In May 1918, the Central Powers claim a victory over another of their Eastern Front enemies when they sign the Treaty of Bucharest with Romania. The Czech Legion, trying to reach Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railway, comes into open conflict with the Bolsheviks. In a conference at Spa, Kaiser Wilhelm and Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary agree to a long-term alliance, economic agreements, and a common high command. On the Western Front, the German Army mounts its third major offensive in as many months, attacking the Allied lines on the Chemin des Dames and advancing to the Marne, where the American Army’s Third Division helps halt the German advance at Chateau-Thierry. Americans conduct their first offensive operation of the war at Cantigny. In Great Britain, the House of Commons defeats a motion by former Prime Minister Asquith to conduct a parliamentary inquiry into charges made against the government in a letter from a British general. RMS Moldavia, a British transport carrying American soldiers, is torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in the English Channel. The Royal Navy tries again to block U-Boat access to the sea at Ostend, this time with more success. The United States Congress enacts the Sedition Act, forbidding the use of disloyal or abusive language about the government in time of war, and the Overman Act, giving the President broad authority to reorganize federal agencies by executive action. Declaring that “politics is adjourned,” President Wilson urges Congress to stay in session through the campaign season. Air mail service begins between New York City and Washington, D.C.
Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary on August 27, 1916, and invaded Hungary the next day. It enjoyed some initial success advancing through the Carpathian passes, but within days Germany declared war and Bulgaria invaded from the south. By October the German Army had gained the upper hand, and by December it had occupied Bucharest (see the August, September, October and December 1916 installments of this blog). With Russian assistance, Romania was able to remain in control of much of the country including the mouth of the Danube, but last year’s Bolshevik Revolution and Russia’s exit from the war earlier this year has forced Romania to agree to terms largely dictated by the Central Powers. Under the terms of the Treaty of Bucharest, signed May 7, the Romanian Army is to be demobilized except for skeleton forces on the frontiers of Bessarabia and Moldavia. The provinces of Southern and Northern Dobrudja are to be separated from Romania, the former to be restored to Bulgaria and the latter to be occupied by the Central Powers. Territorial disputes between Romania and Austria-Hungary, including the Carpathian passes, are resolved in Austria-Hungary’s favor. The treaty provides for free navigation of the Danube, including by warships of the Central Powers.
As the Czech Legion struggles to reach the Pacific Coast of Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, it has been hindered by the limited capacity and poor condition of the tracks, with traffic congestion made worse by German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners heading west on the same tracks to be repatriated. On May 14 a confrontation at Chelyabinsk led to the storming of the railway station and occupation of the city by the Czech Legion. From there the Legion is moving east, overthrowing local Bolshevik governments and occupying key points along the railway.
Continuing his push to win the war in the west while Germany still has a manpower advantage, General Ludendorff attacked the Allied positions on the Chemin des Dames. Beginning with a 4,000-gun artillery barrage in the early morning hours of May 27, Operation “Blucher-Yorck” pushed the Allied forces back fifteen miles by the end of the following day. By May 29 the German Army had crossed the Aisne and Vesle Rivers and captured the railway center of Soissons, though not before the French had destroyed an important railway tunnel leading into the city. By May 30 Ludendorff’s army had reached the Marne River at Chateau-Thierry, where French forces under the command of General Philippe Petain, with the help of the American Third Division, have so far succeeded in stalling the German advance.
On May 12, Kaiser Wilhelm hosted a conference at his Spa headquarters with Emperor Charles of Austria-Hungary. The emperors agreed on a long-term alliance including economic coordination and a military convention establishing a common high command and standardization of uniforms and weapons. Charles agreed to an early offensive in Italy timed to support the German campaign in France. A military and customs union of the two nations is contemplated, but the political chaos in Austria makes that impractical at present.
