Wednesday, September 30, 2015

September 1915

In September 1915, one hundred years ago this month, there are few if any signs that an end is in sight to the Great War that began over a year ago.  The British and French mount major offensives on the Western Front, including the first use of poison gas by the British.  The Tsar takes personal command of the Russian Army.  Socialists meeting in Switzerland call for an end to the ongoing war between nations, to be replaced by a class war; Lenin and Trotsky are there.  The United States and Germany struggle to find common ground on the subject of submarine warfare, and the Royal Navy's blockade of Germany continues to be an irritant in Anglo-American relations.  The United States demands the recall of Baron Dumba, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador (Franz von Papen, his military attache, will become Chancellor and then Vice-Chancellor of Germany under Hitler in the 1930's).  Zeppelins drop bombs on London, and the British Landships Committee conducts its first test of an armoured vehicle designed to overcome machine guns and barbed wire.  An Anglo-French Financial Commission negotiates a large loan from American banks.  The civil war in Mexico may be coming to an end as Carranza gains the upper hand, but violence continues on the Texas border.  Subway construction causes streets to collapse in New York City, W.C. Fields makes his first motion picture, and the Grand Army of the Republic commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Civil war with a parade in Washington.


 "Tower Bridge" at Loos 

In an attempt to relieve pressure on their Russian ally, the French and British armies mounted coordinated offensives on the Western Front on September 25.  French armies attacked German positions in Champagne while the British attacked at Loos supported by a French attack at nearby Artois.  The area around Loos is largely industrial and the land flat and featureless except for slag heaps and a pit head lift behind the town that reminded British soldiers of Tower Bridge in London, a name they promptly gave it.  Both the slag heaps and the pit head machinery provided excellent vantage points for the defending Germans.  

British Troops Advancing Through Their Own Gas

The attack at Loos was the first time the British Army has made use of the new "Kitchener Battalions" recruited since the start of the war.  It also featured the first use by the British of poison gas, the effectiveness of which was lessened by the failure of the wind at some parts of the front to carry the gas toward the German trenches and by the hesitancy of the newly recruited troops to attack through the gas cloud.  In one area a Scottish battalion was encouraged to attack by Piper Daniel Laidlaw, who strode up and down the parapet playing "Scotland the Brave" and other airs on his bagpipe.  At month's end, the Allies had made slight advances at a great cost in casualties.  Among the missing is John Kipling, only son of the famous author and poet Rudyard Kipling.

Grand Duke Nicholas

Defeats and withdrawals on the Eastern Front have significantly shortened the Russian Army's defensive lines, but have also resulted in the abandonment of Russian Poland.  On September 5, the Tsar assumed personal command of the Russian armies, relieving his uncle Grand Duke Nicholas, whom he appointed Viceroy of the Caucasus and commander of the Caucasian Army.  He told his uncle, whose authority has been undermined since the beginning of the war by Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov, that "my duty to my country, entrusted to me by God, impels me to take the supreme command."

The Russian Army in the Caucasus, now commanded by Grand Duke Nicholas, is only one of several Allied armies confronting the Ottoman Empire.  British, Anzac and French troops are clinging to beachheads on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the British in Egypt face Turkish forces across the Suez Canal, and in Mesopotamia an Anglo-Indian advance toward Baghdad continued this month with the capture of Kut Al Amara on the Tigris River.


Trotsky (Front and Center) at Zimmerwald

Zimmerwald, a small town near Bern, Switzerland, was the site of an International Socialist Conference from September 5 through 11.  Socialist parties from across Europe sent representatives.  Among those from Russia were the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and the former Menshevik Leon Trotsky.  At the end of the conference, the delegates issued a manifesto calling for an immediate end to the war and a class uprising in pursuit of revolutionary goals in every European country.

Ambassador von Bernstorff

The diplomatic crisis between the United States and Germany that began with the sinking of the Lusitania and intensified with the attack on the Arabic continued this month without a final resolution.  When the month began, it appeared that agreement might be near when German Ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff gave Secretary of State Lansing a copy of a letter from his government stating that submarine commanders had been instructed not to attack civilian passenger liners without warning and without providing for the safety of the lives of non-combatants, provided they did not try to escape or offer resistance.  The United States considered the undertaking regarding future conduct unsatisfactory, however, unless it was accompanied by a "disavowal" of the Arabic sinking and compensation for the loss of American lives.  On September 9, the negotiations appeared to hit an impasse when a note from the German government arrived claiming for the first time, and contrary to the available evidence, that the Arabic had been sunk in self-defense.  If the United States disagreed with that claim, the note offered to refer the dispute to the Hague Tribunal for arbitration and to pay an indemnity if the Tribunal concluded that the submarine commander had exceeded his instructions.  The American reaction, conveyed informally through Bernstorff, was strongly negative, leading Germany to take a step back.  On September 28 it agreed not to dispute the claim that the attack on the Arabic was without provocation and thus contrary to instructions, and to pay an indemnity, not as an admission of guilt but as a token of friendliness.  Still missing was the express "disavowal" upon which the American government had insisted.

Also missing, and no longer insisted upon by the United States, was any undertaking to discontinue submarine attacks on civilian merchant ships.  Germany justifies such attacks by pointing to the British blockade of all shipments of goods bound for Germany, a blockade which because of Great Britain's geographic location and superior naval forces can be enforced without submarines (and therefore without the destruction of lives and property involved in submarine attacks).  A key element of the British blockade is the "doctrine of continuous voyage," which holds that goods bound for a neutral port may nevertheless be treated as contraband if there is reason to believe that they are ultimately destined for an enemy country.  On September 16 the British prize court decided a case involving American meat products shipped to Scandinavian ports on ships sailing under Swedish and Norwegian flags that had been intercepted and their cargoes seized by the Royal Navy.  Applying the doctrine of continuous voyage, the prize court ruled that in order to prevail the American owners would have the burden of proving that none of their products were destined to enter into trade between the Scandinavian countries and Germany, a showing that was virtually impossible to make given the fact that trade between those countries and Germany is free and unrestricted.  On its side of the argument, Great Britain can point to the American Civil War, in which the countries' positions were reversed.  In that war, the United States aggressively invoked the doctrine of continuous voyage to justify seizure of British shipments en route to the Bahamas for eventual delivery to the Confederacy.

Baron Dumba and His Wife

The Arabic affair coincided with a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Austria-Hungary.  At the end of August John Archibald, an American journalist on his way to Berlin and Vienna and known to be in the pay of the German government, was arrested when his ship docked at Falmouth, England.  His luggage contained documents, intended for delivery to the German and Austrian Foreign Offices, describing in detail espionage and sabotage activities in the United States.  One document was an extensive memorandum that had been sent to the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, Baron Konstantin Dumba, outlining plans for fomenting strikes at Bethlehem Steel and other American plants manufacturing war supplies for the Allies.  Attached to the memorandum was a forwarding letter from Dumba to the Austrian Foreign Minister enthusiastically endorsing its contents.  Also in Archibald's possession were a number of letters from Dumba and his military attache Captain Franz von Papen containing insulting references to Americans in general and President Wilson in particular. On September 9, the American State Department demanded Dumba's recall.  Captain von Papen is expected to depart with the Ambassador.

Damage in the City of London After the September 8 Zeppelin Raid

During the night of September 7-8, a German Zeppelin dropped bombs that started a major fire in the City of London.  Eighteen people were killed and thirty injured.  The following night another Zeppelin attacked the Greater London neighborhoods of Holborn and Bloomsbury, hitting two motor-buses and killing twenty-two.

"Little Willie"

Trenches, barbed wire and machine guns have given the defending armies a significant advantage in land warfare as it is conducted in the present war, an advantage that has led to the present bloody stalemate on the Western Front.  When he was First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill asked whether there was some alternative to "sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders."  One of his answers was to establish the Landships Committee with the mission of designing a vehicle capable of advancing against those obstacles. The Committee's work so far has resulted in the No. 1 Lincoln Machine, nicknamed "Little Willie" in sardonic reference to the German Crown Prince.  Its first test run was conducted on September 9 at the William Foster & Co.'s Wellington Foundry.

The Anglo-French Financial Commission Leaving the Morgan Library

Early in the war Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan banned American loans to belligerents on the ground that they were "inconsistent with the true spirit of neutrality," arguing that "money is the worst of all contrabands because it commands everything else."  Shortly thereafter, not wanting the United States to turn its back on the lucrative markets created by the outbreak of war, President Wilson revised Bryan's policy by drawing a distinction between making loans and extending credit for "debts incurred in trade."  This month an Anglo-French Financial Commission is in the United States to negotiate an extension of credit for the purchase of war supplies and other commodities.  On September 28 the Commission and a consortium of American bankers meeting at J.P. Morgan's library in New York announced the extension of a $500 million credit to the Allies.  The loans will be in dollars and the proceeds will remain in the United States until drawn upon to pay for purchases.  Thus Bryan's ban on loans to belligerents, as well as the distinction between loans and "debts incurred in trade," seems to have vanished along with the departed Secretary of State.  Meanwhile, another shipment of gold from Great Britain, this one valued at $30 million, arrived in New York on September 8.

U.S. Troops Guarding Mexican Bandits Captured at the Border

After defeating Villa's forces at Saltillo on September 4, Venustiano Carranza forced Villa's withdrawal from Torreon on September 18.  On the same day, he rejected a proposal of the United States and Latin American countries to mediate the dispute.  Those countries then advised each of the warring Mexican factions that they had three weeks to demonstrate control sufficient to warrant recognition, at which time each country would make its own determination.  Along the Texas border, meanwhile, fighting intensified between Mexican bandits and Texas Rangers and U.S. Army troops commanded by General Frederick Funston.

W.C. Fields in Vaudeville

The popular juggler and comedian W. C. Fields has followed Charlie Chaplin and other performers in making the transition from vaudeville to the new medium of motion pictures.  The Pool Sharks, Fields's first motion picture, was released on September 19 (click to play):


Subway Collapse on Seventh Avenue

Forty-five miles of subway construction are under way in New York City using the tunneling method rather than open cuts to allow traffic to continue uninterrupted on the surface.  The limitations of that approach were demonstrated this month when subway tunnels caused streets to collapse in two locations.  In the first, on September 22, an entire block of Seventh Avenue collapsed at 24th Street, killing seven and injuring dozens more.  The second occurred on Broadway three days later, killing one and injuring three.

The Grand Review of the Union Armies in 1865 

Fifty Years Later: The Grand Army of the Republic on Parade

Twenty thousand members of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union Army veterans formed after the Civil War, marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on September 29.  The president reviewed them as they passed the White House.  The parade commemorated the Grand Review of the Union Armies held fifty years ago at the end of the Civil War.

September 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, October and November 1915
New York Times, September 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, 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
Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan
John Keegan, The First World War
Louis W. Koenig, Bryan: A Political Biography of William Jennings Bryan
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
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: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I