WWI Centennial: Arabs Take Aqaba, Kerensky Offensive Fails

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 281st installment in the series.

JULY 1-6, 1917: ARABS TAKE AQABA, KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

In mid-1917 the leaders of the Arab Revolt, Prince Faisal and his chief advisor, the British intelligence officer T.E. Lawrence, faced a conundrum. While they hoped to raise all the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire in rebellion and eventually capture Damascus as the capital of a new Arab state, to achieve these sweeping ambitions they required more supplies including rifles, machine guns, explosives, and armored cars, not to mention ammunition, food, medicine, and fuel. 

Britain’s mighty Royal Navy, with its unchallenged control of the seas, could supply all this and more, if only the Arabs could gain control of a suitable port on the Red Sea with a harbor deep enough to admit cargo ships and transports. Just as important, the port had to be close enough to the main theater of the Arab Revolt (northwestern Arabia, the modern country of Jordan, and their immediate surroundings) for the supplies to reach the itinerant Arab Army fast enough to make a difference; other ports already under Arab control, such as Duba and Al Wajh, were simply too far away in a region with no modern infrastructure aside from the Hejaz Railway, still under Turkish control. 

Arab Revolt Map
Erik Sass

There was just one port that fit the bill: Aqaba, a protected harbor that gave its name to the Gulf of Aqaba, one of two northern inlets of the Red Sea along with the Gulf of Suez, between which lay the arid Sinai Peninsula (see map above). However Aqaba was a formidable target to say the least, protected on the landward side by the trackless wastes of the An Nafud, an impenetrable desert hundreds of miles wide, and on the seaward side by heavy guns (and in any event the warships of the Royal Navy’s local squadrons were too busy guarding the approaches to the Suez Canal against enemy U-boats to attempt an amphibious assault). 

And so the Arab Revolt seemed doomed to wither on the vine, a small conflict on the fringes of a secondary theater of the First World War – that is, until Lawrence had a clever idea. The Arab Army simply had to do the impossible.

ACROSS THE DESERT 

The decision to attack Aqaba from the landward side by crossing the Nafud was widely considered suicidal, even by the Bedouin nomads: temperatures in July can reach as high as 54° Celsius or 129° Fahrenheit during the day, and without water even the camels would begin dying after a few weeks, at which point the human beings would be doomed as well. Thus Lawrence received permission to take only a small, expendable group of warriors with him, and would have to try to recruit more tribesmen living in the vicinity of Aqaba once – or rather if – they arrived.

Of course Lawrence had his own strategic reasons for wanting to capture Aqaba: in addition to allowing the British to supply the Arab Army, taking the town would deprive the Turks of a base from which they could threaten the advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, a combined British and Egyptian army, across the Sinai Peninsula into Palestine under Edmund Allenby, who took command on June 27, 1917. From the British perspective the whole Arab Revolt was just another gambit in their chess game with the Turks, and Lawrence shared their priorities – but secretly hoped to make it something more as well.

Climate wasn’t the only adversary during their epic journey across the Nafud, forcing them to confront natural and human foes in combination. Although the Arabs usually avoided battle in unfavorable conditions, the small band of warriors led by Lawrence and the fierce Howeitat chieftain Auda Abu Tayi, an ally of Faisal (above), were forced to attack a Turkish outpost blocking a key pass on the way to Aqaba. Lawrence recalled the desperate fight over sharp rocks in blazing desert heat:

Then we began to snipe them steadily in their positions under the slopes and rock-faces by the water hoping to provoke them out and up the hill in a charge against us… This went on all day. It was terribly hot, hotter than ever before I had felt it in Arabia, and the anxiety and constant moving made it hard for us. Some even of the tough tribesmen broke down under the cruelty of the sun and crawled or had to be thrown under rocks to recover in their shade. We had to run up and down, supplying our lack of numbers by mobility, ever looking over the long ranges of hill for a new spot from which to counter this or that Turkish effort. The hillsides were steep and exhausted our breath, and the plants and grasses twined like little hands about our ankles as we ran and plucked us back. The sharp ground tore our feet, and before evening the more energetic men were leaving rusty prints upon the ground with their every stride. Our rifles grew so hot with the sun and shooting that they seared our hands… The rocks on which flung ourselves to get our aim were burning with the sun, so that they scorched our breasts and arms, from which later the skin peeled off in ragged sheets.

After this battle for a Turkish outpost the attack on Aqaba itself was almost anticlimactic, in part because the Arabs soon enjoyed numerical superiority thanks to the arrival of local tribesmen eager for plunder, along with the advantage of surprise:

Unfortunately for the enemy, they never imagined attack from the interior and of all their great works not one trench or post faced inland. Our advance from so new a direction threw them into panic, and wisely they did not progressively resist us. The attempt if made would have availed them nothing, for we had the hill tribes with us, and by their help we could occupy the sheer peaks with riflemen whose plunging fire would render the gorge untenable for troops without overhead cover.

With the outskirts now under Arab control, over 1,000 Bedouin warriors were left facing around 300 unhappy Turkish defenders dug into trenches a few miles from Aqaba, and it was only a matter of time; in fact Lawrence’s main concern now was to prevent a massacre of the holdouts. A parlay with the Turkish commander yielded a tentative agreement to surrender at daylight, but chaotic combat soon erupted again, until Lawrence restored order with considerable personal bravery: 

Next day at dawn fighting broke out on all sides, for hundreds more hill men, again doubling our number, had come about us in the night and, not knowing the arrangement, began shooting at the Turks, who defended themselves. Nasir and I went out… to the open bend of the valley below our men, who ceased fire not to hit us. The Turks also stopped at once, for they had no more fight or food left in them, and thought that we were well supplied. So the surrender went off quietly after all.

Among the prisoners was a hapless German engineer who, like so many people caught in up in the whirlwind of war in a foreign land, freely admitted had no idea what was going on and generally seemed grateful just to be alive: 

As the Arabs rushed in to plunder the camp I noticed one of the prisoners in field-grey uniform, with a red beard and puzzled blue eyes, and spoke to him in German. He was the well-borer, and knew no Turkish and was amazed at the doings of the last two days. He begged me to explain what it all meant, since he had not understood the officers. I said that we were a rebellion, of the Arabs against the Turks. This took him time to appreciate. He wanted to know who was our leader and I said the Sherif of Mecca. He supposed he would be sent to Mecca. I said rather to Egypt, and he enquired the price of sugar there, and when I told him it was cheap and plentiful he was glad.

Aqaba had no direct communications with Egypt, so Lawrence was now forced to embark on another epic desert journey, this time across the Sinai Peninsula to the Suez Canal, to inform his superiors in Cairo that the Arab Army had performed a miracle, totally changing the outlook for Allenby’s planned advance into Palestine as well as the prospects of the Arab Revolt. 

KERENSKY OFFENSIVE FAILS

The fall of Aqaba was an unexpected, but much-needed, piece of good news for the Allies following another unmitigated disaster on the Eastern Front. This time it was the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, which would prove to be Russia’s last major effort of the First World War, as the vast realm quickly descended into the chaos of civil war. 

The offensive, named for the Provisional Government’s charismatic minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, was intended to show the Allies that Russia’s new revolutionary government was committed to continuing the war effort, as well as enhance its prestige in the eyes of the Russian people. Like his fellow cabinet ministers Kerensky was worried about the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet, a popular assembly dominated by socialists, which seemed determined to sideline the Provisional Government under Prince Lviv; they hoped that a big victory would shore up their legitimacy and check the ambitions of the Soviet’s radical members, including Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

North East Europe July 1917
Erik Sass

Things didn’t turn out the way, however. The Kerensky Offensive got off to a promising start, but this was largely due to the choice of a soft target – the demoralized, disorganized Austro-Hungarian armies facing the Russians in Galicia. After a fierce two-day bombardment from June 28-30, on July 1 troops from the Russian Eleventh, Eighth and Seventh Armies began a short-lived advance, and in some places made considerable progress towards Lemberg, which had already traded hands countless times over the course of the war – but then the wheels came off.

On July 3 many of the Russian troops, figuring they had made enough progress, simply stopped advancing, and their officers – stripped of their authority by the Soviet’s famous Order No. 1 in March – were powerless to enforce any kind of discipline. By July 16 the advance had stopped in its tracks. The pause not only gave the Habsburg forces a break, but also allowed their formidable German allies to dispatch reinforcements who immediately staged a counterattack beginning on July 19, turning the Russian advance into a rout (below, Russian troops fleeing after the failure of the offensive).

By early August the Germans and Habsburg armies had advanced over 150 miles in places in pursuit of the retreating Russians, with no prospect of serious resistance; on the road to this debacle the Russians had sustained 200,000 casualties, including 40,000 killed and many more taken prisoner, as units surrendered en masse. The demoralization of the Russian Army was complete, and mass desertions and mutinies would undermine whatever was left of the once-mighty “steamroller” in the months to come. 

Everyone immediately recognized the enormity of the disaster, which helped set the stage for the militant Bolsheviks’ first attempt to seize power, further destabilizing the already weak government. On July 25, 1917, an anonymous English diplomatic courier believed to be Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary: 

The news from the Front is too terrible to think of – two Army Corps surrendered, and all the towns lost which were so lately won. Thank God, the Huns will find nothing to eat. I know what that is, as we are starving here. [The loss of] Tarnpol is a great disaster, and really last night… when that news came, we were all disheartened. You have no idea how tired it makes one; I sleep eight hours, only to wake up much more tired. There is nothing to eat, either; I am always hungry. For the moment all is quiet here, but there may yet be a pitched battle between those who want to maintain order and carry on the war, and those who don’t want to do either.

GREECE JOINS ALLIES 

The Allies had received another very modest piece of encouragement with the belated entry of Greece into the war on July 2, 1917. The decision came after months of paralysis resulting from the rift between King Constantine, the country’s pro-German monarch, and Eleftherios Venizelos, its pro-Allied senior statesman and most popular politician. 

Greek neutrality had already been violated in 1915 when the Allies landed at Salonika, where Venizelos soon set up a rival pro-Allied government and worked to marginalize King Constantine with the full encouragement and support of the Allies. Under intense pressure from the Allies, who had enforced a naval blockade and financial embargo against his regime, King Constantine finally resigned on June 11, 1917 and went into exile with his eldest son George, making way for his second son, Alexander, who now took the throne and ruled as a figurehead under the thumb of Venizelos. 

Venizelos wasted no time declaring war on the Central Powers, including the Bulgarians, who had occupied parts of northern Greece alongside German, Habsburg, and Ottoman forces, and who still laid claim to the ancient city of Salonika despite their disastrous defeat in the Second Balkan War. However the Greek contribution to the war effort was symbolic at best: for most of the conflict the main body of the Greek Army remained encamped far to the south of the frontlines in Thessaly, and just 5,000 Greek soldiers died in battle, a pinprick by the standards of the First World War. Many more would die in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922, when the Greeks, at the encouragement of the Allies, tried to detach Turkish territory without success.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

Henry Johnson, the One-Man Army Who Fought Off Dozens of German Soldiers During World War I

It was after midnight on May 15, 1918 when William Henry Johnson began to hear the rustling. Johnson was a long way from his home in Albany, New York, guarding a bridge in the Argonne Forest in Champagne, France. Sleeping next to him was Needham Roberts, a fellow soldier. Both men had enlisted in the New York National Guard just a few months earlier and were now part of the French Army, donated by U.S. forces to their understaffed allies in the thick of World War I.

As Johnson continued hearing the strange noises late into the night, he urged his partner to get up. A tired Roberts waved him off, believing Johnson was just nervous. Johnson decided to prepare himself just in case, piling up his assortment of grenades and rifle cartridges within arm's reach. If someone was coming, he would be ready.

The rustling continued. At one point, Johnson heard a clipping noise—what he suspected was the sound of the perimeter fence being cut. He again told Roberts to wake up. "Man," he said, "You better wake up pretty soon or you [might] never wake up."

The two began lobbing grenades into the darkness, hoping to discourage whoever might be lurking around the perimeter. Suddenly, in the middle of the French forest, Johnson saw dozens of German soldiers come charging, bayonets pointed toward him. They began to fire.

What transpired over the next hour would become an act of heroism that prompted former President Theodore Roosevelt to declare Johnson one of the bravest Americans to take up arms in the war. Johnson would even lead a procession back in New York City, with crowds lined up along the street to greet him.

Johnson may or may not have felt like a hero, though he certainly was. But he must have also felt something else—a sense of confusion. A man of color, he had been dispatched to a segregated regiment, where he received paltry combat training and was assigned menial tasks like unloading trucks. Even his homecoming parade was split up according to race. Henry Johnson, decorated virtually head to toe in French military honors, returned to a country that considered him both hero and a second-class citizen.

 

Though officers would later verify much of Johnson’s account of that night in the woods, his early life is harder to pin down. It has been reported that Johnson himself wasn’t quite sure when he was born. No one appeared to have kept a close eye on his birth certificate, which came out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The official U.S. Army website honoring Johnson’s service lists an approximate birth date of July 15, 1892. Other research indicates he could have been born as early as 1887 or as late as 1897.

After moving to New York as a teenager, Johnson took on an assortment of odd jobs; he was a chauffeur and a soda mixer, among other occupations. Depending on the account, he was living in Albany working either in a coal yard or as a railway porter when he opened a newspaper in the spring of 1917 and read that the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York National Guard was accepting enlistees. The regiment was comprised entirely of black soldiers.

Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform
Sergeant William Henry Johnson poses for a photo in uniform.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Johnson showed up on June 5, 1917, weighing a slight 130 pounds and standing 5 feet, 4 inches tall. Assigned to Company C of the 15th—which later became known as the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment—he was quickly dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina, where he trained along with the rest of the segregated unit. Though minorities had served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, they often lacked support from officials and got inferior training compared to their white counterparts. At Camp Wadsworth, Johnson was said to have been used primarily as labor, unloading supplies and digging latrines. If there was one bright spot during this time, it was that he married his wife, Georgina Edna Jackson, that September.

Johnson and the 369th were sent to France on January 1, 1918. There they continued laboring, which frustrated their commander, Colonel William Hayward. Hayward lobbied his superiors to give his men a chance in combat. Since France was experiencing a shortage of men, the 369th—which later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters because many of their members had come from Harlem in New York City—joined the 161st Division of the French Army, even wearing the jackets and helmets of the foreign military.

To the French, Johnson and his fellow soldiers were a welcome solution to their lack of manpower. Sent to the front lines in March 1918, Johnson and the others learned enough French to understand commands from superiors. They were armed with rifles and held on to the bolo knives used by the U.S. Army. The imposing 14-inch blades weighed more than a pound and had much of their weight running along the back, giving them a cleaving action similar to a machete. Johnson would soon be glad he had such a weapon on his waist.

Along with Needham Roberts—a man from Trenton, New Jersey—Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest. Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson and Roberts were given the late shift, on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. It would be a night neither he nor Roberts would ever forget.

As their shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching. The soldiers were young and inexperienced, and Johnson felt uncomfortable leaving them alone. He stayed put and surveyed the area while Roberts went to rest in a trench. Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized they were surrounded, and urged Roberts to run for help. But Roberts didn't get far before he decided to come back and help, and was soon hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.

Still conscious, Roberts handed Johnson grenades to toss. When those ran out, Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.

After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head. But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man. More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.

An illustration depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers
An illustration by artist Charles Alston depicts William Henry Johnson fighting off German soldiers. The artwork was used by the Office for Emergency Management (OEM) to inspire American soldiers during World War II.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At one point, Johnson noticed the Germans had grabbed Roberts and were attempting to haul him away. He intervened, stabbing more soldiers, including one in the ribs.

The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled. Johnson was given medical attention. So was Roberts. Both lived.

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle. German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood. Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others. Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six, with Johnson injuring 32 men. After all the fighting, Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

The nicknames came fast. The bridge was declared “the Battle of Henry Johnson.” Johnson himself was given the unofficial label “the Black Death” and the official rank of sergeant. He was headed back home.

 

Before they departed, the French honored Johnson and Roberts with the Croix de Guerre, one of France’s highest awards for valor. They were the first two Americans to receive it. Johnson’s was amended with the addition of the Gold Palm, intended to signify extraordinary valor.

It was an honor, though one that came with a heavy price. Johnson later estimated he had been shot five times, the bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and even his head. A scar stretched over his lip. A bayonet had been plunged into his torso—twice. He had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot. In all, Johnson endured 21 injuries as a result of his defiant stand against the Germans.

Back home, he convalesced as the country sang his praises. Often, such reports of his bravery took pains to note he was a man of color. "When proudly speaking of fighting races we must not overlook the American Negro," read an editorial in the New York Evening Telegram. Other times, Johnson found himself in the peculiar position of being celebrated while simultaneously being reminded of his purportedly inferior status. The parade that honored the Harlem Hellfighters in February 1919 ran for seven miles, with Johnson leading the procession in an open-topped cab. But the Hellfighters could not march with their white counterparts.

Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918
Needham Roberts (L) and William Henry Johnson (R) pose for a photo with their Croix de Guerre medals in 1918.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Unfortunately, Johnson’s postwar life remains as murky as his earliest years. He reportedly received disability payments from the government as well as medical care, but it’s unknown to what extent that supported him or how badly his injuries kept him from employment opportunities. (He did ask for, and received, as much as $100 per minute during speaking engagements in cities such as St. Louis—well over $1000 in today's money.) An attempt was made by the Albany Afro-American Association to raise money to build him a home as a way of expressing gratitude for his service, but it’s unclear whether the effort was successful. On July 1, 1929, Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C. He was awarded a posthumous Purple Heart in 1996.

For years, it was unclear what became of Johnson's remains. In 2002, when the historians at the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs researched his service at the behest of his descendants (though it was later discovered they were mistaken and not actually related to Johnson), the historians determined Johnson was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. With confirmation of the gravesite, Johnson also became eligible for and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.

In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor, which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard. And every June 5, Albany celebrates Henry Johnson Day in acknowledgement of the day he enlisted. The city also gives out a Henry Johnson Award for Distinguished Community Service for those making contributions in the area.

Those honors joined the Croix de Guerre, which Johnson was said to have worn with humility. He sometimes needed to be prodded into discussing his act of bravery, as if it were of no major consequence. “There wasn’t anything so fine about it,” he said. “[I] just fought for my life. A rabbit would have done that."

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