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WWI Centennial: Bolshevik Coup Attempt Fails

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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 282nd installment in the series.

JULY 16-18, 1917: BOLSHEVIK COUP ATTEMPT FAIL

Far from enhancing the prestige of Russia’s Provisional Government as hoped, the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 put the new regime on the defensive with its own people as well as the enemy. Within weeks, its already fragile authority faced a grave internal threat, as Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks staged their first coup attempt. Although the communist uprising failed, the “July Days” made it clear to all that the Provisional Government was living on borrowed time.

While the moderate socialists who formed the majority of the Petrograd Soviet were content to cooperate with the Provisional Government under the ineffectual idealist Premier Lviv, at least for the time being, Lenin had never concealed his ambition to overthrow the “bourgeois” liberals and seize power for the Soviet—which in reality meant the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The debacle on the Galician front seemed to present an ideal moment for the coup, as military morale plunged to new lows and popular support for the Provisional Government dwindled. An opportunist first and last, Lenin seized on another (supposedly) unexpected event—a military mutiny—to make his bid for power.

Mutinous elements, never far from the surface during this unsettled period, began bubbling again when the Provisional Government ordered a number of units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The Bolsheviks depended on disaffected soldiers from their ranks as a big part of their power base, and were determined not to lose this leverage: a sudden blitz of propaganda excoriating the “imperialist” Provisional Government helped push troops from one unit, the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, over the edge into open rebellion (it’s unclear exactly how much Lenin knew about the event beforehand, but the fact that he went to Vyborg, Finland, not far from Petrograd, for a “restful holiday” a few days before the mutiny suggests he knew what was coming).

On July 15, two leading Bolsheviks, Lev Bronstein (better known by his nom de guerre, Trotsky) and Anatoly Lunacharsky, addressed thousands of troops from the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, demanding the Provisional Government hand power to the Petrograd Soviet and encouraging the soldiers to refuse to obey any orders until this happened. The next day the regiment heard even more inflammatory speeches by anarchist agitators allied with the Bolsheviks, who openly called for rebellion, and in the afternoon of July 16 the mutiny began as the troops elected a revolutionary committee. One of their first actions was to send representatives to recruit support from rebellious sailors stationed at the naval base of Kronstadt, who quickly convened their own soviet and voted to join the rebellion; they were soon joined by workers from the Putilov factory complex (below Bolsheviks address workers).

With thousands of soldiers and sailors rallying to the banner of revolution, a handful of Bolshevik leaders, including Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, tried to engineer a parliamentary coup in the Petrograd Soviet by calling an emergency meeting of the workers’ section and presenting a resolution calling for the Soviet to seize power and overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks were opposed by rival socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but simply passed the resolution themselves after the latter walked out in protest.

L-R: Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev
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By the late evening of July 16 a large crowd of soldiers and factory workers had gathered outside the Tauride Palace where the Soviet met, calling for the delegates to join the Bolshevik coup attempt and overthrow the Provisional Government (which was seemingly unable to intervene to stop these events, revealing how powerless it really was). In another strange twist, the Petrograd Soviet now found itself in the same position as the Provisional Government in March, with power being thrust on it by unruly mobs—practically at gunpoint.

On July 17 the mutinying soldiers in Petrograd were joined by the sailors from Kronstadt, who arrived and helped take over most of the city, using commandeered automobiles and trucks. Alexander Kerensky, the charismatic war minister who had so far managed to keep the Soviet and Provisional Government united (and who would soon replace Lviv as prime minister), was forced to flee the capital, narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist member of the Soviet, recalled the scene as chaos spread throughout the city:

“Come as soon as possible,” we were urged, “a new Bolshevist riot has broken out.” Without any delay we started. On Sergievskaia Street all was serene, but as soon as we turned into the Liteiny we saw a number of heavy motor trucks, full of armed soldiers and sailors and fitted with machine guns, being driven furiously in the direction of Tavrichesky Palace. Private automobiles were being stopped and seized by the rioters. We saw a mutinous regiment crossing the Liteiny Bridge and near at hand we head the crack of rifles. Revolution was hungry again and was calling for human sacrifice.

As Sorokin noted, the column of rebellious sailors and civilians came under rifle fire from some unknown assailants, perhaps supporters of the Provisional Government, in the “bourgeois” Liteiny neighborhood of Petrograd, causing them to briefly scatter before resuming their march (top, the column disperses). They joined the 1stMachine Gun Regiment and over ten thousand workers from the Putilov factories in front of the Tauride Palace, where the crowd was growing increasingly threatening to the Soviet—the same Soviet they were supposedly supporting against the Provisional Government—while inside the Bolshevik leaders tried to persuade the other socialist parties to seize power. Later that day Sorokin described the weird situation:

Meanwhile, the crowd outside grew into a dense throng. Bolshevist speakers urged the throng to break down the doors of the palace and to disperse the Soviet. My head bursting with excitement and the close atmosphere of the room, I went out into the yard of the Duma. In the gray twilight of the July night I saw a perfect sea of soldiers, workmen, sailors… Here and there cannon and machine guns pointing at the Palace, and everywhere red banners floating and incessant firing. It was like a madhouse. Here was the mob demanding “All the Power to the Soviets” and at the same time training cannon on the Soviets, threatening it with death and extinction.

The drama was about to take an even more bizarre turn thanks to the Provisional Government’s minister of justice, Pavel Pereverzev, who decided the only way to head off the coup attempt was to discredit the Bolsheviks—specifically by releasing secret police documents indicating that Lenin was in the pay of German intelligence. The gambit worked, as even most radical revolutionaries still loathed the foreign enemy, and viewed any cooperation with them as treason.

As suddenly as it had arisen, the popular support for the Bolshevik coup collapsed, allowing military units loyal to the Soviet to enter the Tauride Palace, rout the Bolsheviks, and free the other members of the Soviet, who had effectively been held hostage by the mob in their own building. Sorokin recalled the moment when an officer leading loyal troops arrived in the chamber to restore order:

The explosion of a bomb could scarcely have produced such an effect. Wild, joyous applause on the one hand, shrieks, groans, maledictions on the other. As for Trotzky, Lunacharsky, Gimmer, Katz, and Zinovieff, as one of my colleagues expressed it, they “shriveled like the devil before holy water.” One of them did make an effort to say something, but was instantly howled down. “Out of here! Away!” shouted the Soviet, and with their partisans at their heels they left.

Discredited by the allegations of German support and sought by the police along with many others of the party’s leaders, Lenin was forced to flee Russia in disguise, clean shaven to look like a Finnish peasant (below, Lenin in August 1917). Many observers understandably assumed that the Bolsheviks were finished. But the Provisional Government neglected to ban the party, and the socialist members of the Soviet remained more sympathetic to their Bolshevik brethren—who in the opinion of many were just overzealous in their advocacy on behalf of the Soviet—than the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, now under the increasingly dictatorial Kerensky.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
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Indeed, the coup had also served several purposes, allowing the Bolshevik leaders to assess both the vulnerability of the Provisional Government and potential support for their program in the Soviet, and above all also acting as a huge publicity stunt for the small, previously obscure party. Rank and file members could continue organizing, and unlike their peers in other parties, they focused on the “big picture,” long-term goal of establishing an independent power base from the Soviet. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Bolshevik, recalled that even immediately following the failed coup, the situation seemed far from hopeless:

People of all walks of life cursed the Bolsheviks, yet at the same time there was growing interest in us. What did we want? What were we proposing? Delegates from small factories, dozens of kilometers away, visited us at the factory… This was the time when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted, so there was heightened interest in our speakers from all quarters. Political differentiation became noticeable even at our factory. The Mensheviks sweated over purely practical work and agitated against the organization of a Red Guard, which none of them joined. The newspapers spoke of the Bolsheviks losing their influence on the masses, but in fact we noticed that it was growing, at least to judge by the number of those wishing to join the Red Guard detachment.

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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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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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