Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 1915

It's the end of March, one hundred years ago.  Repeated efforts to force the Dardanelles with naval forces alone have failed, and the Allies are now preparing an amphibious assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula.  The British Army in France overruns the German position at Neuve Chapelle but is unable to exploit its initial success.  Great Britain responds to Germany's declaration of submarine warfare by announcing the commencement of total economic warfare, declaring that all ships bound for Germany will be intercepted and their cargoes subject to confiscation.  The United States objects, but does so mildly.  Colonel House is in Europe making the rounds of the warring nations' capitals, but his peacemaking attempts bear no fruit.  German submarine warfare claims its first American victim off the coast of Wales.  The German cruiser S.M.S. Dresden is run to ground on a Chilean island.  The long Russian siege of the Austrian fortress of Przemysl ends with an Austrian surrender.  In the United States, the Sixty-third Congress comes to an end.  Former President Roosevelt is harshly critical of the administration's foreign policy with regard to Mexico.  A new motion picture, "The Birth of a Nation," opens in New York to overflow crowds.


Admiral Carden

After several days of bombardment had neutralized the Turkish forts guarding the entrance to the Dardanelles, minesweepers (converted fishing trawlers) were sent into the Straits on the night of March 1 in an attempt to clear mines from the Narrows.  Escorted by a light cruiser and four destroyers, the minesweepers made slow progress against the current.  When they reached the Narrows they were illuminated by searchlights and driven back by heavy fire from the forts and mobile howitzer batteries on both banks.  Blinded by the searchlights, the escorts' return fire was ineffective.  Over the next several nights, repeated attempts to sweep the minefields failed.  On March 15 Admiral Carden, taken ill with an ulcer,  resigned his command and was replaced by his deputy, Admiral John de Robeck.

Admiral de Robeck

Victims of Turkish Mines

Admiral de Robeck decided to reverse the order of attack, sending his battleships into the Straits to silence the Turkish guns before sending the minesweepers through the Narrows.  On March 18 sixteen British and French battleships entered the Straits and engaged in a furious artillery battle with the Turkish forts.  Although the portion of the Straits in which the battleships were operating had been swept for mines and declared clear, five battleships struck previously undetected mines as they were maneuvering to withdraw, and were sunk, abandoned, or otherwise put out of action.  At a conference on March 22 aboard Admiral de Robeck's flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, attended by his senior commanders and the recently arrived General Sir Ian Hamilton, de Robeck decided that the attempt to force the Straits by naval action alone should be abandoned.  Instead, he ordered General Hamilton to prepare a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula to be followed by occupation of the heights overlooking the Straits.  First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill wanted to order de Robeck to continue the naval assault, but Prime Minister Asquith and the cabinet declined to overrule the commander on the scene.  The focus of activity has now shifted to military operations on the Peninsula under General Hamilton's command.  Although Churchill remains at his post at the Admiralty, primary responsibility for the conduct of the Dardanelles campaign now lies with Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War.

Sir John French

Field Marshal Sir John French, commanding officer of the British Expeditionary Force in France, believes that the British Army would be more usefully deployed on the Western Front than in the eastern Mediterranean.  On March 10, in an operation perhaps designed to demonstrate the point as Army units are being sent to Gallipoli, forces under French's command attacked a thinly defended portion of the German lines in the vicinity of Neuve Chapelle.  The attack began with a heavy artillery barrage, followed by an infantry assault that exploited the element of surprise and achieved a breakthrough.  French's hopes for a decisive victory, however, were not realized.  Delay in following up, due in large part to breakdowns in communication, caused the attack to falter after the initial success.  German counterattacks beginning March 12 succeeded in halting the British advance and regaining much of the lost ground.

Prime Minister Herbert Asquith

The British government responded this month to the submarine warfare policy announced last month by Germany.  On March 1, Prime Minister Asquith read a statement in the House of Commons that was sent simultaneously to the capitals of the neutral powers.  Formalized in an Order in Council on March 11, it declared that, because the new German policy "substitutes indiscriminate destruction for regulated captures ... with the avowed object of preventing commodities of all kinds, including food for the civilian population, from reaching or leaving the British Isles or Northern France," the Allies are "driven to frame retaliatory measures in order in their turn to prevent commodities of any kind from reaching or leaving Germany."  The statement acknowledges that the new policies "in some measure involve a departure from previous practice," but states that they will be enforced "without risk to neutral ships or neutral or noncombatant lives, and in strict observation of the dictates of humanity."  "Ships carrying goods of presumed enemy destination, ownership or origin" may be detained and taken into port, but the ships and their cargoes will not be confiscated "unless they would otherwise be liable to confiscation."  In presenting the statement, the Prime Minister said "to our enemy -- on behalf of the Government, and I hope on behalf of the House of Commons -- that under existing conditions there is no form of economic pressure to which we do not consider ourselves entitled to resort.  If, as a consequence, neutrals suffer inconvenience and loss of trade, we regret it, but we beg them to remember that this phase of the war was not initiated by us."

What remains unclear, perhaps even within the British government itself, is how the new policy will be enforced against commerce between neutrals, particularly with the so-called "northern neutrals" (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands).  One thing that is clear is that the March 11 Order in Council represents a firm rejection by the British of the modus vivendi proposed last month by American Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.

Robert Lansing

The United States responded this month to the British Order in Council.  The note was drafted by State Department Counselor Robert Lansing and revised by President Wilson after comments by Secretary of State Bryan.  Delivered March 30, it pointed out that international law does not permit the blockading of neutral ports (such as Rotterdam), and that the Order in Council in effect claims the traditional rights of a blockading squadron for British naval forces that are not in fact blockading an enemy coast, such as those patrolling between Norway, the Faeroes and Iceland.  The American note goes to some length, however, to avoid a direct confrontation with Great Britain on points of international law.  It states that it assumes the Order in Council's reference to "retaliatory" measures, presumably intended to justify any departure from international law, is meant "as merely a reason for certain extraordinary activities on the part of His Majesty's naval forces and not as an excuse for or prelude to any unlawful action," and that "it is confidently expected that the extensive powers conferred by the order in council [will be exercised] in such a manner as to modify in practical application those provisions of the order in council which, if strictly enforced, would  violate neutral rights and interrupt legitimate trade."

Colonel House

"Colonel" Edward M. House has been in Europe since early last month as President Wilson's unofficial representative.  The first several weeks after his arrival were spent in England, where he and Mrs. House were entertained by the political and social elite.  During his visit, Colonel House had an hour's audience with the king and met extensively with Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey, but found little encouragement for his attempts at peacemaking.  Grey told House that any settlement must include German evacuation of Belgium and payment of an indemnity.  He rejected House's "freedom of the seas" proposal, that a settlement should include immunity of merchant shipping from attack during wartime, saying that such a rule would deprive Great Britain of its most effective weapon.

On March 11 the Houses left for France on a ferry that sped across the English Channel escorted by a British destroyer.  In Paris Colonel House met with Foreign Minister Theophile Delcasse, but there as in England he found little interest in achieving peace short of victory.  The Houses then traveled by way of neutral Switzerland to Berlin, where the colonel met with Arthur Zimmermann, the Deputy Foreign Secretary.  Zimmermann likewise showed no inclination to negotiate an end to the war.  Even before House left England, Zimmermann had rejected the idea of a settlement based on German withdrawal from Belgium, with or without an indemnity, saying any such settlement would mean "taking as a basis a more or less defeated Germany."

R.M.S. Falaba

On March 28 R.M.S. Falaba, an unarmed British passenger steamship en route from Liverpool to British West Africa, was intercepted off the coast of Wales by a surfaced German submarine.  The U-boat commander gave Falaba ten minutes to put her passengers and crew in lifeboats, then extended the deadline twice.  When an armed British trawler came on the scene while the lifeboats were still being lowered, the submarine fired a torpedo into Falaba, sinking her.  One hundred and four passengers drowned, including one American, a mining engineer named Leon C. Thrasher.  Mr. Thrasher is the first American to lose his life as a result of a German submarine attack.  His death focuses attention on the language of last month's note in which the United States warned Germany that it would be held to "strict accountability" for any naval action destroying "an American vessel or the lives of American citizens."

S.M.S. Dresden in Cumberland Bay

After her escape from the Falkland Islands following the defeat of the German East Asia Squadron in December, the German light cruiser S.M.S. Dresden became the object of an intense search by Royal Navy forces, now commanded by Captain John Luce of H.M.S. Glasgow.  On March 8, H.M.S. Kent sighted Dresden off the coast of Chile.  Dresden ran to Cumberland Bay on the Chilean island of Mas a Tierra, where Kent, joined by Glasgow, found it on March 14 and opened fire.  Dresden returned fire, but after a few minutes hoisted a white flag.  When Captain Luce rejected Dresden's claim that she was interned under the protection of the Chilean government, Dresden's Captain Ludecke ordered his crew to open the sea valves and abandon ship.  Dresden sank twenty minutes later.

Field Marshal Conrad von Hotzendorf

The Austrian fortress of Przemysl, in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Galicia, has been under siege by the Russian Army since October.  In January an Austro-Hungarian offensive under the command of Field Marshal Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf began, designed to relieve the besieged fortress and evict the Russians from Galicia.  The campaign failed, stalled by bitter winter weather and a vigorous Russian counter-offensive.  Przemysl surrendered on March 22, and by month's end the Russian Army had succeeded in driving the Austrians from the Carpathians.

Speaker of the House Champ Clark

In the United States, a weary Sixty-third Congress expired on March 4 without passing the administration's Ship Purchase Bill, which would have put the government in the shipping business by authorizing the purchase of merchant ships, including interned German ships, for use in American international trade.  The shipping industry opposed the bill, not welcoming the federal government as a major competitor.  Another major obstacle to passage was that Great Britain, having just succeeded in clearing the seas of German shipping, objected to the potential reappearance of those same ships under a neutral flag.  A Senate filibuster instituted by Republicans was joined by some Democrats in defiance of the administration, and the bill was returned to committee, where it died.  Another bill that failed to pass prior to the expiration of the Congress would have provided for self-government of the Philippines with a view to eventual independence.  On the positive side, Congress passed the Naval Appropriations Bill, authorizing funds for the development of aviation and for ship construction, including seagoing and coast defense submarines, torpedo-boat destroyers, a fuel ship and, last but not least, five super-dreadnought battleships.  The bill also establishes a Naval Reserve, creates a post of Chief of Naval Operations, and authorizes the ranks of Admiral and Vice Admiral for officers in command of the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic Fleets.

Former President Roosevelt

With the work of Congress ended, President Wilson turned his attention to the ongoing civil war in Mexico, where President Carranza's forces, led by General Alvaro Obregon, evacuated Mexico City on March 10, urging Americans to do the same.  Revolutionary troops led by Emiliano Zapata and Francisco ("Pancho") Villa occupied the city the next day.  On March 15, under American pressure backed by the threat of military intervention, Carranza withdrew the gunship that had been blockading the port of Progreso on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt weighed in this month with an article in Metropolitan Magazine entitled "Uncle Sam and the Rest of the World."  The article denounces the Wilson administration's inconsistent policy in Mexico, first supporting Villa against Huerta, then abandoning Villa in favor of Carranza, as "fundamentally as evil a declaration as has ever been put forth by an American President in treating foreign affairs."  He calls for a return to "straightforward sincerity in American public life."

Theatrical Poster for "The Birth of a Nation"

For the first time, a major Broadway theater has been used for exhibition of a motion picture film.  "The Birth of a Nation," which opened March 3 at the Liberty Theatre on West 42d Street, was produced and directed by D.W. Griffith.  It is based on "The Clansman," a novel by Thomas Dixon, and tells the story of Reconstruction after the Civil War from the point of view of the defeated South.  As the novel's title suggests, it presents the Ku Klux Klan in a favorable light.  Efforts by the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to prevent its showing have been unsuccessful.  Despite protests, thousands have lined up to see it in Los Angeles and New York.  Dixon, a friend and colleague of President Wilson's from his years on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, persuaded the president to attend a private showing in the White House, which took place last month with Wilson's daughters and cabinet members also in attendance.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr.

Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who died March 19, was the great grandson of the second president of the United States, grandson of the sixth, and son of the American minister to Great Britain during the Civil War.  He fought for the Union during the war, rising from the rank of first lieutenant to colonel and brevet brigadier general of volunteers.  After the war he was active in the railroad business, becoming president of the Union Pacific and later a member of the Massachusetts Board of Railway Commissioners.  He was the author of several books, including a biography of his father.

Lincoln Beachey in a Biplane Looping the Loop Over the Exposition

The famous aviator Lincoln Beachey, who thrilled the crowds on the opening day of the Panama Pacific Exposition last month, was thrilling them again on March 14 when his monoplane crashed into San Francisco Bay.  He was performing a maneuver he had accomplished numerous times in a biplane, shutting off his power and dropping vertically before pulling out of his dive at the last second.  As he attempted to pull out this time, the aircraft's wings crumpled and the machine plunged into the water.  His body was recovered over an hour later, still strapped in his seat.

March 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, April and May 1915
New York Times, March 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
Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: The Struggle for Neutrality, 1914-1915
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
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
J. Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram