Chronicling America
Chronicling America

France Mobilizes, Germany Declares War on Russia

Chronicling America
Chronicling America

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 136th installment in the series.

July 31-August 1, 1914: France Mobilizes, Germany Declares War on Russia

When Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II agreed to order general mobilization on the afternoon of July 30, 1914, he unwittingly started the clock on German mobilization. The Schlieffen Plan concentrated German forces in the west for an attack on Russia’s ally France. This allotted precisely six weeks to defeat the French before shifting east to face the Russians, on the assumption the Russians would take around that long to collect their troops across their empire’s vast distances. Once Russian mobilization began, each passing day left the Germans less time to defeat the French and increased the likelihood that Russian armies would overwhelm token German forces guarding East Prussia, opening the way to Berlin.

As August 1914 began, a continental war pitting Germany and Austria-Hungary against Russia and France was basically inevitable. The key question now was whether the two remaining Great Powers, Britain and Italy, would join in.

July 31: Panic Spreads Across the Globe

As Europe hurtled towards war, world trade and finance were paralyzed by waves of panic rippling out across the planet. Shortly after 10 a.m. London time on Friday, July 31, the London Stock Exchange closed to prevent mass sell-offs, and a few hours later the governing committee of the New York Stock Exchange decided to suspend trading on the NYSE; this was the first time since 1873 that the exchange was closed. The move received support from the White House and the U.S. Treasury and, after a brief, disastrous attempt to reopen on August 3, the NYSE remained closed until December, although some investors found ways to continue trading informally. Meanwhile, Congress voted to make $500 million in emergency funds available to banks to avert a credit collapse.

Over the course of the day the German government advised merchant shipping lines to cancel all sailings in order to keep the ships from falling into enemy hands, while the French government requisitioned the steam liner La France, nicknamed the “Versailles of the Atlantic,” for use as a troop transport (later, hospital ship). And the German Social Democratic Party, fearing a government crackdown on pacifist organizations, secretly sent co-chairman Friedrich Ebert —later the first president of the Weimar Republic—to Switzerland with most of the party’s funds for safekeeping.

But all this activity was the mere backdrop for the drama on the main stage.

The Machinery of War

On the morning of July 31, German ambassador to St. Petersburg Friedrich Pourtalès stormed into the Russian Foreign Ministry brandishing a red piece of paper. It was the mobilization decree ordering reservists to report for duty, which had been posted around the city the previous night. Pourtalès told Foreign Minister Sazonov’s assistant that “The proclamation of the Russian mobilization would in my opinion act like a thunderbolt... It could only be regarded by us as showing that Russia was bent on war.”

Pourtalès immediately requested a personal audience with Tsar Nicholas II, whom he begged to cancel the mobilization order:

I particularly emphasized that the mobilization was a threat and a challenge to Germany… When I remarked that the only thing which in my opinion might yet prevent war was a withdrawal of the mobilization order, The Tsar replied that… on technical grounds a recall of the order issued was no long possible… I then attempted to call the Tsar’s attention to the dangers that this war represents for the monarchic principle. His Majesty agreed and said he hoped things would turn out right after all. Upon my remarking that I did not think this possible if Russian mobilization did not stop, the Tsar pointed heavenwards with the words: “Then there is only One still can help.”

Both Tsar Nicholas II and Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov continued to insist that Russia was willing to negotiate with Austria-Hungary and emphasized that just because Russian forces were mobilizing didn’t mean Russia was going to declare war. This was true enough, as it would take weeks for Russian forces to concentrate for an attack. Unfortunately, they seemed to believe that the same was true of Germany—that is, that Germany could also mobilize without immediately going to war. Of course this wasn’t true, as the German Schlieffen Plan called for an immediate invasion of Belgium and northern France, with the first incursions scheduled to take place just hours after mobilization began. Needless to say, neither man was privy to the details of Germany’s strategy.

After his fruitless meeting with the Tsar, Pourtalès hurried to inform Berlin of Russian mobilization via telegram. The news arrived around noon, as Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was meeting with War Minister Falkenhayn and chief of the general staff Moltke (who was in close contact with the Austro-Hungarian chief of the general staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, during this period). The three men immediately agreed that the chancellor should ask Kaiser Wilhelm II to proclaim the “imminent danger of war,” triggering pre-mobilization measures. Before ordering mobilization, however, the Germans would give Russia one last chance to back down. At 2:48 p.m., the Kaiser sent a personal telegram (in English, which both men spoke, often referring to each other by their nicknames) to Tsar Nicholas II stating: 

On your appeal to my friendship and your call for assistance began to mediate between your and the austro-hungarian Government. While this action was proceeding your troops were mobilised against Austro-Hungary, my ally… I now receive authentic news of serious preparations for war on my Eastern frontier. Responsibility for the safety of my empire forces preventive measures of defence upon me. In my endeavours to maintain the peace of the world I have gone to the utmost limit possible. The responsibility for the disaster which is now threatening the whole civilized world will not be laid at my door. In this moment it still lies in your power to avert it. Nobody is threatening the honour or power of Russia who can well afford to await the result of my mediation… The peace of Europe may still be maintained by you, if Russia will agree to stop the milit. measures which must threaten Germany and Austro-Hungary. Willy

In his reply the Tsar reiterated that mobilization didn’t necessarily mean Russia was going to war, and promised Russia would remain at peace as long as negotiations continued—once again missing the point that, for Germany, mobilization did indeed mean war:

I thank you heartily for your mediation which begins to give one hope that all may yet end peacefully. It is technically impossible to stop our military preparations which were obligatory owing to Austria's mobilisation. We are far from wishing war. As long as the negociations with Austria on Servia's account are taking place my troops shall not make any provocative action. I give you my solemn word for this. I put all my trust in Gods mercy and hope in your successful mediation in Vienna for the welfare of our countries and for the peace of Europe. Nicky

