In September 1917, the Central Powers reply to Pope Benedict’s peace initiative, saying they welcome it as a basis for negotiation but not agreeing to any specific concessions. In a supplemental message delivered to the Papal Nuncio at Munich, the German government says it would consider evacuating Belgium and contributing to reparations for war damages in return for certain guarantees from Belgium, an offer the Allies consider unacceptable.
In Russia, following General Kornilov’s failed coup, Prime Minister Kerensky assumes personal command of the armed forces. There is another change of government in France as Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot is replaced by War Minister Paul Painleve. In the United States, parades honoring draftees are held in Washington and New York. The Washington parade, which takes two hours to pass the reviewing stand, is led by President Wilson and includes members of Congress and Cabinet members leading contingents of draftees from their respective departments.
On the Western Front the British offensive on the Ypres salient continues with attacks on the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood. The Italian offensive against the Austro-Hungarians at the Isonzo River achieves modest gains. Argentina comes close to declaring war against Germany when American Secretary of State Lansing releases intercepted and decoded messages sent from the German Charge d’Affaires in Buenos Aires to his government suggesting that two Argentine ships en route to France should be “sunk without a trace.”
Last month President Wilson, in a reply adopted by the other nations at war with Germany, rejected Pope Benedict’s peace initiative, saying no peace was possible as long as Germany is ruled by its present government. Germany and Austria-Hungary have now submitted separate replies to the Pontiff’s proposal. The Austrian note was delivered to the Papal Nuncio in Vienna on September 20, and the texts of both notes were made public in Amsterdam the next day. The Austrian note was addressed directly to the Pope by Emperor Charles I. It welcomed “this fresh gift of fatherly care which you, Holy Father, always bestow on all peoples without distinction,” and embraced “the leading idea of your Holiness that the future arrangement of the world must be based on the elimination of armed forces and on the moral force of right and on the rule of international justice and legality.” It supported “your Holiness’s view that the negotiations between the belligerents should and could lead to an understanding by which, with the creation of appropriate guarantees, armaments on land and sea and in the air might be reduced simultaneously, reciprocally and gradually . . . and whereby the high seas, which rightly belong to all the nations of the earth, may be freed from domination . . . and be opened equally for the use of all.”
Germany, like France, Italy and the United States, has no diplomatic relations with the Vatican. Its reply, sent by mail, arrived in Rome on September 26. The Pope’s note had been sent to Kaiser Wilhelm with a letter from the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. Chancellor Michaelis replied to Gasparri on behalf of “the Kaiser and King, my most gracious master,” who has “deigned to acquaint me with your Eminence’s letter and to entrust the reply to me.” He says the Kaiser “has been following for a considerable time and high respect his Holiness’s efforts, in a spirit of true impartiality, to alleviate as far as possible the sufferings of the war and to hasten the end of hostilities” and asserts that the Kaiser has kept his promise never to “cut short the benefits of peace unless war were a necessity.” He says that “in the crisis which led up to the present world conflagration his Majesty’s efforts were up to the last moment directed toward settling the conflict by peaceful means” but that a “disastrous concatenation of events in the year 1914 absolutely broke off all hopeful course of development and transformed Europe into a bloody battle arena.”
According to a German official statement released on September 26, Foreign Minister Richard von Kuhlmann delivered a supplemental verbal note to the Papal Nuncio in Munich in response to the Pope’s peace initiative. The statement says that Germany would agree to evacuate Belgium and contribute to compensation for war damages under certain conditions, among which are unspecified Belgian guarantees against “any such menace as that which threatened Germany in 1914.” In equally general terms, Germany says it wants to be free to develop its economic enterprises freely in Belgium and to have free access to the port of Antwerp. Finally, in accordance with its own interests as well as those of the Belgian people, it wants Belgium to maintain separate administrative districts for the Flanders and Walloon areas of the country. The Allies regard these conditions as unacceptable.
Events are moving fast in Russia. The Army suffered a major defeat on September 3 when a German attack drove the Russians from the important Baltic port of Riga. In Petrograd, General Kornilov’s attempt to take over the government has failed, due in large part to Prime Minister Kerensky’s decision to rearm the left-wing Petrograd Soviet and seek its support. By strengthening the Soviet, Kerensky has greatly increased the threat to the Provisional Government from the left. The Soviet, and in particular the Bolsheviks, who were marginalized in the aftermath of the “July Days” (see the July and August 1917 installments of this blog), are now in a position to control events. Leon Trotsky, arrested during the July Days, has been released from prison, and Vladimir Lenin, who fled to Finland, has returned to Russia. In an attempt to maintain control, Kerensky assumed personal command of the Russian Army on September 12, and on September 14 he established a directorate of five men, himself included, to run the government. The next day he dissolved the Duma and proclaimed Russia a republic. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, have lived up to their name by gaining majority control of the Petrograd Soviet, and have adopted a program favoring exclusion of all property-owning classes from power.
France has a new Prime Minister. Alexandre Ribot, who became Prime Minister in March, resigned on September 12. He was succeeded by Minister of War Paul Painleve. Ribot remains in the cabinet as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In Washington on September 4, young men from the District of Columbia chosen for the new national army through the Selective Service draft were honored in a parade. Numbering some 26,000 marchers including 1,400 draftees, the parade began at the Peace Monument at the foot of Capitol Hill and proceeded up Pennsylvania Avenue to Eighteenth Street, two blocks past the White House. It was led by President Wilson, who strode up Pennsylvania Avenue at a vigorous pace, flanked by a committee of citizens dressed in formal frock coats and silk hats. The President himself, carrying a large American flag, stood out for the simplicity of his attire: a short blue jacket, white flannel trousers, white canvas shoes, and a straw hat with stiff brim. He was followed by seventy members of the Senate, in the front rank of which were Senate leaders including John Bankhead of Alabama, who wore the uniform of a confederate soldier, and Knute Nelson of Minnesota in the uniform of the Grand Army of the Republic. Also marching was Senator Thomas Martin of Virginia, who in 1864 was among the cadets at the Virginia Military Institute who were called out to battle Northern troops at the Battle of New Market. After the Senate came a Boy Scout band followed by most of the Members of the House of Representatives. Draftees who are civil servants marched in contingents led by the Secretaries of their respective Departments. Tens of thousands of spectators lined Pennsylvania Avenue waving American flags as the marchers, most of them also carrying flags, passed by.
At the White House the President left the procession and ascended to a reviewing stand erected in front of the White House grounds, where he remained for two hours as the parade passed in review. He was accompanied on the reviewing stand by Secretary of State Lansing, Speaker of the House Clark, and the ambassadors of Great Britain, France, Belgium, Italy and Japan. Mrs. Wilson sat nearby with the wives of Cabinet officers.
Most of the marchers were white, but several hundred Negro draftees also marched. The spectators’ steady ovations gave way to cheers as they saw the large banner they were carrying, which read “Selected by the Nation to Assist in Upbuilding World Democracy.” The cheering was interspersed with laughter when some of them broke into cake-walk steps as they passed the reviewing stand.
New York City staged its own draft parade the same day. Beginning at Washington Square and proceeding up Fifth Avenue to Fiftieth Street, it was reviewed by a distinguished array of present and former officials, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, his Democratic opponent in the 1904 presidential race Judge Alton B. Parker, former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice and 1916 Republican Presidential Nominee Charles Evans Hughes; and New York City Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. When the parade disbanded, several thousand marchers continued to the Polo Grounds to watch the game between the New York Giants and the Boston Braves. All the draftees had been given brassards with the legend “N.A.” for National Army, which served as tickets of admission. Unfortunately for the New Yorkers, the Braves won the game 3-1. By month’s end, however, the Giants had clinched the National League pennant. They will face the Chicago White Sox in the World Series.
The Third Battle of Ypres continued this month with attacks on the Menin Road Ridge and Polygon Wood. Earlier offensive operations on the Ypres Salient had been frustrated by the Germans’ strategy of defense in depth, in which the German front line was lightly defended but backed up by strong points that were effective in disrupting further Allied advances and setting the stage for counterattacks mounted by troops kept to the rear out of artillery range. In attacking the Menin Road Ridge, the Allies tried a new tactic, called “bite and hold.” Attacking and occupying the lightly defended ground, the Allied troops consolidated their defensive positions, moved up their artillery, and began preparations for another modest advance. In this way they remained prepared for any counterattack and minimized the risk of being caught in the midst of a disorganized advance. The new tactic, which was successful in taking and holding the Menin Road Ridge on September 20-25, was repeated, again with apparent success, at Polygon Wood in a battle that began on September 26.
On the Italian Front, the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo came to an inconclusive end on September 12 when the Italian Army’s offensive, after initial gains, proved unable to make further advances. The Austro-Hungarians, also exhausted, were unable to mount a counterattack.
Argentina came close to breaking diplomatic relations, and perhaps going to war, with Germany this month. Relations between the two countries have been strained since April, when a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Argentine sailing ship Monte Protegido near the Sorlingas Islands (Isles of Scilly) en route to Rotterdam with a cargo of linen. Other submarine attacks resulted in the loss of another sailing ship, Oriana, on June 6 and the steamship Toro on June 22, both in the Mediterranean en route to Genoa. The Argentine government filed a protest on July 4, threatening to sever diplomatic relations if the reply was unsatisfactory, and the German government promised no further occurrences. There matters stood until September 9 when American Secretary of State Robert Lansing released transcripts of intercepted and decoded telegrams that had been sent by the German Charge d’Affaires in Buenos Aires, Count Karl von Luxburg, to the German Foreign Office in Berlin notifying his superiors of the departure of two Argentine ships bound for Bordeaux. The telegrams had been sent through Stockholm by way of the Swedish Embassy. Luxburg reported that “in view of the settlement of the Monte [Protegido] case there has been a great change in public feeling” in Argentina, and recommended that the ships nearing Bordeaux “be spared if possible or else sunk without a trace being left (‘spurlous versenckt’).”
The “sunk without a trace” advice caused a political firestorm in Argentina. On September 12 Argentina sent a note to Germany declaring Count Luxburg persona non grata and demanding an official apology and disavowal of Luxburg’s statements. On September 19 the Argentine Senate passed a resolution with only one dissenting vote demanding the immediate severance of diplomatic relations with Germany. On September 23 the German government sent a note disapproving Luxburg’s statements and dismissing him from his post in Buenos Aires. Unsatisfied, on September 25 the Argentine Chamber of Deputies followed the Senate’s lead, demanding the breaking off of diplomatic relations by a vote of 53-18. The President, however, has decided to accept Germany’s apology and take no further action.
September 1917 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, September and October and November 1917
New York Times, September 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
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 Prohibition
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
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