagship and all the other ships of his squadron except Dresden, the fastest of the German ships, which escaped around the Horn to the coast of Chile, where she remained at year's end.

 A House in Hartlepool Destroyed by Naval Gunfire

The dispatch of three battle cruisers from the Grand Fleet to join the hunt for Admiral Spee's East Asia Squadron caused the balance of naval power in the North Sea to come as close as it has ever been, and is likely ever to be again, to parity between the opposing fleets.  Taking advantage of this development, Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, commander of the German High Seas Fleet, ordered a battle cruiser squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Franz Hipper to conduct a raid on the coast of England.  Hipper's squadron left the Jade Estuary on December 15 and, followed by the main body of the High Seas Fleet, crossed the North Sea to the Yorkshire coast, where on December 16 it shelled the seaside towns of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, destroying buildings and killing or injuring hundreds of civilians.  The British, with advance intelligence that a raid would take place, positioned naval forces including Admiral David Beatty's battle cruiser squadron to intercept the Germans as they turned for home.  A combination of worsening weather and poor communications, however, allowed Hipper's squadron to escape.

 British Seaplanes Returning to Their Ships After the Raid on Cuxhaven

Lighter-than-air dirigibles, or Zeppelins as they are called in Germany, pose a new danger to civilian populations.  Since the war began Zeppelin raids have been launched on urban areas on the continent, and the threat to English cities within their reach, a reach that is much greater than that of aeroplanes or land-based artillery, is apparent.  Because they can fly at altitudes much higher than can be reached by aeroplanes, they are effectively immune from attack in the air, so the most effective defense is to attack them on the ground.  On Christmas Day the Royal Navy launched a raid on the Zeppelin sheds at Cuxhaven, at the mouth of the Elbe River.  Seaplanes carrying bombs were carried by specially modified channel steamers, escorted by destroyers and light cruisers, to an area close to the German naval base at Heligoland Island where, screened by submarines, they were lowered by cranes into a placid North Sea.  They lifted off into clear skies, but when they crossed over land they encountered ground fog that made it impossible to locate or effectively attack the zeppelin sheds.  Subsequent attacks on ships in the Jade Estuary were not much more successful.  They flew back to sea, where their naval escorts were able to hoist them aboard and escape before the German naval forces at Heligoland could get under way and overtake them.  The raid on Cuxhaven, which resulted in little or no damage to either side, was the first attack on a military target by carrier-based aeroplanes, but it will almost certainly not be the last.

The Western Front

The attempts by the Allied and German armies to outflank each other on the Western Front ended when they reached the North Sea coast of Belgium.  After another failed attempt to cross the Yser River on December 3, the German Army dug into defensive positions.  The Allies have also constructed trench lines, but they are less satisfied than the Germans with holding the ground they occupy.  The front line north of the Marne is all in French and Belgian territory, and the parts of France that lie behind the German lines comprise its industrial heartland.  It is as important to the French to recover it, therefore, as it is to the Germans to continue to hold it.  On December 20, the French Army mounted offensive operations in the Champagne region, which have been costly in terms of casualties but have yielded little if any gains.

The New High Commissioner

The Ottoman Empire's entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers has deprived it of its nominal sovereignty over Egypt.  On December 28 Sir Edward Grey, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave notice that "in view of a state of war arising out of the nation of Turkey, Egypt is placed under the protection of his Majesty, and will henceforth constitute a British Protectorate.  The suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt is thus terminated and his Majesty's government will adopt all measures necessary for the defense of Egypt and the protection of its inhabitants and interests."  Lieutenant Colonel Sir Arthur Henry McMahon has been appointed High Commissioner for Egypt.

Looking Forward to the Next Congress

In the United States, the 63rd Congress convened on December 7, the first Monday in December, for the short "lame duck" session mandated by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution.  The next day, President Wilson read his annual message to a joint session.  Resolutions calling for an investigation into the preparedness of the United States for war have been introduced in the Senate by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts and in the House of Representatives by Lodge's son-in-law, Massachusetts Representative Augustus P. Gardner.  Other issues before this Congress, which will expire on March 4, include a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution, legislation providing relief for cotton farmers whose overseas markets have been affected by the war, and a Ship Purchase Bill providing for the government to purchase and operate merchant vessels interned in American ports.

Prior to delivering his message to Congress, President Wilson announced that he opposes the Lodge-Gardner resolution, and in his message he rejected the argument, made by former President Roosevelt, General Leonard Wood and others, that the United States should increase its military capability in anticipation of possible involvement in the European war.  Responding to those who say the United States is not prepared for war, he said "What is meant by being prepared?  Is it meant that we are not ready upon brief notice to put a nation in the field, a nation of men trained to arms?  Of course we are not ready to do that, and we shall never be in time of peace so long as we retain our present political principles and institutions.  And what is it that it is suggested we should be prepared to do?  To defend ourselves against attack?  We have always found means to do that, and shall find them whenever it is necessary."  The president stated his belief that, because the United States is "a true friend to all the nations of the world," it should rely "not upon a standing army, nor yet upon a reserve army, but upon a citizenry trained and accustomed to arms" and upon a powerful navy maintained for the purpose of "defense ..., never of aggression or of conquest."

Great Britain's agreement to allow American cotton to be shipped to neutral countries without interference has not removed all areas of friction between the two countries regarding trade. By orders in council issued in August and October, Britain attempted to define contraband subject to seizure on the high seas.  In doing so, they modified the 1909 Declaration of London, which although negotiated and drafted under the auspices of the British government, was not ratified by Great Britain.  The Declaration would have modified international law in ways friendly to neutrals.  For example, it distinguished between absolute and conditional contraband, adopted a "free list," and revised the doctrine of continuous voyage, which allows contraband on a ship en route to a neutral port to be seized if its ultimate destination is an enemy country, by limiting it to absolute contraband only.  The orders in council expanded the definition of absolute contraband, and declared that conditional contraband (including food) bound for Germany would be intercepted.  They also declared that cargoes bound for neutral ports, such as those in Holland, Norway and Denmark, would be considered to be bound for Germany unless proved otherwise.  In addition to the orders in council, last month Great Britain declared the North Sea a war zone and warned merchant ships to stay clear of it except by way of narrowly defined routes.  On December 28 the United States sent a note to Great Britain protesting the resulting interference with American trade.

Admiral Mahan

Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, America's foremost naval strategist and a world-renowned authority on sea power, died of heart disease December 1 at the Washington Naval Hospital.  He was born in 1840 at West Point, New York, the son of a professor at the United States Military Academy.  Despite his Army background, he chose a naval career, and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1859.  The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890 while he was an instructor at the Naval Academy, was his most influential work.  Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered that a copy of the book be placed aboard every ship in the German Navy.  With the outbreak of the World War, he was much in demand as an expert on naval strategy until President Wilson ordered military and naval officers to refrain from commenting on the war.  The war only heightened his interest in the subject, however, and he was continuing his studies at the time of his death.

The Stock Exchange On Its First Day of Trading Since July

The New York Stock Exchange reopened for trading in stocks on December 12.  It had been closed since July 30, when trading was suspended following the outbreak of the European war to discourage rapid selling of American securities and minimize gold outflow to Europe while enabling the United States to remain on the gold standard.  Since then, American agricultural exports have helped stabilize international commodity markets and currency exchange rates, restoring equilibrium to securities markets.  At the Exchange's opening, minimum opening prices were fixed at the July 30 level, and prices on average advanced during the day.

Pope Benedict XV

As the first Christmas of his papacy approached in a world at war, Pope Benedict XV called for the nations at war to lay down their arms.

British and German Soldiers in No-Man's Land

As if in response to the Pope's message, a spontaneous and unsanctioned cease-fire occurred on Christmas Day on parts of the Western Front.  Christmas carols were sung, Christmas trees were placed on parapets, and German and Allied troops left their trenches to exchange Christmas greetings and token gifts and wishes for peace.  In some areas soccer balls appeared and impromptu games were played.

December 1914 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, January and February 1915
New York Times, December 1914

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
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
Vincent J. Esposito, ed., The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
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
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
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and 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
Gordon Martel, The Month That Changed the World: July 1914
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
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram