Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March 1916

In March 1916, Pancho Villa and his bandits cross the border and attack a town in the United States, burning buildings and killing Americans before being driven back into Mexico.  President Wilson, who has appointed a new Secretary of War, sends Brigadier General John J. Pershing on a punitive expedition into Mexico to capture Villa.  The Mexican government objects to this violation of its territory.  In Washington, presidential opposition defeats a Congressional resolution warning Americans not to travel on ships of nations at war.  Back from Europe, Colonel House confers with President Wilson, who endorses the House-Grey Memorandum.  The British response is not encouraging.  From his vacation in Trinidad, former President Roosevelt issues a statement denying any interest in the 1916 presidential campaign, a statement that is widely interpreted as a declaration of candidacy.  The submarine issue surfaces again when a German U-boat attacks a ferry in the English Channel, injuring four Americans; the United States considers its response.  On leave from the front, Winston Churchill returns to England and speaks in the House of Commons, but his critique of British naval policy is not well received.  Elsewhere on the Continent the war continues.  The German attack on Verdun increases in intensity as the Allies mount simultaneous offensives: by the Russians in the Caucasus and White Russia (now Belarus), and by the Italians on the Isonzo.  In Mesopotamia the British make another attempt to relieve the besieged garrison at Kut Al Amara.  General Gallieni resigns as French Minister of War.  Yuan Shih-Kai abandons the idea of a Chinese empire with himself as emperor.


 Columbus, New Mexico, After the Attack

The recognition of the Carranza government last year by the United States and the ABC powers (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) has not brought an end to civil strife in Mexico.  Carranza's bitterest foe, Francisco ("Pancho") Villa, controls large parts of northern Mexico and is now directing his violence against the United States as well as the government in Mexico City.  In January Villa and his followers attacked a train in Mexico and murdered all but one of the Americans on board in cold blood after forcing them to line up beside the track (one escaped by dashing into the desert before the shooting started).  On March 9 Villa took his terrorism a step further by leading a band of "Villistas" into United States territory, attacking the border town of Columbus, New Mexico.  Buildings were set afire and several Americans killed before the Thirteenth Cavalry Regiment under the command of Colonel Herbert Slocum drove the attackers back across the border, pursuing them some fifteen miles into Mexico.

Newton D. Baker

On the same day as Villa's raid, President Wilson appointed a new Secretary of War, Ohio attorney Newton D. Baker, to replace Lindley Garrison, who resigned last month.  Baker's selection was something of a surprise.  A progressive former Mayor of Cleveland, the new Secretary is considered a pacifist and thus an unlikely choice to lead the nation's military.  He is, however, a political ally of the president, and his pacifism makes him acceptable to substantial elements of both parties in Congress.  Considered as a possible running mate for Wilson at the 1912 Democratic Convention in Baltimore, after the election he turned down an offer to join the Wilson administration as Secretary of the Interior.  At age 44, he is the youngest member of the Cabinet.

Going After Pancho Villa

Ironically, the first order of business of the new pacifist Secretary of War is an invasion of Mexico.  On March 15, after minimal consultation with the Carranza government, American troops under the command of Brigadier General John J. Pershing crossed the border in pursuit of Pancho Villa.  This has, of course, led to diplomatic complications.  At first it appeared that Carranza would acquiesce as long as Mexican troops were given the same privilege (admittedly theoretical) to pursue Villa into the United States.  On March 25 President Wilson issued a statement that "the expedition into Mexico was ordered under an agreement with the de facto government of Mexico for the single purpose of taking the bandit Villa, . . . and is in no sense intended as an invasion of that republic or as an infringement of its sovereignty."  Carranza's position hardened following reports that some elements of the Mexican Army were joining forces with Villa, and his government lodged a formal protest against the presence of American troops on Mexican soil.  On March 29, however, Carranza gave permission for the use of Mexican railroads to supply Pershing's forces.

Senator Stone

Last month Representative A.J. McLemore (Dem., Tex.) introduced a resolution requesting the president to warn Americans against traveling as passengers on ships of nations at war.  After an exchange of letters between the President and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman William J. Stone (Dem., Mo.), the measure lost support and appeared destined for a quiet death (see last month's installment of this blog).  President Wilson, however, insisted that it be brought to a vote in order to clear up any misunderstanding in other parts of the world about American policy.  On March 7, by a vote of 276 to 142, the House voted to table the McLemore resolution.  Earlier the Senate, following a confusing series of parliamentary maneuvers, voted to table a substitute resolution, offered by Senator Thomas P. Gore (Dem., Okla.), that raised the same issue in the form of a statement of hypothetical circumstances under which the United States would declare war, which Senator Gore argued was the practical effect of the President's announced policy.  Senator Gore voted against his own resolution.

 President and Mrs. Wilson and Colonel House

After two months in Europe Colonel House returned to the United States on March 5, landing in New York and proceeding directly to Washington by train.  The next day he joined President Wilson and the new first lady for lunch, followed by a two-hour automobile ride through Washington during which he outlined the results of his European mission.  On the way back he was dropped off at the State Department, where he met with Secretary of State Lansing.  Then he went next door to the White House and showed the House-Grey Memorandum to the president.  Wilson gave the Memorandum, and House's report as a whole, his full approval.  He authorized a telegram to Sir Edward Grey ratifying the Memorandum, only adding the word "probably" after "would" and before the words "leave the conference" in the second paragraph (see last month's installment of this blog).  This applies the same qualification to a German refusal to agree to terms "not unfavorable to the Allies" that already existed with respect to a German refusal to participate in a proposed conference in the first place.  All of this is hypothetical, of course, and hedged with conditions in addition to the "probablies," such as the statement that nothing can be done without the Allies' approval.  In diplomatic if not military terms, however, it aligns the United States firmly on the side of the Allies, albeit with the United States itself in the role of mediator.

Meanwhile, back in Westminster, the War Committee of the British Cabinet met on March 21.  The House-Grey Memorandum was the last item on the agenda, and after discussing House's proposal the Committee decided not to adopt it, at least for the present.  In his response to House on March 24, Grey said he could not present his proposal to the other Allies without clearing it first with the French.  He said he and Asquith were planning to meet the French Premier in Paris on March 30, at which time the Premier would have an opportunity to share his views.  The meeting took place as scheduled, but the subject did not come up.  For the time being at least, the idea of a peace conference hosted by the United States appears to be dead.

Roosevelt with American Oil Workers in Trinidad

Former President Roosevelt and his wife ended their Caribbean cruise on March 9 in Trinidad.  While there, Roosevelt visited resident Americans and engaged in birding and cave exploration.  Before leaving, he issued a statement in response to press reports that his supporters were planning to enter his name in the upcoming Massachusetts Republican primary as a candidate for president.  His statement says he does not want the nomination and requests that his name not be entered in the Massachusetts primary or that of any other state.  "I will not enter into any fight for the nomination and I will not permit any factional fight to be made in my behalf.  Indeed, I will go further and say that it would be a mistake to nominate me unless the country has in its mood something of the heroic -- unless it feels not only devotion to ideals but the purpose measurably to realize those ideals in action."  The statement goes on to express "disgust with the unmanly character of the present administration," and says the American people should not be "content merely to change the present administration for one equally timid, equally vacillating, equally lacking in vision, in moral integrity and in high resolve."  It says "the delegates who go to Chicago" should be "men of rugged independence, . . . controlled by no man and no interest and their minds should be open."  On his return voyage to New York, Roosevelt's ship encountered an Atlantic storm which had him up one night at two o'clock in the morning bailing seawater out of his stateroom with a bucket.  He arrived in New York on March 25, where he met with reporters but refused to comment on his statement except to say that he meant every word he said.

American political leaders are unanimous in their understanding that, with the Trinidad Statement, Roosevelt has joined the race for the 1916 presidential campaign.

 The Sussex in Boulogne After Being Torpedoed

The issue of German submarine warfare resurfaced before the month was over.  In the latter half of March German submarines torpedoed several unarmed ships.  One was the Sussex, a channel steamer en route from Folkestone to Dieppe with 380 passengers, including twenty-five Americans, four of whom were injured in the attack.  Although its bow was blown off and several passengers were killed, the Sussex did not sink, and what remained of the vessel was towed into Boulogne.  These attacks are in apparent violation of Germany's "Arabic Pledge" to the United States last year, but President Wilson is reluctant to sever diplomatic relations, which he regards as a prelude to war.  He is in consultation with Secretary Lansing and Colonel House, and so far has not decided on the appropriate course of action.

Arthur Balfour with Churchill Last Year

When his battalion rotated out of the trenches on March 2, Churchill returned to England, leaving his battalion in the care of his second in command Sir Archibald Sinclair.  On March 7, still a member of Parliament though no longer in the government, he rose in the House of Commons to take part in the debate on the Naval Estimates introduced by Arthur Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister and Churchill's successor as First Lord of the Admiralty.  In a 40-minute speech, Churchill offered a defense of his own record as First Lord and trenchant criticisms of the performance of the current administration of the Admiralty.  The effect of his speech, however, was severely diminished by its conclusion, in which he urged that former First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher be recalled to his post.  This suggestion was met with derision, given Lord Fisher's role in last year's disastrous Dardanelles expedition and the mutual recriminations between Churchill and Fisher that ensued.  Any hope Churchill may have entertained for a return to political power seems to have been dashed, at least for the time being.  On March 13 he crossed the channel and rejoined his battalion at Ploegsteert.

General Gallieni

Intense fighting raged all month between Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux, north of Verdun.  Fort Douaumont was captured by the Germans shortly after the assault began last month.  Fort Vaux remains in French hands, but the village of Vaux has changed hands thirteen times, most recently at the end of March when it was occupied again by German troops.  On March 6, in an attempt to silence French artillery positioned on high ground across the river, German forces crossed the Meuse at Brabant and Champneuville and attacked the French positions on the heights of the Cote de l'Oie and the nearby hill of le Mort-Homme.  So far, however, the German attempts to drive the French from the heights have been unsuccessful.

The Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, General Joseph Joffre, and the Minister of War, General Joseph Gallieni, have a history of professional rivalry, and their relationship has worsened since the war began due to disputes over their respective areas of authority.  The French reverses at Verdun, in particular the ease with which the German Army captured Fort Douaumont, have brought matters to a head.  This, combined with Gallieni's failing health, led to his resignation as Minister of War on March 16.  His successor is General Pierre Roques.

France's allies mounted offensive operations this month intended to relieve the German pressure on Verdun.  On March 11 Italy renewed its offensive against Austro-Hungarian forces on the Isonzo River, but were driven back by rain and snow in the mountains and by an Austrian gas attack.  On the Eastern Front, a Russian offensive against the Germans at Lake Naroch in White Russia, preceded by a two-day artillery bombardment, made modest gains, as did Russian operations against Turkey in the Caucasus.  In Mesopotamia, the Ottoman siege of the British garrison at Kut Al Amara continued as additional Turkish troops transferred from Gallipoli helped turn back another attempted British breakthrough at Dujaila on March 7.  On March 27, as preparations continued for a major offensive on the Somme, British forces on the southern edge of the Ypres salient launched an attack on German positions at St. Eloi by exploding underground mines.

 Yuan Shih-Kai

Yuan Shih-Kai's declaration in December reviving the Chinese Empire has backfired badly.  Not only have foreign governments refused to recognize the new regime, but rebellions have broken out in province after province in China, supported by former President Sun Yat-Sen from his exile in Tokyo.  On March 22, after several postponements of his formal investiture, Yuan Shih-Kai formally abandoned the Empire and his title of Emperor.  His political enemies are now calling for his resignation as President.

March 1916 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:
American Review of Reviews, April and May 1916
New York Times, March 1916

Books and Articles:
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Third Year of the Great War: 1916
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
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson's War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
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
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916 
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