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Chronicling America

France Mobilizes, Germany Declares War on Russia

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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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WWI Centennial: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 290th installment in the series.

October 12-18, 1917: First Passchendaele, Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic

The success of the “bite and hold” strategy employed by the British at the Third Battle of Ypres in September and early October 1917, which yielded incremental advances at the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde, fed hopes that a few more attacks would push the Germans off the Gheluvelt Plateau east of Ypres, threatening their railroad and communication network in Flanders and maybe even forcing them to withdraw from western Belgium altogether.

Western Front, October 12, 1917: First Battle of Passchendael
Erik Sass

In reality the plan was already beginning to unravel at the battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, 1917, due mostly to the arrival of autumn rains that once again turned the battlefield into a sea of mud, making it almost impossible to move up artillery, fresh troops, ammunition, and supplies – the key to the “hold” part of the strategy, which called for attackers to immediately dig in in order to rebuff enemy counterattacks. The immobility of British artillery also meant that in many cases German barbed wire entanglements remained intact. Nonetheless British Expeditionary Force commander Douglas Haig believed (against the advice of Second Army commander Herbert Plumer) that the main objective, the high ground around the village of Passchendaele, was still within reach.

The result was the nightmarish First Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, which saw the I and II ANZAC corps of the British Second Army mount an increasingly desperate attempt to dislodge the German Fourth Army from its defensive positions around Passchendaele in order to seize Passchendaele Ridge, with supporting attacks by the British Fifth Army to the north – only to meet with almost total defeat.

“No One Could See Any Purpose In It”

The British employed the same tactics as in previous battles, especially the “creeping barrage,” in which field artillery created a moving wall of fire just in front of the advancing troops, forcing enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were upon them. Meanwhile pioneer units worked feverishly to build roads of duckboard planks across the muddiest areas behind the frontlines to facilitate movements of artillery and troops (below, troops carrying duckboards).

One British soldier, P. Hoole Jackson, described the lurid scenes as they marched to the front along roads constantly shelled by German artillery:

Up the other side of the road a slow procession of vehicles crawled, one behind the other: new guns going up to the positions, ammunition wagons full of shells, ambulances bound for the clearing stations, ration carts for the troops in line. Piccadilly could not have been more crowded, and over all these the German shells moaned and whined. Now and then a cart would have to pull round a heap of wreckage that had once been men, horses, and wagons. By the side of the road lay the stiffening carcases of horses and mules, and around, on every hand, the big guns crashed.

Conditions only worsened as they approached the frontlines:

On three sides was the arching Salient, marked out as though on a mighty map by the ring of flaming flashes from the German guns. A peninsula of death and terror. As we drew nearer to the Ridge, the howling in the sky grew more fierce. We had to pause while a shell dropped before us; rush on as one hurled down almost on top of us; dive for cover in the slimy ditch. All along the road were the skeletons of shattered trees… and over all was the livid light of the gun-flashes, which rose and fell like a fiery, ceaseless tide.

George F. Wear, an officer in the Royal Field Artillery, left a similar portrait of the battlefield around this time:

I doubt if anyone who has not experienced it can really have any idea of what the Salient was like during those “victories” of 1917. The bombardments of the Somme the year before were nothing to those around Ypres. Batteries jostled each other in the shell-marked waste of mud, barking and crashing night and day. There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun. Wet, grey skies hung over the blasted land, and in the mind a gloomy depression grew and spread. Trenches had disappeared. “Pill-boxes” and shell holes took their place. We never went up the line with a working party with any real expectation of returning, and there was no longer any sustaining feeling that all this slaughter was leading us to anything. No one could see any purpose in it.

The attack got off to a bad start with heavy rain on the night of October 11-12, followed by high winds in the pre-dawn hours; the Germans also unleashed a preemptive bombardment on the New Zealanders’ front line positions at 5 a.m., just before the planned time of the attack. At the same time the British preparatory bombardment and creeping barrage were rendered less effective by the deep mud, which muffled the impact of high explosive shells, again leaving German barbed wire intact in many places. Further German “counter-battery” fire exacted a heavy toll on British artillery, which was also vulnerable to mud and misfires. Jackson described the British field artillery in action, along with the horrible conditions:

The gunners were working stripped almost to the waist. The pound and crash of the noisy little guns was terrific, deafening. If a gun failed or was knocked out another was soon in its place. Mud and slime; a night in a shell hole that was little better than a hollow of ooze. There were no proper shell holes, no communication trenches. All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land. Shell hole merged with shell hole; many were death traps in which the wounded slipped and died.

At 5:25 a.m. the ANZAC troops started going over the top, but German machine gunners protected by concrete fortifications, or pillboxes, exacted a heavy toll on the advancing troops (above, evacuating a wounded soldier). Although the attackers reached the first objective in many places, many were forced to retire by heavy German fire; this in turn left gaps in the British frontline, leaving the flanks of neighboring units exposed to German counterattacks and forcing them to withdraw as well. By the afternoon of October 12 it was clear that the attack had failed.

Once again the attackers paid a heavy price in blood for negligible gains, in conditions that many participants described as the worst they had seen in the war so far. In one day the Second Battle of Passchendaele resulted in around 4,200 Australian casualties, 2,800 casualties in the New Zealand Division, and 10,000 casualties in the British Fifth Army. The British could take some comfort in the fact that the Germans also suffered steep losses. However German chief strategist General Erich Ludendorff, encouraged by the defensive victory and anticipating more inclement weather, ordered the Fourth Army to dig in and hold the Passchendaele Ridge, setting the stage for the Second Battle of Passchendaele – the final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres.

As elsewhere in the First World War, the unending bloodshed and climate of constant danger combined to produce a pronounced fatalistic attitude among troops on both sides of no-man’s-land. Wear, the British artillery officer, remembered:

I had all sorts of escapes; in fact they were so frequent that I got into a strange frame of mind, and became careless. It seemed as if I couldn’t bother to try and avoid unnecessary danger. The only matters of importance were whether they rations would come up promptly and if the bottle of whisky I had ordered would be there. It was for me the worst part of the War. Even now it looms like a gigantic nightmare in the back of my mind.

Meanwhile the total destruction of the Flanders landscape proceeded apace. Charles Biddle, an American pilot with the volunteer Escadrille Lafayette, noted in his diary on October 16, 1917 (below, an aerial view of the village of Passchendaele before and after the battle):

You can trace the advance by the slow changing of green fields and woods into a blasted wilderness which shows a mud brown color from the air. Fields become a mass of shell holes filled with water and a wood turns from an expanse of green foliage into a few shattered and leafless trunks… It is the same way with the little Belgian towns. By degrees they are obliterated until their sites are only distinguishable by a smudge a trifle darker in color than the brown of the torn fields which once surrounded them.

The Rainbow Division Crosses the Atlantic Ocean

After declaring war in April 1917 and implementing the draft in June, the U.S. government was eager to show the Allies that its contribution to the war effort would be more than financial support or a mere symbolic demonstration. The arrival in France of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, accompanied by around 100 officers and enlisted men, in June 1917, marked the beginning of the buildup – at first gradual, then increasingly rapid – of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, which would number around two million by the end of the war and play a decisive role in defeating Germany.

One of the first big American units to arrive in Europe was the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division because it included men from 26 states and the District of Columbia. Created at the suggestion of Major Douglas MacArthur, who was soon promoted to colonel, the division was 28,000 strong with its full complement (American divisions were around twice the strength of European divisions), all drawn from state militias. After being activated in August 1917, the Rainbow Division troops received crash course training to form it into a cohesive unit, then was immediately dispatched to France, where it received additional training in trench warfare before joining Allied troops in the frontline.

Elmer Sherwood, a soldier in the Rainbow Division, described troops traveling from their camp in Long Island to board the ships for France – including the President Lincoln and President Grant – in New York City in his diary on October 18, 1917:

We arose at three o’clock this morning and in two hours were marching with full pack and rifle to the station where we entrained for the river docks where ferry boats carried us up the river, to the piers, where the big ocean liners flying the U.S. flag were waiting to carry us to foreign soil. All day long thousands of Sammies [soldiers] who were to make the voyage were arriving and going up the gangplank in single file. Each of us was given a slip of paper on which was printed the deck compartment and bunk each was to occupy and where to eat and wash.

Like the millions of American troops who would follow them, for most of the militiamen and volunteers of the Rainbow Division the voyage to France was their first journey outside the United States. On that note many viewed the war as an exciting adventure, but unsurprisingly they also suffered from homesickness and anxiety. Another soldier in the Division, Vernon Kniptash, described his feelings on leaving New York Harbor – and America – in his diary entry on October 18, 1917:

It’s night now and I can see the New York skyline from the upper deck. Every window ablaze and a million windows, the most wonderful sight I’ve seen since I left home. The boat is slipping away and the Statue of Liberty is getting fainter and fainter. It sure makes a fellow feel funny under these conditions. How many of us will get to see that statue when this war ends? The boys were unusually silent, and all were thinking of the same thought, I guess. All is blackness now and the states are “somewhere out there.” I’ve been blue at times, but never as blue as I am right now.

Once at sea, however, their moods seemed to improve. On October 22, 1917, as the Lincoln was carried along by the tropical Gulf Stream, Kniptash wrote:

The weather is so warm that it’s almost unbearable. I was on guard tonight and I enjoyed every minute of it. On land during my second shift I usually have to pinch myself to keep awake, but tonight I was wide awake and enjoyed salty breezes and [the] big moon to the limit. Early in the evening four old sailors formed a quartette and sang silhouetted against that big yellow moon. It was just like a stage setting. I’m seeing the things I used to read about in books and it’s all like a dream to me. I’m always afraid someone will come along and wake me.

Sherwood also found the voyage across the Atlantic exhilarating, at least at first, writing in his diary on October 19, 1917:

I had planned all my life to make a voyage across the sea, but I little thought it would be under the conditions existing now… Here on the top of the ship I lie between my blankets in silence. All have gone to their bunks except some like myself who prefer to lie on deck. What an opportunity for one to think. He cannot help it. The great waves dash against the sides of the ship but one does not notice them for their monotony. I can realize now why so many boys leave their homes to seek adventure on the high seas…

Of course the sense of adventure was tempered by the ever-present threat of U-boat attacks, which increased as the convoy approached Europe (although no ships were sunk on this journey). On October 27, 1917, Kniptash wrote:

The Captain gave us orders to sleep in our clothes tonight. That means everything but blouse and gun. All these articles want to be where a fellow can reach them and put them on without the loss of a second. The Capt. said to expect a call at any time now. It means we are right in the center of the war zone and all the chance in the world of taking a nice cold bath before morning.

As they approached France the troops, almost all young men in their late teens and early 20s, received a stern warning from their commanding officer, as described by Kniptash on October 30, 1917:

The Captain assembled the battery and gave the boys a heart-to-heart talk. He said that all indications seemed to be that we reach port tomorrow. He talked about the women in this town [St. Nazaire] and the chances the men were taking in case they had sexual intercourse. He said that the women that hung around the camps were all diseased and that the soldiers in case they should contract the disease could not receive the proper medical attention and stood a good chance of ruining their lives…. I promised myself that I’d return to the States in just the good condition I left them… I think the training Mumsey gave me will make me walk the straight and narrow over here.

Plenty of troops in the Rainbow Division disregarded this advice, as reflected in high rates of sexually transmitted disease, but many men were simply happy to have a few moments of female companionship – especially if the women in question happened to be Americans too. Marjorie Crocker, an American volunteering as a Red Cross nurse, described meeting American soldiers, all volunteers from the New York Telephone company and Western Union, laying telephone wires for General Pershing’s new headquarters, in provincial France:

… we heard English-speaking voices calling us, and on turning saw several American soldiers. We waved vigorously and went on, but were stopped by two of them running up and taking off their hats, offering their hands, and saying, “Do you folks speak English?” On our replying that we did, they let a yell, and calling their pals announced that they had “caught ‘em, and you bet they can talk the lingo!”… They were nice men, and they were so pitifully glad to hear some English!

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WWI Centennial: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 289th installment in the series.

October 4-9, 1917: Broodseinde and Poelcapelle

Following successful “bite and hold” attacks at the back-to-back Battles of Menin Road and Polygon Wood from September 20-October 3, 1917, the nightmarish Third Battle of Ypres (better known as Passchendaele) continued with British assaults at Broodseinde on October 4 and Poelcapelle on October 9, which continued British Second Army commander Herbert Plumer’s strategy of limited incremental gains.

Like the previous battles, the British assaults at Broodseinde and Poelcapelle were supported by huge bombardments and counter-battery artillery fire, while advancing infantry were preceded by the “creeping barrage,” a protective wall of artillery fire that forced enemy troops to take cover until the attackers were already upon them. After reaching certain pre-determined objectives, the British infantry would immediately dig in to fend off German counterattacks to recapture lost trenches.

The incremental strategy yielded another victory at Broodseinde, raising the possibility of a forced German withdrawal from western Belgium, giving up the U-boat bases on the Belgian coast – but with the change of seasons, the clock was quickly running down for further offensive operations by either side. Crucially the British had enjoyed relatively dry weather during most of this, sparing both sides immersion in a sea of mud (as in the opening phase of Third Ypres) allowing fresh troops, guns and ammunition to reach the front. But on October 2 the rains returned, plunging both sides into the cold, muddy hell of Flanders in fall.

Broodseinde

Despite the bad weather, at Broodseinde the British were initially favored by a bit of luck – or rather good intelligence work – as the attackers happened to catch the Germans unawares while preparing an attack of their own around Zonnebeke. As a result the British artillery inflicted considerable casualties among German assault troops concentrated in frontline trenches (although the Germans returned the compliment with their own preemptive bombardment of the I ANZAC Corps).

As British artillery rained destruction on German frontline and support trenches, at 6 a.m. on October 4, 1917 twelve British and ANZAC divisions went over the top and advanced in good order against enemy positions along a 14,000-yard-long stretch of front. By the late afternoon of that day the attackers had advanced around 1,000 yards and held the conquered battlefield against multiple German counterattacks, marking a decisive tactical victory by the standards of the First World War. However Plumer remained reluctant to exploit the victory by attempting a decisive breakthrough, citing over a dozen additional enemy divisions guarding rear areas.

The fighting in Flanders remained a horrible ordeal for ordinary soldiers on both sides of the conflict (above, an Australian ambulance in action at Broodseinde). Edward Lynch, an Australian private, described the aftermath of an attack in early October:

The first batches of the wounded are coming back. Walking, staggering, lurching, limping back. Men carrying smashed arms, others painfully limping on shattered legs. Laughing men and shivering men. Men walking back as if there’s nothing left to harm them and others who flinch and jump and throw themselves in shell holes at every shell burst and at each whistle of a passing bullet.

A soldier wounded in the same attack told Lynch an even more horrifying story:

‘Saw a terrible thing up there. A few of us rushed a Fritz post, but as we were right on top of it, a Fritz fired a flare gun at us and the flare went right into a man’s stomach. He was running round and round trying to tear the burning flare out of his inside and all the time we could smell his flesh burning, just like grilled meat. He gave an awful scream and fell dead, but that horrible smell of burning flesh kept on. I can smell it still.’ And he shudders and shakes at the memory of it all. ‘Did you get the Fritz?’ ‘Too true we got him. Seven or eight bayonets got him, the flamin’ mongrel!’ And the man gets up and goes away, vomiting.

Lynch himself received a “Blighty” – a wound severe enough to require treatment at a hospital in Britain – while attempting to carry a message under artillery fire. He described his near miss with an enemy artillery shell (above, Australian troops carry a wounded German):

The ground under my feet is heaving upwards. I’m surrounded by a shower of mud and blue, vicious flame. My feet are rising, rising, my head is going down, down, I’m falling, falling, through a solid cloud of roaring round… Gnawing pain shoots through me. My hip, my knee, my leg, my foot… I realise that a shell has burst under me and tossed me into the trench. I know my leg is smashed… I can feel my boot is full of blood.

Poelcapelle

Encouraged by the victory at Broodseinde, Plumer and British Expeditionary Force commander General Douglas Haig became more ambitious, planning deeper advances with an eye to a breakthrough – just as nature was turning decisively against them, with endless rain turning the heavily shelled fields into a quagmire. The rain forced the British to once again accept limited goals, but they were still determined to keep up the pressure on the Germans.

The result was a draw at the Battle of Poelcapelle on October 9, where some attacking units managed to advance but were generally forced to withdraw by German counterattacks. One British tank commander, William Watson, described the initial advance at dawn on October 9:

We went outside and stood in the rain, looking towards the line. It was still very dark, but, though the moon had left us in horror, there was a promise of dawn in the air. The bombardment died down a little, as if the guns were taking breath, though far away to the right a barrage was throbbing… Then suddenly on every side of us and above us a tremendous uproar arose; the ground shook beneath us; for a moment we felt battered and dizzy; the horizon was lit up with a sheet of flashes; gold and red rockets raced madly into the sky, and in the curious light of the distant bursting shells the run in front of us appeared and disappeared with a touch of melodrama…

By the end of the day only the Guards Division, attacking near the village which gave the battle its name, made a significant advance. All across the battlefield, the British and ANZAC attackers found it impossible to bring up artillery, ammunition, and fresh troops due to the mud, which also canceled out much of the advantage conferred by the new British weapon, the tank. Watson remembered one ill-fated sally by a tank unit, quickly swamped by mud:

It was a massacre. The tanks could not turn, even if they had wished. There was nothing for it but to go on and attempt to pass in a rain of shells the tanks which could not move, but each tank in turn slipped off into the mud. Their crews, braving the shells attached the unditching beams – fumbling in the dark with slippery spanners, while red-hot bits flew past, and they were deafened by the crashes – but nothing could be done. The officers withdrew their men from the fatal road and took cover in shell holes. It was a stormy cheerless dawn.

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