Category: the first world war

First Americans Arrive in Russia

American troops on parade in Vladivostok.

August 16 1918, Vladivostok–Like the other Allies, the Americans sent troops to Russia during their civil war.  The first of them, around 3000 men from the 27th US Infantry, arrived in Vladivostok from the Philippines on August 16.  Their main goal was to protect American supplies that had been sent there to aid the long-since-ceased Russian war effort, as well as to aid the Czechoslovak Legion in its efforts to extricate itself from Russia and proceed to the Western Front to resume its part in the war.  Although the American commander in Siberia, General Graves (who would arrive the next month), tried his best to stay out of Russian politics, the task was difficult; he had been warned by the War Secretary to “Watch your step, you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.”  The Czechs had decisively intervened in favor of the Whites (installing a White government in Vladivostok), the Bolsheviks had announced that a de facto state of war existed with the United States and the other Allies, and the day before the Americans landed, Wilson had severed diplomatic relations with the government in Moscow.  Wilson also said that the American role there should include the “steady[ing of] any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves may be willing to accept assistance.”

Although not explicitly stated, another reason for the American presence was to keep an eye on the Japanese.  Wilson had encouraged the Japanese to land at Vladivostok themselves (which they had done, in large numbers, starting at the beginning of August), but was distrustful of their motives, and wanted to ensure that they did not expand their influence into Siberia permanently. The American forces would remain in and around Vladivostok until April 1920, suffering 189 deaths (mainly from disease and exposure) in that time span.

Today in 1917: Battle of Langemarck

Today in 1916: French Successes on the Somme
Today in 1915: Kitchener Agrees to Support Offensive in France
Today in 1914: Final Liège Forts Surrender

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

Volunteer Army Takes Ekaterinodar

August 15 1918, Ekaterinodar [Krasnodar]–In April, the Volunteer Army, at that time the only significant anti-Bolshevik force, was nearly broken when it attempted to take the city of Ekaterinodar.  Its commander, General Kornilov, was killed by a Red shell, leading Lenin to prematurely declare victory in the civil war.  His successor, Denikin, retreated from the city and rebuilt his force from the Kuban Cossacks.  Aided by harsh Red rule that alienated the local population, as well as uprisings on the Don and Volga that cut off the local Reds, he went back on the offensive in June.  Despite pleas from other White forces to assist them–the Don Cossacks were threatening Tsaritsyn [Volgograd], and the Czechs and Komuch were heavily engaged on the Volga–Denikin knew his force’s limits, and concentrated on the Kuban.

On August 15, the Volunteer Army was able to take Ekaterinodar, site of its earlier defeat.  The local Red government was forced to flee southeast to Pyatigorsk, even further away from any other Red units.  The fall of Ekaterinodar also cut off a force of around 30,000 Reds in the Taman Peninsula to the west; they would have to conduct a 300-mile march to get to safety.  In the coming weeks, Denikin would quickly secure most of the rest of the western Kuban, including Novorossiysk, the Reds’ last port on the Black Sea.

On the same day, in Moscow, the United States severed relations with the Bolshevik government.  The Bolsheviks had made it clear they considered the Allies to be at war with them, and acted accordingly.  The United States would not recognize the Soviet government until late 1933.

Today in 1917: Battle of Hill 70

Today in 1916: Two British Submarines Sink After Collision
Today in 1915: Stopford’s Last Attack at Suvla Bay Fails
Today in 1914: Japan Issues Germany an Ultimatum

Sources include: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

German and Austrian War Leaders Meet at Spa

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Emperor Charles, pictured in Spa on August 14.  This would be their last meeting.

August 14 1918, Spa–In the span of only a few days, the Central Powers’ hope for a military victory had apparently disappeared.  The German collapse near Amiens, although checked before it turned catastrophic, still made it clear that the German army was in no condition to go back onto the offensive, and would be lucky to survive further Allied attacks.  In private, Ludendorff retreated into depression, while still ordering determined resistance to the British and (now increasingly) French advance.  One of his aides, Col. von Haeften, noted on August 12 that he was 

…outwardly calm, but very grave…It was not the loss of territory or the superiority of the tank…which disturbed him…What depressed the General was that he had lost confidence in the morale of his troops, the indispensable element in victory.  Ludendorff said to Haeften that the men could no longer be depended upon and we needed peace quickly….No longer could any hope be placed in an offensive.

