Category: united states

Eugene Debs Gives Speech that Leads to His Arr…

Eugene Debs (left) pictured with Max Eastman (editor of The Masses) and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1918.  All three were indicted under the Espionage and Sedition Acts in 1918.  Debs’ praise of both in his Canton speech was used as evidence in his trial and appeals.  

In Eastman’s trial, his lawyer noted the irony that Eastman had gone to a federal judge to attempt to force the Post Office to mail The Masses: “Do men who are committing a crime go into a Federal Court and face a District Attorney and ask the privilege of continuing it?  A strange set of burglars!”

June 16 1918, Canton–The newly-enacted Sedition Act put a chill on free speech in the United States, especially for socialists and other anti-war activists.  The prominent Socialist Eugene V. Debs, who had run for President four times (getting 6% of the vote in 1912), recognized this at the opening of a speech to fellow Socialists in Canton, Ohio:

it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.

I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed upon the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think; but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than to be a sycophant and coward in the streets.

The remainder of the speech contains little that would seem seditious, though the praise of the Bolsheviks does jump out to a modern reader.  At most, he condemned war in the usual socialist terms:

…[T]he purpose of the Allies is exactly the purpose of the Central Powers, and that is the conquest and spoilation of the weaker nations that has always been the purpose of war….

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder….They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why;
Yours but to do and die.

That is their motto and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

He also praised many other activists who had been arrested for obstructing the draft, though he was careful to avoid noting that they did so.  Debs did go out of his way to note his, and his fellow socialists’, fervent opposition to the Kaiser:

Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? Why, we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born; and we are going to continue to fight it, day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth. Between us there is no truce—no compromise.

Nonetheless, Debs’ speech attracted the ire of Wilson and his Justice Department, and was arrested under the Sedition Act for this speech on June 30, claiming that the implicit intent of his speech was to obstruct the draft.  He was convicted on these charges in September and sentenced to ten years in prison a week after the armistice.  His sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court, though President Harding would commute his sentence in 1921.

Today in 1917: Last Easter Rising Prisoners Released

Today in 1916: Arabs Take Mecca and Jeddah
Today in 1915: Italians Seize Krn, Fail to Take Hill 383

Sources include: Michael Kazin, War Against War.

Marines Attack At Belleau Wood

A wounded Marine being evacuated from Belleau Wood.

June 6 1918, Belleau Wood–The Americans had only “just got here” when they began a counterattack against the Germans.  At 5PM on June 6, the Marines advanced on Belleau Wood across an open wheatfield behind a relatively anemic rolling barrage.  John Thomason recalled that 

[They] attacked across the open, losing hideously.  Platoons were shot down entire….They gained a footing in the rocky ledges at the edge of the Bois de Belleau, suffering much from what was believed to be a machine-gun nest at this point. They tried to leave it and go on, with a containing force to watch it; they found that the whole wood was a machine-gun nest.

With the Marines was the journalist Floyd Gibbons, who had rushed there from Paris that day just in time for the battle.  Gibbons would be seriously wounded in the battle; thinking he had died of his wounds, his piece on the battle was let past the censors unaffected.  In a later memoir, Gibbons recalled:

[Sgt. Daly read the order] quickly, then glanced along the line of the dug-in platoon.  He stood up and made a forward motion to his men.  There was slight hesitation.  Who in the hell could blame them?  Machine gun and rifle bullets were kicking up the dirt, closer and closer.  The sergeant ran out to the center of his platoon – he swung his bayoneted rifle over his head with a forward sweep.  He yelled at his men: “Come on, you sons-of-bitches!  Do you want to live forever?”

The Marines would take the town of Bouresches, but the Germans held on to most of Belleau Wood itself, and close-quarters fighting would continue for nearly three weeks, the Marines only being briefly relieved (by other Americans).  An American staff officer ordered his liaison with the French: “On that question of relief, leave that matter entirely to the French.  Do not insist on any relief.  The reports that we have show that conditions are not very bad.”  The Marine brigade suffered over 1000 casualties on the first day, and nearly ten times that number over the following weeks.

Today in 1917: Brusilov New Commander-in-Chief in Russia

Today in 1916: Arabs Attack Ottomans Near Medina
Today in 1915: Zeppelin Raid on Hull, Failed Raid on London

Sources include: Gary Mead, The Doughboys; A. Scott Berg (ed.), World War I and America; Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers.

New York Prepares For Air Raids

June 5 1918, New York–The sudden opening of the U-boat campaign off the New Jersey coast caused something of a panic in New York.  The harbor was shut down to shipping briefly, and on the night of June 4/5, New York introduced its first light ordinance, designed to hamper a possible German submarine-launched air raid.  Advertising and display lights were to be shut off, and shades should be drawn in buildings where possible.  On June 5, after a test flight by army aviators to test the effectiveness of the new regulations saw Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and other major thoroughfares clearly, certain (but not all) streetlights were dimmed as well.

The possibility that the Germans would attack New York with a plane launched from a submarine was extremely remote, as American officials acknowledged–the Germans had neither the capability nor the inclination to do so.  However, later in the summer, the Germans did consider a raid on New York with a long-range Zeppelin, similar to the one sent to Africa, though the proposal was quickly rejected.  The lighting restrictions on the shoreline also, perhaps inadvertently, could have served to hinder U-boat operations.  Although U-151 and her sisters mainly operated on the surface during daytime, at night lights on the shoreline allowed passing ships to be easily detected by their silhouettes; this would prove to be a major problem during the next war.

Today in 1917: Draft Registration Day in the United States

Today in 1916: Lord Kitchener Drowns
Today in 1915: Italians Finally Cross the Isonzo

“Retreat? Hell, We Just Got Here!”


Captain Lloyd Williams (1887-1918), pictured in 1909.  He would be killed during the fighting at Belleau Wood on June 12.

June 3 1918, Château-Thierry–Although, at the highest levels, the French were probably unwilling to throw fresh reserves into the grist of the German advance, they ultimately had little choice; the German breakthrough needed to be stopped.  Although Foch and Pétain still had the confidence of Clemenceau and the rest of the French government, it was unclear if this would last if the retreats continued.  In the days leading up to June 3, the French committed 27 divisions to the battle, including two American divisions, the 2nd and 3rd, Pershing having realized that his hope for a unified American army in France would have to wait.

The 3rd Division made their way north by rail as long as they could, without their artillery, then walked the last 15 miles to the Marne.  The first Americans reached Château-Thierry on May 31 and quickly joined a French colonial division already there.  The Germans ultimately took the town after heavy fighting, but the Americans’ main concern was to prevent the Germans from crossing the Marne there, which they did.  Other elements of the 3rd Division held the Marne over the ten miles to the east of Château-Thierry, and at Jaulgonne participated in a counterattack that destroyed a German bridgehead across the river.

The 2nd Division, comprised of one Army and one Marine brigade, had been preparing to relieve the 1st Division at Cantigny when they got their orders to move in the opposite direction, towards the new battlefield.  Rail transport was unavailable except for their artillery, so the infantry had to walk the whole way, on roads clogged with refugees and retreating French soldiers.  Upon reaching the zone of battle, the French wanted the Americans to immediately counterattack; the Americans, who did not yet have their supplies or artillery, disagreed and instead dug in along a twelve-mile line across the Paris-Reims road northwest of Château-Thierry behind the forward French positions.

On June 3, the Germans finally broke through the French lines.  A French major advised a Marine, Captain Lloyd W. Williams, to retreat, to which he replied “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here!”  The American line ultimately held against the desperate German attack.  Major Francis Evans recalled:

…When the Germans attacked at 5PM, we had a box seat….They came out, on a wonderfully clear day, in two columns across a wheat-field….The rifle and machine gun fire were incessant and overhead the shrapnel was bursting….It seemed for all the world that the green field had burst out in patches of white daisies where those columns were doggedly moving.  And it did again and again, no barrage, but with the skill and accuracy of a cat playing with two brown mice that she could reach and mutilate at will and without any hurry….Under that deadly fire and the barrage of rifle and machine gun fire, the Boches stopped.  It was too much for any men.  They burrowed in or broke to the cover of the woods.

