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.

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.

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Facts About the End of World War II

American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
American servicemen and women in Paris celebrate on V-J Day, marking the end of World War II.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On August 14, 1945, President Harry S. Truman announced the Japanese government had surrendered, a decision that would bring World War II to a close. Emperor Hirohito of Japan informed his own citizens on August 15, yet there was still work to be done. The written agreement that formalized the surrender wasn’t signed until September 2 of that year at a gathering aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Communities around the globe have celebrated August 14, August 15, or September 2 as Victory Over Japan Day, or V-J Day for short. Here are a dozen facts about the surrender 75 years ago this summer and the events that led up to it.

1. The Battle of Okinawa marked the last major battle in World War II.

Over 60,000 American soldiers and marines arrived at the shores of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. The island south of Kyushu formed a logical gateway for an invasion of Japan, and U.S. troops were prepared for a fight. Eighty-one days of incredibly savage combat by air, sea, and land followed, hampered by dense forest and volcanic crags. The Allies emerged victorious, but 12,000 Americans were killed in the effort. Japan’s forces lost around 90,000 troops, and 100,000 civilians also died in the battle.

2. Before V-J Day, V-E Day—Victory in Europe Day—fell on Truman’s 61st birthday.

Sworn into office on April 12, 1945, following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman got to share an exciting piece of news early in his term. The Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8—President Truman’s birthday. “Our victory is but half won,” Truman said. Though the violence in Europe had ended, things were coming to a head in the Pacific theatre.

3. To end World War II, the U.S. made a strategic decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of other Japanese cities.

An atomic bomb had been successfully tested in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. By deploying nuclear weapons against Japan, Truman and his advisors hoped to force an unconditional surrender—and avoid the need for a full-scale U.S. invasion of the Japanese mainland.

For maximum impact, it was decided the ideal targets would be cities that had suffered little damage from earlier bombings. Because of its cultural significance as Japan’s former capital, Kyoto was taken off the list. The target committee opted to focus on other cities with significant military headquarters and industrial centers. Hiroshima stood as a major base of operations in the Japanese defense effort. Nagasaki was one of the country’s key seaports. Both places were wartime manufacturing hubs.

4. The USS Indianapolis's secret mission ended in the worst naval disaster of World War II.

Components of the 9700-pound nuclear fission bomb nicknamed Little Boy, destined to be dropped over Hiroshima, were delivered in secret to an American air base in the Northern Mariana Islands by the USS Indianapolis. After dropping off the materials, the Indianapolis was torpedoed by Japanese submarine and quickly sunk just after midnight on July 30, 1945.

Around 300 crew members immediately went down with the ship. The remaining 900 men floated at the surface, awaiting rescue. They endured dehydration and hunger, hallucinations, salt poisoning, and frequent, vicious shark attacks. By the time rescue came on August 2, there were only 317 survivors.

On August 19, 2017, a research team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen located the wreckage of the Indianapolis on the bottom of the Philippine Sea, 3.4 miles below the surface.

5. The number of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still unknown.

At 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded over Hiroshima. The blast's yield was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. “What I felt at that moment was that Hiroshima was entirely covered with only three colors. I remember red, black, and brown … but nothing else,” recalled Akiko Takakura, an eyewitness who was then 20 years old. In minutes, dark smoke climbed nearly 4000 feet into the air. More than 90 percent of the city’s structures were damaged or destroyed.

Nagasaki was hit with an implosion-type plutonium bomb (called Fat Man) three days later. The blast’s effects—equaling 21,000 tons of TNT—were felt over an area of 43 square miles.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “No one will ever know for certain how many died as a result of the attack on Hiroshima.” The same goes for Nagasaki. Patchy census records, the obliteration of government buildings, and other factors make it impossible to get at exact figures. The initial blasts are estimated to have killed 70,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, not including those who later died of radiation poisoning or other injuries.

6. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan less than a month before World War II ended.

At the Allies' Tehran Conference in November 1943, the Soviet Union had agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany's surrender to force an end to World War II while retaking occupied territory from Japan. That day came on August 8, 1945. About 1.6 million Soviet troops were swiftly dispatched to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (modern-day northeastern China). The USSR inflicted heavy losses during their engagements with Japanese forces in China, Korea, and the Kuril Islands.

7. Japan formally surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, ending World War II.

A crowd celebrates V-J Day and the end of World War II in Times Square.Dick DeMarsico, World-Telegram, Library of Congress // No Known Copyright Restriction

On August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's unconditional surrender to the Allies. The news rocketed around the world, launching joyous celebrations, parades, and patriotic displays to mark V-J Day. On September 2, aboard the USS Missouri, Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu and General Yoshijiro Umezu signed the official Instrument of Surrender document crafted by the U.S. War Department. Also present was General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied powers.

“It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past,” MacArthur told the gathered crowd. The USS Missouri would go on to participate in both the Korean and Persian Gulf Wars before it was decommissioned for the last time on March 31, 1992.

8. The pair in the iconic Times Square kiss photo, taken on V-J-Day, didn’t know each other.

Titled “V-J Day in Times Square,” the picture was snapped by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine. Since Eisenstaedt didn’t write down the couple's names, their identities were a mystery for decades. Then Lawrence Verria’s 2012 book The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo that Ended World War II seemed to put the matter to rest: It pegged George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman as the couple.

Except they weren’t a couple at all. Mendonsa was a sailor on a date with his future wife at the time. Upon hearing the news of Japan’s surrender, he excitedly grabbed Friedman—a dentist’s assistant he didn’t know—and planted a kiss on her lips. Unfortunately, Friedman wasn't into it. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed,” she later said. “The guy just came over and grabbed!”

9. Frustrated soldiers in the Pacific theatre waited months to return home.

The United States couldn’t immediately bring all of its soldiers home once the Axis Powers surrendered. And that created plenty of tension overseas. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Connecticut, said on September 17, 1945 that every congressperson was “under constant and terrific pressure from the servicemen and their families” who wanted swift discharges.

Servicemembers stationed in Japan and the Far East began stamping the phrase “No Boats, No Votes” onto their homebound letters—indicating that if they didn't get picked up soon, leaders would hear about it in the following year’s congressional elections. Four thousand homesick troops held a mass protest in Manila on Christmas Day. Similar demonstrations took place in London, Paris, and Frankfurt.

10. The last World War II Japanese internment camp in the United States closed in 1946.

Around 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned in internment camps across seven U.S. states beginning in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the detention of Japanese-Americans regardless of citizenship status or loyalty to ensure "every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage" following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The last of these camps, located in northern California, stayed open until March 20, 1946.

11. Some Japanese soldiers kept fighting long after the end of World War II.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was 23 years old when he was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines on December 26, 1944. He and three enlisted men would remain there years after the war ended. Disbelieving reports of Japan’s defeat, the soldiers regularly fought with islanders they mistook for enemy combatants. One of Onoda’s comrades surrendered in 1950 and by 1972, police officers had shot the other two.

Lieutenant Onoda didn’t give up until after he was rediscovered by a Japanese traveler in 1974. A delegation including one of Onoda’s former commanding officers came to Lubang later that year to accept his surrender.

Two additional holdouts, Shoichi Yokoi and Teruo Nakamura, remained hidden elsewhere in the former Pacific theatre until 1972 and 1974, respectively.

12. Only one state officially celebrates the end of World War II.

Rhode Island is the only state in the union that celebrates the end of World War II as an annual legal holiday. Victory Day falls on the second Monday of August.