The United States officially enters World War I

Year
1917
Month Day
April 06

Two days after the U.S. Senate voted 82 to 6 to declare war against Germany, the U.S. House of Representatives endorses the declaration by a vote of 373 to 50, and America formally enters World War I.

When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality for the United States, a position that the vast majority of Americans favored. Britain, however, was one of America’s closest trading partners, and tension soon arose between the United States and Germany over the latter’s attempted quarantine of the British Isles. Several U.S. ships traveling to Britain were damaged or sunk by German mines, and in February 1915 Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain. One month later, Germany announced that a German cruiser had sunk the William P. Frye, a private American vessel. President Wilson was outraged, but the German government apologized and called the attack an unfortunate mistake.

READ MORE: Should the U.S. Have Entered World War I?

On May 7, the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans. The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, but the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships. In August, Germany pledged to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels, but in November sunk an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans. With these attacks, public opinion in the United States began to turn irrevocably against Germany.

In 1917, Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare in war-zone waters. Three days later, the United States broke diplomatic relations with Germany, and just hours after that the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat. On February 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms appropriations bill intended to make the United States ready for war. In late March, Germany sunk four more U.S. merchant ships, and on April 2 President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, his request was granted.

On June 26, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France to begin training for combat. After four years of bloody stalemate along the western front, the entrance of America’s well-supplied forces into the conflict marked a major turning point in the war and helped the Allies to victory. When the war finally ended, on November 11, 1918, more than two million American soldiers had served on the battlefields of Western Europe, and some 50,000 of them had lost their lives.

READ MORE: World War I: Causes and Timeline

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Exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari is executed

Year
1917
Month Day
October 15

Mata Hari, the archetype of the seductive female spy, is executed for espionage by a French firing squad at Vincennes outside of Paris.

She first came to Paris in 1905 and found fame as a performer of Asian-inspired dances. She soon began touring all over Europe, telling the story of how she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient dances by a priestess who gave her the name Mata Hari, meaning “eye of the day” in Malay. In reality, Mata Hari was born in a small town in northern Holland in 1876, and her real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. She acquired her superficial knowledge of Indian and Javanese dances when she lived for several years in Malaysia with her former husband, who was a Scot in the Dutch colonial army. Regardless of her authenticity, she packed dance halls and opera houses from Russia to France, mostly because her show consisted of her slowly stripping nude.

READ MORE: The Exotic Dancer Who Became WWI’s Most Notorious Spy

She became a famous courtesan, and with the outbreak of World War I her catalog of lovers began to include high-ranking military officers of various nationalities. In February 1917, French authorities arrested her for espionage and imprisoned her at St. Lazare Prison in Paris. In a military trial conducted in July, she was accused of revealing details of the Allies’ new weapon, the tank, resulting in the deaths of thousands of soldiers. She was convicted and sentenced to death, and on October 15 she refused a blindfold and was shot to death by a firing squad at Vincennes.

There is some evidence that Mata Hari acted as a German spy, and for a time as a double agent for the French, but the Germans had written her off as an ineffective agent whose pillow talk had produced little intelligence of value. Her military trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, and it is probable that French authorities trumped her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century” as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the western front. 

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February Revolution begins, leading to the end of czarist rule in Russia


Year
1917
Month Day
March 08

In Russia, the February Revolution (known as such because of Russia’s use of the Julian calendar) begins when riots and strikes over the scarcity of food erupt in Petrograd. One week later, centuries of czarist rule in Russia ended with the abdication of Nicholas II, and Russia took a dramatic step closer toward communist revolution.

By 1917, most Russians had lost faith in the leadership ability of the czarist regime. Government corruption was rampant, the Russian economy remained backward, and Nicholas repeatedly dissolved the Duma, the Russian parliament established after the Revolution of 1905, when it opposed his will. However, the immediate cause of the February Revolution–the first phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917–was Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War I. Militarily, imperial Russia was no match for industrialized Germany, and Russian casualties were greater than those sustained by any nation in any previous war. Meanwhile, the economy was hopelessly disrupted by the costly war effort, and moderates joined Russian radical elements in calling for the overthrow of the czar.

On March 8, 1917, demonstrators clamoring for bread took to the streets in the Russian capital of Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg). Supported by 90,000 men and women on strike, the protesters clashed with police but refused to leave the streets. On March 10, the strike spread among all of Petrograd’s workers, and irate mobs of workers destroyed police stations. Several factories elected deputies to the Petrograd Soviet, or “council,” of workers’ committees, following the model devised during the Revolution of 1905.

On March 11, the troops of the Petrograd army garrison were called out to quell the uprising. In some encounters, regiments opened fire, killing demonstrators, but the protesters kept to the streets, and the troops began to waver. That day, Nicholas again dissolved the Duma. On March 12, the revolution triumphed when regiment after regiment of the Petrograd garrison defected to the cause of the demonstrators. The soldiers, some 150,000 men, subsequently formed committees that elected deputies to the Petrograd Soviet.

The imperial government was forced to resign, and the Duma formed a provisional government that peacefully vied with the Petrograd Soviet for control of the revolution. On March 14, the Petrograd Soviet issued “Order No. 1,” which instructed Russian soldiers and sailors to obey only those orders that did not conflict with the directives of the Soviet. The next day, March 15, Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne in favor of his brother Michael, whose refusal of the crown brought an end to the czarist autocracy.

The new provincial government, tolerated by the Petrograd Soviet, hoped to salvage the Russian war effort while ending the food shortage and many other domestic crises. It would prove a daunting task. Meanwhile, Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik revolutionary party, left his exile in Switzerland and crossed German enemy lines to return home and take control of the Russian Revolution.

READ MORE: Russia: A Timeline

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Balfour Declaration letter written

Year
1917
Month Day
November 02

On November 2, 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour writes an important letter to Britain’s most illustrious Jewish citizen, Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The letter would eventually become known as the Balfour Declaration.

Britain’s support for the Zionist movement came from its concerns regarding the direction of the First World War. Aside from a genuine belief in the righteousness of Zionism, held by Lloyd George among others, Britain’s leaders hoped that a statement supporting Zionism would help gain Jewish support for the Allies.

On November 2, Balfour sent his letter to Lord Rothschild, a prominent Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, stating that: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The influence of the Balfour Declaration on the course of post-war events was immediate: According to the “mandate” system created by the Versailles Treaty of 1919, Britain was entrusted with the administration of Palestine, with the understanding that it would work on behalf of both its Jewish and Arab inhabitants.

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Russian-German peace talks begin at Brest-Litovsk


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Year
1917
Month Day
December 22

A week after the armistice was signed between Russia and Germany and nearly three weeks after a ceasefire was declared on the Eastern Front, representatives of the two countries begin peace negotiations at Brest-Litovsk, near the Polish border in what is now the city of Brest, in Belarus.

The leader of the Russian delegation was Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik People’s Commissar for Foreign Relations. Max Hoffmann, the commander of German forces on the Eastern Front, served as one of the chief negotiators on the German side. The main difference of opinion in Brest-Litovsk was over cessation of Russian land to the Germans—the Russians demanded a peace without annexations or indemnities and the Germans were unwilling to concede on this point. In February 1918, Trotsky announced he was withdrawing the Russians from the peace talks, and the war was on again.

Unfortunately for Russia, with the renewal of fighting the Central Powers quickly took the upper hand, seizing control of most of Ukraine and Belarus. The Bolshevik hope that the workers of Germany and Austria, offended by their governments’ naked territorial ambition, would rise up in rebellion in the name of the international proletariat soon vanished. On March 3, 1918, Russia accepted peace terms even harsher than those originally suggested, losing Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Livonia, and Courland to Germany. Meanwhile, Finland and the Ukraine saw Russia’s weakness as an opportunity to declare their independence. In all, Brest-Litovsk deprived Lenin’s new state of one million square miles of territory and one-third of its population, or 55 million people.

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Puerto Ricans become U.S. citizens, are recruited for war effort


Year
1917
Month Day
March 02

Barely a month before the United States enters World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signs the Jones-Shafroth Act, granting U.S. citizenship to the inhabitants of Puerto Rico.

Located about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida—and less than half that distance from the coast of South America—Puerto Rico was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in December 1898 as part of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. In 1900, a Congressional act created a civil government for the island; the first governor under this act, Charles H. Allen, was appointed by President William McKinley and inaugurated that May in Puerto Rico’s capital city, San Juan.

On March 2, 1917, Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act, under which Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship, meaning that citizenship was granted by an act of Congress and not by the Constitution (thus it was not guaranteed by the Constitution). The act also created a bill of rights for the territory, separated its government into executive, legislative and judicial branches, and declared Puerto Rico’s official language to be English.

As citizens, Puerto Ricans could now join the U.S. Army, but few chose to do so. After Wilson signed a compulsory military service act two months later, however, 20,000 Puerto Ricans were eventually drafted to serve during World War I. Puerto Rican soldiers were sent to guard the Panama Canal, the important waterway, in operation since 1914, which joined the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean across the Isthmus of Panama in Central America. Puerto Rican infantry regiments were also sent to the Western Front, including the 396th Infantry Regiment of Puerto Rico, created in New York City, whose members earned the nickname Harlem Hell Fighters.

Later, during World War II, Puerto Rico became an important military and naval base for the U.S. Army. Its economy continued to grow, aided by a hydroelectric-power expansion program instituted in the 1940s. In 1951, Puerto Rican voters approved by referendum a new U.S. law granting the islanders the right to draft their own constitution. In March 1952, Luis Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico’s governor, proclaimed Puerto Rico a freely associated U.S. commonwealth under the new constitution; the status was made official that July. Though nationalist agitation for the island’s complete independence from the U.S. was a constant—as were calls for Puerto Rico to become a state—subsequent referendums confirmed the decision to remain a commonwealth.

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Dancer and spy Mata Hari sentenced to die

Year
1917
Month Day
July 25

In Paris, France, on July 25, 1917, the exotic dancer Mata Hari is sentenced to death by a French court for spying on Germany’s behalf during World War I.

Since 1903, Margueretha Gertruida Zelle, born in a small town in northern Holland and formerly married to a captain in the Dutch army, had performed in Paris as a dancer. She adopted the stage persona of Mata Hari, claiming she was born in a sacred Indian temple and taught ancient Indian dances by a priestess who gave her the name, which meant “eye of the dawn.” Her exotic dances soon earned her fans all over Europe, where she packed dance halls from Moscow to Berlin to Madrid, largely because of her willingness to dance almost entirely naked in public.

Mata Hari also became a celebrated courtesan, and by the outbreak of World War I, her catalog of lovers included high-ranking military officers and political figures from both France and Germany. The circumstances of her alleged spying activities during the war were and remain unclear: it was said that, while in the Netherlands in 1916, she was offered cash by a German consul to report back information obtained on her next visit to France. It appears that British intelligence discovered details of this arrangement and passed them on to their counterparts in France. In any case, Mata Hari was arrested in Paris in February 1917.

READ MORE: The Exotic Dancer Who Became WWI’s Most Notorious Spy

Under interrogation by French military intelligence, Mata Hari herself admitted that she had passed outdated information to a German intelligence officer, yet she claimed that she had also been paid to act as a French spy in Belgium (then occupied by the Germans), though she had not informed the French of her prior dealings with the German consul. She was apparently acting as a double agent, though the Germans had apparently written her off as an ineffective agent whose activities had produced little intelligence of value.

Mata Hari was tried in a military court and sentenced, on July 25, 1917, to execution by firing squad. As the Times of London reported on October 15, 1917, the day of her execution, “She was in the habit of meeting notorious German spy-masters outside French territory, and she was proved to have communicated important information to them, in return for which she had received several large sums of money since May 1916.” Her trial was riddled with bias and circumstantial evidence, however, and many believed the French authorities, as well as the press, trumped her up as “the greatest woman spy of the century” as a distraction for the huge losses the French army was suffering on the Western Front. Viewed by many as a victim due to her career as a dancer and courtesan and the French need to find a scapegoat, Mata Hari remains one of the most glamorous figures to come out of the shadowy world of espionage, and the archetype of the female spy.

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Greece declares war on Central Powers

Year
1917
Month Day
July 02

On July 2, 1917, several weeks after King Constantine I abdicates his throne in Athens under pressure from the Allies, Greece declares war on the Central Powers, ending three years of neutrality by entering World War I alongside Britain, France, Russia and Italy.

Constantine, educated in Germany and married to a sister of Kaiser Wilhelm II, was naturally sympathetic to the Germans when World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, refusing to honor Greece’s obligation to support Serbia, its ally during the two Balkan Wars in 1912-13. Despite pressure from his own pro-Allied government, including Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, and British and French promises of territorial gains in Turkey, Constantine maintained Greece’s neutrality for the first three years of the war, although he did allow British and French forces to disembark at Salonika in late 1914 in a plan to aid Serbia against Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian forces.

By the end of 1915, with Allied operations bogged down in Salonika and failing spectacularly in the Dardanelles, Constantine was even less inclined to support the Entente, believing Germany clearly had the upper hand in the war. He dismissed Venizelos in October 1915, substituting him with a series of premiers who basically served as royal puppets. Meanwhile, civil war threatened in Greece, as Constantine desperately sought promises of naval, military and financial assistance from Germany, which he did not receive. After losing their patience with Constantine, the Allies finally sent an ultimatum demanding his abdication on June 11, 1917; the same day, British forces blockaded Greece and the French landed their troops at Piraeus, on the Isthmus of Corinth, in blatant disregard of Greek neutrality. The following day, Constantine abdicated in favor of his second son, Alexander.

On June 26, Alexander reinstated Venizelos, who returned from exile in Crete, where he had established a provisional Greek government with Allied support. With a pro-Allied prime minister firmly in place, Greece moved to the brink of entering World War I. On July 1, Alexander Kerensky, the Russian commander in chief and leader of the provisional Russian government after the fall of Czar Nicholas II the previous March, ordered a major offensive on the Eastern Front, despite the turmoil within Russia and the exhausted state of Kerensky’s army. The offensive would end in disastrous losses for the Russians, but at the time it seemed like a fortuitous turn of events for the Allies, in that it would help to sap German resources. The following day, Greece declared war on the Central Powers.

The new king, Alexander, stated the case for war dramatically in his official coronation address on August 4: “Greece has to defend her territory against barbarous aggressors. But if in the trials of the past Greece has been able, thanks to the civilizing strength of the morale of the race, to have overcome the conquerors and to rise free amidst the ruins, today it is quite a different matter. The present cataclysm will decide the definite fate of Hellenism, which, if lost, will never be restored.” Over the next 18 months, some 5,000 Greek soldiers would die on the battlefields of World War I.

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Germany resumes unrestricted submarine warfare


Year
1917
Month Day
February 01

On February 1, 1917, the lethal threat of the German U-boat submarine raises its head again, as Germany returns to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare it had previously suspended in response to pressure from the United States and other neutral countries.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was first introduced in World War I in early 1915, when Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy. A string of attacks on merchant ships followed, culminating in the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Although the Lusitania was a British ship and it was carrying a supply of munitions—Germany used these two facts to justify the attack—it was principally a passenger ship, and the 1,201 people who drowned in its sinking included 128 Americans. The incident prompted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to send a strongly worded note to the German government demanding an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships. By September 1915, the German government had imposed such strict constraints on the operation of the nation’s submarines that the German navy was persuaded to suspend U-boat warfare altogether.

German navy commanders, however, were ultimately not prepared to accept this degree of passivity, and continued to push for a more aggressive use of the submarine, convincing first the army and eventually the government, most importantly Kaiser Wilhelm, that the U-boat was an essential component of German war strategy. Planning to remain on the defensive on the Western Front in 1917, the supreme army command endorsed the navy’s opinion that unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British at sea could result in a German victory by the fall of 1917. In a joint audience with the kaiser on January 8, 1917, army and naval leaders presented their arguments to Wilhelm, who supported them in spite of the opposition of the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, who was not at the meeting. Though he feared antagonizing the U.S., Bethmann Hollweg accepted the kaiser’s decision, pressured as he was by the armed forces and the hungry and frustrated German public, which was angered by the continuing Allied naval blockade and which supported aggressive action towards Germany’s enemies.

On January 31, 1917, Bethmann Hollweg went before the German Reichstag government and made the announcement that unrestricted submarine warfare would resume the next day, February 1: “The destructive designs of our opponents cannot be expressed more strongly. We have been challenged to fight to the end. We accept the challenge. We stake everything, and we shall be victorious.”

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Germans unleash U-boats


Year
1917
Month Day
January 31

On January 31, 1917, Germany announces the renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic as German torpedo-armed submarines prepare to attack any and all ships, including civilian passenger carriers, said to be sighted in war-zone waters.

When World War I erupted in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson pledged neutrality for the United States, a position that the vast majority of Americans favored. Britain, however, was one of America’s closest trading partners and tension soon arose between the United States and Germany over the latter’s attempted blockade of the British isles. Several U.S. ships traveling to Britain were damaged or sunk by German mines and, in February 1915, Germany announced unrestricted warfare against all ships, neutral or otherwise, that entered the war zone around Britain. One month later, Germany announced that a German cruiser had sunk the William P. Frye, a private American merchant vessel that was transporting grain to England when it disappeared. President Wilson was outraged, but the German government apologized, calling the attack an unfortunate mistake.

The Germans’ most formidable naval weapon was the U-boat, a submarine far more sophisticated than those built by other nations at the time. The typical U-boat was 214 feet long, carried 35 men and 12 torpedoes, and could travel underwater for two hours at a time. In the first few years of World War I, the U-boats took a terrible toll on Allied shipping.

In early May 1915, several New York newspapers published a warning by the German embassy in Washington that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. The announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement for the imminent sailing of the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner from New York to Liverpool. On May 7, the Lusitania was torpedoed without warning just off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,959 passengers, 1,198 were killed, including 128 Americans.

The German government maintained that the Lusitania was carrying munitions, but the U.S. demanded reparations and an end to German attacks on unarmed passenger and merchant ships. In August 1915, Germany pledged to see to the safety of passengers before sinking unarmed vessels, but in November sank an Italian liner without warning, killing 272 people, including 27 Americans. Public opinion in the United States began to turn irrevocably against Germany.

At the end of January 1917, Germany, determined to win its war of attrition against the Allies, announced the resumption of unrestricted warfare. Three days later, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany; just hours after that, the American liner Housatonic was sunk by a German U-boat. None of the 25 Americans on board were killed and they were picked up later by a British steamer.

On February 22, Congress passed a $250 million arms-appropriations bill intended to ready the United States for war. Two days later, British authorities gave the U.S. ambassador to Britain a copy of what has become known as the “Zimmermann Note,” a coded message from German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann to Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Mexico. In the telegram, intercepted and deciphered by British intelligence, Zimmermann stated that, in the event of war with the United States, Mexico should be asked to enter the conflict as a German ally. In return, Germany would promise to restore to Mexico the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. On March 1, the U.S. State Department published the note and America was galvanized against Germany once and for all.

In late March, Germany sank four more U.S. merchant ships and, on April 2, President Wilson appeared before Congress and called for a declaration of war against Germany. On April 4, the Senate voted 82 to six to declare war against Germany. Two days later, the House of Representatives endorsed the declaration by a vote of 373 to 50 and America formally entered World War I.

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