Kiel Over

With only a couple of exceptions since the Battle of Jutland in the summer of 1916, the German High Seas Fleet had sat mostly at anchor at the Schillig roadstead off of the main German naval base in Wilhelmshaven.  Days of inactivity had turned to weeks, which turned into months, which transformed the expensive, mighty battleships of the Kaiserliche Marine into rusting hulks crewed by aggravated, bored sailors.  The attitude around Wilhelmshaven had only become worse in recent days as the U-boat fleet had been ordered to return to port as the new government of Max von Baden ended Germany’s unrestricted U-boat campaign as an American-requested prerequisite to armistice negotiations

But there was an air of excitement at Wilhelmshaven on October 24th, 1918.  Orders had come down from the Chief of the German Admiralty, Reinhard Scheer – the High Sea Fleet would prepare to launch it’s entire armada out into the North Sea.  18 Dreadnoughts, 5 battlecruisers, 14 light cruisers, 60 destroyers and torpedo boats and nearly 30 submarines would sail for the Thames Estuary to engage a numerically superior British Navy in the thick of their home waters.  The likely endgame was clear to German officers.  The Chief of Staff to the High Sea Fleet’s admiral wrote in his diary that the coming offensive was “a battle for the honour of the fleet in this war, even if it were a death battle,” yet was necessary as “it would be the foundation for a new German fleet.”  

Acting clearly against the wishes of the civilian German government, and even the Kaiser, the Kaiserliche Marine had put into the motion the first pieces of what on paper would be the largest naval battle in human history – twice the size of the forces at Jutland if all ships became engaged.  It would end with their nation in defeat and engulfed in revolution.

German sailors – and a variety of civilian supporters – march in the major naval base in Kiel.  The “Kiel Mutiny” would become the first acts in the German Revolution that ended World War I

The condition of the German Navy had seemingly been both a source of concern and a blind eye for the Oberste Heeresleitung or German High Command.  

The sailors of the High Seas Fleet returning from Jutland on June 1st, 1916 were exuberant, having won a tactical victory and believing the congratulations sent to them by their Kaiser that they had “started a new chapter in world history” by defeating the vaunted British Royal Navy.  But the cost of Jutland – 11 ships – had precluded another significant campaign in the minds of the German command, and the High Seas Fleet had only left Wilhelmshaven three times since June of 1916, and only once since the fall of that same year.  Scheer, the commander of the High Seas Fleet until August of 1918, had in part led that charge, arguing that unrestricted submarine attacks were the only hope Germany had for winning the war on the seas.  As a result, outside of the U-boats, the Kaiserliche Marine had nothing to do but wait.  Continue reading

Veni Vidi Vittorio

It was night on October 23rd, 1918 as a series of rowboats silently dipped their oars in the waters of the Piave river in Italy.  The Piave had remained as quiet as the rowboats’ occupants since the Italian defensive victory that summer, halting and then repelling an Austro-Hungarian offensive launched with hopes of knocking Rome out of the war.  But the men aboard these boats were neither Italian or Austro-Hungarian, but British, members of the Honourable Artillery Company (an infantry battalion, despite the name) and the Royal Welch Fusiliers.  While neither company could be viewed as “special forces,” they were most certainly elite forces of the Crown as the HAC had it’s lineage back to 1087 and it’s Captain-General was officially listed as the King George V.    

Their assignment was to secure the series of islands on the Piave river that now constituted no-mans-land, starting with the largest island, Grave di Papadopoli.  The HAC and Fusiliers landed with bayonets fixed, sneaking and stabbing their away across the island before the soldiers of the Dual Monarchy were finally able to sound the alarm.  In a brief, but tough fight, with Italian diversionary troops even being defeated on the southern part of the island, Grave di Papadopoli was captured by Allied forces.  The stage was set for the following morning, the one year anniversary of the Italian army’s humiliating defeat at Caporetto, as 1.4 million Allied troops would throw themselves at 1.8 million Austro-Hungarians.  The result would be the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the end of the 600+ year Habsburg Monarchy.

Vittorio Veneto – a major Italian victory that in historical hindsight looks more like a case of Austrian collapse than anything else

By late October of 1918, it could be questioned whether or not a battle even needed to take place to bring about the end of Austria-Hungary’s participation in the Great War.  The same day as the Germans learned that President Woodrow Wilson wouldn’t mediate an armistice based on his Fourteen Points, at least not without strenuous pre-conditions, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Baron István Burián von Rajecz asked for similar terms from the Allies.  As Rajecz made his request, the Allies formally accepted Czechoslovakia into their alliance.  Trying to curry favor with the various ethnic groups now striving to break away from the Empire, Emperor Charles I issued an imperial manifesto that days later that would fundamentally changed the Austrian half of the government, giving autonomy to most ethnic states.  It wasn’t enough.  The literal next day, the Hungarian parliament passed a resolution ending the Austro-Hungarian partnership, despite having just renewed it for two years, and declared independence.  The Dual Monarchy was now a singular one (although the formal cancellation of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 wouldn’t happen until the end of the month).  What remained was rapidly falling apart.  Continue reading

Pèace de Résistance

Prince Maximilian von Baden, the newly appointed Chancellor of Germany, was likely as anxious as any member of the German government to hear that Berlin had finally received a response from American President Woodrow Wilson on October 14th, 1918.  Ten days earlier, Max, a relatively unknown liberal member of the Prussian nobility and former military staff officer, had publicly declared Germany’s willingness to engage in an armistice based around Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  The Prince of Baden had initially resisted the post when offered to him by Kaiser Wilhelm II, knowing full well that even the most generous possible terms of a future armistice would likely cost Germany dearly and Max was not interested in going down in history as the Chancellor who offered up Germany’s de facto surrender.

But following a crown council meeting on September 29th, 1918, both Hindenburg and Ludendorff had advised the Kaiser that nothing short of an armistice could save Germany as neither general could ensure the Empire’s ability to hold together what remained of the Western Front.  While there was debate as to what Germany expected from any armistice request – Ludendorff vacillated between viewing an armistice as defeat or as simply a delaying tactic that would allow the German army to regroup – Baden had been tasked with making the offer.  The prior Chancellor and government had resigned in protest to news that the Kaiser and his two top generals alone had decided to seek peace, believing that in Berlin’s parliamentary democracy only the Reichstag retained the right to matters of war and peace.  Although Baden’s appointment would appease the growing liberal sectors of the Reichstag, the Prince of Baden knew he would be viewed with suspicion by all factors of the parliament – a toady to the conservative Kaiser or as a weak-willed liberal seeking peace.

Baden and others hoped that an armistice based upon Wilson’s Fourteen Points would be temperate in it’s punishments.  The message they received on October 14th, 1918 crushed those hopes.  Wilson would not lead any armistice negotiations.  Indeed, there would be no negotiations and no armistice with the current construction of the German government.  If the Kaiser abdicated the throne and Germany stopped their “illegal and inhumane practices” of submarine warfare and scorched earth tactics as they retreated in France, only then could the fighting cease.  And any final terms would be dictate by the Allies as a whole, not with America as a mediator.

There would be no easy peace for Germany.  And the nation would wrestle with how much they were willing to pay to end the bloodshed.

Max von Baden – center, with mustache.  He would resign on the eve of the Armistice, as Germany was plunged into revolution

If there was one issue that the various heads of state and military leaders of the warring powers could agree upon by the fall of 1918 (with perhaps the prominent exception of Erich Ludendorff), it was that an armistice was not only necessary, but desired.  But what any armistice would look like or how it would come about were open questions with constantly changing answers.  Continue reading

A Meused – Part Two

Lieutenant Paul Jürgen Vollmer of the 120th Württemberg Landwehr Regiment’s 1st Battalion was hoping that his approaching adjutant was bringing good news that early morning of October 8th, 1918.  Most of the reports he had been given had been to retreat as American and French forces slowly but surely carved their way through the Argonne forest, albeit at great cost.  The news was indeed good – the Prussian 210th Reserve Infantry Regiment had arrived at the front, perhaps allowing Vollmer to counterattack.  The veteran German commander rushed 200 yards to the front to see his reinforcements.

What he saw was only 70 new men sprinkled among his own regiment, all with their weapons on the ground and eating instead.  Vollmer vainly attempted to get the men marching; they said they wouldn’t move until they had breakfast.  Only the sounds of gunfire and retreating Germans past a nearby hill rallied the 210th to set down their utensils.  One of the fleeing Germans shouted “Die Amerikaner Kommen!” as he ran past, prompting a handful of the 210th to throw up their hands in surrender.  Vollmer immediately grabbed his pistol and forced a few of them to pick up their weapons.  As he did, a few Americans ran at the German position, one of them shooting his M1911 semi-automatic pistol.  Vollmer and the rest of his men were sure this had to be the advance scouts of a larger American unit and after Vollmer had emptied his pistol without hitting the lead American – and seeing the American shoot several more of his men – he offered to surrender.

A large American with a red mustache, broad features and a freckled face approached Vollmer and accepted the surrender of the men under Vollmer’s direct command.  It was only then that the German realized no American reinforcements were coming.  132 Germans had surrendered to (then) Corporal Alvin York and six other soldiers.  The Americans were beginning to learn how to fight and win in the trenches.

Alvin York – he would become one of the most famous individual soldiers in American history, but his post-WWII politics (he was in favor of attacking the Soviet Union) had him fall from public view

The Americans had been served their first real taste of defeat in the opening days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, as the German counterattack badly bloodied the 35th Division to the point of nearly destroying it.  Among the many casualties had been Lt. Col. George S. Patton who was personally leading from his 304th Tank Brigade.  Patton had been frustrated with the inability of his tanks to advance and rounded up some men in a nearby trench to dig out his stuck tanks.  One of the soldiers questioned the wisdom of exposing themselves to German artillery for Patton’s tanks – Patton replied by striking the soldier in the head with a shovel.  Even Patton remarked in his diary that he may have killed the man, who did not get up after being struck.  Patton’s willingness to expose himself and others to dangerous conditions would catch up with him that very same day, as Patton would be hit in the leg with a machine gun bullet that tore a wound the size of a silver dollar through his buttocks.  If not for the courage of his orderly, Private Joe Angelo, Patton would have bled to death near the town of Cheppy in the forests of the Argonne.  Continue reading

A Meused – Part One

Sunrise was still many hours away when the densely packed forest of the Argonne on the Western Front lit up with the whistles and cracks of fired and exploding artillery on September 26th, 1918 (the same day as the Saint-Quentin Canal offensive).  The mountainous and wild woodlands of the Argonne had been scarred by the war, but plenty of trees remained standing.  The thick forests became shrapnel as the Allied artillery groped to find and destroy the Hindenburg Line trenches that protected the southern flank of the critical Sedan rail junction along the Meuse river.  As the Germans huddled in their positions, awaiting the inevitable infantry attack, they at least felt confident knowing the Allies would have to make their way across large sections of open terrain; perfect targets for machine guns and artillery.

Opposing them would not be the usual assortment of weary British soldiers or beleaguered French troops.  15 divisions of American “doughboys” would lead the charge, with 31 French divisions fighting alongside – 1.2 million Allied soldiers in all.  The American divisions were twice as large as any European counterpart, but for many of the young men in the trench, this would be their first significant action in the Great War.  Over the next 47 days, the United States would get it’s first – and last – taste of the horrors of the trench system of the Western Front.  Reputations would be won and lost, including multiple Medals of Honor for the battle.  And the Meuse-Argonne Offensive would claim more American lives than any battle in the nation’s history*.

American troops ready to march on the Argonne

For the better part of a year after their declaration of war, the United States’ participation in Europe’s death struggle had matched the dismissive evaluation of former German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg who declared that American support of the Allies would only result in the “delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.”  And for the part better of 1917, America struggled to even match that analysis. Continue reading

When You Think Moonshine…

,,,you most likely think about the deep South or the Appalachians, of stills talked way back into mountain haulers and people driving boxes of plain white whiskey to sell out of the backs of their cars behind bars and in dusty back allways.

I’m just here to say that my rural North Dakota homies, 90 years ago next summer,pretty much showed the world how it was done.

On the Line

The Canal de Saint-Quentin, the waterway that connected the River Oise and the Somme, had been one of the great engineering marvels of the 19th Century.  At first a sleepy little spillway during the 1700s, the Napoleonic Era saw the canal widened and given more depth, with a series of locks and tunnels that turned the route into the busiest man-made waterway by freight in France until the 1960s.

By the fall of 1918, the Canal de Saint-Quentin found itself a part of another major engineering marvel, this time of the 20th Century – the Hindenburg Line.  Indeed, the canal was viewed by both the Allies and the Germans as the most impenetrable section of the entire line, as between the canal’s rushing waters and the Hindenburg Line’s mixture of barbed wire, trenches and massive, reinforced concrete defenses, the ability to cross the Line was for all intends and purposes impossible.  Any attacker would have to wade through the canal under fire, limiting the ability to get tanks and heavy equipment across while going through an additional a no-man’s-land covered by machine guns and artillery.  Given the Great War’s track record of amphibious operations and plans, an offensive against Saint-Quentin seemed borderline suicidal.

As September 26th, 1918 was about to become September 27th, 1,044 British field guns and howitzers and 593 medium and heavy guns lashed out at Saint-Quentin, along with 30,000 poison gas shells in the largest British bombardment of the war.  The barrage was to open the way for the first wave of 30 British/Australian divisions and 2 American divisions, with the inexperienced Americans tasked to charge in first.  The attack had been hotly contested at the highest levels of the Allied governments and even mid-level British officers thought the offensive was nothing more than a “sacrificial stunt” to vainly attempt to keep Germany on the ropes as they retreated from their Spring Offensive gains.  

For the first time, the fearsome Hindenburg Line would be fully engaged by the Allies.  The momentum of the war rested upon the outcome.

The remains of the one of the Hindenburg Line’s bunkers

One hardly had to be clairvoyant in late September of 1918 to see that the Great War was finally, mercifully, coming to a head.  Since their “Black Day” in Amiens in early August, the German army had been in a headlong retreat back to the Hindenburg Line, surrendering tens of thousands of prisoners as well as miles of ground that had cost them a million men earlier in the year.  The Austro-Hungarian attempts at forcing a conclusion in Italy had been stymied, the Ottomans were being driven out of the Middle East with horrific casualties and the Bulgarians were in the process of surrendering.  The Central Powers were no longer on the verge of collapse – they were actively collapsing. Continue reading

The 1788 Project

So, just how wrapped up was the American Revolution and the founding of the American Republic wrapped around slavery?


Quite the opposite: while all of the 13 colonies had originally allowed slavery, it had been abolished in most of the states by the revolution…

…and was recognized by most of the founding fathers as explicitly contrary to all of the Revolution’s interests except self-preservation (dividing in the face of the British would have been national suicide)…

…and abolition was a driving force behind the framing of the Constitution.

Just in case you need some ammo for your next spar with your next “progressive” relative.

Judgement Day

The transformations of four years of war were readily apparent at 1am in the skies above Al-Afuleh in Palestine on September 19th, 1918.  One British Handley Page 0/400 bomber flew over the city, the headquarters of the Ottoman/German command for Palestine in the Jezreel Valley, dropping it’s payload of sixteen 112-pound bombs.  Four years earlier, the first “heavy” bomber in aerial history, the French Voisin III, could carry one 132-pound bomb, dropping it indiscriminately with little to no accuracy.  Aerial operations in 1914 were reconnaissance-focus; by 1918, both sides were using planes in intra-service coordination to attack and overwhelm their enemy’s lines.  With a singular strike, the Handley Page bomber destroyed the telephone exchange and main railway station, serving communications between the Ottoman/German High Command and their soldiers.

A few hours later, the British army roared to life, with 385 field guns lashing out at the Ottoman line.  A massive coordinated campaign of artillery, cavalry, infantry and Arabian guerillas would destabilize what remained of the Central Powers’ position in Palestine, destroying two Ottoman armies and reducing the Ottoman morale to dust.  As had happened to the Germans and the Bulgarians, now the Turks would face a killing stroke that would set in motion the end of their Empire.  It would be a fitting conclusion to a battle chosen by the British because of the proximity to the ancient city of Megiddo – or as it was known in Hebrew, Armageddon.

British troops advance with air cover – the modern ability of airpower to attack ground forces would set a historic precedent at Megiddo

The capture of Jerusalem in late 1917 had been a welcome victory for an Allied war effort that appeared to be falling apart.  In a few sharp battles, British General Edmund Allenby had driven the Turks out of southern Palestine with thousands of casualties to few losses of his own.  Where the British had been stymied in the Sinai and Gaza for years, racking up losses of tens of thousands of men, in six months Allenby had gutted the Ottoman line, destroyed entire armies and all for the loss of perhaps just over 3,000 men.  Accuracy, speed and guile had been Allenby’s tools and they had worked wonders against veteran Turkish soldiers and accomplished German commanders like Erich von Falkenhayn and Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein.  But the victories hadn’t meant the end of the Palestinian campaign and Allenby would now face his greatest opponent – the British War Office.  Continue reading

A “Good Field” On Which To Die

The guns that roared to life across the Bulgarian/Greek lines in Northern Macedonia on September 14th, 1918 had been expected for some time.  What had been a relatively quiet front for the better part of three years since the Allied landings at Salonika had come to life since late May of 1918 as the “Allied Army of the Orient”, a cosmopolitan assortment of divisions cobbled together from Britain, France, Italy, Serbia and finally Greece, slowly began to advance.  Opposing them had once been an equally mixed grand alliance of Central Powers divisions, which had slowly melted away into just two depleted Bulgarian armies.

800 Allied artillery pieces struck the Bulgarian trenches at Dobro Pole (“Good Field”) and Allied aircraft bombed the supply chain behind the line.  The barrage would continue into the next day, doing little direct damage to the Bulgarian line but carving up the barbed wire defenses and clearing paths through no man’s land.  In many ways, the Allied offensive looked the same as literally dozens of others over the past four years on battlefields across Europe and the Middle East.  But as Allied soldiers finally hit the Bulgarian trenches, suffering tough casualties, the outcome was profoundly different.  The Bulgarians broke.  Like the Germans in Amiens just a month earlier, the average Bulgarian soldier no longer wanted anything to do with the Great War.  

What had been hoped to be a minor Allied offensive to regain ground lost to the Bulgarians earlier in the war turned into a rout.  And the first of the Central Powers would fall.

Bulgarian trenches – Bulgaria had managed to hold off a massive Allied army largely by themselves for nearly years

In many ways, the Salonika Front had been frozen in place since late 1916 as first the Central Powers, and then the Allies, had tried in vain to quickly end what had become yet another tertiary front sapping men and materials badly needed elsewhere.  The Germans had coordinated with Greek King Constantine to allow German and Bulgarian troops to invade Northern Macedonia in an attempt to expel the Allied encampment at Salonika.  The move prompted the overthrow of the Greek monarchy and an Allied counteroffensive that regained some of the lost Macedonian territory but otherwise locked the two sides into the same positions they’d share until the summer of 1918.  Forces for both sides would come and go as needs on other fronts dictated, with the Russians leaving Greece with the fall of the Tsar and the Turks leaving as their Arabian and Mesopotamian Empires collapsed.  But the battles were few and far between, with the Allies referring to the front as “Muckydonia” due to it’s mud and boredom and the Germans mockingly calling Salonika “their largest POW camp.”  Continue reading

The Black Day

There was little visibility in either side’s trenches in Amiens at 4:20am on August 8th, 1918.  Between the last of the night sky and a thick fog that rolled into the battlefield in northern France, spotting any movement was at a premium.  Despite the distance between the trenches being larger than usual at nearly 500 yards (usually trenches were only 50 to 250 yards apart), the Germans felt they had a good understanding of the disposition of the British forces across from them.  While elsewhere on the newly established lines of the Western Front the Germans were either fortifying or retreating to more defensible positions following their Spring Offensive, at Amiens German troops sat largely in place.  Other than increased aerial bombing in the area, the Germans believed their intelligence that the Allies would counterattack elsewhere.  They had even held a raid that penetrated 800 yards into the Allied trenches just days earlier and had seen no evidence of an Allied build-up.

The crashing weight of 32 divisions of British, Canadian, Australian, French and American troops utterly broke the German line that morning.  Erich Ludendorff would call August 8th, 1918 “the black day of the German Army” and the Allies would eventually know the attack as the start of the “100 Days Offensive” – the last 100 days of the Great War.

British soldiers ride a tank at Amiens.  The battle saw the successful deployment of hundreds of tanks

As July of 1918 began to wind down, the positions of both the German and Allied armies were becoming clear.

German numerical superiority had vanished, with the Germans holding 207 divisions in France and Belgium and the Allies having 203 divisions to meet them.  Worse for Germany, an increasing number of these Allied divisions were Americans, meaning those divisions were typically twice as large as in any European army.  In terms of pure manpower, Germany was probably now in the minority in the West.  The German High Command estimated that they’d need at least 200,000 new soldiers a month just to make good on the rate of loss they were experiencing in France.  The next annual class of 18 year-old draftees was only 300,000 in total, and perhaps only 70,000 wounded German soldiers would be physically able to return to duty.  Germany was literally bleeding to death.  Continue reading

Speaking Past

“The Moth Radio Hour” – a public radio production featuring the modern version of “storytelling” – is an often-insufferable bit of radio, featuring stories by people who are just not especially compelling. And yes, I”m stereotyping very broadly here, but prove me wrong.

No – I’ll prove myself wrong. This story – by one Victor Levenstein, who was 94 when he was recorded for the program – told the story of his arrest and interrogation by the KGB in 1944, before a New York audience…

…which, one must imagine, is largely composed of people who unironically think The Right is the “side” in modern politics who’d bring that sort of thing back.

Belyy Russkiy

It was barely after midnight on July 17, 1918 when the former royal family of Russia had been disturbed from their sleep.  Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, children, and a handful of members of the royal entourage had made their home in Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains just a couple of months earlier, all under the intense and abusive watch of Bolshevik guards.  After the abdication in February of 1917, Nicholas II had lived in relative comfort as the Provisional Government allowed them a standard of living comparable to their former reign, even attempting to negotiate the Tsar’s relocation to Britain.  But with the rise of the Bolsheviks, Nicholas II and his family were now prisoners of the State; their fates a topic of debate at the highest levels of the Soviet government.

In Yekaterinburg, the Romanovs lived in rooms with sealed and painted over windows, and were given two half-hour periods outside the house where they sat in a tiny garden surrounded by 14-foot walls.  “Luxuries” like butter and coffee had been cut out of their meals.  No visitors or newspapers were allowed, nor was any conversation allowed with the 300 guards assigned to watch them, all under the threat of being shot and other verbal abuse.  Surviving diary entries from the family show a slow realization towards their eventual fate.

As the family and their remaining servants gathered in the basement of home, ostensibly to be evacuated due to the advancing Czechoslovak Legion, the head guard read from a letter:

“Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of the fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, the Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you.”

Before the family could react beyond Nicholas II asking “What?”, the guards opened fire.  The tiny basement quickly filled with smoke, ricochets and screams.  When the gunshots stopped, the guards realized how poor their aim had been – outside of the Tsar and his wife, most of the family and others were still alive.  Over the next 20 minutes, the guards shot and stabbed the children and servants, mutilating and sexually abusing the bodies.  The remains were stripped, covered in Sulphuric acid, lye, then burned and buried.  Such was the level of concern over giving the advancing Czechoslovaks and the burgeoning White Army any standard bearer upon which to rally – even a royal corpse.

The last act of the House of Romanov was among the first acts of the Russian Civil War.

White Cossacks charge – the Cossacks were the initial backbone of the White Army

The historic descriptor of the loose confederacy of activists, politicians and generals that opposed the Bolsheviks as the “White” Russian movement could be seen as truly apt.  If “white” as a color is often seen as formless, bland, lacking contours and definition, so to was the nature of the “White” Russian resistance to the “Red” Bolsheviks that took power in the fall of 1917.  While later definitions of the Whites would oversimplify them as a conservative, reactionary force, the White movement constituted political leaders ranging from Mensheviks, to Social Democrats, Monarchists, and ultra-nationalist militias.  The Whites were a movement without philosophical grounding or even consistent political leadership, with most efforts to organize failing and leading to dictatorial control from former Tsarist generals and local warlords.  At their core, to be a “White” often simply meant to stand in opposition to the Bolsheviks. Continue reading

Early Sedition

It was a typically sweltering summer day in Canton, Ohio on June 16th, 1918, but it hadn’t stopped an estimated 1,200 locals, bolstered by a healthy contingent of press, from gathering in a city park.  Nor had it stopped the day’s speaker, former 4-time Socialist candidate for President Eugene Debs, from wearing a heavy tweed jacket and buttoned vest, sweating profusely as he spoke.  At 62 years of age, Debs had barely recovered from an illness in time for his midwestern anti-war speaking tour and looked worse for the wear.  His audience was a Socialist convention picnic and federal agents wandered through the crowded, randomly demanding draft cards.  

Debs, always the political firebrand, heaped praise on the Bolshevik Revolution and defended three local Socialists who had been recently imprisoned for speaking out against the war.  “They have come to realize,” he intoned, “that it is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.”

Two weeks later, Debs would find himself arrested under the same charges and become the most well-known defendant against the recently-passed Sedition Act.  

Uncle Sam picks up a variety of individuals – an IWW supporter, a Sinn Fein activist and a “traitor”

While the Sedition Act of 1918 – and it’s precursor, the Espionage Act of 1917 – most assuredly had their roots in America’s involvement in the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson’s interest in far-reaching legal authority related to the domestic end of national security pre-dated the American declaration of war.  In late 1915, as Europe’s war raged on, Wilson delivered his State of the Union, declaring:

“There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt …  Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”

Continue reading

Solstice of the Habsburgs

The anxiousness in the Austro-Hungarian trenches along the Piave river in Italy was obvious at 2:30am on June 15th, 1918.  In 30 minutes, hundreds of thousands of men, supported by nearly 7,000 pieces of heavy artillery, would launch themselves at the Italian line as part of a massive, nearly one-million man offensive designed to finally push Italy out of the war.  Despite the rapidly increasing political disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, if Italy could be dealt one more major blow like they had received the preceding fall at Caporetto, the Dual Monarchy’s last major remaining front would close, perhaps meaning that the Empire could successfully negotiate their way out of the war.  Coupled with Germany’s gains in France as part of their Spring Offensive, a glimmer of hope that the war could be conventionally won, despite all evidence to the contrary, was seen.  The Empire had staked everything on this offensive – either it would be one of the greatest moments in the Dual Monarchy’s history, or it would be a failed gamble that would hasten the polyglot Empire’s end.

At 2:30am, the Piave roared to life with the crashing sounds of artillery.  The offensive wasn’t suppose to begin for another half-hour.  It was Italian artillery.  Rome knew exactly what was about to occur – and was throwing their own million-man army into the attack.

A Bridge Too Far – crossing the Piave would become the major hurdle in the offensive

The disaster of Caporetto had shaken the Italian army – and society – to its core.  305,000 casualties, essentially one whole Italian army group, had been destroyed and the Austro-Hungarians sat on the doorstep of the Italian plane.  Only the Piave river blocked any further advance and if Vienna could cross it, there would be no natural boundaries to prevent them from driving deep into northern Italy and capturing most of the Italian industrial base.  Such a strike would almost guarantee that Italy would be forced to sue for peace. Continue reading


Joe Doakes from Como Park emails:

I dislike federal holidays as partisan political  propaganda but I’m rethinking my position. I’m willing to support Juneteenth, if this becomes the official advertising poster.

It gets better.

After the Yanks freed the last of those slaves, a number of black freedmen who’d served in the Federal army settled in Galveston, bringing their training, and guns, with them.

So when the Klan came a-calling, they were met by a bunch of battle-hardened former Union grunts. They sent the Klan reeling…

…all the way to Austin. Where they pushed the Democrat government to ban guns in the hands of Negroes.

Litigation over which (thanks, NRA) went on to become one of the driving bodies of litigation behind the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

We’re going to need a bigger poster.

A Question of Survival

By the standards of the Great War, the Turkish army that was encamped near Sardarabad in Eastern Armenia was an after-thought.  13,000 Turkish and Kurdish soldiers, with 40 pieces of heavy artillery (albeit many outdated cannons), sat waiting to continue the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of the rapidly disintegrating Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic on May 21st, 1918.  With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk having effectively broken up the Russian Empire, the fate of the Caucasus lay in a state of political flux, with the Turks, Bolsheviks, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Georgians and even Germans vying for a measure of control of the oil-rich region.  The political vacuum had emboldened the Turks to invade and the fledging Transcaucasian Republic lacked the resources – and political will – to challenge it.  By May of 1918, most of Western Armenia had been conquered and Eastern Armenia looked ripe to fall as well.

The call to defend what remained of Armenia echoed throughout the countryside.  “Carts drawn by oxen, water buffalo, and cows jammed the roads bringing food, provisions, ammunition, and volunteers” as thousands of Armenians rallied at the capitol of Yerevan.  For the civilians of Yerevan, defeat would not just mean a loss of political independence but very likely the loss of their lives.  The Turkish invasion had continued the Ottoman policy of Armenian genocide which had already claimed up to 1.5 million Armenian lives.  For in the words of one British historian, if the Armenians failed to stop the Ottoman invasion “it is perfectly possible that the word Armenia would have henceforth denoted only an antique geographical term.”

The remains of Armenian victims

“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”  – Adolf Hitler

The fate of the Armenian people had been part-and-parcel of Europe’s general concern of the treatment of Christian minorities within the Ottoman Empire since the mid-19th Century.  Having defended the Ottomans against the Russians, including fighting for the Turks in the Crimean War, Britain and France began to question the relative wisdom of propping up a regime in Constantinople that so plainly repressed the rights of fellow Christians.  As subsequent revolts occurred throughout the Ottoman Empire, freeing Christian populations like the Serbs and Greeks, while prompting even greater restrictions and cruelties from the Turks in response, Western Europe began applying pressure to the Ottomans lest they lose support in their wars against the Tsar. Continue reading


The rail station at Chelyabinsk in the Ural Mountains was busy on May 14th, 1918.  With the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk recently signed, hundreds of thousands of Central Powers POWs were being transferred back to their home countries.  Amid the thousands of Hungarian troops awaiting their westbound trains at Chelyabinsk were a different assortment of soldiers, trying to travel the opposite direction – the men of the Allied-aligned Czechoslovak Legion.

The 40,000 men of the Czechoslovak Legion had been fighting for the Russians just months earlier and with the fall of the Tsar and then the Provisional Government, were now looking for a way to get to France to continue their fight for independence from the Dual Monarchy.  But with every major Russian port in the West blocked by the Central Powers, the Legion had little choice but to make the arduous journey eastbound to the Siberian port of Vladivostok where they could board Allied ships for yet another lengthy trip to Europe.  Having 40,000 armed men trek across their nation was hardly welcome news to the Bolsheviks, who barely controlled the former Russian Empire in the first place.  Both highly suspicious of the Czech’s motivations but also eager to get them out of the country, Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin had concocted an arrangement to provide transportation for the Legion to Vladivostok, provided the Legion mostly disarm.  The Legionnaires didn’t trust the Bolsheviks, but the Russian chapter of the larger Czechoslovak National Council – the political arm of Czech and Slovak independence – saw few other options.  The Legion could be disarmed and shipped home or imprisoned.  And given that the Austro-Hungarian authorities often executed the Legionnaires as spies or rebels, imprisonment in Russia could lead to be turned over to Vienna and almost certain death.

The mood was tense at Chelyabinsk as the Hungarians and Legionnaires kept their distance, trading barbs and threats.  One of the Hungarians threw an object at one of the Legionnaires, striking him.  In an instant, the two sides were attacking one another in open warfare.  The Legion quickly defeated the Hungarians and took over the rail station.  And when the Bolsheviks intervened, arresting several members of the Legion and threatening execution to any who refused to disarm, the rest of the Legionnaires stormed the jail and key points in the city, freeing their comrades.  Chelyabinsk was now effectively in Czech hands.  The Legion was going to war in Russia.

The Czechoslovak Legion train – they would travel nearly 6,000 miles just to get onto a boat and start the next leg of their journey

The Legionnaires represented a country that didn’t even exist and had struggled to gain political and military support for nearly four years of war.

The concept of encouraging ethnic minorities to undermine the various powers at war had been adopted by almost every combatant from even the earliest days of the conflict.  The Dual Monarchy had supported Polish guerilla units even before the Great War, the Germans had backed Afrikaners on numerous occasions, the Turks would back the Senussi, the British armed the Arabs and both sides attempted to woo or threaten the many ethnicities of the Caucasus and Persia.  Sowing discontent among the Czechs and Slovaks of Vienna’s polyglot empire would appear par for the course as soon as it was clear that the dream of a world war over by Christmas was not to be. Continue reading

The Free Lord

As the German Spring Offensive raged on the ground, so to did the action in the air on April 21st, 1918.  Above the Somme, as German forces drove relentlessly into the British line, a handful of German and British aircraft dueled for air superiority.  A young Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid “Wop” May, had fired a few bursts from his machine gun at one of the Germans.  The German evaded his shots and May quickly noticed a distinctive red, Fokker Dr.I triplane begin to chase him.  This was May’s only second day in combat and he immediately knew he was being pursued by arguably the most famous pilot in the world, Manfred von Richthofen – the “Red Baron.”

May fled as quickly as he could back into British territory, knowing full well he stood little chance against the German ace credited with 80 aerial victories.  Richthofen normally would have broken off the pursuit – he had always told his fellow pilots not to overzealously follow a single target – but May had fired upon Richthofen’s cousin and the “Red Baron” appeared out for blood.  May’s friend, Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown, saw his fellow Canadian airman was in trouble, and despite the long odds against winning, engaged the German.  In the cluster of gunfire from planes, and anti-aircraft rounds from the ground, Richthofen was struck – a bullet tearing open his chest.  But his aircraft seemingly managed a rocky landing behind the British line before finally crashing against trees.  Nearby Australian troops rushed to see what they could find.  Richthofen had smashed himself against the butt of his machine gun and flight controls.  He had likely died before even fully landing his plane.  

The man that Erich Ludendorff had said “was worth as much to us as three divisions” and had terrified Allied airmen was no more.  

Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron.  With 80 confirmed victories, Richthofen was the winningest pilot of the Great War.  The next highest was French pilot Rene Fonck with 75.  20 confirmed victories were required to be viewed as an “ace”

One of the more notable quotes in film history comes from director John Ford’s classic film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where a small town newspaper editor, pressed with new information that changes a decades-old story that launched various careers, states “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  For Manfred von Richthofen, whose career resides between the hagiographic coverage the German press lavished upon him and a heavily edited autobiography that still managed to hint at layers of personal torment, it’s difficult if not impossible to sort fact from legend.  In roughly two-and-a-half years, Richthofen rose from obscurity to one of the most famous men in the world.  By the time of his death at only 25 years of age, Richthofen was the highest scoring ace of the Great War, had collected 25 medals from four different countries, and was a best-selling author.  He was also a shell of a man who started the war; far more morose and erratic and suffering from a serious head injury. Continue reading

All These Worlds Are Yours, Except Mitteleuropa

While Germany was hitting the Western Allies with hundreds of thousands of men and millions of rounds of artillery, their Austro-Hungarian ally was launching a far less impactful volley of words in the heart of their own nation.  Austrian Foreign Minister Count Ottokar von Czernin had arrived at the Vienna City Council on April 2nd, 1918 to attempt to give an inspirational speech and rally the falling support of the Habsburg’s polyglot empire.  

Czernin’s stemwinder specifically attacked France’s new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, as the major obstacle to peace with the Allies.  Clemenceau had certainly drawn a hardline in the wake of the mutinies of 1917, stating that France’s policy would be “la guerre jusqu’au bout” (war until the end), echoing Britain’s David Lloyd George commitment to nothing less than total victory.  But Czernin’s attack wasn’t merely personal but also proclaimed that Clemenceau’s boasts didn’t reflect the true will of France because the prior administration had reached out to the Dual Monarchy in an attempt to sue for peace the year before.

An outraged Clemenceau quickly revealed the truth – it had been Austria-Hungary which had attempted to make a separate peace in early 1917.  And the proof came in the form of letters and communications from none other than the newly crowned Emperor himself, Charles I.

Charles I – for his attempt to end the war, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2004 and known to the Catholic Church as Blessed Karl of Austria

Karl Franz Joseph Ludwig Hubert Georg Otto Maria had never intended to become the Emperor of the Dual Monarchy.  At his birth, he was the great-nephew of Karl Joseph and quite a distance removed from any realistic considerations towards obtaining the crown.  Karl studied science at a public school and then politics and law during his service in the army, becoming more of an educational dilettante than a man dedicated to any particular field.  HIs years of work had won him few accolades but neither had he acquired any detractors.  In some ways, Karl was a model member of the royal family – dutiful, friendly, family-oriented and deeply religious. Continue reading

The Kaiser’s Battle: Part Two

Despite the potential dangers of touring a front-line trench, Winston Churchill had more reasons to be grateful for his early-morning assignment.  Gallipoli had tarnished his once promising political career, forcing the one-time First Lord of the Admiralty and key war-time cabinet member to a parliamentary backbencher with little voice in the conduct of the war.  Churchill had decided instead to join the Army, being given the command of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front.  The unit saw little action, doing nothing for Churchill’s standing.

Only the fall of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s government gave Churchill a second chance.  David Lloyd George invited Churchill back into the good graces of the war council, even giving Churchill the Ministry of Munitions – the same role that George had rode to fame, rescuing his own once morbid political career.  As the Minister of Munitions, Churchill was touring near the meeting point of the British and French line; a position that had been in flux as the French dealt with mutiny and the British struggled to assume responsibility for more sectors of the Western Front.  British units were at half their paper strength in this area and morale had been badly shaken by the course of the war on other battlefields.  In the dark of the morning of March 21st, 1918, Churchill described what he heard:

“And then, exactly as a pianist runs his hands across the keyboard from treble to bass, there rose in less than one minute the most tremendous cannonade I shall ever hear…the enormous explosions of the shells upon our trenches seemed almost to touch each other, with hardly an interval in space or time…The weight and intensity of the bombardment surpassed anything which anyone had ever known before.”

3.5 million German shells rained down over the next five hours.  The opening phase of the Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle) had begun.  It would be the first of four separate offensives that would usher in the end of the Great War, and provide previews of the future horrors of the next world war.

German soldiers await their advance from their trench – despite the significant ground gained by the Germans in their Spring Offensive, they also suffered tremendous casualties 

While the planning of Germany’s spring offensive had been haphazard and far from discrete (the British had known a major attack would be launched against them weeks in advance), the initial strike was nearly strategically and tactically brilliant in it’s execution. Continue reading

Memorial Day

The image I’ve posted is an American cemetery in France, near Verdun. These graves are for soldiers killed in World War I. There are nearly 15,000 graves at the site. Over 53,000 Americans died in combat in World War I and 116,000 Americans in total died as a result of the war. My grandfather fought in World War I and was able to survive the carnage and come home. He was one of the lucky ones. And because he was lucky, so am I.

My grandfather died in 1959, before I was born. I never did get a chance to know him, or to thank him for his service. He did get 40 more years, time enough to marry and raise a family that included my father. I don’t doubt that each of these crosses represents a man who would have loved to have 40 more years to live, to do the things my grandfather was able to do.

We remember those who gave their all on this day precisely because of the enormity of the sacrifice they made. Every one of these crosses represents a human life that was cut short, a dream unrealized. We owe these individuals our gratitude in ways that we cannot adequately express.

The Kaiser’s Battle: Part One

Sorry for the long delay in continuing/finishing our World War I series – professional & personal duties stood in the way.  But we’re back and going to continue the series to see through to the end of the Great War…

The sun had yet to rise when the first artillery shells fell at 4:40am on March 21st, 1918, along the banks of the British position near the Somme.  The sector had been far from quiet since the horrific Battle of the Somme less than two years earlier, but most of the offensive action had come from the British line.  With the adoption of their defense-in-depth with the Hindenburg Line, Germany had maintained a largely defensive position in the West since the ascension of Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff in the fall of 1916.  But this was no defensive attack, nor even a limited counteroffensive, as the Germans had conducted from time to time.

Over 3.5 million German shells were fired within five hours – the largest bombardment from either side in the West since Verdun.    And following that barrage were 110 divisions, including many experienced Stoßtruppen or “shock/storm troopers,” trained to exploit any openings in the Allied line.

Nearly four years of combat were about to come to a head in a massive, bloody final attempt by Germany to end the Great War.  Despite widely believing that a traditional victory against the Allies was now impossible, the German High Command (minus Hindenburg) would now gamble their entire army on a long-shot effort to force the Allies to the negotiating table before further American reinforcements could arrive.  The Germans would call their offensive the Kaiserschlacht or “Kaiser’s Battle,” underlining the gravity of the operation to Berlin.  At stake would no longer just be military reputations, strategic territory or human lives, but the very outcome of the war itself.

The German Spring Offensive – the last ditch effort by Germany to win a conventional victory in the Great War

Almost exactly one year earlier, Germany had relinquished miles of hard-won gains in France to retreat behind a nearly impenetrable series of reinforced trenches and bunkers.  The concept had been the brainchild of the Chief of the German General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his talented deputy, Erich Ludendorff.  Together, the duo had reoriented Germany’s strategy, indeed even German society itself, towards a goal of defensive warfare designed to reduce German casualties and, hopefully, force the Allies to seek terms to end the bloodshed.  The shift in strategy had seemingly worked – Germany was given more of a free-hand in the East, which aided in producing the Russian defeat, and the Western Allies had nearly broken themselves throughout 1917 in offensives that slaughtered their own men for nebulous gains.  So why was Germany now abandoning the strategy that had seemingly produced sizable victories for the Central Powers? Continue reading