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The Great War

News Reports From the Front
100 Years Ago This Month

August 1917

The crisis in Russia continues to grow

August 3

The Battle of Flanders has begun and indications are that it will be the biggest battle of the war. The offensive of the French and British allies has been expected for some weeks past, although the French and British official communications gave no inkling of it, German reports showed clearly a large-scale operation was preparing.

The importance attached to this drive into German held territory in this sector must be gauged not only by the reclaiming of Belgian soil from the invaders, but the threat it offers to the German submarine bases along the Belgian coast. A push much further eastward along the present line of events will be bound to shake the security of the German coastline.

The first part of the battle has been carried out with complete success. What has been affected fully justifies the Germans’ apprehensions and the French jubilations. French military observers say it is not too much to hope that the Germans will soon be cleared out of French and Belgian Flanders if things continue to go as well as they did this week.

The terrain of the new battle zone presented tremendous difficulties for the attacking troops. For three years the opposing armies have been embedded in this portion of the line, which has come to be looked upon as impregnable for either side. The present battle zone was in no man's land within which borders lay marshes, which in winter months are impassable. This formidable natural barrier was rendered still stronger by the inundation of large areas by the release of water from canals by the Germans.

The Germans and Allies alike, seeking bits of dry land for footing, has resulted in their lines being swung in some places to a distance of three miles apart. The area is filled with deserted farms dotted with pools of brackish water and cut into strange shapes by drainage ditches.

The situation is rendered still more difficult by the presence of a large number of waterways that must be crossed by means of bridges that may, at any moment, be destroyed by gunfire. This difficulty however, was overcome by a brilliant feat of British engineers who threw seventeen bridges across the waterways in the face of terrific gunfire.

August 10

The War Department announced that registered men who resist the Selective Draft Law face a court-martial for desertion and the possibility of execution for desertion in time of war. This announcement was made in response to reports from North Carolina, Georgia and Oklahoma of anti-draft disturbances. The Justice Department announced that the man arrested on charges of resisting the draft in connection with the Oklahoma uprising will be tried for treason and that the death penalty will be asked by the government.

Allied troops along the new battlefront in Flanders are leading a semi-aquatic existence, splashing about in waterlogged trenches and sinking almost calf deep at every step. Meantime the rain, which began to fall on Tuesday, continues in a steady downpour, adding to the discomfort and difficulties of the situation and giving little hope that even should the storm end immediately that the sun would dry out the land sufficiently to render the movement of infantry and artillery easy for several days.

The great squadron of tanks, which went into action with British infantry, proved their right to a place among the modern engine to war. The Battle of Flanders is the most comprehensive test of the worth of these monsters as fighting machines which has yet been given, and they came through with flying colors, notwithstanding the fact that they're operating under the most trying conditions of terrain.

Fewer tanks were knocked out by direct hits than any other previous engagement. The material damage that the tanks did to the enemy defenses was enormous, and prisoners stated that tank fire inflected heavy casualties on the Germans.

That the enemy is extremely afraid of tanks is without question. In numerous instances, Germans surrender freely on the mere appearance of one of these machines. At one place a German officer surrendered without question as a tank rolled up and threatened to open fire, and 60 soldiers were captured by the single tank.

In another battle, the Germans, believing tanks were helpless because they were stuck in deep mud, advanced in hope of capturing some of the monster machines. However, the tanks opened fire on the advancing line and mowed the Germans down in large numbers.

For the most part, tanks proved that they were capable of moving over the most difficult ground, but in a few cases they were stalled at times in holes. More than once when this happened the officers and crew rushed out under heavy fire in order to set up their machine guns in more advantageous positions, although they would have been comparatively safe in the tanks. Some of these intrepid crews fought until the last man was either killed or wounded, and it was due to such acts as these that many of the tank casualties resulted.

The crisis in Russia continues to grow by the day. It is reported that the military governor of Petrograd was killed when he was treacherously shot in the back. Elsewhere, the former Commander of the Russian armies on the southern Russian front has been arrested. It is said that he had been ordered to resign because he objected to interference from the Council of Workman's and Soldiers Delegates with the Provisional government.

Meanwhile, the Russian Minister of Justice has ordered the arrest of Leon Trotsky and Nicolai Lenin for the part they played in the uprisings in Petrograd last month. The men are international Socialists and leaders of the leader of the Maximalist wing of the Council of Workman’s and Soldiers Delegates. Trotsky was arrested late yesterday.

Leon Trotsky lived in the United States at the outbreak of the revolution, and when its success was known he left for Russia. Trotsky came to the United States when he was expelled from Europe for preaching peace.

August 17

A peace proposal made by Pope Benedict has been delivered to all the belligerent governments. There was no disposition to describe any but the loftiest motives to Pope Benedict. In eloquent language, the Pontiff describes the terrible conditions existing in Europe, which, he declares, is headed for destruction unless the belligerents are willing to listen to the appeals of disinterested friends to cease a suicidal war. Such conditions, the Pope feels, amply justified taking the present opportunity to suggest what may be, he hopes, at least the foundation upon which peace negotiations may be initiated.

The Pope gave unqualified approval of President Wilson's plans for the avoidance of future wars by the creation of some form of international organization to govern world affairs. Pope Benedict declared that along with such a splendid project must go an effective arrangement for reduction of armaments to a point just sufficient for defensive purposes or to carry out the mandate of the World Court.

Meanwhile, newspapers in Germany report that Field Marshal von Hindenburg's offensive against the Russians and Romanian armies has attained all its operative aims and that the German public should expect a gradual holding of the push. German military critics argue that their enemies would like nothing better than to see the German armies advance deep into Russia and get lost there.

The question of paramount interest is what will be the next military step by the Germans. Berlin indicates that nothing further is to be feared from Russia and that the Russian armies will surely go into winter quarters and a virtual armistice would ensue along the entire Eastern front for the balance of the war. This would fit nicely into the German leadership's plans to withdraw numerous divisions from the Russian and Romanian fronts for use against Italy.

Military leaders have long maintained that the Germans consider Italy the key to ending the stalemate on the Western Front. The German military considers the Italian army inferior. The dream of turning the deadlock Western Front into two war fronts with France has long fascinated the High German staff officers.

Meanwhile, word has been received that Nicholas Romanoff, the deposed Russian Emperor, and members of his family, were spirited away under circumstances of extreme mystery to an unknown destination, which the Provisional government firmly refuses to reveal. No one except the local military officials, specially sent from Petrograd, witnessed the departure. Instead of the gorgeous Imperial train in which Nicholas was taken into seclusion in March, an ordinary train composed of three sleeping cars, a dining car, and several third class coaches was sent. A second train was assigned to take the baggage and servants, 50 of who accompanied the Emperor and his family into exile.

According to the government, the removal of Nicholas was decided on after a series of secret sessions of the Council of Ministers late last month. The motive of the ministers was both political and military. It was decided to get Nicholas out of the way before circumstances arose making it difficult. At the time of the revolution, Nicholas was at the front. On his way back to the capital he was arrested and taken to the Imperial palace fifteen miles south of Petrograd, where the former royal family has since been confined.

"When will they let us get into the trenches, we want to fight." These expressions are frequently heard among the American soldiers in France. They seem undaunted by any anticipation of heavy casualties or by the stories of hardship, the merciless reign of fire, deadly gases or other dangers of trench life. Officers and men are confident that our forces will make a wonderfully credible showing once the opportunity comes for real action.

Cool-headed soldiers are handling grenades like baseballs. Several officers were watching a company of our men throwing grenades, one man swung back his arm, and the handle of the missile flew off and the grenade dropped at his feet in the trench. Instead of jumping out and running away the man coolly reached down, picked up the deadly bomb, and hurled it into a shell hole 40 yards away. That is just one instance showing that our men are becoming veterans, commented an officer.

The men had a cause for rejoicing when they saw the first movie show arrive in the shape of a Red Cross motor truck, equipped with a projecting machine, which throws the antics of favorite comedians, languishing vampires and other scenes on an open air screen. The truck makes a one night stand in each camp.

August 24

Notwithstanding protests from some of the southern states, the War Department has decided that all units of colored troops attached to National Guard organizations shall accompany those organizations to the divisional camps where they are to be trained for service in Europe. Most of these camps are in the South. This decision was reached after long and careful consideration, it is said, on the general theory that an army being raised to spread the principles of Democracy throughout the world cannot sanction racial or class distinctions.

In accordance with this policy, the newly organized colored regiments of the New York National Guard have been ordered to accompany the other units of that organization to their encampment in South Carolina. It is understood that the congressional delegation from South Carolina will make formal protest to the Secretary of Defense tomorrow, against the assignment of colored and Puerto Rican troops to camps within the borders of that state.

A delegation of Elders from the Amish sects in Indiana called on the Secretary of War to seek relief from the particular situation in which the members of the sect found themselves under as a result of the Selective Service law. Not only is the order opposed to the participation of its members in hostilities, but they also forbid the taking of oaths or swearing allegiance in any form.

The young men of this sect who have been summoned for service under the draft are, by regulations, to be assigned to noncombatant works behind the fighting lines, provided they make affidavits that their religious beliefs forbid them to take part in actual fighting. Since they cannot make those affidavits, however, the Elders feared the young men might be forced into the fighting ranks. The Secretary assures the Elders that a way would be worked out to ensure the young men are assigned noncombative work.

The President's orders relating to the exemption of married men under the selective service law were made public last night. It draws on the theory that bona fide dependence should be the rule for allowing exemption claims. This is taken to mean that married men whose wives and children naturally are dependent on their support should not be drafted into the Army. However, this only applies to men married before the draft was announced. Men who married after their draft numbers were called will not be given an exemption.

Immediate expansion of building facilities to double or triple the output of destroyers during the next eighteen months was the objective of the conference between the Secretary of War and representatives of 25 or more ship and engine builders.

The Secretary said no additional Submarine Chasers would be ordered at present. The Chasers are valuable for harbor patrol work, but the destroyer’s seagoing qualities make them a far greater value in all ways compared to the small Chasers.

Navy officers believe that destroyer convoys guarantee a large degree of security from submarine attack. The thing needed, in their view, is an adequate number of destroyers to make it certain that supply lines are not interrupted.

The Cologne Gazette is the first German paper to take seriously the American war preparations. In a leading article it warns the German general public that it may be worthwhile to watch the United States.

"America's Army," says the Cologne Gazette, "becomes stronger daily." The country's factories are doing all they can to turn out fighting machines, ships are being built at all the yards - everything is being done to increase the military value of the Army to the highest possible point.

"No wonder that a new hopefulness is noticeable in the souls of our enemies, who are encouraged to hold out another winter, after which, with new troops from America they hope to defeat the Central Powers and bring the war to a triumphant end. The enemy countries know better than to try to bring about a decision this year, but their people have sweet hopes."

"We cannot doubt that the Americans will fight not only because the great financial and industrial powers in that country do not wish to drop the golden fruit of war orders, but because they look forward to the days of peace when battered Europe will have to be rebuilt with American help. The American government does not know whether next year the Allies, with the help of American soldiers, will win, but it knows that it will need an army to reinforce its position in Central and South America, in the Pacific, and in the far east."

As the day approaches for the opening of the extraordinary National Council at Moscow, newspapers are full of speculation concerning expected dramatic announcements of events. The Congress is likely to take the form of a struggle of the cabinet backed by the Socialist left against the bourgeoisie, consisting of Constitutional Democrats, discontented Moscow businessmen, and dismissed generals, who all have criticized the Provisiona Government and Premier Kerensky’s policies, demanding radical changes. If no agreement is reached between the contending groups, open conflict must follow.

Meanwhile, General Purgasoff, a veteran who has been in active service since the beginning of the war, has been killed by soldiers who refused to recognize a newly appointed commander. General Purgasoff ordered the company disbanded and the leaders of the mutiny arrested. The mutineers then surrounded the general and beat him to death with the butt of their rifles.

August 31

Uncertainty surrounds the opening of the Moscow conference where sharp divisions of opinion are openly expressed. The conference will result either in a much-strengthened government or something akin to a Civil War. It is no exaggeration to state that the fate of Russia hangs on the decisions of the Moscow conference. Unless the government is armed with authority and force, even darker days face the Russian people.

Premier Kerensky’s task has never been greater, but there is a feeling here that he will prove equal to it. He must banish all political parties and build up a spirit of unity or everything in the revolution will be lost.

Labor unions are opposing the Moscow conference and have announced a one-day strike in protest. The leaders of the unions declare the conference to be counter-revolutionary and that it was not possible for Democratic organizations to participate. They regard the conference as an effort to deceive the masses. Protest meetings in various factories and works were called for.

Minimalist and social revolutionaries, likewise, are voicing opposition in their meetings, in which it was resolved that the conference was unrepresentative of the people, and announcing in advance that they would not abide by any decisions taken.

A meeting of the Provisional Government Commissioners came to the conclusion that Russia was suffering from a state of organized anarchy, due to independent minded local committees. It was resolved that control over their acts was necessary and that the Commissioners should have the power of challenging any act contrary to the policy of the Provisional government. The government went a step further and decreed plenary powers for the Ministers of the Interior and Food Supply, enabling them to take repressive measures against objectionable persons or bodies.

At the conference, Premier Kerensky introduced General Korniloff, saying the government had thought it necessary to invite the Commander-in-Chief to lay before the conference the situation at the front and in the Army. General Korniloff said that the death penalty restoration, together with other measures, constitutes only a small part of what was necessary in the Army stricken with the terrible evils of insubordination.

"In the present month," General Korniloff said, "soldiers have killed four regimental commanders and other officers and ceased these outrages only when they were threatened with being shot. Quite recently, one of the regiments, which fought so splendidly at the beginning of the revolution, abandoned its position on the front nothing except an order to exterminate the entire regiment caused them to return to their positions. Thus, we are fighting anarchy in the Army," the commander continued, "undoubtedly it will finally be repressed, but the danger of fresh debacles is weighing constantly on the country."

"If Russia wishes to be saved, the Army must be regenerated at any cost. We must immediately take measures such as I have directed." The general then outlined the measures, in addition to restoration of the death penalty, which are: first, restoration of discipline in the Army by the strengthening of the authority of officers; second, appointing other financial positions of officers, who have been in a very difficult position in the recent military operations; third, restrictions on the functions of regimental committees, which although managing economic affairs of the regiment, must not be permitted to take any part in decisions regarding military operations or the appointment of leaders.

The commander went on to say that according to information at his disposal, the condition of the railways was such that by November the Army would not receive any more supplies. In support of the statement he quoted a telegram from the Commander-in-Chief of the Southwestern front saying that the shortage of bread and biscuits on the front amounted to almost famine.

General Korniloff then read figures relating to the production of war materials, which he said, had decreased, compared with the period from October 1916 to January 1917, 60% less guns and shells and 80% less airplanes have been produced. "If this state of affairs continues," he added, "the Russian armies will find themselves incapable of continuing the fighting."

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