In November 1917 British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issues a declaration stating the British Government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”  The Bolsheviks seize power in Russia and proclaim to the world that the new government intends to negotiate an “immediate democratic peace.”  Prime Minister Kerensky escapes Petrograd and rallies the Army in an attempt to retake control, but is defeated and goes into hiding.  Trotsky publishes the text of confidential diplomatic communications and secret treaties with foreign governments discovered in the Russian Foreign Office.  Armistice negotiations between Russia and Germany begin.  On the Western Front, the battle of Passchendaele comes to an end after weeks of intense combat and high casualties on both sides.  The British Army launches a surprise tank attack at Cambrai; initial gains are lost in German counterattacks.  Allied leaders meet in Rapallo to coordinate strategy.  French Prime Minister Painleve is forced to resign after losing a vote of confidence; former Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau assumes leadership of a new government.  An American delegation led by Colonel House arrives in Paris for the inaugural conference of the Inter-Allied Supreme War Council.  In Great Britain, the Marquess of Lansdowne, a former Foreign Secretary, sends a letter to the Daily Telegraph urging the Government to seek a negotiated peace with Germany.  In an agreement finalized in Washington, the United States agrees that Japan has “special interests” in China and Japan agrees to the “principle” of the “open door” policy; China is not consulted.  President Wilson tells the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor in Buffalo that the way to a permanent peace is through victory.  American forces achieve their first victories and suffer their first casualties of the war.  Woman suffrage, still making slow but steady gains state by state, is approved in New York but rejected in Ohio.  New York City’s reform mayor John Purroy Mitchel loses his bid for reelection to Tammany Hall’s candidate.  The Espionage Act survives a First Amendment challenge.

Arthur Balfour and His Declaration

Zionism is a movement established in the 1890’s to promote the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel in Ottoman Palestine.  It was begun by Theodor Herzl and continued after Herzl’s death by Chaim Weizmann.  The movement gained momentum with the outbreak of the World War and the Ottoman Empire’s decision to  join the war on the side of the Central Powers.  In last year’s Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which Great Britain, France and Russia agreed to the division of large parts of the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence, the future of that territory, including Jerusalem and its surroundings, was left for future determination.  On November 2, motivated at least in part by a desire to appeal to the Jews of Russia, most of whom are believed to support the Zionist cause, the British Government issued a declaration signed by Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour.  The brief declaration states “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Lenin in Petrograd

In the aftermath of the Kornilov Affair (see the September 1917 installment of this blog), Russian public opinion, at least in the streets of Petrograd, moved decisively in favor of the Bolsheviks.  On November 4, reacting to reports that Russian soldiers on the Baltic front were throwing down their arms and fraternizing with the Germans, the Provisional Government ordered the Petrograd garrison to the front.  The only result of Kerensky’s order was to cause the Bolsheviks to accelerate their plan to overthrow the government.  On November 6 (October 24 on the Russian calendar) the Bolsheviks seized control of telephone exchanges, post offices, banks, bridges, railway stations and other key locations in Petrograd.  Then they issued an ultimatum to the Provisional Government and surrounded the Winter Palace, where the members of the Provisional Government were in residence.  The Bolsheviks, who greatly outnumbered the forces loyal to the government, were further reinforced by naval forces arriving from the Baltic, including a cruiser that anchored in the Neva River and trained its guns on the Winter Palace.  The government surrendered the next day without bloodshed, and the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet promptly issued a statement that it had “deposed the government of Kerensky, which rose against the revolution and the people.”  It called on Russian soldiers to “watch closely the conduct of the men in command” and ensure that “officers who do not join the accomplished revolution immediately and openly [are] arrested at once as enemies.”  It outlined a four-point program: “First — the offer of an immediate democratic peace.  Second — the immediate handing over of large proprietorial lands to the peasants.  Third — the transmission of all authority to the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates.  Fourth — the honest convocation of a Constitutional Assembly.”

As the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace, Premier Kerensky managed to escape in an automobile borrowed from the American Embassy.  He drove to Pskov, where he rallied the troops in an attempt to come to the government’s defense.  His troops succeeded in capturing Tsarskoe Selo, but were turned back at Pulkovo.  Kerensky is now in hiding, and the Bolsheviks are firmly in control of Petrograd, and apparently of the Russian army and government.

Leon Trotsky

On November 24 Leon Trotsky, the Foreign Minister of the new Bolshevik government, began releasing the text of secret diplomatic communications and treaties found in the Russian archives.  Among the material disclosed was last year’s Sykes-Picot Agreement, dividing post-war spheres of influence in the Ottoman Empire between France and Great Britain (see the April 1916 installment of this blog).  The documents, Trotsky said in a statement, are those of the “Czaristic bourgeois and coalition governments” from which “the Russian nation and all nations in the world must learn the truth of the plans secretly made by financiers and traders through their parliamentary and diplomatic agents.”  He said that while German and Austrian politicians might try to take advantage of the release to the detriment of Russian interests, he is confident that when the German proletariat, by means of a revolution, gain access to their nations’ chancelleries they will find documents that show those governments in no better light.

Nikolai Krylenko

The new Russian government has moved quickly to redeem its pledge to get the country out of the war.  Lenin has hedged slightly, saying his party has already fulfilled its promises by releasing the secret treaties and making “an immediate proposal for peace.”  He states that “the revolutionary struggle for peace” will now begin.  When General Nikolai Dukhonin, named commander-in-chief of the Russian Army by Premier Kerensky in August, refused Lenin’s order to open armistice talks, he was dismissed and replaced by Ensign Nikolai Krylenko, who despite his modest military title is a “People’s Commissar” and a member of the inner circle of the new government.  Krylenko sent three representatives to the German commander at the front with instructions to inquire whether immediate negotiations for an armistice might be commenced.  The Russian delegates crossed the German lines on November 27 and began negotiations with the German military authorities with the goal of beginning comprehensive negotiations for an armistice.

Chancellor von Hertling

Germany has a new Chancellor, Georg von Hertling, who came to power on November 1.  In a speech in the Reichstag on November 29, he responded to the Russian overture by announcing that Germany is prepared to enter into peace negotiations with the new Russian government as soon as it is able to send representatives with full powers to Berlin.  Negotiations are now scheduled to begin on December 2.  The French and American military missions in Petrograd responded to these developments by sending letters to the Russian government formally protesting any separate armistice or peace by Russia.  On November 30 their letters drew a sharp response from Foreign Minister Trotsky, who insisted that Russia “cannot permit allied military and diplomatic agents to interfere in the internal affairs of our country and attempt to excite civil war.”

Ground Won by the Canadians at Passchendaele

The British offensive on the Ypres Salient came to an end this month, short of its original goal of the railway junction at Roulers.  Since it began on the last day of July, the offensive gained four and a half miles of muddy ground at the cost of 62,000 British, Canadian and Anzac soldiers killed and 164,000 wounded.  The village of Passchendaele was captured on November 6 and the ridge beyond on November 10.  The final attack, like most of the offensive, was hindered by a steady rain that turned the battlefield into a swamp.

A British Tank at the Battle of Cambrai

After securing Passchendaele Ridge and the little that was left of the village of Passchendaele, Field Marshal Haig turned his attention to the town of Cambrai, an important supply center for the Germans about six miles behind the Hindenburg Line.  At 6:20 a.m. on November 20, without any advance artillery preparation or other indication that an attack was imminent, the British began an intense artillery barrage coordinated with a simultaneous attack by a mass formation of 324 Mark IV “tanks.”  Compared to the area around the Ypres Salient, the terrain was dry and solid, ideal for tanks, which rolled effortlessly over the multiple lines of barbed wire the Germans had deployed.  Caught by surprise, the Germans found the tanks on top of them before they could react and the British were able to make substantial gains.  Bells of celebration were rung in London when news of the advance arrived on November 23, but on the 27th the British were forced to break off the action short of the town of Cambrai, and in a counterattack begun the next day the Germans regained much of the lost ground.

German Troops in Vittorio Veneto

The Italian Army has been in retreat since the Austro-German offensive began last month at Caporetto.  Unable to prevent the crossing of the Tagliamento on November 6, the Italian Army fell back to the Piave, the last river between the Austrians and Venice and sixty miles from Caporetto where the attack began.  With help from British troops transferred from the Western Front, the Italians have been successful in preventing a crossing of the Piave, and on November 19 they mounted a counteroffensive on the Asiago Plateau.

General Cadorna

Political and military leader of Italy, France and Great Britain met at Rapallo, a small town near Rome, on November 5 to discuss military strategy in the midst of the severe setbacks suffered by the Italian Army in the Caporetto offensive.  The delegations were led by the prime ministers: David Lloyd George for Great Britain, Paul Painleve for France, and Vittorio Orlando for Italy.  The conference promised aid to the struggling Italian forces and established a Supreme War Council to coordinate the Allies’ future military strategy.  At the insistence of Britain and France, General Luigi Cadorna, the architect of Italy’s failed campaign on the Isonzo, was dismissed as chief of the Italian General Staff and replaced by General Armando Diaz.  The conferees agreed to a meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council on November 15 in Paris.

Georges Clemenceau

When French Prime Minister Paul Painleve returned to Paris from the conference at Rapallo, he immediately confronted a political crisis.  On November 13, an extended debate in the Chamber of Deputies on the question of the new Allied War Council led to a narrow vote in the government’s favor, but it was followed by interpellations (formal questions interrupting the regular order in parliamentary procedure) seeking an explanation of accusations in the press of a royalist plot and against former Minister of the Interior Louis-Jean Malvy.  Painleve demanded postponement of those questions until after the conclusion of the inter-allied conference, and made that question one of confidence.  On the ensuing vote of confidence the Socialists refused to support the government, and the government lost by a vote of 277-186.  Painleve and his cabinet immediately submitted their resignations to President Poincare.  The new Prime Minister, who will now represent France on the Supreme Allied War Council, is newspaper editor and former Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who will also serve as Minister of War.

American Mission to the Inter-Allied Supreme War Council
(on the sofa: Admiral Benson, “Colonel” House, General Bliss)

Last month an American mission was sent to Paris to obtain information regarding the existing conditions of the Allied nations prosecuting the war against Germany and to determine the most effective contribution the United States could make as an Associated Power.  The mission arrived in London on November 7, the same day the Allies in Rapallo created the Supreme Allied War Council and the Bolsheviks overthrew the Kerensky government in Russia.  The American mission is led by President Wilson’s advisor “Colonel” Edward M. House.  He is accompanied by Army Chief of Staff General Tasker H. Bliss and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William S. Benson, as the military and naval representatives.  On November 17 the United States formally adhered to the Supreme War Council and designated Colonel House and General Bliss as its civilian and military representatives.  The next day, President Wilson sent a cable to Colonel House asking him to attend the first meeting of the Council and emphasizing that “unity of plan and control” between the Allies and the United States is essential to achieving a just and permanent peace.  The Council is now scheduled to meet in Paris on December 1.

Viscount Ishii Kikujiro and Secretary of State Robert Lansing

Secretary of State Robert Lansing and Viscount Ishii Kikujiro, special ambassador from Japan, entered into an agreement on November 2 in which the United States “recognizes that Japan has special interests in China.”  The same agreement, however, states that the two governments “will always adhere to the principle of the so-called ‘open door,’ or equal opportunity for commerce and industry in China.”  Ten days later, the Chinese government formally protested, stating that it does not consider itself bound by agreements entered into by other nations.  By declaring war on Germany in August, China aligned itself, at least formally, with Japan in the World War.  The Lansing-Ishii Agreement, however, highlights the continuing adversarial relationship between the two countries.

The Marquis of Lansdowne

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, Fifth Marquis of Lansdowne and former Governor-general of Canada, Viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, has written a letter to the Daily Telegraph which was published on November 29.  In his letter Lord Lansdowne called for immediate negotiations to bring an end to the World War, the prolongation of which, he said, “will spell ruin to the civilized world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it.”  Lord Lansdowne’s letter has been widely denounced in the press and disavowed by British politicians of all parties.  Lord Northcliffe’s Evening News called the Marquis of Lansdowne the “Marquis of Hands Up.”

President Wilson in Buffalo

President Wilson with Samuel Gompers (Center) and Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson Last Year at the Dedication of the AFL’s New Headquarters in Washington

In a speech on November 12 to the annual convention of the American Federation of Labor in Buffalo, New York, President Wilson warned against a premature peace with Germany.  He appealed to American labor for its full cooperation in achieving victory in the World War.  He brought the crowd to its feet cheering when he dismissed the pacifists, saying “I want peace, but I know how to get it and they do not.”  The President said he had sent Colonel House abroad to confer with the other nations that are at war with Germany to arrive at a strategy for victory, “and he knows, as I know, that that is the way to get peace if you want it for more than a few minutes.”  He paid tribute to Samuel Gompers, the President of the Federation, saluting Gompers as a man of “patriotic courage, large vision, and a statesmanlike sense of what is to be done.”  The President addressed indirectly a rumored revolt of pacifists and Socialists against Gompers’ leadership when he said “I like to lay my mind alongside a mind that knows how to pull in harness.  The horses that kick over the traces will have to be put in a corral.”

U.S.S. Fanning in Port After Its Battle With a German U-boat

This month saw the first combat by American forces, on land and sea.  On November 17, the Navy claimed its first victory of the war.  Two destroyers, U.S.S. Fanning (DD-37) and U.S.S. Nicholson (DD-52), were escorting a convoy in the North Atlantic when an alert lookout on the Fanning sighted a small periscope that was visible for only a few seconds.  Fanning immediately headed for the spot and dropped a depth charge about three minutes after the sighting.  It was joined by Nicholson, which dropped another depth charge, forcing the U-boat to the surface.  The destroyers gave chase, firing their bow guns, and after the third shot the submarine hove to and the crew came on deck with their hands in the air.  The entire engagement lasted about ten minutes. An attempt was made to take the U-boat in tow, but it began to sink and the German sailors jumped into the water and swam to the Fanning.  Most of them were rescued and taken prisoner.

Fighting on the Western Front has claimed the lives of three Americans.  On November 16, Corporal James Gresham and Privates Merle D. Hay and Thomas F. Enright became the first American soldiers reported killed in action in the World War. They were mentioned in the dispatches of the French General commanding the sector, who reported that they “died bravely in hand-to-hand fighting with the enemy, who had penetrated the first line.”

Suffragists on Fifth Avenue

A Women’s Suffrage Amendment to the New York Constitution was overwhelmingly approved on November 6.  On the same day a similar proposal was defeated in Ohio.  This is the third time the voters of Ohio have rejected Women’s Suffrage proposals.  All the voters in both states, of course, were male.

John F. Hylan

Tammany Hall swept the November 6 municipal elections in New York City.  The Tammany candidate for mayor, John F. Hylan, easily defeated both the incumbent mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, who ran as an independent, and William Bennett, the man who defeated Mitchel in the Republican primary.  Mitchel came in second.  Morris Hillquit, the Socialist candidate, came in third, barely behind Mitchel and well ahead of Bennett, who finished a distant fourth.  In a statement after the election, Hillquit noted the “tremendous Socialist gains” over the previous mayoral election.  Alfred E. Smith, the Sheriff of New York County, was elected President of the Board of Aldermen.  Conceding defeat, Mayor Mitchel called for unity, saying “with our nation at war, there is no room for division at home.”  Charles Murphy, the Boss of Tammany Hall, is considered the real victor.  He said “there was no issue of Americanism or loyalty as far as I am concerned” and “I am as good an American as any man.”  Bennett blamed Mayor Mitchel for “turning the city over to Tammany.”

September Issue of The Masses

Judge Learned Hand

The Espionage Act, which became law on June 15, makes it unlawful to “interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces” or “incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty” or “obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service” or “utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government of the United States” or “advocate, teach, defend, or suggest” any of those things.  In addition to substantial criminal penalties, the Act empowers the Postmaster General to bar publications that violate the Act from the mail.  Shortly after the Act became law, Postmaster General Albert S. Burleson ordered the August 1917 issue of the Socialist magazine “The Masses” excluded from the mails, citing articles and cartoons criticizing the war and the draft. On July 24, in a case challenging Burleson’s order, United States District Court Judge Learned Hand enjoined the Post Office from refusing to deliver the magazine.  He wrote that although articles and cartoons in The Masses might fall within the language of the statute, “they fall within the scope of that right to criticize … which is normally the privilege of the individual in countries dependent upon the free expression of opinion as the ultimate source of authority,” and were thus protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech and the press.  The government appealed, and on November 2 a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Judge Hand’s order and reinstated the ban.  In an opinion written by Judge Henry W. Rogers, the Court of Appeals held that the Espionage Act was constitutional and that “to obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service within the meaning of the statute it is not necessary that there should be a physical obstruction.  Anything which impedes, hinders, retards, restrains, or puts an obstacle in the way of recruiting is sufficient.”  The Court concluded that “considering the natural and reasonable effect of the publication, it was intended to wilfully obstruct recruiting.”

Thirteen copies of the September issue of The Masses have been held up at the Post Office for insufficient postage.  Postmaster General Burleson has determined that, because the August issue was not mailed, the magazine is no longer eligible for mailing as a periodical.  Other methods of circulation may also be foreclosed.  The Trading with the Enemy Act, which became law on October 6, forbids any person to “carry, transport, publish, or distribute” any publication that is unmailable under the Espionage Act.

November 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading

Contemporary Periodicals:

American Review of Reviews, December 1917 and January 1918
New York Times, November and December 1917

Books and Articles:

John Barrett, Latin America and the War
A. Scott Berg, Wilson
Tasker H. Bliss, Report of the Military Representative on the Supreme War Council to the Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian,
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, 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
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
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
Richard Sutch, Liberty Bonds, April 1917-September 1918, Federal Reserve History,
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:


Dennis Cross is a retired lawyer and amateur historian of World War I. He is a U.S. Navy veteran and a 1962 graduate of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. He graduated from New York University Law School in 1969 and served as Assistant General Counsel of the Federal Trade Commission from 1977 to 1982. Since his retirement from the practice of law in 2007, he has been a volunteer at the National World War One Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, MO. Beginning in September 2011, he has written a monthly blog about the events of the month one hundred years ago.