CLOSE

Mutinies Rock French Army, U-Boats Wreak Havoc

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 275th installment in the series.  

May 9, 1917: Mutinies Rock French Army, U-Boats Wreak Havoc 

After almost three years of pointless slaughter, the abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive, with 187,000 casualties including 29,000 dead, pushed the French Army to the breaking point, and it broke with a wave of mutinies in May-June 1917, eventually involving almost half the army. The mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, forcing the British Expeditionary Force and Belgian Army to assume larger roles; to keep the pressure up on Germany, in July Britain launched one of the bloodiest attacks of the war at the Third Battle of Ypres, the nightmare Passchendaele.

The French Army had long been simmering with discontent, which grew sharply during the horror of Verdun, reaching dangerous proportions before the Nivelle Offensive. A French officer, Henri Desagneaux, noted in his diary on April 4, 1917: “Many men get drunk. Morale is low. They are fed up with the war. Certain corps court-martial some men for desertion, theft, insolence, etc.; after condemnation (with reprieve in the majority of the cases) they are transferred to another corps. My company is infested with them.” 

Events abroad also appear to have played a role, as the butchery of the Aisne came close on the heels of the Russian Revolution (also the work of disaffected soldiers) as well as the entry of the United States of America into the war. The drama of the Revolution, in particular, appears to have inspired some of the more political mutineers, whose ranks were heavy with socialists. The French soldier Louis Barthas, a barrel-maker from southern France with socialist leanings, noted the influence of the Russian Revolution but also suggested that more mundane issues like home leave were the real driving force behind the mutiny:

At this time the Russian Revolution broke out. Those Slavic soldiers, only yesterday enslaved and bent double under the weight of iron discipline, unknowingly marching off to massacres like resigned slaves, had thrown off their yokes, proclaimed their liberty, and imposed peace on their masters, their hangmen. The whole world was stupefied, petrified by this revolution, this collapse of the immense empire of the czars. These events had repercussions on the Western Front and throughout the French ranks. A wind of revolt blew across almost all the regiments. There were, besides, plenty of reasons for discontent: the painful failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive, which had no result other than a dreadful slaughter; the prospect of more long months of war ahead, with a highly dubious outcome; and finally, the long wait for home leaves – it’s that which bothered the soldiers most, I believe.

The mutinies began on April 17, 1917, when 17 men from the 108th Regiment abandoned their positions before an attack, and reached crisis proportions in early May, when the 2nd Division refused to attack as ordered (although the soldiers remained in the trenches). According to some reports, the mutinies intensified following false rumors that French authorities planned to “decimate,” or kill every tenth man, from two regiments that refused to attack on the Aisne. 

In mid-May disturbances and insubordination spread to the 18th Division and 127th Division, followed on May 19-20 by the 166th and 3rd Divisions, with dozens more joining in the weeks to come, reaching a climax in early June. In many cases mutinying troops simply refused to attack, but agreed to continue defensive duty in informal parlays with officers. Overall 49 divisions out of 113, or 43% of the total, engaged in insubordination to varying degrees before the disorder was effectively suppressed in the summer of 1917 by Philippe Petain, who replaced the discredited Robert Nivelle as chief of the general staff on May 15. 

As the mutiny spread the incidence of violence increased, including drunken rioting and looting of military and civilian goods, burning down tent encampments, and brawling with other soldiers or civilians. Some of the more revolutionary elements urged their comrades to commandeer trains and drive for Paris, but many of the incidents were actually (relatively) peaceful protests focused on specific grievances and concrete demands, including an end to futile attacks, better food and clean water, and more reliable mail service, so vital for keeping in touch with family back home. Calls for full-on revolution appear to have been for the most part drunken bravado (and perhaps a tactic intended to frighten the authorities into making concessions). Barthas recalled a typical incident:

I cannot pretend to tell the whole story of what happened almost everywhere just then. I will stick to writing what I know, regarding our regiment and the repression which followed. There was, at the end of the village, a shopkeeper for whom the war brought only profit. He sold beer, and he had a cute little waitress to serve it to customers – powerful attractions which, every evening after supper, brought a whole crowd of poilus, a well-behaved clientele which plunked down in groups in the big courtyard adjacent to his shop. One evening, some of the soldiers were singing, others were entertaining their fellows with songs and skits, when a corporal began singing words of revolt against the sad life in the trenches, words of farewell to the dear souls whom we might not see again, of anger against the perpetrators of this infamous war, the rich shirkers who left the fighting to those who had nothing to fight for. At the refrain, hundreds of voices rose in chorus, and at the end fervent applause broke out, mixed with cries of “Peace or revolution!” Down with war!,” as well as “Home leave! Home leave!”

Although they fizzled out in the end, the French mutinies during the spring of 1917 inspired real fear in the French government, for good reason. The decision of radical socialist troops to establish councils or “soviets” representing ordinary rank and file soldiers in a number of units, in clear imitation of the Russian Revolution, was bound to alarm conservative French authorities, already primed to think of socialists as the red menace. The situation was only made more alarming by the presence of several brigades of Russian troops on the Western Front, who were suspected of transmitting the revolutionary fervor of their homeland to the mutineers, prompting the French high command to transfer the Russians to La Courtine in rural France in June 1917 (later the site of their own mutiny in September).

As the mutinies approached their climax in early June, rumors also circulated that the French Army high command was prepared to resort to extreme measures against troops that continued to refuse orders. On June 18, 1917, Desagneaux noted: 

We have relieved here the 3rd Artillery Company because they refused to march any more and the Bosches took advantages of this ill-feeling to recapture the terrain. Throughout the region, there is talk of nothing but mutinies, of troops refusing to relieve their comrades. Near Braisne, they have massed Moroccan and Algerian troops whose role will be to force the troops to go to the trenches if the need arises. 

However in the end violence proved unnecessary (for the most part). To restore order with a minimum of bloodshed the French government summoned Petain, the hero of the early days of Verdun, already popular with the troops due to his care for the ordinary soldiers under his command. In a remarkable burst of activity, over several months Petain met with units representing almost the entire French Army, listening to ordinary soldiers’ grievances. As chief of the general staff, he moved swiftly to meet their main demands, while physically separating rebellious units from unaffected ones and weeding out and isolating ringleaders from their less radical followers. 

Petain’s reforms in this “carrot and stick” approach included more regular leave, better rations, a more sympathetic and responsive medical service, and above all an implicit promise to end the futile attacks, allowing the French Army to go on the defensive and rest after three years of continual bloodletting. At the same time the most egregious cases of insubordination from the mutinies ultimately met with the traditional punishment for mutiny: death. Altogether the French Army held 3,427 “conseils de guerre” or court-martials in the wake of the mutinies, which handed down 2,878 sentences for hard labor and 629 death sentences, with just 43 actual executions (a low number, suggesting the government heeded Petain’s advice to err on the side of lenience in order to allow the army’s wounds to heal; top, a memorial to the executed mutineers).

As noted above, the French mutinies threatened to paralyze the Allied war effort on the Western Front, raising the possibility of military collapse and defeat. But the French government’s tight wartime censorship of the press, coupled with aggressive counter-intelligence efforts, allowed the mutinies to pass almost entirely unnoticed by the Germans, who could have easily profited from the disorder by launching a surprise attack – an impressive achievement, considering the number of troops involved and the length of the outbreaks. In strategic terms France was temporarily weakened by the mutinies, forced to wait for “the Americans and the tanks,” as Petain summed it up. 

Nutrition and Nationalism 

The French and Russian Armies weren’t alone in confronting mutinous or revolutionary elements in its ranks. All the main combatants devoted considerable energy to monitoring the opinions of rank and file soldiers, for example through the reports of military censors who read their letters home, and stamped out signs of active resistance wherever they found them. But inevitably low-level dissent, falling short of actual insubordination, continued unabated throughout the war in all the armies, often expressing itself in less dramatic transgressions like desertion. 

Lack of food, bad food, low pay, and incompetent and arrogant officers were common subjects of complaint for ordinary soldiers on all sides of the First World War, to such an extent that most censors didn’t bother trying to suppress these sentiments, as long as there was no incitement to disobedience. One typical example comes from a German soldier who wrote home on May 6, 1916:

Dear Michael! I am still rather healthy and hope the same of you. Here in the field it is all going down, for the provisions are so small that it is hardly enough for us. The food is really crap, but we have to eat it because it is the only food we get. In the morning and in the afternoon we have to work up to the last minute. They are painstakingly exact in that respect, but they don’t care about the food we get… It is high time the swindle comes to an end. I didn’t even get furlough when my brother died. That is so sad. But the duty comes first… We are always hungry. If the officers would get the same provisions as we do, the war would have been finished a long time ago… It is the same with honours and promotion. Whoever deserves it won’t get it. 

Mutiny for national or political causes was a special concern with some colonial troops, as well as within multiethnic empires like Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, where disenfranchised minorities actively resisted military service and often sympathized with the “enemy.” Princess Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, recorded a whispered story from the Balkan charnel house, where some Czech soldiers refused to massacre fellow Slavs: 

Ossip Schubin the novelist (she is a Bohemian, with all the Bohemian hatred of the Germans and Hungarians) told me a terrible story. Some Bohemian soldiers were ordered to enter a Serbian village and shoot all the inhabitants, including the women and children… The lieutenant who had to carry out this order went out of his mind at the horror of it. The soldiers then turned on the captain and shot him, saying, “Do your dirty work yourself.” 

In the case of the British colonial empire, Indian Muslim and Sikh troops mutinied on several occasions because of alleged violations of their religious strictures, and nationalist sentiment was also circulating in the ranks of Indian units deployed across the world, as reflected in some letters home written (but not necessarily delivered) at this time. Early Islamist and jihadist ideology was also circulating alongside traditional caste affiliations and the struggle against colonial rule, as reflected in a letter written by an anonymous agitator to an Indian soldier in March 1916:

You are entangled in a war in which no victory has been gained nor can any be gained in the future. What you ought to do is raise your fellow caste-men against the English and join the army of Islam. If you die in its service it would be better than living as you are doing now. Act as I have advised you, or you will be sorry afterwards. God’s orders have been received to the effect that the destruction of the British Raj is at hand… All the Muslims who have died in this war fighting for the British will spend an eternity in hell. Kill the English whenever you get a chance and join the enemy… Be watchful, join the enemy, and you will expel the Kafir from your native land. The flag of Islam is ready and will shortly be seen waving.

Although it is impossible to make firm statements about the overall feeling Indian troops during this time, most seem to have remained loyal to the British Empire, despite several abortive uprisings in India during this period, including the Ghadar Mutiny in February 1915. A fairly typical sentiment was expressed by a Sirfaraz Khan, who urged his son Alam to serve the British faithfully, even if it meant fighting their co-religionists, in a letter written on April 16, 1916: “Remember this, that you must always do the Sirkar’s work faithfully. It is very difficult to get such a King… The Turks are not our paternal uncle’s children! I firmly rely on you, that you remain the well-wisher of the Sirkar. Still, it is proper that I should advise you. The Turks made war against our Sirkar without any cause.”

However the perceived injustices of war could bring nationalist sentiments bubbling to the surface at unexpected times. A British officer, T.H. Westmacott, recorded the final words of an Indian soldier convicted of murdering an abusive low-ranking officer, who tried to justify his crime in terms of the struggle against colonialism: 

As Sergeant Walsh, my provost sergeant was tying him to the chair, he shouted in Hindustani, “Salaam, O Sahibs! and Salaam, all Hindus and Mahometans of this regiment! There is no justice in the British Sirkar. I did this deed because I was abused. Those of you who have been abused as I was go and do the same, but eat your own bullet and do not be shot as I shall be.”

U-Boats Wreak Havoc

In the evening of May 9, 1917 Lieutenant Johannes Spiess, commander of the German U-boat U-19, finally saw what he had been looking for all day:

At 7 p.m., we sighted a cloud of smoke. I immediately steered toward it and soon discovered that we were near a southward-bound convoy, which comprised eight ships… The ships were sailing in a perfectly straight line, which we had thought impossible for commercial vessels… Every ten minutes, the convoy changes course by about 20 degrees behind its leader, four escort vessels fanned out before the convoy provided it with light, and two destroyers were zigzagging on both sides. The entire convoy gave the impression of a fleet of well-trained warships.

Allied convoy formations, which usually involved a perimeter of destroyers and trawlers escorting a line of merchant vessels, made it difficult for U-19 to approach its pretty – but not impossible. Spiess’ account also gives some idea of how physically taxing submarine warfare could be: 

While was passed the trawlers in the van of the convoy, I had to use the periscope several times, in order to avoid collisions and observe the convoy’s changes of course. For each observation, I stopped one of the engines and ordered the periscope to be hoisted. As soon as it reached the surface, I made a quick circular inspection of the waters. The navigator, who was standing before me, helped me swing it round faster, because it was very hard to turn. This exercise required a great deal of energy, and before every attack I perspired so abundantly that I had to change clothes, even though I always took off my heavy jacket beforehand. 

Finally, after over two hours spent stalking the convoy, Spiess saw an opening and lunged for it:

At 9:04 p.m., I was no longer hindered by the destroyers and had the objective right in my sights. “Tube 2, fire!” I ordered, and immediately afterwards: “Quick, maximum depth!” While the U19 was obeying the hydroplanes, we were intently waiting for the detonation. But not a sound was heard. Damn it, I must have missed! But suddenly: Rrrboum! A powerful explosion shook and swayed our submarine. 

While epic in its own right, every such sinking was just a single, small event in the larger German campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare launched on February 1, 1917, which saw Allied shipping losses soar in April, followed by sustained high losses through the summer of that year. The volume of total tonnage sunk soared from 377,000 tons in January 1917 to 887,000 tons in April, 618,000 tons in May, and 710,000 tons in June, making this by far the worst period of shipping losses for the Allies during the war. 


These numbers exceeded even the German Admiralty’s optimistic predictions for Allied and neutral shipping losses, seeming to hold out the possibility that German U-boats might really succeed in bringing the island fortress of Britain to her knees by cutting off imports of food, armaments, and other necessities. After remaining mostly steady through the earlier part of the war, the total tonnage of British merchant shipping available tumbled from a pre-war average of around 20 million tons in 1913 to 16 million tons in 1917 and 15 million tons in 1918. Other Allied merchant shipping also suffered heavily during this period.


More importantly, the pace of sinkings appeared to be outstripping the ability of British and American shipyards to make up for the losses. This state affairs which would continue through the end of 1917, secretly terrifying Allied officials, until early 1918, when a massive increase in U.S. shipyard output and new tactics and technology finally started to turn the tide, including convoys, “depth charge” submersible explosives, and sonar, first tested in mid-1917.

Shipping net losses

Later in the war Herman Whitaker, an American correspondent, described seeing a submarine forced to the surface by U.S. Navy destroyers based on the west coast of Ireland: 

The submarine had submerged at once; but, rushing along his wake, the Fanning dropped a depth-mine that wrecked the motors, damaged the oil leads, blew off the rudder, tipped the stern up, and sent the “sub” down on a headlong dive of fully two hundred feet. Afterward the commander said that he thought she would never stop. In a desperate effort to check her before she was crushed by deep-sea pressure, he blew out all four water-ballast tanks, and so came shooting back up with such velocity that the “sub” leaped out of the water like a breaching whale. Instantly the Nicholson, which had swung on a swift circle, charged and dropped a second depth-mine as the submarine went down again… Having no rudder, the “sub” was porpoising along, now up, now down; and every time the conning-tower showed the destroyers sent a shot whistling past it. They had fired three each before the hatch flew up, and the crew came streaming out and ranged along the deck with their hands up. 

The Germans were under strict orders not to allow their vessels to fall into enemy hands, leading to a final dramatic twist: 

As the Nicholson and Fanning hove alongside, covering the crew with their guns, two were seen to run back below. They were gone only a minute, but that was sufficient. Undoubtedly they had opened the sea-cocks and scuttled the vessel, for she sank three minutes later. The crew jumped into the water, and were hauled aboard the destroyer as fast as they could catch a line…

Submarine production

While the balance of power on and below the sea remained in flux, civilians and soldiers making the ocean crossing spent the days and weeks with the knowledge that death could befall them at any moment. Reginald Cecil Huggins was an 18-year-old British soldier aboard the British transport Arcadian when it sank in the Aegean after being torpedoed on April 15, 1917 (below, the Arcadian): 

Without one moment’s warning, a terrific explosion occurred, made hideous by the splintering into matchwood of great timbers, the crash of falling glass and the groaning of steel girders wrenched asunder, followed by the hissing rush of escaping steam from the ship’s boilers… [H]aving given one convulsive shudder from end to end, the great ship began to settle down on her port side with the loose deck paraphernalia slithering about in all directions and dropping into the sea. 

