WWI Centennial: Armistice on the Eastern Front

German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE
German Federal Archive, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 297th installment in the series.

December 17, 1917: Armistice on the Eastern Front

After overthrowing Russia’s feeble Provisional Government in November 1917, Lenin’s Bolsheviks moved swiftly to consolidate control of the country, purging political opponents, closing newspapers, shutting down rival power centers outside the Soviet—including the Constituent Assembly, sidelined on December 11—and installing their own representatives on local and regional Soviets across the country. Much of the work was carried out by the new secret police, the cheka (an acronym for “All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage," in Russian) under Felix Dzerzhinsky, whose paranoia and brutal methods soon made the old Tsarist okhrana look quaint.

But even with unlimited violence on demand to suppress dissent among workers, peasants, and rival socialists, the Bolshevik leaders including Lenin, Trotsky, Kamenev, and Zinoviev knew there was one constituency they couldn’t afford to alienate—the soldiers. After all, it was angry soldiers of the Petrograd garrison who had made the first revolution in March 1917, and it was soldiers and sailors who had brought the Bolsheviks to power in the November coup. Even in its disorganized and demoralized state, the Russian Army still dwarfed the Bolsheviks’ armed supporters in the Red Guard and cheka—and after a few mutinies there was no reason they couldn’t stage another.

In short, the Bolsheviks had to move swiftly to appease rank-and-file Russian soldiers, most of whom were still lukewarm in their support for the communist regime, or risk violent overthrow themselves. That meant meeting their main demand, a central promise of the Bolshevik platform since the war began: in a word, peace.

Reaching a lasting peace agreement with the Central Powers would take months of tortuous negotiations, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ reluctance to make major territorial concessions and crumbling authority over border regions of the fracturing empire, as well as discord between Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire about the extent of their demands and the division of spoils.


Erik Sass

However, after their first meeting on December 3, 1917 at the fortress of Brest-Litovsk, on December 15 the Bolshevik delegation scored their first domestic political victory, as the opposing sides agreed to an armistice on the Eastern Front, temporarily halting fighting so peace negotiations could proceed (top, the Russian delegation, led by Joseph Joffe, and the Central Powers delegation, led by the German chief commander on the Eastern Front, Max Hoffman). The armistice, which took effect on December 17, would last for 30 days with periodic renewals, effectively spelling the end of Russian participation in the First World War.

Meanwhile, large parts of Russia had descended into anarchy, as hundreds of thousands of deserters wandered the countryside, begging, stealing, and indulging in more violent criminality. The simple matter of boarding a train had become a life-threatening ordeal for civilians, according to Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting to the tsarina, who described the scene in Petrograd:

As soon as passenger trains were running again, all those who could possibly do so fled from Petrograd to the provinces where Bolshevik rule was not as yet generally recognized. All timetables had been done away with, and every traveler, with his family and all his belongings, sat for long hours in the waiting room till the train he intended to go by eventually started … When the signal to leave was given a general stampede took place. All the passengers rushed on to the platform and into the train.

Later, the train became even more crowded as deserters crammed in:

The men swarmed in, carrying the most extraordinary luggage of every kind of article crammed into canvas bags and pillowcases, or made up into bundles. They completely blocked up the corridors, and sat not only on the end platforms of the coaches but on the buffers. They clung to the steps outside, sat and stood in the dressing rooms and, in short, pervaded everything, filling the carriages with the noise of their brawls … They were carrying all the loot they had amassed during their stay in the capital, as well as all the firearms that they had been able to take with them on leaving the front. Out of their bundles protruded brass candlesticks, china, pieces of stuff, as well as every possible kind of weapon. In addition some of them carried one or two rifles under their arms, and at every man's belt hung a revolver or a dagger, or a couple of hand grenades … Next morning, when we tried to get out we found to our horror that this was an utter impossibility. The door was completely jammed by the compact mass of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder in the corridor, and the handle could not be moved more than an inch or so.

The eagerness of soldiers and civilians alike to leave Petrograd was understandable, as conditions in the city—like in other big urban centers—were rapidly deteriorating. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist who supported the sidelined Constituent Assembly, wrote in his diary in December 1917:

The hand of the destroyer lies heavily on Petrograd. All commercial life is stopped. Shops are closed. In the factories discipline and authority have disappeared, the workers spending their time in vacuous conversation and oratory. Mounds of dirty snow block the streets. Night and day we hear the sounds of guns. Madness, plundering, and pillage lay waste the towns and even the country. There exists no longer any army and the Germans can walk in whenever they want.

Of course, conditions weren’t much better for ordinary people on the other side of the front—and they were possibly even worse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier on garrison duty in Riga, remembered the conditions endured by natives of the occupied city in the winter of 1917:

In the civilian population the hardship increased from day to day, and the poorest people could hardly get enough to survive. There was no source of income as all the factories were silent … Practically nothing could be delivered to the town from the parts of Russia that had previously been occupied by the Germans because they had used up so much that there was barely enough to keep the inhabitants alive. A large part of the population was seized by a limitless anger against the Germans because of the shortages, with the result that on several occasions German soldiers were murdered on outlying streets. We were not allowed to go out at night without loaded pistols.


Erik Sass

More ominously, back in “free” Russia, the Bolsheviks faced the opening phases of a civil war, as the Cossack ataman (leader) Alexei Kaledin led a rebellion on the Don Cossacks beginning December 9, while the conservative general Lavr Kornilov, Mikhail Alexeyev, and Anton Denikin soon organized a “Volunteer Army” in southern Russia—one of the first “White” forces to oppose the Bolsheviks. Thanks to Trotsky’s organizational genius the Bolsheviks managed to scrape together a new Red Army in an astonishingly short amount of time. But the future would deliver many more setbacks, including a civil war that, along with a devastating famine, claimed 7 million lives before the Bolsheviks finally established supremacy.

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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