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12 Technological Advancements of World War I

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Erik Sass has been covering the events leading up to World War I exactly 100 years after they happened. But today he's here to discuss some inventions of The Great War.

1. Tanks

In 1914, the “war of movement” expected by most European generals settled down into an unexpected, and seemingly unwinnable, war of trenches. With machine guns reinforcing massed rifle fire from the defending trenches, attackers were mowed down by the thousands before they could even get to the other side of “no-man’s-land.”

A solution presented itself, however, in the form of the automobile, which took the world by storm after 1900. Powered by a small internal combustion engine burning diesel or gas, a heavily-armored vehicle could advance even in the face of overwhelming small arms fire. Add some serious guns and replace the wheels with armored treads to handle rough terrain, and the tank was born.

The first tank, the British Mark I, was designed in 1915 and first saw combat at the Somme in September 1916. The French soon followed suit with the Renault FT, which established the classic tank look (turret on top). Despite their later prowess in tank combat in WWII, the Germans never got around to large-scale tank production in WWI, although they did produce 21 tanks in the unwieldy A7V model.

2. Flamethrowers

Although the Byzantines and Chinese used weapons that hurled flaming material in the medieval period, the first design for a modern flamethrower was submitted to the German Army by Richard Fiedler in 1901, and the devices were tested by the Germans with an experimental detachment in 1911. Their true potential was only realized during trench warfare, however. After a massed assault on enemy lines, it wasn’t uncommon for enemy soldiers to hole up in bunkers and dugouts hollowed into the side of the trenches. Unlike grenades, flamethrowers could “neutralize” (i.e. burn alive) enemy soldiers in these confined spaces without inflicting structural damage (the bunkers might come in handy for the new residents). The flamethrower was first used by German troops near Verdun in February 1915.

3. Poison Gas


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Poison gas was used by both sides with devastating results (well, sometimes) during the Great War. The Germans pioneered the large-scale use of chemical weapons with a gas attack on Russian positions on January 31, 1915, during the Battle of Bolimov, but low temperatures froze the poison (xylyl bromide) in the shells. The first successful use of chemical weapons occurred on April 22, 1915, near Ypres, when the Germans sprayed chlorine gas from large cylinders towards trenches held by French colonial troops. The defenders fled, but typically for the First World War, this didn’t yield a decisive result: the Germans were slow to follow up with infantry attacks, the gas dissipated, and the Allied defenses were restored. Before long, of course, the Allies were using poison gas too, and over the course of the war both sides resorted to increasingly insidious compounds to beat gas masks, another new invention; thus the overall result was a huge increase in misery for not much change in the strategic situation (a recurring theme of the war).

4. Tracer Bullets


Photo courtesy of Military Cartridges

While the Great War involved a lot of futile activity, fighting at night was especially unproductive because there was no way to see where you were shooting. Night combat was made somewhat easier by the British invention of tracer bullets—rounds which emitted small amounts of flammable material that left a phosphorescent trail. The first attempt, in 1915, wasn’t actually that useful, as the trail was “erratic” and limited to 100 meters, but the second tracer model developed in 1916, the .303 SPG Mark VIIG, emitted a regular bright green-white trail and was a real hit (get it?). Its popularity was due in part to an unexpected side-benefit: the flammable agent could ignite hydrogen, which made it perfect for “balloon-busting” the German zeppelins then terrorizing England.

5. Interrupter Gear


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Airplanes had been around for just a decade when WWI started, and while they had obvious potential for combat applications as an aerial platform for bombs and machine guns, it wasn’t quite clear how the latter would work, since the propeller blades got in the way. In the first attempt, the U.S. Army basically tied the gun to the plane (pointing towards the ground) with a leather strap, and it was operated by a gunner who sat beside the pilot. This was not ideal for aerial combat and inconvenient because it required two airmen to operate. Another solution was mounting the gun well above the pilot, so the bullets cleared the propeller blades, but this made it hard to aim. After the Swiss engineer Franz Schneider patented his idea for an interrupter gear in 1913, a finished version was presented by Dutch designer Anthony Fokker, whose “synchronizer,” centered on a cam attached to the propeller shaft, allowed a machine gun to fire between the blades of a spinning propeller. The Germans adopted Fokker’s invention in May 1915, and the Allies soon produced their own versions. Schneider later sued Fokker for patent infringement.

6. Air traffic control

In the first days of flight, once a plane left the ground the pilot was pretty much isolated from the terrestrial world, unable to receive any information aside from obvious signals using flags or lamps. This changed thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Army, which installed the first operational two-way radios in planes during the Great War (but prior to U.S. involvement). Development began in 1915 at San Diego, and by 1916 technicians could send a radio telegraph over a distance of 140 miles; radio telegraph messages were also exchanged between planes in flight. Finally, in 1917, for the first time a human voice was transmitted by radio from a plane in flight to an operator on the ground.

7. Depth Charges


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The German U-boat campaign against Allied shipping sank millions of tons of cargo and killed tens of thousands of sailors and civilians, forcing the Allies to figure out a way to combat the submarine menace. The solution was the depth charge, basically an underwater bomb that could be lobbed from the deck of a ship using a catapult or chute. Depth charges were set to go off at a certain depth by a hydrostatic pistol that measured water pressure, insuring the depth charge wouldn’t damage surface vessels, including the launch ship. After the idea was sketched out in 1913, the first practical depth charge, the Type D, was produced by the Royal Navy’s Torpedo and Mine School in January 1916. The first German U-boat sunk by depth charge was the U-68, destroyed on March 22, 1916.

8. Hydrophones

Of course it was a big help if you could actually locate the U-boat using sound waves, which required a microphone that could work underwater, or hydrophone. The first hydrophone was invented by 1914 by Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor who actually started working on the idea as a way to locate icebergs following the Titanic disaster; however, it was of limited use because it couldn’t tell the direction of an underwater object, only the distance. The hydrophone was further improved by the Frenchman Paul Langevin and Russian Constantin Chilowsky, who invented an ultrasound transducer relying on piezoelectricity, or the electric charge held in certain minerals: a thin layer of quartz held between two metal plates responded to tiny changes in water pressure resulting from sound waves, allowing the user to determine both the distance and direction of an underwater object. The hydrophone claimed its first U-boat victim in April 1916. A later version perfected by the Americans could detect U-boats up to 25 miles away.

9. Aircraft Carriers


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The first time an airplane was launched from a moving ship was in May 1912, when commander Charles Rumney Samson piloted a Short S.27 pontoon biplane from a ramp on the deck of the HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay. However, the Hibernia wasn’t a true aircraft carrier, since planes couldn’t land on its deck; they had to set down on the water and then be retrieved, slowing the whole process considerably. The first real aircraft carrier was the HMS Furious, which began life as a 786-foot-long battle cruiser equipped with two massive 18-inch guns—until British naval designers figured out that these guns were so large they might shake the ship to pieces. Looking for another use for the vessel, they built a long platform capable of both launching and landing airplanes. To make more room for takeoffs and landings, the airplanes were stored in hangars under the runway, as they still are in modern aircraft carriers. Squadron Commander Edward Dunning became the first person to land a plane on a moving ship when he landed a Sopwith Pup on the Furious on August 2, 1917.

10. Pilotless Drones

The first pilotless drone was developed for the U.S. Navy in 1916 and 1917 by two inventors, Elmer Sperry and Peter Hewitt, who originally designed it as an unmanned aerial bomb—essentially a prototype cruise missile. Measuring just 18.5 feet across, with a 12-horsepower motor, the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Aircraft weighed 175 pounds and was stabilized and directed (“piloted” is too generous) with gyroscopes and a barometer to determine altitude. The first unmanned flight in history occurred on Long Island on March 6, 1918. In the end, the targeting technique—point and fly—was too imprecise for it to be useful against ships during the war. Further development, by attempting to integrate remote radio control, continued for several years after the war, until the Navy lost interest in 1925.

11. Mobile X-Ray Machines

With millions of soldiers suffering grievous, life-threatening injuries, there was obviously a huge need during the Great War for the new wonder weapon of medical diagnostics, the X-ray—but these required very large machines that were both too bulky and too delicate to move. Enter Marie Curie, who set to work creating mobile X-ray stations for the French military immediately after the outbreak of war; by October 1914, she had installed X-ray machines in several cars and small trucks which toured smaller surgical stations at the front. By the end of the war there were 18 of these “radiologic cars” or “Little Curies” in operation. African-American inventor Frederick Jones developed an even smaller portable X-ray machine in 1919 (Jones also invented refrigeration units, air conditioning units, and the self-starting gasoline lawnmower).

12. Sanitary Napkins

Women traditionally improvised all kinds of disposable or washable undergarments to deal with their monthly period, all the way back to softened papyrus in ancient Egypt. But the modern sanitary napkin as we know it was made possible by the introduction of new cellulose bandage material during the First World War; it wasn’t long before French nurses figured out that clean, absorbent cellulose bandages were far superior to any predecessors. British and American nurses picked up on the habit, and corporate America wasn’t far behind: In 1920, Kimberly-Clark introduced the first commercial sanitary napkin, Kotex (that’s “cotton” + “texture”). But it was rough going at first, as no publications would carry advertisements for such a product. It wasn’t until 1926 that Montgomery Ward broke the barrier, carrying Kotex napkins in its popular catalogue.

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WWI Centennial: Germans Capture Riga, Kornilov Revolt

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

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

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

Fall of Riga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kornilov Revolt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Race Riot In Houston

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 286th installment in the series.

AUGUST 23, 1917: RACE RIOT IN HOUSTON

The upheaval of the First World War was associated with a rise in racial tensions across the U.S., resulting from unprecedented population movements and changing social dynamics. Beginning in 1915, the surge in factory employment for wartime production saw hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of poor African-American migrants leave the South to find work in Northern and Midwestern industrial cities – where they mixed uneasily with native whites and large European immigrant populations.

Great migration map
Erik Sass

Down South, the new economic opportunities available to African-Americans in the North caused some white Southerners to fear the loss of cheap agricultural labor as well as blacks becoming more assertive about their civil rights, leading to the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The huge popularity of the movie “Birth of a Nation” was also testament to enduring racial hostility across the U.S. – not just in the South.

As 350,000 African-American men volunteered or were drafted in 1917-1918, one of the most volatile combinations occurred when black soldiers - many from outside the South - were sent to Southern training camps, where they were exposed to the humiliating Jim Crow regime in addition to serving in segregated units (an Army-wide policy). On August 23, 1917, this resulted in one of the worst race riots in American history, at a training camp in Houston, Texas.

1917 training camps map
Erik Sass

The Houston race riot and mutiny was the climax of months of mounting tension between the African-American recruits of the all-black Twenty-fourth U.S. Infantry Regiment –part of the legendary “Buffalo Soldiers,” originally formed to fight Native American tribesmen– and the local white authorities in Houston, Texas. The regiment had been deployed to guard the construction of Camp Logan, Texas (duties typical of the rear-area and supply roles commonly assigned to these segregated black units).

On the hot, sunny afternoon of August 23, 1917, two white policemen broke up a craps game in the San Felipe section of Houston and then, while in pursuit of the suspects, broke into the house of a local woman, Sara Travers, whom they dragged outside in her torn nightgown. One passing soldier, Private Alonzo Edwards, was bold enough to approach the officer who was holding Travers with an offer to take custody of the distraught woman, possibly intending to return her to her home and de-escalate the situation – but instead Edwards was pistol-whipped for his presumption for speaking to a white police officer. Later that afternoon the same white officer clubbed another black soldier, Corporal Charles Baltimore, who asked after Travers; anger among the regiment’s Third Battalion, to which Baltimore belonged, reached a fever pitch with untrue rumors that he had been shot and died from the wound.

That night 156 black soldiers from the Third Battalion – apparently under the mistaken impression that a white lynch mob was about to attack the camp – armed themselves and marched from Camp Logan towards town, killing anyone they came across, for about two hours before the authorities surrounded and disarmed the mutineers. Altogether the mutineers killed nine white civilians and five white policemen, while four black soldiers were also killed by authorities – marking this as the only race riot in American history with more white than black fatalities.

Unsurprisingly, the official response to the Camp Logan riot and mutiny was draconian: around 100 members of the Third Battalion were tried collectively for murder in several court martials – making it one of the biggest murder cases in American history, measured by number of defendants – and 95 were convicted (top, a photo of the trial proceedings). Of these, 28 mutineers received death sentences and dozens of others were imprisoned.

The U.S. Army executed 13 soldiers almost immediately, all by hanging, and another six soldiers were hung at Camp Travis, Texas in September 1918. But the evidence for the involvement of many convicted soldiers in the mutiny and murders was often sketchy, based in many cases on contradictory eyewitness testimony, and protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civic groups prompted Woodrow Wilson commute ten of the remaining death sentences. The last mutineer was finally released from prison in 1938.

OPPORTUNITY AND THE OUTSIDE WORLD 

The Houston race riot and mutiny weren’t representative of the experience of all African-American soldiers during this period. For one thing, tens of thousands of young African-American men joined up voluntarily, usually for the same reasons as their peers: the Army held out the promise of regular pay and adventure, and with it a ticket out of sleepy small town or rural life. Former Illinois state representative Corneal Davis recalled trying to join the army in rural Mississippi, where there were no future prospects besides sharecropping:

I went into the army in 1917 when I was seventeen years old, and I enlisted down there at Beachwood, and the man they had down there, he says to me, “You ain’t nothing but seventeen years old, and you got to be at least eighteen to join this army! So why don’ you just go home and wait a little bit longer.” Well, that’s the way the law was, and so now what am I going to do? But then this same guy, he says, “Do you really want to go?” And so I say, “Hell, yeah, I want to go because I need to go somewhere where I can make some money, and I can’t make nothing down here...”

Possession of some education, even short of a high school degree, could provide a big leg up. Davis recalled,

… they put me in the medical corps because a lot of those black men that they was drafting, they couldn’t read or write, and they had to be trained how to use a stretcher or even put on a bandage and things like that, and so they put me in there because at least I had gone into my last year of high school, and I had a little education, and so they thought that I could train them, and I did.

Of course, once in Europe Davis still had to deal with the same endemic racist attitudes he faced at home, even on the battlefield, where his unit served as stretcher bearers:

… and that was a hard and dangerous job for us to do, and what made it even harder was that some of those soldiers – especially those white guys who were Marines – they didn’t even want black people like us to come anywhere near them, but we were the ones who still had to go out there when they got shot and bring them back off the battlefield!

For all this, traveling to Europe – and especially immersion in France’s relatively egalitarian society – was clearly an eye-opening experience for many African-American soldiers, as noted by both black and white observers. Davis noted that his unit’s true opportunity to shine only came under French commanders, who were already used to the idea of using black and white troops together thanks to units from Senegal and other colonial possessions: “That’s right, and here we were supposed to be fighting for this country and making it safe for democracy and all of that, but they had to take a French general and put him in charge of all the black soldiers before they would let us chase them Germans out of Belgium, and that’s just what we did.”

However it should be noted that French enthusiasm for black troops wasn’t exactly altruistic, as the French used their own colonial troops in the front lines in order to spare the lives of white Frenchmen. In fact the French premier Georges Clemenceau, stated on February 18, 1918: “Although I have infinite respect for these brave blacks, I would much prefer to have ten blacks killed than a single Frenchman, because I think that enough Frenchmen have been killed and that it is necessary to sacrifice them as little as possible.”

African-American soldiers also had to deal with racial dynamics from home. Interactions with the opposite gender were especially fraught, at least in the eyes of Americans, where there had long been a taboo against African-American men sleeping with white women. Avery Royce Wolfe, a white American soldier volunteering with the French Army, noted the friction in a mixed-race camp near Verdun in September 1917, as well as his own racist attitudes, entirely typical for the era:

It is strange to see how the colored troops are received in France. There seems to be absolutely no race question, such as exists in America. The negro is accepted everywhere on the same basis as white men. Even the French girls seem to prefer colored soldiers to white soldiers. I must admit that this is rather repulsive to me, even if I do not have the same prejudice towards the colored people that prevails in our southern states.

Although the Frenchwomen might not have a problem socializing with black soldiers, white Southern soldiers certainly took exception to these relationships, importing Jim Crow laws to France, according to Royce:

The other night there was quite a serious riot between some Americans and the French Colonials who are stationed in this town. These Colonials are colored troops that the French recruit from their foreign provinces. Unlike Americans, the French do not draw a color line, and so these colored troops are accepted by the French girls on the same basis as any other man. This gets under the Americans’ skin, so much in fact that there is always trouble whenever the two mix.

Still, service in Europe inevitably created expectations of – or at least aspirations to – greater equality in America, someday. The white newspaper correspondent Will Irwin described meeting a young black American soldier who had volunteered with the French Army: “War and heroism had given him that straight air of authority common to all soldiers at the line. He looked you in the eye, and answered you with replies which carried their own conviction of truth. The democracy of the French army had brushed off on to him; he had grown accustomed to look on white men as equals…”

"I HAD TO BRING THEM AWAY" 

Racism was obviously inescapable, even in Europe, but the fact remained that conditions back home in the United States were much worse – especially down South, prompting millions more African-Americans to leave the Jim Crow states for new homes in the North, Midwest, and West over the First Great Migration, from 1915-1940 (when the Second Great Migration was trigged by the Second World War, lasting until 1970).

Map of African-American populations of U.S. cities
Erik Sass

There is no question that blacks living in the South during the height of white supremacy were routinely terrorized, including the ever-present fear of lynching. One elderly African-American woman who had moved to Newark told an oral historian about conditions in rural Georgia in this period:

I didn’t have no contact with white folks when I was comin’ up. The people all around me, the people in the neighborhood, had ‘em. But I was scared. You know how come? We couldn’t live in the house. We had to go out and stand in a pond of water up to our waist all night to keep away from the white folks. They would go to our house and bust in. And we had to run away to protect ourselves. We couldn’t come out of the water till the next day… The reason I hurt so bad when my husband died ‘cause I had nobody to help me with the children. I had to bring them away ‘cause them white folks would kill ‘em.

Map of African-American lynching victims, per year, 1882-1920
Erik Sass

Similarly, when he returned to the United States after the war, Davis found all his relatives had left Vicksburg, Mississippi for other cities, including Chicago, because of racial violence during the war:

When I came out of the army, all of my people, they had already left Mississippi because, just before then there was a boy in Vicksburg that I used to play with who was named Hamilton, and one day they picked him up because some white woman said she had been raped or something, and they took that boy who was completely innocent, and they hung him up on a tree, and that’s when the black people all started leaving Vicksburg because there wasn’t ever hanging black people like that in Vicksburg before then, and so my mother, she sent me this newspaper with the article in it about this boy that had been hanged, and she knew I knew him, and so in her letter to me she said, “Son, we are leaving.”

Beyond the unending terror of “lynch law,” opportunities for education and social mobility in the old South were almost nonexistent for African-Americans (and severely limited for poor whites). One elderly African-American migrant, interviewed anonymously, remembered that because her mother was unable to pay school fees, her education ended in the third grade:

When school time come she had to borrow books and we paid thirty-five cents a month… And all right, maybe you just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. If she didn’t give me the money, I couldn’t go to school. The teachers wouldn’t allow her to send us to school ‘cause she didn’t have the thirty-five cents. So I didn’t have much schoolin’. My mother wasn’t able to pay thirty-five cents for all of us to go to school. I can spell my name and know a little readin’. When she could get that money she send me, and that’s what I did to the third grade. That’s as far as I got.

Another elderly African-American interviewee described primitive conditions in the small rural school she attended:

We had the school in one room with a little potbelly stove sitting right in the middle of it. And the children was all ‘round the walls of the school. This set would come up and get warm and they would move back, the other would come. That’s how we kept warm. The girls had to bring the wood for the stove. The boys would go out and cut the trees down and chop them up to fit in the stove. We girls had to bring it and put it in the schoolroom.

Those who could attend school at all were lucky, as children regularly engaged in strenuous manual labor, usually on a family farm or share-cropping, or for white landowners. One elderly African-American preacher whose family moved North recalled picking cotton in his youth: “Most of the time we get on our knees. I have picked up as high as 230 pounds of cotton a day. I remember kids, they talk about three hundred pound pickers. But every day I picked over 200 pounds…”

Not all sharecroppers and their children were poorly educated, and the blight of illiteracy was also widespread among Southern whites – meaning in some cases black tenant farmers were better educated than their white landlords. Maggie Comer, an African-American woman who migrated from Woodland, Mississippi, to Memphis and then East Chicago, Indiana, in 1920, proudly recalled:

My father was sharecropping. He had more education than the white man he was working for. My father did all his weighing of the cotton and taking care of his business because that white man could not read or write. There were about thirteen or fourteen boys in his family and some few of them got to go to school a bit. My father was one that did get to go to school.

However education carried its own dangers. Indeed, some of the persecution had an economic motive behind it, as whites feared any black attempts to organize or pool financial resources, and any black farmer with education posed a threat in this regrd. Lillie Lodge Brantley, whose family left Midville, Georgia for Chicago in the mid-1920s, recalled the circumstances that forced her father to leave town:

Well, down south my father said the white people controlled everything. When he and the other farmers had their crops all in and they took them to town to sell in order to get nails or grains for the next year or something like that, the white people would them how many bushels they would net from their acres and that would determine just how much credit they would get. But, because my father could read and write and count, he would go around and let the other farmers know how much they were really supposed to get. Naturally, the white people resented that, and so he knew that in due time would have to leave. That’s when he made up his mind to come north.

At the same time, factory work up North held out the enticement of a regular wage with guaranteed payment – something still largely lacking in the informal Southern economy. One anonymous elderly African-American interviewed by oral historians, who moved from North Carolina to Newark in 1915, described the important difference in labor and compensation between agricultural work down South, with its many uncertainties, and industrial work up North:

People were workin’ sometimes, makin’ 50 cents a day. Sometimes they wasn’t. Some would work ten hours for that 50 cents. From sunup to sundown. Then you don’t know whether you going to get that money or not, ‘cause if the guy goes to town to sell and he don’t sell, you ain’t getting’ paid. But up here it was a little bit different. At least here you’ make five or six dollars.

Accommodations for the first wave of black migrants reaching Northern towns were often extremely primitive. Comer recounted her husband’s description of the makeshift encampment where he arrived near East Chicago, as well as the classic “chain” model by which the first migrants brought up their family members one at a time (resembling Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries): “He stayed at this place where this fellow had a tent, where they just sleep men mostly. There was no black women, or not any up to any good. They slept in tents until they made a few paydays and then they rented rooms or a house. He rented a house and kept a few renters, and then he sent back for a couple of his relatives…”

TOLERANCE AND TENSION

The Great Migration produced a kaleidoscopic array of social interactions, as native whites and European immigrants reacted to their newly arrived neighbors – sometimes with tolerance, other times with suspicion, fear and disdain. In addition to their own cultural differences and prejudices, the simple fact was African-American migrants represented economic competition for working class whites in Northern cities. But despite this obvious source of tension, harmony seems to have prevailed in most cases.

African-American migrants to Newark, NJ were mostly accepted by the white population, which included a large number of European immigrants, as long as they observed certain social barriers, according to one elderly interviewee: “But most of the time we got along, ‘cause here in Newark, whites used to stay upstairs and colored downstairs, and they all got along like two peas in a pod. Never had any problems… I was in a Jewish section, and with Italians too, all mixed up racial.”

Thomas Ellis, who was born in Chicago in 1914, told oral historian Timuel Black that African-American migrants mostly got along with their neighbors, including Jews and European immigrants who lived in their own ethnic enclaves – sometimes even attending their religious observances:

My auntie was the next black person to move into the neighborhood when she moved in on Aberdeen. That was a Jewish section. See, there was a lot of those little “sections” around there. There were Jews out there, there were Swedes out there, and there were Irish. We used to go to that Jewish church up on the corner near Sixty-first and May on Saturdays. It’s not a Jewish church now, but when we were just kids, we used to make fires for Jewish people, who couldn’t do anything like that on Saturdays. And then up on the corner of Sixty-first and May there was a Swedish church were we went sometimes with the fellow who lived next door.

One African-American migrant, Alonzo Parham, recalled benefiting from a supportive Irish immigrant teacher and befriending white students in Chicago in the 1920s:

The teacher was Irish: “And don’t you forget it.” Her last name was O’Donoghue, and her face was like a lemon, but she gave me a chance to shine in that class… In Foster School at the time, most of the fellows in my class were white. The Negro boys were all from the sixth grade down, but they were kind of cool toward me because I ran with these white boys… So when I went outside, the white kids would play with me, but those black kids kind of ignored me.

But there were definite social barriers to interaction, although the extent and intensity of these social prohibitions varied from place to place and over time. Ellis noted “we weren’t too well liked when we went over to Ogden Park. Wouldn’t go into the swimming pool.” Etta Moten Barnett, a stage and film vocalist, recalled petty snubs by a white teacher in Los Angeles:

At that time, in my class at the junior high school, there were only two of us who were not white, and our teacher, he spoke to our class about the fact that not everybody kept their yards and clean and looking nice because it was becoming a mixed neighborhood, and, well, I didn’t think that our teacher should have said something like that to our class, especially because it wasn’t even true!

No surprise, many Southern blacks, having spent their whole lives on farms, also found it difficult to adjust to life in the North and Midwest, according to Comer: “They didn’t like the weather. It was so different to their way of life at home. It was hard for people raised in the South to adjust to the city type life. This was almost like being in a jail for them, living in apartment houses with a postage-stamp lawn.”

Another common complaint among migrants was the alleged untrustworthiness of some Northern whites, who might take pains to appear friendly but in reality harbored sentiments just as racist as their Southern counterparts. An elderly African-American woman who moved to Newark in her youth opined:

Down there they’ll let you know where you at in the first place, in the beginning. You know how far to go with them down there. But up here! Humph! They’re just as bad! They’re just like a snake in the grass. If there’s a snake in the grass and you step in that grass and you don’t know what snake is in there, it’s going to bit you. That’s what it’s like with the white up here. You don’t know where you stand with them… Up here they’re two-faced, they’re hypocritic and nasty.

Some of the tension resulted from the fact that in many cases, black migrants were recruited and brought North specifically to serve as strikebreakers, amid a growing wave of industrial unrest caused by inflation and stagnant wages. While these labor conflicts obviously presented an economic opportunity for low-skilled manual laborers from the South, the circumstances naturally put the African-American “scabs” at odds with the strikers. Wayman Hancock, whose family moved from Atlanta, Georgia to Chicago in 1920 (and who happened to be the father of famed musician Herbie Hancock) recalled that his father was lured by the promise of jobs during a stockyard strike:

See, before then, not many blacks were working in the stockyards, not until they had a strike in the stockyards – that is what my grandfather told me about it. All the companies – Armour, Wilson, Swift… Cudahy – that’s right. They all went south and started to recruit blacks, and some of us came up here in freight cars, and some didn’t even have a place to stay and so they stayed out in the freight cars out in the yard…

Meanwhile whites also reacted to the new migrants with a wave of informal and covert segregation, including “redlining” real estate to keep African-American buyers out, and de facto segregation of public schools. Comer, who arrived in East Chicago in 1920, would later remember:

When I first came into East Chicago there wasn’t much segregation. As I said, there were only two nationalities of people, Polish and blacks. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours. But you could live on any street in East Chicago, even Grand Boulevard… Fifteen years later, it had become one of the finest streets in town – and white only.

In his memoir Horace R. Cayton, whose childhood was spent in the small pre-war black community in Seattle, recalled his family’s reaction to the sudden influx of African-American migrants during the war: “Our feeling about this was mixed. It was good to see Negroes leaving the South and coming to the relative freedom of the Northwest, but would it not upset our amicable relations with whites if too many came?” Later Cayton’s father, who was born into slavery but later became a successful newspaper publisher, warned him after a local Seattle movie theater introduced unofficial segregation for audiences: “Things are changing here and not for the better. I can remember when it didn’t matter what color you were. You could go any place and work most any place. But it’s different now.”

Tragically, the experience of the next few years would bear this out, including race riots in which white mobs attacked black migrants, and vice versa, in East St. Louis (1917); Chester, Pennsylvania (1917); Philadelphia (1917); Washington D.C. (1919); Chicago (1919); and Omaha (1919), among others.

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