Unable to swim, Huggins was more or less helpless in the water as the ship sank nearby: 

Having read about the vortex a sinking vessel will make, I was ruminating on my chances as a survivor. The suspense, fortunately, was brief. For a moment or two the Arcadian partly righted on her keel and then with much hissing of escaping steam and explosions form the boiler rooms, she slid for ever out of sight of human eyes, carrying with her hundreds of troops and her own crew caught like rates on the lower decks. Within three minutes (official Admiralty time) from the time the she was struck all that remained of the ship was bits of floating wreckage. 

Just as he feared, Huggins was sucked down by vortex created by the sinking ship:

It is difficult to describe my sensations during the minute or so following. Down and still further down, I was dragged by the suction till it seemed that I must soon touch bottom. I was spun round with great rapidity and swirled about in an alarming manner. I held my breath and closed tightly both eyes and mouth, until forced by bursting lungs to take in air, I opened my mouth, getting a large helping of Aegean Sea. My mind was functioning normally. I can recollect that I had quite decided that H.M. Army was about to lose one live cavalryman… At last, however, I came with a rush to the surface, and was violently ill for some time… Large numbers of drowned, the survivors, and a quantity of wreckage were close by me. 

Luckily Huggins survived to be picked up by a British rescue vessel. Even when the voyage was uneventful, however, passengers were understandably preoccupied by the danger looming over what was once a straightforward sea journey, leading to some jarring juxtapositions (below, crewmembers in a lifeboat abandon the Aragon, sunk in the Mediterranean with the loss of 610 lives on December 30, 1917).

John Kautz, an American headed to France with other college students to serve as volunteer drivers for French Army supply trucks, wrote in his diary aboard ship on May 30, 1917: 

How beautiful it is out here to-night! I have sat a long time on the deck looking back along our twisting wake to where the up-slanting horizon shuts out the western sea with a veil of pale light and barely showing stars. The moon, three quarters full, makes a broad rippling patch across the easy-rolling water. People here and there upon the deck talk in low tones and laugh subduedly now and then. Above on the boat deck a dozen college fellows are singing songs softly and with harmony. Now a pall hangs over all. The necessity always of restraint and caution lays a heavy hand on hearts that would be gay.

In such circumstances the most reasonable response was sometimes a combination of gallows humor, fatalism and bravado. Julia Stimson, an American nurse traveling to France to serve as chief nurse in a British military hospital, wrote her parents from aboard ship on May 21, 1917:

 

The only time that one can even imagine any danger is at night when on the decks not a single particle of light can be seen, except a dark purple glow at each companion-way. All the portholes are fastened shut and all the windows of the dining-saloon are shut and shaded as soon as it begins to get dark. The main hall, or whatever the place is called, in the center of the boat where the main stairways are, is also entirely dark, so that when the doors to the deck are opened no light will shine out… As one of my nurses said in her slow drawly way: “There isn’t any use worrying about the submarines. If the Germans are going to kill us, worrying isn’t going to prevent it. If the Germans do kill me, I’m going to come back and haunt the whole German army.”

Transatlantic passengers copy

Unsurprisingly the volume of voluntary traffic across the Atlantic Ocean plunged during the war period. At the same time, some civilian passengers brave enough to make the trip frankly enjoyed the suspense of the perilous ocean crossing in wartime, which allowed them to share in some small part the dangers facing men in the trenches – at least once they were back on dry land. Thus Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, described traveling across the Atlantic to observe American preparations for war, noted:

We have all been longing for the voyage to be over, but now that it is nearly ended, we almost regret it… Why is it? This voyage has been longer than any I ever made across the Atlantic. What has made us enjoy it? What is it that will make us look back on it as a voyage of unusual interest? It is the tinge of danger. Travelling has ceased to be humdrum, uneventful. It has become romantic again.

See the previous installment or all entries.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
arrow
war
WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
arrow
war
WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios