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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.

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John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: Surprise Attack At Cambrai
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, the Imperial War Museum // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 294th installment in the series.

November 20, 1917: Surprise Attack At Cambrai

By fall 1917 the basic pattern of attack on the Western Front was well established, with a huge artillery bombardment, sometimes lasting days or weeks, preceding a mass infantry assault across No Man’s Land—the model employed at Passchendaele. Then on November 20, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai, the British tried something radically new: scrapping the lengthy artillery bombardment—which also warned the enemy an attack was coming—in favor of a stealthy surprise attack with tanks.

Since their debut at the Somme in 1916, the new wonder weapons had proved a little less wonderful than hoped—prone to frequent breakdowns, “ditching” or getting swamped in mud, and with limited range under the best of circumstances. However, a number of spectacular successes confirmed the temperamental vehicles’ potential in the right circumstances. Could new tactics, with massed tanks and no preparatory bombardment, deliver a breakthrough, ending the stasis of trench warfare?

With the British Expeditionary Force to the north exhausted after Passchendaele, it was left to General Julian Byng’s British Third Army, including Canadian and South African troops, to execute the giant live fire experiment. They would mount a surprise attack spearheaded by almost 400 tanks and two corps of infantry, using “infiltration” tactics similar to stormtroopers’. The attack targeted the town of Cambrai—a key supply hub for German forces holding the Hindenburg Line to the south.


Erik Sass

The initial attack was more successful than the British could have hoped: at 6 a.m. on November 20, 1917, hundreds of tanks began crossing no man’s land with six divisions of British infantry, supported by a simultaneous bombardment by just over 1000 artillery pieces of various sizes. The tanks cleared the way through barbed wire for columns of infantry who followed close behind, overrunning enemy trenches and surrounding strongpoints while the tanks pushed ahead. Meanwhile a smoke screen helped prevent the Germans from directing artillery fire on to the tanks. William Watson, a British tank officer, recalled:

In front of the wire, tanks in a ragged line were surging forward inexorably over the short down grass. Above and around them hung the blue-gray smoke of their exhausts. Each tank was followed by a bunch of Highlanders, some running forward from cover to cover, but most of them tramping steadily behind their tanks … Beyond the enemy trenches, the slopes from which the German gunners might have observed the advancing tanks were already enveloped in thick white smoke. The smoke-shells burst with a sheet of vivid red flame, pouring out blinding, suffocating clouds. It was as if flaring bonfires were burning behind a bank of white fog. Over all, innumerable aeroplanes were flying steadily to and fro. The enemy made little reply.

The sudden appearance of the tanks, emerging from the early morning mist, took many of the German defenders by surprise, surrendering to British infantry advancing close behind. Watson wrote:

Odd bunches of men were making their way across what had been No Man’s Land. A few, ridiculously few, wounded were coming back. Germans in twos and threes … were wandering confusedly towards us without escort, putting up their hand in tragic and amazed resignation, whenever they saw a Highlander. The news was magnificent. Our confidence had been justified. Everywhere we had overrun the first system and were pressing on.

By the end of the day the British attackers had advanced up to five miles in places—a huge win by the standards of the First World War. Watson described scenes in captured German positions well behind the front line:

We walked up the road, which in a few yards widened out. On either side were dug-outs, stores, and cook-houses. Cauldrons of coffee and soup were still on the fire. This regimental headquarters the enemy had defended desperately. The trench-boards were slippery with blood, and fifteen to twenty corpses, all Germans and all bayoneted, lay strewn about the road like drunken men.

However, the success at Cambrai also highlighted, once again, the shortcomings and basic limitations of tanks: as Watson noted, by the end of the first day four out of his 11 tanks were knocked out, three had ditched, and the remainder were short on gas.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Meanwhile the advantage of surprise had been used up and the Germans were rushing fresh troops to the battlefield to reinforce the beleaguered Second Army under General Georg von Marwitz. On November 23, the British continued the attack with an assault on Bourlon Wood, which they had identified as a key position, but already German resistance was stiffening. Watson left this impressionistic description of the British attack at Bourlon Wood on November 23:

At 10:30 a.m. the barrage fell and we could see it climb, like a living thing, through the wood and up the hillside, a rough line of smoke and flame. On the hillside to the left of the wood we could mark the course of the battle—the tanks with tiny flashes darting from their flanks—clumps of infantry following in little rushes—an officer running in front of his men, until suddenly he crumpled up and fell, as though some unseen hammer had struck him on the head—the men wavering in the face of machine-gun fire and then spreading out to surround the gun—the wounded staggering painfully down the hill, and the stretcher-bearers moving backwards and forwards in the wake of the attack—the aeroplanes skimming low along the hillside, and side-slipping to rake the enemy trenches with their guns.


German Federal Archives // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Once again, tanks delivered some impressive gains but they remained vulnerable to unexpectedly unfavorable ground conditions, mechanical breakdowns, and fuel shortages. Of course, despite their heavy armor they were hardly immune to enemy fire, and a single lucky shot by field artillery could spell the end of a vehicle and its crew. Watson described one terrible scene:

Flames were coming from the rear of the tank, but its guns continued to fire and the tank continued to move. Suddenly the driver must have realised what was happening. The tank swung towards home. It was too late. Flames burst from the roof and the tank stopped, but the sponson doors never opened and the crew never came out … When I left my post half an hour later the tank was still burning.

By the end of November the British had chalked up major gains that threatened German logistics in northern France and jeopardized the integrity of the Hindenburg Line. But between hundreds of casualties, mechanical issues, and dwindling fuel, the tanks were largely a spent force—and there was no way the Germans were going to leave the British to enjoy their conquests. Even worse, the Third Army’s new positions formed a vulnerable salient, exposed to enemy counterattack on both flanks.

On November 30, 1917 the Germans unleashed their biggest attack (or rather counterattack) on British forces on the Western Front since 1915, with a crushing artillery bombardment followed by infantry advances against all fronts of the salient southwest of Cambrai. The German counterattack displayed their own tactical evolution with stormtroop assaults, employing trench mortars, grenades and machine guns, closely coordinated with artillery to break up barbed wire entanglements and force enemy infantry to take shelter.

Over subsequent German counterattacks from December 1-7, the recently captured salient collapsed under the weight of superior numbers, reflecting the determination of the German general staff, which was determined to contain the threat to the Hindenburg Line. Private William Reginald Dick described outnumbered British defenders preparing for a German counterattack at La Vacquerie, a village south of Cambrai, on December 3, 1917:

Around and above is a turmoil of noise; the mighty roar of dropping shells, the incessant rending crashes of the explosions, the scream and thud of whizz-bangs, and permeating all, the booming thunder of the guns. In this battering inferno of sound, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. The earth quivers continuously under the metallic flail. Across the shattered soil behind our position, a barrage is falling, a vast unbroken curtain of spouting bursts, spraying up earth, smoke and steel in a dark and furious barrier, half veiled by dense black fumes that writhe, heave, and trail upward in a mist of dirty grey … The Lewis-gun team beside me crouch below their deadly charge; it is tilted up ready to heave on the parapet; a drum is fixed for immediate firing.

The German infantry, led by stormtroopers, advanced boldly into a wall of British fire:

I see the wide waste of the shell-churned soil, the tattered wire, and, well over, a dark and far-flung line of gray-clad stormers; behind them others rising fast, apparently springing from the drab earth in knots and groups, spreading out, surging forward. Simultaneously from our trench bursts a great roar of fire. I fire with fiercely jerking bolt, round after round merged into the immense noise …

As the German infantry approached, firing and throwing grenades, the British defenders were forced to withdraw to another trench in the rear:

Suddenly I hear faintly a medley of confused shouts. I see the men on the fire-step firing fast again, and up the trench they are firing both to front and flank … I see bomb smoke above the parapet to the right, I see men leap back from the fire-step and merge with another little rush of consumed wounded. The platoon sergeant waves his arm urgently, “Down the trench!”

Of course the formidable German stormtrooper units suffered heavy casualties during the German counterattack as well, according to the German novelist Ernst Junger, who described grenade duels with British troops in adjoining trenches at Cambrai in his novel and memoir, Storm of Steel:

The British resisted manfully. Every traverse had to be fought for. The black balls of Mills bombs crossed in the air with our own long-handled grenades. Behind every traverse we captured, we found corpses or bodies still twitching. We killed each other, sight unseen. We too suffered losses. A piece of iron crashed to the ground next to the orderly, which the fellow was unable to avoid; and he collapsed to the ground, while his blood issued on to the clay from many wounds. We hurdled over his body, and charged forward.

Junger described the unique thrill, and terror, of combat with grenades:

One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one’s opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you needed to jump and stretch, almost as in a ballet. It’s the deadliest of duels, as it invariably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.

During the course of the Battle of Cambrai, the Germans suffered around 45,000 casualties, compared to around 44,200 British. Today the Cambrai Memorial commemorates 7000 British and South African soldiers who died during the battle and were buried in unknown graves.

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Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: The Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Yakov Vladimirovich Steinberg, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 293rd installment in the series.

November 6-8, 1917: Second Bolshevik Coup Attempt Succeeds

“The abyss has opened at last,” wrote Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate Socialist politician in Russia’s provisional government. In his diary, he recounted the incredible events of November 6-8, 1917 (October 24-26 in Russia’s old Julian calendar, which is why they’re known as the “October Revolution”) when Lenin’s radical communist Bolsheviks launched a second coup attempt—and succeeded:

Bolshevism has conquered … it was all very simple. The Provisional Government and the first All-Russian Soviet were overthrown as easily as was the Czarist regime. Through their Military Committees of Revolution the Bolsheviki got control of the regiments. Through the Petrograd Workers’ Soviet they became masters of the working classes. These soldiers and Petrograd workmen commandeered all automobiles in the street, occupied the Winter Palace, Petropavlovskaia Fortress, the railway stations, the telephones, and the posts. To destroy the old government and to establish the new required only a bare 24 hours.

As Sorokin’s stunned account suggests, Lenin’s second attempt succeeded where the first had failed, due chiefly to better planning and organization combined with a more favorable—that is, increasingly disastrous—external political and military situation.

Although the July coup attempt failed, it succeeded in raising the Bolsheviks’ profile, adding tens of thousands of new members and giving it leverage on soviets (councils) representing workers and soldiers across Russia, including the main All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Meanwhile, the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky remained weak and discredited by the failure of the summer offensive.

Other events also favored the Bolsheviks: in September 1917, facing General Kornilov’s “counterrevolutionary” coup attempt, Kerensky was forced to release leading Bolsheviks from prison and allow the Bolshevik supporters in the Red Guard to arm themselves in order to suppress the Kornilov Rebellion. Kornilov’s abortive putsch stirred fears of military-led reaction among soldiers who feared the return of Tsarist discipline, further increasing their support for the Bolsheviks, while Kerensky’s clumsy handling of it alienated whatever support he could still claim in conservative and military circles.

In fact, following the mass resignation of his cabinet, Kerensky ruled as the virtual dictator of the Provisional Government. But his position was weak and he failed to crack down on the Bolsheviks, who had the support of other socialists in the Petrograd Soviet. Impressed by Bolshevik commitment to action, and especially calls for peace, workers and peasants were switching their allegiance from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary Party to Lenin’s party by the thousands. For his part, Lenin, still working in exile, signaled his commitment to political upheaval with his latest theoretical work, State and Revolution, calling for the destruction of the bourgeois state in its entirety.


Erik Sass

Then, in October (amid falling voter participation) the Bolsheviks won a majority in the workers’ sections of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, reflecting factory workers’ growing disillusionment with the more moderate socialist parties. This gave them political cover to sideline the Ipsolkom, the moderate socialist leadership chosen by the All-Russian Soviet, in effect creating their own parallel Soviet organization—stacked with their own supporters, of course. The Bolsheviks began convening ad hoc local and regional conferences of Soviets, only inviting pro-Bolshevik representatives to create an appearance of democratic unanimity. The other members of the socialist leadership, Ipsolkom, protested the Bolshevik actions as illegitimate but were powerless to stop them, in part because their supporters were now armed and receiving more overt support from rank-and-file troops.

By this time military discipline had deteriorated sharply, according to Anton Denikin, a former Tsarist commander who would become one of the top “White” counter-revolutionary generals. In September 1917, Denikin described how he and his colleagues narrowly escaped a lynch mob, composed of soldiers who openly debated executing one of Denikin’s fellow officers after he injured a rank-and-file soldier:

The meeting continued. Numerous speakers called for an immediate lynching … The soldier who had been wounded by Lieutenant Kletsando was shouting hysterically and demanding his head … The crowd raged. We, the seven of us, surrounded by a group of cadets, headed by Betling, who marched by my side with drawn sword, entered the narrow passage through this living human sea, which pressed on us from all sides … passing the pools left by yesterday’s rain, the soldiers fill their hands with mud and pelt[ed] us with it. Our faces, eyes, ears, are covered with its fetid, viscid slime. Stones come flying at us. Poor, crippled General Orlov has his face severely bruised; Erdeli and I, as well, were struck—in the back and on the head.

A young Russian officer, Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, later recalled an alarming experience as an aristocratic junior officer trying to travel incognito:

I realized that travelling all by myself, in boxcars filled with all kinds of people, mostly deserters and soldiers, and travelling there in the uniform of an officer was very, very risky. So I had my shoulder epaulettes, showing my rank, detached from my coat. It was an officers’ coat lined with sheepskin that every officer was wearing, and many soldiers had stolen or requisitioned similar coats, and they were all undisciplined—just a crowd all staring at me, trying to guess who I might be. Some suggested that I might be an officer and if so, I should be immediately thrown out of the freight car while the train was moving.

Against this backdrop of growing indiscipline, the Bolsheviks had little trouble convincing disaffected soldiers in the soviets, many who had been demanding peace for months, to support its attempt to overthrow the bourgeois Provisional Government. They were aided in this by the Petrograd Soviet’s panicked decision to create a Revolutionary Committee of Defense when the Germans menaced the capital, which the Bolsheviks immediately suborned and turned to their own ends (ironically while receiving financial support from the German enemy themselves).

By the fall of 1917, Lenin felt confident enough to strike at the Provisional Government directly, using Kerensky’s hollow dictatorship as a foil to rally the support of workers and soldiers with the slogan, “all power to the Soviets!” In late October the Bolsheviks sent out invitations for the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets, which would form the Constituent Assembly, but once again only pro-Bolshevik deputies were included. After slipping back into Petrograd in mid-October, Lenin brushed aside objections from fellow Bolsheviks Kamenev and Zinoviev and argued in favor of a coup attempt that would precede the Second Congress of Soviets, hopefully taking their opponents by surprise.

The Bolshevik leadership remained divided over the coup plan until the last minute, with Lenin and Trotsky pressing for an immediate attempt to seize power. The Bolsheviks shouldn’t expect the Second Congress of Soviets to seize power on its own behalf, he reasoned, but instead should present it with a fait accompli, leaving the Congress and the Constituent Assembly to ratify the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, the Bolsheviks were forced to delay the coup repeatedly, ultimately launching it during the Second Congress of Soviets.

In early November the Bolshevik-controlled Revolutionary Committee of Defense sent out 200 commissars, most of them former junior officers who had been imprisoned for sedition, with instructions to rally Bolshevik sympathizers in the Petrograd garrison. A relatively small proportion of the garrison would respond to the call—about 8000 men, or 4 percent of all the troops in the Petrograd area—but this was enough, as the rest of the soldiers, who universally loathed Kerensky’s Provisional Government, opted to stay neutral.

With the Bolsheviks openly preparing for a coup, on the morning of November 6, 1917 Kerensky took belated action to defend the Provisional Government—but received no support from the army’s officer corps, which faulted his treatment of the imprisoned General Kornilov, whom they considered a patriot. Thus Kerensky was forced to order young cadets, a handful of Cossacks, and the “Women’s Battalion of Death” to defend key installations, while also ordering the arrest of the Revolutionary Committee of Defense to no avail. This just gave the Bolsheviks an excuse to proceed with the coup, to defend the Soviet against this “counterrevolutionary conspiracy.”

In Petrograd the coup came off so smoothly that many inhabitants didn’t notice at first. Under the direction of Trotsky acting through the Revolutionary Committee of Defense, soldiers and sailors in Bolshevik-controlled units seized control overnight of almost all the key buildings in Petrograd, including the telephone and telegraph exchanges, military staff headquarters, bridges, railroad stations, and post offices—gathering all of Petrograd’s communications and key transportation facilities in one swoop. Only the Winter Palace held out, with some ministers remaining after Kerensky fled the city in disguise on the morning of November 7, 1917, to beg frontline commanders for help.

The defenders of the Winter Palace held out bravely, forcing back several attempts by Bolshevik forces to capture the remaining government ministers, but at 10 a.m. Lenin went ahead with the proclamation of the seizure of power on behalf of the Petrograd Soviet, along with vague promises of a “democratic peace” and “worker control of production.” Lenin presented the coup as a move on behalf of Russian soldiers and workers, aiming to secure the power of the Soviet won in March 1917—even though it was obviously a Bolshevik coup.

Finally, facing fire from both the neighboring Peter and Paul Fortress as well as the cruiser Aurora, both under Bolshevik control, the last holdouts at the Winter Palace gave up shortly after midnight on November 8. As a furious mob looted the palace, the remaining ministers of the Provisional Government were placed under arrest; Kerensky, still trying to drum up support from the Russian army, was deposed in absentia.

Moderate socialists in the Second Congress of Soviets, including Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, initially denounced the coup, but they were outnumbered by hand-picked Bolshevik delegates and sympathizers from the Left Social Revolutionaries, allowing Lenin to give a democratic veneer to the coup. The Congress of Soviets, in reality a Bolshevik-controlled rump assembly, duly approved his proposals to form a Council of People’s Commissars to run the country until the constituent assembly, immediately begin peace negotiations, and redistribute all commercially owned land. It also voted for a new Soviet leadership, Ipsolkom, which would control the upcoming constituent assembly.

Mayhem in Moscow

Things didn’t go nearly as smoothly in Moscow, Russia’s main industrial city and the center of Russian arms production, where the Provisional Government’s defenders put up a surprisingly stiff resistance from November 7-15 (top, a Bolshevik patrol). Again, young officer cadets played a major role in the defense of the dying liberal regime, this time with more success, while soldiers sympathetic to the Bolsheviks were apparently slower to get involved. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Red Guard member working at a factory in a Moscow suburb, remembered receiving a breathless report from a fellow Bolshevik recently returned from the city, pleading with the soldiers’ council for help:

Sapronov outlined what he had seen on the streets of Moscow and reported that cadets and officers were laying siege to the Moscow Soviet in the mansion of the governor-general and the party committee in the Dresden Hotel. The district was still holding out, thanks to the selfless efforts of several dozen Red Guards, armed with revolvers, but they had neither rifles nor cartridges. He explained that similar street fighting was going on in Petrograd and asked for the soldiers’ help in overcoming the counterrevolutionary forces.

Of course it probably didn’t help that many of the Red Guards, including Dune himself, had never used firearms before:

We young people had never held a weapon in our hands before, and here we were, face to face with a real “cannon.” The long thick rifle was so heavy that we could barely hold it in a horizontal position on our shoulders. It was made still longer by the bayonet-saber. In addition, the several dozen thick cartridges with lead bullets were heavy enough to tear our pockets. As soon as dawn arrived, we resolved to study our weapons and use one cartridge on a test fire.

On November 8, 1917, after a unit sympathetic to the Bolsheviks briefly seized control of the Kremlin, the cadets successfully counterattacked, recapturing the historic fortress the following day. After a short-lived ceasefire, with more pro-Bolshevik troops on hand, on November 12, 1917 the Moscow Revolutionary Committee ordered a new attack, leading to a wave of violence across the city, including fierce fighting from building to building. Despite his lack of familiarity with his weapon, Dune found himself caught up in his first firefight with defenders of the Provisional Government near Lubianka Square, where he also saw his first combat death:

We ran to the other side, under shelter of the building itself, but couldn’t get inside, as this section of the street was under fire from the opposite direction. We had no alternative but to return fire. It was now daylight and we were clearly visible. The only cover we had were the iron posts of the street lamps, so we returned fire from behind them… Soon, seeing the futility of our shooting, I cried to him: “Come on, let’s get away.” It was only then that I noticed he was stretched motionless on the sidewalk, with his rifle lying across his body. While I ran for the nurse, I thought how easy and quietly a man can die, without words or groans. Perhaps he had had a premonition of something painful, for he had been humming a sad and melancholy tune as we were coming on the train, and he had walked along, weary and silent.

Another participant, Anna Litveiko, then a teenager, remembered nursing wounded Bolshevik fighters in the besieged offices of the Moscow Soviet:

All of a sudden there was a loud noise. Shattered glass fell all over the floor, and someone started moaning. Someone else shouted: “We’re being shot at from an armored car!” Everyone rushed down the street. We did, too. Outside, everybody was shooting at an armored car that was standing right in front of the building. There was so much shooting that I was totally confused. I had my Smith & Wesson in my hand… While I was trying to decide where to aim, the armored car fired one last round and quickly disappeared.

The arrival of artillery on the Bolshevik side finally settled the issue, forcing the pro-government Committee of Public Safety to surrender on the afternoon of November 15, 1917. Spared the fate of cities destroyed by the First World War, much of Moscow lay in ruins after the fighting. Dune described the scene in the Moscow telephone exchange, where pro-government defenders had holed up:

When the occupied building had been cleared of all the prisoners, we were told to go around the rooms in search of any people still hiding and to collect weapons and cartridges that had not been handed over. We couldn’t get to the top floor, as the staircase had collapsed after the explosion of the shell. The other floors were intact, but the windows of all the rooms were either smashed or peppered with bullet holes. Under a layer of dust, plaster, and broken glass, the parquet floors no longer shone. Tables and cupboards had been moved from their original places. Apparently people had been sleeping on some of them, for pillows and stacks of paper were piled on them. Everything else—inkwells, pens, pencils, rulers, a lot of clean paper—was strewn on the floor.

The Bolsheviks had triumphed in Petrograd and Moscow, and soon set to work gaining control of local and regional soviets across Russia. But their support outside the big cities was scant, and large parts of the countryside soon descended into quiet anarchy, as peasants appropriated landlord land and waited for the chaos in the cities to pass. Meanwhile Russia was still at war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire, and despite their calls for immediate peace talks, Lenin, Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership didn’t have a realistic program for a negotiated settlement (reflecting their hope that the Bolshevik coup would trigger a worldwide communist revolution).

Finally, for ordinary and elite Russians alike, the Bolshevik coup came amid worsening conditions, according to Sorokin, who lamented the situation in Petrograd in the winter of 1917:

Everything is closed, schools, shops, banks, offices. Hunger is everywhere increasing. Kerensky is defeated. The Bolsheviki have taken the banks, state and private, and my former friend Pyatakoff has been made Commissary of Finance. From the front come new tales of horror … Our army is now a wild flying mob which destroys everything that stands in its path. German invasion is inevitable.

It wasn’t long before Lenin’s Bolsheviks showed their true faces, crushing dissent and imprisoning hundreds of “bourgeois” and “liberal” figures without charges. They also moved quickly to stamp out free speech, triggering protests from their Socialist comrades—to no avail. Sorokin himself was forced to go on the run after writing a signed column criticizing the Bolshevik coup:

Invasion of editorial offices and printing plants have become an everyday routine. Bolshevik soldiers destroy copy and even presses. As a matter of form, we obey orders to cease our publications, but they reappear immediately under slightly altered names … Today again I narrowly escaped arrest. As I entered the courtyard of our building a band of persecutors followed me, some going to the office, other remaining at the gate. Fortunately, they did not know me by sight, and as it was dark I lingered outside devising plans of escape.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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