Category: the first world war

Scheer Orders a Final Attack on the Royal Navy

Admiral Reinhard Scheer (1863-1928), Chief of the German Naval Staff from August 1918; he had previously commanded the High Seas Fleet, including at Jutland.

October 22 1918, Wilhelmshaven–The German army may have been quickly running out of men and losing the war on land, but the navy was still very much intact.  After Prince Max ended unrestricted submarine warfare, which navy leaders had long held as the best hope of victory against the Allies (despite mounting evidence to the contrary), Scheer decided to make use of his “fleet in being” one last time, sortieing from Wilhelmshaven for a final confrontation with the Grand Fleet.  He had obliquely mentioned this possibility to the Kaiser during the cabinet meeting on the 17th, saying that the end of submarine warfare meant that the High Seas Fleet would again have “complete freedom of action.”  The Kaiser did not react to this, which Scheer interpreted as tacit approval, and he did not mention his plans to the Chancellor. 

Scheer would later state that “I did not regard it necessary to obtain a repetition of the Kaiser’s approval.  In addition, I feared that this could cause further delay and was thus prepared to act on my own responsibility.” 

On October 22, one of Scheer’s subordinates arrived in Wilhelmshaven in person and gave the following order to Admiral Hipper: “The High Seas Fleet is directed to attack the English fleet as soon as possible.”  There was no written order, all part of Scheer’s effort to hide the plan not just from the British, but from his own government as well.  Scheer hoped that “a tactical success might reverse the military position and avert surrender,” and even if it did not, “an honorable battle by the fleet–even if it should be a fight to the death–will sow the seed for a new German fleet of the future.”

Hipper came up with the details of the plan over the next two days.  It was similar to other German sorties in the past, hoping to draw the Grand Fleet over German U-boats and mines before the surface fleet attacked.  The lure was to be a bombardment of the recently-abandoned Belgian coast, along with raids deep into the Thames estuary.  If the submarines did not find their targets, Scheer and Hipper were determined to engage the British anyway, even if heavily outnumbered.  If the two fleets somehow missed each other (as they had before), every destroyer would be sent towards the Firth of Forth and, upon finding the Grand Fleet, would launch their torpedoes at least three at a time.  The plan had a reasonable chance of dealing considerable damage to the Royal Navy–though whether the High Seas Fleet’s sailors would be willing to carry out the plan remained to be seen.

Today in 1917: Petrograd Soviet Prepares “Revolutionary Committee of Defense”

Today in 1916: Romanians Surrender Constanța
Today in 1915: French Engage Bulgarians While British Stay in Salonika
Today in 1914: Germans Cross the Yser

Sources include: Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel.

Serbian Advance Continues

October 21 1918, Paraćin–After a brief pause near Niš to regroup and allow the French to catch up, the Serbians continued their advance northward to liberate their country.  By October 21, they had engaged German rearguards near Paraćin, on the Morava around sixty miles south of the Danube.  Although the Germans put up a stubborn resistance, they were outnumbered and received little support from their Austrian allies, who just wanted to get their armies out of Serbia and behind the Danube, Sava, and Drina intact.  

Further east, the first French forces had reached the Romanian border on the Danube via Bulgarian railways on the 19th.  On the 22nd, the Allies sent a letter to the Romanian government, urging them to be ready to re-enter the war “about the middle of November,” in conjunction with an Allied push across the Danube.  The Romanians had quietly been preparing for such an eventuality since the Bulgarian collapse, but were wary that entering too soon would just lead to an even swifter defeat by the Germans than in 1916.

To the south, the first British troops also reached the Turkish border near Adrianople, finding only a single Turkish battalion guarding the border crossing.  The Turks, having realized the dire threat to Constantinople, dispatched Charles Townshend, the general captured after the siege of Kut in 1916, to send out the first peace feelers.  Arriving at Mudros on the 20th, he suggested the Turks would accept terms that let them keep Syria and Mesopotamia, albeit with a great deal of autonomy.  While the British quickly rejected these terms, they were completely fine with Townshend’s other stipulation, that the Turks wanted to negotiate solely with the British; after having been left out of the Bulgarian armistice, they were fine with shutting out the French from the negotiations with Turkey.

Today in 1917: First Americans Enter the Front Line

Today in 1916: Austrian PM Assassinated
Today in 1915: Italian Assaults Fail Everywhere Despite 34 Hour Barrage
Today in 1914: Vodka Permanently Banned in Russia

Sources include: Roger Ford, Eden to Armageddon; Alan Palmer, The Gardeners of Salonika; Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I.

