Category: world war i

Whites Resume Offensive in the Kuban

June 22, 1918, Salsk–The Volunteer Army had successfully regrouped and recuperated after the Ice March of the late winter and Kornilov’s death in battle in April.  On June 22, Denikin’s 9000-man force once again began attacking the Soviets, striking at a rail junction just south of the Don.  Although Soviet forces in the larger Kuban and north Caucasus area outnumbered the Volunteer Army more than ten-to-one, the Whites had some distinct advantages.  The Cossack population of the area had largely turned against the Soviets; many Kuban Cossacks joined the Volunteer Army, while the Don Cossacks under General Krasnov had recovered after Kaledin’s suicide and retaken Novocherkassk.  The Germans had also entered the area, having occupied Rostov in early May, and were on friendly terms with Krasnov’s Cossacks.  This cut off Soviet forces from the most direct routes to the rest of Russia, and in their first few weeks of operations in late June and early July, the Volunteer Army was able to cut off the rest as well; the Soviets in the north Caucasus would be on their own until after the armistice.

Today in 1917: German U-Boats Attack US Troop Transports

Today in 1916: Greek Government Resigns After Allied Demands
Today in 1915:  Austrians Recapture Lviv

British Drop Plans for Conscription in Ireland

Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), a Sinn Féin politician who won a by-election in County Cavan on June 20, in part due to the party’s strong stance on conscription.  Like all Sinn Féin MPs, he would not take his seat in Westminster.

June 21 1918, Dublin–Two months after Lloyd George announced his plan to enact both conscription and Home Rule in Ireland, it was clear that the plan had failed.  Almost every segment of Irish society, from its politicians to its churchmen, had rejected conscription, and saw the offer of Home Rule for the tactic it was.  Irish republican nationalists had been emboldened by the effort, and Sinn Féin had won two by-elections in the last month.  The German offensives that had driven far into British lines in March and April had passed, and their attacks on the French had stalled as well.  The necessity for conscription in Ireland was also fading as more American soldiers crossed the Atlantic every week.  On June 21, Lloyd George abandoned the dual effort for conscription and Home Rule.  Subtler efforts to encourage Irish participation for the war effort continued, including a plan to appeal to Irish Catholic leaders to encourage men to join the French army to help defend their fellow Catholics on the continent.

Today in 1917: Kerensky Inspects “Women’s Battalion of Death”

Today in 1916: Battle of Carrizal
Today in 1915: French Make Successful, if Limited, Advance at Gallipoli

Austrians Call Off Piave Offensive

June 20 1918, Montello–After five days, the Austrian offensive had captured several bridgeheads across the Piave, but had failed to break the Italians.  They had suffered over 100,000 casualties, and with their river crossings constantly under attack from Allied planes and artillery, many of the wounded could not be evacuated back across the river.  Italian counterattacks had been held off so far, but that was no guarantee that would hold.  It was clear that the Austrians would make no further forward progress, but there was considerable debate as to how to proceed.  Many generals wanted to dig in and prepare for another offensive, launching from the Montello bridgehead.  Boroević recognized the Montello’s tactical value, knew that it held no value if they would never launch another offensive anyway.  It would also take a significant commitment of troops they did not have to fully secure the Montello from Italian counterattack.  On June 20, Boroević cabled Chief of Staff Arz and Emperor Charles: “As the Monarchy…has loyally fulfilled its duties as an ally…and cannot face the risk of remaining…I propose to withdraw…behind the Piave.”

Emperor Charles’ other commanders largely concurred with Boroević’s assessment; Arz informed him that another attack would not be possible for at least a month, and in the meantime they would have to hold off Italian counterattacks.  The Germans also implicitly weighed in, asking for six Austrian divisions for service in France.  That evening, Emperor Charles ordered a withdrawal back across the Piave.  The Austrians would not attack Italy again.

Sources include: Mark Thompson, The White War; Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

Today in 1917: Sailors Begin To Have Say in Food Supply on German Ships

Today in 1916: Kipling Publishes Short Piece in Praise of UK Submariners
Today in 1915: Castelnau, Pétain Promoted

Italians Counterattack on the Piave

Italian forces pictured on the Montello on June 22; they would not retake the hill until the next day.

June 19 1918, Montello–The Austrian advance from their bridgeheads had stalled after four days.  In the meantime, the complete Austrian failure on the Asiago allowed the Italians to bring up enough reserves, using their good interior lines of transport, to launch a counterattack with ten divisions on June 19th.  It was aimed at the Montello, a hill that formed the linchpin of the Austrians’ best bridgehead across the river.  They heavily outnumbered the Austrians in both men and artillery, but the counterattack only made limited gains, most of which were reversed the next day.  Nonetheless, the attack further exhausted the Austrians and depleted their supplies; one regiment ran out of bullets entirely and had to fend off attackers with bayonets and hand grenades for some time.

In addition to infantry reserves, the Allies were able to bring up artillery and airplanes as well.  The latter were especially dangerous, soon establishing complete aerial dominance in the area and strafing Austrian troops, supply depots, and bridges with impunity; eighty percent of the Austrians’ bridges across the Piave were destroyed by Allied attacks.

Today in 1917: Russian Sailors Depose Admiral Kolchak

Today in 1916: French Pilot Drops Leaflets on Berlin
Today in 1915: Boulogne Conference Pessimistic on Allied Offensive Before 1916

Sources include: Mark Thompson, The White War; John R. Schindler, Isonzo; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.

End of the Russian Black Sea Fleet

The Volya at sea in 1917, well before her surrender to the Germans.

June 18 1918, Novorossiysk–The Russians were quickly running out of ports to house their Black Sea Fleet.  The Germans had taken the entirety of the Ukraine, and were pushing beyond towards the Caucasus, while Georgia had declared independence (twice) and was now under German protection.  The fleet had escaped Sevastopol for Novorossiysk at the beginning of May, but this was the last harbor available to them.  In June, the Germans, who were within reach of the city, demanded that the Russians hand over their fleet.  Moscow ordered the fleet to scuttle itself instead.  The dreadnought Svobodnaya Rossiia (Free Russia; formerly the Imperatritsa Ekaterina Velikaya) was sunk by torpedoes from a destroyer on June 18; the majority of the remaining fleet followed suit over the next day.  Some ships, however, chose not to follow the order after votes from the sailors on board; the dreadnought Volya (Freedom; formerly Imperator Aleksandr III) and three destroyers instead returned to Sevastopol where there were interned and eventually seized by the Germans.  The Germans were never able to make use of their new dreadnought before the end of the war, however.

Today in 1917: US Admiral Sims Briefly Takes Command In Ireland

Today in 1916: Max Immelmann Killed
Today in 1915: Foch Halts French Offensive in Artois

Austrians Commit Final Reserves Across the Pia…

June 17 1918, Montello–Two days into the Austrian offensive, Conrad’s efforts on the Asiago had entirely stalled, and the Austrians committed everything they had left to Boroević’s forces on the Piave.  The Austrians attacked from their bridgeheads on the morning of the 17th; in some places they advanced nearly two miles, but there was no breakthrough to be had in the Italian lines.  That evening, Boroević committed the last fresh divisions he had to the battle; any more reserves would trickle in piecemeal, at best.  Boroević hoped that an upside of Conrad’s defeat on the Asiago was that troops could be transferred from that sector; however, fighting remained heavy there, and travel through the mountains and across the pre-war frontier took far too long.

Exacerbating the Austrians’ woes was their supply situation.  Shell supply was extremely short, and the batteries were rationing their use from the second day.  Getting supplies across the Piave was difficult on the limited number of bridges.  On the night of the 17th, the Piave’s waters rose even higher, breaking many of the pontoons the Austrians had managed to erect.

Today in 1917: Zeppelin Shot Down in Ill-Advised Raid

Today in 1916: Moltke the Younger Dies
Today in 1915:  Armenians Organize Resistance to Deportation in Shabinkarahisar

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; John R. Schindler, Isonzo.

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.

Massive Austrian Offensives In Italy

Italian Marines arrive on the Piave.

June 15 1918, Merano–To appease the Germans, the Austrians had committed to serious offensives against Italy, in the same fashion that the Germans had attacked the British and French throughout the Spring.  Conrad (in the Trentino) and Austrian Chief of Staff 

Arz von Straußenburg were both enthusiastic about the idea, Boroević (on the Piave) thought it was a mistake, but drew up plans anyway.  Arz and Emperor Charles eventually agreed on a compromise plan, of sorts; Conrad would attack south from the Asiago plateau (as he had in 1916), hoping to outflank the Italians on their left, while Boroević would cross the Piave and push towards Treviso.  Supplies and reserves were divided between the two generals, leaving both unhappy.  The offensive was set to go forward on June 11;

Boroević begged for a two-week delay to let the spring floodwaters on the Piave subside, but ultimately he was only given four days.

