The failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the widespread mutinies in the French army forced the hand of the British Army. Sir Douglas Haig ordered his commanders to launch attacks along its front to draw away the German reserves, lest they exploit the French situation. The first operation was to reduce a small German salient on Messines Ridge opposite the British Second Army. The British and Canadians of the Second Army had been preparing for an offensive since the trenches stabilized after the Second Battle of Ypres nearly two years before. Recently reinforced by the Australians and New Zealanders, the Second Army had more than twenty mines painstakingly dug underneath Messines Ridge. Because of the geological conditions of the area, the mines took nearly a year to complete.
Due to the high water table of Flanders, each mine had to be dug straight down about 150 feet through the waterlogged “sandy clay”, to the “Bastard” clay mix, or “Paniselien Clay” which was impermeable to water. Then the mines had to be dug horizontally underneath No Man’s Land to the German lines. The issue was the great force the sandy clay placed on mine shafts. The tunnel companies of the Second Army lost more than a few men before they figured out that the vertical shafts had to be lined with specially made steel walls to prevent “flooding”. If one ruptured, then it would fill the entirety of the shaft and mine with thick oozing sandy clay, killing everyone inside, and requiring the tunnelers to start over in a different spot.
Throughout 1916 and 1917, the British mined underneath the Messines Ridge, and the Germans countermined, though the Germans did not realize how the extensive the British mining operation was. As the British dug horizontally, the Germans in several places dug vertically. Where they intersected involved vicious hand to hand combat with shovels, knives, and pick axes that would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The biggest danger was flooding by the Germans, inadvertently at first but deliberate later on: the Germans used timber for their shafts through the sandy clay, which ruptured regularly. If a German shaft connected with a British mine, the timber virtually guaranteed the entire British effort would be eventually flooded with the sandy clay “ooze”. By June 1917, the British had 25 mines underneath the Messines Ridge which the Germans were unaware of. They packed them with nearly 600 tons of explosives.
The British planned to detonate them on 7 June 1917 to seize the ridge as part of the reduction of the Messines Salient. This assault was a prelude to a general offensive in July. The night before, the chief of staff of the Second Army told the press, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography”.
Due to the heavy preparatory bombardment, the Germans were expecting the attack. However, they weren’t prepared for what came next. At 3:10 am on 7 June 1917, 19 of the mines were detonated. The other six were packed with explosives, but “lost” in the tunnel warfare, couldn’t be detonated, or were underneath positions that were evacuated (These would pose significant problems after the war, and several still haven’t been found). The resulting explosion was heard by the British Prime Minister as he toiled away at his desk in London, and as far away as Dublin, Ireland. It was the loudest recorded event in history until the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima 28 years later. The explosions knocked over just about every soldier and officer in the Second Army. They opened great craters in the Messines Ridge, and instantly killed nearly ten thousand German troops.
The remaining stunned Germans were in no shape to resist the subsequent assault. The British, Canadians and Australians all incorporated the lessons learned from the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. The Allied troops at the Battle of Messines seized all of their initial and subsequent objectives within hours. The Germans counterattacked but were unsuccessful.
The Messines Salient was in Allied hands, but there was no plan to exploit the success. Nonetheless, the Battle of Messines was the first Allied victory in the Great War where defensive casualties outnumbered offensive casualties and was a much needed boost to Allied morale.
Of the remaining mines, a thunderstorm detonated one in 1955, luckily killing just a cow. The remainder are still being located.
Poland did not exist as a state since the Partition of 1795, during which the autocracies of Austria, Russia, and Prussia divided up the country amongst themselves. 122 years later, in 1917, the Great War presented an opportunity for a free and independent Poland carved from Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire after their defeat, an opportunity fully embraced by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. To this end, Polish immigrant communities across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States sought volunteers and formed training camps for the inevitable call to arms. Local barracks were established, and recruiting began among the members of Polish fraternal organizations, the Falcons and Polish National Alliance, in coal and steel towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Officer training camps were created in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania and, after a secret deal with the Canadian government, Toronto. By March 1917, the Polish communities in the United States had over 12,000 men in training and prepared to fight for an independent Poland.
Just three weeks before the United States entered the war, Dr. Theophil Starzynski organized an “extra-ordinary” meeting of the leaders of the various Polish groups in America. Many traveled from across the country to attend. In a small hall on the corner of 18th and Carson Street on the South Side of Pittsburgh on 3 April, 1917, Dr. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a renowned pianist and composer (and future Polish prime minister) who had recently emigrated to California, spoke to the packed assembly on the creation of a Polish Volunteer Army to fight in France. Within a week, thousands more volunteered. Unfortunately Dr Paderewski’s call was ill timed: The United States declared war on Germany just three days later.
The United States’ entry into the Great War on the 6th divided the Polish community in America – not for or against the war, but whether the men standing-by should volunteer for the rapidly expanding US Army, or wait for the formation of a Polish Army. Thousands joined the US Army rather than wait. The formal call for the formation of a Polish Army of expatriates and emigrants wouldn’t come from America as expected. The call for a Polish Army to fight for its independence came from a different source, France.
On 4 June 1917, Raymond Poincare, the President of France, (Not to be confused with Georg Clemenceau, the more famous Prime Minister of France) authorized the formation of a Polish Army to fight on the Western Front in exchange for France’s support for an independent Poland at the end of hostilities. France was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches and give respite to the exhausted and demoralized French soldiers who at that moment were mutinying in ever greater numbers. Tens of thousands of Poles from the Polish diaspora willing to fight were a godsend until America’s vast resources could arrive in force.
The first units in the Polish Army in France were formed from prisoners of war. As Poland had been occupied since 1795, many Poles fought in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Imperial Germany and were subsequently captured by the Allies. Furthermore, the Poles (and many Russians) of the Russian Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, which was consumed by mutiny at the time, volunteered for the new Polish army, if only to get away from the front. As word of the new formation spread, Poles across Europe deserted from the armies of the Central Powers or left their homes and made their way to France, most via Italy or through Sweden. From around the world the Polish diaspora responded, whether through the organized efforts of the Polish fraternal organizations in the United States, or through newspaper ads and formal announcements, then taking the long boat ride to Canada from their homes in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, among others. They in-processed and were given rudimentary training in a camp outside of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and they were subsequently organized for their trip in a convoy across the U-boat infested Atlantic to France. Over one hundred thousand Poles arrived in France to fight on the Western Front throughout 1917 and 1918.
The volunteers were sent to Camp le Ruchard outside Tours where they were trained by the French. They were issued old “Horizon Blue” French uniforms, and thereafter became known as “The Blue Army”. Further training camps opened as more volunteers arrived, including an officer cadet school, an NCO academy, and specialist training centers for logistics, artillery, engineering and signals. The Blue Army was integrated with the French Fourth Army, with Polish units partnered with French units as they formed and down to platoon level. Initially, their officers were French until suitable Polish replacements arrived, or could be found or trained. The first Polish regiment of the Blue Army went into combat alongside the French in January 1918, and the first division was formerly presented its colors by President Poincare in June. But the Blue Army itself still lacked cohesiveness, and more importantly, a Polish leader above the rank of colonel.
After the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk between the Central Powers and Russia in March, 1918, the Polish Legions of the Austrian and German armies in the Ukraine were interred alongside Polish troops of the Russian Army to prevent them from joining their comrades in France. Nevertheless, many Polish soldiers and officers escaped in the confusion that was endemic to Eastern Europe with the fall of the Imperial Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution. In the summer of 1918, the former commander of Austria’s 2nd Polish Legion, Brigadier General Josef Haller Von Hallerburg, made his way to Moscow, then Murmansk, and eventually France. On 4 October, 1918, the Polish National Committee, the newly recognized Polish government in exile, offered Haller command of the Blue Army. Gen Haller accepted command of a force which had grown to eight modern divisions, including a training division, seven squadrons of airplanes, and a tank regiment, nearly 110,000 men and women in total. The Blue Army fought on the Western Front until the armistice ending the Great War was signed in November.
In March, 1919, the Blue Army, now known as Haller’s Army, boarded trains for the newly independent Poland, where they were directly incorporated into the fledgling Polish Army then fighting to establish the borders of the Second Polish Republic. The regiments of Haller’s Army were the only formally trained units in Poland at the time. When the Red Army invaded in early 1920 to spread Bolshevism to a weakened Germany and France, Haller’s men, still in their trademark horizon blue uniforms, held the gates of Warsaw along with the population of the city against an overwhelming mass of Soviet soldiers. They bought Marshal Pilsudski just enough time to counterattack and break the Soviets in what is now commonly known as, “The Miracle on the Vistula”, thus saving Europe’s neck from the iron boot of Communism, at least for a few years.
After the Polish-Soviet War, Marshal Pilsudski, the defacto leader of the Second Polish Republic saw the members of the Polish National Committee as his main political rivals, and hastened the disbandment of the Blue Army, whom he thought were more loyal to the PNC than him. In 1920, the Polish government began making arrangements for Blue Army volunteers who wished to return home. A camp was set up outside Warsaw that organized travel, though the funding for such had to come from their home countries. Many languished in this camp for more than a year. Furthermore, the volunteers who wished to return were not formally discharged and therefore not recognized as veterans in Poland or in their home countries. These issues caused much bitterness, particularly with those from the Americas and Australia who traveled thousands of miles to fight for a country that no longer needed them and were now stuck in Eastern Europe. This break with the country of their forebears would manifest itself almost two decades later, when another call to fight for Poland came in 1939, this time against Communist Russia and National Socialist Germany. The volunteers from the Polish diaspora didn’t respond to Poland’s plea. There would be no second Blue Army to fight in 1939. However, to their everlasting credit, the Polish diaspora did loyally respond in great numbers to the calls to arms from their adopted homelands during the Second World War.
The transatlantic telegraph and steam powered ocean transit made the world quite a bit smaller, and brought about the first period of true globalization. For the first time the events across the globe could be read at the breakfast table by ordinary Americans in great detail and relatively soon after they happened. The Zimmerman Telegram and Unrestricted Submarine Warfare by Germany meant that actions by other nations directly affected ordinary Americans. In 1914, the majority of Americans wanted to stay neutral in the latest iteration of the four hundred years long Franco-German struggle for dominance of continental Europe. Less than three years later, the majority of Americans were for intervention.
On 2 April 1917, President Woodrow Wilson broke his campaign promise to “Keep us out of the war” and asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany in order to go to “war to end war” and, “The world must be safe for democracy”. On 4 April the Senate voted to declare war and at 3 am on 6 April 1917, the House of Representatives followed suit. That day, President Wilson announced that America had entered the Great War.
The United States was woefully unprepared. The US Army, to include the entire National Guard, was only 208,000 strong. They had just 10,265 men in the US Marine Corps. More Frenchmen and British had been killed (much less wounded) at Verdun and the Somme just the year before than existed in the entire US military. The American army had little experience with units over the size of a regiment since the US Civil War, fifty years before. The War Department had no experience, infrastructure, staff, or plans for the millions of Americans that would need to be drafted in order to stabilize the Western Front.
Nonetheless, the first Americans headed “Over there” in less two months.
The Spanish American War might have introduced us to the World Stage, but now we were starring on it, and would continue to so for the next century. But at the time, we didn’t even know our lines.
In the autumn and winter of 1916, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia faced a series of problems, most of which he was aware of, but like most autocrats, did not believe his advisors or thought they were exaggerating. In late 1915, the Tsar took control of the army and moved to Mogilev (in modern day Belarus) where he established his Imperial headquarters. He left the day to day administration of the Russian Empire to his wife the Tsarina Alexandra. Alexandra was despised by her Russian subjects, because she was German and increasingly under the influence of her most hated advisor, Grigori Rasputin, who seemed to be the only one who could comfort the sickly heir to the Imperial throne, Alexei. The Russian government was so inept in this period that most ministers changed hands three and four times, resulting in a complete abdication by the government of its responsibilities. In any case she didn’t have (or didn’t want) the power to make the sweeping changes demanded by the Duma (the powerless Russian parliament), and in several instances, Nicholas disbanded the Duma when it got too close to taking the situation into their own hands, only to reform it when he needed their support.
Additionally, Russia’s domestic situation during the First World War was grim from the beginning. The Ottoman entry into the war in 1914 cut off the last trade routes for exports from the greatly expanding Russian economy that was finally moving to a modern industrial economy after the long and painful transition post freeing the serfs in the 1860s. Inflation soared and soon the farmers supplying the cities with food began to have their shipments confiscated, so they in turn hoarded their crops and moved to subsistence farming. By March 1917, food protests began to spring up in Petrograd (the former “St. Petersburg” sounded too German). On 8 March (23 February in the old Julian calendar, which the Russians still used. You would have thought they would have learned after showing up late to the 1908 Olympics), thousands of women in Petrograd, many widows of the six million Russian dead so far in the war, took to the streets because of the shortage of bread and necessary household goods, and the impending rationing. In the afternoon hundreds went to get their husbands working in the Putilov factory that made rolling stock and artillery for the Tsar. By the end of the day 50,000 were protesting in the streets.
The next day, the crowds swelled to 150,000 and 250,000. The Tsarist police and Petrograd garrison could not stop them, despite frequent clashes throughout the day. From Mogilev, Tsar Nicholas II ordered the commander of the garrison to fire on the protesters, but most units refused. By 11 March the tone of the protests was no longer about food, but about the removal of the Tsar and his autocratic government, especially after it was found that the Tsar ordered the troops to fire on the people. Unfortunately the Duma, which was on recess (for lack of a better word) and could not return to their duties without permission of the Tsar, refused to take a leadership position in what was now clearly a revolution.
On the 12th, the garrison mutinied, including the Cossack units that the Tsar relied on for times such as these, and their officers were shot. The rioters and revolutionaries killed anyone that “looked wealthy”, and most of the city was looted. Tens of thousands of rifles fell into their possession. Any symbol of the Tsar’s authority was burned to the ground. The Duma decided to take action, but not before the worker’s councils, or “soviets” coalesced into the Petrograd Soviet, which took control of the revolutionaries. The Duma formed the Provisional Committee to restore law and order in the city, and on the 13th declared itself the ruling body of Russia. The Tsar attempted to return after being reluctantly convinced of the situation’s severity but never made it, as the revolutionaries controlled the railroads.
On the 14th, Nicholas II, coming to terms with inevitable, abdicated the throne. He tried to leave it, not to his young son, but to his brother Michael. The Grand Duke Michael declined. The Russian Provisional Government would be the legitimate governing body of Russia, but they would have to share power with the Petrograd Soviet, which controlled most of the armed revolutionaries in the city. The rest of the country soon followed suit.
The Petrograd Soviet made immediate demands on the Provincial Government to include elections for a proper governing body (ironically the soviets were elected but the Provisional government was not). The Provisional government was very reform minded and laid the groundwork for a new Russian government, but in its weakness left the mutinous units and workers’ militias of the Petrograd Soviets armed, which was not conducive to their rule.
In late March, the Provinional Govt decreed the release of all political prisoners, including those Bolsheviks whom had been in exile in Siberia (Stalin), New York (Trotsky) or Switzerland (Lenin). Additionally, the Russian Provisional Government still wanted to pursue the war with Germany, so Germany decided to hasten the return of these far Left radicals back to Russia, in order to sow chaos in their advesary’s home front. (They succeeded). Soon thereafter, the leader of the Russian Social Democratic Party, Vladimir Lenin, was allowed to leave Switzerland via Germany for Russia. In a speech to Parliament in 1919, Winston Churchill said of the transit,
“Lenin was sent into Russia by the Germans in the same way that you might send a phial containing a culture of typhoid or cholera to be poured into the water supply of a great city, and it worked with amazing accuracy.”
Vladimir Lenin would arrive in Petrograd on 3 April 1917.
The “Dual Power” between the Russian Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet would last until Oktober.
Imperial Germany knew that Unrestricted Submarine Warfare would eventually bring the United States into World War One on the side of the Allies. Their economic ties to Britain and public outcry over the sinking of the Lusitania and the Housatonic virtually guaranteed it. But it was hoped that it wouldn’t immediately bring America into war, and that Britain would be well on her way to starving into surrender before the Americans turned the tide in Europe.
The Founding Fathers’ caution of overseas, particularly European, entanglements, had done America well in the 19th Century. Many Americans didn’t feel Europe was worth spending American blood and treasure on, and that what happened in Europe did not affect America. Moreover, the German and Irish American immigrant communities, the two largest in the country at the time, were vehemently anti-British. In late February 1917, America was making threatening gestures and had broken off formal diplomatic relations with Germany over Unrestricted Submarine Warfare but the population wasn’t quite ready to declare war yet.
Britain knew that America had to enter the war soon, or the Allies would lose: both Russia and France were having serious internal issues in the winter of 1916/17 and Britain could not fight Germany alone. To make matters even more frustrating, Britain was sitting on a key piece of information that was sure to infuriate America against Germany. But they couldn’t release it without embarrassing themselves, and more importantly, revealing that they were reading America’s mail.
Britain had cut Germany’s transatlantic telegraph cables at the outbreak of war, but Germany asked to use America’s for diplomatic traffic. President Woodrow Wilson agreed, if only to keep a line of communication opened for peace negotiations. The Germans would deliver their messages to America’s embassy in Denmark where it would be transmitted via stations controlled by America and neutral Sweden to Washington DC. To make the long jump across the Atlantic, the message had to go through a signal boosting station at the westernmost point on the British Isles at Land’s End. Unknown to the Americans, every transmission that went through that station Britain was reading.
On 19 January 1917, the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmerman, sent a coded telegram to the German embassy in Mexico via America’s diplomatic cables, which the British intercepted. The telegram was an offer for Mexico to ally itself with Germany, for which it would receive financial and economic compensation, and Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas would be ceded to Mexico after the war. (Mexico thought about it for a week. However, war would severely strain relations with Argentina, Brazil and Chile who needed a peaceful Mexico to trade with the US. Mexico, fractured by its own civil war, couldn’t defeat America if it wanted to, and even if it could, would never be able to occupy a large swath of territory populated by a people that were better armed than the Mexican Army. They politely declined.) Zimmerman’s Telegram was sure to sway American public opinion against Germany, if it could be released, and once released, believed to be genuine.
British agents investigated the route that the message would have traveled from Washington DC to Mexico City, and found that it had not gone directly to the German embassy, but to a Mexican telegraph office down the street. The British concocted a story that an agent “Mr. H” acquired a copy from that office. This was enough cover for their operation at Land’s End (which would continue for another 25 years), and furthermore, force the Germans to suspect a spy in their embassy. Convincing the Americans it was genuine would be trickier: to do that they would have to acknowledge they broke Germany’s code. Fortunately, Germany came to the rescue, and changed their codes on 1 February with the beginning of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. Britain was now free to release the telegram, the cover story, and the older code for verification to America.
On 19 February 1917, the British released the Zimmerman Telegram to the American embassy in London, and on the 25th it was given to President Wilson. Wilson was furious, and on the 28th leaked it to the press.
The American people were predictably outraged, but anti British sentiment called it a forgery, or pushed that outrage against Mexico. Blackjack Pershing was already chasing Pancho Villa, and the Carranza government in Mexico didn’t want any more American troops on its soil. On 3 March, in one of those ironic and unintended consequences on which history seems to turn on occasion, Zimmerman was forced to verify the authenticity of the Telegram in order to maintain Mexico’s neutrality with Germany. This all but silenced the anti-British sentiment in America. It was one thing to avoid getting entangled in Europe’s affairs, but quite another when Europe tries to entangle itself in American affairs first. Germany “needed to be punished”.
It wouldn’t be long before Wilson would break his campaign promise to keep America out of the war.
Although the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet lost more tonnage than the Imperial High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, the Germans never sortied from port again. In response, they prepared for a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare to begin on 1 February 1917. If the Royal Navy couldn’t be beaten at sea then the country would be starved into surrendering. The sinking of the ocean liner RMS Lusitania in 1915 had almost brought the United States into the war on the Allied side; unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 surely would. If the plan worked Britain would sue for peace before the US presence could make itself felt on the Western Front.
On 3 February 1917, the first victim of the new policy was spotted. U-53 stopped and boarded the cargo ship SS Housatonic off the southwestern tip of England. The Housatonic was sailing with a hull full of wheat from Galveston to Liverpool. The polite U boat captain ordered the ship abandoned then sank her with a single torpedo. He then towed the life boats toward shore and subsequently snuck away.
The Housatonic was the first of many ships sunk under unrestricted submarine warfare. The homely old steam freighter caused an uproar in the US Congress and inside the the Wilson Administration. President Wilson had just narrowly won the recent election on a platform of non intervention in the the war in Europe, even though he privately expressed his doubts that America could stay out of the war.
Great Britain knew it too, and was just waiting for the right time to inform America of a recent intelligence development. The sinking of the SS Housatronic provided the perfect opportunity.