This post marks the fifth anniversary of my monthly Centennial Countdown blog, in which I review the events of the month a hundred years ago. All five years are available in the archive. I started the Countdown with September 1911 not because there’s anything special about that date but because September 2011 was when the idea occurred to me. The project has been a learning experience for me as I hope it has been for you. I appreciate your interest, and in particular the comments and suggestions (and occasional corrections) the blog has inspired.
In September 1916, the presidential campaign in the United States begins in earnest. The Democrats formally notify President Wilson of his nomination and a Democratic Congress swiftly passes his pro-labor railroad bill, averting a threatened nationwide rail strike. Wilson tells suffragists that their cause will triumph with or without a constitutional amendment. He administers a brutal public rebuff to an Irish-American critic and lays claim to the label “progressive.” David Lloyd George warns America not to interfere with Great Britain’s war. At the Somme, tanks are used in battle for the first time and Prime Minister Asquith’s son is killed in action. Romania may be rethinking its decision to join the Allies, as Bulgaria declares war and joins German forces in a two-pronged attack.
Traditionally, the presidential campaign begins in September. This year the Republicans held their notification ceremony a month early to give their nominee, former New York Governor and Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, time for an extended campaign swing through the midwestern and western states. The Democrats nominated President Wilson for reelection. Because his normal duties keep him in the news and provide the occasion for regular speeches on questions of public policy, there was no need to hold the Democratic notification ceremony any earlier than usual. This summer, without waiting for the formal start of the campaign, the president dedicated the new American Federation of Labor building, signed rural credits and child labor legislation, and spent much of the month of August in meetings with railroad executives and union leaders trying to avert a railroad strike. At the end of August he asked Congress to resolve the railroad impasse by enacting the unions’ demands into law. On Saturday, September 2, his campaign began with the Democrats’ official notification ceremony at Shadow Lawn, this year’s “Summer White House” on the New Jersey shore.
President Wilson is spending as much time as possible at Shadow Lawn. While he was there for the notification ceremony, Congress passed the legislation he had requested, called the Adamson Act after its sponsor in the House of Representatives, Representative William C. Adamson (Dem., Ga.). The president signed it into law the next day in his railroad car before leaving for Kentucky for a ceremony dedicating Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. On September 4 his Republican opponent addressed a mostly pro-Wilson crowd in solidly Democratic Memphis, Tennessee, in which he attacked Wilson and the Democratic Congress for the Adamson Act, arguing that it sacrificed principle to political expediency and failed to stand up to special interests. The Republicans are expected to make this a major issue. Back in Washington on Tuesday, September 5, Wilson signed the bill a second time to foreclose any legal argument that it had not become law because it was signed on a Sunday.
President Wilson traveled to Atlantic City on September 8 to address the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Attempting to recover ground lost to Hughes on the woman suffrage issue, he restated his support for woman suffrage without mentioning that, unlike Hughes, he opposed making it the law of the land by amending the Constitution. Calling the woman suffrage movement “one of the most astonishing tides in modern history,” he told his audience that they “need not be afraid that it will not come to its flood. We feel the tide; we rejoice in the strength of it, and we shall not quarrel in the long run as to the method of it.” Addressing this group was an unusual experience for him, he said, because unlike most of his trips to Atlantic City, this time he had come “not to fight anybody, but with somebody.” He concluded his address by saying “I have not come to ask you to be patient, because you have been, but I have come to congratulate you that there was a force behind you that will, beyond any peradventure, be triumphant and for which you can afford a little while to wait.” Apparently satisfied, Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the Association, replied to the president’s speech by saying “you touched our hearts and won our fealty when you said you had come here to fight with us.”
The American Truth Society was founded in 1912 to promote independence for Ireland. Since the outbreak of the war in Europe, its membership has grown to include German-Americans and others who oppose what they perceive as the pro-Allied policy of the American government. Its founder and president, Jeremiah O’Leary, sent a telegram to President Wilson on September 29 in which he accused the president of “truckling to the British Empire” and presidential “dictatorship over Congress, and warned that “your foreign policies, your failure to secure compliance with all American rights, your leniency with the British Empire, your approval of war loans, the ammunition traffic, are issues in this campaign.” Wilson replied the same day and sent copies of both telegrams to the newspapers. His reply read: “Your telegram received. I would feel deeply mortified to have you or anybody like you vote for me. Since you have access to many disloyal Americans and I have not, I ask you to convey this message to them.”
In a speech at Shadow Lawn on September 30, Wilson attacked the Republican Party and laid claim to the “progressive” label. Addressing a group of young Democrats, he abandoned his usual professorial speaking style and adopted the fiery rhetoric of a political campaign. He asked “If [the Republicans] are going to change our foreign policy, in what direction are they going to change it? There is only one choice against peace and that is war! The certain prospect of the success of the Republican Party is that we shall be drawn in one form or another into the embroilments of the European war.” He praised the Progressives of 1912 who left the Republican Party and said “the progressive voters of this country all put together outnumber either party.” He advised his listeners to “throw in your fortunes with the party of which the progressives have the control” and said “I am a progressive. I do not spell it with a capital P, but I think my pace is just as fast as those who do.”
Reports circulated this month that Germany might suggest to President Wilson that he offer to act as mediator in an effort to bring an end to the war, and that Germany was also considering the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, thus revoking the “Sussex Pledge” made in May. In an apparent effort to head off any move by President Wilson to involve himself in peace negotiations, British Secretary of State for War David Lloyd George gave an interview to an American correspondent on September 28. He said “The fight must be to the finish — to a knock-out … Neutrals of the highest purposes and humanitarians with the best motives must know that there can be no outside interference at this stage. Britain asked no intervention when she was not prepared to fight. She will tolerate none now ….” On the same day German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg spoke in the Reichstag, denouncing Great Britain as an unscrupulous foe against whom Germany was justified in using “all suitable weapons.”
A new weapon was used in battle for the first time on the Somme battlefield on September 15. Allied forces attacked German positions south of the Albert-Bapaume road using “battle tanks,” armored vehicles designed to carry firepower over barbed wire and through opposing trenches and machine guns. Of the forty-nine machines that took part in the attack, ten were hit by artillery fire and fourteen suffered mechanical breakdowns or failed to advance for other reasons. The others advanced over a mile, capturing High Wood and the nearby villages of Flers, Courcelette and Martinpuich.
Among the Allied casualties in the battle of Flers-Courcelette was Lieutenant Raymond Asquith of the Guards Division, who was mortally wounded as he led his men forward.. After being shot, he nonchalantly lit a cigarette as he was carried off the field to encourage his men to continue the attack. Asquith, a barrister who was regarded as a promising future politician before the war, was Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s eldest son.
On the night of September 2-3 Germany mounted the largest Zeppelin raid of the war. Sixteen airships attacked eastern England, of which ten reached London. On the return flight one of them, the SL11, was attacked and brought down by a British aircraft piloted by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson using the new incendiary bullets. The fiery crash was witnessed for miles around, and thousands of Britons poured into the streets to celebrate the first destruction of a German airship on British soil. Lieutenant Robinson was promoted to captain and awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Germans also have their aerial heroes. One of them is Baron Manfred von Richthofen, recently transferred from the Eastern Front where he engaged in bombing missions against Russian targets. On September 17 on the Western Front, he won his first aerial duel when he shot down a British aircraft flown by pilot Lieutenant Lionel Morris and observer Captain Tom Rees. Both of the British aviators were killed.
Romania’s successful prosecution of its war against Austria, which began on August 28 with an offensive through the Carpathian Mountain passes, has stalled. Bulgaria declared war on September 1 and attacked across the Danube on September 3 as the German Army under the command of General von Falkenhayn attacked from the north and Bulgarian aircraft attacked Bucharest from the air. On September 26 Falkenhayn advanced into Transylvania and recaptured Hermannstadt.
September 1916 – Selected Sources and Recommended Reading
American Review of Reviews, October and November 1916
New York Times, September 1916
Books and Articles:
Scott Berg, Wilson
Howard Blum, Dark Invasion, 1915: Germany’s Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America
Britain at War Magazine, “The Third Year of the Great War: 1916”
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
Patrick Devlin, Too Proud to Fight: Woodrow Wilson’s Neutrality
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 III: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916
Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, Decisions for War, 1914-1917
August Heckscher, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography
Godfrey Hodgson, Woodrow Wilson’s Right Hand: The Life of Colonel Edward M. House
Paul Jankowski, Verdun: The Longest Battle of the Great War
Keith Jeffrey, 1916: A Global History
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
G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918
Merlo J. Pusey, Charles Evans Hughes
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
Barbara W. Tuchman, The Zimmermann Telegram
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:
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