The Italians had plenty of warning that an Austrian attack was coming.  The Allies had aerial superiority in the theater, and could conduct extensive reconnaissance of Austrian preparations.  Austrian field telephones were also, unlike the Allied models, vulnerable to eavesdropping.  Most important was information from Austrian deserters, especially Czechs, who readily gave up what intelligence they knew.  The Italians expected and were not fooled by the diversion at Tonale Pass, and were ready for the main blows to fall further east.  On the Asiago plateau, the Italians were even able to start their own counter-barrage before the Austrians began shelling.

Nevertheless, Austrians had some initial success on the Asiago plateau; the British defenders there were taken by surprise due to a heavy fog, having only expected a bombardment and not an infantry attack.  However, British and Italian counterattacks stopped and even reversed the Austrian advance by the next morning; the French never lost any ground to begin with.  Even by noon, it was apparent that Conrad’s attack would not succeed, and Emperor Charles informed Boroević by telephone that “the Army of Tyrol is defeated.”  The Italians, who had the advantage of interior lines of communication, were quickly able to move reserves to the Piave.

Boroević’s forces had managed to cross the Piave despite the floodwaters and advanced up to two miles in places.  However, they suffered greatly from the Italian artillery, which had not been taken out by the Austrian bombardment due to poor spotting.  They also ran into severe supply difficulties; due to Allied air attacks and the high waters, only one pontoon bridge was successfully built across the river, and supplies and artillery remained on the eastern bank of the Piave.

Today in 1917: Espionage Act Passed; Emma Goldman Arrested

Today in 1916: Austrians Make Final Attacks in Trentino
Today in 1915:  Deadly Zeppelin Raid on Tyneside

Sources include: John R. Schindler, Isonzo; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Mark Thompson, The White War.

Turks Occupy Tabriz Again

June 14 1918, Tabriz–Russia’s exit from the war meant that the Turks could not only assert themselves in Russia’s former provinces in the Caucasus, but in northwestern Persia [Iran] as well.  On June 14, two thousand Turkish soldiers triumphantly entered Tabriz, following after a smaller contingent which had arrived a week before.  This was the first time the Turks had been in the city since January 1915, when the aftermath of their defeat at Sarikamish had forced them to leave the area after less than a month.  The Turkish army deliberately comported themselves well, and left the harassing of the local Armenian population to Azeri refugees from the violence in Baku.  French missionary Father Franssen recalled that:

A letter signed by a so-called Revenge Committee, primarily made up of Muslims who had come from the Caucasus, were sent to the city’s Armenian notables; it demanded that they remit 10,000 tomans to the aforementioned committee, adding that, if they did not, the Bishop and the notables would be held responsible for everything that happened.

A few Armenians were attacked and killed the next day, but neither the Turkish Army nor the local population joined in.  Although tensions remained high for the rest of the summer, and the Turks took hostages, the Turks were ultimately unwilling to carry out atrocities in a major Persian city against the wishes of the Persian government; the same was sadly not true elsewhere in northwestern Persia.

Today in 1917: Pershing Arrives in Paris

Today in 1916: Paris Economic Conference Opens
Today in 1915: Venizelos Claims Victory in Greek Elections

Sources include: Raymond Kévorkian, The Armenian Genocide.

Austrian Diversionary Attack from Trentino

June 13 1918, Tonale Pass–After the “Sixtus Affair,” in which Austrian peace overtures to the Allies (including support for a return of Alsace-Lorraine to France) were revealed in the press, the Austrians were forced to make humiliating concessions to the Germans.  These included various economic terms, as well as a commitment to launch a major offensive against Italy, hoping at the very least that this would divert Allied reserves to the area, as the success at Caporetto had last year.  Austrian generals were eager to make the attack; although they did not have direct German assistance, the end of the war in the East meant that essentially all of Austria’s forces could now be concentrated against Italy.

On June 13, attempting a diversion from their upcoming major thrusts in the Asiago plateau and across the Piave, the Austrians launched an attack with two divisions at the Tonale Pass, at the pre-war border on the far west of the Trentino.  The mountainous area had seen little serious fighting, though a breakthrough there could theoretically threaten Milan; Austrian Chief of Staff

Arz von Straußenburg had previously argued that the brunt of the offensive should fall there. The Italians, however, knew the attack was coming, due to information from deserters, and were able to stop the Austrian advance within hours without diverting reserves.

Today in 1917: First Gotha Raid on London is Deadliest Air Raid of War

Today in 1916: Canadians Retake Ground at Mount Sorrel
Today in 1915: 1st Canadian Division Ditches Problematic Ross Rifles

Sources include: Randal Gray, Chronicle of the First World War; David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall.