Monday, November 30, 2015

November 1915

It's November 1915.  The Serbian Army, supported by Allied forces in Salonika but overwhelmed by Austrian, German and Bulgarian attacks, retreats across the mountains to Albania, accompanied by King Peter and thousands of civilian refugees.  Lord Kitchener, Great Britain’s Secretary of State for War, makes a personal visit to Gallipoli and recommends evacuation; the newly formed War Committee of the Cabinet agrees.  A violent thunderstorm and flooding followed by snow and freezing temperatures strike the peninsula, causing severe hardship and numerous deaths among the Allied troops.  Former First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who was demoted to a minor cabinet position in the new coalition government and is now excluded from the War Committee, resigns from the government and goes to the Western Front.  In Mesopotamia, the advance of the British Army toward Baghdad stalls at Ctesiphon and the British withdraw to Kut Al Amara.  Einstein announces his theory of general relativity.  In the Mediterranean a German submarine flying the Austro-Hungarian flag attacks and sinks the Italian liner S.S. Ancona en route from Messina to New York; nine Americans are drowned.   Woman suffrage goes down to defeat in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.  The United States formally objects to Great Britain's interference with neutral trade, and President Wilson advocates preparedness "not for war, but only for defense."  Henry Ford will take a "peace ship" to Europe, hoping to stop the war.  In football, Harvard beats Yale and Army tops Navy.


King Peter During the Retreat

The Serbian armies defending the two-front attack by Austro-German forces in the north and Bulgarian forces in the east put up a fierce resistance this month but were steadily driven back by their enemies' superiority in manpower and artillery.  On November 5 the Bulgarians captured Nis, opening the rail link between Berlin and Constantinople.  At month's end the Serbian army, accompanied by King Peter and members of his government as well as thousands of civilians and Austrian prisoners of war, was engaged in a headlong retreat into the mountains of Albania in an attempt to reach the Adriatic Sea.  French and British forces that advanced last month into Serbia have withdrawn across the border to Greece.

Lord Kitchener at Gallipoli

When General Sir Charles Monro assumed command of the Allied forces on Gallipoli in the last week of October, his first act was to respond to an inquiry from London by recommending withdrawal.  On November 11 Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, made a surprise visit to the peninsula.  After touring the Allied positions, he sent a telegram to the War Committee on November 23 in which he concurred with Monro's recommendation to evacuate Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay but suggested remaining for the time being at Cape Helles.  The War Committee referred Kitchener's telegram to the whole Cabinet, adding its recommendation that Cape Helles be evacuated as well.  Shortly after Kitchener's departure, the peninsula was struck by violent thunderstorms which made the landing of supplies impossible and caused flash floods in the gullies between the landing beaches at Suvla Bay and the Turk-occupied hills above, sweeping away machine guns and other equipment.  The torrential rain was followed by a precipitous drop in temperature, bringing snow and bitter cold that imposed additional severe hardship on the Allied troops.  Over 200 died and thousands were taken out of action by frostbite and hypothermia.  Bulgaria's entry into the war has added to the Allies' difficulties by making it easier for the Turks' European allies to supply them through the Balkans and the Black Sea.  All in all, events this month have strengthened rather than diminished the force of the recommendation to abandon the Dardanelles campaign.

Churchill with Lloyd George Last Month

Future decisions regarding the Dardanelles will be made without the participation of the man who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, first proposed the operation earlier this year.  Winston Churchill was replaced as First Lord in May when Prime Minister Asquith formed his coalition government, but he remained in the Cabinet and continued to be involved in decisions related to the war.  On November 2, Asquith made a long-anticipated address to the House of Commons in which he announced that in the future the war would be conducted by a War Committee of between three and five members.  When the membership of the Committee was announced, it did not include Churchill (the members are Asquith, First Lord of the Admiralty Arthur Balfour, Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George, Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener, and Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey).  On November 11 Churchill resigned from the Cabinet.  In a letter to Asquith, he wrote that he "could not accept a position of general responsibility in a war policy without an effective share in its guidance and control."  He said that he leaves with "a clear conscience, which enables me to bear my responsibility for past events with composure" and predicted that "time will vindicate my administration of the Admiralty and assign to me my due share in the vast series of preparations and operations which secured us the command of the seas."  Asquith in his reply said he was "sincerely grieved" at Churchill's decision and accepted his resignation with "regret."  In an address to the House of Commons on November 15 Churchill defended his record, recalling that every decision, including the expedition to the Dardanelles, was made only after consultation with and concurrence by military experts.  On November 10, Prime Minister Asquith asked for and received an additional $2,000,000,000 in war credits, telling the House of Commons the war was costing Great Britain $21,750,000 a day.

The British Advance to Ctesiphon and Retreat to Kut Al Amara

The British Army's advance in Mesopotamia came to a halt this month at Ctesiphon, only 22 miles short of its goal of Baghdad.  An Anglo-Indian force under the command of General Charles Townshend attacked the Turkish defenses at Ctesiphon on November 21 but failed break through.  The Turks, with easy access to Baghdad, had the advantage of much shorter lines of communication and supply than the British, who were separated from the sea by 400 miles of hostile territory.  On November 25 General Townshend began a withdrawal down the Tigris River to Kut Al Amara, where he arrived at month's end and prepared to defend a siege.

 Albert Einstein

In a paper presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on November 28, German Professor Albert Einstein set forth a theory of "general relativity," which expands on his theory of "special relativity" published in 1905.  Together, his theories suggest laws of nature that represent a significant departure from the laws of motion and gravity set forth by Sir Isaac Newton two centuries ago.  While Newton's laws are accurate enough to explain most earthbound phenomena, Einstein argues that they fail to explain the motion of extremely large bodies and speeds approaching the speed of light.  He posits the existence of a "space-time continuum" in which not only objects but light waves and time itself are affected by gravity.

SS Ancona

An Italian passenger steamer, S.S. Ancona, was on its way from Messina to New York when it was attacked with gunfire and torpedoes and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sardinia on November 7.  Over 200 lives were lost, including 9 Americans.  The attack was carried out by a German submarine commanded by a German officer and manned by a German crew, but because Germany is not at war with Italy it was flying the Austro-Hungarian flag.  The United States is expected to lodge a protest, but the situation is complicated by the fact that the protest must be directed to Austria-Hungary, which is not a party to last month's Arabic pledge or to any of the other diplomatic exchanges between Germany and the United States.  For that reason, it is unlikely that the Ancona sinking will bring about a significant change in either the American or German position with regard to submarine warfare.  This cartoon in Punch sums up the British view:


Harriot Stanton Blatch

In the United States, woman suffrage suffered multiple setbacks this month.  Voters in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania defeated suffrage referendums by substantial majorities on November 2, following last month's defeat in New Jersey.  Under the New York Constitution, it will not be possible for the proposal to appear on the ballot again until 1919.  In Massachusetts it can be considered again in two years; New Jersey  and Pennsylvania must wait five years.  Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, Nebraska and North and South Dakota have also recently rejected suffrage proposals.  Following the most recent defeats, one leader of the suffrage movement, Mrs. Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of pioneer suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton) defiantly announced that she will no longer waste time seeking voters' approval.  Instead she will concentrate her efforts on Congress and state legislative bodies through which she hopes to secure passage of a woman suffrage amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Manhattan Club

The Manhattan Club was founded in New York City in 1865 as a Democratic Party counterpart to the Republican Union League Club.  Since 1899 it has occupied the former Leonard Jerome mansion at the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street.  On November 4, over 800 members gathered at the Biltmore Hotel to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the club's founding.  President Wilson was the guest of honor, and took the occasion to outline the national defense program he will present to Congress when it convenes next month.  Advocating preparedness "not for war, but only for defense," he called for an increase in the army over the next three years to a total of 400,000 men and endorsed the naval building program announced last month by Secretary Daniels with the goal of maintaining the Navy as the nation's "first and chief line of defense."  The president emphasized that there is no need for panic or undue haste: "The country is not threatened from any quarter.  She stands in friendly relations with all the world."  Pursuing the theme of his address last month to the Daughters of the American Revolution, however, he warned his audience to be wary of "voices of Americans which were not indeed and in truth American, but which spoke alien sympathies, which came from men who loved other countries better than they loved America, men who were partisans of other causes than that of America and had forgotten that their chief and only allegiance was to the great government under which they live."

Reaction to the president's speech reflected the wide divisions in American attitudes toward the European war.  Former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who resigned earlier this year rather than sign a strongly worded note to Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania, denounced the proposal as overly warlike and a "menace to our peace and safety."  Former President Roosevelt was equally unhappy with the president's plan, but for very different reasons, characterizing it as a "shadow program" of "make-believe action."  He called the projected naval increase over the next five years no more than "an adroit method of avoiding substantial action in the present," and the proposed increase in the army "utterly inadequate," useful "if at all, only from a political standpoint."

Kenneth Triest

Roosevelt was instrumental in the release this month of an American citizen arrested on espionage charges in Great Britain. Kenneth Triest, a freshman at Princeton and the only son of Wolfgang Triest, a wealthy German-American engineer, left school and traveled to England in January, where he joined the Royal Navy.  He was arrested when he attempted to betray military secrets to Germany.  Imprisoned in the Tower of London, he faced the death penalty.  He was released after Roosevelt made a personal appeal for his release on the ground that he was mentally unbalanced.  On November 28 he returned to the United States with his father, who took him to Oyster Bay for a stern lecture from the former president.  In a statement to the press, Roosevelt contrasted the British government's leniency in this case with the "black horror" of the German army's execution last month of the British nurse Edith Cavell.

Ambassador Walter Hines Page

The British blockade, designed to bring Germany to her knees by interdicting supplies of war materiel and other supplies, including foodstuffs, has had an unavoidable effect on neutral trade, aggravated by the geographic proximity of many neutrals to Germany.  As the largest and most important neutral, the United States is most affected by the British restrictions and the most likely to be in a position to influence the British government.  Orders in Council and rulings by British prize courts defining contraband and enforcing the doctrine of continuous voyage have resulted in the confiscation or delay of numerous shipments from the United States to Europe, especially to neutral countries on the Baltic and North Seas.  Further aggravating the situation is the British practice of diverting and detaining ships in British ports rather than conducting searches at sea.  In a note to Great Britain, sent by the State Department to Ambassador Page in London on October 21 and delivered by him to the British Foreign Office on November 5, the United States took strong exception to "the lawless conduct of belligerents" in interfering with American trade with Europe.  Specifically, the note argues that the British policy violates two rules of international law regarding blockades: first, the rule against blockading neutral ports (in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands) and second, the rule that a blockade must be enforced effectively against all trade, and not selectively as in this case where no attempt is made to block trade between Germany and neutral countries on the Baltic.  The situation is complicated by the fact that some neutral countries, like Denmark and the Netherlands, have land borders with Germany, making it virtually impossible to cut off that trade; Amsterdam, in fact, is a major port of entry for shipments to Germany.  It is unclear what if any action the British government will take in response to the American note, and unclear what if any action the United States may take to enforce or follow up on the strong position it has taken.

Speaker Reed

A week before the convening of the 64th Congress next month, Democratic Party senators are meeting to consider adopting a rule that would modify the present Senate practice of unlimited debate.  The House of Representatives has had a cloture rule since Speaker Thomas B. ("Czar") Reed imposed one from the chair in 1890, but there is no such rule in the Senate.  Without some limitation on debate, it might be difficult to enact much of the president's program, including his proposed military expenditures.

Oscar II

Elsewhere in the United States, fires of suspicious origin broke out on November10 and 11 at several American plants manufacturing weapons, munitions and war supplies for the Allies, including the Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania (field guns) and the Roebling rope mill in Trenton, New Jersey (chains and barbed wire).  Automobile manufacturer Henry Ford announced on November 24 that he has chartered a passenger liner, the Oscar II, to carry a shipload of pacifists, himself included, to Europe to “get the boys out of the trenches and back to their homes by Christmas Day.”  The college football season ended this month, as Harvard triumphed over Yale 41-0 at Soldiers’ Field in Cambridge on November 20 and Army defeated Navy 14-0 on November 27 at the Polo Grounds.  

A View of Santa Claus Through Macy's Window

As it does every year, the Christmas shopping season began the day after Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November.  Macy's, the large department store at the corner of 34th Street and Broadway in New York City, is advertising men's suits and overcoats for $18.75.  Saks & Co. asks $20 for its suits and overcoats, arguing that its products have "a personality which far outpoints the price."

November 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, December 1915 and January 1916
New York Times, November 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
Thomas V. DiBacco, Black Friday Bargains, 1915, Wall Street Journal, November 27, 2015
M. Ryan Floyd, Abandoning American Neutrality: Woodrow Wilson and the Beginning of the Great War, August 1914-December 1915
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
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