WWI Centennial: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 280th installment in the series.

June 18-24, 1917: Russian Black Sea Fleet Mutinies

The Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, had long been notorious as a source of revolutionary ferment, most notably during the 1905 Revolution, when the crew of the battleship Potemkin mutinied against their officers and attempted to spark an uprising in the nearby port of Odessa before the disorder was finally crushed. In June 1917 mutiny erupted once again – but this time against the already fragile authority of the Provisional Government, casting doubt on its ability to maintain the war effort amid the growing chaos and dissension at the front.

As always, it wasn’t hard to discern the mutineers’ motives: while conditions aboard ship and in the naval barracks had improved somewhat since the Revolution, they were still squalid, and the sailors also feared that their officers intended to reassert their authority and maybe even stage a counterrevolution, due to the refusal of some officers to give up their personal firearms or remove their badges of rank. The sailors were further alarmed by rumors that the Provisional Government was finally going to order the long-planned amphibious attack on Constantinople, with the goal of seizing the Turkish straits – an “annexationist” goal opposed by socialist rabble-rousers in the ranks.

In fact the mutiny came just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks were planning violent demonstrations against the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, supposedly on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet but in reality in a bid to seize power themselves. Although the demonstrations were called off at the last minute due to opposition from the more moderate factions in the Soviet, the Bolsheviks were quietly creating a rival power base outside the Petrograd Soviet by establishing local factory committees in the provinces, forming their own paramilitary units (supposedly to protect the factories from saboteurs), and taking control of the regional soviets that sprang up across Russia following the Revolution.

They were also busy infiltrating the armed forces: although most rank-and-file soldiers and sailors still supported the Provisional Government – as long as it agreed with the Soviet, that is – in the summer of 1917 the Bolsheviks’ calls for an immediate end to the war and “All Power to the Soviets” found an increasingly receptive audience among troops reluctant to sacrifice their own lives just as a bright new revolutionary dawn seemed to be arriving. The Provisional Government added to its own woes by transferring some radical revolutionary sailors from the mutinous Baltic Sea Fleet in an attempt to restore some semblance of order there – only to have them spread the rebellious impulse to their comrades in the south (top, sailors rally in Sevastopol for May Day celebrations).

General Anton Denikin recalled the subversive efforts of the Bolsheviks, who worked with the “soldiers councils” to stir up dissent, for example by distributing thousands of copies of various newspapers with the title “Pravda” or “Truth”:

The total of evil done by the committees is difficult to estimate. No firm discipline any longer exists. If a patriotic and soldierly decision is made by a majority vote, this amounts to nothing. Another vote will soon change it. Hiding behind their privilege as members of the committee, the Bolshevik’s sow revolt and trouble everywhere… There arrived 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 2,000 copies of the Soldatskaia Pravda, and over 30,000 of the Social Democrat, between March 24th and May 1st. Between May 1st and June 11th there were again 7,000 copies of the Pravda, 32,000 of the Social Democrat, and over 61,000 of the Soldatskaia Pravda. These sheets were handed out to every one by the soldiers themselves.

Desertion and insubordination were widespread by June 1917, according to Dmitri Fedotoff-White, an officer in the Russian Navy, who was conducting the American Admiral James Glennon on a tour of the Russian rear areas at that time, and recalled an incident in Moscow:

There was an inordinately large crowd of soldiers on the platform, all intent on going somewhere, regardless apparently of the direction of the train. As I opened the door of our car, followed by one of the American naval officers, a large beefy soldier without shoulder straps on his tunic made to rush the car, shouting to others to follow him and “throw the damn bourgeois out!” I realized what his success would mean as soon as I saw him, and as there was not time to lock the door I swung out, hit him squarely on the jaw, and threw him off the step of the car… Because of this incident my stock skyrocketed among my fellow officers.

Coincidentally, the American naval mission arrived in Sevastopol just as the mutiny was erupting, to the great embarrassment of Fedotoff-White and his fellow officers:

The morning we were approaching Sebastopol, I noticed that the trains we passed at the stations were crowded with well-dressed people obviously agitated and nervous. I saw a naval officer on one of those trains going from Sebastopol north, and went out to speak to him to find out what was causing this exodus. He told me that the bluejackets had gout out of hand, that [fleet commander Admiral] Kolchak had been arrested by the Soviet, and that men were disarming officers.

In fact Kolchak, who was not known for his emotional self-control, indignantly refused to turn over his own personal sidearm – a purely ceremonial golden sword presented for bravery during the Russo-Japanese War – and instead flung it into the water in a fit of pique (which probably helped provoke the sailors to attempt to place him under arrest; however he was not actually arrested). Kolchak either resigned in anger or was recalled by the Provisional Government, according to various accounts, to be replaced by Vice-Admiral Lukin.

Fedotoff-White reached the gloomy conclusion: “The picture was clear. The Black Sea Fleet, the last citadel of order and discipline of the Russian navy, had been captured by the Bolsheviks.” But just as the situation appeared utterly hopeless, in a remarkable turn of events the Russians’ esteemed guest and representative of their great new democratic ally, somehow managed to restore order, ending the mutiny:

Admiral Glennon had gone to a large public meeting attended by several thousands of seamen and soldiers… He told the men about the great American democracy, about the discipline in the American navy, about the traditions of freedom coupled with self-restraint which alone made democracy possible, called on them to desist from insulting their officers, urged that they return their weapons, and pressed upon them the necessity of accepting the rudimentary forms of discipline without which the Fleet would become worthless. He also spoke of Kolchak in terms of high praise, and pleaded with the men to be loyal to him. Glennon’s speech was superbly translated and made a deep impression on the meeting. Probably this was an instance unique in all naval history that a foreign officer made a speech that helped to quell a mutiny.

Nonetheless the mutiny of the Black Sea Fleet couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Provisional Government was planning one more great offensive, named for the charismatic Minister of War (later briefly the virtual dictator of Russia) Alexander Kerensky but under the direction of the brilliant General Alexei Brusilov, who had planned the most successful Russian offensive of the war in 1916. The big push on the southwestern front, facing the depleted and demoralized forces of Austria-Hungary, was intended to demonstrate Russia’s continued will to fight to the Allies, while enhancing the prestige and authority of the Provisional Government in the eyes of ordinary Russians.

Because discipline had vanished following the Soviet’s abolition of military ranks in March, any chance of success would depend on getting the soldiers to fight voluntarily – a tall order, following three years of misery and bloodshed, to say the least. Despite this Kerensky, a gifted public speaker with a sentimental, sometimes almost mystical tone that appealed to ordinary peasant soldiers, took it upon himself to tour the front addressing huge crowds of troops, imploring the committees to do their patriotic duty and rid the Motherland of the foreign interlopers, while reminding them that defeat might rob them of their new liberties, recently won in the Revolution.

One listener remembered his dramatic, histrionic oratorical style: “He leaves the rostrum, jumps on the table; and when he stretched out his hands to you – nervous, supple, fiery, all quivering with the enthusiasm of prayer which seizes him – you feel that he touches you, grasps you with those hands, and irresistibly draws you to himself.”

At first glance Kerensky seemed to have achieved a miracle, as whole units pledged their loyalty to the new flag of the Provisional Government and promised to attack when the time came. But according to many accounts their militant fervor faded as soon as Kerensky left to address the next crowd. General Denikin later recalled the lead-up to the offensive:

M. Kerenski, Minister of War, while on a tour of inspection, delivered an inspiring appeal to glory, and received a staunch welcome from the 28th Infantry Division. One half hour after this orator’s departure, a deputation from one of the regiments in this division was sent after him with a resolution they had taken, declaring they would not attack… On June 8th a committee at the front decided not to attack. Then, shifting, it decided for an attack. On June 1st the committee of the Second Army decided not to attack, and on June 10th changed this decision. The Soviet of Workmen's and Soldiers' Delegates at Minsk refused to authorize the attack, by a vote of 123 to 79…

Meanwhile the Bolsheviks, well-funded by German intelligence agents, were still relentlessly undermining the soldiers’ morale through a propaganda campaign, delivered both in print and in person. Thus the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, General Alexeyev, struck a much darker note in a meeting with his top generals in May 1917: “The Army is on the brink of the abyss. Another step and it will fall into the abyss and will drag along Russia and all her liberties, and there will be no return. Everyone is guilty, and the guilt lies heavily upon all that has been done in that direction for the last two and a half months.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Battle of New Orleans

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Battle of New Orleans was epic. Andrew Jackson's victory over 8000 British troops turned him into a folk hero, and paved his way to the White House. The campaign also helped modernize naval warfare and spelled doom for America’s oldest political party. Here's everything you need to know about the last major engagement in the War of 1812.

1. IT WAS FOUGHT AFTER THE AMERICANS AND THE BRITISH SIGNED A PEACE TREATY.

New Orleans was a major port and transportation hub that promised effective control of the lower Mississippi, which made it a prime target for Great Britain. So in late November 1814, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and a fleet of 50 ships set sail for Louisiana with the goal of capturing the city, along with the rest of the lower Mississippi Delta.

The fighting in Louisiana started on December 14, when a British naval squadron defeated an inferior American force in Lake Borgne. Nine days later, an encampment of around 1800 redcoats was ambushed by Jackson’s men at Villeré Plantation. Though the Americans soon pulled out, the skirmish bought Jackson, a.k.a. Old Hickory, some time to reinforce his defenses around New Orleans proper.

At the same time, an agreement to end the whole war was being negotiated. Representatives from both countries met in modern-day Belgium to hammer out the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814, 15 days before the Battle of New Orleans broke out on January 8, 1815. The treaty didn’t go into effect until it was ratified on February 16, 1815, though, so the U.S. and Great Britain were still technically at war during the battle.

2. JACKSON SHOWED UP WITH A BAD CASE OF DYSENTERY.

The Battle Of New Orleans
iStock

On November 7, 1814, with 3000 men, Jackson (then a Major General) took the city of Pensacola in Spanish Florida, where he learned about Britain’s planned invasion of New Orleans. He left for Louisiana in mid-November and—after stopping to build up Mobile, Alabama’s defenses—arrived in NOLA at the beginning of December with his personal staff.

Jackson also brought some dysentery. When he first reached New Orleans, he could barely stand. Digestion problems forced him to subsist on boiled rice for much of the campaign, and before the redcoats attacked, many of Jackson’s orders were given while the general languished miserably on a couch. Still, he wasted no time in organizing a survey of the many swamps, bays, roads, creeks, and rivers in southern Louisiana.

3. NOTORIOUS PIRATE JEAN LAFFITE DOUBLE-CROSSED THE BRITISH SO HE COULD HELP THE AMERICANS.

Jean Laffite claimed he was born in France in 1780 or so, but historians aren’t entirely sure if that's true. What they do know is that at some point in the early 19th century, he moved to Louisiana with a man named Pierre, who claimed to be his brother. The pair were smugglers, pirates, and privateers, and by the time the War of 1812 rolled around, they had established themselves in the New Orleans black market. Their base of operations was the remote Barataria Bay in southern Louisiana, where Jean made a port for his ships and set up dwellings for the ragtag collection of ne'er-do-wells involved with his criminal operation.

On September 3, 1814, a contingent of British officers arrived in Barataria Bay with an offer for Jean Laffite. The proposal went like this: If Laffite agreed to help the redcoats take control of New Orleans, he would be rewarded with a good, high-ranking job in the British navy—and he’d get to keep at least some of his ill-gotten gains. Plus, he would supposedly receive some free land along with a large sum of money.

Laffite accepted the deal—then double-crossed the British as soon as he could. No one knows why the pirate decided to help the Americans, but he might have been thinking of Pierre, who was imprisoned in New Orleans at the time. By assisting the U.S., Laffite probably figured he could get Pierre released (as it turned out, that wasn't necessary; Pierre escaped). He may have also believed that his business empire would crumble if the British took over Louisiana.

In any case, Laffite had a hard time getting the American authorities to accept his help. When he explained the situation in a letter to Louisiana’s governor, the U.S. Navy responded by laying siege to Barataria Bay. Jackson initially balked at the idea of working with Laffite, calling the smuggler’s men “hellish banditti.”

But Old Hickory eventually came around and agreed to join forces. Laffite couldn’t supply many troops; his men only represented about 2 percent of all the soldiers at Jackson’s disposal. He did, however, donate weapons to the cause, and advised the general on how to navigate the tricky rivers and bayous of Louisiana—expertise that helped turn the tide against Great Britain.

After the war, the Laffites and their men received full pardons for past crimes from the U.S. government. Jean and Pierre eventually left New Orleans, relocating to Galveston Island off the coast of present-day Texas.

4. THE FAMOUS KENTUCKY MILITIAMEN DIDN’T BRING ENOUGH GUNS—OR CLOTHES.

At his rallies during the presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s supporters would sing a little ditty called “The Hunters of Kentucky.” Written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821, the song pays tribute to the roughly 2500 Kentucky militiamen who fought under Old Hickory at the Battle of New Orleans. It turned into one of the most popular anthems of the 1820s and encouraged future politicians to choose campaign songs of their own.

But Woodworth’s lyrics don’t paint the whole picture. According to one verse, “Jackson he was wide awake, and was not scar’d at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take, with our Kentucky rifles.” But before taking aim, you need a gun—and most of those 2500-odd Kentuckians were unarmed when they reached New Orleans in early January 1815.

The militiamen had been led to believe that munitions would be handed out in New Orleans, so only around one-third of them came down with their own guns. But in New Orleans, there weren't enough arms to go around. “I don’t believe it,” Jackson supposedly said. “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”

Decent clothing was also in short supply among his visitors from the Bluegrass State, so the Louisiana citizenry and state legislature spent $16,000 to make new clothes and bedding for them.

5. STEAMBOAT WARFARE CAN TRACE ITS ROOTS TO THIS CAMPAIGN.

Jackson, who needed all the weapons he could get, must have been relieved to hear that Secretary of War James Monroe was sending over a veritable stockpile. One of the men who ferried the crucial firearms down the Mississippi was Henry Miller Shreve, captain of a large, flat-bottomed steamboat called the Enterprise. On January 3, 1815, Jackson asked Shreve to deliver some supplies to Americans holed up at Fort St. Philip, 80 miles downriver from New Orleans. Though the Enterprise had to bypass armed British forces en route, she completed the mission—a feat recognized as the first usage of a steam vessel in a military campaign. As for Shreve, he saw action at the Battle of New Orleans itself, where he commanded a 24-pound gun.

6. OLD HICKORY PLACED NEW ORLEANS UNDER MARTIAL LAW.

During the conflict, Jackson took actions that no American general had ever taken before. The decisions would ultimately come back to haunt him.

On December 16, 1814, General Jackson subjected all of New Orleans to martial law and suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, a legal principle that acts as a safeguard against unlawful imprisonment. He kept a tight hold on the reins: Ship captains needed military-issued passports to take their vessels out of the city and all citizens had to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew or be threatened with immediate arrest.

It didn’t take long for Jackson’s men to start incarcerating locals: Mayor Nicolas Girod warned on Christmas Day that the Guard House would soon be overstuffed with prisoners. It was hoped that all was going to return to normal if and when the redcoats were driven out of Louisiana. Things didn’t work out that way. Fearing a second British attack against New Orleans, Jackson decided to keep it under martial law until March 13, when the state learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified.

These were tough times for the Big Easy. During his tenure, Jackson censored local newspapers and banished French-American citizens suspected of disloyalty. Louisianans were further outraged when he had State Senator Louis Louaillier and U.S. District Court Judge Dominick Hall arrested. Once the latter was eventually set free, he put Jackson on trial and fined him $1000 for contempt of court. The general paid up, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Old Hickory’s actions came back to bite him decades later, when anti-Jacksonians used his conduct in New Orleans to paint the man as a tyrant.

7. A 1500-YARD RAMPART WAS KEY TO THE AMERICAN VICTORY.

Map of Battle of New Orleans
Stefan Kühn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

General Edward Pakenham came to the January 8 battle with around 8000 professionally trained British soldiers. By comparison, Jackson was at a distinct disadvantage: Many of his men—a hodgepodge coalition of forces from the Army/Navy/Marine Corps, militiamen, pirates, Choctaw recruits, and other fighters totalling 5700 people—had little experience fighting together. To give his troops an advantage, Old Hickory did some terraforming.

In late December, he visited the Rodriguez Canal, a shallow drainage ditch on the eastern bank of the Mississippi six miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that Pakenham would march his men up the river across some wide-open terrain, Jackson had his men build a 1500-yard rampart—made of wood, earth, and possibly cotton bales—in front of the canal. Dubbed Line Jackson, the wall began on the river bank and jetted deep into a nearby cypress swamp. For insurance, Old Hickory had the Rodriguez Canal widened so it could be used as a moat; the extra dirt that they dug up went into building the rampart.

The Battle of New Orleans began at 5 a.m. on January 8, 1815. Though there was an American contingent stationed across the river, most of the men were lying in wait for the British behind Line Jackson. The geography forced column after column of red-coated soldiers to pass through a narrow stretch of exposed countryside as they pushed towards the rampart. From the safety of their muddy wall, Jackson’s men mowed down over 2000 British troops in about two hours. It was a slaughter.

8. MISPLACED LADDERS HURT THE BRITISH.

Pakenham had a plan for dealing with Line Jackson, but one of his subordinates botched it. Before the battle, Pakenham had gathered some ladders, sugar cane bales, and other valuable supplies and entrusted them to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins. With the ladders, Pakenham’s men could have climbed over Line Jackson while using sugar bales to fill the moat. But Mullins quickly lost track of the goods—and didn’t realize his mistake until his regiment was within 1000 yards of the American line.

At that point it was too late. Unable to cross the barricade or ford the moat, the British on the eastern bank turned into sitting ducks. Pakenham was killed and so was Major General Gibbs, who supposedly said, “If I live until tomorrow, I will hang Colonel Mullins from one of these trees.” Despite gaining lots of ground on the western bank, the surviving British officers chose to withdraw from both sides of the river.

By one estimate Jackson lost just 13 men (with an additional 49 missing, captured, or wounded), despite inflicting thousands of casualties. His job wasn’t over yet: Britain didn’t pull out of Louisiana until the end of January. Nevertheless, he’d scored an impressive, morale-boosting victory along the Rodriguez Canal. America would never forget it. “History records no example of so glorious a victory obtained with so little bloodshed on the part of the victorious,” wrote Secretary of War James Monroe.

9. NO, THE SCOTTISH TROOPS DIDN’T WEAR KILTS INTO BATTLE.

Great battles inspire great artwork, but artists don’t always pay heed to historical accuracy. Some of the paintings that were made to celebrate Jackson’s rout show the Scottish troops in Britain’s 93rd Highland Regiment wearing kilts in combat. The Scotsmen at best donned tartan trousers, although some historians doubt even that, saying they likely wore gray campaign overalls.

10. IT HELPED KILL THE FEDERALIST PARTY.

Established by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party is recognized as the first political party in U.S. history. It enjoyed national dominance under the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams—but the Federalists lost that control in 1800 with the election of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's tenure bred discontent across New England, a Federalist stronghold, and members of the party who lived there began to discuss seceding from the Union as early as 1804.

The War of 1812 intensified their resolve; New England Federalists were extremely suspicious of Democratic-Republican President Madison’s efforts, with prominent Federalist Rufus King proclaiming it “a war of party, and not of the Country.” To discuss their grievances against President Madison, his Jeffersonian agenda, and the war, Federalist representatives from all over New England quietly convened in Hartford, Connecticut on December 15, 1814. They put together a list of constitutional amendments for the U.S. federal government to consider that were designed to benefit northeastern states.

It was rumored that New England would secede if the Federalists’ suggestions were ignored. The Hartford Convention wrapped up on January 5, 1815, and its proposals were soon read aloud in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. At the same time, the country was just starting to celebrate Andrew Jackson’s big win in New Orleans. Most Americans were in a jubilant mood, and the griping Federalists now looked more out of touch than ever. “Hartford Convention Federalist” became a euphemism for “disloyal traitor,” and the party declined into oblivion.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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