The Kaiser had come to a similar conclusion on August 10: “I see that we must draw up the balance sheet, we are on the brink of insolvency.  The war must be ended.”  He summoned Hindenburg & Ludendorff to meet with him in Spa, along with Chancellor Hertling and Foreign Minister Hintze.

In their meetings with the Kaiser and the political leaders of Germany on August 13 and 14, Hindenburg & Ludendorff were far more sanguine than they were with their military colleagues.  Ludendorff told Chancellor Hintze that a “strategic defensive with periodic offensive action” (whatever that meant) could still offer “good prospects for finally crippling the enemy’s will to war.”  Hindenburg admitted the army could not “break the enemy’s will” as they had planned for 1918, but was optimistic that the German army could remain in control of large parts of France and thus “enforce their will on the enemy.” 

Hindenburg recommended that Germany change its diplomatic approach in the meantime, but the Kaiser was so encouraged by Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s tone that he only ordered a peace feeler via the monarchs of Netherlands and Spain, rather than directly to the Allied powers.  Chancellor Hertling went further, planning to delay even this tepid offer until “after the next German success in the west;” no such success would come.  Regardless, none of Hertling, Hintze, nor the Kaiser put too much effort into challenging Hindenburg & Ludendorff’s views.

Ludendorff knew he was deceiving the Kaiser and the Chancellor.  Perhaps he could not bear to admit defeat before the Kaiser, feared for his own position, or was already seeking to deflect post-war blame to the civilians.  Maybe his reasons were exactly what he told one of his officers: “Perfect candor would have led to a catastrophe!  If I had told them the truth, they would have completely lost their heads.”  Regardless of his motivations, the result of the conference at Spa was the waste of more lives fighting a war that had already been lost.

Coincidentally, Austro-Hungarian leadership was also in Spa at the same time, including Emperor Charles, Chief of Staff Arz, and Foreign Minister Buriàn.  The Germans tried and failed to get the Austrians to commit to more troops for the Western Front.  Arz admitted “Austria-Hungary could only continue the war until December.”  

Nevertheless, this did not stop Arz and Ludendorff from discussing far-fetched plans; Arz suggested another offensive against Italy, and the two even agreed for an attack on Romania for late September, codenamed Fangstoss.  King Ferdinand had refused to sign the Treaty of Bucharest that ended the war, and the Central Powers believed they might have to resort to force to compel him to do so.  Romania was surrounded on all sides, largely occupied by the Germans, and had been forced to demobilize, but the Central Powers only really had minimal occupation forces in the area.  Events would ultimately move faster than the plans for Fangstoss; Romania would eventually re-enter the war, but on its own terms.

Today in 1917: China Declares War on Germany

Today in 1916: Threatened US Railroad Strike Endangers Allied Munitions Supplies
Today in 1915:  Russians Sortie from Kovno
Today in 1914:  British Expeditionary Force Commander Sir John French Arrives in France

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian Battlefront in World War I; Alexander Watson, Ring of Steel.

Highest Battle of the War

A trench dug out of the ice in the Alps; Capt. Berni, who led the attack on Mt. San Matteo, is at right.  He would be killed when the Austrians retook the mountain the next month; his body has never been recovered.

August 13 1918, San Matteo–The far western portion of the Italian front, near the border with Switzerland, had seen little large-scale fighting, apart from a diversionary attack at the Tonale pass in the lead-up to the Piave offensive.  The terrain was too difficult and the conditions too harsh to support large armies.  In one case, a detachment of 100 Italian soldiers had to be supported by 900 porters just to bring up their needed supplies every day.  Nonetheless, fighting continued, at the smallest scales, in conditions unfit for long-term human habitation.

On August 13, a small group of Alpini seized Mt. San Matteo, a peak of over 12000 feet, in a surprise attack.  Many of the defenders were captured, others fled down the peak, and still others were killed.  As glaciers have retreated from the area in the past few decades, several bodies from the battle, mummified by the conditions, have been found in the area.

In early September, the Austrians sent a force of 150 men to retake the mountain, with a large amount (for the area) of artillery support.  The Italians, knowing they could not hold onto the peak, began shelling it themselves as well, killing many of their own defenders.  The operation would be the last Austrian victory in the war; they would lose the mountain in the peace treaty.  The fighting on Mt. San Matteo was the highest-altitude warfare in the First World War; war in similar conditions would not be fought again until the 1960′s, when India and China battled in the Himalayas.

Today in 1917: German Nobel Laureate Dies of Wounds

Today in 1916: First British Tanks Depart for France
Today in 1915: German POWs Escape, Attempt Rendezvous with U-Boat
Today in 1914: Germans Take Three Forts Surrounding Liège In One Day

Sources include: Mark Thompson, The White War.

Bolsheviks Depart Baku

August 12 1918, Baku–The remaining Red Army forces in Baku were left in an awkward situation after the Bolshevik commissars that had been running the city were deposed and arrested in late July.  The troops were able to secure the commissars’ release, and attempted to turn the local population against the new government, the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship, to no avail.  Not wanting to cooperate with the British, even to defend the city against the Turks, they were given orders from Moscow to depart.  The Centro-Caspian Dictatorship gave them ships to take them to Astrakhan, the last Bolshevik-friendly port on the Caspian, and they departed on August 12.  However, it soon became apparent that they had taken off with a large quantity of materiel needed for the city’s defense, and the Centro-Caspian Dictatorship soon dispatched more ships to track them down.  They soon intercepted the Red ships, brought them back to Baku, and forced them to unload all their military supplies before letting them depart again.  The Baku commissars, on the other hand, were arrested once again.  The departure of the Red Army troops and their theft of the supplies needed to defend the city completely turned the local population decidedly against the Bolsheviks; they would only return, by force, in 1920.

Today in 1917: Gotha Raid on Southend

Today in 1916: King George Dines With French Officials


Today in 1915: First Aerial Torpedo Attack of Enemy Ship
Today in 1914:  German Heavy Artillery Opens Fire on Liège Forts

French Capture Montdidier

The town hall of Montdidier, pictured on August 10.

August 10 1918, Montdidier–As was typically the case in the First World War, the great gains of the Allied offensive on August 8 slowed down considerably on subsequent days as they outran their artillery, their tanks broke down (only 67 of 430 remaining in service on the 10th), supplies became harder to come by, and German reinforcements arrived.  Nevertheless, they were still able to make considerable progress.  In a textbook operation, the French First Army encircled and captured Montdidier, their main objective, on August 10.  The Germans were also making a limited withdrawal from certain areas, aiding the Allies.  However, in other areas, they ran into stiffer resistance: fresh German troops supported by machine guns and heavy artillery.  Many of the Germans that had survived the fighting on August 8 realized, as did many generals, that the defeat was the beginning of the end of the war for theme, and called the newly-arriving troops “blacklegs,” “strike-breakers,” and “war-prolongers.”

Foch wanted the Allied offensive to continue, pressing their advantage and pushing on towards Ham, as planned.  Rawlinson, however, knew that his men were exhausted, his position had weaknesses on its flanks, the Germans had reinforced, and supply difficulties would only grow as he pushed on into the old Somme battlefield.  On August 10, he confronted Haig, asking him, “Are you commanding the British Army or is Marshal Foch?”  Although local fighting would continue over the next few days, the offensive would not resume as Foch desired.  Instead, Haig began planning an attack with Byng’s Third Army just to the north.  Foch, who just wanted to keep the Germans on their toes, was ultimately satisfied with this.

Today in 1917: Rommel Leads Attack on Mount Cosna


Today in 1916: King George V Visits the Somme
Today in 1915: Germans Begin Siege of Novogeorgievsk
Today in 1914: France Breaks Off Relations with Austria

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.

Italian Propaganda Flight Over Vienna

Italian leaflets falling over Vienna.

August 9 1918, Vienna–The nationalist poet and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio had been one of the leading voices calling for Italian entry into the war.  Since then, he had been chosen to be Italy’s official war chronicler (a task he would never complete), occasionally participated in the fighting at the front (including a disastrous raid that he carried out during the Tenth Battle of the Isonzo), and trained to be a pilot.  He put these latter skills to use on August 9, when he led a leaflet-dropping mission over Vienna, a 750-mile round-trip flight. D’Annunzio’s 50,000 leaflets were in his usual overwrought style (“On this August morning, while the fourth year of your desperate convulsion comes to an end and luminously begins the year of our full power, suddenly there appears the tricolor wing as an indication of the destiny that is turning….”) and were in Italian, which could not be read by most of Vienna’s population.  Critics quipped that once “he wrote but did not act,” but “now he acts but does not write.”

The planes also dropped 350,000 leaflets in German, which were presumably more effective:

VIENNESE!

Learn to know the Italians.
We are flying over Vienna; we could drop tons of bombs. All we are dropping on you is a greeting of three colors: the three colors of liberty.
We Italians do not make war on children, on old people, on women.
We are making war on your government, the enemy of national liberties, on your blind, stubborn, cruel government that can give you neither peace nor bread, and feeds you hatred and illusions.

VIENNESE!

You are famous for being intelligent. But why have you put on the Prussian uniform? By now, you see, the whole world has turned against you.
You want to continue the war? Continue it; it’s your suicide. What do you hope for? The decisive victory promised to you by the Prussian generals? Their decisive victory is like the bread of Ukraine: You die waiting for it.

PEOPLE OF VIENNA, think of your own fates. Wake up!

LONG LIVE LIBERTY!

LONG LIVE ITALY!

LONG LIVE THE ENTENTE!

While its effect on Vienna is unclear, the flight provided a definite boost to Italian morale, especially in the parts of Italy occupied by the Austrians.  While the Allies won great victories on the Western Front, the Italian Army continued to recuperate; the Italians would have be satisfied with D’Annunzio’s exploits for the time being.

Today in 1917: Robertson Fumes as Only One British Division Leaves Salonika

Today in 1916: Austrians Fall Back From Isonzo
Today in 1915: Landings at Suvla Bay Stall
Today in 1914:  U-15 Sunk: First German U-Boat Loss of the War

Sources include: Mark Thompson, The White War.

“The Black Day of the German Army”

Some of the over 15,000 captured German PoWs arriving at Amiens the next day.

August 8 1918, Amiens–The British had largely not participated in the three weeks of intense fighting on the Marne, contributing only four divisions to the effort.  As a result, they were ready to launch an attack of their own against the large German salient won during Operation Michael in March.  Rawlinson had been planning a relatively limited attack, similar to the successful operation at Hamel in early July, but somewhat larger in scope.  The aims became decidedly less limited when Foch placed the French First Army at his disposal, and envisioned an eventual advance of nearly thirty miles.  Rawlinson was not pleased with this, as he thought an expansion of the attacking force stood a chance of ruining the surprise on which his plan hinged.

The British went to lengths as yet unseen in the war to achieve that surprise.  Fake radio traffic was sent to convince the Germans that the Canadian Corps (who would be in the vanguard of the attack) was instead being sent north to Ypres.  A huge British and French air presence made sure the Germans could not see the Allied preparations from the air; in the final hours, the airplanes also conducted a “noise barrage” to hide the sounds of the 430 tanks starting up and moving into their final positions.  The artillery was registered by electric means beforehand, so that they would not clue the Germans in by range-finding by shelling them.  Rawlinson was convinced to not conduct a preliminary bombardment, but, as on the Marne, start off with a rolling barrage only a minute or two before the infantry would advance; the German defenses were weak enough that this would be sufficient.

The attack started at 4:20 AM on August 8, and the Canadians and Australians quickly overwhelmed the German defenses.  Some tried to hold out, but found it impossible.  Lt. Albers recalled:

Unfortunately our hand grenades had all been used; there was no longer time to operate the machine gun amid the chaos.  Every man fired and defended himself as well as he could.  But a new wave of English arrived in force, firing pistols and throwing hand grenades and killing or wounding many of my colleagues.  Completely surrounded, shot at and bombed from all sides, with resistance no longer possible, the 20 men remaining from my company had to surrender.

They were among the over 15,000 PoWs captured that day.  By 9 AM, the Australians and Canadians had reached the old German artillery positions (capturing over 300 guns) and were in open country.  Sgt. Walter Downing, from Portland, Victoria, recalled:

For miles and miles infantry were everywhere advancing, dotted over hill and dale on either hand as far as the eye could see.  Bayonets grouped and glinted in the charge as a battalion swarmed to the storming of a town miles away.  Here and there thick columns of smoke and sputtering explosions told that the enemy dumps were burning.  Red roofs and while walls trembled in the hot sunshine where villages drowsed beneath their lichened elms; the crops were lemon green, the pastured hillsides of a richer verdure; double rows of poplars shadowed the long straight roads.

By the end of the day, the Australians and Canadians had advanced up to nine miles some places.  The advance was slower on the flanks; in the north, the Germans had slowed progress with a well-time gas barrage, while in the south, the French got off to a later start (opting for a 45-minute preliminary barrage) and met stiffer resistance.  

At OHL, the mood quickly soured.  Ludendorff would later call it “the black day of the German army.”  They had few reliable reports from the field, but knew at least six divisions had been “completely broken.”  They ordered what reserves they had to the area and were able to plug the breach in the line, but Ludendorff felt Germany’s chance for victory in the war had slipped away.  He later recalled:

Leadership now assumed…the character of an irresponsible game of chance, a thing I have always considered fatal.  The fate of the German people was for me too high a stake.  The war must be ended.

If he felt this at the time, however, it was not apparent in his orders or his communications with other German leaders, although it was apparent Ludendorff was despondent.  As on the Marne, the Germans would continue “a strategic defensive,” making the Allies fight for every foot of ground, rather than falling back to the Hindenburg Line.

Today in 1917: Battle of Oituz

Today in 1916: Italians Enter Gorizia
Today in 1915: Hipper’s Squadron Attempts to Enter Gulf of Riga
Today in 1914:  French Troops Liberate Mulhouse

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days.

Whites Take Kazan

Trotsky (center, raising his hat) on his armored train, from which he would direct the Red Army’s fight against the Whites. He first left Moscow on this train on August 7, in direct response to the White victories on the Volga.

August 7 1918, Kazan–The Red situation on the Volga had been steadily deteriorating over the last month.  Although Muraviev’s revolt had been nipped in the bud by his death, Red Army morale was low and the Czechs and the Komuch continued to win victories, taking Simbirsk, Lenin’s birthplace, on July 24.  Nevertheless, the local Red commander, the Latvian Col. Vācietis planned a general offensive, ordering his forces to move on Simbirsk, Samara, Ekaterinburg, and the Trans-Siberian Railway.  The White leadership, on the other hand, was more cautious, planning a slow advance down the Volga towards Saratov, long an SR stronghold.  Not all of their commanders agreed, however, and on August 5, a “microscopic” detachment of Czechs and troops loyal to the Komuch arrived at Vācietis’ headquarters at Kazan after sailing down the Volga.  

Supported by heavy guns mounted on barges in the river, heavy fighting continued for the next two days between the Whites and the Latvian Riflemen.  

Vācietis complained about the other troops at his disposal; the Russians “turned out to be completely useless as a result of their poor training and indiscipline” and “the workers could not shoot or attack, they could not even build barricades.” Vācietis himself only narrowly escaped his own headquarters in the wee hours of August 7, after part of his staff defected to the Whites and began shooting at him.

The victory in Kazan was also a major financial victory for the Whites, as Kazan was the home of Russia’s gold reserves since 1915, moved there from Petrograd after the Germans advanced uncomfortably close to the city.  The haul, totaling over 1000 pounds, would prove highly useful in financing the war effort against the Bolsheviks.

The fall of Kazan caused a seeming panic among Bolshevik leadership, sometimes to their detriment.  An emergency draft of workers in Izhevsk (150 miles northeast of Kazan) caused a workers’ revolt in that city which would not be suppressed for several months.  Trotsky was dispatched to the Volga region to lead the Red Army personally.  Three days later, against Trotsky’s advice, Lenin ordered over 30,000 men to be moved from Petrograd’s defenses (where they were guarding against the Germans) east to the Volga.  The Germans, after all, had promised they would not move on the city–and besides, the Germans would have far more pressing matters in the West in the coming days.

Today in 1917: US Army and Red Cross Reorganized

Today in 1916: Russian Army Threatens Hungary
Today in 1915: Confusion at Suvla Bay
Today in 1914: German Cruisers Goeben and Breslau Escape Into the Aegean

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War.

Foch Promoted to Marshal

Foch, with his marshal’s baton; he would not actually receive the baton itself until the 24th.

August 6 1918, Paris–General Foch, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, had survived intense criticism that arose after the German success on the Aisne in late May, and by early August had won his own first great victory, reversing most of the German gains while keeping a large enough Allied reserve to plan further attacks imminently.  For this success, Foch was promoted to Marshal of France on August 6.  This brought him to the same rank as Haig, who himself had likely been promoted in response after Joffre received his baton as compensation for being forced out by Nivelle in late 1916.  

Even the Central Powers respected Foch, with Vienna’s Arbeiter Zeitung saying on the same day:

…the Allies now possess a leader whose name arouses confidence and…they believe that, unlike his predecessors, he will not fall far short of the mature skill…possessed by Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

The next hundred days would be a test of all three leaders’ skill and perseverance.

France’s commander-in-chief, Pétain, would not be promoted to Marshal until a few days after the armistice; Lyautey, Franchet d’Esperey, FayolleGallieni, and Maunoury would all receive batons in the years after the war (the last two posthumously).

Today in 1917: Battle of Marasesti

Today in 1916: Italians Take Mts San Michele and Sabotino
Today in 1915: Allied Landing at Suvla Bay
Today in 1914: Ludendorff Breaks into Liège

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