Category: the first world war

US Adopts “Work or Fight” Policy

An anti-loafing notice from Texas.

May 23 1918, Washington–The ire of the American public was not directed only at the Germans, but at Americans perceived to be “slackers” (draft dodgers) or “loafers” (those not engaged in “productive” work).  Maryland enacted a strict “anti-loafing” law in August 1917, and the federal government followed its example on May 23, when the War Department issued a “Work or Fight” order; as of July 1, those of draft age engaged in unproductive industries, or found “loafing around a poolroom,” would be liable to be called up for military service even if they had previously been exempted for other reasons.  The categories of unproductive industries included restaurant staff, doormen & elevator operators, the entire entertainment industry (excluding actors), servants, and store clerks.  Exemptions could be provided for night shift workers if it were found that the only replacements available for their jobs would be women.  Notably not exempted were baseball players; the 1918 season would ultimately be cut short by several weeks as a result.

More importantly, the “Work or Fight” order had clear racial implications.  One circuit court clerk in Maryland estimated that 90% of those who ran afoul of the “anti-loafing” laws were black.  Throughout the south, states eagerly enforced the “Work or Fight” rule to supplement existing Jim Crow vagrancy laws.  Throughout the country, many of the occupations specifically targeted by the rule were predominantly black.  And since, with limited exceptions, black soldiers were not allowed to fight, the Work or Fight rule essentially amounted to a forced labor program for black men. In some cases, however (particularly among hotel waitstaff), young white men were replaced with black men outside of draft age.

Today in 1917: Massive Italian Attack on the Karst

Today in 1916: British Capture Capital of Darfur
Today in 1915: Italy Declares War on Austria

British Capture German Baggage Train in Mozamb…

May 22 1918, Korewa–Since crossing into Mozambique in November, the German forces under Lettow-Vorbeck had been doing their best to raid the Portuguese and capture their supplies while avoiding the British forces sent to pursue them.  His area of operations was too thinly settled to maintain his whole force as one unit, so he divided it into multiple columns to fan out and secure supplies individually.  On April 12, the British caught up with Captain Koehl’s column at Medo, engaging it for seven hours before the Germans were able to slip away.  On May 22, they engaged them again in the rocky hills near Korewa, nearly managing to trap the whole column this time.  The Germans were able to escape, but had to abandon all of their animals and porters, over 100,000 rounds of ammunition, all of their mountain gun ammunition, and large quantities of food and medical supplies.  This left the Germans critically short on supplies overall, and Lettow-Vorbeck planned to push south of the Lurio River, in the direction of Quelimane, for more supplies.

The governor of German East Africa, Heinrich Schnee, had been left in an awkward situation when the Germans abandoned the colony; he was now a governor with no colony left to govern, and could no longer claim any authority over Lettow-Vorbeck.  Schnee lost all of his baggage at Korewa, and had to scrounge what he could; Lettow-Vorbeck gave him a pair of blue socks which, he said, Schnee’s “wife had made for me at the beginning of the war, but which unfortunately had faded.”

Today in 1917: Tisza Dismissed as Hungarian PM

Today in 1916: French Reach Roof of Fort Douaumont
Today in 1915: Rail Disaster at Quintinshill

Sources include: Byron Farwell, The Great War in Africa.

Italians and Germans Conduct Long-Range Aerial…

An Ansaldo SVA, of the type that made the flight over Lake Constance.

May 21 1918, Brescia–Battlefield aerial reconnaissance was one of the primary roles of both sides’ air forces during the war–detecting enemy troop movements, mapping their defenses, and artillery spotting, among other tasks.  As airplane ranges increased, reconnaissance could be taken deeper into enemy territory–to get a sense of their economic activity, or to scout targets for future strategic bombing attacks.  On May 21, two Italian planes flew north over the Alps to the area around Lake Constance, taking pictures of multiple targets in the area, including the Germans’ Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen, returning safely to Italy after a 440-mile flight.  On the same day, a German airplane flew over London on a similar mission in a 375-mile round trip.  Although London was bristling with air defenses at this point, most attacks were now at night, and their small craft went undetected at a mile’s altitude over the city.

Today in 1917: Imperial War Graves Commission Is Chartered

Today in 1916: Daylight Saving Time Introduced in Britain & Ireland
Today in 1915:  Churchill Resigns as First Lord of the Admiralty

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War.

Revolts Among Former PoWs in Hungary

The leaders of the Judenburg revolt being led to their execution on May 16.

