Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 1915

It's January 1915, and the war, now a World War, shows no sign of abating.  New technology is changing warfare.  Submarines and Zeppelins prove themselves formidable weapons against civilian as well as military targets.  War on the ground grinds toward stalemate.  The German High Seas Fleet suffers a reverse in a major naval engagement in the North Sea.  Cardinal Mercier tells the Belgians they owe no obedience to the Germans.  Colonel House sails for Europe on one of the Lusitania's last voyages, as the United States and Great Britain struggle to resolve their differences over neutral rights.  The Ottoman Empire's entry into the war vastly expands its geographic scope.  A devastating earthquake kills thousands in Italy, as Germany and Austria-Hungary grow suspicious about its continued neutrality.  Political chaos reigns in Mexico.  Preparedness is at the top of the agenda in America, as former President Roosevelt shares his strong views on the issue.  A woman suffrage amendment fails in Congress.  Alexander Graham Bell places the first coast-to-coast telephone call.  The Castles are starring on Broadway.  For the last time (so far) a baby is born in the White House; President Wilson's grandson will grow up to become the long-serving Dean of the National Cathedral and march in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King.


H.M.S. Formidable

On the first day of the new year, the British pre-dreadnought battleship H.M.S. Formidable, on patrol in the English Channel, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine ("U-Boat").  Such attacks have not been limited to warships: this month U-Boats have begun attacking merchant ships in waters adjacent to Great Britain.  On January 31 the British government reacted by issuing instructions authorizing passenger liners and merchant ships to display the flags of neutral nations to avoid attack.  The British view this as a legitimate "ruse de guerre," similar to that used by the world's navies for centuries and recognized as legal under international law.

Damage in King's Lynn

German Zeppelins attacked the towns of King's Lynn and Great Yarmouth on the North Sea coast of England during the night of January 19-20, dropping bombs that killed and injured several civilians.  Some bombs fell near the royal residence of Sandringham Palace, but the royal family was not in residence at the time and there was no damage to the palace.  On the continent, the largest aeroplane raid of the war so far took place on January 10 when a dozen or more German armored biplanes flew over the French coastal city of Dunkirk.  The airmen threw some thirty bombs to the ground, causing only minor damage.

On the Western Front, the story of the month was one of trenches gained, lost and regained from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea, with little or no net advantage to either side.  The town of La Boiselle, northeast of Amiens, was captured by the Germans and recaptured by the French in a two-day period on January 17 and 18.  On January 22 the French Army advanced on Le Pretre Woods, near the German fortifications around Metz, but the Germans quickly recovered most of the ground lost.  The month ended with the commencement of a German offensive in the Argonne Forest and assaults on the French at Soissons, near Paris, and on the British line at La Bassee near the Belgian border.

S.M.S. Blucher Sinking

Following his successful raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby last month, Admiral Franz Hipper decided to attack British fishing boats on the Dogger Bank, which he suspected were providing intelligence to the British about German naval movements in the North Sea.  He took his squadron, consisting of battle cruisers, light cruisers and torpedo boat destroyers, to sea on January 24, hoping to complete his mission before the British could react.  The British, however, had intercepted the German communications, and Admiral Beatty's battle cruiser squadron moved to attack the German force as it approached the Dogger Bank.  When they saw the British ships approaching, the Germans reversed course and raced for home.  In the ensuing stern chase, the British ships had a speed advantage, gradually overtaking the Germans and attacking and sinking the last in line, the battle cruiser S.M.S. Blucher.  Due to British miscommunications, however, the pursuit was broken off and most of the German squadron escaped.  Admiral Beatty's flagship, H.M.S. Lion, and the destroyer H.M.S. Meteor were damaged severely but survived and were towed into port for repairs.  In addition to the Blucher sinking, three German cruisers were badly damaged but survived.  British casualties totaled 15 killed and 80 wounded.  Most of the German casualties -- 951 killed and 78 wounded -- were aboard Blucher.

Cardinal Mercier

Last month Cardinal Desire-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Malines and Roman Catholic primate of Belgium, wrote a pastoral letter to be read on Christmas Day.  In it he told the Belgian people that the occupation of their country was illegitimate and that they owed the Germans "neither respect, nor attachment, nor obedience."  The German Army forbade the reading of it, seized 15,000 copies, and fined the printer.  Copies of the letter were circulated by hand and served as a source of inspiration to the Belgian people.  On January 2, the cardinal was detained, interrogated, and ordered not to attend services scheduled for the following day.  When presented with a letter of retraction, he refused to sign it.  On January 18 a report summarizing these events, smuggled through German lines, was delivered to Pope Benedict XV in Rome.

Colonel House

The Cunard liner R.M.S. Lusitania sailed from New York on January 30, bound for Liverpool.  On board were three hydroaeroplanes (or "seaplanes") destined for service with the Royal Navy.  Formerly it had been reported that the liner would also be carrying large guns manufactured by the Bethlehem Steel Company, but those were apparently not ready in time for this voyage.  Also on board the Lusitania were presidential adviser Colonel Edward M. House and his wife.  Colonel House will represent President Wilson in talks with representatives of the warring nations in an attempt to find common ground and ascertain whether the United States can play a constructive role in negotiations.

British Friendship as Seen from America

The British government has replied to the American note sent last month protesting the restrictions on American commerce brought about by November's announcement closing the North Sea to commercial traffic.  The tone of the note was conciliatory, but the British insisted on Britain's right as a belligerent nation to stop and search neutral vessels for contraband.  The United States acknowledges that right, but objects to the long delays occasioned by the diversion of her merchant ships to British ports and their confinement there pending clearance.  The difference between the American and British positions may be simply a question of whether the search for contraband takes place in a British port or on the high seas, but that does not make the issue any easier to resolve.

Senator Stone

Another source of tension between the United States and Great Britain is the potential reentry into service of German merchant ships interned in American ports.  The Ship Purchase Bill introduced in the new Congress by Senator William J. Stone of Missouri, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, would authorize the purchase and operation of those ships by the United States government.  Great Britain objects strongly, both to the return of German vessels to sea under the American flag and to the infusion of cash to the German war effort that would result from the sale.  She also objects on legal grounds.  Under international law as restated in the 1909 Declaration of London, transfer of an enemy ship to a neutral flag after war begins is invalid unless the owner can prove that the reflagging was not done to avoid capture, a showing that would be difficult to make under the circumstances.  Notwithstanding the British objections, the Wilson administration supports the Ship Purchase Bill.

Edward N. Breitung
Without waiting for the Ship Purchase Bill, on January 4 Michigan industrialist Edward N. Breitung purchased one of the interned German ships, the steamer Dacia, from the Hamburg-America Line, transferred it to American registry, and asked the U.S. State Department to clear it for a voyage from Galveston to Rotterdam with a cargo of cotton.  The ship's manifest states that the cargo's ultimate destination is Bremen, in Germany.  (Rotterdam is in neutral Holland, but is a major port of entry for Germany).  The State Department granted clearance and asked Great Britain to allow the voyage to take place without interference, but the British government declined on the ground that it would set a dangerous precedent.  Dacia set sail from Galveston on January 31.  If it is intercepted by the Royal Navy, as seems likely, the disposition of its cargo will be determined by a British prize court.

Sultan Mehmed V

The Ottoman Empire's entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers, accompanied by Sultan Mehmed V's declaration of holy war, or "jihad," against the Allies, has removed any doubt that the war being waged between the nations of Europe is a World War.  In addition to casting in a new light the age-old issue of Russian access to the Mediterranean, Turkey's entry caused immediate combat operations to begin on three new fronts: one in the Persian Gulf, where the Ottoman Empire now threatens British petroleum interests; one in the Sinai, where it threatens British access to India and Australia through the Suez Canal; and a third in the Caucasus, where it shares a border with a part of Russia populated largely by Muslims.  With the declaration of war in November, Great Britain landed a contingent of troops at the head of the Persian Gulf which proceeded to the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and occupied Basra, the principal city of southern Mesopotamia.  Last month Great Britain terminated Ottoman suzerainty over Egypt and closed the Suez Canal to enemy shipping.  This month Turkish troops responded by crossing the Sinai and attacking British forces guarding the Canal, hoping not only to drive the British from the Canal but also to spark an Arab rebellion against British rule in Egypt.  In the Caucasus, a Turkish offensive was launched, but turned back by Russian counter-attacks aided by difficult mountainous terrain and bitter winter weather.

A fourth front may be about to open in Turkey.  Russia's plea for military operations to divert Turkish forces from the Caucasus, added to the need for improved access for supply and communication between Russia and its western allies, has caused the British cabinet to adopt a proposal of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.  The plan is to mount a naval operation to establish control over the Dardanelles, Bosporus and Sea of Marmara, capturing Constantinople and opening the route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  Such an operation, if successful, would force Turkey out of the war and materially advance Allied war aims in the Balkans. At the very least, it is expected to provide a much needed victory to boost the morale of the British public in the midst of a frustrating and bloody stalemate on the ground in Flanders.

Italian Premier Antonio Salandra

Italy has so far remained neutral, despite its pre-war membership in the Triple Alliance.  Its erstwhile partners, meanwhile, alarmed by recent reports of Italian troop concentrations on the border with Austria-Hungary, have moved troops into the Tyrol.  The German ambassador in Rome has warned the Italian government that further troop buildup on the border may lead Germany and Austria-Hungary to denounce the Triple Alliance and demand Italian guarantees of neutrality.  Nature also took a hand this month when, on January 13, a massive earthquake struck central Italy.  The town of Avezzano, east of Rome in the Apennine Mountains, was hardest hit.  In all, some 30,000 people were killed and 90,000 injured.

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg says he was misinterpreted when he described the Belgian neutrality treaty as a "scrap of paper" in his last conversation with the British ambassador on August 4.  He meant, he says, that the treaty had become obsolete through Belgium's forfeiture of its neutrality, and that it was Great Britain who considered the treaty a scrap of paper in comparison to her reasons for entering the war.  His latest comments were made on January 24 to a representative of the Associated Press at the German Army Field Headquarters in northern France.  He felt compelled to respond, he said, by the fact that his words had been misused in America in discussions about the origin of the war.  Two days later, British Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey issued a statement ridiculing the German Chancellor's comments, stating that it is "not surprising" that he should be anxious to "explain away" his words, which have "made a deep impression because the progress of the world largely depends upon the sanctity of agreements between individuals and between nations, and the policy disclosed in Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg's phrase tends to debase the legal and moral currency of civilization."  The Chancellor, Sir Edward said, "now asks the American public to believe that he meant the exact opposite of what he said: that it was Great Britain who regarded the neutrality of Belgium as a mere trifle, and that it was Germany who 'took her responsibilities toward the neutral states so seriously.'"  This, he says, is "in flat contradiction of the plain facts."

Colonel Roque Gonzalez Garza

The political situation in Mexico remains unstable and confused, with multiple governments claiming power.  Under increasing pressure from revolutionists Francisco ("Pancho") Villa and Emiliano Zapata, interim President Eulalio Gutierrez fled Mexico City on January 16, taking his government with him.  The Aguascalientes Convention that had named Gutierrez in November then announced its assumption of all legislative, executive and judicial powers and named Colonel Roque Gonzalez Garza, an ally of Villa and Zapata, as "Executive of the Convention."  President Venustiano Carranza, meanwhile, has refused to resign.  On January 27 he and his forces reentered Mexico City and Colonel Garza moved his government to Cuernavaca.

 Secretaries Bryan and Daniels with President Wilson;
Assistant Secretary F.D. Roosevelt on the Far Right

The recent naval operations in and around Veracruz, which cost nineteen American lives and a large number of wounded sailors and marines, highlighted the need for a replacement of the Navy's only hospital ship, U.S.S. Solace, a small (3,300 ton) vessel that is over twenty years old and showing its age.  Congress has so far failed to appropriate the necessary funds, but it appeared that a solution was at hand when it was discovered that some $2,000,000 of unspent funds available from prior appropriations could be used to purchase a modern liner and convert it to a hospital ship.  When Secretary of the Navy Daniels happened to mention this in a conversation with Secretary of State Bryan, however, Mr. Bryan expressed concern that such a move might give the impression that the United States was preparing for war.  At his insistence, the plan for a new floating hospital has been shelved.  Solace will accompany the Atlantic Fleet to its winter exercises this year off Guantanamo, the first the fleet has conducted in three years.

Uncle Sam Out for a Walk

The outbreak of the World War has brought the issue of American preparedness to the fore.  The Secretary of State's view is reflected in his veto of a new ship, even a hospital ship, for the Navy; and President Wilson's position was succinctly stated in last month's State of the Union address when he asked rhetorically "what is it suggested that we should be prepared to do?"  The latest salvo in the debate was fired this month when former President Roosevelt published America and the World War, a collection of his articles and letters expressing his views on the subject.  In his foreword the former president pulled no punches.  Referring to the State of the Union address, he wrote that he finds it "difficult for an honest and patriotic citizen to understand how the president could have been willing to make such statements."  Comparing the country's lack of preparedness to that at the time of the War of 1812, when "reliance on the principles President Wilson now advocates brought us to the verge of national ruin," Roosevelt denounced the president's "overanxiety not to offend the powerful who have done wrong," causing him for example to make "no protest against the cruel wrongs Belgium has suffered" or the "violation of the Hague conventions at Belgium's expense."  Roosevelt expressed alarm at the president's unwillingness to "take any efficient steps to prepare means for our own defense" and asserted that the country can be true to itself only by "definitely taking the position of the just man armed; for a proud and self-respecting nation of freemen must scorn to do wrong to others and must also scorn tamely to submit to wrong done by others."

Anna Howard Shaw

A proposed woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution was defeated in the House of Representatives on January 12.  The vote was 174 (86 Democrats, 72 Republicans, 12 Progressives, 3 Progressive-Republicans and one Independent) in favor and 204 (171 Democrats and 33 Republicans) against.  President Wilson, representing the view of many in his party, has told suffrage advocates that they should carry their fight to the states rather than seek a constitutional amendment.  Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Suffrage Association, rejects that approach, arguing that the House of Representatives would not have considered and voted on a constitutional amendment if the question were not a national one.  Miss Alice Paul, President of the Congressional Union, agrees, saying that her organization will begin work immediately to schedule a vote in the Senate, where the prospects, though hardly bright, may be somewhat better.  Last year a proposed equal suffrage amendment received a vote in the Senate of 35 in favor to 34 against, well short of the required two-thirds majority.

Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and his parents

The president's daughter Jessie Wilson Sayre gave birth to a seven and a half pound baby boy in the White House on January 17.  The boy will be named after his father, Francis B. Sayre, an assistant to the president of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts.  Mr. and Mrs. Sayre spent the Christmas holidays with her father in Washington, and Mrs. Sayre remained at the White House when her husband returned to Williamstown.  Mr. Sayre was summoned by telegraph and reached Washington on the Congressional Limited at 8:30 P.M., about four hours after his son's birth.

Commissioner Woods (left) and Mayor Mitchel Reviewing Troops with General Leonard Wood

With the new year, Manhattan District Attorney Charles S. Whitman became governor of New York.  Among his first items of business was a petition from the Anti-Saloon League asking him to remove New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel and Police Commissioner Arthur Woods for failing to enforce the law against the sale of liquor on Sundays.  The petition was supported by affidavits reporting that the League's inspectors had found 721 saloons open for business the previous Sunday.  When asked about the petition, Governor Whitman acknowledged that he had received it.  "But," he said with a smile, "I do not think that I shall remove either, at least not tonight."

The Statue Atop the Telephone Building

The first telephone conversation took place a little over thirty-eight years ago when, on October 9, 1876, the telephone's inventor Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson spoke with each other over a two-mile wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts.  Improvements in wires and apparatus since then have made telephonic communication possible over greater and greater distances.  On January 25 of this year, the same two men conducted the first coast-to-coast telephone conversation.  Dr. Bell was in a reception room on the 15th floor of the American Telephone & Telegraph Building at Broadway and Dey Street in New York City, and Mr. Watson was in a building on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, some 3,400 miles away.  Hundreds were present by invitation at both locations and at other locations connected on the line.  Besides Dr. Bell and Mr. Watson, participants included the mayors of New York and San Francisco, President Charles C. Moore of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, President Wilson at the White House, and A.T.&T. president Theodore N. Vail at his home in Jekyl Island, Georgia.

After his initial exchange of pleasantries with Mr. Watson, Dr. Bell connected an exact replica of his original telephone instrument and repeated the first words ever transmitted by wire.  On March 10, 1876, he and Mr. Watson had been working in different rooms in a Boston boarding house when Dr. Bell said "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you," and Mr. Watson ran excitedly into the room to report that he had heard the one-way transmission.  When Dr. Bell repeated those words from the Telephone Building this month, Mr. Watson replied "It would take me a week to get to you this time."

The line, comprising 2,960 tons of copper wire, crosses thirteen states and passes through Salt Lake City, Denver, Omaha, Chicago and Buffalo, with a branch that runs through Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington.  Transcontinental telephone service will begin March 1.  The charge for a telephone conversation between New York and San Francisco will be $20.70 for the first three minutes and $6.75 for each minute thereafter.  It is  estimated that under normal conditions it will take about ten minutes to put a transcontinental call through.

 Vernon and Irene Castle

A few miles up Broadway from the Telephone Building, the husband and wife dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle are starring this month at the New Amsterdam Theater in the musical production "Watch Your Step," with songs by Irving Berlin.  Mrs. Castle's understudy Mae Murray took her place for the January 25 performance, but Mrs. Castle is expected to return shortly.  The production's most popular song is "Play a Simple Melody," recorded here by Elsie Baker (a.k.a. Edna Brown) and Billy Murray (click to play):

January 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

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

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
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
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
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
Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea
Kenneth Rose, King George V
Hew Strachan, The First World War Volume I: To Arms
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram