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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.”

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WWI Centennial: Salonika In Flames

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 285th installment in the series.

August 18-19, 1917: Salonika In Flames

The fact that millions of people were being killed deliberately in the First World War did nothing to stop fate from claiming its usual share of victims through accidents; in fact the war made bloody mishaps far more likely by cramming too many people together in strange places, disrupting transportation and communications, and generally sowing chaos.

On August 18, 1917, one of the worst accidents of the war began with the conflagration in the ancient Greek port city of Salonika (or Thessaloniki), now the main base for French, British, and Serbian forces stationed in the Balkans. After a spark ignited dry straw in a house sheltering refugees, over 32 hours the Great Salonika Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city, gutting its downtown commercial district and leaving 73,000 people homeless. On the evening of August 18 one witness, Dr. Isabel Emslie Hutton, recorded the scene in her diary:

About 7pm Dr McIlroy and I went into the town and walked up to the city walls; there below us was a belt of leaping, roaring fire that stretched almost from one end of the town to the other, and right across the middle part of it above the Rue Egnatia. This great ferocious monster ate up house after house with lightning speed, for the little evening breeze had developed into a mild Vardar wind, and now all the authorities saw that the situation was as bad as it could be, and that nothing could stop the progress of that roaring furnace. It was unforgettable; all the pictures of hell that were ever painted fall short of it in fearfulness, and its hungry roar, mingled with snarls and hisses and the crash of the falling ruins, was most awe-inspiring. The inhabitants ran about trying to save their possessions and not knowing where to take refuge.

Inhabitants paid porters as they desperately sought to save their prized possessions, leading to some absurd scenes in the narrow city streets, Hutton added:

The progress of the flames was now so fast that the streets were thronged with the people carrying what they could, and the hamals were making a fortune carrying great loads of household goods for the highest bidder. A huge wardrobe, an enormous and hideous mirror or a piano would come blundering down one of the narrow streets, a hamal peeping out from under it, and it would sometimes meet a sewing-machine or a feather-bed going in the other direction and get jammed. Mothers and children scurried along with as much as they could carry, and bedridden grandmothers or invalids were half-dragged, half-carried along. All was confusion, grief and hopelessness.

Many witnesses emphasized the unusual speed of the fire, which seemed to consume entire blocks in a single fiery lunge. Another observer, British supply officer Douglas Walshe, recalled:

Salonica is no ordinary city, and this was no ordinary fire. Its progress was appalling… It leapt all barriers. It was not a case of houses catching fire from neighbouring houses; whole districts burst into flame at once. The wind whistled and the fire roared; sobs and shrieks and shouts echoed on every side; mules and oxen and springless native carts clattered on the cobble-stones…” Frantic families surrounded the drivers of those long, noisy native carts, gesticulating, imploring, oubidding each other for their goods to be taken next.

Walshe also recorded a classic moment of wartime fatalism mingled with romance, set as always in a hotel bar:

It was obvious now that the centre of the city was doomed, and that the dwater-front would go with the rest. Officers staying in the hotels began hastily to pack their things, and wondered where they would finish the night. The manager of one of the most crowded hotels, resigning himself to the inevitable, doled out parting tots of whisky free of charge – “the last drink you will have in my hotel, gentlemen!” His unconcern was superb.

The fire reached its climax on the morning of August 19, when two arms of the fire combined to wipe out Salonika’s famed commercial district. For its part Salonika had no official fire brigade, and firefighting was further hampered by the fact that that the Anglo-French forces in Salonika had commandeered the city’s water supply in order to ensure adequate supplies for their own needs, although French and British troops did man their own fire brigades.

While there wasn’t much good news to look for in the Great Salonika Fire, the loss of life was relatively light and at least the city’s iconic White Tower landmark was spared. The presence of the Allies was also a small comfort to the victims, who were transported to temporary homes and refugees camps aboard British and French trucks, and received emergency rations. The fire also had surprisingly little impact on the flow of supplies to the Allied troops on the Macedonian front to the north, since most food and ammunition was delivered by routes that circumvented the town center.

In the longer term, British insurance companies ended up paying the huge claims brought by the fire victims in Salonika (under pressure from the Greek and British governments, the latter more sympathetic no doubt due to Greek’s recent entry into the war). However the war delayed rebuilding, and French plans to create an entirely new city center never came to fruition.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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