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The Great War

News Reports From the Front
100 Years Ago This Month

October 1916

Submarine warfare comes to America's shore – Romania falls back

October 6

The Central Powers have gained a decisive victory over the Romanian invaders in central Transylvania. The Romanians were crushed between two forces in a battle that raged for three days. The defeat of the Romanians was brought about by a strategic move virtually impossible on the western battlefront. The German commander divided his forces. While one body engaged the invaders, another body circled behind them and seized the mountain passes through which the Romanians had advanced into Transylvania.

Both forces then pressed in upon the Romanians. The troops holding the passes checked the advance by a second Romanian army, which attempted to come to the aid of its surrounded compatriots. After suffering heavy losses, the first Romanian army fled in disorder into the impassable mountain country.

Romanian dead following the retreat from Carpathian Mountains

To the south, the bold invasion of Bulgaria by Romanian troops, which crossed the Danube late last week, has ended most disastrously with the Romanian forces being virtually wiped out as a result of an encircling movement by the Germans and Bulgarians. The Romanians broke in disorder dropping their guns as they ran.

On the Western Front, figures show that since the Somme offensive began, three months ago, the British have lost approximately 307,169 men. During September alone, the British lost almost 120,000 men. Considering the character of the fighting, the losses of the Allies on the Somme are considered low. German reports, however, point out that the large losses are all out of proportion to the ground gained.

English soldiers charging in recent attacks speak of their amazement at finding themselves crossing fields of sugar beets. They had at last made their way out of the desert created by the shellfire into a region where peasants were still growing their crops. In the new battle area, which is rich farming country, villages are largely intact, and appear almost as normal as those 10 miles back of the old trench lines on the British sides.

The fighting has become so open that cavalry patrols have been used. Though some of the riders had their horses shot from under them, and some horses foundered in the abandoned trenches, others carried their scouting nearly a mile beyond the infantry advance and brought back valuable information.

The British "tanks,’ which were used for the first time on the Somme front last month, "are a failure", the German overseas news agency says. One tank became hopelessly entangled in bob wire. Another tank was disabled by one shell, and the ammunition, which it contained, exploded, and it burned up. Another tank was blown up with a hand grenade when it approached a German trench. At the last moment its occupants dispatched a carrier pigeon from this modern Noah’s ark. Only one of these land cruisers succeeded in crossing German trenches. It is the German High Command’s opinion that the British tanks will have no impact on the outcome of this or any future war.

British tanks destroyed during their first use at the Battle of the Somme

Dispatches from the island of Crete indicate that the movement headed by former Prime Minister Veniselos had been by no means as successful as first supposed. The loyalists are offering stiff resistance, and small but important conflicts are reported throughout the island.

Those closest to King Constantine have expressed frustration that the Allies continue to show ill-disguised suspicion of the King’s motive and sincerity, even after war virtually had been declared. King Constantine’s closest adviser said: "if the Allies want Greece as an ally it would facilitate matters greatly if they would treat the King as a potential ally, and not as an actual enemy."

October 13

On Monday and Tuesday, German submarines off Nantucket Island sank nine ships. Allied shipping along the American coast has become alarmed and six British steamship companies have canceled their schedules until further notice.

The attacks took place about 10 miles from the lightship. The spot is right in the track of transatlantic shipping. According to some of the survivors, the steamers came within range of the submarine so fast that they could not all be sent to the bottom at once, and one had to be kept waiting, while another was disposed of.

It is believed that the ships were sunk by the Imperial German submarine U-53, which dropped anchor on Sunday in Newport Harbor. Almost before the officers of the American fleet of warships recovered from their astonishment, the undersea fighter had delivered a message for the German ambassador, and, weighing anchor, turned Brenton’s Reef Lightship and disappeared beneath the waves.

The U-53 in Newport Harbor.  The U-5 3 survived the war, sinking 90 ships during her career

The U-53 flew the black and white colors of the German Navy. A gun was mounted on the forward deck and another on the aft, while eight torpedoes plainly visible under the forward deck, gave mute insurance that the warship was ready for fight at the drop of a hat.

Lieut. Capt. Hans Roge, who hung up a new world record in bringing an armed submarine in battle array across the Atlantic, said he had called at Newport simply to mail a letter to the German Ambassador. He required neither provisions nor fuel and would be on his way, he said, long before the 24 hours during which a belligerent ship may remain within a neutral harbor had expired.

The submarine was within American borders a little more than three hours. Within this time the German commander paid an official visit to U.S. Rear Admiral Knight.

While formalities were being exchanged, wireless messages were being carried to the ships of the British and French patrol fleet off the coast and warning that a hostile submarine had slipped through their cordon and might be expected in the open sea soon.

The belief is growing that the U-53 is only one of a flotilla of German submarines gathered for attacks on vessels of the Allied nations and neutral ships carrying contraband of war. Their operations, so far as known, had been south and southeast of Nantucket Island and from 3 to 10 miles offshore in international waters. Officers of the U. S. destroyer Baich declared that they saw a German supply ship, and men on the destroyer Ericason say they saw several German submarines while they were picking up survivors.

Sixteen U. S. destroyers have been engaged in rescue work, and they have brought 220 survivors into Newport. The fate of many others is not known, but it is not believed that they lost their lives because all of them made it to lifeboats with ample provisions, and they have encountered no rough weather.

Shipping in ports along the New England coast has been held up to a great extent and vessels at sea are reported to be making for the nearest harbor. The sudden onslaught of the undersea craft had thoroughly terrified shipping interest engaged in the carrying of munitions of war and other ships not flying the American flag.

The bright moonlight on Monday gave the submarine a good chance to continue operations in the evening. She moved a little to the westward and soon after dark stopped a Dutch tramp steamer, bound for New York from Rotterdam. Supposedly, on the theory she was carrying contraband, the steamer was sunk after the crew had entered small lifeboats. Later, a Norwegian steamer bound for London was halted and sent to the bottom. Three other steamers were reportedly sunk several hours later. The British steamer Stephano was not torpedoed, as first reported, but after the crew and passengers had left her, three German sailors went aboard and opened the water cocks.

No legendary Flying Dutchman ever was the center of so much mystery or the cause of so much speculation or lived so true to the tradition of being the forerunner of maritime mishap as a German submarine U-53, which dropped so dramatically into Newport Harbor Saturday afternoon.

Shippers of munitions to the allies speculated uneasily as to the purpose and probable length of the stay of the undersea raider in the center of the great trading route from Atlantic coast ports to Europe.

It was not believed that the American government would take any immediate action on German submarine activities, but serious consideration is given to the question of whether attacks on merchantman so near the American coast do not constitute a virtual blockade of American ports.

It is assumed in Germany that the American government has no grounds for objection to the operations of the submarines in such proximity to the American coast, since the German warships are merely following the example of Great Britain and her allies, which have kept watch on the American coast for German merchant ships.

In a meeting with the German ambassador, it is understood that the President made it clear that while the American government had no intention of interfering with the legitimate activities of submarines, the US would insist on the strict observation of the pledges given previously by the German government not to sink ships without warning.

Meanwhile, the Allies issued a proclamation stating that any place which provides a submarine with an opportunity for rest and replenishment of its supplies, thereby furnishes such addition to its powers that the place becomes in fact, through the advantages which it gives, a base of naval operations.

The Allied governments are thus of the opinion that submarines should be excluded from the benefit of the rules regarding the admission of vessels of war into neutral ports. The Allies further point out the grave danger incurred by neutral submarines in the navigation of the regions frequented by belligerent submarines. Noting that the Allies could sink an American submarine by mistake.

The claim of the Allies that the submarines are outlaws, brought up the question of whether the American government may be sued for damages resulting from the call of the U-53 at Newport before she started on her spectacular raid against commerce. Under the interpretation of the Allies, the position may be taking that Newport was made a base for operations which officials estimate already has caused at least $6 million in sunk Allied shipping.

Any attempt to collect damages, however, would probably be most vigorously opposed by the U.S. government, which holds that a warship has the right to enter a neutral harbor, and that the U-53 was in no way attempting to make Newport a base.

It is the American position that the German submarine warfare off the American coast is being conducted in full accordance with the recognized rules of Cruiser Warfare. The Germans are not sinking ships without warning, and without making adequate provisions for the safety of the passengers and crews.

The large number of ships suck is no doubt a result of the recent decision by an American court in the case of the British steamer Appam, which was awarded to her British owners after being taken into Norfolk by a German prize crew. Submarine commanders, therefore, have no option but to destroy merchantmen that cross their path, as the option to take them as war prizes has been removed.

Meanwhile, in Europe, heavy fighting continues on the Somme front, where the battle is described as being of tremendous violence. On the Eastern Front, the Romanians in Transylvania are retreating along the whole line.

Thursday was a sad day for the Greek Navy, which was forced to abandon their ships to the allies. Greek naval officers watch for three hours as their ships were towed away by allied tugs. The Allies took every precaution in case of resistance being offered. Russian battleships train their guns on the Greek fleet, while French torpedo boats, ready for action, cruised about.

In the morning, the crews were ordered to pack their personal belongings and quit the ships of which they were so proud. The ship's officers were the last to leave their vessels, taking with them their flags and the King’s portrait, which adored every wardrobe. On the arrival of the crews of the abandoned ships in the capital they were widely cheered by the population.

October 20

What the United States will do with regard to the German submarine raid off its coast is the theme of editorials of the European newspapers. They believe that the time for American isolation has vanished.

The papers declare that Germany's next step will be to seek some favor from the United States, which may be a request for mediation, or possibly only a request for an effective protest against the British blockade of Germany, as a return for muzzling her U-boats.

The Spectator claimed that Germany has given America warning of what will likely happen unless the United States is prepared to declare that war has reached a point where it is dangerous for neutrals, and the war must come to an end. If the United States is willing to play this role, the Germans will hold her hands from an extra dose of unlimited submarine warfare the Spectator claims.

According to a German newspaper, German submarines will operate in the future in the western Atlantic. They will visit the well-known shipping routes around the eastern points of Nantucket Island and will sink British merchant men after giving the crew an opportunity to save themselves.

However, recent reports state that the British have ordered the arming of all merchantmen and may force Germany to take up a sharper submarine campaign. German officials wonder whether it is not England's intention to bring Germany into difficulties with America by its new measures, as it will be impossible for German submarines to continue to provide advance warning to merchantmen without risking their own safety. The requirement to provide advance warning is the cornerstone of the U.S. acceptance of the current German submarine warfare program.

On the Somme front, Allied forces are keeping up their unrelenting drive. Detailed reports about recent fighting on the Somme front show that the attacks between October 9th and 13th are to be reckoned among the greatest actions of the whole Somme battle. The Germans had thought it impossible that the violence of the Allied artillery fire in the great attack early in October could be exceeded, but nevertheless even these were surpassed.

The terrific hail of horror from the British and French guns did not succeed in reducing the German positions to such an extent that they could be stormed. French and British infantry in compact waves charging German positions were speedily brought to a standstill by the German curtain of machine gun fire.

British medics sort through the  backpacks of British troops lost in just one single battle

Notwithstanding their heavy losses, the British attempted one attack after another. All fail completely. German infantry left their shelter, and standing in the open, shot down the enemy columns with rifles and machine guns. The effect of German fire on the French and British was simply shocking. Whole columns of French and British were literally mowed down by the German machine gun fire. And in places where the fighting was fiercest, barricades of corpses were piled up.

All prisoners declared the casualties of the enemy, especially those of the British, reached an amount heretofore unknown. Reports of German troops fully confirm this. Prisoner state French infantry companies now number hardly 50 men. The commander of one company, in order to stimulate the courage of the troops, had alcohol distributed profusely among them before the charge. This fact shows better than anything else the real moral of the French troops. Prisoners speak of the attacks as "hell on the Somme" and "useless slaughter."

Since the Battle of the Somme began, more than one million British and French troops have been killed according to figures from Swiss sources. 90 fresh divisions, each with 19,000 men, were virtually annihilated, so that it was necessary to withdrawal them forever. Three divisions disappeared completely during battle. 55 divisions, in consequence of their great losses, were able to engage in combat only twice, 15 divisions three times; only one was able to engage in combat four times.

Meanwhile, the Allies continued their slow usurpation of the Greek government, demanding control of the Greek police and a prohibition of Greek citizens from carrying arms. The railway stations of Athens and the City Hall have been occupied by French and Italian sailors, while British "Blue Jackets" with machine guns have been stationed in the municipal theater. The Allied powers have formally recognized the provisional government set up by former Prime Minister Venizsloz and his followers in the island of Crete.

A review by King Constantine of the sailors belonging to the vessels of the Greek Navy, which were taken possession of by the Allies, was made the occasion of an immense royalty demonstration, crowds paraded in the streets, holding life-size portraits of the sovereign and wildly cheering for the monarch.

After the ceremony, the King assembled officers about him and addressed them personally, expressing pride that they scorned offers of money and have remained faithful to their country. He gave his word that he would stand by them to the end against whatever consequences their loyalty may bring.

When asked why he has changed his policy and opted not to support the Allies, King Constantine stated: "I prefer to lose my throne rather than endanger Greece. I am convinced that in 15 days Romania will cease to exist. If Greece went into the war then, after the conquest of Romania, the irresistible German forces would be directed against Greece and she would share the fate of Serbia and Romania."

October 27

The past two days of blue skies and hard cold winds have resulted in a general drying of the ground in the Somme battle areas, again permitting activities. British troops have already taken advantage of the improvements. Advancing on a line of 5,000 yards on the Somme, British troops have pushed their line forward from 300 to 500 yards.

The battles on Monday and Tuesday were of the greatest violence. In order to break through at any price the British and French continued attacks in which strong forces were employed. In spite of their use of masses of troops, they suffered a heavy defeat. It is reported from the front that rows of dead are laying one upon another.

But, all military eyes are on the deteriorating situation in Romania, where striking hard against the Russian and Romanian line, Field Marshal von Mackensen has renewed successfully his offensive in Romania. Attacking along a 40-mile front, the forces of the Central Powers have made good progress almost everywhere.

On Monday, the Romanian fortress of Constanza was taken by the Germans. Constanza was one of the principal objectives of Field Marshal von Mackensen in his campaign. It is a particular importance by reason of the fact that it is the eastern termination of the only railroad between the Black Sea and the Danube. It has been a seaport and railway entrance for Russian troops and ammunition sent to the aid of the Romanians, especially in munitions, of which the Romanians have been reported badly in need. The loss of Constanza is bound to have far-reaching consequences for Romania in carrying on her military operations.

The German drive into Romania from the south has pushed the Russian and Romanian armies apparently to the last possible line of resistance in interior Romania. On the north, pressure is also being applied by the Central Powers. As a result Romania is being crushed between the two jaws of the Teutonic military machine.

Field Marshal Von Mackensen’s new campaign was begun only last week, when an offensive along the entire line from the Black Sea to the Danube was open. The earlier efforts of the Field Marshal were started soon after Romania’s entrance into the war. It was notably successful in that it shut down the Danube with the capture of the fortresses of Turtukai and Silletria, but soon after it came to a halt. The opposing armies stood deadlocked for several weeks; while the Teutonic offensive in Transylvania was opened and the Romanians were driven back to their northern frontier passes.

The pressure from the south was then renewed and apparently, without a check by the Romanians, Field Marshal von Mackensen’s armies have forced their way northward, advancing 20 miles a day, to within striking distance of the interior of Romania. One cannot escape the impression that on all the Romanian frontiers the defenders are greatly outnumbered, and all movements are in the wrong direction.

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