In July 1918, four years after the July Crisis that started it all, the tide of war begins to turn in favor of the Allies. Germany’s last major offensive effort falls short and is followed by a French and American counterattack that forces the German Army to surrender much of the ground it has gained since Russia left the war. Russia is in chaos as a civil war gains momentum: opponents of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk assassinate the German ambassador, anti-Bolshevik forces take control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and the Bolsheviks murder the former Tsar and his family. In the United States President Wilson observes the Fourth of July at Mount Vernon, where he declares that there can be no compromise peace. Americans celebrate Bastille Day as well as the Fourth of July. John Purroy Mitchel, the former mayor of New York City who joined the Army’s Air Service after his defeat for reelection, dies when he falls from his aircraft during a training flight in Louisiana. Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former President Theodore Roosevelt, is shot down and killed in an aerial battle in France.
The German Army mounted the latest of its offensive operations on the Western Front with attacks in the vicinity of Reims. The Champagne-Marne offensive (Operation “Marneschutz-Reims” or “Friedensturm”) had two goals. First, the Germans sought to expand the salient resulting from the Blucher-Yorck offensive by capturing the important communications and railroad center of Reims, occupying the heights to the south of the city, and advancing to the Marne. Second, they hoped to draw Allied forces to the south from Flanders, facilitating another offensive thrust toward the channel ports (Operation “Hagen”). The attack began during the night of July 14-15 with a ferocious artillery bombardment. The French and Americans defending that portion of the front had good intelligence, however, and their own artillery went into action first., disrupting the German preparations. In addition, they had withdrawn to strong defenses out of German artillery range, leaving the front lines lightly defended. After the initial artillery barrage, the German attack found mostly empty trenches and faltered when it came under intense fire as it approached the heavily defended lines. The Germans briefly succeeded in establishing a bridgehead across the Marne at Epernay, but abandoned it the next day. The Germans halted their offensive on July 17 without achieving either of their objectives.
Following the failed German offensive, French and American forces under the command of French General Philippe Petain mounted a counteroffensive, attacking the western side of the Blucher-Yorck salient between the Aisne and Marne Rivers. The attack achieved almost complete surprise, beginning with a 2,000-gun artillery bombardment in the early morning hours of July 18, followed by an infantry advance of eighteen divisions supported by some five hundred tanks and over one thousand aircraft. The Germans fell back, abandoning Chateau-Thierry on July 21. On July 27 they withdrew to the River Vesle, abandoning much of the Blucher-Yorck salient.
The turmoil in Russia reached a crescendo this month. Lenin’s attempt to forge a closer relationship with Germany has drawn the ire of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who supported the revolution but opposed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and continue to resist any accommodation with Germany, which they regard as representative of the imperialist world order the revolution was meant to overthrow. At the Fourth All-Russian Congress of Soviets meeting in Moscow on July 4 and 5, the announcement of Lenin’s new policy of accommodation with Germany was met with strong opposition from the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who despite Lenin’s personal plea were numerous enough to cause disruption by loudly demanding renunciation of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. They were particularly infuriated by the presence in a place of honor in the room of the new German ambassador, Count Wilhelm von Mirbach, which they saw as a symbol of Russia’s subservience to Germany. The next day, Left Socialist Revolutionaries entered the German Embassy and shot the ambassador to death. Germany, in response, has demanded even more humiliating concessions from Lenin, and Lenin has adopted a policy of merciless repression against his political opponents.
In Yekaterinburg, where they had been held since May, the former Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family were awakened at midnight on the night of July 16. Told that there was unrest in the area and that it was necessary to move them for their own safety, they were instructed to get dressed and go downstairs. Gunfire could be heard in the distance as anti-Bolshevik forces of the White Army reinforced by members of the Czech Legion approached the town. The Tsar and his family were taken to a small unfurnished ground floor room where, at the Tsar’s request, two chairs were brought in for the Tsar’s wife and their young son Alexis, who suffered from a severe case of hemophilia. The family was told to stand in a row against a wall, ostensibly for a photograph. Instead of a photographer, however, eleven armed men entered the room. Yakov Yurofsky, the Bolshevik in charge, then drew a paper from his pocket and began to read: “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 Nicholas could react the men began firing, and within a few minutes the former imperial family lay dead. On July 20 the Ural Regional Council issued the following announcement:
“Recently Yekaterinburg, the capital of the Red Urals, was seriously threatened by the approach of Czechoslovak hands and a counter-revolutionary conspiracy was discovered which had as its object the wresting of the ex-Czar from the hands of the Council’s authority. In view of this fact, the President of the Ural Regional Council decided to shoot the ex-Czar, and the decision was carried out on July 16. The wife and son of Nicholas Romanoff have been sent to a place of security. Documents concerning the conspiracy which was discovered have been forwarded to Moscow by a special messenger. It had been recently decided to bring the ex-Czar before a tribunal to be tried for his crimes against the people, and only later occurrences led to delay in adopting this course. The Presidency of the Central Executive Committee, having discussed the circumstances which compelled the Ural Regional Council to take its decision to shoot Nicholas Romanoff, decided as follows: The Russian Central Executive Committee, in the person of its President, accepts the decision of the Ural Regional Council as being regular. . . .”
The statement that only the Tsar had been shot was false, as was the implication that the execution had been carried out on the orders of the Regional Council which had informed Moscow only later. In fact, the murder of the Tsar and his family had been approved in advance by Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. White and Czech Army forces entered and occupied Yekaterinburg on July 25, but the bodies of the Tsar and his family had been removed.
President Wilson visited Mount Vernon on the Fourth of July. He traveled down the Potomac aboard the Presidential Yacht Mayflower, accompanied by Mrs. Wilson, his daughter Margaret, Secretary of State Lansing, Postmaster General Burleson, Senator Thomas Martin (Dem., Va.), the famous tenor John McCormack, and representatives of thirty-three nationalities including British Ambassador Lord Reading, who brought wreaths to lay on Washington’s tomb. The crowd, which began to gather in the morning, numbered some 2,000 by noon and was much larger by the time the Mayflower dropped anchor shortly after 3:00. Intermittent outbursts of applause greeted the presidential party as it made its way along the winding paths through the estate, and American soldiers in uniform rose to their feet and saluted the commander-in-chief.
In his speech, President Wilson rejected any idea of a compromise peace, saying that the nations allied in the cause of liberty must struggle to defeat “an isolated, friendless group of governments, who speak no common purpose, but only selfish ambitions of their own, by which none can profit but themselves, and whose peoples are fuels in their hands; governments which fear their people, and yet are for the time being sovereign lords, . . . governments clothed with the strange trappings and the primitive authority of an age that is altogether alien and hostile to our own.” He said “There must be but one issue. The settlement must be final. There can be no compromise. No half-way decision would be tolerable. These are the ends for which the associated peoples of the world are fighting and which must be conceded them before there can be peace.” He said the war’s objectives “can be put into a single sentence. What we seek is the reign of law, based upon the consent of the governed and sustained by the organized opinion of mankind.”
Before the President’s address, McCormack sang The Star Spangled Banner. When he reached the line “For conquer we must,” he held the last ringing note and the President extended his hand. Before he began speaking, the President asked “Where is McCormack?,” but he had left the stage. Later as they were returning to the Mayflower the President asked for him, shook his hand and expressed his thanks.
John McCormack sang The Star Spangled Banner in this recording made last year (click to play):
In recognition of their common cause with France in the World War, Americans turned out in great numbers on July 14 to celebrate Bastille Day. In New York, warships fired salutes in the harbor, flyers performed acrobatics in the air, and a crowd gathered at the statue of Joan of Arc on Riverside Drive. Formal ceremonies took place in military and naval bases and many churches held special services. A great meeting took place that evening at Madison Square Garden, where speakers including ambassadors of the Allied nations paid tribute to France and the French spirit of liberty. In his opening address Charles Evans Hughes, the chairman of the meeting, pledged “To the people of France that France shall be restored and that Alsace-Lorraine shall be returned to her.” Other American speakers led by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels spoke of Rochambeau, Lafayette, de Grasse, and the support France gave to the young American republic when it was struggling for its own liberty. Ignace Paderewski, head of the Polish National Committee in America, drew enthusiastic applause when he hailed “great and glorious France, invincible, triumphant, immortal.” After paying tribute to the traditional friendship between France and Poland and noting that Poland now has its own army fighting under French supreme command, Paderewski turned to French Ambassador Jules Jusserand and said he did not speak for the Poles alone but for the Czechs, the Jugoslavs, and all oppressed nations that had ever found in France their surest friend. Jusserand in his address expressed the hope of all Frenchmen that at the war’s end the “Marseillaise” would be heard again in Strasbourg, where it was composed and first sung. He noted the presence of the Russian ambassador, which he said was “a token that Russia is still alive, and we shall not forget her.”
John Purroy Mitchel was elected mayor of New York City in 1913 as a reform candidate on the Republican ticket. His term as mayor included a number of controversial reforms, drawing the enmity of many in the political establishment, including Tammany Hall. When war broke out in Europe he became a leader of the Preparedness movement, arguing for American support for the Allies and universal military training, and personally undergoing voluntary military training at the Plattsburg Military Training Camp in upstate New York (see the August 1915 installment of this blog). His controversial stands caught up with him last year when in his campaign for reelection he was narrowly defeated in the Republican primary. In the general election, running as an independent, he out-polled the Republican and Socialist candidates but lost decisively to Democrat John F. Hylan, Tammany Hall’s candidate (see the October and November 1917 installments of this blog). When his term as mayor ended, he joined the Aviation Section of the Army Signal Corps and undertook flight training in San Diego and Lake Charles, Louisiana. On July 6, he was flying near Gerstner Field in Lake Charles when he was killed instantly after falling from his aircraft at an altitude of about 500 feet. It appears that his seat belt was unfastened. Mayor Mitchel’s wife accompanied his body back to New York, where on July 11 a military funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a procession from City Hall. Among the honorary pallbearers was former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Less than a week after attending Mayor Mitchel’s funeral, President Roosevelt was notified by General Pershing that his youngest son Quentin had been reported missing in action on July 14. Shortly it was confirmed that he had been shot down and killed near Chateau-Thierry while defending his squadron of Nieuports against an attack by the “Flying Circus,” the German fighter squadron that was led before his recent death by Baron Manfred von Richthofen and was led that day by its new commander Lieutenant Hermann Goering. When he learned of his son’s death, President Roosevelt issued a statement: “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had a chance to render some service to his country and to show the stuff there was in him before his fate befell him.”
July 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, August and September 1918
New York Times, July and August 1918
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Britain at War Magazine, The Fifth Year of the Great War: 1918
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, 1919
August 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
Anthony Lewis, Make No Law, The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment
Bruce Lincoln, Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians In War and Revolution 1914-1918
Arthur S. Link, Woodrow Wilson and the Progressive Era, 1910-1917
Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
Robert K. Massie, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter
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
Patricia O’Toole, The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made
Edward J. Renehan, 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
David Stevenson, Cataclysm: The First World War As Political Tragedy
David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall: Victory and Defeat in 1918
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
Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History
The West Point Atlas of War: World War I
This article 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:
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