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WWI Centennial: Race Riot In Houston

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 286th installment in the series.

AUGUST 23, 1917: RACE RIOT IN HOUSTON

The upheaval of the First World War was associated with a rise in racial tensions across the U.S., resulting from unprecedented population movements and changing social dynamics. Beginning in 1915, the surge in factory employment for wartime production saw hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of poor African-American migrants leave the South to find work in Northern and Midwestern industrial cities – where they mixed uneasily with native whites and large European immigrant populations.

Great migration map
Erik Sass

Down South, the new economic opportunities available to African-Americans in the North caused some white Southerners to fear the loss of cheap agricultural labor as well as blacks becoming more assertive about their civil rights, leading to the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The huge popularity of the movie “Birth of a Nation” was also testament to enduring racial hostility across the U.S. – not just in the South.

As 350,000 African-American men volunteered or were drafted in 1917-1918, one of the most volatile combinations occurred when black soldiers - many from outside the South - were sent to Southern training camps, where they were exposed to the humiliating Jim Crow regime in addition to serving in segregated units (an Army-wide policy). On August 23, 1917, this resulted in one of the worst race riots in American history, at a training camp in Houston, Texas.

1917 training camps map
Erik Sass

The Houston race riot and mutiny was the climax of months of mounting tension between the African-American recruits of the all-black Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment –part of the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers,” originally formed to fight Native American tribesmen– and the local white authorities in Houston, Texas. The regiment had been deployed to guard the construction of Camp Logan, Texas (duties typical of the rear-area and supply roles commonly assigned to these segregated black units).

On the hot, sunny afternoon of August 23, 1917, two white policemen broke up a craps game in the San Felipe section of Houston and then, while in pursuit of the suspects, broke into the house of a local woman, Sara Travers, whom they dragged outside in her torn nightgown. One passing soldier, Private Alonzo Edwards, was bold enough to approach the officer who was holding Travers with an offer to take custody of the distraught woman, possibly intending to return her to her home and de-escalate the situation – but instead Edwards was pistol-whipped for his presumption for speaking to a white police officer. Later that afternoon the same white officer clubbed another black soldier, Corporal Charles Baltimore, who asked after Travers; anger among the regiment’s Third Battalion, to which Baltimore belonged, reached a fever pitch with untrue rumors that he had been shot and died from the wound.

That night 156 black soldiers from the Third Battalion – apparently under the mistaken impression that a white lynch mob was about to attack the camp – armed themselves and marched from Camp Logan towards town, killing anyone they came across, for about two hours before the authorities surrounded and disarmed the mutineers. Altogether the mutineers killed nine white civilians and five white policemen, while four black soldiers were also killed by authorities – marking this as the only race riot in American history with more white than black fatalities.

Unsurprisingly, the official response to the Camp Logan riot and mutiny was draconian: around 100 members of the Third Battalion were tried collectively for murder in several court martials – making it one of the biggest murder cases in American history, measured by number of defendants – and 95 were convicted (top, a photo of the trial proceedings). Of these, 28 mutineers received death sentences and dozens of others were imprisoned.

The U.S. Army executed 13 soldiers almost immediately, all by hanging, and another six soldiers were hung at Camp Travis, Texas in September 1918. But the evidence for the involvement of many convicted soldiers in the mutiny and murders was often sketchy, based in many cases on contradictory eyewitness testimony, and protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civic groups prompted Woodrow Wilson commute ten of the remaining death sentences. The last mutineer was finally released from prison in 1938.

OPPORTUNITY AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD 

The Houston race riot and mutiny weren’t representative of the experience of all African-American soldiers during this period. For one thing, tens of thousands of young African-American men joined up voluntarily, usually for the same reasons as their peers: the Army held out the promise of regular pay and adventure, and with it a ticket out of sleepy small town or rural life. Former Illinois state representative Corneal Davis recalled trying to join the army in rural Mississippi, where there were no future prospects besides sharecropping:

I went into the army in 1917 when I was seventeen years old, and I enlisted down there at Beachwood, and the man they had down there, he says to me, “You ain’t nothing but seventeen years old, and you got to be at least eighteen to join this army! So why don’ you just go home and wait a little bit longer.” Well, that’s the way the law was, and so now what am I going to do? But then this same guy, he says, “Do you really want to go?” And so I say, “Hell, yeah, I want to go because I need to go somewhere where I can make some money, and I can’t make nothing down here...”

Possession of some education, even short of a high school degree, could provide a big leg up. Davis recalled,

… they put me in the medical corps because a lot of those black men that they was drafting, they couldn’t read or write, and they had to be trained how to use a stretcher or even put on a bandage and things like that, and so they put me in there because at least I had gone into my last year of high school, and I had a little education, and so they thought that I could train them, and I did.

Of course, once in Europe Davis still had to deal with the same endemic racist attitudes he faced at home, even on the battlefield, where his unit served as stretcher bearers:

… and that was a hard and dangerous job for us to do, and what made it even harder was that some of those soldiers – especially those white guys who were Marines – they didn’t even want black people like us to come anywhere near them, but we were the ones who still had to go out there when they got shot and bring them back off the battlefield!

