World War I refought in San Diego

Can’t blame it all on Germany

Raphael Courtney's great grandfather, Cesar Soriano, stands directly behind Mexican president Venustiano Carranza (front row with long white beard)
  • Raphael Courtney's great grandfather, Cesar Soriano, stands directly behind Mexican president Venustiano Carranza (front row with long white beard)

When Raphael Courtney was two, his mother took him to live in her father’s National City home. Her husband had recently died in a plane crash. As the boy matured, he and his grandfather grew close and the two often engaged in long talks. It was then that Grandpa Raul Soriano told of the time, during World War I, when Mexican president Venustiano Carranza came within a whisker of attacking the United States.

The plan had arrived from the German foreign minister in an encoded telegram promising financial backing for the undertaking. Its purposes were twofold: to deter the Americans from entering the war by presenting them with the prospect of having to fight on two fronts, one on its own border, and to help Mexico recover the lost territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Berlin suggested, too, that the Mexicans enlist Japan in the military venture against the U.S.

“As I remember the story,” Courtney tells me over coffee in Logan Heights, “Carranza had already been provoked by the American occupation of Veracruz during the Mexican Revolution [1910 to 1920]. After that, there was the aggravation of General ‘Black Jack’ Pershing chasing Pancho Villa all over northern Mexico. So Carranza was very interested in the German proposal and asked one of his generals to study its feasibility.”

Barbara Tuchman, in her book The Zimmermann Telegram, writes that U.S. president Wilson was tiring of the Villa chase, too, and decided to pull Pershing’s expedition out of Mexico. Tuchman suggests that may have influenced Carranza. On April 17, 1917, he rejected the German proposal. By that time, the code of the telegram transmitting the plan to Mexico had been broken, and its contents were hot news in American newspapers. The furor led to the U.S. declaring war on Germany.

Two years ago, Courtney joined Remembering World War I, a San Diego meetup for discussing World War I. The occasion is the ongoing centennial of the war, which started on June 28, 1914, and ended on November 11, 1918. Today we commemorate its 566th day. On this date one hundred years ago, according the war’s timeline.

It will be another year before Courtney can participate in the meetup’s discussion of Carranza’s dilemma. The group does not have a set schedule, such as monthly meetings, but takes up the war’s events as close to their one-hundred-year anniversaries as makes sense. It occasionally devotes a meeting to a particular theme of the war. The group has already discussed the beginning of the war, the Battle of the Marne, which introduced the brutal trench warfare for which the war is still infamous, and the sinking of the Lusitania. An announcement of the date and topic of each new meeting appears on the meetup’s website.

Raphael Courtney

Raphael Courtney

Raphael Courtney hopes to attend every discussion. His interest in history was instilled in him by his grandfather who, says Courtney, learned much of what he knew from his own father, Courtney’s great grandfather, Cesar Soriano. During the Mexican Revolution, the elder Soriano served in armies of the Constitutionalist party eventually led by Carranza. Later, in 1917 and 1918, Soriano acted as governor of the Mexican state of Sonora. Was the story about Carranza’s dilemma handed down in the Soriano family from scuttlebutt during the time of the revolution? Courtney thinks it’s possible.

But Soriano, also a history buff, bequeathed to his family many books of history, including a multivolume history of the war. “When I was little,” says Courtney, “I’d open the books and look at the pictures. Later on, I’d read in them here and there. So, I got my modest knowledge of World War I ultimately from my great-grandfather.”

Courtney says he doesn’t say too much during the meetups’ gatherings, preferring to listen to “those who know far more than I do. Our leader, for instance, provides great introductions to each topic.”

Important consequences

Jim Zimmerman

Jim Zimmerman

Jim Zimmerman (no relation to Arthur Zimmermann of the infamous telegram) is the founder and organizer of Remembering World War I. In spring 2014, he began thinking of a meetup for a four-year centennial of World War I. The assassination of archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in Bosnia/Herzegovina, the event that is commonly understood to have triggered the war, seemed to be the most appropriate topic to discuss at a first meeting. “I even imagined a possible reenactment, but quickly realized we wouldn’t have a car available of that vintage or the appropriate period clothing.”

On occasional Saturday afternoons, the meetup’s participants convene inside Kafe Sobaka in Golden Hill ­— or on its narrow patio out front. They discuss each other’s views, often debating them, pore over maps, watch videos, and eat. The Russian restaurant is situated on the south side of Broadway in Golden Hill, slightly west of 25th Street.

By discussing key events of the war, the group probes its causes, critiques its protagonists, and commemorates those who simply had to endure it. Call them war buffs, if you will, but their interest is not exclusively about battles and casualty lists and famous generals. They discuss the politics and consequences of the war, too, such as the current turmoil in the Middle East, which has come about in large part because, in 1915–’16, a British politician and a French diplomat drew boundary lines in the Ottoman Empire that today constitute the borders of Iraq and Syria. The action has come to be known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

“The war has had such important consequences for the world, that I thought trying to understand it is important,” Zimmerman told me during a conversation in the San Diego Central Library downtown.

During the war, the British Balfour Declaration that Jews should have a homeland in Palestine set the stage for a seemingly perennial conflict between Israelis and Arabs throughout the region. On the other side of the world, in the Pacific, England enlisted Japanese help to restrain the German navy, propelling Japan into the position of a Pacific, then world, power that saw its apotheosis leading up to and during World War II.

“There have now been close to 100 years of writing about the war — the amount of literature on the subject is enormous — and new perspectives and discoveries are always entering the discussion,” says Zimmerman, who is the only professional historian who yet belongs to Remembering World War I. “I would like to see some others join us,” he says.

As of this writing, I have attended three meetings, ranging in attendance from 8 to 13. The next meeting, on March 5, will cover the propaganda war that seems to continue even today.

Last year, having first learned about the meetings, I asked if there were any events of 1915 connected to San Diego that might be discussed. “There won’t be much to talk about until we get into the events of 1917, when America entered the war,” said Zimmerman.

I knew it was a stretch. Then I found in the Journal of San Diego History an episode in which the Japanese Imperial Navy had been chasing German battleships up the west coast of Mexico and possibly into U.S. waters.

The incident was “minor,” Zimmerman told me, noting he’d never heard of it, “but it does demonstrate the ascendance of the Japanese in the Pacific.” He was gracious and agreed to put a link to the article about it on the meetup’s website. But more about that below.

My grandfathers fought in the German army

Gerold Firl

Gerold Firl

Gerold Firl and I attended our first meeting of Remembering World War I on October 17 last year; I to observe, he to lead the meeting. He had a non-standard explanation of who started the war that he wanted to present, so Zimmerman invited Firl to make the presentation.

Firl is semi-retired from a career in mechanical engineering. He has a master’s degree in the field from UCSD. He is now writing a book on cultural evolution in which he is using World War I as a case study. “I don’t have academic training in history,” he tells me. “But I only work part-time now, my children are grown and the house is paid [for]. So I can write.

“I have lived in California all my life. My family is German, and Germany had indeed done terrible things during WWII. So it was an interesting experience growing up as one of the bad guys. The memories of World War II at that time were still quite strong.

“Being one of the bad guys spurred my desire to understand how it all happened and what caused it. Both my grandfathers fought in the German army in the First World War, one on the eastern front and one on the western front.

“Most history writing today,” says Firl, “especially academic history, does a lousy job of understanding the past. In the case of World War I, there is a groupthink that is present in especially those histories written in English that simple-mindedly portrays the Germans as the perpetrators. Those accounts got their start in England’s and America’s propaganda machines during the war.”

The explanations, Firl says in a post on the meetup’s website, ranged from “Germany started it” to Europe “was primed for war, and an accidental spark set it off. But why is a century-old advertising campaign still accepted as history? Especially when it has such important consequences for our understanding of world politics and the selling of war.”

Firl argues that the planners of the war were France, Russia, Great Britain, Serbia, and Italy, in that order. Four of these nations thought that a sudden short war would gain for them what they had long desired. France wanted Alsace-Lorraine and the Rhinelands from Germany, Russia the Dardanelles near Istanbul, Serbia to become free of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy to recover land from Tyrol to Trieste and in the Isonzo River Valley.

In addition, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand appears from research after the war to have been an act of state terrorism by the head of the Serbian secret police, says Firl, referring me to David MacKenzie’s book Apis: The Congenial Conspirator.

But France, according to Firl, was the instigator and ringleader in a series of behind-the-scenes agreements to prepare Europe for war. As one source of his views, he cites DJ Goodspeed’s book, The German Wars: 1914 –1945. “Russia was the first recruit to the project, but the war could not be launched without the approval of the United Kingdom.”

The war was long in the making. “By 1904, all the pieces were in place, but English public opinion would remain a serious obstacle,” says Firl. “It had to be carefully cultivated, and then delicately finessed. The other Allies had no such barriers. Britain wasn’t supposed to have to do much, just provide naval cover, and French and Russian ground forces were going to do the dirty work. So, the war seemed like a good investment.”

Not all the meetups’ attendees were willing to be mentioned. But during the October 17 meeting, questions arose from the floor about how the war was financed on both sides. In particular, were there private investors willing to risk money on the chances of one side or the other turning out victorious?

To figure out the war, says Firl, “Follow the money” can be “instructive.” Some of the newspapers in England, such as the Daily Mail, owned by Alfred Harmsworth, also known as Lord Northcliffe, were itching for a fight against the Germans. It has been said that “next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war.” Asks Firl in a post on the website, “Was that the result of a simple profit motive? The desire to sell papers? That seems hard to believe, but maybe not impossible.”

The casualties of World War I, including both military and civilian, came to 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. The battles of Verdun and the Somme, says Firl, “are great examples of the catastrophic snowball effect, where players double-down on a bad bet, trying to recover their losses, but just getting in deeper.” Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, was “the ultimate company man, decked out with medals because he was willing to send so many to their death,” according to Firl.

Colle Sant'Elia Park of Remembrance, Redipuglia, Italy

Colle Sant'Elia Park of Remembrance, Redipuglia, Italy

Did Italy win the war?

In the meetings of Remembering World War I held so far, John Bothwell hasn’t had much chance to address his favorite topic, the Italian campaign. But I was intrigued by some passionate comments he made during the second meeting I attended, so I met later with him twice, and we exchanged several emails. Of many books that have influenced his opinions, he mentions John Gooch’s The Italian Army and the First World War and Haig’s Command, by Denis Winter.

Most English-speaking historians, Bothwell tells me, “write 500-page books glorifying characters like Douglas Haig. On about page 483, they stick in six or seven pages about the Italian campaign.”

The Russians, Americans, and the English each claim to have won the war. But it was the Italians, in Bothwell’s view, who struck the coup de grâce. They defeated Austria-Hungary, a German ally (a second ally was Ottoman Turkey), at the Battle of Vittorio Veneto (October 24 to November 3, 1918). The Italians broke through Austro-Hungarian lines, forced a surrender, and “could have marched right into Germany,” most of whose forces were on the Western front in France, says Bothwell. “But the Italians didn’t need to,” he continues, since eight days later, on November 11, Germany signed an armistice with the allies in Compiegne, France.

Because British troops went to shore up the front lines in Italy, they claim they were the ones who defeated the Austro-Hungarians. That “somehow reduces the 51 Italian divisions to no more effectiveness than 3 English divisions,” Bothwell says. “The math never added up to me. The claim is preposterous, yet it persists.”

Instead of describing the Italian success, however, the English-speaking historians obsess over the Battle of Caporetto, which started a year to the day earlier than Vittorio Veneto. At Caporetto, it was the Austro-Hungarians who overran the Italian lines with the help of German troops using poison gas, stormtrooper tactics, and advanced artillery.

General Luigi Cadorna, commander of Italian forces at Caporetto, comes under withering criticism by the English-speaking historians for his handling of the battle. In their opinion, he deployed his regiments too close to the front in preparation for an offensive, with no support in the rear. Cadorna, who was infamous for harsh treatment of his troops, stayed in Padua, south of the battlefield, and ordered the executions of those commanders who led retreats during the fighting; 750 soldiers were also executed.

While Bothwell is no great fan of Cadorna, he tells me that the general actually had ordered a subordinate, General Luigi Capello, to put the Italian army into a defensive posture in readiness for the oncoming enemy troops. Instead, Capello, known for an aggressiveness that earlier achieved the first allied victory in any of the war’s battles, staged an attack that backfired, resulting in the routing of the Italian army. Like Cadorna, Capello missed the disaster, spending the days of crucial fighting in the hospital for severe stomach problems. Meanwhile, 275,000 Italian soldiers surrendered.

Caporetto was a battle where the English could have broken Austro-Hungary’s back a year before it happened had they committed the forces British prime minister Lloyd George wanted in Italy. Bothwell says that George told General Douglas Haig “to support Italy and knock Austria out of the war, effectively kicking out one leg on a three-leg stool. George thought it would force Germany to reconsider its position. Haig adamantly refused, continually, so it never happened that way.

“Somehow all of this gets swept under the rug of English-language history, a history that was written by Haig’s friend James Edward Edmonds, with editing rights to Haig’s wife, of all people. This is not a history one should trust.”

Under the pseudonym Henry Giovanni, Bothwell has written a book called Italian History Through Italian Medals. Most of the medals are from action on the Italian front in World War I.

Bothwell tells me his father, an American naval officer stationed in Greece during the 1960s, loved to take his family on vacations and “would jump us over to Italy on our way further north into Europe. So I already had some familiarity with Italy.”

Then, while studying art at SDSU, Bothwell met and married his wife, an Italian national, who grew up in Padua, Italy. They’ve subsequently taken frequent trips to the peninsular nation, where Bothwell says he’d love to move if he could afford it.

Last year, on May 24, Bothwell attended the centenario of the first major battle in which Italy squared off against the Austro-Hungarians at Asagio di Altopiano. “I first wanted to lead a tour and that didn’t work out,” he says. “But I had to go.” Already for six years, he’d been reading everything he could get his hands on about the Italian front in World War I, including books in Italian. “I’m getting better and use dictionaries, of course, and my source of last resort, when I don’t understand something, is my wife.”

The centenario was a “festive affair,” says Bothwell. “Musicians rode down the street on bicycles playing their instruments at the same time, and politicians spoke. Yet the celebrations were very solemn and emotional, too, because almost every family in those northern towns lost someone in the war.”

When Bothwell travels to Italy, he often hikes the mountains and hills where the World War I battles took place. “For the Italians, the fighting was uphill,” he says. On his hikes, he encounters numerous plaques honoring heroes and sees many ossuaries, large and small, in which some of the dead are named but many more of their unidentified skeletal remains have been thrown together. The death toll from the war in Italy was 1.2 million. But since the fighting took place in the midst of the northern towns and villages, close to 600,000 of those who died were civilians.

Japanese navy in Baja

Raphael Courtney tells me that at one time he thought of the Great War, as it is sometimes called, so much as the Western Front that he didn’t understand why it was called a “world war.” Now, in the meetups, he’s hearing more about the involvement of the European colonies in Africa, fighting for the English on the continent by their Indian “colonials,” the Russian front, and the war in the Ottoman Empire. He might have mentioned the war in the Pacific, too.

During early stages of World War I, the Japanese ship Asama Gunkan foundered on a rock outside Puerto San Bartolome. The natural harbor, known better in the U.S. as Turtle Bay, lies 300 miles south of San Diego on the coast of Baja, California. The ship came perilously close to sinking with a crew of 600 aboard. Nearly seven months later, after extensive repairs, the Asama sailed for British Columbia and a complete overhaul. In the interim, a Los Angeles Times story sensationalized the lengthy Japanese military presence so close to California as evidence that Japan was preparing an attack on the U.S. through Mexico. But two newspapers in San Diego challenged the account, in particular a small weekly, which pinned down facts showing it to be a hysterical war scare.

True, the incident was not exactly part of World War I. But it took place on the war’s edges. Its story also undercuts the impression one might get from studying the many separate conflicts making up the war that people everywhere wanted to jump in and fight somebody.

Donald Estes, a political science and history professor at San Diego City College who died in 2005, explained the complex details of the Turtle Bay incident in the Journal of San Diego History. The article appeared in the summer of 1978 under the title “Asama Gunkan: The Appraisal of a War Scare.”

As Estes tells it, prior to World War I, tensions between the Japanese and Americans had been increasing. Both Hawaii and the Philippines had become United States possessions within the previous two decades. The U.S. and Japan, writes Estes, were entering into “direct competition for markets and influence” in the Pacific.

At the time, there was also substantial immigration by Japanese into the U.S., causing in the American west, especially California, what Estes calls “growing fears of a Japanese takeover by their very numbers.” Exacerbating these fears was the adoption by the Hearst Press of the term “yellow peril” in the wake of Japan’s impressive military victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–’05. (The term had been coined in the early 1890s by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany.)

After World War I broke out, the German navy in the southern and western Pacific began destroying commercial ships carrying goods to Europe. In response, the British admiralty enlisted its ally Japan to help in tracking down the marauders. As they gained the upper hand, the allies concluded that German ships were fleeing northward along the coast of Mexico. So the Japanese Imperial Navy, as its contribution to the war effort, gave chase.

One of the ships assigned to the chase was the Asama Gunkan. On January 31, the ship’s captain tried to enter Turtle Bay in a storm to receive a load of coal from a British collier, the Boyne, that was tagging along closely. But at the entrance to the harbor, the Asama struck the rock that would hang it up for close to seven months.

Seeing that it could do nothing, the Boyne continued north and arrived, on February 2, at San Diego, where it wired the news to the Japanese admiral in charge of the mission. Two days later, the San Diego Union got wind of the incident and reported it.

Then, as the story went national, it started to morph. On February 9, writes Estes, “the San Diego Union carried a front page story, datelined New York and quoting the New York Sun that it had confirmed that the Asama had been so damaged in a fight with a German warship that the cruiser had been beached in Baja California to keep it from sinking.” The Union quoted the Sun further as saying that “the full details of the stranding of the Japanese armored cruiser and the purpose of its presence in the waters of Lower California, if divulged, would create an international incident and probably lead to a serious exchange of views between Washington and Tokyo….”

By March 19, four additional Japanese ships arrived at Turtle Bay: two cruisers, a supply ship, and the fleet repair ship. Meanwhile, in Washington, officials were debating what help could be offered the Japanese without violating American neutrality.

At this point, says Estes, “the saga of the Asama began slowly to drift from the public’s notice. Drift, that is, until the morning of Wednesday, April 14, 1915. On that morning, the Los Angeles Times carried a page-one exposé written by Albert F. Nathan.” The story’s author insisted that instead of being hung up on a rock, the Asama had been intentionally run into the mud at the entrance to the bay. He also claimed to have personally witnessed in Turtle Bay sixty tons of ammunition, a “heavily mined harbor,” an operating “radio station,” and 4000 Japanese troops onshore, as well as the Japanese “fleet” offshore. He argued that the location offered “a base of operations against the United States or Mexico, in which half the Japanese navy could anchor.”

“Nathan’s article…generated an almost immediate rebuttal the following day in the San Diego Union,” writes Estes. The paper’s rebuttal also reported that “a number of local ships had been in the bay....‘without being blown up....’”

Nevertheless, according to Estes, “the Los Angeles Times story [had been] put on the news wire and was subsequently picked up and printed by the New York Times, thus providing a considerable audience for the charges leveled by Mr. Nathan.”

Finally, the San Diego Weekly Union, twice, on April 22 and 29, quoted American steamer captains who had sailed into and out of Turtle Bay in the previous days. The first, a Captain Hendrickson, stated that he had seen the Asama “pinnacled on a submerged rock almost in the center of the channel.” There was no “armed camp ashore,” nor was the bay mined, said Hendrickson, “having freely cruised its length without any damage.”

The second source, a Captain Whitelaw who operated a salvaging business out of San Diego and at the outset of the incident had been identified as a salvager the Japanese wanted to retain, repeated the same information in “an exclusive interview.” Japanese activity in Turtle Bay, he testified, was entirely devoted to “doing everything possible to salvage the cruiser Asama from the pinnacle rock...upon which she is impaled.”

Alas, cooler heads prevailed, and a war scare was prevented from possibly becoming another war. Not everyone in the U.S. was seeing a war around the next corner. One of the most popular songs in America during 1915 and 1916 was “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.”

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