In October 1917 the Allied offensive in Flanders bogs down in mud and heavy rains near Passchendaele. The Austro-Hungarian Army, aided by German reinforcements, breaks through the Italian Army’s lines at Caporetto, sending the Italians into a headlong retreat. French Army forces commanded by General Petain attack German Army positions on the Chemin des Dames, forcing them to withdraw.
In Palestine, the British Army captures Beersheba. The first American troops arrive in the trenches. Great Britain declares an absolute embargo on shipments to the Northern Neutrals (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands) to prevent them from supplying Germany with food, ammunition and other war materiel. Reacting to sinkings of its merchant ships by German U-boats, Brazil declares war on Germany. Mata Hari is executed for espionage.
In the United States, the Trading with the Enemy Act gives the president broad powers to control trade with enemy countries in time of war. Using powers conferred by the new law, President Wilson appoints A. Mitchell Palmer to the post of Alien Property Custodian. Palmer promptly seizes money and property belonging to or owed to German subjects and uses the money to buy Liberty Bonds. Mayor Mitchel of New York City, having lost his party’s primary, is running as an Independent. The second Liberty Bond campaign is a success. The special session of Congress, called earlier this year to declare war against Germany, comes to an end. Columbia University terminates two professors for suspected disloyalty, causing Charles A. Beard, a prominent political science professor, to resign from the faculty in protest. The Chicago White Sox (including several future Black Sox) win the World Series, defeating the New York Giants four games to two.
The Anglo-French offensive in Flanders, dubbed the Third Battle of Ypres, has been under way since the end of July. British Armies under the overall command of Field Marshal Haig continued the “bite and hold” tactic they employed last month at the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood. On October 4, under a steady rain that had begun the previous day, British armies under the command of Generals Gough and Plumer, mostly Australians and New Zealanders, moved forward about one thousand yards and dug in after occupying Broodseinde Ridge. By then, the rain had become torrential, filling shell holes and turning the ground into an impassable swamp. Both generals recommended halting the offensive, but they were overruled by Haig, who insisted that the attack continue with the objective of capturing Passchendaele Ridge. The offensive continued as scheduled on October 9, but the weather and ground conditions caused the attack to bog down. At month’s end, further attacks by Canadian troops have thus far failed to capture Passchendaele Ridge.
As the British and Canadians were fighting their way toward Passchendaele to the north, French troops under General Henri Petain, in a renewal of last spring’s offensive under General Nivelle, attacked German positions along the high ground of the Chemin des Dames and the fort of La Malmaison. At the end of the month, the French had driven the Germans back to the north bank of the Ailette River and the Oise-Aisne Canal.
The two offensives launched on the Isonzo River earlier this year by Italian Commander-in-Chief General Luigi Cadorna resulted in over 280,000 Italian casualties but no appreciable gains. Responding to the urgent appeal of Austrian Emperor Karl, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered that German reinforcements be sent to aid in an Austrian offensive. On October 24, led by German divisions under the command of General Otto von Below, the combined armies attacked at Caporetto. After a short but intense artillery bombardment, the leading units advanced rapidly, using poison gas effectively and bypassing Italian strong points. By month’s end, the Italian Army was in full retreat and attempting to establish defensive positions along the Tagliamento River. The defeat caused the fall of the government of Italian Prime Minister Paolo Boselli, who was replaced on October 30 by Minister of the Interior Vittorio Orlando.
The British have failed in two previous attempts to drive the Turks from Gaza, the most direct route from Cairo to Palestine. General Edmund Allenby, the new commander of British Army forces who assumed command of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in July, has had more success. After a campaign of deception and a feint toward Gaza that convinced the Turks that Gaza was again the primary target, Allenby instead attacked the crossroads town of Beersheba, located on the southern edge of the Negev Desert. The attack began the morning of October 31 and ended with a cavalry charge by the Australian Fourth Light Horse Brigade which forced the surrender of the last of the Turkish defenders. With the British occupation of Beersheba, the Turkish position in Gaza has become untenable.
The first Americans have arrived in the trenches. On October 21 American troops were assigned to French units in the Luneville sector, a relatively quiet part of the Western Front. Two days later artillery fire inflicted the first American combat injuries; all the injured soldiers were treated and returned to duty. A few days later the Americans captured their first prisoner, a German orderly who had wandered into the American lines by mistake.
With the United States in the war and enforcing its own embargo (imposed in July) on exports to the northern neutrals (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands), Great Britain no longer has to worry about offending American interests by cutting off neutral trade. On October 2, the London Gazette printed a royal proclamation imposing a sweeping embargo on all trade with the northern neutrals. Under the new embargo, the exportation to those countries of all articles except printed matter and personal effects accompanied by their owners is prohibited.
The United States is not the only nation whose neutrality has been threatened by Germany’s resumption of submarine warfare against merchant shipping Several Brazilian ships have been attacked with the loss of lives and valuable cargo. On October 26 the Brazilian legislature declared war on the Central Powers. The vote was 149 to 1 in the Chamber of Deputies and unanimous in the Senate. President Venceslau Bras signed the proclamation the same day. Brazilian torpedo boat destroyers have been ordered to Bahia to take possession of the German gunboat Eber, which is interned there.
Margarethe Zelle, the Dutch entertainer and courtesan who performed under the name Mata Hari, was arrested in Paris in February and charged with spying for the Germans. At her trial in July, the French prosecutors accused her of revealing details of the Allies’ new weapon, the “tank,” causing the Germans to rush work on a special gas to be used against it. The evidence indicated that she had traveled to the English town where the first “tanks” were being manufactured and that she was subsequently seen in Spain where she aroused suspicion by associating with a man suspected by the French Secret Service. She was arrested in Paris after being seen there with a young British officer attached to the “tank” service. She was convicted of espionage, and on October 15 she was taken by automobile from St. Lazaire Prison to the parade ground at Vincennes where she was executed by a firing squad.
The Trading with the Enemy Act, which became law on October 6, creates the post of Custodian of Enemy Property. On October 22, former Pennsylvania Congressman A. Mitchell Palmer assumed the position and opened offices at 920 F Street, N.W. He found waiting for him hundreds of letters from American corporations and others offering to turn over large amounts of money in the form of dividends from German-owned corporations in the United States as well as amounts due in settlement of estates and bills owed to German businesses. In addition to money, Palmer will begin seizing metals and other materials owned by Germans that are useful for war purposes, including millions of bales of cotton. The value of the money and property subject to confiscation is estimated at one billion dollars. All proceeds will be used to buy Liberty Bonds.
New York City’s reform mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, was elected as a Republican in 1913. Since then his popularity has diminished dramatically, and this year he narrowly lost the Republican primary to a relatively unknown former state senator. He continues to believe, however, that his nonpartisan message of patriotism and reform will carry the day against Democrat John F. Hylan, Tammany Hall’s candidate. On October 1 Mitchel stood on the steps of City Hall and addressed a crowd that filled City Hall Park from Park Row to Broadway. With him were former President Theodore Roosevelt, last year’s Republican presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes, and numerous other dignitaries including former ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau and Oscar Straus, former candidate for governor and chairman of the Public Service Commission. A letter of support from former President Taft was read. Replying to speakers who offered him a “popular nomination” to run for reelection as an Independent, he accepted, promising “to make the fight one against Hearst, Hylan and the Hollenzollerns.” In a tumultuous meeting on October 4 the New York Republican County Committee voted down a resolution to endorse William M. Bennett, the winner of the Republican primary. Republican leaders are lining up behind Mitchel’s Independent candidacy, but this may not be enough to defeat Tammany Hall.
A second Liberty Loan drive began on October 1 with a goal of 10 million subscribers for a face value of $3 billion dollars worth of bonds. Reflecting the increase in market interest rates since the first Liberty Bond issue in April at three and a half percent, the interest on this issue is four percent. Holders of bonds purchased in the first drive are allowed to exchange them for the new bonds. After a slow start, it appears that this issue, like the first one, will be oversubscribed. An important element in the success of Liberty Loan drives has been the appeal to patriotism and the mobilization of public opinion through the Committee on Public Information. On October 24, proclaimed “Liberty Day” by the President, volunteer women stationed at factory gates passed out seven million fliers. The mail order houses of Montgomery Ward and Sears-Roebuck mailed fliers to farm women, and librarians inserted Liberty Loan reminder cards in public library books.
The special session of Congress that convened on April 2 to hear President Wilson’s war message came to an end on October 6. As required by Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution, Congress will convene in its regular session on the first Monday in December. In the 188 days it was in session, in addition to declaring war on Germany, Congress enacted important war measures including compulsory military service and legislation authorizing billions of dollars in borrowing and expenditures, as well as.the Espionage Act, prohibiting interference with military operations and recruitment, and the Trading With the Enemy Act. In the last few hours of its session the Senate confirmed the nominations of several senior military officers, including the promotions of Major Generals John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, and Tasker H. Bliss, chief of the Army General Staff, to the rank of General, which they will hold for the duration of their present assignments. Before adjournment both houses were read a message from President Wilson thanking the Congress for “the work of this remarkable session” which has “been done thoroughly” and “with the utmost dispatch possible in the circumstances or consistent with a full consideration of the exceedingly critical matters dealt with,” leaving “no doubt as to the spirit and determination of the country.” Speaker Clark and Vice President Marshall then addressed the House and the Senate, respectively. Known for his wit and his self-deprecating sense of humor, Marshall thanked the senators for “the patience and forbearance with which they have dealt at many times with my irascible conduct.” Describing himself as a presiding officer who was “not one perhaps they wanted, but one that an ignorant electorate has thrust upon them,” he reminded the senators that “the unfortunate thing in public life is that those who know nothing are placed in the seats of the mighty. The wise men remain at home, and discuss public questions on the ends of street cars and around barber shops.”
A flood of telegrams and letters have poured into the Capitol in recent weeks demanding the expulsion of Senators Lafollette, Gronna, and Stone, all of whom opposed the declaration of war, on grounds of disloyalty. The Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections asked Senator LaFollette to answer specific questions about statements he had made in an address in St. Paul, and he responded with a two-hour speech on the Senate floor as the session drew to a close. He based his defense on the argument that he has a right to free speech, and told the Senate he will continue to oppose the war and call for the administration to state its war aims. Three of his fellow senators attacked the speech, Senator Joseph T. Robinson (Dem., Ark.) telling him “you can’t run for president on a platform of disloyalty.”
In a meeting held October 1, the Board of Trustees of Columbia University expelled two professors from the faculty. Professor James McKeen Cattell of the Department of Psychology and Assistant Professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana were ousted on charges that they had disseminated doctrines tending to encourage a spirit of disloyalty to the United States Government. Professor Cattell had written letters to members of Congress urging them to vote against sending drafted soldiers to Europe, and Professor Dana had joined and become active in the People’s Council despite a warning from Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler not to do so because it was engaged in weakening the government’s prosecution of the war. The statement issued by the University stated that it was “the judgment of the university Faculties, in which the Trustees concurred, that both Professor Cattell and Professor Dana had done grave injury to the university by their public agitation against the conduct of the war.” A week later, Professor Charles A. Beard, a distinguished and well-known professor of political science, resigned from the faculty in protest. While repeating his often-expressed support for the war, he objected to the university’s control by “a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, and narrow and mediaeval in religion.” He states that in light of the trustees’ action he can “no longer do my humble part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire or take a position of independence in the days of reconstruction that are to follow.”
The Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on October 15 to win the World Series four games to two. The decisive inning was the fourth, which featured three unearned runs. The game was scoreless when the inning began with Chicago second baseman Eddie Collins coming to the plate as the lead-off hitter. He hit a grounder to third baseman Heine Zimmerman, whose errant throw to first bounced off the ground and out of the infield, allowing Collins to advance to second. Left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson then hit an easy fly ball to right fielder Dave Robertson, which Robertson dropped, putting Jackson on first and sending Collins to third. The next batter, center fielder Happy Felsch, hit a ground ball to pitcher Rube Benton, who chased Collins back toward third, then tossed the ball to Zimmerman. As he did so, Collins wheeled and sped toward home. Giants catcher Bill Rariden moved up the third base line ready to begin a rundown, but Zimmerman, ignoring shouted advice from fans and teammates to “throw the ball!,” chased Collins all the way to the plate in an attempt to tag him from behind. Collins won the race. Felsch and Jackson advanced to second and third on the play, and the next batter, first baseman Chick Gandil, drove them in, giving the White Sox a 3-0 lead. Giants second baseman Buck Herzog hit a two-run triple in the fifth, but that was all the New Yorkers could muster. The White Sox went on to win the game 4-2.
October 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, November and December 1917
New York Times, October 1917
Books and Articles:
John Barrett, Latin America and the War
A. 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, 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
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, https://www.federalreservehistory.org/essays/liberty_bonds
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
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