It’s August 1917. As the World War enters its fourth year, there’s no end in sight. Pope Benedict XV makes a peace proposal, which President Wilson rejects after conferring with the other nations at war with Germany. Former Secretary of State Elihu Root returns from a mission to Russia designed to keep Russia in the war. An attempted coup by the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army fails, but the Provisional Government is weakened and the Bolsheviks are strengthened. Recently arrived American troops parade in London. The Allied offensive on the Western Front, after initial success, bogs down in the mud of Flanders. Italy attacks Austria-Hungary again at the Isonzo River. On the Eastern Front, the German Army advances in Romania to the south and moves against the Baltic port of Riga to the north. In the United States, racial tensions flare as African-American troops are based in segregated southern cities and a deadly race riot breaks out in Houston. The Senate passes a proposed Constitutional Amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquor.
Pope Benedict XV, who ascended to the Papacy as the World War broke out in Europe three years ago, has made a peace proposal to the warring nations. In a letter dated August 1 and addressed to the King of England, the Pope offered a seven-point plan for peace: (1) that “moral force . . . be substituted for material force of arms,” (2) “simultaneous and reciprocal diminution of armaments,” (3) establishment of a mechanism for international arbitration, (4) recognition of “liberty and common rights over the sea,” (5) “renunciation of war indemnities,” (6) evacuation of occupied territories, and (7) arbitration of rival claims regarding Alsace-Lorraine, Poland, Trieste and the Trentino. The Papal Secretary delivered the proposal to the British government with the request that it be transmitted to the governments of France, Italy and the United States, all of which lack diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The proposal was received in the United States on August 16, and after conferring with the Allies President Wilson politely but firmly rejected it. In a reply expected to be substantially adopted by the other nations at war with Germany, he said that “every heart that has not been blinded and hardened by this terrible war must be touched by this moving appeal,” but that the object of the war is to free the people of the world from the power of the German government, “the ruthless master of the German people,” and that no possibility of peace exists as long as the present German government is in power. In an interview with the Associated Press on August 31, British Minister of Blockade Lord Robert Cecil expressed satisfaction with President Wilson’s reply, indicating that no further reply from Great Britain would be necessary. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict expressed his admiration of the “lofty sentiments” of the President’s note but made no attempt to conceal his disappointment that his effort to bring about an end to the war had apparently failed to bear fruit.
Former American Secretary of State Elihu Root, returning from his mission to Russia, addressed a welcoming luncheon in Seattle on August 4. Ending what he termed “a long and fatiguing journey to a new sister republic,” he said he could not talk about what the mission had learned until it had submitted its report to the Department of State, but he expressed “the greatest sympathy and the greatest admiration for that young democracy, now struggling to solve problems within a few months that this country has been struggling to solve for 140 years — and has not solved.” Upon its return to the east coast, the Commission submitted its report to the State Department. It stated “the unanimous opinion of the mission that the Russian people have the qualities of character which will make it possible to restore discipline, and coherent and intelligently directed action, both in military and in civil life, notwithstanding the temporary distressing conditions . . . which are not the result of weakness or fault in the Russian people but are the natural and inevitable results of the conditions under which the people were held before the revolution, the misgovernment of the bureaucracy, and the astounding suddenness with which the country was deprived of its accustomed government.” The report urges continued support of the Provisional Government and encouragement that it continue the war, stating that this is “the only course by which the opportunity for Russia to work out the conditions of her own freedom could be preserved from destruction by German domination.” It recommends “substantial aid to Russia . . . both in supplies and in credits,” and asserts that “the benefit of keeping Russia in the war, and its army in the field will be so enormous that the risk involved in rendering the aid required should not be seriously considered.”
Alexander Kerensky, the new Premier of Russia, formed a new cabinet on August 6. Kerensky will continue as Minister of Defense and Mikhail Tereshchenko remains Foreign Minister. From August 25 to 28 (August 12-15 on the Russian calendar), Kerensky convened a national conference in Moscow. In an attempt to represent all shades of opinion, he invited representatives of a wide variety of organizations and social bodies, all of whom were given free rein to express their views. Kerensky told the conference that Russia is “passing through a period of mortal danger,” in which it confronted threats from both left and right. He warned that any attempt to bring down the Provisional Government would be repressed “by blood and iron.”
General Lavr Kornilov, who began the month as the new commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, ended it as the leader of a failed coup. Convinced that the Petrograd Soviet was the most dangerous threat to the Provisional Government and that the government itself was too weak to counter the threat, he moved troops into Petrograd at the end of August and demanded the Soviet’s dissolution with the apparent intention of establishing a military dictatorship. The effect of his attempted takeover, however, appears to be the opposite of what he intended. Although Prime Minister Kerensky was quick to put down the leftist disturbances in Petrograd last month, he continues to consider the workers and soldiers of the Soviet an important part of his coalition. Thus in an equally swift response to Kornilov’s threat from the right, he denounced Kornilov as a traitor and permitted the Petrograd Soviet to be rearmed. It now appears that the Kornilov threat has been defeated, but at the cost of strengthening the position of the Soviet and of the Bolshevik faction within the Soviet.
In Flanders, the major Anglo-French offensive that began July 31 at the Ypres Salient succeeded in driving the Germans from Pilckem Ridge, but came to a halt on August 2 due to flooded streams and waterlogged ground, aggravated by years of artillery bombardment that had destroyed what little natural drainage existed in the lowlands of Flanders. After ten rainless days, the decision was made to continue the offensive. As the attack began on August 16 the heavy rains resumed, requiring duckboards to be laid across the flooded fields. Two days later, when the attack was called off due to the condition of the ground and the continued bad weather, the village of Langemarck had been captured. Meanwhile on the North Sea coast, the crews of the battleships aboard the German High Seas Fleet at Wilhelmshaven are becoming restless. It has been over a year since the Battle of Jutland, the last time the fleet was at sea, and boredom is setting in, aggravated by poor rations, stern naval discipline and extended shipboard confinement. On August 2, four hundred sailors from the Prinzregent Luitpold marched through the streets of Wilhelmshaven calling for an end to the war. There was no violence and the sailors were persuaded to return to their ship. Their leaders have been arrested.
The war continued without respite on the Russian and Italian fronts. On the Isonzo River, the Italian Army mounted another offensive against Austria-Hungary on August 18. It occupied the Austrian stronghold of Monte Santo and beat back an Austrian counterattack on August 28. The Italians gained six miles of mountainous terrain but are experiencing a growing number of desertions. On the Eastern Front, the Russian offensive ordered last month by Kerensky has already turned into a major defeat for the Russian Army. On August 8 the Russians were able to halt an Austro-Hungarian advance and stage a counterattack at Kowel, the site of the Russian breakthrough last year under General Brusilov. This time, however, the Russian attack failed to gain any ground. To the south in Romania, a counterattack by the German Ninth Army under General Mackensen gained five miles and took 18,000 prisoners. In fighting beginning August 6 at Marasesti, however, the Romanian Army has halted any further German advance.
The Americans are now arriving in Europe in substantial numbers. On August 15 a contingent of American troops interrupted their training to parade through Westminster, in the heart of London. From the Horse Guards Parade to Trafalgar Square, to Piccadilly, to Grosvenor Gardens, to Buckingham Palace and the Mall, to Westminster Bridge, millions of Londoners turned out to cheer the new arrivals. For security reasons, no advance announcement of the parade was made until the night before, so the enthusiastic turnout was truly spontaneous. As the parade approached Whitehall, Prime Minister Lloyd George adjourned a meeting of the Cabinet and went with his colleagues to the War Office. There, accompanied by Foreign Secretary Balfour, Chancellor of the Exchequer Bonar Law, Minister of Munitions Churchill, First Sea Lord Admiral Jellicoe and other dignitaries, they greeted the Americans from the War Office windows. At Buckingham Palace King George, joined by Queen Mary, Queen Mother Alexandra, and Commander of the Home Forces Sir John French, stood at the gate and saluted the passing Americans. After the parade the American soldiers retired to Green Park, where hundreds of tables were covered with white tablecloths and hundreds of waitresses served lunch as Londoners looked on through the iron railings around the park and from windows in nearby clubs and residences.
The recently instituted draft and accompanying nationwide mobilization has had the unintended but perhaps predictable effect of increasing racial tensions, especially in the South where cities are strictly segregated and many new Army bases are being constructed. One such base is Camp Logan, the mobilization camp for the Illinois National Guard, which is under construction on the outskirts of Houston, Texas. A Negro battalion of the 24th Infantry Division was sent last month from its base in Columbus, New Mexico to guard the construction site. Tensions rose between the soldiers, who were unaccustomed to strictly enforced racial segregation, and white construction workers and other white citizens of Houston as the Negro troops encountered segregated streetcars, water fountains, and other facilities. Violence broke out on the afternoon of August 23, resulting in seventeen deaths. Houston has been placed under martial law and the Negro battalion has been sent back to its base in New Mexico.
The next day, in an attempt to retain custody and assert state jurisdiction, the Harris County District Attorney filed murder charges against thirty-four of the soldiers. A resolution was introduced in the Texas legislature asking the Texas congressional delegation to attempt to have Negro soldiers removed from the state. In Washington, without waiting for the resolution, Senator Morris Sheppard called on Secretary of War Baker and made the request in person. On August 25 he and Charles Culberson, the other Texas Senator, presented a petition to the President and the Secretary of War signed by all Texas congressmen. The petition reads “In view of the appalling tragedies involving the destruction of life and property which the presence of negro troops in Texas has caused and is causing, and in view of the imminence of further outbreaks involving possibilities too terrible to mention, we, the Texas delegation in the national House and Senate, earnestly urge that the negro troops be taken out of Texas and kept out permanently.” Many other Southerners in Congress, most of whom refrained from raising the issue when the draft law was enacted to avoid embarrassing their fellow Democrat in the White House, are now voicing the same concern.
Senator Sheppard’s other cause this month was prohibition. He is the author and principal sponsor of a proposed amendment to the Constitution banning the sale of alcoholic beverages. On August 1 the Senate adopted the Sheppard Resolution by a vote of 65 to 20, more than the necessary two-thirds. It will become part of the Constitution if it gets a two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives and is then ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. The proposed amendment would prohibit “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territories subject to the jurisdiction thereof, for beverage purposes.” In order to ease its passage through the Senate and the House, Senator Sheppard added a provision that the proposed amendment will be “inoperative unless it shall have been ratified within six years of the date of the submission thereof to the States by the Congress.”
August 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, September and October 1917
New York Times, August 1917
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fourth Year of the Great War: 1917
Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis 1911-1918
John Milton Cooper, Jr., Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt
John Dos Passos, Mr. Wilson’s War
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1914-1922
Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life
Martin Gilbert, The First World War: A Complete History
Martin Gilbert, A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume One: 1900-1933
Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume IV: The Stricken World 1916-1922
Ann Hagedorn, Savage Peace, Hope and Fear in America, 1919August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography
John Keegan, The First World War
David M. Kennedy, Over Here: The First World War and American Society
Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949
Nicholas A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War
Arthur S. Link, Wilson: Confusions and Crises, 1915-1916
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
G.J. Meyer, The World Remade: America in World War I
Michael S. Neiberg, The Path to War: How the First World War Created Modern America
Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohbition
Edward J. Renehan Jr., The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
Lee Thompson, Never Call Retreat: Theodore Roosevelt and the Great War
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
United States Department of State, Report of the Special Diplomatic Mission to Russia to the Secretary of State, August 1917, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1918Russiav01/d108
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
Woodrow Wilson, Letter of Reply to the Pope, August 27, 1917, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=65401
The following is reprinted from the Centennial Countdown to the Great War blog published by Dennis Cross. Read the original post and access an archive of previous posts at: centennialcountdown.blogspot.com