The situation was similar across the rest of the German line.  The chief of staff of the attacking corps recalled:

Though we told ourselves and our men, “On to Paris,” we knew that this was no not to be….Our casualties were increasingly alarming; ammunition was running short and the problem of supply, in view of the large demands, became more and more difficult.  It became all too clear that actions so stubbornly contested and involving us in such formidable losses would never enable us to capture Paris.  In truth the brilliant offensive had petered out.

The Germans would go on the defensive the next day, while preparations were made for the launching of Plan Gneisenau, scheduled for within a week.

Today in 1917: Italy Declares Protectorate Over Albania

Today in 1916: French Declare State of Siege in Salonika
Today in 1915: Austrians and Germans Retake Przemyśl

Sources include: John Keegan, The First World War; Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War.

U-Boat Campaign Crosses the Atlantic

U-151, seen from a Spanish passenger liner.

June 2 1918, Atlantic City–The cruises of the “submarine merchant ship” Deutschland and her sister boats in 1916 had demonstrated that Germany had U-boats that could cross the Atlantic.  They were converted to military purposes after America entered the war, but had not crossed the Atlantic since.  In part, this was because the Germans did not want to overly antagonize the Americans, but also because such a voyage would be much more difficult as they could no longer refuel in American ports.  U-151 was the first to make the journey, arriving off the eastern seaboard in late May, laying mines at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River, and attacking any American merchant ships she encountered.  The United States did not have a significant anti-submarine effort off her own coast, as most of their effort had gone to the other side of the Atlantic.  As a result, U-151 could safely follow prize rules: stopping ships on the surface, letting those on board evacuate, and then sinking the ships with charges.

On June 2, U-151 sank five ships this way off the coast of New Jersey.  A sixth, the passenger liner Carolina, en route from San Juan to New York, attempted to flee and the Germans fired shells in her direction.  Her captain, fearing loss of life if the shells struck, stopped and evacuated the vessel, after which the Germans finished off the ship with more shells.  During a storm that night, one of the Carolina’s lifeboats overturned and thirteen on board drowned.  The U-151 remained off of the American and Canadian coasts for the rest of June.  On June 18, U-151 had its only encounter with a Navy vessel, the USS Von Steuben, formerly the German commerce raider Kronprinz Wilhelm; a torpedo from the former and a depth charge from the latter both narrowly missed.

Today in 1917: Grand Duke Nicholas Arrested

Today in 1916: Germans Attack Canadians at Ypres
Today in 1915: Britain Announces Blockade of Turkey

Troopship President Lincoln Sunk by U-90


The USS President Lincoln, by Fred Dana Marsh

May 31 1918, Brest–Despite Admiral Holtzendorff’s pledge, the Germans had only sunk one American troop transport bound for Europe, the TuscaniaOn May 23, another convoy of troop transports successfully arrived in Brest, including the USS President Lincoln.  Formerly of the Hamburg-America line, the ship was seized by the US Navy from its German crew at the outbreak of the war (despite attempts by the crew to damage her) and became one of America’s largest troop transports.  On May 29, the convoy left Brest to return to the United States, carrying a few dozen wounded soldiers.  Although a less tempting target than a full troopship, the passage out of Brest was still dangerous, and American destroyers accompanied them until they got out of the main submarine danger zone late on May 30.