While Operation Blucher-Yorck was unfolding on the Chemin des Dames, the American Army mounted its first major offensive action on the salient created in March by Germany’s Operation Michael. The village of Cantigny, strategically located on high ground on the western edge of the salient, provides a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. Units of the First Division attacked in the early morning hours of May 29 after a two-hour artillery barrage. Before the day was over they had driven the Germans from the village, and over the next two days successfully defended it against numerous German counterattacks.
Major General Leonard Wood is a medical doctor and career Army officer who served as Army Chief of Staff from 1910 to 1914. In the Spanish-American War he was the officer in command of the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the “Rough Riders,” which attacked and occupied Kettle and San Juan Hills. Theodore Roosevelt was his second in command and rode his resulting fame to the presidency. After the outbreak of war in Europe, General Wood was a leader of the “preparedness” movement in the United States, which President Wilson resisted until political pressure forced him to endorse it in 1916. After the declaration of war on Germany, General Wood was a leading candidate to command the American Expeditionary Force, but was passed over in favor of General Pershing. The highest ranking officer of permanent grade in the regular Army, General Wood commanded the 89th Division at Camp Funston as it trained for deployment to Europe, and in preparation for that deployment undertook a military mission to Europe to observe and inspect military operations on the Western Front. On the eve of his division’s planned departure, however, he received new orders to assume command of the Western Military Department in San Francisco, a purely administrative office that does not include command of any troops. His personal appeal to President Wilson on May 28 was unavailing. Many believe that political considerations, including General Wood’s close relationship with former President Roosevelt and his prominent identification with the preparedness movement, played a part in the decision to deny him a combat command.
The foremost American “ace” died in action this month. Raoul Lufbery was born in France, immigrated to the United States, and joined the United States Army. After his Army service, he returned to France, and when war broke out he joined the French Air Force. When the United States declared war, he joined the United States Army Air Service, received a major’s commission, and was given command of the 94th Aero Squadron. On May 19, flying a French Nieuport, he was shot down and killed in an aerial fight with a large, heavily armored German biplane over the Moselle River. Called a “flying tank,” the two-engine German aircraft was manned by two machine gunners in addition to the pilot. Apparently impervious to bullets fired by the Americans, it was attacked without success by six American planes in addition to Lufbery’s. Since the beginning of the war, including his service with the French Air Force, Major Lufbery is credited with seventeen victories over enemy aircraft.
In Great Britain, the Lloyd George government has survived a serious cabinet crisis. On May 6, Major General Sir Frederick Barton Maurice, until recently Director of British Military Operations, sent a letter to the editor of the Daily Chronicle in which he challenged the accuracy of several answers given in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Lloyd George and Chancellor of the Exchequer Bonar Law to questions about British Army troop levels in France and the Near East. He said his letter “is not the result of a military conspiracy. . . . the last thing I desire is to see the government of our country in the hands of soldiers,” and he asked that it be published “in the hope that Parliament may see fit to order an investigation.” In the House of Commons, former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith moved for the appointment of a special committee to inquire into General Maurice’s statements. The government replied that Asquith’s motion would be regarded as one of censure, requiring the government to resign. In presenting his motion on May 9, Asquith denied that he was seeking censure of the government. He pointed out that in the almost eighteen months since he had left office he had “given no adverse vote on any question against the government,” and that if he wanted to ask the House to censure the government “I hope I should have the courage and candor to do so in a direct and unequivocal manner.” In a fiery response, Lloyd George insisted that the credibility of the government was at stake and insisted that General Maurice and his office were the source of any misinformation. Apparently unwilling to undermine the government at a critical point in the war, the House defeated Asquith’s motion 293-106, a margin made more comfortable by the decision of Conservative backbenchers to support the government and of Irish Nationalist members, who would likely have supported the motion, to stay in Dublin.
RMS Moldavia, a British troopship carrying American soldiers en route to France, was torpedoed and sunk in the English Channel on May 23. The ship was in convoy, and nearby destroyers were able to rescue most of those on board, but fifty-three lives were lost.
Last month’s attempt by the Royal Navy to block U-Boat access to the English Channel and the North Sea at Ostend failed because the buoys marking the approach to the harbor had been moved, causing the blocking ships to run aground before reaching their destination. Another attempt was made on May 9 using two obsolete cruisers, HMS Sappho and HMS Vindictive, the latter a veteran of last month’s raid on Zeebrugge, as blocking ships. This time the attacking force ignored the buoys, using the land for navigation. Despite a boiler explosion that forced Sappho to retreat to Denmark and artillery fire that destroyed Vindictive’s bridge and killed her commanding officer, Vindictive was able to reach the harbor entrance where she was scuttled, blocking access to the sea for all but small boats.
On May 16 President Wilson signed a “sedition bill” strengthening last year’s Espionage Act (see the June 1917 installment of this blog). Among other things, the new legislation imposes severe criminal penalties for the use of “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, contemptuous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or the military or naval forces of the United States, or the flag of the United States, or the uniform of the Army or Navy of the United States, or any language intended to bring [any of those] into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute.” The new legislation passed the Senate on May 4 by a vote of 48-26 over the objection of a number of Republicans led by Henry Cabot Lodge who argued that it violated the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech. It had easier going in the House, where it was approved on May 7 with only one member, Socialist Meyer London of New York, voting no.
Shortly after Senator George Chamberlain (Dem., Ore.) introduced legislation to create a “war cabinet” and a new cabinet position of Director of Munitions, President Wilson announced his strong opposition to that proposal and supported instead legislation introduced by Senator Lee Overman (Dem., N.C.) giving the President broad powers to reorganize the Executive Department by executive order. (See the February 1918 installment of this blog). The Overman Act became law on May 20.
President Wilson made a surprise visit to Capitol Hill on May 27 to address a joint session of Congress. He urged new tax legislation to raise additional revenue for the war effort, focusing on war profits, incomes and luxuries as the principal targets. He said that taxation was preferable to borrowing to finance the war, and that the request was particularly urgent because he had just been informed that “the expected drive on the western front” had begun. “The consideration that dominates every other,” he said, “is the winning of the war.” He told the Congress it should remain in session through the summer and fall, rejecting the suggestion of some that revenue legislation should be postponed until after the November elections. He said “politics is adjourned. The elections will go to those who think least of it, to those who go to the constituencies without explanations or excuses, with a plain record of duty faithfully and disinterestedly performed.” After the President’s appearance, Representative Claude Kitchin (Dem., N.C.), the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he would convene the Committee within the next few days. “The commander in chief has spoken,” he said. “It is our plain duty to do as he asks.”
The first regular airplane mail service was inaugurated on May 15 between New York and Washington, D.C. Simultaneous flights in both directions were scheduled by the U.S. Army using Curtis “Jenny” biplanes. Lieutenant Torrey Webb departed Belmont Park, on Long Island just outside New York City, at 11:30 a.m with 144 pounds of mail. He arrived at 12:30 in Philadelphia, where he relayed the mail to Lieutenant J.C. Edgerton, who flew it to Washington, landing at the Polo Grounds in Potomac Park at 2:50 p.m. The flight in the other direction was less successful. Lieutenant George Boyle got lost after taking off from Potomac Park and crash landed in Maryland, twenty-five miles from Washington. The plane waiting for him in Philadelphia, piloted by Lieutenant Howard Culver, departed on schedule without the mail from Washington. It arrived at 3:37 at Belmont Park, where the mail was transferred to a special train that delivered it at 4:12 to the main Post Office at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue.
With less fanfare the next day, the New York to Washington mail flight took off from Belmont Park and headed toward Philadelphia. This time it encountered fog that forced an emergency landing at the old Bridgeton race track in New Jersey. The mail was picked up by a motor truck and carried to the nearest railroad.
The Post Office has announced that the Washington-New York air route will be in operation every day except Sundays and when weather conditions make flying dangerous. The 24-cent postage includes special delivery after the letter’s arrival in the destination city.
May 1918 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, June and July 1918
New York Times, May and June 1918
Books and Articles:
A. 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
W. 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
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
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
J. 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: