Friday, July 31, 2015

July 1915

In July 1915 the first year of the Great War comes to an end, but the end of the war itself is nowhere in sight.  A German-American plants a bomb in the U.S. Capitol and tries to assassinate a leading American banker; he appears not to have acted alone.  Germany and the United States continue their war of words over submarine attacks on civilian ships.  The Wilson administration tries to steer a course between pacifists and preparedness advocates, leaving neither satisfied.  In the war it's mostly a bad month for the Allies, as Russia abandons Warsaw, Italy suffers major losses for little gain against Austria-Hungary, and the month ends much as it began on the Western Front and in Gallipoli.  Some Allied successes, however, can be found in Africa and Mesopotamia.  In the United States, murder is in the news as New York executes a police lieutenant and an inmate spared the death penalty in Georgia is almost killed by a fellow prisoner.  An excursion steamer capsizes in the Chicago River, killing hundreds.


Bomb Damage in the Capitol

Shortly before midnight on July 2, a bomb exploded in an alcove outside the vice-president's office on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol.  No one was injured.  The next day, a man forced his way into the mansion of J.P. Morgan, Jr. in Glen Cove, Long Island, and shot Morgan twice before being subdued by Morgan, his butler, and other servants who responded to calls for help.  After his arrest the assailant was identified as Frank Holt, a former instructor of German at Cornell University.  Holt turned out to be the man who had planted the bomb in the Capitol the day before.  Subsequent investigation revealed that he was also the man who had taught at Harvard under the name of Erich Muenter until 1906, when he disappeared after his first wife's suspicious death by arsenic poisoning.  On July 6, Holt/Muenter killed himself in the Mineola jail by climbing to the top of his cell door and plunging head first to the floor some twenty feet below.

Erich Muenter After His Arrest

The perpetrator of the Capitol bombing and the attack on Morgan was a German-American who, in addition to being wanted for many years for his wife's murder, was nursing an intense anger against the United States for its financial support of the Allies in the war.  Using a variety of aliases, he had bought the guns and ammunition he used in the attack on Morgan, the dynamite he used in the Capitol bombing, and a large quantity of additional explosives.  Failure to locate or account for all of the explosives, together with a letter he wrote to his wife in Dallas after his arrest, led authorities to believe that he had put dynamite on a ship  being loaded with war supplies in New York for delivery to the Allies in Europe.  The letter, combined with statements made by Muenter during his interrogation, indicated that the dynamite was set to explode on July 7.  Initial concern was focused on two ships, the Cunard liner Saxonia and the American Line steamship Philadelphia.  Warning messages were sent by wireless to both ships in mid-ocean but a thorough search revealed nothing.  When July 7 arrived, however, the fear of sabotage was confirmed when an explosion aboard another ship, the Atlantic Transport liner Minnehaha, started a fire that threatened its cargo of 1,000 cases of cordite and hundreds of cases of loaded shells, cartridges and high explosives.  The liner was immediately diverted to Halifax, its crew battling the blaze for two days and two nights before reaching port safely on July 9.  Investigators believe it is unlikely under the circumstances that Muenter acted alone.  They are pursuing their investigation in the hope of uncovering what increasingly appears to be an organized terrorist plot.

German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow

The exchange of diplomatic notes in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania continued this month.  On July 8, replying to the second American note, Germany argued that submarine attacks on British liners are justified in light of the British policy of intercepting shipments of all goods bound for Germany.  In an attempt to address the American complaints, it said that German submarines would be instructed to give safe passage to American passenger steamers "when made recognizable by special markings and notified a reasonable time in advance," relying on the American government to "guarantee that these vessels have no contraband on board."  It offered to extend the same protection to "a reasonable number of neutral steamers under the American flag" and to "four enemy passenger steamers for passenger traffic between North America and England" as long as they are carrying American passengers and flying the American flag.

On July 21, the United States told Germany that it found its response "very unsatisfactory."  It rejected the claim that the sinking of the Lusitania was a legitimate act of retaliation, saying that because retaliation by definition is invoked to justify acts that are otherwise illegal, it cannot be used to justify acts that injure the lives of neutrals.  Rejecting the German offer of limited safe passage, it said that any such agreement "would, by implication, subject other vessels to illegal attack and would be a curtailment and therefore an abandonment of the principles for which this Government contends and which in times of calmer counsels all nations would concede as of course."  It stopped short of demanding that Germany cease all submarine attacks on civilian vessels, suggesting that compliance with "cruiser rules" would be sufficient, but it used unusually strong language in demanding that the German Government "disavow[ ] the wanton act of its naval commander in sinking the Lusitania," and warning that any future attacks on passenger liners that affect American citizens would be regarded as "deliberately unfriendly" acts.  The next day, Secretary Lansing told the German ambassador that he would not continue writing notes and insisted on receiving explicit assurances.

Harvard President Lowell

Last month at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a new organization was formed with the avowed intention of linking the nations of the earth together in an organization to ensure universal peace.  The League to Enforce Peace was formed in the midst of a war that has expanded from a Balkan crisis to a global conflict in less than a year, despite the safeguards established by the Hague Tribunals of 1899 and 1907.  The League began with a series of meetings at the Century Club in New York, and is led by over 100 of America's leading citizens, including former president William Howard Taft and Harvard University President A. Lawrence Lowell.  At Independence Hall the League adopted a resolution proposing the abolition of warfare through the enforcement of peace by the armed forces of the signatory nations.  The resolution advocates the establishment of "a working union of sovereign nations to establish peace among themselves and to guarantee it by all known and available sanctions at their command."  It proposes that the United States join a "league of nations" in which disputes arising between member nations "shall be submitted to a Council of Conciliation for hearing, consideration and recommendation," and that "the signatory powers shall jointly use forthwith both their economic and military forces against any one of their number that goes to war, or commits acts of hostility, against another of the signatories."  The proposal was adopted despite opposition from some who oppose the use of "militarism to fight militarism," an objection also voiced by former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan.  Former President Theodore Roosevelt opposes it on other grounds, arguing that  by submitting disputes to a supranational tribunal it would compromise American sovereignty.

The pacifist sentiments of many Americans were captured in a song that has seen increasing popularity this year.  "I Didn't Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier" is sung here by the Peerless Quartet (click to play):


Roosevelt Visiting the Pan Pacific Exposition

Former President Roosevelt departed New York for the west coast on July 11, holding informal conferences with political leaders as he traveled through the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.  He arrived in Portland, Oregon on July 19, and continued to San Francisco, where he was greeted by warships in the harbor with a 21-gun salute.  On July 21 he toured the Pan Pacific Exposition, which declared the day "Theodore Roosevelt Day."  He delivered two speeches, one to a group of soldiers, sailors and marines at the Enlisted Men's Club, and another to an enthusiastic crowd of 60,000 at the Court of the Universe.  In a blunt allusion to the popular song, he told the enlisted men that "a mother who is not willing to raise her boy to be a soldier is not fit for citizenship."  At the larger gathering, where he was introduced by Governor Hiram Johnson, his 1912 running mate, he told the onlookers that he took pride in the Exposition and in the Panama Canal it celebrated.  He said "it was my good fortune to take the action in 1903, failure to take which, in exactly the shape I took it, would have meant that no Panama Canal would have been built for half a century."  Referring to the ongoing dispute with Colombia, he asserted that "in everything we did in connection with the acquiring of the Panama Zone we acted in a way to do absolute justice to all other nations, to benefit all other nations, including especially the adjacent states," and that "if there were the slightest taint upon our title or our conduct it would have been an improper and shameful thing to hold this exposition."  He said the building of the Panama Canal "nearly doubles the potential efficiency of the United States Navy, as long as [the Canal] is fortified and is in our hands, but if left unfortified it would at once become a menace to us."  Repeating his criticism of the Wilson administration on the issue of preparedness, he charged that regarding "pretty much everything not connected with the Isthmus of Panama, . . . we have been culpably, well-nigh criminally, remiss as a nation in not preparing ourselves, and if, with the lessons taught the world by the dreadful tragedies of the last twelve months, we continue with soft complacency to stand helpless and naked before the world, we shall excite only contempt and derision if and when disaster eventually overwhelms us."

The Crater at Hooge

On the Western Front, the Ypres salient continues to be the scene of bitter fighting but little advance.  British sappers dug a tunnel under the German position at Hooge, on the eastern edge of the salient, and on July 19, without any preliminary bombardment or other warning, the mine was exploded, creating a crater and a gap in the German line 120 feet wide and 20 feet deep.  British troops attacked and succeeded in occupying the crater, but on July 30 the Germans mounted a counterattack using a new weapon, the flammenwerfer, or flamethrower, which propelled flaming liquid up to sixty-five feet.  The British were driven from the crater and the German line was reestablished.

The news is no better for the Allies elsewhere in Europe.  On the Eastern Front, the Russians evacuated Warsaw on July 25 in anticipation of a German offensive.  On the new front between Italy and Austria, several Italian attacks in the Dolomites have been turned back, while repeated attacks by Italy along the Isonzo River have resulted in heavy Italian casualties but only minor gains.  Two Italian cruisers have been lost to Austrian submarines in the Adriatic.