Hardtack found on the President Lincoln when she was seized by the US Navy on the first day of the war; now in the collection of the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

Around 9AM on the morning of May 31, however, the President Lincoln was hit by two torpedoes near her bow, from the German submarine U-90; those on board the President Lincoln were unaware of the submarine’s presence until they saw the torpedoes headed their way.  Seven men were killed in the initial explosions, and the ship quickly began to sink.  Nevertheless, all the remaining crew, along with the wounded (and two paralyzed) soldiers were able to make it to the boats in time, even as a third torpedo struck aft.  The President Lincoln had some armament of its own, and fired at U-90 until the ocean lapped at her guns, but to no avail.  The President Lincoln sank in about twenty minutes, sucking one of the last rafts (with another nineteen men) down with her.

The U-90 then surfaced near the boats, hoping to capture a high-value prisoner.  As everyone kept telling the Germans (falsely) that the captain had gone down with the ship, they instead took Lt. Edouard Izac.  Izac learned valuable information about U-boat movements on the way back to Germany, and repeatedly attempted to escape from his PoW camp with this information, finally succeeding in the final weeks of the war.  The remainder of the crew was rescued by American destroyers after nearly fourteen hours at sea.


Among the 26 killed on the President Lincoln was Ships Cook (3rd Class) Grundy B. Johnson, this author’s great-great-uncle. He is listed here on the Tennessee War Memorial along with the other 3400 Tennesseans killed in the First World War. 

Today in 1917: Press Censorship Defeated in US Congress

Today in 1916: Jutland
Today in 1915:  Allied Advance up the Tigris

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

First American Battle of the War

American troops go “over the top” at Cantigny.

May 28 1918, Cantigny–The Americans had been in the war for over a year, and in the front lines for over seven months, but never beyond quiet sectors of the front.  Delays stemming from Pershing’s insistence on keeping American forces together as a cohesive army meant that (beyond a handful of engineers who happened to be in the area) the Americans did not participate in the defense against the major German offensives of March and April.  Eventually, seeing the need for the Americans to do something, if only to boost Allied morale, Pershing allowed the 1st Division to be deployed near Cantigny, on the southern flank of the German salient created by Operation Michael.  If the Germans made another push towards Amiens, the Americans would attack on their flank.  Such an offensive never came, but the Americans went forward with plans for a more limited attack–taking a small German salient centered around the town of Cantigny.

The American plan for the battle was drawn up by the division’s assistant chief of staff, Lt. Col. George C. Marshall, and called for a heavy preparatory artillery fire, followed by a rolling barrage to cover the infantry advance.  Once the infantry had secured the town, the artillery would continue counter-battery efforts so that the infantry could dig in and hold the town without molestation from German artillery fire.  Although all the attacking infantry would be American, they did not have enough heavy weaponry to do it themselves, and would thus rely on artillery, a dozen tanks, and flamethrowers provided and manned by the French.  A day before the attack was schedule to go forward, however, the Germans attacked and broke through on the Aisne, leaving the French scrambling for reinforcements.  It was decided that the attack on Cantigny would go ahead, but the French would pull their forces out after the town was taken in the early morning; the Americans would be on their own to defend against any counterattacks.

The bombardment began at 5:45 AM on the 28th, and the infantry attacked an hour later.  Although they suffered significant casualties in areas where the German machine guns had not been knocked out, the Americans were able to secure the German front line and the town of Cantigny as planned within two hours.  The German survivors in the basements of the destroyed town itself surrendered or were killed by the French flamethrowers.  Although the withdrawal of the French artillery soon thereafter meant that the Americans took heavy casualties to German fire, they were not subjected to an organized German counterattack until nearly 6PM, by which time they had been able to successfully entrench beyond Cantigny.

Although overshadowed by the ongoing German offensive on the Aisne, the American victory at Cantigny was an important moral victory for the Americans and their allies–the Americans were coming, and they could defeat the Germans in battle.  It came at a heavy cost, however; over a third of the Americans participating in the battle were wounded, and another 199 were killed.

Today in 1917: Allies Decide to Depose King Constantine of Greece

Today in 1916: Austrians Capture Asiago
Today in 1915: Germany Issues Unapologetic Note on Lusitania to US

Sources include: Matthew J. Davenport, First Over There; Andrew Carroll, My Fellow Soldiers.

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

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