May 20 1918, Pécs–The end of the war in the East meant that German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war were now slowly being repatriated to their home countries.  This was a major source of manpower for the struggling Austro-Hungarian armies, as more than 2.1 million men prepared to return.  However, the Army was highly concerned that the PoWs might bring back Bolshevik ideas with them from Russia, and established a quarantine system for them.  They were held in camps with poor rations and little or no new clothing for several weeks while the authorities determined whether they had deserted or were Bolsheviks, before being eventually granted four weeks’ leave at home.  This pervasive message of mistrust towards the returning PoWs did not increase their enthusiasm for the war effort.  This was compounded by the continuing food shortage, which did not spare the regular army.

In the late spring, there were many mutinies among units with high proportions of returned PoWs.  On May 12, a group of 1200 Slovene soldiers (normally some of the Empire’s most loyal troops) ransacked the town of Judenberg.  One of the ringleaders rallied others in the barracks to the cause:

Come on lads, get dressed.  We’re going home.  We’re doing it not just for us but as a favor to the comrades at the front.  The war has to be ended now….Whoever’s a Slovene should come with.

On May 20, around 1500 troops of the 6th Infantry Regiment, which contained many returned Serb PoWs, refused to be sent to the front seized the arsenal and food stores in Pécs.  The local miners armed themselves and joined the revolt as well; it would take three loyal Hungarian regiments to suppress them.

Today in 1917: Germans Allowed to Fire on US Warships

Today in 1916: Ernest Shackleton Reaches South Georgia
Today in 1915: Germans Refuse to Surrender in South-West Africa

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.

Last Gotha Raid on London

May 19 1918, London–German bombers had not attacked Britain since the start of their major offensives on the Western Front, using them instead to attack targets of military value in France and Flanders.  With the Western Front momentarily quiet once more, the Gothas returned to London on the night of May 19; 38 Gothas took off from Belgium and 28 successfully reached London, where their bombs caused over 200 casualties.  However, the Gothas did not get away unscathed; British AA fire took down two of them and British interceptors another three.

This was to be the last Gotha raid on London–as Ludendorff turned his attention once more to the French, the Gothas were assigned to targets on the continent–either Paris or targets of military value.  One such raid occurred on the same night, when another 15 Gothas attacked the major British base at Étaples, causing over 900 casualties in a hospital there among nurses and British wounded.  The start of British bombing raids on German cities may also have played a role; there was significant political pressure to stop the attacks on Britain in a vain hope the British would follow suit.

Today in 1917: Kerensky Asserts His Authority as War Minister


Today in 1916: Diphosgene Gas Shells First Deployed
Today in 1915:  Mass Turkish Attack on ANZAC Cove Repulsed

British Bomb Cologne

A DH4 in flight over France.

May 18 1918, Cologne–After nearly a year of Gotha raids on London, the British were determined to retaliate against Germany.  Although Berlin was out of reach for the Allies, Western Germany was not.  On May 18, six British DH4s attacked Cologne in daylight, dropping 34 bombs and causing well over 100 casualties.  The attack took the Germans by surprise, and the British even managed to shoot down two German fighters on the return trip.  This was not to be an isolated attack–the British were already making plans for a dedicated strategic bombing force, to be led by former RAF head Hugh Trenchard.

Today in 1917: Pershing Announced as Head of American Expeditionary Force

Today in 1916: Wiretap Reveals Munitions Price Fixing Conspiracy
Today in 1915: Russians Arrive at Van After Turks Abandon Siege

Sinn Féin Leaders Arrested

Michael Collins (pictured in 1919), one of only two Sinn Féin leaders to escape arrest.

May 17 1918, Dublin–The British government was determined to enact conscription in Ireland, and newly-installed Lord Lieutenant French saw Sinn Féin as the major obstacle preventing this–despite the broad opposition to conscription from every element of Irish society and political life.  On the night of May 17, on the pretext that they were plotting with the Germans to stage a rebellion in Ireland, French had over 150 Sinn Féin leaders arrested.  Although the Germans certainly had an interest in Irish intrigues, especially in the leadup to the Easter Rebellion, when they sent arms (which were interecepted) and Roger Casement (who was captured and executed), the evidence for any grand “German Plot” was shaky at best.  Some have theorized that the attempt to tie Sinn Féin to Germany was an attempt to turn American public opinion against the Irish.

Only two Sinn Féin leaders managed to escape the arrests–Michael Collins and Cathal Brugha, who were tipped off by a source inside Dublin Castle.  With the remainder of the leadership detained without trial for the rest of the war, Collins and Brugha rose to unexpected prominence.

Today in 1917: Marshal Putnik Dies


Today in 1916: Kut POWs Paraded Through Baghdad
Today in 1915: Germans Attack Along the River San

Sedition Act Enacted in US

May 16 1918, Washington–Antipathy towards Germany had grown strikingly in the United States in the year since the declaration of war, with both the press and private citizens lashing out against many of German origin deemed insufficiently patriotic, and demanding that the US government do the same.  On May 16, President Wilson signed a bill, commonly referred to as the Sedition Act, that extended the Espionage Act of the previous year.  For the duration of the war, any form of 

“disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, its flag, or its armed forces, or any speech that interfered with the sale of war bonds, was punishable by long terms of imprisonment.  The bill passed the House with only one dissenting vote (from the lone Socialist member), but attracted more opposition from many Senate Republicans, who variously thought that the bill was a distraction from Wilson’s inability to use the Espionage Act effectively, or that it compromised free speech to an unacceptable degree.  Ultimately, only several hundred convictions were handed down as a result of the Sedition Act–mainly it was used as a catch-all way to prosecute socialists, anarchists, or IWW members who fell afoul of the Justice Department.

Today in 1917: Allies Cancel Nighttime Otranto Barrage


Today in 1916: Sykes-Picot Agreement
Today in 1915: King Victor Emmanuel III Rejects Prime Minister Salandra’s Resignation

First Public Airmail Service Begins

The inaugural airmail flight about to take off from the Washington polo grounds.

May 15 1918, Washington–Among the many innovations spurred by the war was the use of airplanes to deliver mail.  The Austro-Hungarian army had begun its own private airmail service for military mail, operating between Vienna and Kiev, at the end of March.  On May 15, the United States began the first airmail service open to the general public, operating between Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, at a cost of 24 cents per ounce ($4.13 in 2018), eight times the price of regular first-class mail.  A special 24-cent airmail stamp, showing a Curtiss Jenny plane that would be used to carry the mail, was issued for the service; the famous “Inverted Jenny” misprinted stamps were produced only five days before the inaugural flight.

The first flight was operated by a Lieutenant George Boyle, a recent graduate of an Army flight school, and the son-in-law of one of the members of the Interstate Commerce Commission.  The service got off to an inauspicious start when Boyle became lost and crashed his plane and its 124 pounds of airmail only 25 miles from Washington; the other flights conducted that day were successfully completed, however.

Today in 1917: Nivelle Out; Pétain In


Today in 1916: Austrians Surprise Italy with Trentino Offensive
Today in 1915: First Sea Lord Fisher Resigns over Dardanelles

Czechs Fight Hungarians and Bolsheviks in Chel…

A train car used by the Czech Legion.

May 14 1918, Chelyabinsk–The sudden end of the war in the East had left many soldiers from both sides stranded in Russia. 

German and Austro-Hungarian PoWs were trying to make their way back west. Meanwhile, soldiers from various nationalities oppressed by the Central Powers that had volunteered to serve alongside the Russians now had to figure out where to go.  The bulk of the Polish volunteer forces in Russia surrendered to the Germans (many not without a fight).  Most of the Czech forces were determined to keep fighting, and reached an agreement with the Bolsheviks in March to leave Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok (followed by a long sea voyage to the Western Front).

On May 14, Czechs heading east clashed with a group of Hungarian PoWs heading west in Chelyabinsk in the Urals.  Representatives of the local Soviet arrested some of the Czechs involved; their fellow Czechs soon liberated them from jail and took over the town.  This was the first direct confrontation between the Czechs and the Bolsheviks, though tension had been growing for some time.  The Bolsheviks had held up the Czechs’ trains and tried to confiscate their weapons.  They were also worried that they were trying to turn them around and force them to surrender to the Germans, as the Poles had done; this was not helped by efforts to divert them towards the northern port of Arkhangelsk (though this was actually done at the behest of the Allies).  The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were worried that the Czechs were Allied agents and would be used to overthrow them.  The incident at Chelyabinsk helped to confirm both sides’ suspicions of each other. 

Today in 1917: Modest Italian Gains on the Isonzo

Today in 1916: Patton Kills Pancho Villa’s Second-in-Command
Today in 1915: Exposé on Shell Shortage Appears in The Times of London

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War; Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.