Report from the Fronts #46: June 1918

Spring Offensive

Operation Blücher-Yorck (the Third Battle of the Aisne) came to an end on 6 June, having brought the Germans within 35 miles of Paris.  But no decisive breakthrough had resulted, and Ludendorff was determined to take one more shot before the front was overwhelmed with Americans.  On 9 June he launched Operation Gneisenau (the Battle of the Matz), essential a continuation of Blücher-Yorck, still hoping to draw more Allied troops south from Flanders, but though the Germans advanced nine miles in a few days, a surprise French counterattack (no preliminary bombardment) at Compiègn on 11 June halted the thrust and the operation was cancelled on the 13th.  Those four days cost the Germans 30,000 casualties and the Allies 35,000.

Operation Gneisenau

June also saw more American action on the Western Front. On 2 June American units, including a battalion of Marines, occupied a 12 mile stretch of the front before Belleau Wood, about half a dozen miles west of Château Thierry.  The following day they easily repelled a German assault, ignoring the French, who were retreating; said Marine Captain Lloyd Williams “Retreat?  Hell, we just got here.”  On 6 June the Allies launched a limited offensive in the area, assigning the now enlarged contingent of Marines several objectives, including Belleau Wood, where a regiment of Germans were well entrenched.  Unfortunately, the Marines were unaware of this.

Marines and poilus

Captain Williams

Belleau vicinity

Belleau Wood

Belleau Wood









Many Marines were mowed down in the wheat fields surrounding the woods, but they achieved their phase one objectives nevertheless.  Late in the afternoon two Marine battalions moved on Belleau Wood, which meant once again crossing a field raked by machine gun fire, prompting Gunnery Sergeant Dan Daly to yell to him men “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”  Sure enough, the first waves were slaughtered, but the Marines managed to reach the Wood and secure a position, engaging the Germans in hand-to-hand combat.  In terms of casualties this was the worst day for the Marine Corps up to this time.

Killing Germans

Chasing Germans

In Belleau “Wood”

In Belleau “Wood”

Sergeant Daly

The situation now settled into a stalemate of bloody attack and counterattack, until after six American assaults the Wood was finally cleared of Germans on 26 June.  The Americans suffered 9777 casualties, while apart from 1600 captured German losses are unknown.  Belleau Wood was of course a relatively trivial episode on the Western Front (which is why this report is late – I thought it was in July), but it confirmed for the Allies and the Germans that the Americans, who were now flooding into France, were for real.  And that an American Marine with a rifle was an awesome weapon.



Down in sunny Italy the Allies scored another defensive victory.  On 15 June the Austrians launched an offensive along the middle and eastern portions of the front, the Second Battle of the Piave River.  The Austrians had been reinforced by German divisions freed up by the surrender of Russia and trained in the assault tactics of the Western Front, but disagreement between the two army group commanders, General Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf (west) and General Svetozar Borojević (east), resulted in a broad offensive rather than the narrow attack that had been so successful at Caporetto.



Second Battle of the Piave River



Things were also different across the Piave.  General Luigi “Isonzo” Cadorna had been replaced with Armando Diaz, who had learned a few things from the Caporetto disaster: he developed a defense in depth without a continuous trench line, a decentralized command system that allowed tremendous flexibility and small unit autonomy and a central reserve of thirteen “motorized” (they had trucks) divisions.  He had also received eleven British/French divisions, but most were called back west when the German Spring Offensive kicked off.


Buoyed by the victory at Caporreto and the prospect of knocking Italy out of the war, the Austrians attacked at 3:00 AM.  Unfortunately, the Italians had discovered the precise time of the assault and at 2:30 AM began raining shells on the troops packing the forward trenches, sending many reeling back to defensive positions.  In the west Conrad made some small gains on the Asiago Plateau, but he was driven back the following day and spent the rest of the offensive making pointless attacks with his dwindling forces.  Borojević, on the other hand, was able to establish a substantial bridgehead along fifteen miles of the lower Piave to the Adriatic, threatening Venice, but the growing difficulty of getting men and supplies across the swollen Piave, whose bridges were continually bombed by the Italians, proved too much to overcome.

Waiting for the Austrians



Waiting…in color








On 19 June the Italians counterattacked, and while Borojević avoided a disaster, he was ordered by the Emperor to withdraw, and the Italians recovered all the lost territory by the 23rd.  Diaz immediately came under heavy pressure from the Allied command to go on the offensive, but he understood well that his forces needed to be reorganized and that crossing the Piave would put him in precisely the same circumstances Borojević had suffered.  The offensive cost the Austrians 118,000 casualties, the Italians 87,000, nothing new on the Italian front, but though few could have guessed at the time, the Second Battle of the Piave River was the last real offensive of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a state whose political core stretched back to 800 and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.

On to victory, Italia!

Perhaps symbolic of the impending end of the Empire was an event that took place the very day the Piave offensive began. The commander of the Austrian navy (and future dictator of Hungary), Miklós Horthy, decided to challenge the Otranto Barrage, the Allied blockade of the Strait of Otranto, which had kept the Austrian surface fleet bottled up in the Adriatic.  Under cover of darkness Austria’s four most advanced battleships left their base at Pula on 8 and 9 June, but before the two squadrons could unite SMS Tegetthoff and SMS Szent István were discovered by two Italian motor torpedo boats early on 10 June.  One went after the Tegetthoff and missed, but the other – MAS 15 commanded by Luigi Rizzo – put two torpedoes into the Szent István at 3:20 AM.

Italian torpedo boats

SMS Szent István


Admiral Horthy

Austrian dreadnaughts at Pula

The Adriatic Sea today

The aft boiler room quickly flooded and the ship began listing to the starboard.  All efforts to counter the list failed, and soon the forward boiler room began flooding, ending power for the pumps.  The Szent István was doomed, but no order was given to abandon ship, and as the battleship settled further into the water, the event was filmed from the Tegetthoff (watch the movie:, while the ship’s band played the Austrian national anthem.  The ship capsized and slid beneath the surface at 6:05 AM, losing only 89 men out of a complement of 1094 – contrary to usual practice Austro-Hungarian sailors had to learn to swim.  And like the Szent István, the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire was slowly slipping beneath the waters of history, to disappear forever.  (Well, actually the Szent István was found in the 1970s.)

…and down

Luigi Rizzo

MAS 15

Going down…


SMS Szent István today

Meanwhile, the Allies were being sucked further into the Russian Civil War. British marines landed at Pechenga in Murmansk province on 4 June, and three days later another British force arrived at Kem in Karelia on the White Sea.  With German troops in Finland the Allies feared that war stocks in northern Russia would be captured, and they also wished to rescue the Czech Legion (which took the key Siberian city of Omsk just as Tommies were disembarking at Kem).  This of course meant inevitable confrontation with the Bolsheviks, who on 8 June ordered the western forces to leave.  They responded on 24 June by sending more troops to join the North Russia Expeditionary Force already at Murmansk and a week later seizing the northern part of the Murman Railway (now the Kirov Railway), which linked Murmansk to St. Petersburg.  American doughboys would soon be joining them.

At Murmansk

Murman Railway

At Murmansk




Stuff from Way Back #20: We hold these truths to be self-evident…

(Writing about Washington at the moment leads only to bewilderment, disgust, anger and obscenities, so time off for some very relevant history stuff.)

The Greek enlightenment of the sixth century (all dates are BC), which had discovered rationalism, continued into the fifth century and produced a new group of rationalists who were less interested in the nature of the universe than in the nature of man and society.  These men, who might be considered the first sociologists or political scientists, are called the sophists (from sophia, “wisdom”).

The term sophist as used by the Greeks referred to the teachers who began appearing in the first half of the fifth century.  These were men who for a fee would teach you whatever there was to know, but most especially rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking.  The appearance and multiplication of these teachers is hardly surprising; they served a vital function in a society that had no public education or institutions of learning whatsoever.  If you wanted to know something beyond what your parents taught you, you went to a sophist.  The subject of rhetoric was particularly in demand, since in an age blessed with the absence of the professional attorney the ability to speak persuasively was utterly important to your ability to defend or prosecute a case in the courts.  And if you lived in a democracy like Athens, rhetorical skills were an important tool for exerting influence in the assembly.

So for the Greeks the sophist was a kind of traveling tutor.  For the modern historian, however, the sophists are of considerable interest chiefly because of their examination of man and society.  These thinkers inherited the skepticism of the Ionian rationalists and applied it to human affairs, ultimately producing disastrous social consequences.  The whole structure of law and morality in the polis would be undermined and traditional sources of authority called into question.  By the last quarter of the fifth century sophists were openly attacking the polis (city-state), and sophistic ideas were providing justification for the Athenian Empire and contributing to the breakdown of Athenian society.  This was serious business.

Central to sophistic thought is the distinction made between nomos and physis, literally the Greek words for “law” and “nature.”  For the sophist nomos is man-made law, that is, all the rules made by society, whatever form they take: unwritten customs, decrees of a king, legislated statutes, whatever.  It is obviously mutable, changing from place to place and from one time to another.  Physis, on the other hand, is understood to be completely unchanging and to consist of universal absolutes imposed by the nature of things, including the nature of human beings, and it is thus contrasted with man-made nomos.  Most commonly physis referred to a body of natural law that served as a basis for behavior and morality, a basis rooted in nature rather than a particular human society and thus universally valid and compelling.  It is a manifestation, it seems, of the instinctive feeling on the part of all normal humans that there are some things that are always right, like protecting a child, and some that are always wrong, like sleeping with your sister or taking a life without good reason.  Today natural law is generally understood to be a body of moral absolutes and is frequently connected to a deity (e.g., “Thou shall not kill.”), but a god is not necessary.  Whether you call it natural law or god’s law or the law of the gods or higher law or conscience, it is all the same – physis.

An immediate question arises: What if nomos and physis are in conflict?  What do you do if your vision of natural law is contradicted by some man-made law of your society?  Antigone faces this problem in Sophocles’ (c. 496-406) play Antigone.  King Creon of Thebes has decreed that Antigone’s brother Polyneices may not be given the burial rites the Greeks considered the absolute right of every Greek corpse.  Antigone violates this order, which is nomos, and defends her action by appealing to physis, which she defines as “the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.”  She justifies her violation of man-made law with an appeal to natural law, just as twenty-five hundred years later those who because of the war in Vietnam burned draft files, obstructed the government or in some way broke the law justified their actions with the same appeal.  Antigone calls it “the laws of the gods” and Jerry Rubin and Daniel Elsberg called it “conscience” or “higher law,” but they all refer to the same thing – physis.

Antigone and Polyneices

Antigone and Polyneices

Grouping the sophists according to their views on the nature of the polis and the relationship between law and morality is particularly convenient for examining the evolution of sophistic thought.  The Greeks traditionally believed that the polis had a positive moral purpose, that is, the state, through the mechanism of its laws, should produce virtuous citizens.  We have some limited experience of this with our laws against prostitution, gambling and other “immoral” activities, but essentially this idea is alien to our concept of the state, which views the law as being morally neutral.  We hope our laws coincide with our notions of morality, but they are not the source of those notions; religion is.  For the Greeks, however, the state and its laws had a positive moral role, and they consequently accepted a close relationship in society between law and morality.

The first category of sophists accepted this traditional view, despite their general skepticism.  Men like Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420) recognized the existence of natural law, but felt that it was compatible with the changeable, man-made laws of society.  Skeptics that they were, they no longer accepted that the polis had a divine origin, but because they believed nomos and physis to be complementary, they did view the state as natural, a product of physis.  They thus accepted the traditional notion that the state had a moral function and that its laws should create virtue.

Others were not so sure, and the second group of sophists asserted that the polis and its laws had no positive moral purpose.  Law was simply a body of morally neutral, expedient measures that allowed society to function.  It might by chance happen to reflect true morality, which was embodied in natural law, but essentially it was irrelevant to morality.  The state was therefore not natural, but rather an artificial creation, a product of nomos.  This is in essence the modern western view: the law is a neutral agent, which the society hopes reflects its moral values, which are derived from religion.  A representative of this category of sophists is Antiphon (c. 480-411), who felt that the laws of the polis were artificial, established by human convention and thus not as critically important to the individual as natural law was.  Laws might be necessary to society and the state, but not to life, which in fact might be hindered by them.  True morality was independent of nomos and could be found instead in physis.  In a word, man-made law was irrelevant.  Antiphon and his friends thus rejected two essential facets of the traditional concept of the polis: that it had a divine or natural basis and that its laws were positive moral agents.  For these sophists the polis was an artificial construction, the result of a kind of social compact, and its laws were morally neutral.

The sophists of category two challenged the very nature of the classical polis, but they tolerated its existence.  It was left to the final group, the radical sophists, to carry the thinking to the logical extreme and openly and directly attack the polis.  These characters felt that the state, as it existed, interfered with and impeded true morality, that the state was in fact immoral.  A spokesman for this position is Critias (c. 460-403), leader of the oligarchic Thirty Tyrants, who ruled Athens for a brief period after her defeat by Sparta in 404.  According to him, the state was not based upon divine or natural sanction (Group 1 and the traditional view), nor upon a compact (Group 2 and our view), but upon fraud, and law was thus an agent causing men to act immorally.  This of course was a very convenient point of view for Critias, whose terror-filled regime openly flouted the laws and traditions of the Athenian polis.  Another member of this group, Thrasymachus of Chalcedon (fl. c. 430-400), spells it out exactly: “That is what I mean when I say that right (or justice) is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established ruling class; and this ruling class is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that right (or justice) is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.” (Plato, Republic 339A, trans. by H.P.D. Lee)  In other words, might makes right.  This is the ultimate destination of sophistic skepticism: ethical nihilism.





Actually, Callicles (historicity disputed), who appears in Plato’s Gorgias, takes the line of thinking a bit further.  Thrasymachus says that the acts of certain extraordinary men who have power are beyond accepted standards of justice and are not subject to normal moral judgment; their might makes right.  Callicles pulls out all the stops and proclaims that the actions of the superior man in fact constitute a superior form of justice; his might is right.  And who are these superior men?  Simply put, they are those who are clever and strong enough to seize power and hold on to it.  For Callicles it is a fact of physis, a dictate of natural law that these individuals should rule and should enjoy complete satisfaction of all their desires, completely free of the restraints customarily imposed by nomos.  This kind of thinking is a moral justification for even the most brutal sort of rule and can lead to disastrous social results, as for example in Germany in the 1930s.

Thus, when the newly discovered skepticism of the sixth  century scientists was applied by the sophists to the subject of man and society it led rapidly to the definition and examination of perhaps the most basic social question – the relationship between law and morality.  Is morality rooted in man-made law, nomos, as the Greeks traditionally believed?  Or are our moral standards to be found in natural law, physis?  And if this is so, who is to define physis?  Suppose there is conflict between nomos and physis?  How should society deal with those individuals whose vision of physis and resulting morality is radically at odds with that of the majority?

The Athenians had to deal with these questions, and so must we.  Since the collapse of the classical world the west has derived its morality from a particular understanding of physis, hanging its basic system of moral values from the metaphysical peg of the Judeo-Christian god and attempting to varying degrees to bring nomos into line with these values.  This has not always been very successful, especially under the No Fun God of Christianity, since human desires and expediency are in constant conflict with our notions of morality.  Further, the moral standards required of individuals seem always to be incompatible with those applied to nations, and human beings are easily led to do as a group things they absolutely shun as individuals.  The problem associated with attaching an ethical system to a particular view of natural law of course is getting everyone in the society to accept that view.  If an individual does not accept the existence of the Christian god, the moral precepts of that deity can hardly be of any great weight.  And even if by some totalitarian miracle the entire community accepts the metaphysical standard, the inherently relative nature of all value judgments will quickly reveal itself.  Take what is probably the most basic moral absolute: thou shall not kill.  Inasmuch as most human beings will grant that there are circumstances, such as self-defense, that may require one to kill, the prohibition is more accurately stated as thou shall not kill without good reason.  But what exactly constitutes a good reason?  Killing someone whom you believe is about to attack you?  Assassinating a tyrant?  The moral absolutes are never so absolute.

And those “self-evident truths” (physis) are never really self-evident to everyone, which leads to the most fundamental problem arising from a consideration of nomos and physis – what if they conflict?  What if the morality of the community, as expressed in its laws, and the morality of the individual, which springs from his own mind, do not match?  Of course the society must protect its members from physical harm, so that the man whose definition of physis involves god telling him to shoot certain people must be forced to follow the nomos of the community.  But what about the most obvious manifestation of the potential nomosphysis conflict, civil disobedience?  This is a tough one.  Civil disobedience has clearly resulted in great social progress in American society, especially in the area of civil rights, but it must be remembered that a very dangerous principle is being entertained here.

Civil disobedience is the open and nonviolent violation of nomos justified by an appeal to physis and the intention of bettering society.  It is at heart a political-social expression of the notion that the end justifies the means, and this is always a dangerous proposition, especially in the absence of any precise definition of valid ends and acceptable means.  Since the justifying goal here depends upon the individual’s vision of physis there can be no definition of valid ends, and the door to chaos is open.  An illegal demonstration by Blacks in favor of integration and one by the Klan in favor of segregation are in essence the same, since each group will justify its breaking of human law with its particular definition of natural law.  (And ironically both groups would see physis embodied in the same Christian god.)  Therein lies the problem: physis is defined by the individual, whether he dreams it up himself or takes it ready-made through an inherited religion.  Critias and Thrasymachus felt that justice or right was what was in the interest of the strong, whereas singer Joan Baez violated the tax laws because her view of physis indicated that for the strong to dominate the weak was wrong and unjust.  Neither vision of natural law is more or less valid than the other.  Both are quite correct or quite incorrect, depending upon your point of view.  For society to allow any group, no matter how apparently noble its cause, to selectively violate the laws is thus to court disaster.

police response to civil disobedience

police response to civil disobedience

What then do you do if according to your values a law or policy is immoral and legal means to change it fail?  Only you can decide that, but when you consider that decision remember that you are standing in a line that stretches back to fifth century Athens and men like Critias.