SMS Konigsberg

General Louis Botha

Allied military operations in Africa and the Ottoman Empire illustrate the worldwide scope the war has assumed in recent months.  The German light cruiser SMS Konigsberg, stationed off the east coast of Africa, began raiding Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean when the war began.  Pursued by superior Royal Navy forces, Konigsberg retreated into the Rufiji River delta, where she remained until July 11 when her captain, his ship under intense shelling by British cruisers, sent her crew ashore and ordered the ship scuttled.  On the other side of the continent, German forces in Southwest Africa surrendered to British forces led by General Louis Botha on July 9.  Botha is also Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, an office he has held since South Africa achieved dominion status within the British Empire in 1910.

In Mesopotamia, the British advance toward Baghdad continued as a combined Anglo-Indian force attacked the Turkish garrison at Nasiriyah on the Euphrates River.  On July 24, the Turks abandoned Nasiriyah and withdrew upriver to Kut.  On the other side of the Ottoman Empire, the fighting In Gallipoli increasingly resembles the stalemate on the Western Front as British and French attacks at Cape Helles on July 13 have resulted in only minor gains.

Admiral Caperton

As the World War raged elsewhere, the United States was occupied with turmoil in its back yard.  On July 10, Mexico City fell for the third time to the Constitutionalist forces of Emiliano Carranza as General Gonzales, a Carranza ally, entered Mexico City.  Gonzales was forced to withdraw on July 18 when the Villa/Zapata forces cut off the railroad linking Mexico City and Veracruz.  Villa controls the city at month's end, but the railroad remains closed and the city is threatened with starvation.  Elsewhere in the Americas, a revolution in Haiti resulted in the overthrow and assassination of President Guillaume Sam on July 28, immediately following the government's execution of over 160 political prisoners.  President Wilson ordered the United States Navy to intervene, and Navy and Marine forces under the command of Rear Admiral William B. Caperton occupied Port-Au-Prince the next day.

The Prison Ward Where Leo Frank Was Attacked

Last month Governor Slaton of Georgia, in one of his last acts as governor, commuted the death sentence of Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, following his conviction for murder in the death of a young female employee, on weak evidence and in an atmosphere of intense antisemitism.  For several days after the governor's action, mobs filled the streets demanding that Frank, or Slaton, or both, be lynched.  Eventually the protests subsided, but on July 18 a fellow prisoner attacked Frank and cut his throat with a butcher knife while he was sleeping in a prison ward at the Georgia State Farm at Milledgeville.  Frank survived the attack, even though his jugular vein was partially severed.

Becker's Lawyers Martin Manton and Bourke Cockran (second and third from left)

In another high-profile murder case, New York City Police Lieutenant Charles Becker, under sentence of death for the 1912 murder of informer Herman Rosenthal, appealed for clemency on July 20.  Becker was represented by two of New York's most prominent lawyers, Martin Manton and his partner, former Congressman Bourke Cockran.  (Cockran is a close friend of Lady Randolph Churchill and an early mentor of her son Winston, who later became Great Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty.  Cockran, a renowned orator, gained prominence in the 1890's as a leader of the "Gold Democrats" who opposed William Jennings Bryan's "Free Silver" platform.)  To no one's surprise, Governor Whitman, who prosecuted the case against Becker as district attorney and rode his success in that case to the governorship, denied Becker's appeal.  Cockran then made a last-minute application to the New York Supreme Court for a new trial, in which he accused Whitman of suppressing evidence at trial.  The court denied Cockran's motion on July 28, and on July 30 Becker, still proclaiming his innocence, died in the electric chair.

The Eastland After Sinking

On July 24, in the worst maritime disaster in the history of the Great Lakes, the excursion steamer S.S. Eastland sank at its pier in the Chicago River, drowning over 800 passengers and crew.  It had just completed taking on passengers for an excursion to Michigan City, Indiana, for the Western Electric Company's annual picnic.  The Eastland was the first of several ships to be loaded for the cruise.  Long known to be top-heavy, it rolled to its side when hundreds of passengers ran to the port side to observe the other ships that were arriving to take on passengers.  President Wilson has ordered the Department of Commerce to conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the tragedy.

July 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, August and September 1915
New York Times, July 1915

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Howard Blum, Dark Invasion 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America
Britain at War Magazine, The Second Year of the Great War: 1915
Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life
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
Peter Hart, Gallipoli
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, 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
Michael McMenamin and Curt Zoller, Becoming Winston Churchill: The Untold Story of Young Winston and His American Mentor
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
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I