Sunday, May 31, 2015

May 1915

It's May 1915.  As the month begins, the Lusitania sets sail from the west side of Manhattan on its regular transatlantic voyage to Liverpool.  Six days later, as it passes along the south coast of Ireland, it is torpedoed by a German submarine.  It sinks in minutes, killing over a thousand passengers and crew, including 128 Americans.  In President Wilson's first public statement after the sinking, he suggests America might be "too proud to fight," but a rupture in diplomatic relations seems possible.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt, in the midst of defending himself in a libel suit, tells reporters the United States must take action in defense of "humanity" and "our own national self-respect."  Meanwhile the war goes on.  On the Eastern Front a combined Austrian-German offensive pushes the Russians back in the Carpathians, while on the Western Front coordinated British and French offensives in the vicinity of Artois fail to achieve any measurable success.  Stalemate also threatens the armies on the Gallipoli Peninsula, as Turkish and German naval forces demonstrate the vulnerability of the Allied fleet offshore.  A political crisis in Great Britain brings a new coalition government and the demotion of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.  Italy joins the war and invades Austria-Hungary.  The Allies serve notice that members of the Ottoman government will be held "personally responsible" for the ongoing massacre of Armenians.  John McCrae writes a poem about the poppies growing "In Flanders Fields."  In the United States a new speed record is set at the Indianapolis 500, Thomas Edison invents a machine for recording telephone conversations, and a New York City Police Lieutenant's fate appears sealed when his murder conviction is affirmed on appeal.


Adjacent Newspaper Notices by Cunard and the German Embassy

On Saturday, May 1, the British luxury liner RMS Lusitania left the Cunard Line's Pier 54 on the west side of Manhattan bound for Liverpool on its regular transatlantic run.  That morning an advertisement placed by the German embassy appeared in the New York newspapers.  It reminded travelers that a state of war existed between Great Britain and Germany and that Germany had given formal notice that vessels entering waters adjacent to the British Isles were liable to destruction.  It advised that those who chose to travel on such ships would do so at their own risk.  The last-minute warning caused only two passengers, a Boston shoe dealer and his wife, to cancel their voyage.  Taxicabs delivered passengers and their luggage to the pier Saturday morning, and that afternoon, after a short delay to board passengers from another ship requisitioned for war service, Lusitania cast off and proceeded down the Hudson toward the open sea (click to play):

Lusitania's Departure from New York, May 1, 1915


Lusitania Victims in Queenstown

On the afternoon of Friday, May 7, the Lusitania was in the Western Approaches, a few miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, near Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland.  She was due to arrive in Liverpool the following morning.  Captain William Turner was maneuvering the ship to take navigational bearings on coastal landmarks.  The German submarine U-20, commanded by Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, was headed for home, nearing the end of a cruise that had taken her from Emden through the North Sea and around the British Isles.  The Western Approaches had been blanketed by fog all morning, but the fog had lifted, and when Schwieger raised his periscope he saw Lusitania as she turned to starboard, presenting a perfect target.  He fired a single torpedo, which penetrated the Lusitania's hull under water and exploded directly beneath the bridge.  There was a second explosion, likely caused by the rupture of high pressure steam lines.  A longitudinal coal bunker, empty as the voyage was nearing its end, flooded quickly, causing a pronounced list to starboard.  Unlike the Titanic three years ago, the Lusitania carried plenty of lifeboats, but the list made most of them unusable.  The liner sank in a little over seventeen minutes.  Almost 1,200 passengers and crew, including 128 Americans, died.  Among the Americans lost were Broadway producer Charles Frohman and businessman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.  Three years ago, Vanderbilt had decided at the last minute to cancel his plans to take the Titanic home from England.

"Too Proud to Fight" -- A British View

In Washington, President Wilson learned of the sinking of the Lusitania Friday afternoon.  He cancelled his planned golf outing, and as reports of heavy loss of life came in that evening he left the White House and walked alone through the streets of Washington.  Over the weekend he continued to keep his own counsel, not issuing a statement and not conferring with his Secretary of State or any other administration official.  When Senator Stone, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called at the White House, the president declined to see him.  On Monday, he fulfilled a previous commitment by traveling to Philadelphia to address an audience at Convention Hall that included some four thousand newly naturalized citizens.  Without mentioning the Lusitania, he told the group, echoing his speech to the Associated Press last month, that "the example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because it is the elevating and healing influence of the world, and strife is not.  There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight.  There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right."  The president's suggestion that the United States is "too proud to fight" has elicited strong reactions, ranging from scornful disgust (especially in Great Britain) to enthusiastic approval (including from his audience in Philadelphia, many of whom were German-Americans).  The next day, he felt compelled to explain his statement, telling reporters at a news conference that he was "expressing a personal attitude, that was all. . . . I did not regard that as a proper occasion to give any intimation of policy on any special matter."  Reflecting the division in American opinion, Colonel House, Secretary of War Garrison and Ambassador Walter Hines Page have advised the president to take a firm stand against Germany, while Secretary of State Bryan has told the president that Americans should be advised not to travel on Allied ships.

Edith Bolling Galt

More than the Lusitania was on the president's mind that weekend.  Lonely since the death of his wife Ellen last August, he had met a 42-year old Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt in March and fallen in love.  On Tuesday evening, May 4, after dinner at the White House, he proposed marriage.  Mrs. Galt neither accepted nor declined, sending the president into a period of amorous longing and ardent pursuit, punctuated by dinners and frequent letters (several a day) exchanged through his cousin and her friend Helen Bones.  As he received the Lusitania news and struggled to formulate a response, Mrs. Galt remained foremost in his thoughts.  As the month of May came to an end she had still not given him an answer.

Ambassador James Gerard

On May 13, the Department of State instructed Ambassador James Gerard in Berlin to deliver a note from Secretary of State Bryan to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs protesting the sinking of the Lusitania as well as three other recent attacks on American ships and American citizens.  Signed by Secretary of State Bryan but written by President Wilson himself, the note reminds Germany of the earlier warning that the United States would hold the German government to "strict accountability" for infringement of the right of American citizens to travel on the high seas in "the well-justified confidence that their lives will not be endangered by acts done in clear violation of universally acknowledged international obligations."  It diplomatically pretends that the German embassy's May 1 notice may have been published without the knowledge of the German government, saying that the Secretary of State "regrets to inform the Imperial German Government" of its appearance in American newspapers.  Putting aside "the surprising irregularity of a communication from the Imperial German Embassy at Washington addressed to the people of the United States through the newspapers," the note categorically insists that "no warning that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation for that act or as an abatement of the responsibility for its commission."  Assuming that "the commanders of the vessels which committed these acts of lawlessness" did so "under a misapprehension of the orders issued by the Imperial German naval authorities," the note demands that Germany promptly "disavow" those acts, that it "make reparation so far as reparation is possible," and that it "take immediate steps to prevent [their] recurrence."

Ambassador von Bernstorff

Germany's reply to the Lusitania note, signed by Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow, was delivered to the State Department by Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff on May 28.  It says that the recent attacks on American ships are under investigation, that "the German Government has no intention of subjecting neutral ships in the war zone, which are guilty of no hostile acts, to attacks by a submarine or submarines or aviators," and that "German forces have repeatedly been instructed most specifically to avoid attacks on such ships."  In the case of the Lusitania, the note repeats earlier expressions of "keen regret" that citizens of neutral nations lost their lives.  It points out, however, that the British Admiralty recently authorized merchant ships not only to fly neutral flags but also to resist capture by force, and that the Lusitania itself "was one of the largest and fastest British merchant ships, built with Government funds as an auxiliary cruiser and carried expressly as such in the 'navy list' issued by the British Admiralty."  It argues that "German commanders consequently are no longer able to observe the customary regulations of the prize law, which they before always followed."  The note also states that Germany acted in justified self-defense because the Lusitania on its previous trip had carried Canadian troops and war material, "including no less than 5,400 cases of ammunition intended for the destruction of the brave German soldiers who are fulfilling their duty with self-sacrifice and devotion in the fatherland's service."  Finally, it says the Cunard Line "is wantonly guilty of the death of so many passengers" because it "used the lives of American citizens as protection for the ammunition aboard . . . against the clear provisions of the American law" and because "the quick sinking of the Lusitania is primarily attributable to the explosion of the ammunition shipment."

The American reaction to the German note is one of keen disappointment, particularly regarding the failure of the note to address the subject either of reparations or of guarantees for the future protection of American vessels and lives.  It is expected that a second note will be sent without delay, and that it will dispute the contention that the Lusitania was carrying munitions in violation of American law.  President Wilson is said to be determined to obtain reparation for Lusitania victims and assurances of respect for American rights in the future, failing which he is likely to sever diplomatic relations with Germany.  Secretary Bryan is more concerned with keeping the United States clear of international disputes that might lead to American involvement in the war.

Roosevelt in Syracuse with his Cousin, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt (right)

"What a Pity Theodore Roosevelt is Not President" read a banner headline in the New York Herald the day after the Lusitania's sinking.  Roosevelt, who is known to regard German submarine attacks on civilian ships as "piracy, pure and simple," was in Syracuse, New York, defending a libel suit brought against him by Republican Party boss William Barnes (see last month's installment of this blog).  When news of the sinking was brought to him in the courtroom, his lawyer reminded him that two of the jurors were German-Americans and urged him not to comment.  At the next recess, he told reporters what his lawyer had advised but said he could not remain silent.  "It seems inconceivable," he said, "that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity but to our own national self-respect."  Two weeks later, to Roosevelt's immense relief, the jury returned a verdict in his favor.  Afterward, he assembled the jurors in an adjoining room and thanked them individually.  In a celebration resembling an election night rally, he told the jurors the latch-key would always be out for them at Sagamore Hill, and that he would always try "to act in public and private affairs so that no one of you will have cause to regret the verdict you have given this morning."  The outcome of the trial is seen by many as representing a major step toward bringing Roosevelt back into the Republican Party and mending the 1912 split between its regular and progressive wings.

HMS Majestic Sinking off Gallipoli

As the Lusitania crossed the Atlantic on its last voyage, and as diplomats dealt with the aftermath of its sinking, the clash of armies continued on several fronts.  In the Carpathian Mountains, nine months of Russian victories came to an end when a major offensive by Austro-Hungarian and German armies, begun May 1 with a massive artillery bombardment, drove the Russians from the Galician towns of Gorlice and Tornow.  By month's end, the Russians were in danger of being forced to abandon the fortress of Przemysl, which they have occupied since capturing it in March after a siege of several months.  On the Western Front, coordinated attacks by British and French forces in the vicinity of Artois (the British on Aubers Ridge and the French on Vimy Ridge) have failed to make sustainable gains against strong defensive positions.  On the Gallipoli Peninsula the fighting has been similarly inconclusive, as British troops at Cape Helles and Anzac troops several miles to the north have been unable to make appreciable progress in their attempts to occupy the high ground commanding the Straits.  Meanwhile, the Allied fleet supporting the landed troops has itself proved vulnerable.  On May 12, a Turkish destroyer slipped down the European side of the Dardanelles and fired three torpedoes into HMS Goliath, which sank with the loss of 570 British sailors.  Later in the month two other British battleships were lost to a single submarine when U-21 torpedoed and sank HMS Triumph on May 25 off the Anzac beach and HMS Majestic the next day off Cape Helles.

Other disasters struck far from the battlefields.  German Zeppelins conducted bombing raids on Ramsgate on May 17 and London on May 31.  On May 22, a troop train carrying Scottish soldiers to Liverpool to board a transport bound for Gallipoli collided with a local train that had been mistakenly shunted onto the express track, causing wreckage to spread across both the northbound and southbound tracks.  Less than a minute later an express train bound for Glasgow collided with the wreckage and ignited a raging fire.  It was the deadliest railroad crash in British history, killing over 200 soldiers and several other passengers and railroad workers.  Less than a week later, HMS Princess Irene, an ocean liner converted to a minelayer, was being loaded with mines in the Thames Estuary when it suddenly exploded, killing over 300 British sailors, dockyard workers and other civilians.