For all this, traveling to Europe – and especially immersion in France’s relatively egalitarian society – was clearly an eye-opening experience for many African-American soldiers, as noted by both black and white observers. Davis noted that his unit’s true opportunity to shine only came under French commanders, who were already used to the idea of using black and white troops together thanks to units from Senegal and other colonial possessions: “That’s right, and here we were supposed to be fighting for this country and making it safe for democracy and all of that, but they had to take a French general and put him in charge of all the black soldiers before they would let us chase them Germans out of Belgium, and that’s just what we did.”

However it should be noted that French enthusiasm for black troops wasn’t exactly altruistic, as the French used their own colonial troops in the front lines in order to spare the lives of white Frenchmen. In fact the French premier Georges Clemenceau, stated on February 18, 1918: “Although I have infinite respect for these brave blacks, I would much prefer to have ten blacks killed than a single Frenchman, because I think that enough Frenchmen have been killed and that it is necessary to sacrifice them as little as possible.”

African-American soldiers also had to deal with racial dynamics from home. Interactions with the opposite gender were especially fraught, at least in the eyes of Americans, where there had long been a taboo against African-American men sleeping with white women. Avery Royce Wolfe, a white American soldier volunteering with the French Army, noted the friction in a mixed-race camp near Verdun in September 1917, as well as his own racist attitudes, entirely typical for the era:

It is strange to see how the colored troops are received in France. There seems to be absolutely no race question, such as exists in America. The negro is accepted everywhere on the same basis as white men. Even the French girls seem to prefer colored soldiers to white soldiers. I must admit that this is rather repulsive to me, even if I do not have the same prejudice towards the colored people that prevails in our southern states.

Although the Frenchwomen might not have a problem socializing with black soldiers, white Southern soldiers certainly took exception to these relationships, importing Jim Crow laws to France, according to Royce:

The other night there was quite a serious riot between some Americans and the French Colonials who are stationed in this town. These Colonials are colored troops that the French recruit from their foreign provinces. Unlike Americans, the French do not draw a color line, and so these colored troops are accepted by the French girls on the same basis as any other man. This gets under the Americans’ skin, so much in fact that there is always trouble whenever the two mix.

Still, service in Europe inevitably created expectations of – or at least aspirations to – greater equality in America, someday. The white newspaper correspondent Will Irwin described meeting a young black American soldier who had volunteered with the French Army: “War and heroism had given him that straight air of authority common to all soldiers at the line. He looked you in the eye, and answered you with replies which carried their own conviction of truth. The democracy of the French army had brushed off on to him; he had grown accustomed to look on white men as equals…”

"I HAD TO BRING THEM AWAY" 

Racism was obviously inescapable, even in Europe, but the fact remained that conditions back home in the United States were much worse – especially down South, prompting millions more African-Americans to leave the Jim Crow states for new homes in the North, Midwest, and West over the First Great Migration, from 1915-1940 (when the Second Great Migration was trigged by the Second World War, lasting until 1970).

Map of African-American populations of U.S. cities
Erik Sass

There is no question that blacks living in the South during the height of white supremacy were routinely terrorized, including the ever-present fear of lynching. One elderly African-American woman who had moved to Newark told an oral historian about conditions in rural Georgia in this period:

I didn’t have no contact with white folks when I was comin’ up. The people all around me, the people in the neighborhood, had ‘em. But I was scared. You know how come? We couldn’t live in the house. We had to go out and stand in a pond of water up to our waist all night to keep away from the white folks. They would go to our house and bust in. And we had to run away to protect ourselves. We couldn’t come out of the water till the next day… The reason I hurt so bad when my husband died ‘cause I had nobody to help me with the children. I had to bring them away ‘cause them white folks would kill ‘em.

Map of African-American lynching victims, per year, 1882-1920
Erik Sass

Similarly, when he returned to the United States after the war, Davis found all his relatives had left Vicksburg, Mississippi for other cities, including Chicago, because of racial violence during the war:

When I came out of the army, all of my people, they had already left Mississippi because, just before then there was a boy in Vicksburg that I used to play with who was named Hamilton, and one day they picked him up because some white woman said she had been raped or something, and they took that boy who was completely innocent, and they hung him up on a tree, and that’s when the black people all started leaving Vicksburg because there wasn’t ever hanging black people like that in Vicksburg before then, and so my mother, she sent me this newspaper with the article in it about this boy that had been hanged, and she knew I knew him, and so in her letter to me she said, “Son, we are leaving.”

Beyond the unending terror of “lynch law,” opportunities for education and social mobility in the old South were almost nonexistent for African-Americans (and severely limited for poor whites). One elderly African-American migrant, interviewed anonymously, remembered that because her mother was unable to pay school fees, her education ended in the third grade:

When school time come she had to borrow books and we paid thirty-five cents a month… And all right, maybe you just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. If she didn’t give me the money, I couldn’t go to school. The teachers wouldn’t allow her to send us to school ‘cause she didn’t have the thirty-five cents. So I didn’t have much schoolin’. My mother wasn’t able to pay thirty-five cents for all of us to go to school. I can spell my name and know a little readin’. When she could get that money she send me, and that’s what I did to the third grade. That’s as far as I got.

Another elderly African-American interviewee described primitive conditions in the small rural school she attended:

We had the school in one room with a little potbelly stove sitting right in the middle of it. And the children was all ‘round the walls of the school. This set would come up and get warm and they would move back, the other would come. That’s how we kept warm. The girls had to bring the wood for the stove. The boys would go out and cut the trees down and chop them up to fit in the stove. We girls had to bring it and put it in the schoolroom.

Those who could attend school at all were lucky, as children regularly engaged in strenuous manual labor, usually on a family farm or share-cropping, or for white landowners. One elderly African-American preacher whose family moved North recalled picking cotton in his youth: “Most of the time we get on our knees. I have picked up as high as 230 pounds of cotton a day. I remember kids, they talk about three hundred pound pickers. But every day I picked over 200 pounds…”

Not all sharecroppers and their children were poorly educated, and the blight of illiteracy was also widespread among Southern whites – meaning in some cases black tenant farmers were better educated than their white landlords. Maggie Comer, an African-American woman who migrated from Woodland, Mississippi, to Memphis and then East Chicago, Indiana, in 1920, proudly recalled:

My father was sharecropping. He had more education than the white man he was working for. My father did all his weighing of the cotton and taking care of his business because that white man could not read or write. There were about thirteen or fourteen boys in his family and some few of them got to go to school a bit. My father was one that did get to go to school.

However education carried its own dangers. Indeed, some of the persecution had an economic motive behind it, as whites feared any black attempts to organize or pool financial resources, and any black farmer with education posed a threat in this regrd. Lillie Lodge Brantley, whose family left Midville, Georgia for Chicago in the mid-1920s, recalled the circumstances that forced her father to leave town:

Well, down south my father said the white people controlled everything. When he and the other farmers had their crops all in and they took them to town to sell in order to get nails or grains for the next year or something like that, the white people would them how many bushels they would net from their acres and that would determine just how much credit they would get. But, because my father could read and write and count, he would go around and let the other farmers know how much they were really supposed to get. Naturally, the white people resented that, and so he knew that in due time would have to leave. That’s when he made up his mind to come north.

At the same time, factory work up North held out the enticement of a regular wage with guaranteed payment – something still largely lacking in the informal Southern economy. One anonymous elderly African-American interviewed by oral historians, who moved from North Carolina to Newark in 1915, described the important difference in labor and compensation between agricultural work down South, with its many uncertainties, and industrial work up North:

People were workin’ sometimes, makin’ 50 cents a day. Sometimes they wasn’t. Some would work ten hours for that 50 cents. From sunup to sundown. Then you don’t know whether you going to get that money or not, ‘cause if the guy goes to town to sell and he don’t sell, you ain’t getting’ paid. But up here it was a little bit different. At least here you’ make five or six dollars.

Accommodations for the first wave of black migrants reaching Northern towns were often extremely primitive. Comer recounted her husband’s description of the makeshift encampment where he arrived near East Chicago, as well as the classic “chain” model by which the first migrants brought up their family members one at a time (resembling Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries): “He stayed at this place where this fellow had a tent, where they just sleep men mostly. There was no black women, or not any up to any good. They slept in tents until they made a few paydays and then they rented rooms or a house. He rented a house and kept a few renters, and then he sent back for a couple of his relatives…”

TOLERANCE AND TENSION

The Great Migration produced a kaleidoscopic array of social interactions, as native whites and European immigrants reacted to their newly arrived neighbors – sometimes with tolerance, other times with suspicion, fear and disdain. In addition to their own cultural differences and prejudices, the simple fact was African-American migrants represented economic competition for working class whites in Northern cities. But despite this obvious source of tension, harmony seems to have prevailed in most cases.

African-American migrants to Newark, NJ were mostly accepted by the white population, which included a large number of European immigrants, as long as they observed certain social barriers, according to one elderly interviewee: “But most of the time we got along, ‘cause here in Newark, whites used to stay upstairs and colored downstairs, and they all got along like two peas in a pod. Never had any problems… I was in a Jewish section, and with Italians too, all mixed up racial.”

Thomas Ellis, who was born in Chicago in 1914, told oral historian Timuel Black that African-American migrants mostly got along with their neighbors, including Jews and European immigrants who lived in their own ethnic enclaves – sometimes even attending their religious observances:

My auntie was the next black person to move into the neighborhood when she moved in on Aberdeen. That was a Jewish section. See, there was a lot of those little “sections” around there. There were Jews out there, there were Swedes out there, and there were Irish. We used to go to that Jewish church up on the corner near Sixty-first and May on Saturdays. It’s not a Jewish church now, but when we were just kids, we used to make fires for Jewish people, who couldn’t do anything like that on Saturdays. And then up on the corner of Sixty-first and May there was a Swedish church were we went sometimes with the fellow who lived next door.

One African-American migrant, Alonzo Parham, recalled benefiting from a supportive Irish immigrant teacher and befriending white students in Chicago in the 1920s:

The teacher was Irish: “And don’t you forget it.” Her last name was O’Donoghue, and her face was like a lemon, but she gave me a chance to shine in that class… In Foster School at the time, most of the fellows in my class were white. The Negro boys were all from the sixth grade down, but they were kind of cool toward me because I ran with these white boys… So when I went outside, the white kids would play with me, but those black kids kind of ignored me.

But there were definite social barriers to interaction, although the extent and intensity of these social prohibitions varied from place to place and over time. Ellis noted “we weren’t too well liked when we went over to Ogden Park. Wouldn’t go into the swimming pool.” Etta Moten Barnett, a stage and film vocalist, recalled petty snubs by a white teacher in Los Angeles:

At that time, in my class at the junior high school, there were only two of us who were not white, and our teacher, he spoke to our class about the fact that not everybody kept their yards and clean and looking nice because it was becoming a mixed neighborhood, and, well, I didn’t think that our teacher should have said something like that to our class, especially because it wasn’t even true!

No surprise, many Southern blacks, having spent their whole lives on farms, also found it difficult to adjust to life in the North and Midwest, according to Comer: “They didn’t like the weather. It was so different to their way of life at home. It was hard for people raised in the South to adjust to the city type life. This was almost like being in a jail for them, living in apartment houses with a postage-stamp lawn.”

Another common complaint among migrants was the alleged untrustworthiness of some Northern whites, who might take pains to appear friendly but in reality harbored sentiments just as racist as their Southern counterparts. An elderly African-American woman who moved to Newark in her youth opined:

Down there they’ll let you know where you at in the first place, in the beginning. You know how far to go with them down there. But up here! Humph! They’re just as bad! They’re just like a snake in the grass. If there’s a snake in the grass and you step in that grass and you don’t know what snake is in there, it’s going to bit you. That’s what it’s like with the white up here. You don’t know where you stand with them… Up here they’re two-faced, they’re hypocritic and nasty.

Some of the tension resulted from the fact that in many cases, black migrants were recruited and brought North specifically to serve as strikebreakers, amid a growing wave of industrial unrest caused by inflation and stagnant wages. While these labor conflicts obviously presented an economic opportunity for low-skilled manual laborers from the South, the circumstances naturally put the African-American “scabs” at odds with the strikers. Wayman Hancock, whose family moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago in 1920 (and who happened to be the father of famed musician Herbie Hancock) recalled that his father was lured by the promise of jobs during a stockyard strike:

See, before then, not many blacks were working in the stockyards, not until they had a strike in the stockyards – that is what my grandfather told me about it. All the companies – Armour, Wilson, Swift… Cudahy – that’s right. They all went south and started to recruit blacks, and some of us came up here in freight cars, and some didn’t even have a place to stay and so they stayed out in the freight cars out in the yard…

Meanwhile whites also reacted to the new migrants with a wave of informal and covert segregation, including “redlining” real estate to keep African-American buyers out, and de facto segregation of public schools. Comer, who arrived in East Chicago in 1920, would later remember:

When I first came into East Chicago there wasn’t much segregation. As I said, there were only two nationalities of people, Polish and blacks. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours. But you could live on any street in East Chicago, even Grand Boulevard… Fifteen years later, it had become one of the finest streets in town – and white only.

In his memoir Horace R. Cayton, whose childhood was spent in the small pre-war black community in Seattle, recalled his family’s reaction to the sudden influx of African-American migrants during the war: “Our feeling about this was mixed. It was good to see Negroes leaving the South and coming to the relative freedom of the Northwest, but would it not upset our amicable relations with whites if too many came?” Later Cayton’s father, who was born into slavery but later became a successful newspaper publisher, warned him after a local Seattle movie theater introduced unofficial segregation for audiences: “Things are changing here and not for the better. I can remember when it didn’t matter what color you were. You could go any place and work most any place. But it’s different now.”

Tragically, the experience of the next few years would bear this out, including race riots in which white mobs attacked black migrants, and vice versa, in East St. Louis (1917); Chester, Pennsylvania (1917); Philadelphia (1917); Washington D.C. (1919); Chicago (1919); and Omaha (1919), among others.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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WWI Centennial: Czech Legion Revolts, Sedition Act Passed
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Matthew Horsky, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 307th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 14-16, 1918: CZECH LEGION REVOLTS, SEDITION ACT PASSES

One of the most amazing stories of the First World War, and military history, began on May 14, 1918, in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk.

As Russia descended into civil war following the Bolshevik coup, one group of foreign fighters found themselves stranded far from home. The Czech Legion was a special unit made up of a total of 61,000 Czech and Slovak fighters, recruited from among the ranks of Habsburg prisoners of war by Russian intelligence beginning in August 1914 and formed into their own units in 1916, who fought alongside the Russian Army against their former Austrian and Hungarian oppressors on the Eastern Front. In return for their service, the Allies, including France and Britain, agreed to recognize Czech and Slovak claims to independence from the disintegrating Dual Monarchy.

However, the collapse of Russia’s first revolutionary Provisional Government changed everything. Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who seized power ostensibly on behalf of the socialist Soviets in November 1917, were hostile to the French and British “imperialists” and determined to take Russia out of the war, leaving the Czech Legion isolated in a vast, unfriendly realm. At the same time, after the Bolsheviks signed the crushing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers in March 1918, the Western Allies still hoped to employ the Czech Legion on the Western Front, if only they could extract them from Russia, now wracked by civil war between Bolshevik “Reds” and anti-Bolshevik “Whites.”

Thus the Czech Legion, now numbering around 40,000 men plus camp followers, began an epic journey planned by Tomáš Masaryk, the chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council (a sojourn with striking similarities, as it turned out, to the Anabasis by Xenophon, telling the true story of 10,000 ancient Greek mercenaries trapped thousands of miles from home in the Persian Empire during a civil war). In the spring of 1918 the Czech and Slovak fighters began retreating in front of German and Austro-Hungarian troops occupying Ukraine, fearing—probably correctly—that if they were caught they would be treated as traitors to the Habsburg crown. By March 1918 they had reached the Trans-Siberian Railway and, with the reluctant agreement of the Bolshevik regime, boarded trains bound for the Pacific port of Vladivostok, where they hoped to make contact with Allied fleets for the long trip to the Western Front.

Unfortunately, they encountered a few obstacles along the way. As the Czech and Slovak fighters headed east, the governments of the Central Powers furiously demanded that the Bolsheviks stop them before they could be added to Allied forces defending against Germany’s final spring offensives on the Western Front. Bolshevik control of the Russian hinterland was uneven, relying in many places on local Soviets and Left SR allies with their own agendas, but they weren’t completely impotent—thanks to tens of thousands of former Austrian and Hungarian prisoners of war, now being repatriated to the Central Powers under the terms of Brest-Litovsk, who were heading west on the same rail line.

On May 14, 1918, Czech and Slovak fighters clashed with Hungarian POWs at a rail station in Chelyabinsk, prompting Red Army commissar Leon Trotsky (under growing German pressure) to make his first serious attempt to disarm them. But the Legionnaires fought back in the “Revolt of the Czech Legion,” which saw a pitched battle between the rival groups of Habsburg fighters in exile as well as the Bolsheviks’ Red Guard and Red Army units.

Map of Russia in May 1918
Erik Sass

Now openly at war with the Bolshevik regime, the Czech Legion fanned out along the length of the Trans-Siberian Railway, using their fleet of dozens of trains to stage surprise attacks on lightly held or unoccupied Siberian cities all the way to Vladivostok, taking advantage of their control of communications as well as the central position of rail stations to seize important areas before their opponents could react. This inaugurated a remarkable phase of railroad-based warfare, in some cases led by special armored trains, with the frontline sometimes moving hundreds of miles in just a few days.

By the summer of 1918, the Legion, now aligned with the anti-Bolshevik “Whites,” were in control of virtually the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railroad as well as all the major cities along it, suddenly making them one of the most powerful armed forces in Siberia and a key factor in the Russian Civil War. In August 1918 they scored a huge windfall in the city of Kazan, capturing six train-car loads of gold from the old Tsarist regime, which helped fund their operations; it’s also believed that the Bolsheviks executed the Romanov royal family because they feared the approaching Czech Legion was about to liberate them.

Under the protection of the Czech Legion, anti-Bolshevik forces established a civilian government, “the Committee of Members of the Constituent Assembly,” better known by its acronym KOMUCH, based in the city of Samara on the Volga River. Meanwhile the Czech Legion established their own state within a state, a unique rail-based traveling army and government aboard hundreds of trains, which not only carried fighters into battle but also serves as mobile barracks, canteens, medical facilities, morgues, and workshops. Even more remarkably, the Legion established a bank, published a newspaper, and operated an efficient postal service along the Trans-Siberian Railway (rare surviving postage stamps printed by the Czech Legion are now much sought-after by stamp collectors).

They would remain in Siberia, fighting the Bolsheviks up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until the growing power of Trotsky’s reorganized Red Army finally prompted the Allies to evacuate them in 1920. They were greeted as national heroes when they returned to Czechoslovakia, the new country they had fought for, albeit thousands of miles from home; veterans of the Legion played a central role in the public life of the young nation, founding banks and civic organizations, participating in politics, and leading the armed forces.

WILSON SIGNS SEDITION ACT

On May 16, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson signed the controversial Sedition Act, the popular name given to legislation that greatly expanded the scope of the previous Espionage Act of 1917. These wartime laws made it a criminal offense for any individual to publicly state opposition to America’s participation in the war, which came to include the government’s management of the war effort and its largely successful attempts to raise money through the sale of war bonds.

The Sedition Act severely curtailed the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of speech and assembly, prohibiting private citizens from making statements about the United States, its government, or armed forces that were categorized as “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive”—a vague, sweeping sanction that left considerable room for interpretation by police and prosecutors. Individuals found guilty of breaking the new law could be imprisoned up to 20 years.

The Sedition Act also reinforced and expanded existing wartime censorship, with measures instructing the postal service to intercept any mail considered to violate these standards. In fact it was just one part of a massive, if temporary, expansion of the powers of the federal government over Americans’ everyday lives. Most troubling, many of these powers were shared with semi-official citizens' groups who received legal sanction. In March 1917, A.M. Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive, formed a national paramilitary and vigilante organization called the American Protective League to monitor pro-German opinion in the American public, prevent sabotage and strikes, break up anti-war meetings, and hunt down German agents. Remarkably the APL received the official backing from U.S. Attorney General Thomas Gregory, and eventually grew to 250,000 members.

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

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WWI Centennial: “With Our Backs To The Wall”
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 306th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

APRIL 9-MAY 1, 1918: “WITH OUR BACKS TO THE WALL”

The second mighty blow of the final German offensive on the Western Front in spring 1918, Operation Georgette, was German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s attempt to force the British Expeditionary Force into the sea with fresh troops arriving from the victorious eastern front. Known to the British as the Fourth Battle of Ypres or the Lys Offensive after its location along the Lys River, from April 9 to May 1, 1918 Georgette pitted a total of 35 divisions from the German Fourth and Sixth Armies against a defensive force initially totaling just 12 divisions from the British First and Second Armies around the village of Armentières, south of Ypres.

World War I in Europe, April 1918
Erik Sass

Once again, German gunners used the new mathematical registering technique perfected by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller, targeting artillery without the need for range-finding and test firing, helping to preserve the crucial element of surprise. The bombardment would be virtually unprecedented, with the German Sixth Army’s artillery firing a total 1.4 million shells on the first day alone, averaging 16 per second. As in Operation Michael, the German infantry advance would be spearheaded by thousands of storm troopers in special battalions armed with light machine guns, mortars, flamethrowers, and sometimes field guns.

World War I Operation Georgette, April 1918
Erik Sass

Georgette debuted at 4:15 a.m. on April 9, 1918, with 2210 German guns opening fire along a 25-mile stretch of front, including five miles held by the demoralized, undermanned Portuguese Expeditionary Corps. Following an Earth-shattering bombardment pounding the Allied artillery and saturating British and Portuguese trenches with a combination of high explosives, poison gas, and tear gas shells, the German guns laid down a creeping barrage with shrapnel and high explosives to protect the advancing stormtroopers and regular infantry (top, British soldiers wounded by poison gas). John Tucker, a 20-year-old British infantryman, described being wounded in the German bombardment on April 9:

"Suddenly a barrage of shells came screaming over and dropping a short distance beyond us, several bursting quite close. We moved to the trench side, bunching to get down at a convenient place. It is possible after a little experience to tell from the scream of an oncoming shell to know if it is going to fall within a few yards or to pass over one’s head. I heard one coming that I knew was going to land on us. I did not hear the final scream of the shell, nor what must have been the awful noise of its explosion. I felt a terrific blow on the left side of my back, like the kick of a horse, felt my knees buckle under me, and lost consciousness. I have no idea for how long I was in this state, but came to with an awful pain in my back and stomach, and hearing a lot of moaning noises. Realizing that some of the moaning was coming from me, I shut up, but there was much of it still going on around me … Now convinced that I was dying I had a peculiar hallucination of a light opening between clouds in the sky and voices singing and calling me in. I was not at all scared during all this, but apart from the pain felt quite calm. After a while I began to think how much I would like to see my mother, father, and sister just once again before I died, and then, of all things, a longing to walk once more at night along by Finsbury Park, and became determined that I would last out to do these things."

Chief strategic Erich Ludendorff had chosen his target with typical precision: the main blow fell squarely on the weak, demoralized Portuguese force in the middle of the line, causing the Portuguese divisions to simply disintegrate. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs described the overwhelming destructive power of the German shelling:

"It was a tragedy for the Portuguese that the heaviest bombardment, in a storm of gunfire as atrocious in its fury as anything of the kind since March 21, was directed against the center which they held. It was annihilating to their outposts and mashed their front-line defenses, which were stoutly held. It beat backwards and forwards in waves of high explosives."

Captain R.C.G. Dartford, a British liaison officer attached to the Portuguese 2nd Division, described the extraordinary speed of the German advance over the Portuguese positions, largely abandoned in panic, followed by the swift collapse of the Portuguese Expeditionary Corps on the morning of April 9:

"I think the Boche must have taken our front line about 8:30 and the B line 8:45 and was up to batt H.Q. by 9:15 or so. One message from X. de Costa (CO 29th Batt.) said he no longer had any command and that it was now a question of individuals fighting out. He was killed, we learnt after … Stragglers passed thro’ Laventie but most of them chose the open fields and wisely. We got hold of one and he said, “Everyone was running from the B line, so I did too,” though he hadn’t seen the Boche. We put two sgts to try and collect stragglers but they soon came back saying it was impossible to stop them and that officers were getting away too."

As during the first days of Operation Michael, the German Sixth Army’s steamroller of artillery and men advanced inexorably at first, taking over three miles by around noon on April 9, reaching one of their first day objectives, the River Lys, by mid-afternoon, and penetrating up to six miles by nightfall. Once again, however, the Germans failed to achieve all their ambitious first-day goals, especially on the left wing of the attack, where they faced a fierce defense by the British 55th Division around the villages of Givenchy and Festubert. And as in Michael, this delay gave the Allies critical breathing room, a few precious days in which to assess the direction of the latest German thrust and rush hastily summoned reinforcements to the battlefield, including ANZAC and South African troops.

The following day Ludendorff sent the German Fourth Army to the north, rumbling into action to support the Sixth Army’s attack, widening the scope of the offensive to include the whole Ypres sector. By noon the Fourth Army had captured the strategic area of Messines—first conquered by the British in summer 1917, and briefly recaptured by an Australian brigade on April 10 before being lost again. The combined advance by the Fourth and Sixth Armies threatened British control of the Channel ports, critical supply bases for the British Expeditionary Force—a disastrous scenario.

The ensuing struggle was undoubtedly grim for the Allies, as the Germans came alarmingly close to breaking through the British line in Flanders, and the Allies’ new supreme commander, Ferdinand Foch, claimed he was unable to send help. On April 11, as 31 German divisions battered 13 Allied divisions, British GHQ staff officer Brigadier-General John Charteris confided gloomily in his diary:

“It looks as if we should have to fight out this battle alone, and we have no reserves. It will decide the war. God grant the decision is not against us! Everything else fades into insignificance.”

That evening, as the Germans menaced Bailleul, closed on the rail hub at Hazebrouck, and almost split the British First and Second Armies, BEF commander Douglas Haig issued one of the most dramatic communiqués of the war, an order of the day reading in part:

"Many amongst us now are tired. To those I would say that victory will belong to the side which holds out the longest. The French Army is moving rapidly and in great force to our support. There is no other course open to us but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end. The safety of our homes and the freedom of mankind alike depend upon the conduct of each one of us at this critical moment."

As Haig indicated, the Allies couldn’t expect to stop the German onslaught without suffering considerable further losses in terms of casualties and territory. With British losses mounting, thousands of Flemish peasants fled their homes to avoid falling into German hands, and once again the countryside burned. On the night of April 13, Gibbs, the British war correspondent, recorded the firelit spectacle:

"It was a clear, starlight night, and for miles the horizon was lit by the flame of burning farms and stores and ammunition dumps, and all this pale sky was filled with the wild glare of fires and by the flash of guns. German air-raiders came out dropping bombs. The sound of their engines was a droning song overhead, and our shrapnel winked and flashed about them."

SHIFTING BALANCE

However, the situation was already turning against the Germans attackers. As the German offensive surged ahead in the middle, the left wing of the advance remained stuck near Givenchy to the south, and everywhere progress came at a heavy price, as in the first offensive. Though forced to retreat again and again, the defenders of the British First and Second Army fought fierce rearguard actions as they withdrew; the Germans faced major difficulties bringing up artillery and ammunition over wrecked battlefields to keep the offensive going. One German soldier, Franz Xaver Bergler, noted their stalled progress—as well as the generally miserable conditions—in his diary entry on April 12:

"We have been back in position since 3 April and are still here. Right in the midst of a completely devastated area, everything is shot into pieces, only grenade craters are left. We haven’t even started yet advancing against the English. The Englishman is just firing against us with his massive grenade fire all day long … Now we have been sitting in this position for eight days, often covered in mud and dirt up to the knees. We are freezing during the night and have no shelter. Or we are lying in an old tunnel, so tightly squeezed against each other that all limbs hurt terribly."

Disappointed by the Sixth Army’s failure to advance on the left, Ludendorff allowed a brief pause to resupply and move up artillery before resuming the attack all along the front. Over the next few days the Sixth Army encircled and captured the village of Bailleul together with the Fourth Army, while to the north the Fourth Army forced the British to withdraw from the area east of Ypres, won at such a terrible price in Passchendaele. However, the Germans didn’t notice the withdrawal right away, while the British received a boost with the arrival of more French reinforcements sent by Foch.

On the evening of April 16, as the German Fourth Army tried unsuccessfully to separate the British Second Army from the Belgian Army to the north, Gibbs described the long, curving inferno of the Ypres salient to the south, where British and ANZAC troops were staging desperate counterattacks against the advancing Germans:

"It was just before dusk that counter-attacks began northwards from Wytschaete southwards for Meteren, and although before then there had been steady slogging of guns and howling of shells, at that time this volume of dreadful noise increased tremendously, and drumfire broke out in fury, so that the sky and Earth trembled with it. It was like the beating of all the drums of the world in a muffled tattoo … It was a wet, wild evening, with few pale gleams of sun through storm clouds and smoke of guns, and for miles all this panorama of battle was boiling and seething with bursting shells and curling wreaths of smoke from batteries in action … When darkness came each battery was revealed by its flashes, and all fields around me were filled with red winkings and sharp stabs of flame."

To the south the Germans renewed their attack on Festubert and Givenchy, without success, although at a heavy cost to both sides. A British soldier, Lance Corporal Thomas A. Owen, described being wounded and taken prisoner near Festubert on April 18, 1918:

"Looking over the top I saw the long gray lines sweeping along 400 yards away. They were marching slowly, should to shoulder, heavily weighted with picks, ammunition, and rations. We scrambled to the fire-step. We fired madly and recklessly. The Lewis gun rattled and the two magazine fillers worked with feverish haste … Still the gray hordes advanced … I thought my arm had gone. If it was death I was numb, careless, and content. I sank into a dull stupor and the hordes of gray uniforms trampled over me, round me and by me, and forgot me in their own terror. They swept on and on to meet another wall of steel and flame. How many of them would see another dawn?"

By April 18 and 19 it was clear that the German offensive had run out of steam, but Ludendorff was determined to win some objective of strategic importance in order to justify the terrible bloodshed. In a renewed attack on April 25 the Germans captured Mount Kemmel, an important observation point for targeting artillery, in a brilliant tactical maneuver, but there weren’t enough troops to exploit the victory, allowing the British to reform defenses at a safe distance.

Meanwhile, to the south the Germans still hadn’t captured Festubert or Givenchy, spelling the end of the strategic plan for Operation Georgette. The other final thrust of the German offensive failed at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux from April 24 to 26, 1918, again due to challenges with artillery and ammunition, and the intensifying defenses of the enemy. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described the German attack at Villers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918:

"At a blow, more than 800 guns sent over their iron greetings and then went on and on; for a full hour the guns thundered and roared. The shells flew over us continuously. From the other side you could hear the individual shell bursts. It was almost impossible to communicate with each other. You had to shout the words in the other person’s ear … The artillery fired continued unabated, we could now hear the crackling of the rifles as well. The attack was in full swing. Wherever you looked it was crawling with German soldiers pushing forwards. Infantry, machine guns, small and medium-sized mortars were all moving forward. A swarm of German aircraft flew low over us in order to contribute to the success of the attack with bombs, hand grenades, and machine-gun fire. As we approached the corner of the wood there were already a number of dead lying on the churned-up ground. We were suddenly showered with a hail of artillery and mortar shells, and all jumped in the shell-holes or holes that had been dug by the men."

It soon became clear that this attempt was also doomed to failure, although commanders far from the battlefield were either isolated from this information or simply indifferent, according to Richert:

"As a result of the enormous losses the attack had ground to a stop. Everyone had sought cover in the numerous shell-holes. The whole area was constantly covered in black shell smoke. All at once officers and orderlies ran around the occupied holes and shouted: ‘Divisional orders: The attack must be continued!’ We were all appalled. Individual groups who had been driven out of their holes started to jump forwards. Our captain got out of a hole near us and ordered us to advance. What choice did we have?"

The German troops were undoubtedly exhausted. On the other side, on April 25, 1918, Philip Gibbs described German prisoners of war captured during the fighting at Villers-Bretonneux:

"Many of the others whom I now saw, and who lay down on the grass in every attitude of exhaustion, were bespattered with blood, which mixed in clots on the white dust of their clothes. The field in which they lay was all silver and gold with daisies and buttercups, and these heaps of field-gray men, in their grim helmets, which gave them a strange malignant look, spread themselves out on this lawn, and some of them slept until their sergeants shouted to them again, and they lined up for their rations."

By the time Ludendorff called off Operation Georgette on May 1, 1918, both sides had suffered another round of nauseating losses. On the Allied side, British casualties stood at over 80,000, including killed, wounded, missing, and prisoners, while the French suffered around 30,000 casualties, and the unfortunate Portuguese Expeditionary Corps was devastated by the loss of a third of its total strength. On the other side the Germans had suffered at least 85,000 casualties in all categories—an intolerably high price, drawing down significantly on the roughly million men freed up from the Eastern Front—in return for few strategic gains and no strategic breakthrough.

THE AMERICANS ARE COMING

In fact, the conquests would soon become a positive liability, as the Germans were left holding longer defensive lines while the Allies drew strength from the arrival of more and more American troops. By the end of April 1918 there were 434,081 U.S. troops in France, while 245,945 more would embark for the continent in May alone. Stateside, the massive construction and training program was producing vast numbers of fresh troops: By June 1918, the U.S. Army’s total strength would approach 2.4 million and counting.

Although the Americans naturally took some time to learn the vagaries of trench warfare, usually starting in a relatively quiet sector along their French and British allies, during the dark days of the first German offensive General Pershing had committed to sending American troops wherever they were needed in the Allied line. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, described the scenes as the doughboys (widely considered overpaid) passed through Paris while moving up to the line in France:

"Other American troop trains had preceded us, because where the railroad embankment ran close and parallel to the street of some nameless faubourg, our appearance was met with cheers and cries from a welcoming regiment of Paris street gamins, who trotted in the street beside the slow moving troop train and shouted and threw their hats and wooden shoes in the air. Sous and 50-centime pieces and franc pieces showered from the side doors of the horses’ cars as American soldiers, with typical disregard for the value of money, pitched coin after coin to the scrambling move of children."

After more than a year of waiting, ordinary British and French civilians were surprised and relieved to finally see the long-promised troops arriving in large numbers. Vera Brittain, a young British woman serving as a volunteer nurse’s aid in France, remembered her initial mystification on encountering doughboys for the first time:

"They were swinging rapidly towards Camiers, and though the sight of soldiers marching was now too familiar to arouse curiosity, an unusual quality of bold vigor in their swift stride caused me to stare at them with puzzled interest. They looked larger than ordinary men; their tall, straight figures were in vivid contrast to the undersized armies of pale recruits to which we had grown accustomed … 'Had yet another regiment been conjured out of our depleted dominions?' I wondered ... But I knew the colonial troops so well, and these were different; they were assured where the Australians were aggressive, self-possessed where the New Zealanders were turbulent. Then I heard an excited exclamation from a group of sisters behind me. 'Look! Look! Here are the Americans!' I pressed forward with the others to watch the United States physically entering the war, so god-like, so magnificent, so splendidly unimpaired in comparison with the tired, nerve-racked men of the British Army. So these were our deliverers at last, marching up the road to Camiers in the spring sunshine!"

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

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