Germany Ends the U-Boat Campaign

October 20 1918, Berlin–Although Hindenburg, Ludendorff, and Admiral Scheer were opposed, Prince Max convinced the Kaiser to allow him to accept Wilson’s latest note, if only by threatening to resign.  Submarines would no longer be permitted to attack passenger ships, though it could not be guaranteed that the order would reach submarines already at sea.  They denied that they were carrying out wanton destruction of property during the retreat from France and Flanders, beyond what was militarily necessary.  Germany accepted that the actual armistice terms would be determined by military officials and the situation in the field, rather than by President Wilson.  Finally, the German government argued that it had (and all future governments would have) the support of the majority of the Reichstag, that they would enact universal suffrage, and that they had already introduced a bill to ensure that the Reichstag’s approval was necessary for any decisions on war or peace (thus ensuring no “arbitrary power” in Germany could plunge Europe into war again).

Hindenburg fumed, saying that the government “must make up its mind to fight out the struggle for our honor to the very last man.”  The next day, Scheer, infuriated at the decision, recalled all of his U-boats, as he had done in 1916, and began to make new plans for his fleet.  The few remaining U-boat actions were conducted by submarines that attempted to make the trip back to Germany from the Mediterranean as Austria-Hungary collapsed.

Today in 1917: French Advance in Albania Swiftly Vetoed by Italy

Today in 1916: Russian Dreadnought Capsizes in Port
Today in 1915: Britain Allows Women to Serve as Bus Conductors
Today in 1914: General German Offensive in Flanders Begins

Belgians Liberate Bruges and Zeebrugge

King Albert (center) on his entry into the city on the 25th, after arriving in the area by plane on the 23rd.  He was accompanied by, among others, Admiral Keyes; the elimination of the U-boat threat in Ostend and Zeebrugge had long been a goal of the Royal Navy.

October 19 1918, Bruges–Since renewing their attack on October 14, the combined Allied force in Flanders had advanced at an extremely rapid pace, in some cases aided by a German withdrawal, in others in spite of determined German opposition.  Lille, which was outflanked by the breakthrough, was captured on the 17th without a shot being fired, much to Ludendorff’s disappointment; he had wanted to hold on to the region’s industries as a bargaining chip in the negotiations to come.  On the same day, the Belgians liberated the port of Ostend, after four years and two days of German occupation.  On October 19, they took Bruges and its port of Zeebrugge, the last Belgian port with unfettered access to the sea under German occupation.  The U-boats that had been stationed there and at Ostend had been hurriedly recalled, and a few torpedo boats had been left behind.  The next day, the Belgian Army reached the Dutch border.  The liberation of Belgium had begun in earnest.

Today in 1917: The “Silent Raid”

Today in 1916: Penultimate Sortie of the High Seas Fleet
Today in 1915: “The Thirty-Nine Steps” Published
Today in 1914:  German Fourth Army Attacks at Ypres

Czechoslovak Provisional Government Declares I…

The Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence being read in Philadelphia eight days later.  Two days after that, a popular revolution in Prague ended Habsburg rule there, to cries of “Long live Masaryk!” and “Long live Wilson!”

October 18 1918, Washington


Masaryk’s Czechoslovak National Council had gained official recognition from the French, British, and Americans over the course of the summer.  Czech units were fighting alongside the Allies, not only in Russia, but in France as well.  Czech opposition within Austria-Hungary had consolidated as well, forming a Czechoslovak National Committee (officially unaffiliated with Masaryk) and firmly rejecting Emperor Charles’ belated attempts at federalism.  Socialists in Prague attempted to organize a general strike as a prelude to the overthrow of Habsburg rule; the National Committee, however, cognizant of what had occurred in Russia, allowed the strike to be broken up by the military.

On October 18, Masaryk (who was still in the United States) published a Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak Nation, co-authored by Gutzon Borglum (who would later become more famous as the creator of Mount Rushmore).  It was designed to appeal not only to the Czechs at home and abroad, but also to the American government, fully emulating Wilsonian language and principles throughout.  

The next day, Wilson replied to Austria’s armistice note.  He made it clear that his statement in the Fourteen Points that the peoples of Austria-Hungary should have “autonomous development” was no longer sufficient.  Wilson recognized the Czechs as Allied co-belligerents, and supported “the justice of the nationalistic aspirations of the Jugo-slavs for freedom.”  An armistice with Austria-Hungary would have to satisfy not only the United States, but the Czechs and south Slavs as well. 

Today in 1917: Battle of Mahiwa

Today in 1916: Austrian Foreign Minister Urges Peace
Today in 1915: Massive Italian Artillery Barrage Opens 3rd Battle of the Isonzo
Today in 1914: Ludendorff Orders Retreat from Warsaw

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel

Battle of the Selle

The Allied advance from the Selle.  The German salient to the north, including Lille (around 15 miles to the north of Douai), was also captured around the same time as it was outflanked to the north by the Allied advance in Flanders.

October 17 1918, Le Cateau–After the British broke through the last layer of the Hindenburg Line, the Germans fell back to an improvised position behind the River Selle.  The British brought their guns up over the following week and then unleashed a two-day preliminary bombardment of the makeshift German position, focusing mainly on their communications and their second line behind the Sambre-Oise canal five miles to the east.  At 5:20 AM on October 17, four British divisions and two American ones (under overall British command) crossed the Selle on planks, quickly breaking through the first German position.  They threw up pontoon bridges for their artillery and were able to advance up to three miles on the first day and capture 5000 PoWs.  Although the Sambre-Oise canal position would remain in German hands for some weeks to come, the Battle of the Selle made it clear that the main limit to the Allied advance was not the Germans, but how quickly they could bring up their own artillery to attack the next German position.

Meanwhile, the Kaiser, Hindenburg & Ludendorff, and Prince Max and his cabinet met in Berlin to discuss the latest American armistice note.  Ludendorff had recovered from last month’s panic, and was buoyed by an unrealistic promise of 600,000 men from the war minister.  The Germans had suffered considerable defeats in the last month, but it had not turned into an overall rout, and hoped that the situation would improve as the typical campaign season ended; if “we get into winter, we shall be ‘out of the wood.’”  Wilson’s latest note was were intolerable, and the Allies must be made to “fight for such conditions.”  Prince Max, however, wanted to avoid such a fight, that would likely lead to an invasion of Germany.  The meeting ended inconclusively, but Prince Max had already made up his mind–and given Wilson’s insistence on negotiations with representatives of the German people, his voice mattered the most.

Today in 1917: Naval Actions in the North and Baltic Seas

Today in 1916: Last Gasp of the Brusilov Offensive
Today in 1915: Italians Launch Midget Submarine
Today in 1914:  Allied Advances Around Armentières and Ypres

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Emperor Charles Issues Hasty Federal Reform Pl…

The People’s Manifesto; the title states “To my faithful Austrian people!”

October 16 1918, Vienna–Like Germany, Austria had appealed for an armistice on the basis of the Fourteen Points.  This included “autonomous development” for Austria-Hungary’s subject peoples, and Emperor Charles wanted to make sure that this did not mean full independence for those peoples a complete breakup of his empire.  In an effort to get ahead of Wilson, who had not yet replied to the Austrian note, on October 16 Emperor Charles issued what its supporters would term the “People’s Manifesto,” calling for drastic reforms in the Austrian half of the empire.  Austria would be reorganized on a federal basis, with the German, Czech, Ukrainian, and Southern Slav portions establishing their own state governments.  Trieste would receive a special status. The Poles, who by this point were no longer loyal to the Habsburgs, would be permitted to join the independent Polish state to be formed out of conquered Russian territories.

In practice, the manifesto was a spectacular failure of judgment that only hasted the downfall of the empire.  The Czechs and Southern Slavs had already told the Emperor they would reject it.  Hungary, which wanted to maintain its control over its subject peoples in Slovakia, Transylvania, and Croatia, threatened to cut off food shipments to Austria if it were included, and even announced that it no longer considered itself bound by the 1867 Augsleich that formed Austria-Hungary.  Hungary’s exclusion from the manifesto meant that Croatia could not be fully included in the new South Slav state, nor Slovakia in the Czech one.  The manifesto thus only angered their leaders more, emboldened calls for independence, and exposed Emperor Charles’ weakness.

Today in 1917: Wilson Approves Text of Balfour Declaration

Today in 1916: First Birth Control Clinic Opens in US
Today in 1915: Britain Offers Cyprus to Greece
Today in 1914: Battle of the Yser Begins: Germans Attack Dixmude

Sources include: Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.

Germany Receives Latest American Armistice Con…

October 15 1918, Berlin–Since Germany’s armistice appeal and apparent acceptance of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, a series of notes had been exchanged across the Atlantic between the American and German governments, with Wilson attempting to get a firm commitment from the Germans.  On October 15, the Germans received a second note from Secretary of State Lansing on behalf of the President.  It stressed that the Allies were winning in the field, and that any armistice must “provide absolutely satisfactory safeguards and guarantees of the present military supremacy of the United States and of the Allies in the field.”  It demanded that Germany stop its unrestricted submarine warfare; the Germans had not given any signs so far of stopping on this front.  On the 10th, sunk the passenger vessel Leinster in the Irish Sea, killing over 500 British and American civilians.  

The United States also refused to consider an armistice as long as the Germans continued scorched earth tactics in the occupied territories of France and Flanders from which they were now retreating.  Finally, the note reminded Germany that their acceptance of the Fourteen Points and associated statements meant that they were committed to “the destruction of every arbitrary power anywhere that can separately, secretly, and of its single choice disturb the peace of the world,” and that the “power which has hitherto controlled the German nation” was one such arbitrary power.  While vague on specifics, the implication was clear–the military would have to be made subordinate to the people, and the Kaiser’s power would have to be reduced to that of a constitutional monarch.

The Kaiser was outraged by the note, calling it “a piece of unmitigated frivolous nonsense” in a letter to the new chancellor, Prince Max.  “You must use it to arouse the entire people to rally round their emperor in defense of their sacred heritage, just as the government must stand shoulder to shoulder behind him.  This impudent intervention in our political affairs must be exposed to all.”  Prince Max, however, knew that the war was lost, and was determined, at the very least, to draft a conciliatory reply.  

Today in 1917: Germans Secure Ösel Island

Today in 1916: Originator of Lafayette Escadrille Dies
Today in 1915: Bulgarians Cut Main Serbian Railway Line
Today in 1914: “Race To The Sea” Ends

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Allied Breakthrough in Flanders


The front line on October 16, 1918.  Note the large expansion of the Ypres salient in the north; the Allies had not been able to push beyond Passchendaele at any prior point in the war.  Further south, the British and Canadians had pushed beyond the Hindenburg Line from Cambrai to St. Quentin, while the French and Italians were pushing north from the Aisne.

October 14 1918, Courtrai–The Allied offensive in Flanders, while achieving dramatic success initially, had slowed to a halt due to supply problems.  By October 14, they had been able to resupply and bring their artillery forward, and resumed the attack at 5:35AM that morning, on a front stretching from Dixmude south to the French border.  Although the attack was not a surprise, they did not anticipate much German resistance, and had their rolling barrage go forward at the quick rate of 100 yards per minute.  Many of the defending Germans quickly surrendered, and the Allies took over 12,000 PoWs in the first few days of the offensive.  The next day, Ludendorff authorized a general withdrawal from Flanders, which his subordinates and local commanders had been urging for weeks.

Today in 1917: Trading With the Enemy Act

Today in 1916: Franco-Russian Attack on Kenali Fails As Warned
Today in 1915: Bulgaria Declares War on Serbia
Today in 1914: Rush to Buy Zeppelin Insurance in London

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Outrage Grows in Washington as Dead Pile Up

A Red Cross demonstration in Washington during the flu pandemic.

October 13 1918, Washington, DC–The first death from the new, most virulent wave of the Spanish flu was reported in Washington, DC on September 21, having spread from New York by the railroad. By early October, as deaths continue to mount, local health officials banned large public gatherings, shuttered schools and churches.  Federal agencies staggered working hours and stopped hiring non-local employees for war work.  William Sardo, the son of a funeral director, recalled the atmosphere in the city at the time:

It kept people apart….It took away all your community life, you had no community life, you had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing….People were afraid to kiss one another, people were afraid to eat with one another, they were afraid to have anything that mad contact because that’s how you got the flu….You were constantly afraid, you were afraid because you saw so much death around you, you were surrounded by death….When each day dawned you didn’t know whether you would be there when the sun set that day. It wiped out entire families from the time that the day began in the morning to bedtime at night….They disappeared from the face of the earth.

At its peak, the flu killed 72 people a day.  All hospital beds were filled by mid-October.  The logistics of burying the dead became more and more difficult.  A shortage of gravediggers forced District health officials to conscript Marines, and then prisoners, for the task.  On October 10, the District ran out of coffins.  Some were available on the open market, but at exorbitant prices.  An October 13 editorial in the Washington Post excoriated the “coffin trust” that was “holding the people of the city by the throat and extorting from them outrageous prices for coffins and the disposal of the dead.”

District health officials were able to solve the coffin shortage, at least, later in the week, by using wartime powers to seize a shipment of coffins headed for Pittsburgh (which had a shortage of its own).  That fall and winter, nearly 3000 District residents (around 1% of the population) would die of the flu.

Today in 1917: Haig Pauses Passchendaele Attacks

Today in 1916: Norway Bans Submarines From Territorial Waters
Today in 1915: Deadliest Zeppelin Raid of the War
Today in 1914: British Receive German Naval Code Books

Sources include: John M. Barry, The Great Influenza.

Remember to get your flu shot this season!