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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.

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WWI Centennial: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 287th installment in the series.

September 5-9, 1917: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

September 1917 saw the chaos in revolutionary Russia reach a fever pitch, as a major new German offensive on the Baltic coast triggered yet another unsuccessful coup attempt against the beleaguered Provisional Government, which had just fended off a far-left uprising instigated by the Bolsheviks in July. This time it was a rightwing military revolt led by the recently appointed commander-in-chief General Lavr Kornilov (although Kornilov claimed it was actually intended to strengthen the Provisional Government against the rival Petrograd Soviet). The end result was to further discredit and destabilize the Provisional Government, now facing open opposition on both the left and right, setting the stage for the Bolsheviks’ final successful coup attempt in November 1917.

Fall of Riga

Kornilov was spurred to action in part by the German capture of Riga (now the capital of Latvia) on the Baltic coast – a major blow that brought the Germans closer to the Russian capital of Petrograd and threatened the breakup of the northern sector of the Eastern Front. An advance here would also shorten the frontline, freeing up German forces needed to fend off the British assault at Passchendaele on the Western Front.

The German Riga offensive wasn’t a walkover: while indiscipline and rock-bottom morale prevailed throughout the Russian Army, ordinary Russian soldiers were still willing to stand and fight in defense of their homeland, at least for now. However German superiority in morale – not to mention heavy artillery, aerial reconnaissance, and logistics – left little doubt about the final outcome.

Europe and the Near East, September 1917: Germans capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt
Erik Sass

The attack began on September 1, 1917 with a sudden, punishing bombardment by the artillery of the German Eighth Army, targeting the defensive positions of the Russian Twelfth Army behind the River (Daugava). As the shelling reached its climax German pioneers moved up with pontoon bridges and boats to ferry the assault force across the broad, fast-flowing river, in another testament to German engineering and tactical skill.

One German soldier, Dominik Richert, described the preliminary bombardment as well as the Russian response:

As it became brighter I was able to see the water of the Düna, which was flowing quite quickly here. The Russian position on the opposite bank was not yet visible as white fog prevented us from seeing further. We were all tense about what was about to happen. All at once, the German artillery, which had been concentrated here, started to fire. The shells whizzed over us and exploded on the other side of the river with a booming din. A number of mortars, mainly heavy ones that shoot two hundred-weight shells, joined the dance. There was such a crashing, whizzing and roaring that my ears started to hurt. As the sun rose, the fog gradually disappeared and I was able to see the Russian position on the opposite bank. It was completely shrouded in black smoke, constantly and everywhere there were abrupt flashes and enormous clouds of smoke shot into the sky… Then the Russian artillery started to fire, so that we were forced to duck down in the trench.

Like many of his peers, Richert knew little of the battle plan, and seemed to be just as surprised as the enemy by the sudden arrival of boats to ford the river:

In the middle of this din came the order: ‘Get ready!’ We looked at each other. ‘We can’t possibly swim the river!’ said some of my neighbours. Then behind us we heard a yelling as if horses were being driven forward. I looked back and saw that the bridge train was arriving. They rapidly drove the waggons, which were laden with metal boats… down to the river. A large number of sappers came up at the double behind them and in no time at all the boats were unloaded and in the water.

Then came the daunting task of crossing the river under fire:

It was very frightening on the water. We all ducked down into the boats. The shells whoosed overhead while under and around us the water gurgled. Wherever I looked the whole river was seething with boats which were heading as quickly as possible to the opposite bank. Russian shells landed between the boats in the river throwing huge columns of water into the air. Another boat upstream from our suffered a direct hit and sank in a few seconds. The occupants who had not been wounded fought with the waves for a short time and then all disappeared. It sent shivers up my spine.

Finally, after a seeming eternity spent crossing the water the attackers arrived at the opposite shore, where they were happy to discover the remaining defenders had already withdrawn:

Now we had to storm the Russian trenches. That was an easy task. We did not encounter any resistance at all. The trench had largely been flattened. Mutilated corpses of the Russian infantrymen were lying around. Every so often you would encounter an unscathed Russian sitting in the corner of a trench and he would raise his arms in the air when we appeared, in order to surrender.

Over the next few days the German offensive pushed forward from these bridgeheads over the Düna to the east of Riga, threatening to encircle the Russian Twelfth Army. However a fierce holding action, fought in large part by Latvian riflemen, held up the German attackers long enough for the Twelfth Army to retreat towards Petrograd, still mostly intact.

Nonetheless the fall of Riga on September 5, 1917 was a major defeat for the Russians and another demoralizing setback for the Allied war effort, which even official propaganda couldn’t sweep under the rug (top, German troops enter Riga). Marian Baldwin, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross in France, wrote home on September 8:

Isn’t the Russian news fierce? I’ve never seen anything like the way it has taken the punch out of every one. I was down at the Gare du Nord yesterday doing a little work for the Red Cross, distributing cigarettes, etc., among the outgoing French soldiers. We couldn’t seem to cheer them, and I didn’t see any of the usual smiles. The ray of light which the U.S. troops brought when they began coming over has, for the moment, been completely obliterated. The papers don’t deny that it is the worst blow the Allies have received since the war began, and it is as though a black cloud has descended upon every one.

Of course the effect on Russian morale was even more pronounced. After the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive, the loss of Riga seemed to show that the Russian Army was essentially unable to defend the homeland. Meanwhile conditions for ordinary soldiers had hardly improved, and in many cases worsened, since the February (March) Revolution. Finally the infamous Order No. 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917, which effectively abolished military rank and with it officers’ authority, encouraged mutiny and insubordination and resulted in a steady stream of dispirited officers resigning their commissions and going home.

Charles Beury, an American representative of the YMCA who visited Russia during this period, painted a portrait of complete disarray in the military:

The demoralization was most noticeable in the army. That fundamental characteristic of any army – discipline – was gone… It was quite unusual to see soldiers marching in uniform ranks. On the contrary, masses of these men were aimlessly wandering about the streets, eating sunflower seeds, overloading the street-cars, and crowding, without tickets, into first-class compartments on passenger trains… In many places we noted the lack of authority of superior officers… Many officers had been shot by their men in payment of old scores…

With disaster looming, the Provisional Government appeared irrelevant while the Petrograd Soviet seemed more concerned with “protecting the revolution” than fighting the external enemy. Against this backdrop one of the last bastions of conservatism in Russia mounted a final, desperate attempt to restore order – and failed spectacularly.

The Kornilov Revolt

For months rumors had been circulating of a military coup to replace the feeble Provisional Government and crush the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet. The flashpoint for the failed military revolt came when Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky asked Kornilov, recently appointed commander-in-chief, to move troops loyal to the Provisional Government from the front to Petrograd in order to shore up the government’s authority versus the Soviet, increasingly dominated by radical socialists including Lenin’s Bolsheviks (below, Kornilov).

Kornilov, reasoning that such half-measures were no longer appropriate, instead led a large force of loyal troops in a march on Petrograd with the intention of purging the Provisional Government of radical elements, suppressing the Soviet, and calling a new Constituent Assembly, claiming that he was doing so at Kerensky’s invitation. However this action was far more extreme than Kerensky had envisioned, and the prime minister feared (probably with good reason) that Kornilov in fact meant to establish himself as a military dictator. Kornilov also earned the hatred of troops loyal to the Soviet with his support for the reinstatement of capital and corporal punishment within the Army.

Unfortunately for the coup plotters, Kornilov’s plans were an open secret, allowing the Provisional Government and Soviet to take measures to suppress it. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, at the time a 19-year-old junior officer, noted that the coup preparations were widely known in Petrograd, giving the whole thing a distinctly amateurish feel: “… Conspiracy? But what kind of conspiracy was it? Once when I went to have lunch in one of the restaurants… all the people I met there were also discussing the details of the same conspiracy… This plot and the impending coup seemed to me very childish, and childish it was.”

Nonetheless the Kornilov Revolt threatened to galvanize conservative opposition to both the Soviet and the Provisional Government. Anton Denikin, commander of the southern sector of the Eastern Front, recorded Kornilov’s message to the Russian people after Kerensky tried to remove him from command, moving him to open revolt:

People of Russia. Our great Motherland is dying. Her end is near. Forced to speak openly, I, General Kornilov, declare that the Provisional Government, under pressure from the Bolshevik majority in the Soviets, is acting in complete accordance with the plans of the German General Staff and simultaneously with the landing of enemy troops near Riga, is killing the Army, and convulsing the country internally. The solemn certainty of the doom of our country drives me in these terrible times to call upon all Russians to save their dying native land… I, General Kornilov, son of a peasant Cossack, announce to all and everyone that I personally desire nothing save the preservation of our great Russia, and vow to lead the people, through victory over our enemies, to a Constituent Assembly, when they themselves will settle their fate and select the form of our new national life. I cannot betray Russia in the hands of her ancient enemy – the German race! – and make the Russian people German slaves… People of Russia, in your hands lies the life of your native land!

