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.

WWI Centennial: Austria-Hungary’s Last Gasp

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 310th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JUNE 15-23, 1918: AUSTRIA-HUNGARY'S LAST GASP

The disaster of Caporetto in 1917 sent Italy’s military prestige plunging to new lows as the Western Entente powers, France and Britain, were forced to rush reinforcements to the Italian Front to shore up their beleaguered ally. But the summer of 1918 offered the Italians a chance at redemption, in the form of a renewed Austrian offensive along the Piave River. The Austrians immediately stumbled due to a reorganized, reinvigorated Italian Army. In fact, the Second Battle of the Piave, lasting from June 15-23, 1918, sounded the death knell of the exhausted, disintegrating feudal empire.

A lot had changed in the six months following the collapse of the Italian armies before the combined Austro-German onslaught at Caporetto, beginning with the replacement of the disgraced chief of the general staff, Luigi Cadorna, by his former aid General Armando Diaz on November 8, 1917. A skilled strategist and energetic administrator, Diaz worked closely with Italy’s British and French allies to establish a new line of defense along the Piave River, then set about reforming the demoralized Italian Army—effectively granting amnesty to tens of thousands of deserters, employing British and French officers as trainers, and reorganizing four unwieldy armies (as well as the remnants of the virtually destroyed Second Army) into nine smaller, more manageable armies, including one in reserve.

On the other side, things had also changed—mostly for the worse. Although Austria-Hungary’s strategic position improved with the Central Powers’ victory over Russia, the empire faced a deepening food crisis, mass strikes by hungry workers, and ever-present ethnic rivalries, now threatening to escalate into full-blown civil war. The military situation was just as desperate: The Habsburg Army was in tatters, never having recovered from its stunning defeats in 1914 and 1915, and now found itself deprived of Germany’s help, as the stronger ally withdrew almost all its troops for the final spring offensives on the Western Front. The outlook was so grim that Emperor Karl had secretly explored a separate peace deal with the Allies, but Habsburg peace entreaties were immediately rebuffed (and the offer soon leaked, sowing discord between Austria and Germany).

Map of Europe, June 1918
Erik Sass

Worst of all, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff expected Austria-Hungary to contribute to his final bid for victory with a new offensive on the Italian Front, intended to tie down Italian, British, and French troops in order to prevent them from reinforcing the beleaguered Allied forces on the Western Front. This request was supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was furious about Austria-Hungary’s offer of a separate peace and demanded the new offensive as proof of its loyalty.

But without substantial German help this plan was ambitious to the point of fantasy, prompting Austro-Hungarian Field Marshal Svetozar Borojević, considered one of the most gifted strategists of the First World War, to warn that it would almost certainly lead to defeat and the collapse of the Habsburg Army, probably followed by the empire itself. Instead, he argued for remaining on the defensive, digging in and holding on to northern Italy, at least as a bargaining chip for the inevitable peace negotiations.

However, Borojević was overruled by superiors who found it impossible to defy the Dual Monarchy’s powerful ally. Germany had thrown in its lot with Austria-Hungary at the beginning of the war, and now Austria-Hungary had no choice but to follow Germany to the bitter end.

FATAL PLAN

The original plan proposed by Borojević called for a concentrated attack along the River Piave, allowing Habsburg forces to maximize their scarce artillery and shells. However, Austrian chief of the general staff Arz von Straussenberg and former chief of the general staff Conrad von Hötzendorf, now commanding the armies along the Asiago Plateau, called for simultaneous, widely spaced attacks all along the Italian front, from the Trentino sector all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Borojević appealed to Emperor Karl, arguing that the broad attack would fatally dilute their strength, but was once again overruled (below, an Italian position on the Piave just before the battle).

According to the final plan approved by the general staff, the two main attacks would pit the Habsburg Eleventh Army against the Italian Sixth and Fourth Armies on the Asiago Plateau, scene of Conrad’s failed “Punishment Expedition” in 1916, while the Habsburg “Isonzo Army” (formerly the Fifth Army) attacked the Italian Third Army defending Venice across the River Piave. A third, smaller attack by the Habsburg Tenth Army would tie down the Italian Seventh Army north of Lake Garda.

Italian front, WWI, June 1918
Erik Sass

Despite all the hurdles facing them, including an arduous river crossing (the Italians had destroyed all the bridges over the Piave), the Habsburg forces achieved surprising success on the first day of the offensive, principally because they retained the element of surprise—and while their artillery was spread out, the use of gas shells helped force the Italians from their frontline trenches in many areas. However, most Italian artillery positions remained undamaged, as evidenced by a furious counter-barrage pounding the Austro-Hungarian attackers.

Jan Tříska, a Czech noncommissioned officer in the Habsburg Army, remembered the opening bombardment at 3 a.m. on June 15, 1918, followed by the counter-bombardment beginning two hours later:

“By 5 a.m., thousands of shells flew over [their] position from both directions—concussion grenades, grenade-shrapnel, shrapnel, mortars, and bombs of all calibers. Light and heavy machine guns and trench mortars from both sides joined the fray. The din was overwhelming. Huddled in their deep shelter, the gunners were stiff with fear. Safely dug in, they still felt exposed and vulnerable in the eye of this storm of steel. This was much worse than anything they had experienced at the Isonzo. They were caught in the middle of one of the greatest battles of the war, and they could do nothing but sit, wait and pray.”

The Italian counter-bombardment terrified young, green Habsburg recruits, according to Tříska, who recorded the unromantic, if entirely understandable, response:

“The veterans among the gunners, terrified, could still manage to maintain their composure; but the 17- and 18-year-old replacements, ‘cannon fodder,’ were a different matter. Nearly all of them had to be physically restrained from jumping from the trench and running. They wept, wet their pants, cried for their mothers, and disintegrated completely. Two boys did manage, somehow, to escape from the trench and made a dash for the road parallel to the river. Some seventy paces behind the trench they were mowed down like weeds by enemy fire.”

Habsburg engineering units next moved forward to build pontoon bridges that allowed around 100,000 attacking infantry to cross the river and overwhelm the Italian frontline trenches, forming temporary bridgeheads across the Piave. The crossing was conducted under heavy enemy artillery fire, which the Habsburg artillery did its best to suppress, albeit with limited success. The prospect of further advances, and perhaps even a breakthrough leading to another Italian rout like Caporetto, didn’t seem so unrealistic now, as Austro-Hungarian artillery units moved forward to keep up the pressure. Tříska remembered that the attackers were amazed by their initial success:

“Exactly as planned, at 5:45 a.m. the sappers began to build two pontoon bridges across the river, which here was about 700 meters wide, up to 3 meters deep, and interspersed with many small islands and gravel bars … 75 minutes later, at 7 a.m., when the bridges were ready and in place (the gunners could not believe their eyes), the Austrian infantry, which in the meantime had moved to the river, began to swarm over the bridges to the Italian side. By then many of the enemy trench mortars and machine guns had been silenced. Once most of the Austrian infantry had made the crossing … the gunners stopped firing at the Italian infantry trenches and started to shell the artillery positions. When the Austrian infantry, after heavy man-to-man fighting, had secured the Italian trenches and had the enemy on the run … the gunners stopped firing—the gun barrels were dangerously hot by then—dismantled the guns, and packed them and the remaining ammunition on the carts that were already waiting with their horses and drivers on the road behind the riverbank … Unbelievably this whole operation, which had started at 3 a.m. this morning, went like clockwork.”

However, the Austro-Hungarian success was short-lived. Following Caporetto the Italians had wisely adopted a strategy of flexible defense, similar to the doctrine of “defense in depth” now generally practiced by both sides on the Western Front. Frontline trenches were usually lightly held, backed up by a whole network of secondary and reserve trenches where the majority of the defending infantry lay in wait, ready to stage a counterattack after the enemy offensive lost its initial momentum. Heavily fortified strongpoints between trenches helped break up and channel the enemy attack to provide denser targets for defenders to the rear (below, Italian marines).

Italian marines, WWI, June 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As a result, the Austro-Hungarian troops found it impossible to widen the bridgeheads when approaching strongly held Italian positions on the other side of the Piave River valley. On the second day of the attack the offensive began to fall apart: As Borojević had predicted, Conrad’s offensive from the Asiago Plateau towards Monte Grappa had stalled due to lack of artillery shells, forcing the attackers to retreat. Even worse, unseasonably heavy summer rains caused the Piave to begin rising, washing away pontoon bridges and threatening to cut off the attackers on the far side of the river. British and French planes also bombed the bridgeheads with little opposition, reflecting Allied air superiority on the Italian Front.

A fierce Italian counterattack beginning June 19, using troops transferred from the sector opposite Conrad’s failed sally, left no doubt: The besieged Habsburg bridgeheads, coming under increasingly heavy enemy artillery fire and aerial bombardment, could no longer be held. The whims of Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally settled the question: Ludendorff decided the abortive Austro-Hungarian offensive was no longer important, and instead demanded a quarter million Habsburg troops for immediate redeployment to the Western Front, where his fourth offensive, Gneisenau, had once again failed to achieve a breakthrough. The remainder of the battle was spent withdrawing across the remaining pontoon bridges. By June 23the battle was over (below, an Italian frontline trench).

As always, both sides paid a heavy price in blood for the pointless Second Battle of Piave (which did, however, restore Italian morale and burnish the Italian Army’s credentials in the eyes of Britain and France). Total Habsburg casualties came to 118,000, including dead, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the Italians suffered 10,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, and 40,000 taken prisoner. More importantly, however, the Italians had withstood the final Central Powers onslaught—and the Habsburg Army was finally approaching its breaking point.

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

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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