WWI Centennial: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 287th installment in the series.

September 5-9, 1917: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

September 1917 saw the chaos in revolutionary Russia reach a fever pitch, as a major new German offensive on the Baltic coast triggered yet another unsuccessful coup attempt against the beleaguered Provisional Government, which had just fended off a far-left uprising instigated by the Bolsheviks in July. This time it was a rightwing military revolt led by the recently appointed commander-in-chief General Lavr Kornilov (although Kornilov claimed it was actually intended to strengthen the Provisional Government against the rival Petrograd Soviet). The end result was to further discredit and destabilize the Provisional Government, now facing open opposition on both the left and right, setting the stage for the Bolsheviks’ final successful coup attempt in November 1917.

Fall of Riga

Kornilov was spurred to action in part by the German capture of Riga (now the capital of Latvia) on the Baltic coast – a major blow that brought the Germans closer to the Russian capital of Petrograd and threatened the breakup of the northern sector of the Eastern Front. An advance here would also shorten the frontline, freeing up German forces needed to fend off the British assault at Passchendaele on the Western Front.

The German Riga offensive wasn’t a walkover: while indiscipline and rock-bottom morale prevailed throughout the Russian Army, ordinary Russian soldiers were still willing to stand and fight in defense of their homeland, at least for now. However German superiority in morale – not to mention heavy artillery, aerial reconnaissance, and logistics – left little doubt about the final outcome.

Europe and the Near East, September 1917: Germans capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt
Erik Sass

The attack began on September 1, 1917 with a sudden, punishing bombardment by the artillery of the German Eighth Army, targeting the defensive positions of the Russian Twelfth Army behind the River (Daugava). As the shelling reached its climax German pioneers moved up with pontoon bridges and boats to ferry the assault force across the broad, fast-flowing river, in another testament to German engineering and tactical skill.

One German soldier, Dominik Richert, described the preliminary bombardment as well as the Russian response:

As it became brighter I was able to see the water of the Düna, which was flowing quite quickly here. The Russian position on the opposite bank was not yet visible as white fog prevented us from seeing further. We were all tense about what was about to happen. All at once, the German artillery, which had been concentrated here, started to fire. The shells whizzed over us and exploded on the other side of the river with a booming din. A number of mortars, mainly heavy ones that shoot two hundred-weight shells, joined the dance. There was such a crashing, whizzing and roaring that my ears started to hurt. As the sun rose, the fog gradually disappeared and I was able to see the Russian position on the opposite bank. It was completely shrouded in black smoke, constantly and everywhere there were abrupt flashes and enormous clouds of smoke shot into the sky… Then the Russian artillery started to fire, so that we were forced to duck down in the trench.

Like many of his peers, Richert knew little of the battle plan, and seemed to be just as surprised as the enemy by the sudden arrival of boats to ford the river:

In the middle of this din came the order: ‘Get ready!’ We looked at each other. ‘We can’t possibly swim the river!’ said some of my neighbours. Then behind us we heard a yelling as if horses were being driven forward. I looked back and saw that the bridge train was arriving. They rapidly drove the waggons, which were laden with metal boats… down to the river. A large number of sappers came up at the double behind them and in no time at all the boats were unloaded and in the water.

Then came the daunting task of crossing the river under fire:

It was very frightening on the water. We all ducked down into the boats. The shells whoosed overhead while under and around us the water gurgled. Wherever I looked the whole river was seething with boats which were heading as quickly as possible to the opposite bank. Russian shells landed between the boats in the river throwing huge columns of water into the air. Another boat upstream from our suffered a direct hit and sank in a few seconds. The occupants who had not been wounded fought with the waves for a short time and then all disappeared. It sent shivers up my spine.

Finally, after a seeming eternity spent crossing the water the attackers arrived at the opposite shore, where they were happy to discover the remaining defenders had already withdrawn:

Now we had to storm the Russian trenches. That was an easy task. We did not encounter any resistance at all. The trench had largely been flattened. Mutilated corpses of the Russian infantrymen were lying around. Every so often you would encounter an unscathed Russian sitting in the corner of a trench and he would raise his arms in the air when we appeared, in order to surrender.

Over the next few days the German offensive pushed forward from these bridgeheads over the Düna to the east of Riga, threatening to encircle the Russian Twelfth Army. However a fierce holding action, fought in large part by Latvian riflemen, held up the German attackers long enough for the Twelfth Army to retreat towards Petrograd, still mostly intact.

Nonetheless the fall of Riga on September 5, 1917 was a major defeat for the Russians and another demoralizing setback for the Allied war effort, which even official propaganda couldn’t sweep under the rug (top, German troops enter Riga). Marian Baldwin, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross in France, wrote home on September 8:

Isn’t the Russian news fierce? I’ve never seen anything like the way it has taken the punch out of every one. I was down at the Gare du Nord yesterday doing a little work for the Red Cross, distributing cigarettes, etc., among the outgoing French soldiers. We couldn’t seem to cheer them, and I didn’t see any of the usual smiles. The ray of light which the U.S. troops brought when they began coming over has, for the moment, been completely obliterated. The papers don’t deny that it is the worst blow the Allies have received since the war began, and it is as though a black cloud has descended upon every one.

Of course the effect on Russian morale was even more pronounced. After the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive, the loss of Riga seemed to show that the Russian Army was essentially unable to defend the homeland. Meanwhile conditions for ordinary soldiers had hardly improved, and in many cases worsened, since the February (March) Revolution. Finally the infamous Order No. 1, issued by the Petrograd Soviet in March 1917, which effectively abolished military rank and with it officers’ authority, encouraged mutiny and insubordination and resulted in a steady stream of dispirited officers resigning their commissions and going home.

Charles Beury, an American representative of the YMCA who visited Russia during this period, painted a portrait of complete disarray in the military:

The demoralization was most noticeable in the army. That fundamental characteristic of any army – discipline – was gone… It was quite unusual to see soldiers marching in uniform ranks. On the contrary, masses of these men were aimlessly wandering about the streets, eating sunflower seeds, overloading the street-cars, and crowding, without tickets, into first-class compartments on passenger trains… In many places we noted the lack of authority of superior officers… Many officers had been shot by their men in payment of old scores…

With disaster looming, the Provisional Government appeared irrelevant while the Petrograd Soviet seemed more concerned with “protecting the revolution” than fighting the external enemy. Against this backdrop one of the last bastions of conservatism in Russia mounted a final, desperate attempt to restore order – and failed spectacularly.

The Kornilov Revolt

For months rumors had been circulating of a military coup to replace the feeble Provisional Government and crush the growing power of the Petrograd Soviet. The flashpoint for the failed military revolt came when Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky asked Kornilov, recently appointed commander-in-chief, to move troops loyal to the Provisional Government from the front to Petrograd in order to shore up the government’s authority versus the Soviet, increasingly dominated by radical socialists including Lenin’s Bolsheviks (below, Kornilov).

Kornilov, reasoning that such half-measures were no longer appropriate, instead led a large force of loyal troops in a march on Petrograd with the intention of purging the Provisional Government of radical elements, suppressing the Soviet, and calling a new Constituent Assembly, claiming that he was doing so at Kerensky’s invitation. However this action was far more extreme than Kerensky had envisioned, and the prime minister feared (probably with good reason) that Kornilov in fact meant to establish himself as a military dictator. Kornilov also earned the hatred of troops loyal to the Soviet with his support for the reinstatement of capital and corporal punishment within the Army.

Unfortunately for the coup plotters, Kornilov’s plans were an open secret, allowing the Provisional Government and Soviet to take measures to suppress it. Ivan Stenvock-Fermor, at the time a 19-year-old junior officer, noted that the coup preparations were widely known in Petrograd, giving the whole thing a distinctly amateurish feel: “… Conspiracy? But what kind of conspiracy was it? Once when I went to have lunch in one of the restaurants… all the people I met there were also discussing the details of the same conspiracy… This plot and the impending coup seemed to me very childish, and childish it was.”

Nonetheless the Kornilov Revolt threatened to galvanize conservative opposition to both the Soviet and the Provisional Government. Anton Denikin, commander of the southern sector of the Eastern Front, recorded Kornilov’s message to the Russian people after Kerensky tried to remove him from command, moving him to open revolt:

People of Russia. Our great Motherland is dying. Her end is near. Forced to speak openly, I, General Kornilov, declare that the Provisional Government, under pressure from the Bolshevik majority in the Soviets, is acting in complete accordance with the plans of the German General Staff and simultaneously with the landing of enemy troops near Riga, is killing the Army, and convulsing the country internally. The solemn certainty of the doom of our country drives me in these terrible times to call upon all Russians to save their dying native land… I, General Kornilov, son of a peasant Cossack, announce to all and everyone that I personally desire nothing save the preservation of our great Russia, and vow to lead the people, through victory over our enemies, to a Constituent Assembly, when they themselves will settle their fate and select the form of our new national life. I cannot betray Russia in the hands of her ancient enemy – the German race! – and make the Russian people German slaves… People of Russia, in your hands lies the life of your native land!

Faced with this apparent attempt at counter-revolution, Kerensky took the extreme – and extremely unwise – measure of arming radical forces loyal to the Soviet, including the Bolsheviks, who had already been building their own paramilitary force in the form of the Red Guards. He also submitted to the Soviet’s demand that the government release leading socialists imprisoned after the unsuccessful Bolshevik coup attempt in July, including Trotsky. Kornilov and his associates were imprisoned by socialist troops loyal to the Soviet, and dozens of officers suspected of supporting the counter-revolution were arrested.

Ever the opportunist, Kerensky then presented himself to the conservative elements of Russian society as the only force able to contain the looming Bolshevik menace. In the short term this move allowed Kerensky to make himself virtual dictator of Russia, while declaring the country a Republic as a fig leaf for this power grab – but in reality it spelled the end of his authority, as both left- and rightwing factions now distrusted him for what they viewed as serial betrayals. Bolshevik power was growing by leaps and bounds: by the end of September 1917 Lenin’s party had 400,000 members, up from 24,000 at the beginning of the year.

The days of the Provisional Government were clearly numbered. On September 13, 1917, the anonymous Englishman believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford wrote in his diary:

As the Kornilov attempt to bring order has failed, I will tell you what I foresee now, for the cards are shuffled again. Kerenski is already in the hands of the Soviet. The Soviet now have virtually full power, and the Bolsheviki will become more daring and try to turn out the Government; then would come anarchy, with 70,000 workmen fully armed. With the Bolsheviki are all the criminal classes. The failure of Kornilov has completely knocked me over, yesterday I could not walk. I still foresee an ocean of blood before order comes.

See the previous installment or all entries.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

The Ingenious Reason Medieval Castle Staircases Were Built Clockwise

Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images
Shaiith/iStock via Getty Images

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones or medieval programs in general, you’re probably familiar with action-packed battle scenes during which soldiers storm castles, dodge arrows, and dash up spiral staircases. And, while those spiral staircases might not necessarily ascend clockwise in every television show or movie you’ve watched, they usually did in real life.

According to Nerdist, medieval architects built staircases to wrap around in a clockwise direction in order to disadvantage any enemies who might climb them. Since most soldiers wielded swords in their right hands, this meant that their swings would be inhibited by the inner wall, and they’d have to round each curve before striking—fully exposing themselves in the process.

Just as the clockwise spiral hindered attackers, so, too, did it favor the castle’s defenders. As they descended, they could swing their swords in arcs that matched the curve of the outer wall, and use the inner wall as a partial shield. And, because the outer wall runs along the wider edge of the stairs, there was also more room for defenders to swing. So, if you’re planning on storming a medieval castle any time soon, you should try to recruit as many left-handed soldiers as possible. And if you’re defending one, it’s best to station your lefties on crossbow duty and leave the tower-defending to the righties.

On his blog All Things Medieval, Will Kalif explains that the individual stairs themselves provided another useful advantage to protectors of the realm. Because the individual steps weren’t all designed with the same specifications, it made for much more uneven staircases than what we see today. This wouldn’t impede the defenders, having grown accustomed to the inconsistencies of the staircases in their home castle, but it could definitely trip up the attackers. Plus, going down a set of stairs is always less labor-intensive than going up.

Staircase construction and battle tactics are far from the only things that have changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, people even walked differently than we do—find out how (and why) here.

[h/t Nerdist]

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