Faced with this apparent attempt at counter-revolution, Kerensky took the extreme – and extremely unwise – measure of arming radical forces loyal to the Soviet, including the Bolsheviks, who had already been building their own paramilitary force in the form of the Red Guards. He also submitted to the Soviet’s demand that the government release leading socialists imprisoned after the unsuccessful Bolshevik coup attempt in July, including Trotsky. Kornilov and his associates were imprisoned by socialist troops loyal to the Soviet, and dozens of officers suspected of supporting the counter-revolution were arrested.

Ever the opportunist, Kerensky then presented himself to the conservative elements of Russian society as the only force able to contain the looming Bolshevik menace. In the short term this move allowed Kerensky to make himself virtual dictator of Russia, while declaring the country a Republic as a fig leaf for this power grab – but in reality it spelled the end of his authority, as both left- and rightwing factions now distrusted him for what they viewed as serial betrayals. Bolshevik power was growing by leaps and bounds: by the end of September 1917 Lenin’s party had 400,000 members, up from 24,000 at the beginning of the year.

The days of the Provisional Government were clearly numbered. On September 13, 1917, the anonymous Englishman believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary:

As the Kornilov attempt to bring order has failed, I will tell you what I foresee now, for the cards are shuffled again. Kerenski is already in the hands of the Soviet. The Soviet now have virtually full power, and the Bolsheviki will become more daring and try to turn out the Government; then would come anarchy, with 70,000 workmen fully armed. With the Bolsheviki are all the criminal classes. The failure of Kornilov has completely knocked me over, yesterday I could not walk. I still foresee an ocean of blood before order comes.

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WWI Centennial: Race Riot In Houston

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 286th installment in the series.

AUGUST 23, 1917: RACE RIOT IN HOUSTON

The upheaval of the First World War was associated with a rise in racial tensions across the U.S., resulting from unprecedented population movements and changing social dynamics. Beginning in 1915, the surge in factory employment for wartime production saw hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of poor African-American migrants leave the South to find work in Northern and Midwestern industrial cities – where they mixed uneasily with native whites and large European immigrant populations.

Great migration map
Erik Sass

Down South, the new economic opportunities available to African-Americans in the North caused some white Southerners to fear the loss of cheap agricultural labor as well as blacks becoming more assertive about their civil rights, leading to the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The huge popularity of the movie “Birth of a Nation” was also testament to enduring racial hostility across the U.S. – not just in the South.

As 350,000 African-American men volunteered or were drafted in 1917-1918, one of the most volatile combinations occurred when black soldiers - many from outside the South - were sent to Southern training camps, where they were exposed to the humiliating Jim Crow regime in addition to serving in segregated units (an Army-wide policy). On August 23, 1917, this resulted in one of the worst race riots in American history, at a training camp in Houston, Texas.

1917 training camps map
Erik Sass

The Houston race riot and mutiny was the climax of months of mounting tension between the African-American recruits of the all-black Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment –part of the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers,” originally formed to fight Native American tribesmen– and the local white authorities in Houston, Texas. The regiment had been deployed to guard the construction of Camp Logan, Texas (duties typical of the rear-area and supply roles commonly assigned to these segregated black units).

On the hot, sunny afternoon of August 23, 1917, two white policemen broke up a craps game in the San Felipe section of Houston and then, while in pursuit of the suspects, broke into the house of a local woman, Sara Travers, whom they dragged outside in her torn nightgown. One passing soldier, Private Alonzo Edwards, was bold enough to approach the officer who was holding Travers with an offer to take custody of the distraught woman, possibly intending to return her to her home and de-escalate the situation – but instead Edwards was pistol-whipped for his presumption for speaking to a white police officer. Later that afternoon the same white officer clubbed another black soldier, Corporal Charles Baltimore, who asked after Travers; anger among the regiment’s Third Battalion, to which Baltimore belonged, reached a fever pitch with untrue rumors that he had been shot and died from the wound.

That night 156 black soldiers from the Third Battalion – apparently under the mistaken impression that a white lynch mob was about to attack the camp – armed themselves and marched from Camp Logan towards town, killing anyone they came across, for about two hours before the authorities surrounded and disarmed the mutineers. Altogether the mutineers killed nine white civilians and five white policemen, while four black soldiers were also killed by authorities – marking this as the only race riot in American history with more white than black fatalities.

Unsurprisingly, the official response to the Camp Logan riot and mutiny was draconian: around 100 members of the Third Battalion were tried collectively for murder in several court martials – making it one of the biggest murder cases in American history, measured by number of defendants – and 95 were convicted (top, a photo of the trial proceedings). Of these, 28 mutineers received death sentences and dozens of others were imprisoned.

The U.S. Army executed 13 soldiers almost immediately, all by hanging, and another six soldiers were hung at Camp Travis, Texas in September 1918. But the evidence for the involvement of many convicted soldiers in the mutiny and murders was often sketchy, based in many cases on contradictory eyewitness testimony, and protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civic groups prompted Woodrow Wilson commute ten of the remaining death sentences. The last mutineer was finally released from prison in 1938.

OPPORTUNITY AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD 

The Houston race riot and mutiny weren’t representative of the experience of all African-American soldiers during this period. For one thing, tens of thousands of young African-American men joined up voluntarily, usually for the same reasons as their peers: the Army held out the promise of regular pay and adventure, and with it a ticket out of sleepy small town or rural life. Former Illinois state representative Corneal Davis recalled trying to join the army in rural Mississippi, where there were no future prospects besides sharecropping:

I went into the army in 1917 when I was seventeen years old, and I enlisted down there at Beachwood, and the man they had down there, he says to me, “You ain’t nothing but seventeen years old, and you got to be at least eighteen to join this army! So why don’ you just go home and wait a little bit longer.” Well, that’s the way the law was, and so now what am I going to do? But then this same guy, he says, “Do you really want to go?” And so I say, “Hell, yeah, I want to go because I need to go somewhere where I can make some money, and I can’t make nothing down here...”

Possession of some education, even short of a high school degree, could provide a big leg up. Davis recalled,

… they put me in the medical corps because a lot of those black men that they was drafting, they couldn’t read or write, and they had to be trained how to use a stretcher or even put on a bandage and things like that, and so they put me in there because at least I had gone into my last year of high school, and I had a little education, and so they thought that I could train them, and I did.

Of course, once in Europe Davis still had to deal with the same endemic racist attitudes he faced at home, even on the battlefield, where his unit served as stretcher bearers:

… and that was a hard and dangerous job for us to do, and what made it even harder was that some of those soldiers – especially those white guys who were Marines – they didn’t even want black people like us to come anywhere near them, but we were the ones who still had to go out there when they got shot and bring them back off the battlefield!

For all this, traveling to Europe – and especially immersion in France’s relatively egalitarian society – was clearly an eye-opening experience for many African-American soldiers, as noted by both black and white observers. Davis noted that his unit’s true opportunity to shine only came under French commanders, who were already used to the idea of using black and white troops together thanks to units from Senegal and other colonial possessions: “That’s right, and here we were supposed to be fighting for this country and making it safe for democracy and all of that, but they had to take a French general and put him in charge of all the black soldiers before they would let us chase them Germans out of Belgium, and that’s just what we did.”

However it should be noted that French enthusiasm for black troops wasn’t exactly altruistic, as the French used their own colonial troops in the front lines in order to spare the lives of white Frenchmen. In fact the French premier Georges Clemenceau, stated on February 18, 1918: “Although I have infinite respect for these brave blacks, I would much prefer to have ten blacks killed than a single Frenchman, because I think that enough Frenchmen have been killed and that it is necessary to sacrifice them as little as possible.”

African-American soldiers also had to deal with racial dynamics from home. Interactions with the opposite gender were especially fraught, at least in the eyes of Americans, where there had long been a taboo against African-American men sleeping with white women. Avery Royce Wolfe, a white American soldier volunteering with the French Army, noted the friction in a mixed-race camp near Verdun in September 1917, as well as his own racist attitudes, entirely typical for the era:

It is strange to see how the colored troops are received in France. There seems to be absolutely no race question, such as exists in America. The negro is accepted everywhere on the same basis as white men. Even the French girls seem to prefer colored soldiers to white soldiers. I must admit that this is rather repulsive to me, even if I do not have the same prejudice towards the colored people that prevails in our southern states.

Although the Frenchwomen might not have a problem socializing with black soldiers, white Southern soldiers certainly took exception to these relationships, importing Jim Crow laws to France, according to Royce:

The other night there was quite a serious riot between some Americans and the French Colonials who are stationed in this town. These Colonials are colored troops that the French recruit from their foreign provinces. Unlike Americans, the French do not draw a color line, and so these colored troops are accepted by the French girls on the same basis as any other man. This gets under the Americans’ skin, so much in fact that there is always trouble whenever the two mix.

Still, service in Europe inevitably created expectations of – or at least aspirations to – greater equality in America, someday. The white newspaper correspondent Will Irwin described meeting a young black American soldier who had volunteered with the French Army: “War and heroism had given him that straight air of authority common to all soldiers at the line. He looked you in the eye, and answered you with replies which carried their own conviction of truth. The democracy of the French army had brushed off on to him; he had grown accustomed to look on white men as equals…”

"I HAD TO BRING THEM AWAY" 

Racism was obviously inescapable, even in Europe, but the fact remained that conditions back home in the United States were much worse – especially down South, prompting millions more African-Americans to leave the Jim Crow states for new homes in the North, Midwest, and West over the First Great Migration, from 1915-1940 (when the Second Great Migration was trigged by the Second World War, lasting until 1970).

Map of African-American populations of U.S. cities
Erik Sass

There is no question that blacks living in the South during the height of white supremacy were routinely terrorized, including the ever-present fear of lynching. One elderly African-American woman who had moved to Newark told an oral historian about conditions in rural Georgia in this period:

I didn’t have no contact with white folks when I was comin’ up. The people all around me, the people in the neighborhood, had ‘em. But I was scared. You know how come? We couldn’t live in the house. We had to go out and stand in a pond of water up to our waist all night to keep away from the white folks. They would go to our house and bust in. And we had to run away to protect ourselves. We couldn’t come out of the water till the next day… The reason I hurt so bad when my husband died ‘cause I had nobody to help me with the children. I had to bring them away ‘cause them white folks would kill ‘em.

Map of African-American lynching victims, per year, 1882-1920
Erik Sass

Similarly, when he returned to the United States after the war, Davis found all his relatives had left Vicksburg, Mississippi for other cities, including Chicago, because of racial violence during the war:

When I came out of the army, all of my people, they had already left Mississippi because, just before then there was a boy in Vicksburg that I used to play with who was named Hamilton, and one day they picked him up because some white woman said she had been raped or something, and they took that boy who was completely innocent, and they hung him up on a tree, and that’s when the black people all started leaving Vicksburg because there wasn’t ever hanging black people like that in Vicksburg before then, and so my mother, she sent me this newspaper with the article in it about this boy that had been hanged, and she knew I knew him, and so in her letter to me she said, “Son, we are leaving.”

Beyond the unending terror of “lynch law,” opportunities for education and social mobility in the old South were almost nonexistent for African-Americans (and severely limited for poor whites). One elderly African-American migrant, interviewed anonymously, remembered that because her mother was unable to pay school fees, her education ended in the third grade:

When school time come she had to borrow books and we paid thirty-five cents a month… And all right, maybe you just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. If she didn’t give me the money, I couldn’t go to school. The teachers wouldn’t allow her to send us to school ‘cause she didn’t have the thirty-five cents. So I didn’t have much schoolin’. My mother wasn’t able to pay thirty-five cents for all of us to go to school. I can spell my name and know a little readin’. When she could get that money she send me, and that’s what I did to the third grade. That’s as far as I got.

Another elderly African-American interviewee described primitive conditions in the small rural school she attended:

We had the school in one room with a little potbelly stove sitting right in the middle of it. And the children was all ‘round the walls of the school. This set would come up and get warm and they would move back, the other would come. That’s how we kept warm. The girls had to bring the wood for the stove. The boys would go out and cut the trees down and chop them up to fit in the stove. We girls had to bring it and put it in the schoolroom.

Those who could attend school at all were lucky, as children regularly engaged in strenuous manual labor, usually on a family farm or share-cropping, or for white landowners. One elderly African-American preacher whose family moved North recalled picking cotton in his youth: “Most of the time we get on our knees. I have picked up as high as 230 pounds of cotton a day. I remember kids, they talk about three hundred pound pickers. But every day I picked over 200 pounds…”

Not all sharecroppers and their children were poorly educated, and the blight of illiteracy was also widespread among Southern whites – meaning in some cases black tenant farmers were better educated than their white landlords. Maggie Comer, an African-American woman who migrated from Woodland, Mississippi, to Memphis and then East Chicago, Indiana, in 1920, proudly recalled:

My father was sharecropping. He had more education than the white man he was working for. My father did all his weighing of the cotton and taking care of his business because that white man could not read or write. There were about thirteen or fourteen boys in his family and some few of them got to go to school a bit. My father was one that did get to go to school.

However education carried its own dangers. Indeed, some of the persecution had an economic motive behind it, as whites feared any black attempts to organize or pool financial resources, and any black farmer with education posed a threat in this regrd. Lillie Lodge Brantley, whose family left Midville, Georgia for Chicago in the mid-1920s, recalled the circumstances that forced her father to leave town:

Well, down south my father said the white people controlled everything. When he and the other farmers had their crops all in and they took them to town to sell in order to get nails or grains for the next year or something like that, the white people would them how many bushels they would net from their acres and that would determine just how much credit they would get. But, because my father could read and write and count, he would go around and let the other farmers know how much they were really supposed to get. Naturally, the white people resented that, and so he knew that in due time would have to leave. That’s when he made up his mind to come north.

At the same time, factory work up North held out the enticement of a regular wage with guaranteed payment – something still largely lacking in the informal Southern economy. One anonymous elderly African-American interviewed by oral historians, who moved from North Carolina to Newark in 1915, described the important difference in labor and compensation between agricultural work down South, with its many uncertainties, and industrial work up North:

People were workin’ sometimes, makin’ 50 cents a day. Sometimes they wasn’t. Some would work ten hours for that 50 cents. From sunup to sundown. Then you don’t know whether you going to get that money or not, ‘cause if the guy goes to town to sell and he don’t sell, you ain’t getting’ paid. But up here it was a little bit different. At least here you’ make five or six dollars.

Accommodations for the first wave of black migrants reaching Northern towns were often extremely primitive. Comer recounted her husband’s description of the makeshift encampment where he arrived near East Chicago, as well as the classic “chain” model by which the first migrants brought up their family members one at a time (resembling Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries): “He stayed at this place where this fellow had a tent, where they just sleep men mostly. There was no black women, or not any up to any good. They slept in tents until they made a few paydays and then they rented rooms or a house. He rented a house and kept a few renters, and then he sent back for a couple of his relatives…”

TOLERANCE AND TENSION

The Great Migration produced a kaleidoscopic array of social interactions, as native whites and European immigrants reacted to their newly arrived neighbors – sometimes with tolerance, other times with suspicion, fear and disdain. In addition to their own cultural differences and prejudices, the simple fact was African-American migrants represented economic competition for working class whites in Northern cities. But despite this obvious source of tension, harmony seems to have prevailed in most cases.

African-American migrants to Newark, NJ were mostly accepted by the white population, which included a large number of European immigrants, as long as they observed certain social barriers, according to one elderly interviewee: “But most of the time we got along, ‘cause here in Newark, whites used to stay upstairs and colored downstairs, and they all got along like two peas in a pod. Never had any problems… I was in a Jewish section, and with Italians too, all mixed up racial.”

Thomas Ellis, who was born in Chicago in 1914, told oral historian Timuel Black that African-American migrants mostly got along with their neighbors, including Jews and European immigrants who lived in their own ethnic enclaves – sometimes even attending their religious observances:

My auntie was the next black person to move into the neighborhood when she moved in on Aberdeen. That was a Jewish section. See, there was a lot of those little “sections” around there. There were Jews out there, there were Swedes out there, and there were Irish. We used to go to that Jewish church up on the corner near Sixty-first and May on Saturdays. It’s not a Jewish church now, but when we were just kids, we used to make fires for Jewish people, who couldn’t do anything like that on Saturdays. And then up on the corner of Sixty-first and May there was a Swedish church were we went sometimes with the fellow who lived next door.

One African-American migrant, Alonzo Parham, recalled benefiting from a supportive Irish immigrant teacher and befriending white students in Chicago in the 1920s:

The teacher was Irish: “And don’t you forget it.” Her last name was O’Donoghue, and her face was like a lemon, but she gave me a chance to shine in that class… In Foster School at the time, most of the fellows in my class were white. The Negro boys were all from the sixth grade down, but they were kind of cool toward me because I ran with these white boys… So when I went outside, the white kids would play with me, but those black kids kind of ignored me.

But there were definite social barriers to interaction, although the extent and intensity of these social prohibitions varied from place to place and over time. Ellis noted “we weren’t too well liked when we went over to Ogden Park. Wouldn’t go into the swimming pool.” Etta Moten Barnett, a stage and film vocalist, recalled petty snubs by a white teacher in Los Angeles:

At that time, in my class at the junior high school, there were only two of us who were not white, and our teacher, he spoke to our class about the fact that not everybody kept their yards and clean and looking nice because it was becoming a mixed neighborhood, and, well, I didn’t think that our teacher should have said something like that to our class, especially because it wasn’t even true!

No surprise, many Southern blacks, having spent their whole lives on farms, also found it difficult to adjust to life in the North and Midwest, according to Comer: “They didn’t like the weather. It was so different to their way of life at home. It was hard for people raised in the South to adjust to the city type life. This was almost like being in a jail for them, living in apartment houses with a postage-stamp lawn.”

Another common complaint among migrants was the alleged untrustworthiness of some Northern whites, who might take pains to appear friendly but in reality harbored sentiments just as racist as their Southern counterparts. An elderly African-American woman who moved to Newark in her youth opined:

Down there they’ll let you know where you at in the first place, in the beginning. You know how far to go with them down there. But up here! Humph! They’re just as bad! They’re just like a snake in the grass. If there’s a snake in the grass and you step in that grass and you don’t know what snake is in there, it’s going to bit you. That’s what it’s like with the white up here. You don’t know where you stand with them… Up here they’re two-faced, they’re hypocritic and nasty.

Some of the tension resulted from the fact that in many cases, black migrants were recruited and brought North specifically to serve as strikebreakers, amid a growing wave of industrial unrest caused by inflation and stagnant wages. While these labor conflicts obviously presented an economic opportunity for low-skilled manual laborers from the South, the circumstances naturally put the African-American “scabs” at odds with the strikers. Wayman Hancock, whose family moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago in 1920 (and who happened to be the father of famed musician Herbie Hancock) recalled that his father was lured by the promise of jobs during a stockyard strike:

See, before then, not many blacks were working in the stockyards, not until they had a strike in the stockyards – that is what my grandfather told me about it. All the companies – Armour, Wilson, Swift… Cudahy – that’s right. They all went south and started to recruit blacks, and some of us came up here in freight cars, and some didn’t even have a place to stay and so they stayed out in the freight cars out in the yard…

Meanwhile whites also reacted to the new migrants with a wave of informal and covert segregation, including “redlining” real estate to keep African-American buyers out, and de facto segregation of public schools. Comer, who arrived in East Chicago in 1920, would later remember:

When I first came into East Chicago there wasn’t much segregation. As I said, there were only two nationalities of people, Polish and blacks. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours. But you could live on any street in East Chicago, even Grand Boulevard… Fifteen years later, it had become one of the finest streets in town – and white only.

In his memoir Horace R. Cayton, whose childhood was spent in the small pre-war black community in Seattle, recalled his family’s reaction to the sudden influx of African-American migrants during the war: “Our feeling about this was mixed. It was good to see Negroes leaving the South and coming to the relative freedom of the Northwest, but would it not upset our amicable relations with whites if too many came?” Later Cayton’s father, who was born into slavery but later became a successful newspaper publisher, warned him after a local Seattle movie theater introduced unofficial segregation for audiences: “Things are changing here and not for the better. I can remember when it didn’t matter what color you were. You could go any place and work most any place. But it’s different now.”

Tragically, the experience of the next few years would bear this out, including race riots in which white mobs attacked black migrants, and vice versa, in East St. Louis (1917); Chester, Pennsylvania (1917); Philadelphia (1917); Washington D.C. (1919); Chicago (1919); and Omaha (1919), among others.

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