 Arthur Balfour

The unsatisfactory progress of the war has led to a political crisis in Great Britain.  Sir John French blames the recent failure of the British Expeditionary Force at Aubers Ridge on a shortage of artillery shells caused by the diversion of munitions and other military supplies to the Gallipoli campaign.  The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher, also became a fierce critic of the Dardanelles campaign, insisting on the withdrawal of the superdreadnought HMS Queen Elizabeth to home waters.  By May 15 his relationship with First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had deteriorated to the point that he finally insisted that his resignation, previously threatened, tendered and withdrawn, be accepted.  Churchill himself was among the next casualties.  On May 25, Prime Minister Asquith formed a new coalition government.  He remains Prime Minister and Sir Edward Grey and Lord Kitchener remain Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Secretary of State for War, respectively.  Home Secretary Reginald McKenna becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer, replacing David Lloyd George, who has been named to the new post of Minister of Munitions, created in response to the shell shortage.  John Simon is the new Home Secretary.  Among the Unionists (Conservatives) brought into the cabinet are Andrew Bonar Law (Secretary of State for the Colonies), Lord Curzon (Lord Privy Seal), and Austen Chamberlain (Secretary of State for India).  The most prominent of the Unionist additions is former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, who replaces Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty.  Churchill remains in the cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Italian Troops Marching to War

Last month the Italian government signed the Treaty of London, promising to declare war against Germany and Austria-Hungary within thirty days.  On May 23 Italy partially fulfilled that promise by declaring war on Austria-Hungary, an act that led Kaiser Wilhelm to recall the German ambassador from Rome.  On May 27 Italian troops crossed the Isonzo River into the Slovene lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they encountered strong Austrian defenses.  Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary denounced the action of his former ally as "a breach of trust, the like of which has not been seen before."  With Italy's entry, eleven nations are now at war on at least seven fronts.

American State Department Telegram Relaying the Allies' Declaration to the Ottoman Government

The killing and forced deportation of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire continued this month.  On May 24, The Russian, French and British governments issued a joint declaration stating that "the Kurd and Turkish populations of Armenia have been massacring Armenians with the connivance and often assistance of Ottoman authorities," and that the Allied governments will "hold personally responsible [for] these crimes all members of the Ottoman government and those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres."   On May 29, at the request of the French Foreign Office, the American State Department relayed the Allies' declaration to the Turkish government (the "Sublime Porte").

John McCrae

Major John McCrae is a medical doctor and pathologist assigned to the Canadian Field Artillery in Flanders, engaged in the defense of the Ypres salient   On May 3, after an attack in which two young officers in his unit were killed by an artillery shell, he looked out across no-man's land, covered with a blanket of spring poppies, and wrote a poem.  After finishing it, he threw it away, but his commanding officer retrieved it.  It reads as follows:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; And in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.  Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Ralph DePalma and His Riding Mechanic Louis Fontaine Under the Checkered Flag

The fifth International 500-mile Sweepstakes Race was held May 31 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  The winning driver was Ralph DePalma, who drove his Mercedes automobile at an average speed of 89.8 miles per hour, more than seven miles per hour faster than the previous record.

Edison and His Telescribe

The inventor Thomas A. Edison announced on May 23 that he had perfected an instrument he calls the telescribe, a combination of the telephone and phonograph designed to record telephone conversations.  A second receiver is connected to each telephone and makes a record of what is said on a wax cylinder.  A stenographer plays back the recording, writes it out, and copies are exchanged for confirmation, facilitating a process that at present might require many weeks and multiple exchanges of correspondence.  By giving both parties to a telephone conversation a phonographic record of what has been said, Mr. Edison believes his invention will eliminate the necessity for millions of letters that are now required every year for making and recording business agreements.  Another potential use of the telescribe is that, if the person being called is not available, it can be used to leave messages to be listened to later.

Governor Whitman

In July 1912, mobster Herman Rosenthal was on his way to meet with Manhattan District Attorney Charles Whitman when he was gunned down in front of the Hotel Metropole.  The trigger men were arrested, convicted and sent to the electric chair.  Charles Becker, a corrupt police lieutenant accused of having ordered the killing to keep Rosenthal from informing, was also arrested, convicted and sentenced to death, but his conviction was overturned when the appellate court found the trial judge guilty of bias and numerous trial errors.  District Attorney Whitman, convinced of Becker's guilt, pursued the case to a second trial and again succeeded in obtaining a conviction.  (For more background on the Rosenthal murder case, see the August and October 1912 and the March and April 1914 installments of this blog.)  On May 25 the New York Court of Appeals (New York's highest court) affirmed Becker's conviction and death sentence.  His only hope now is a reprieve from the governor.  Unfortunately for Becker, the new governor is Charles Whitman.

May 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, June and July 1915
New York Herald, May 1915
New York Times, May 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 
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts
Stanley Weintraub, Young Mr. Roosevelt: FDR's Introduction to War, Politics, and Life