Thursday, December 31, 2015

December 1915

At the end of 1915, the Allies are on the defensive.  On the Gallipoli Peninsula they conduct a successful evacuation of Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay, while in Mesopotamia they prepare to defend a siege at Kut Al Amara.  On the Western Front, General Haig replaces General French as Commander of the British Expeditionary Force.  In the Mediterranean a German submarine torpedoes and sinks the Pacific & Orient liner Persia, killing two Americans including the American consul in Aden.  A British armored cruiser blows up at its berth in Cromarty Firth.  In his State of the Union message to the opening session of Congress, President Wilson outlines his military preparedness policy, opposes borrowing money to pay the nation's bills, and warns against disloyal Americans.  The president remarries and goes on a honeymoon trip with his new wife.  Colonel House embarks on another diplomatic mission to Europe.  Henry Ford’s “Peace Ship” sails to Europe to stop the war, but the war goes on.


General Sir Charles Monro

Having failed in their attempt to force the Dardanelles with naval forces alone, and then having failed to secure the heights on the Gallipoli Peninsula that overlook the straits, the Allies this month carried out what may have been the most challenging operation of all: withdrawing from the peninsula without suffering the extreme casualties that many had predicted.  When Lord Kitchener returned to London, he found a cabinet struggling with the recommendation of the new commander, General Sir Charles Monro, endorsed by Kitchener before his departure, to evacuate Gallipoli and abandon the attempt to force the Dardanelles.  On December 7, a final decision was made to withdraw from Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay but to maintain the Allied position at Cape Helles in order to restrict the use of the straits by German U-boats.

Retreat in the presence of enemy forces is a difficult operation under the best of circumstances, and the Allies' circumstances at Gallipoli, with the sea at their backs, the Turks close at hand, and large quantities of troops, animals, supplies and equipment to load onto small craft within easy range of enemy artillery, made an Allied withdrawal an extremely risky operation.  Nevertheless the evacuation of Suvla and Anzac, which began on December 18, appears to have been an unqualified success, accomplished without any casualties and minimal loss of equipment and provisions.

General Townshend

British forces are also retreating in Mesopotamia.  After initial successes at Basra and Kut Al Amara, their further advance toward Baghdad was halted last month at Ctesiphon.  General Townshend, whose lines of supply and communication were over-extended, returned to Kut where Turkish forces have begun a siege.

General Haig

General Sir john French has been commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium since the war began.  He was subject to criticism for his conduct of military operations, especially the Battle of Loos in September, and was a central figure in the shell controversy earlier in the year.  On December 15 the government announced that French would be relieved of his command at his own request.  His replacement is General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of the British First Army.  French will be elevated to the peerage as a viscount and assigned to command British forces in the United Kingdom.

On December 1, in a rare bit of good news for the Allies, Italy agreed that it would not enter into a separate peace.


Secretary of State Lansing

Relations between Austria-Hungary and the United States hit a new low this month, but appeared to recover somewhat as the month ended.  The American State Department lodged a strong protest against the sinking of the S.S. Ancona last month by a surfaced submarine flying the Austrian flag.  Nine Americans died as the submarine captain not only failed to provide for the safety of the passengers before sinking the Ancona, as international law requires, but opened fire on passengers as they were abandoning ship.  The note, drafted by Secretary of State Lansing and dispatched on December 6, demanded a prompt disavowal, punishment of the submarine captain, and an indemnity.  It used stronger language ("inhumane," "barbarous," "outrage," "wanton slaughter") than any of the notes sent to Germany protesting the sinking of the Lusitania and Arabic.  Austria-Hungary's reply challenged the American note on virtually every assertion, asking for more information about the Americans on board, the names of witnesses and why their testimony should be more believable than that of the submarine commander; and challenged the United States to specify "the particular points of law" it relied on.

The United States responded with a second note, sent to Vienna on December 19.  It stated that the facts already known and admitted were "sufficient to fix upon the commander of the submarine which fired the torpedo the responsibility for having wilfully violated the recognized law of nations and entirely disregarded those humane principles which every belligerent should observe in the conduct of war at sea."  Accordingly, it said the United States "does not feel called upon to debate" the evidence or the principles involved, and renewed the demands made in the December 6 note.  When he handed the second note to Charge d'Affaires Baron Zwiedinek (in charge of the Austrian Embassy since Baron Dumba's expulsion in September), Lansing let it be known that the reply to the first note had made a bad impression.  His firm tone had the desired result.  Austria-Hungary's reply, forwarded to Washington on December 31, agreed to an indemnity and conceded that the incident is "from a humane standpoint, deeply to be regretted."  It said the submarine commander had been punished appropriately for not taking into consideration "the panic among the passengers, which rendered disembarkation more difficult."

S.S. Persia at Aden

As the Ancona crisis with Austria-Hungary was playing out, tensions between the United States and Germany have worsened.  On December 1 Secretary Lansing summoned Ambassador Bernstorff to the State Department and advised him that the German military and naval attaches, Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed, were personae non gratae as a result of their involvement in espionage and sabotage activities, and thus no longer entitled to remain in the United States as members of the German diplomatic mission.  In the same meeting, Lansing expressed impatience with the lack of progress in resolving the Lusitania dispute.  By month's end, Bernstorff had received additional instructions from Berlin, and in a meeting with Lansing on December 31 Bernstorff, while repeating his government's denial of liability, offered to submit the matter to arbitration.  Whatever chance this might have had of moving the issue toward resolution was complicated by the sinking in the Mediterranean on December 30 of the British passenger liner S.S. Persia.  Two Americans, including the American consul in Aden, lost their lives.

H.M.S, Natal

Another maritime disaster took place on December 30, this one apparently not the result of enemy action.  An ammunition explosion aboard the British armored cruiser H.M.S. Natal in Cromarty Firth, near Inverness on the North Sea coast of Scotland, destroyed the ship and killed 304 sailors and civilians.

President Wilson Delivering the State of the Union Address

As required by Article I, Section 4 of the United States Constitution, the 64th Congress convened on the first Monday in December.  The next day, December 7, President Wilson delivered his annual State of the Union address.  The joint session was presided over by House Speaker Champ Clark and the President pro Tempore of the Senate, Senator James P. Clarke of Arkansas.  The President outlined his program of increases in the nation's military and naval forces, including a proposed increase in the standing army to 140,000 men with a reserve force of 400,000.  In foreign affairs, he advocated a policy of "pan-Americanism," reaffirming the Monroe Doctrine and stating that "all the governments of America stand, as far as we are concerned, upon a footing of genuine equality and unquestioned independence."  Most of the president's pronouncements were met with silence (military spending) or restrained ripples of applause ("pan-Americanism"), but there were some exceptions.  Vigorous applause greeted his statement that he was opposed to the issuance of bonds to overcome a deficit in the Treasury, saying the people of the United States did not believe in postponing the payment of their bills.  The most enthusiastic response came when he warned against disloyal Americans, denouncing foreign-born citizens who have "plotted to destroy our industries," "conspired against our neutrality," and "poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life."  He urged that "such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed out."

Prior to the opening of Congress, Senate Democrats met to consider a change in the rules to set limits on debate.  At present there is no mechanism for bringing debate to a close, so as long as a senator or senators keep the floor they can continue to speak and prevent a vote on any measure under consideration.  The proposal was voted down, 40-3.

In his annual report to Congress on December 8, Treasury Secretary McAdoo recommended increasing the recently enacted tax on incomes and suggested possible new forms of federal taxation.

Both major political parties decided this month on the time and place of their 1916 nominating conventions.  On December 7 the Democratic National Committee announced that the Democratic Convention will be held in St. Louis beginning June 14, and on December 14 the Republican National Committee announced that its convention will begin in Chicago on June 7.

 President and Mrs. Wilson

President Wilson and Mrs. Edith Bolling Galt, whose engagement was announced in October, were married December 18 in a quiet ceremony at her home on Twentieth Street in Washington.  After a buffet supper, they departed in an unmarked limousine for Alexandria, Virginia, where they boarded a private car attached to a special Chesapeake & Ohio train.  They arrived the next morning at Hot Springs, Virginia, where they are staying in a suite at the Homestead Hotel. 

Henry Ford Aboard the Peace Ship

On December 4 the Oscar II got under way from Hoboken, New Jersey, on its mission to bring peace to war-torn Europe.  The expedition was organized and promoted by automobile manufacturer Henry Ford.  Other peace activists, including William Jennings Bryan, Thomas Edison and Jane Addams, were invited to join the trip, but declined. As the Oscar II departed, former President Theodore Roosevelt called its mission "a most discreditable thing to the country," saying it was not “mischievous” only because it is “so ridiculous.”  Most American newspapers seem to agree, calling the trip "Ford's Folly" and "much adieu about nothing."  Ford left the ship on Christmas Eve in Christiana, Norway, without having made any discernible progress toward ending the war. 

Wilson and House

The president has sent Colonel House on another journey to Europe.  House left New York aboard a Dutch liner on December 28.  Before he left, he paid visits to Ambassadors Spring Rice and Bernstorff, advising them that the purpose of his trip was simply to brief ambassadors in London, Paris, Berlin and perhaps Rome.  In his report to the president before his departure, House asked for instructions and  personal messages to be relayed to the men he will meet.  In a reply written on Christmas Eve in Hot Springs, Wilson replied, "You ask for instructions as to what attitude and tone you are to take at the several capitals.  I feel that you do not need any.  Your own letters (for example, the one in which you report your conversation with Bernstorff) exactly echo my own views and purposes."

U.S.S. Ohio (BB-12) Transiting the Canal in July

The Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal last year, closed on December 4.  The Canal itself was closed in October due to landslides in the Gaillard Cut.  On December 19 it was reopened for light draft vessels only.

Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg

Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg of Germany addressed the Reichstag on December 9, replying to an inquiry from the majority Socialist Party regarding the prospects for peace.  He called attention to the recent success of the German military and the country's sound economic position, and argued that Germany could not make a peace proposal without indicating weakness.  He said that Germany was always ready to consider any peace proposals from the Entente powers that are "consistent with Germany's dignity and safety."

Yuan Shih-Kai

Yuan Shih-Kai has been president of the Chinese Republic for the last two years.  Last month the Council of State voted to change the form of government to a monarchy and asked Yuan Shih-Kai to assume the imperial crown.  On December 11 it was announced that he had decided to accept.  The announcement came as a surprise, since other powers including Japan, Great Britain and Russia had objected to the proposed change in China's form of government as prejudicial to their common interests and Yuan Shih-Kai himself had advised against the change.

December 1915 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, January and February 1916
New York Times, December 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
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