Category Archives: Today in History

1915 German cruiser Dresden sinks

On this day in 1915, the British ships Kent and Glasgow corner the German light cruiser Dresden in Cumberland Bay, off the coast of Chile. After raising the white flag, the Dresden‘s crew abandoned and scuttled the ship, which sank with its German ensign flying.

Dresden, a 3,600-ton light cruiser, was one of the fastest ships in the German Imperial Navy, capable of traveling at speeds of up to 24.5 knots. The sister ship of the Emden, it was one of the first German ships to be built with modern steam-turbine engines. The British navy possessed faster ships, but luckily for Dresden, it had never had to face one. In continuous service since its introduction in 1909, Dresden traveled over 21,000 miles between August 1, 1914 and March 1915, more than any other German cruiser in action during the early months of World War I.

When war broke out in the summer of 1914, Dresden was patrolling the Caribbean Sea, safeguarding German investments and German citizens living abroad in the region. On July 20, during a bitter civil war in Mexico, Dresden gave safe passage to the fleeing Mexican president, Victoriano Huerta, transporting him and his family to Jamaica, where they received asylum from the British government. Shortly thereafter, news from Europe arrived of Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia and the imminent possibility of war, and the German Admiralty put its fleet on alert.

By the first week of August, the great nations of Europe were at war. The Dresden was ordered to head to South America to attack British shipping interests there; it sunk several merchant ships on its way to Cape Horn, at the southern tip of Chile, and eluded pursuit by the British naval squadron in the region, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock. In October, the ship joined Admiral Maximilian von Spee’s German East Asia Squadron at Easter Island in the South Pacific. On November 1, Spee’s squadron, including Dresden, scored a crushing victory over the British in the Battle of Coronel, sinking two cruisers with all hands aboard—including Cradock, who went down with his flagship, Good Hope.

Five weeks later, the speedy Dresden was the only German ship to escape destruction at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on November 8, when the British light cruisers Inflexible and Invincible, commanded by Sir Doveton Sturdee, sank four of Spee’s ships, including Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Leipzig and Nurnberg. As a crew member of Dresden wrote later of watching one of the other ships sink: Each one of us knew he would never see his comrades again—no one on board the cruiser can have had any illusions about his fate. Dresden escaped under cover of bad weather south of the Falkland Islands.

For the next several months, Dresden consistently avoided capture by the British navy, sinking a number of cargo ships and seeking refuge in the network of channels and bays in southern Chile. On March 8, the ship put into an island off the Chilean coast, in Cumberland Bay; its captain, Fritz Emil von Luedecke, had decided the ship needed serious repairs in the wake of such heavy and extended use. Six days later, after picking up one of the many pleas for fuel sent by Luedecke in the hopes of reaching any passing coal ships in the area, Kent and Glasgow found Dresden. When Kent opened fire, Dresden sent a few shots back, but soon raised the white flag of surrender. After a German representative negotiated a truce with the British sailors to stall for time, Luedecke ordered his crew to abandon the ship and scuttle it. Dresden sank slowly at first, then sharply listed to the side. Amid cheers from both the British on board their two ships and the German sailors that had escaped onto land, Dresden disappeared beneath the water, its German ensign flag flying, thus ending the five-year and 21,000-mile career of one of Germany’s most famous World War I commerce-raiding ships.

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1938 Germany annexes Austria

On March 12, 1938, German troops march into Austria to annex the German-speaking nation for the Third Reich.

In early 1938, Austrian Nazis conspired for the second time in four years to seize the Austrian government by force and unite their nation with Nazi Germany. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, learning of the conspiracy, met with Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in the hopes of reasserting his country’s independence but was instead bullied into naming several top Austrian Nazis to his cabinet. On March 9, Schuschnigg called a national vote to resolve the question of Anschluss, or “annexation,” once and for all. Before the plebiscite could take place, however, Schuschnigg gave in to pressure from Hitler and resigned on March 11. In his resignation address, under coercion from the Nazis, he pleaded with Austrian forces not to resist a German “advance” into the country.

The next day, March 12, Hitler accompanied German troops into Austria, where enthusiastic crowds met them. Hitler appointed a new Nazi government, and on March 13 the Anschluss was proclaimed. Austria existed as a federal state of Germany until the end of World War II, when the Allied powers declared the Anschluss void and reestablished an independent Austria. Schuschnigg, who had been imprisoned soon after resigning, was released in 1945.

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1916 Germany declares war on Portugal

On this day in 1916, Germany declares war on Portugal, who earlier that year honored its alliance with Great Britain by seizing German ships anchored in Lisbon’s harbor.

Portugal became a republic in 1910 after a revolution led by the country’s military toppled King Manuel II (his father, King Carlos, and elder brother had been assassinated two years earlier). A liberal constitution was enacted in 1911, and Manuel JosÉ de Arriaga was elected as the republic’s first president.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Portugal became increasingly anxious about the security of its colonial holdings in Angola and Mozambique. In order to secure international support for its authority in Africa, Portugal entered the war on the side of Britain and the Allies. Its participation was at first limited to naval support. In February 1917, however, Portugal sent its first troops—an expeditionary force of 50,000 men—to the Western Front. They saw action for the first time in Belgium on June 17 of that year.

One notable battle in which Portuguese forces took part was the Battle of Lys, near the Lys River in the Flanders region of Belgium, in April 1918. It was part of the major German offensive—the last of the war—launched that spring on the Western Front. During that battle, one Portuguese division of troops was struck hard by four German divisions; the preliminary shelling alone was so heavy that one Portuguese battalion refused to push forward into the trenches. All told, the victorious Germans took more than 6,000 prisoners in that conflict and were able to push through enemy lines along a three-and-a-half mile stretch. By the time World War I ended, a total of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers had died in combat.

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1941 British forces arrive in Greece

On this day, a British expeditionary force from North Africa lands in Greece.

In October 1940, Mussolini’s army, already occupying Albania, invaded Greece in what proved to be a disastrous military campaign for the Duce’s forces. Mussolini surprised everyone with this move against Greece, but he was not to be upstaged by recent Nazi conquests. According to Hitler, who was stunned by a move that he knew would be a strategic blunder, Mussolini should have concentrated on North Africa by continuing the advance into Egypt. The Italians paid for Mussolini’s hubris, as the Greeks succeeded in pushing the Italian invaders back into Albania after just one week, and the Axis power spent the next three months fighting for its life in a series of defensive battles.

Mussolini’s precipitate maneuver frustrated Hitler because it opened an opportunity for the British to enter Greece and establish an airbase in Athens, putting the Brits within striking distance of valuable oil reserves in Romania, which Hitler relied upon for his war machine. It also meant that Hitler would have to divert forces from North Africa, a high strategic priority, to bail Mussolini out of Greece-and postpone Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union.

The Brits indeed saw an opening in Greece, and on March 7, 1941, Prime Minister Winston Churchill diverted troops from Egypt and sent 58,000 British and Aussie troops to occupy the Olympus-Vermion line. But the Brits would be blown out of the Pelopponesus Peninsula when Hitler’s forces invaded on the ground and from the air in April. Thousands of British and Australian forces were captured there and on Crete, where German paratroopers landed in May.

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1918 Finland signs treaty with Germany

Four days after Russia signs a humiliating peace treaty with the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, the newly declared independent state of Finland reaches a formal peace settlement with Germany.

Though Finland—a former Swedish duchy ceded to Russian control in 1809, when Russia’s Czar Alexander I attacked and occupied it—did not participate directly in the First World War, Russian troops were garrisoned in the country from the beginning of the conflict. For Finland, the war provided the ultimate opportunity for an emerging nation: independence.

In 1917, with Russia struggling on the battlefield against Germany and in the throes of internal revolution, Finland saw its chance. On November 15, 1917, a newly elected Finnish parliament announced it was assuming all powers formerly held by the Czar-Grand Duke—Nicholas II, who had abdicated the previous March. On December 6, barely a month after Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (later St. Petersburg), the parliament voted to make Finland an independent republic.

Almost immediately, however, conflict broke out within the nascent nation between the radical socialists—supporters of the Bolsheviks in Russia—and non-socialists. With government forces working to disarm and expel the remaining Russian troops stationed in Finland, the radical socialist Red Guard rebelled in late January 1918, terrorizing and killing civilians in their attempt to spark a Bolshevik-style revolution. The clash between the Reds and the Whites, as Finnish government troops were known, ended in victory by the government, due in part to the assistance of German troops sent by the kaiser to southern Finland.

On March 3, 1918, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was concluded, depriving Lenin’s new Soviet state of no less than 1 million square miles of territory that had been part of imperial Russia, including Finland, which was recognized in the treaty by both Russia and the Central Powers as an independent republic. As stated in the treaty, Finlandwill immediately be cleared of Russian troops and the Russian Red Guard, and the Finnish ports of the Russian fleet and of the Russian naval forces.Russia is to put an end to all agitation or propaganda against the Government or the public institutions of Finland. Four days later, the Finnish government signed a separate treaty with Germany, confirming its independence but also solidifying a close relationship and promising German support for Finland to help the new state preserve order.

That close relationship was confirmed the following October, when conservative forces in Finland decided to establish monarchal rule in the country, giving the throne to Frederick, a German prince. One month later, however, when the war ended in the defeat of the Central Powers, it no longer seemed a viable choice: Germany itself was no longer a monarchy, Kaiser Wilhelm having abdicated on November 9, and it was certain that the victorious Allies would not look kindly upon a German prince on the Finnish throne. Frederick abdicated on December 14. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, recognized Finland’s hard-won independence; that July, the Finnish parliament adopted a new republican constitution and Kaarlo J. Stahlberg, a liberal, was elected as the country’s first president.

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1936 Hitler reoccupies the Rhineland

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler violates the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Pact by sending German military forces into the Rhineland, a demilitarized zone along the Rhine River in western Germany.

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in July 1919–eight months after the guns fell silent in World War I–called for stiff war reparation payments and other punishing peace terms for defeated Germany. Having been forced to sign the treaty, the German delegation to the peace conference indicated its attitude by breaking the ceremonial pen. As dictated by the Treaty of Versailles, Germany’s military forces were reduced to insignificance and the Rhineland was to be demilitarized.

In 1925, at the conclusion of a European peace conference held in Switzerland, the Locarno Pact was signed, reaffirming the national boundaries decided by the Treaty of Versailles and approving the German entry into the League of Nations. The so-called “spirit of Locarno” symbolized hopes for an era of European peace and goodwill, and by 1930 German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann had negotiated the removal of the last Allied troops in the demilitarized Rhineland.

However, just four years later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized full power in Germany, promising vengeance against the Allied nations that had forced the Treaty of Versailles on the German people. In 1935, Hitler unilaterally canceled the military clauses of the treaty and in March 1936 denounced the Locarno Pact and began remilitarizing of the Rhineland. Two years later, Nazi Germany burst out of its territories, absorbing Austria and portions of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, leading to the outbreak of World War II in Europe.

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1918 Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded

On March 3, 1918, in the city of Brest-Litovsk, located in modern-day Belarus near the Polish border, Russia signs a treaty with the Central Powers ending its participation in World War I.

Russia’s involvement in World War I alongside its allies, France and Britain, had resulted in a number of heavy losses against Germany, offset only partially by consistent victories against Austria-Hungary. Defeat on the battlefield fed the growing discontent among the bulk of Russia’s population, especially the poverty-stricken workers and peasants, and its hostility towards the imperial regime, led by the ineffectual Czar Nicholas II. This discontent strengthened the cause of the Bolsheviks, a radical socialist group led by Vladimir Lenin that was working to harness opposition to the czar and turn it into a sweeping revolution that would begin in Russia and later, he hoped, spread to the rest of the world.

The February Revolution broke out in early March 1917 (or February, according to the Julian calendar, which the Russians used at the time); Nicholas abdicated later that month. After Lenin’s return from exile (aided by the Germans) in mid-April, he and his fellow Bolsheviks worked quickly to seize power from the provisional government, led by Alexander Kerensky, Russia’s minister of war. On November 6, aided by the Russian military, they were successful. One of Lenin’s first actions as leader was to call a halt to Russian participation in the war.

An armistice was reached in early December 1917 and a formal cease-fire was declared December 15, but determining the terms of peace between Russia and the Central Powers proved to be far more complicated. Negotiations began at Brest-Litovsk on December 22. Leading their respective delegations were Foreign Ministers Leon Trotsky of Russia, Baron Richard von Kuhlmann of Germany and Count Ottokar Czernin of Austria.

In mid-February, the talks broke down when an angry Trotsky deemed the Central Powers’ terms too harsh and their demands for territory unacceptable. Fighting resumed briefly on the Eastern Front, but the German armies advanced quickly, and both Lenin and Trotsky soon realized that Russia, in its weakened state, would be forced to give in to the enemy terms. Negotiations resumed later that month and the final treaty was signed on March 3.

By the terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine, Georgia and Finland; gave up Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Germany and Austria-Hungary; and ceded Kars, Ardahan and Batum to Turkey. The total losses constituted 1 million square miles of Russia’s former territory; a third of its population or 55 million people; a majority of its coal, oil and iron stores; and much of its industry. Lenin, who bitterly called the settlement that abyss of defeat, dismemberment, enslavement and humiliation, was forced to hope that the spread of world revolution—his greatest dream—would eventually right the wrongs done at Brest-Litovsk.

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