After this informal and inconclusive exchange between the autocrats, at 3:30 p.m. on July 31, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg sent a formal ultimatum to Russia stating:

In spite of still pending… mediation, and although we ourselves have taken no mobilization measures, Russia has today decreed the mobilization of her entire army and navy, that is also against us [in addition to Austria-Hungary]. By these Russian measures we have been compelled for the security of the Empire, to proclaim imminent danger of war… mobilization must follow unless within twelve hours Russia suspends all war measures against ourselves and Austria-Hungary…

Credit: Chronicling America

Trying to Sway Britain

In truth, this last-minute “diplomacy” was just as much about laying blame for the war for both domestic political consumption and in order to sway public opinion in Britain, who were still on the sidelines. As part of these public relations campaigns, both sides circulated messages justifying their actions and presenting evidence of their own innocence.

Thus in the early afternoon of July 31, Kaiser Wilhelm II sent a personal message to Britain’s King George V portraying Germany as the unwitting victim: “I just received news from chancellor that… this night Nicky has ordered the mobilization of his whole army and fleet. He has not even awaited the results of the mediation I am working at and left me without any news, I am off to Berlin to take measures for ensuring the safety of my eastern frontiers where strong Russian troops are already posted.”

Later that day, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg outlined a similar argument for the German ambassador to London, Prince Lichnowsky, to present to the British press:

The suggestions made by the German Government at Vienna were entirely on the lines of those put forward by England, and the German Government recommended them for serious consideration at Vienna… While the deliberations were taking place, and before they were even terminated, Count Pourtalès announced from St. Petersburg the mobilization of the whole Russian army and navy… We were compelled, unless we wished to neglect the safety of the Fatherland, to answer this action, which could only be regarded as hostile, by serious counter-measures… Please use all means to induce the English press to give due consideration to this sequence of events.

Similarly, Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Berchtold circulated a statement to all the Great Powers, stating, “Since the Russian Government has ordered mobilization on our frontier, we are driven to military measures in Galicia. These measures have a purely defensive character and are taken purely under the pressure of Russian provisions which we greatly deplore, as we ourselves have no aggressive intentions towards Russia…”

France Delays Mobilization

Germany was also doing its best to cast blame on France, however unconvincingly. Simultaneously with the ultimatum to St. Petersburg, in the afternoon of July 31, Berlin sent an ultimatum to Paris demanding to know whether France would remain neutral in a war between Germany and Russia, in the hopes that a French refusal would give them a justification to invade. In order to make the ultimatum as offensive as possible—and therefore more likely to provoke a firm “no”— the Germans demanded that the French guarantee their neutrality by turning over the key fortresses of Toul and Verdun to German occupation forces for the duration of the war.

Of course there was zero probability of this happening, but the French cabinet realized that they couldn’t simply reject the absurdly insulting (but carefully calculated) “peace offer” out of hand, as the Germans would use this as proof that France “chose war.” So Premier René Viviani crafted a proud, perfectly French non-answer to deliver the next day: “The Government of the Republic will have regard to its own interests.”

Meanwhile, in order to highlight their peaceful intentions, the French cabinet rebuffed chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre’s request for immediate mobilization, instead authorizing only “covering forces” to guard against a sudden German surprise attack. The politicians also insisted that Joffre pull his troops ten kilometers back from the frontier in order to avoid any accidental contact with German forces.

Jaurès Assassinated

Nonetheless, the war claimed its first French victim that night, albeit indirectly. At 9:40 p.m. the great socialist leader Jean Jaurès was eating dinner with a handful of supporters in a café called Le Croissant, located on the corner of Rue Montmartre and Rue Croissant. A 29-year-old French nationalist, Raoul Villain, approached him from behind and shot him twice in the head.

Villain, a member of a nationalist student group devoted to the recovery of the “lost provinces” of Alsace-Lorraine from Germany, apparently opposed Jaurès because of his socialist pacifism. He wasn’t the only one; on July 23, the far-right newspaper Action Française stopped just short of calling for his assassination, and conservatives were angered by a speech Jaurès gave on July 25 warning that war was imminent and criticizing the French government for backing up Russia.

Robert Dell, a friend and supporter, was sitting near Jaurès when the shots rang out:

Then we saw that M. Jaurès had fallen sideways on the bench on which he was sitting, and the screams of the women who were present told us of the murder… A surgeon was hastily summoned, but he could do nothing, and M. Jaurès died quietly without regaining consciousness a few minutes after the crime. Meanwhile the murderer had been seized and handed over to the police, who had to protect him from the crowd which had quickly collected in the street… A more cold-blooded and cowardly murder was never committed. The scene in about the restaurant was heartrending; both men and women were in tears and their grief was terrible to see… M. Jaurès has died a victim to the cause of peace and humanity.

The assassination of Jaurès, coming on top of assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the resulting diplomatic crisis, and the shocking Caillaux verdict seemed to reflect a world spinning out of control. The looming external threat overshadowed France’s deep political divisions, and there were no riots in the working class districts of the French capital as many feared.

A King’s Last-Minute Plea

With both sides claiming to want peace and pointing fingers at each other, it’s no surprise the British remained confused and ambivalent on July 31. Despite his growing mistrust of Germany, Foreign Secretary Edward Grey was also critical of Russia for mobilizing first, as he indicated in a conversation with the French ambassador, Paul Cambon, on the evening of July 31: “This, it would seem to me, would precipitate a crisis, and would make it appear that German mobilization was being forced by Russia.”

Above all, Grey was determined to look after British interests, and in a fraught situation he was careful to define these as narrowly as possible. Chief among them was the concern that both sides should respect the neutrality of Belgium, which, lying directly across the English Channel, was a cornerstone of British national security. On the evening of July 31, Grey sent notes to both Germany and France, asking whether they would respect Belgian neutrality. The French government responded by midnight that France would uphold the treaty guaranteeing Belgian neutrality—but Germany was strangely silent.

Even at this late stage, following the German threat of war, Grey still hoped against hope that a peaceful solution was possible, leading to yet another desperate last-minute peace attempt. In the early morning of August 1, Grey, along with Prime Minister Asquith and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, woke King George V and asked him to send a personal telegram to Tsar Nicholas II, which read:

I cannot help think that some misunderstanding has produced this deadlock. I am most anxious not to miss any opportunity of avoiding the terrible calamity which at present threatens the whole world. I therefore make a personal appeal to you to… leave still open grounds for negotiation and possibly peace. If you think I can in any way contribute to that all-important purpose, I will do everything in my power to assist in reopening the interrupted conversations between the Powers concerned.

By the time the telegram was decoded and delivered to the Tsar on the afternoon of August 1, it was already too late.

August 1: Chaos Across Europe

The morning of August 1 found Europe in chaos. In Germany, the government ordered banks to stop allowing cash withdrawals, but the French government failed to take similar measures in time, leading to runs on banks across the country. Philip Gibbs, a British war correspondent, described one such incident in Paris:

I passed its doors and saw them besieged by thousands of middle-class men and women drawn up in a long queue waiting very quietly – with a strange quietude for any crowd in Paris – to withdraw the savings of a lifetime or the capital of their business houses. There were similar crowds outside other banks, and on the faces of these people there was a look of brooding fear, as though all that they had fought and struggled for, the reward of all their petty economies and meannesses, and shifts and tricks, and denials of self-indulgences and starvings of soul might be suddenly snatched from them and leave them beggared. A shudder went through one such crowd when a young man came to speak to them from the steps of the bank. It was a kind of shuddering sigh, followed by loud murmurings, and here and there angry protests. The cashiers had been withdrawn from their desks and cheques could not be paid. “We are ruined already!” said a woman. “This war will take all our money! Oh, my God!”

The situation in Brussels wasn’t so calm, according to Hugh Gibson, the young secretary of the American Embassy:

“People in general are frantic with fear, and are trampling each other in the rush to get money out of banks…” Across Europe shopkeepers refused to take paper money, rightly fearing inflation, and would accept only gold or silver coins in payment. Gibbs wrote: “It was strange how in a day all gold disappeared from Paris… At another place where I put down a gold piece the waiter seized it as though it were a rare and wonderful thing, and then gave me all my change in paper, made up of new five franc notes issued by the Government.”

The impending conflict wrought havoc on the plans of tourists across the continent. Edith Wharton, who happened to be in Paris, remembered the strange atmosphere of August 1:

The next day the army of midsummer travel was immobilized to let the other army move. No more wild rushes to the station, no more bribing of concierges, vain quests for invisible cabs, haggard hours of waiting in the queue at Cook’s [a travel agency]. No train stirred except to carry soldiers, and the civilians… could only creep back through the hot streets to their hotel and wait. Back they went, disappointed yet half-relieved, to the resounding emptiness of porterless halls, waiterless restaurants, motionless lifts: to the queer disjointed life of fashionable hotels suddenly reduced to the intimacies and make-shift of a Latin Quarter pension. Meanwhile it was strange to watch the gradual paralysis of the city. As the motors, taxis, cabs and vans had vanished from the streets, so the lively little steamers had left the Seine. The canal-boats too were gone, or lay motionless: loading and unloading had ceased. Every great architectural opening framed an emptiness; all the endless avenues stretched away to desert distances. In the parks and gardens no one raked the paths or trimmed the borders. The fountains slept in their basins, the worried sparrows fluttered unfed, and vague dogs, shaken out of their daily habits, roamed unquietly, looking for familiar eyes.

Declarations of Neutrality, Italy Opts Out

With war imminent, Europe’s smaller nations went running for cover, beginning with Bulgaria. They declared neutrality on July 29 (although the following day it accepted a huge loan from Germany, foreshadowing its later intervention on the side of the Central Powers). The Netherlands declared its neutrality on July 30, followed by Denmark and Norway on August 1, while Switzerland mobilized to protect its own longstanding neutrality. Greece declared its neutrality on August 2, and Romania followed suit on August 3.

Among the Great Powers, besides Britain, only Italy remained undecided. While a member of the defensive Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary, Italy was actually hostile to her supposed ally Austria-Hungary, with Italian nationalists coveting Austria’s ethnic Italian territories of Trentino and Trieste as the final, missing pieces of a united Italy. Italy also had a secret non-aggression pact with France, and a close relationship with Britain, which controlled the Mediterranean and provided most of Italy’s coal imports.

So it was hardly surprising when Italy’s Council of Ministers voted for neutrality late on the evening of July 31, announcing the news to Italian newspapers shortly after midnight. It seemed to surprise to Germany and Austria-Hungary, who were victims of their own wishful thinking. As late as July 31, German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was asking Italy to join them in the coming war, and on August 1 the Austrian chief of the general staff, Conrad, wrote to his Italian counterpart Cadorna, asking how many Italian divisions they could count on during the war.

But Germany and Austria-Hungary now paid the price for Vienna’s repeated refusals to offer Italy suitable incentives, in the form of Trentino and Trieste, to take their side in a European war. In fact, within a year Italy would join their enemies after Britain and France came up with their own attractive offer.

France Mobilizes

Following the German declaration of “imminent danger of war,” warning of impending mobilization, and the insulting ultimatum on July 31, on the morning of August 1, the chief of the general staff Joseph Joffre informed War Minister Adolphe Messimy that he would resign unless the cabinet agreed to mobilization by no later than 4 p.m. that day. Joffre then attended the cabinet meeting at 9 a.m. to present his arguments in person.

President Poincaré recalled, “Joffre appeared with the placid face of a calm, resolute man whose only fear is lest France, outstripped by German mobilization, the most rapid of all of them, might speedily find herself in an irreparable state of inferiority.” After explaining his reasons and warning that Germany was already calling up reservists and requisitioning horses, even before ordering mobilization, Messimy recalled, “There was no protest, no comment.”

A few hours later, at 11 a.m., Premier Viviani presented his perfectly uninformative answer to the German ambassador, Schoen, while the French cabinet was further emboldened by the good news that Italy would remain neutral, freeing up French forces which would have otherwise been tied down guarding the frontier with Italy. Finally, around noon, the cabinet agreed to order mobilization, taking effect at 4 p.m. that day.

 Credit: Clasgallery

Germany Mobilizes, Declares War on Russia

Coincidentally, Germany and France declared mobilization within minutes of each other (Germany’s time zone is an hour ahead of France). War Minister Falkenhayn recalled:

As up to 4 p.m. there has been no reply from Russia although the ultimatum expired at midday, I drove to the Chancellor’s to get him to go with me to see the Kaiser and ask for the promulgation of the mobilization order. After considerable resistance he consented and we rang up Moltke and Tirpitz. Meanwhile His Majesty himself rang and asked us to bring along the mobilization order. At 5 o’clock in the afternoon the signing of the order by His Majesty on the table made from timbers of Nelson’s “Victory” [a British gift]. As he signed I said: “God bless Your Majesty and your arms, God protect the beloved Fatherland.” The Kaiser gave me a long hand shake and we both had tears in our eyes.

Credit: Telegraph 

After the mobilization order was signed, ambassador Pourtalès in St. Petersburg presented the German declaration of war to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, who recalled:

Count Pourtalès came to see met at 7 o’clock in the evening and after the very first words asked me whether the Russian government was ready to give a favorable answer to the ultimatum presented the day before. I answered in the negative, observing that although general mobilization could not be cancelled, Russia was disposed, as before, to continue negotiations with a view to a peaceful settlement. Count Pourtalès was much agitated. He repeated his question, dwelling on the serious consequences which our refusal to comply with the German request would involve. I gave the same answer. Pulling out of his pocket a folded sheet of paper, the Ambassador repeated his question for a third time in a voice that trembled. I said I could give no other answer. Deeply move, the Ambassador said to me, speaking with difficulty: “In that case my Government charges me to give you the following note.” And with a shaking hand Pourtalès handed me the Declaration of War… After handing the note to me, the Ambassador, who had evidently found it a great strain to carry out his orders, lost all self control and leaning against a window burst into tears. With a gesture of despair he repeated: “Who could have thought that I should be leaving St. Petersburg under such circumstances!” In spite of my own emotion… I felt sincerely sorry for him. We embraced each other and with tottering steps he walked out of the room.

Credit: Chronicling America

Ordinary Russians were less sympathetic, and that night an angry mob looted and burned the German embassy in St. Petersburg. Sergei Kournakoff, a Russian cavalry officer (and future Soviet agent in the U.S.) recalled the scene:

I could see flashlights and torches moving inside, flitting to the upper storeys. A big window opened and spat a great portrait of the Kaiser at the crowd below. When it reached the cobblestones, there was just about enough left to start a good bonfire. A rosewood grand piano followed, exploded like a bomb; the moan of the broken strings vibrated in the air for a second and was drowned: too many people were trying to outshout their own terror of the future… A young woman tore her dress at the collar, fell on her knees with a shriek, and pressed her naked breasts against the dusty boots of a young officer in campaign uniform. “Take me! Right here, before these people! Poor boy… you will give your life… for God… for the Tsar… for Russia!” Another shriek, and she fainted.

Back in Berlin on the evening of August 1, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg received the opaque French response to the previous day’s ultimatum and began drawing up a declaration of war against France. German troops were moving to occupy small, neutral Luxembourg, a critical rail hub for the invasion of Belgium and northern France. But the day was to see one more bizarre twist—a final flip-flop by the mercurial German Kaiser, which brought chief of the general staff Moltke to the point of nervous collapse.

A Final Bid to Keep Britain Out

Germany was now grasping at straws in its effort to keep Britain from intervening. The Germans knew that Britain had made some kind of defensive commitment to France, although the terms remained secret, and they were also aware that, despite their best efforts to paint France and Russia as the aggressors, the invasion of Belgium could easily trigger a hostile British response. Therefore, at this late stage the best—indeed, only—chance of keeping Britain out was to somehow get France to remain neutral as well.

This was obviously a long shot, given the Franco-Russian Alliance, but on August 1, Berlin seized on a message from Ambassador Lichnowsky in London, reporting that one of Grey’s subordinates, William Tyrell, said a new idea was being discussed in the cabinet, to the effect “that if we were not to attack France, England would remain neutral and guarantee the passivity of France… Tyrell urged me to use my influence so that our troops should not violate the French frontier. He said everything depended on this.”

In other words, according to Tyrell, Britain might somehow persuade France to abandon Russia, meaning Germany didn’t have to invade France, which in turn meant Britain could stay out of the war. It’s not clear exactly where this highly improbable idea originated, and Lichnowsky should never have communicated it as a firm proposal, since Tyrell mentioned it in passing. But Kaiser Wilhelm II jumped at the offer, suddenly ordering Moltke to call off the invasion of France and instead prepare to transfer all Germany’s forces to focus exclusively on Russia.

This insane command meant completely abandoning the Schlieffen Plan and improvising the movements of millions of men, countless horses and artillery pieces, and thousands of tons of tons of supplies across Germany to the Russian frontier. In other words, it was completely impossible, and on hearing the capricious order, Moltke had a nervous breakdown: “I thought my heart would break… I was absolutely broken and shed tears of despair. When the telegram… was submitted to me, repeating the order… I slammed down the pen on the desk and said I would not sign.”

In typical fashion, this order would itself soon be reversed, as it became clear that Lichnowsky’s report had been inaccurate. After Kaiser Wilhelm II telegraphed King George V about the supposed offer, the British monarch politely replied, “In answer to your telegram just received I think there must be some misunderstanding as to a suggestion that passed in friendly conversation between Prince Lichnowsky and Sir Edward Grey this afternoon when they were discussing how actual fighting between German and French armies might be avoided.” Britain was not in a position to guarantee French neutrality and the Kaiser ordered Moltke, now a quivering wreck, to proceed with the invasion of Belgium after all.

Meanwhile, the tide of British public opinion was already turning against Germany. Beginning on July 30, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had been communicating with the leaders of the Unionist opposition, so-called because they bitterly opposed Irish independence, instead supporting the “Union” of Britain and Ireland. Just a week before the conservative Unionists had been battling the Liberal cabinet, which supported Irish home rule, but now key figures including Bonar Law and Edward Carson let it be known that they were willing to put aside these internal disagreements for the time being and support British intervention on the side of France and Belgium.

The support of the Unionists gave the Liberal “hawks,” including Prime Minister Asquith, Foreign Secretary Grey, and Churchill himself, crucial political leverage over their anti-interventionist colleagues in the Liberal cabinet. With support from one of the main opposition groups, they might be able to reform a new cabinet without the anti-interventionists—which of course made the anti-interventionists more likely to reconsider their own stance. At last the way was clear for British intervention in the coming conflict.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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WWI Centennial: America’s Fighting Debut
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
U.S. Marine Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 309th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

MAY 27-JUNE 6, 1918: AMERICA'S FIGHTING DEBUT

Following the failure of Germany’s first two offensives in March and April 1918, which conquered a large amount of territory but fell short of the hoped-for breakthrough, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff unleashed Blücher-Yorck on May 27, 1918—his third desperate bid to smash Allied forces using divisions freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front before American troops began arriving in France in large numbers. Once again, Ludendorff achieved almost total surprise with his choice of target, raising the terrifying possibility of an advance on Paris. But once again, this short-term success was undone by Ludendorff’s own opportunism, while the dreaded event had finally come to pass: the Americans were here (top, U.S. Marines resting near Belleau Wood).

Europe, May 1918 map
Erik Sass

Blücher-Yorck was originally planned as a diversionary attack, pitting the German First and Seventh Armies, later joined by the Eighteenth Army, against the French Sixth Army along the Aisne River near Soissons and Reims. The Germans hoped to force the French to move reserve forces back south of the Somme, setting the stage for a final crushing blow against the overstretched British armies in Flanders, now deprived of French support. However, after its stunning initial success, it was quickly upgraded to the main offensive, reflecting Ludendorff’s new ambition to exploit the two adjacent salients (the other held by the Second and Eighteenth Armies) as the launching point for a giant pincer offensive converging on Paris.

Map of the Western Front, May 27, 1918
Erik Sass

Like the first two German spring offensives, Blücher-Yorck began with a brief but incredibly ferocious bombardment, using the Pulkowski method, a new mathematical system which targeted enemy positions without having to “register” the guns first, preserving the element of surprise. That was followed by an infantry attack using cutting-edge infiltration tactics, spearheaded by stormtroopers armed with machine guns, grenades, mortars, and flamethrowers.

As luck would have it, the center of the line was held by five tired, understrength British divisions, ironically moved to the French Sixth Army for a rest after hard fighting in the first two German offensives. Ludendorff had another piece of good fortune courtesy of French Sixth Army commander general Denis Auguste Duchene, who kept most of his troops in frontline trenches, contrary to the new doctrine of “defense in depth,” which called for positioning most defenders further back in rear trenches, from which they could stage counterattacks after the initial enemy advance lost its momentum (below, French soldiers man a machine gun).

The German spring offensive, 1918, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

At 2:30 a.m. on May 27, over 5600 German artillery pieces opened up a mind-bending barrage according to the new tactics pioneered by gunnery officer Georg Bruchmüller, hitting different zones of the Allied lines along the Chemin des Dames ridge, scene of the disastrous French offensive in spring 1917. The carefully planned sequence was meant to neutralize enemy artillery, cut off communications and reinforcements, and destroy enemy strongholds. German artillery fired 2 million shells in the first four hours alone, for an average of about 139 shells per second, pulverizing British and French positions.

At 4:20 a.m., 23 German divisions went over the top, following a double creeping barrage of high explosives and gas shells, forcing any remaining defenders to take shelter until the attackers were upon them. The German advance was led by battalions of stormtroopers who penetrated deep into Allied defenses all along the front, severing communications, isolating enemy units, and forcing the defenders into a chaotic retreat, leaving gaps that the following waves of German infantry widened even further.

By the end of the first day the Germans had advanced up to 12 miles, another huge advance by the standards of static trench warfare, exceeding even the most optimistic expectations. This stunning progress immediately prompted Ludendorff to abandon his overall plan, calling for a second offensive against the British in Belgium and Picardy, and instead focus on the Aisne attack as the main thrust. But Ludendorff was falling into a now well-established pattern, committing precious reserves and artillery to a subsidiary attack without plausible plans for follow-through. Distracted by local success, he frittered away more of his dwindling manpower on an advance which, however impressive, failed to achieve strategic goals and instead simply added to the territory that the Germans had to defend (below, a British soldier takes aim). Lack of artillery also prevented the German from advancing on both flanks of the main attack.

British troops with rifle, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As in the first two offensives, the German advance triggered mass refugee movements by terrified peasants, stirring memories of the long columns of fleeing families in the first years of the wars (below, refugees). Mildred Aldrich, an American author who was living in retirement in a small village near the Marne, confided in a letter home, “I sit trembling for fear of a panic again. I cannot blame these poor people. They are as loyal as possible, but our roads are being crowded with refugees flying from the front. It is a horrid sight.”

Their problems were compounded by widespread looting by supposedly friendly soldiers, according to Avery Royce Wolf, an American ambulance driver in the French Army, who noted:

“Allied troops invariably pillage the homes of the French civilians through which they pass while retreating. I suppose that this action is condoned by the theory that nothing of value should be left behind for the enemy and perhaps that is as it should be … But it certainly is difficult to comprehend the extent of the depredations committed by the Allied troops in the houses of their own compatriots … Hundreds of refugees returned to their firesides to find them lying in an incredible mess, full of needless filth, contents of bureaus and chests dumped recklessly on the floor, dishes, pictures, mirrors, and furniture ruthlessly smashed to bits, mattresses disemboweled, odds and ends of clothing and linen strewn on the floor, heedlessly tramped on by the feet of their own brave defenders.”

Refugees in France, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The following days brought no respite for the Allies, as the Sixth Army fell back in disarray, and the Germans advanced with surprising speed across a series of parallel river valleys including the Marne—the scene of the dramatic Allied victory at the beginning of the war. Now detailed German planning paid off, as dozens of temporary bridges (built and brought forward before the attack in total secrecy) were rushed into the battlefield, enabling the rapid German advance across multiple river obstacles (below, French soldiers pass resting British soldiers).

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As decimated French and British divisions fell back, the new Allied supreme commander, French generalissimo Ferdinand Foch, rushed reinforcements to the Sixth Army as well as the neighboring French Tenth Army and Fifth Army, barely holding the line near Reims and Soissons (in fact the latter was briefly evacuated and occupied by German troops for less than a day). Now American troops made their first major contribution to the fight, as the American 2nd and 3rd Divisions hurried forward to help stem the German tide on the Marne River just 20 miles from Paris, aided by the Allied superiority in motor vehicles, in one of the first major uses of motorized infantry. Floyd Gibbons, an American war correspondent, accompanied some of the American reinforcements to the battlefront:

“At four o’clock on the morning of May 31st, the Marine brigade and regiments of United States infantry, the 9th and the 23rd Regulars, boarded camions, 20 to 30 men and their equipment in each vehicle. They were bound eastward to the valley of the Marne. The road took them through the string of pretty villages 15 miles to the north of Paris. The trucks loaded with United States troops soon became part of the endless traffic of war that was pouring northward and eastward toward the raging front. Our men soon became coated with the dust of the road. The French people in the villages through which they passed at top speed cheered them and threw flowers into the lorries.”

Gibbons also noted the continuous flow of wounded returning from the battlefield, as well as columns of smoke in the distance, the telltale signs of the German advance (below, wounded French and British soldiers):

“On the broad, paved highway from Paris to Meaux, my car passed miles and miles of loaded motor trucks bound frontward. Long lines of these carried thousands of Americans. Other long lines were loaded down with shell and cartridge boxes. On the right side of the road, bound for Paris and points back of the line, was an endless stream of ambulances and other motor trucks bringing back wounded. Dense clouds of dust hung like a pall over the length of the road. The day was hot, the dust was stifling … To the west and north another nameless cluster of farm dwellings was in flames. Huge clouds of smoke rolled up like a smudge against the background of blue sky.”

German spring offensive, World War I, 1918
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By June 6 the momentum had dissipated, thanks in part to the growing American presence at the front. U.S. Marines were assigned the task of blocking the road to Reims at Belleau Wood, a name that would soon enter the American military pantheon of heroic battles, with particular significance in the mythos of the Marines. The Battle of Belleau Wood, lasting from June 1-26, 1918, was America’s first major engagement in the First World War, as doughboys and “devil dogs” (a popular nickname for the U.S. Marines) stemmed the German tide along the Marne River after the fall of Château-Thierry (below, Belleau Wood after the fighting).

Belleau Wood, 1918
USMC Archives, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Belleau Wood was the first encounter with the awful reality of trench warfare and open warfare for thousands of American soldiers. E.A. Wahl, a Marine private, recalled the progress to the front, followed by the beginning of incredibly fierce fighting at Belleau Wood, in a letter home:

“We sought shelter everywhere, falling flat on our faces as we heard shells come screeching down. That was our only protection. We just had to lie flat wondering if the next was going to get us. One shell landed about 15 feet from me and exploded. I heard a scream at the same time and looked up. It had landed in a hole where two chaps from another company were lying. Several of us rushed over to the spot and pulled them out. They were horribly cut up, but not dead … I can’t begin to describe my state of mind—you will just have to imagine it. We were getting our first real taste of the horrors of war. At dusk we fell into single file and started down a road toward the lines. Dead and wounded were liberally distributed along the road. Shell-shock victims acting like crazy men were being led to the rear by comrades. I will never forget that first trip through the pitch darkness of tangled woods down to our first positions. Bullets whistling around snipping off tree branches, big shells screaming and crashing in all directions, stumbling into shell holes and over fallen trees, taking about three hours to reach our positions—it tested one’s endurance to the limit … The whole 16 days was just a nightmare of this sort of business—attacks and counter-attacks. I cannot describe it.”

Like millions of European soldiers before them, the American soldiers were shocked by their own heavy losses but also horrified by the massive casualties they inflicted on the enemy, forcing them to acknowledge their foes’ bravery. Gibbons described American artillery exacting a bloody toll on the German attackers on June 2, as the French fell back and Americans manned the first line, with artillery directed by French aerial observers, along a 12-mile stretch of front:

“The Germans advanced in two solid columns across a field of golden wheat. More than half of the two columns had left the cover of the trees and were moving in perfect order across the field when the shrapnel fire from the American artillery in the rear got range on the target. Burst after burst of white smoke suddenly appeared in the air over the column, and under each burst the ground was marked with a circle of German dead.”

John Lewis Barkley, an American soldier who was later decorated with the Medal of Honor, recalled American machine guns felling rows of advancing Germans trying to capture bridges over the Marne near Château-Thierry:

“The columns weren’t stopped by the machine gun bullets. But everywhere, as they came on, men were left squirming on the ground. I could see the officers quite clearly. They allowed no break in that steady stream. Every gap was filled up at once. And the column moved on. Moved to certain death at the bridges. They were brave men, those German soldiers. I was learning that early.”

Barkley had his own very personal encounter with inflicting death as a sniper during the Battle of Belleau Wood, when he killed a German officer. “Perhaps he was young, and had a girl at home like mine. Or a mother who wrote him the kind of letters my mother wrote me. I tried to stop thinking about it,” Barkley wrote. “There wasn’t anything to do but to get over it … After a while I got so that it didn’t disturb my mind either.”

Fierce fighting cut a swathe through American ranks, with the Marines suffering especially steep losses. Gibbons, who was wounded shortly afterwards, described the events of June 6, when the U.S. Marines attacked German positions along the eastern edge of Belleau Wood:

“At five o’clock to the dot the Marines moved out from the woods in perfect order, and started across the wheat fields in four long waves. It was a beautiful sight, these men of ours going across the flat fields toward the tree clusters beyond from which the Germans poured a murderous machine gun fire. The woods were impregnated with nests of machine guns, but our advance proved irresistible. Many of our men fell, but those that survived pushed on through the woods, bayoneting right and left and firing as they charged … The fighting was terrific. In one battalion alone the casualties numbered 64 percent officers and 64 percent men … I was with the Marines at the opening of the battle. I never saw men charge to their death with finer spirit.”

On the other side, the first encounter with American fighting spirit was surprising and demoralizing for German soldiers and civilians, who had been assured by government propaganda that the Americans were undisciplined rabble, and in any event, would never arrive in sufficient numbers to make a real contribution to Allied combat power. German soldiers also contended with hunger and miserable physical conditions, as the Allied “starvation blockade” strangled the Central Powers. Wartime dislocations disrupted agriculture and made food shortages even worse.

Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat then living in the German countryside, wrote in her diary in June 1918:

“My nephew Norbert, who is 19 years of age, has just been staying with us. He is on leave, having been through the whole of the Western offensive. His descriptions of it are terrible. For six days and nights, he says, they lay in the front trenches, with nothing to eat but what they found in the English trenches on the first day … He told me … that the Americans are daily becoming a more serious asset to the enemy, as each day more troops are pouring in, all fresh and well equipped, a contrast to the tired-out troops opposing them.”

Back on the home front, the mounting death toll, combined with diminishing prospects of victory, was pushing German civilians to the breaking point. The demoralization was reinforced by letters from soldiers at the front as well as soldiers home on leave. Blücher recorded the impact of these reports amid the Blücher-Yorck offensive:

“Gebhard’s two nephews have just written home. They say that no words can describe the horrors of what they have been through. They write that they are almost dying of starvation. They say they advanced so rapidly that no provisions could reach them, and their division was five days and nights fighting incessantly without food or even sleep at all, and those of their companies who were not killed or wounded died of exhaustion, and it is only by a miracle that they themselves are left to tell the tale. Their letter ends with the significant words: ‘Send us some food somehow, as quickly as you can, or we shall also die.’ Here in Krieblowitz, the peasants and village people receive the news that sometimes one, sometimes even two, of their sons have been killed on the same day. It has been a wholesale slaughter of late.”

Princess Blücher also transcribed a letter from her maid’s husband, who wrote from the front at Laon, about 20 miles northeast of Soissons. “It is indescribably awful here in Laon. We live in the midst of an incessant hail of bullets. The men on each side of me were both killed yesterday, and I expect my turn to come any day,” she recorded. Another German soldier, Herbert Sulzbach, described the gruesome scenes along the road to Chaudun on June 3:

“Seasoned fighting men that we are, we can’t help being shaken at the sight of all these bodies which have been torn to pieces, and then cut up over and over again; friend and foe, white and black, all jumbled together. It is also very hot, and the stink of the corpses is more than one can bear, but we have no time to bury the dead now.”

Above all, the fighting in May-June 1918 led to the widespread realization that the Americans were now present in Europe in large numbers, intended to take part in combat, and were formidable fighters, at least in some cases (below, a map of the American Expeditionary Force’s logistics network in France). In May 1918 alone, 245,945 U.S. soldiers crossed the Atlantic to France, followed by another 278,664 in June, bringing the total number in France to around 1 million by mid-summer. Blücher noted the stark change in attitudes between the winter of 1917 to the summer of 1918:

“The offensive is taking on more and more the character of a race between Hindenburg and America, and people are beginning generally to perceive the terrific consequences of their fatal mistake in allowing America to come in. Every one is force admit that it is America now that is keeping on the war. How foolishly they laughed at the idea two years ago!”

U.S. supply routes, spring 1918, World War I
Erik Sass

Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, also recorded signs of plunging morale in June 1918, including a gloomy conversation with an officer:

“‘How are things at the front?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t think they are going very well,’ I replied. I told him that the English were greatly superior in terms of aircraft and artillery, and certainly also in terms of foodstuffs, and that in my opinion the Americans would tip the balance. ‘Yes,’ said the officer, ‘you have the same opinion as I do.’ This was the first time I had found an officer who was willing to say that Germany would lose the war.”

On the Allied side, America’s fighting debut was met with elation, especially among Americans themselves, as many expressed pride and relief at this vindication of American manhood (not to mention the bravery of thousands of women serving as nurses, ambulance drivers, and canteen workers, often exposed to enemy fire). Marian Baldwin, an American chief nurse volunteering at a British field hospital, noted in her diary on June 7, 1918, “The Sammies are right in the ‘thick of it’ now and doing better, especially the Marines, even than was expected of them. It’s all very wonderful and these days makes one prouder than ever of being an American.”

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

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WWI Centennial: The Spanish Flu Emerges
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions
National Photo Company, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 308th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

May 22, 1918: THE FIRST PHASE OF THE SPANISH FLU EPIDEMIC

Although doctors, epidemiologists, and medical historians still debate where the infamous 1918 flu pandemic originated, the most recent evidence seems to support the theory that it started in the United States—first emerging in rural Haskell County, Kansas before spreading to Camp Funston, now Fort Riley, a U.S. Army training camp in the northeastern part of the state that was home to more than 50,000 enlisted men.

Like other flu epidemics, the 1918 H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, was a zoonosis—a disease that spreads from animals to humans. Researchers studying the natural history of the 1918 flu believe it may have first spread from wildfowl, domestic poultry, or livestock to farmers in Haskell County, many of whom lived in sod houses in proximity to their animals. After a local epidemic there in January and February 1918, the flu appears to have traveled with conscripted men to Camp Funston, about 300 miles to the east.

On March 4, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at one of the Camp Funston kitchens, reported sick with a high fever, becoming the first documented case of this flu. The virus spread quickly over the next few weeks, surely facilitated by conditions including cold, drafty barracks, communal showers, latrines and canteens, and physically taxing training regimens. Additionally, in an age before widespread car and air travel, many new recruits had never traveled far from their homes in Kansas or elsewhere in the rural Midwest, meaning their immune systems were vulnerable to new diseases.

By the end of the month, the hospital at Camp Funston was overwhelmed with more than 1100 cases of the flu (below, the emergency ward at the camp). But the virus mutated over time and became stronger. Thus, this first phase of the pandemic, which spread around the world in spring and summer of 1918, was much milder than the second phase, which began in the fall of that year and killed far more people.

U.S. Army recruits at Camp Funston, 1918
Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Wartime conditions provided ideal vectors for contagion, as hundreds of thousands of soldiers moved between army bases and then to port cities on America’s eastern and gulf coasts, where they awaited transport to Europe. In mid-March outbreaks were under way in Camp Forrest and Camp Greenleaf, both in Georgia; a month later the epidemic had spread to two dozen army bases and training camps, and also surfaced in the civilian populations of 30 of the country’s biggest cities.

U.S. Army training camps, 1918
Erik Sass

The virus made its first appearance on European soil in April 1918 at Brest and Bordeaux, two of the main ports of disembarkation for American troops arriving in France. Once again conditions on the continent helped speed the spread of the virus, including shortages of food and fuel, which left millions of soldiers and civilians cold and malnourished. Men in the trenches were jammed together in squalid conditions, and soldiers on leave as well as those working in supply and transport units could spread the disease to civilians or carry it with them back to the trenches. Meanwhile, many doctors had been conscripted into military service, leaving civilians with few options for medical care.

Also commonly known as the three-day fever or the grippe, the virus got the misleading nickname Spanish flu because it was first reported in the Spanish press on May 22, 1918 (as a neutral country, Spain hadn’t imposed wartime censorship like the combatant nations). Madrid’s ABC newspaper announced the arrival of the epidemic in Spain, probably carried by migrant laborers returning from France, with a headline noting the virulence but otherwise not expressing much alarm. Shortly afterwards King Alfonso XIII briefly fell ill, and the Spanish newswire service Agencia Fabra reported to its partner Reuters, “A strange form of disease of epidemic character has appeared in Madrid. The epidemic is of a mild nature; no deaths having been reported.”

The mild form of the flu would continue spreading around the world through the later summer of 1918, when the far deadlier second phase took over beginning in September. It swept over both sides of the war with hardly a delay, skipping over No Man’s Land with captured prisoners as well as through people traveling to neutral countries. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, recalled that in July 1918 the relatively mild version of the flu was largely dismissed by German military authorities, who had much bigger problems on their hands:

"Some soldiers had started to feel unwell for several days without anyone knowing what was wrong with them. Then we read in the newspapers about a new illness called the Spanish flu, because it had started in Spain. Now we knew. More and more soldiers were infected and shuffled around looking half-dead. Although they reported sick, hardly any of them went to hospital, as it had been declared that no more people should be classified as having minor illnesses or being lightly wounded—there were only the seriously wounded and the dead."

Later Richert fell ill himself, and experienced firsthand the brusque and unsympathetic medical treatment that tended to prevail on both sides during the war:

"I went to report sick immediately as the flu had now got worse and I had become quite hoarse. There were about a hundred men standing outside the house where the doctor examined people. NCOs were examined first. You could hardly call it an examination. You were asked what was wrong. When I had answered, the medical NCO gave me a peppermint tablet about the size of a penny and the doctor said: ‘Make some tea for yourself. Next please!’"

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

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