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Library of Congress

A False Glimmer of Hope

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 55th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 7, 1913: A False Glimmer of Hope

After an alarming deterioration in 1911-1912, in February 1913 relations between Britain and Germany took a sudden and unexpected turn for the better. Friendlier relations between Europe’s two leading powers held out hope for lasting peace – but the Anglo-German détente proved to be superficial, temporarily masking tensions without resolving their underlying causes.

Germany’s ambitious naval construction program was the single biggest factor alienating British public opinion, which rightly viewed naval superiority as key to the security of the British Isles. Concern over Germany’s growing High Seas Fleet pushed Britain and France closer together, leading to the Anglo-French Naval Convention. On the German side, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military advisors were infuriated by what they viewed as British arrogance on naval issues as well as Britain’s participation in an alleged Franco-Russian conspiracy to encircle Germany.

So why did relations between Britain and Germany suddenly begin to improve in 1913? One important reason was their successful cooperation at the Conference of London, where they worked together to resolve the crisis arising from the First Balkan War. Here diplomats – not generals – shaped foreign policy. Men like British foreign minister Sir Edward Grey and the German ambassador, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, made it their life’s mission to keep the peace in Europe, and were almost always able to negotiate a reasonable compromise.

At the same time, the more aggressive members of the German government were sobered by British determination to outpace German naval construction by a substantial margin, no matter how many ships Germany built. Although the Haldane Mission in February 1912 failed to produce an agreement limiting naval construction, by 1913 First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill’s repeated warnings – backed up by Parliamentary approval for more dreadnoughts – finally got through to Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz (pictured), the architect of German naval strategy.

Thus on February 7, 1913, Tirpitz gave a speech to the Reichstag budget committee agreeing to a balance of forces in dreadnoughts which favored Britain 16-10 – the same proportion proposed by Winston Churchill in 1912. In truth it wasn’t quite that simple, as Churchill’s original offer didn’t include dreadnoughts which might be built for the Royal Navy by Dominions of the British Empire, including Malaysia and Canada. Nonetheless, for political and diplomatic purposes, Tirpitz was signaling his willingness to come to terms with Britain on dreadnought construction – a major step towards alleviating tension between the two countries.

Also on February 7, 1913, in his first speech to the Reichstag the new German foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, proudly pointed to Anglo-German cooperation at the Conference of London: “The intimate exchange of views which we are maintaining with the British Government has very materially contributed to the removal of difficulties of various kinds which have arisen during the last few months… I am not a prophet, but I entertain the hope that on the ground of common interests, which in politics is the most fertile ground, we can continue to work with England and perhaps to reap the fruits of our labors.”

This speech was an important piece of public diplomacy, obviously intended as much for British ears as German, and a clear indication that Germany did not want conflict with the powerful British Empire. Nor was Jagow trying to deceive: even the most belligerent German generals hoped to avoid fighting Britain, which could totally isolate Germany with a naval blockade in the event of war.

But the improvement in relations between Britain and Germany would prove fleeting. First of all, while German concessions on naval construction were welcome in Britain, they were simply part of a strategic shift in German defense spending, which from 1913-1914 prioritized the army in preparation for a land-based conflict with France and Russia. Since Germany had no chance of matching British power on the sea, it made more sense to focus on building up its power on land, where it had a real chance of beating France and Russia (and which was its traditional area of strength to begin with).

For this strategy to work, the German “war party” hoped that Britain would stay out of the conflict, so Germany could face France and Russia alone – and this hope appeared to be justified by warmer relations. But it should have been obvious that Britain would never allow Germany to destroy the European balance of power: the British had learned the hard way that they couldn’t let the Continent fall under the domination of a single despotic power, as in the glory days of Philip II, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

As for the diplomats, Lichnowsky would continue to work for peace, but there was no guarantee that he would always be allowed to do his job, as demonstrated by the fate of the previous German ambassador to London, Count Metternich, who was cashiered by Berlin for reporting bad news. In Germany’s authoritarian government, the military outranked the civilians, and the Kaiser and his generals could always sideline, overrule, or simply ignore diplomats who didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear. In 1914 this would be a recipe for disaster.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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WWI Centennial: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives, Wikimedia Commons // No restrictions

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 299th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

January 8-10, 1918: Wilson Presents ‘Fourteen Points,’ House Approves Suffrage Amendment

By the beginning of 1918, it was clear to close observers that the United States of America was gearing up to make a significant contribution to the Allied war effort, though it would take some time (and President Woodrow Wilson insisted it was only as an “Associated,” not an Allied, power, limiting America’s obligations to Britain and France).

The size of the American Expeditionary Force was set to increase from 176,000 troops in January to 424,000 in May, 722,000 in June, and 966,000 in July, with troop shipments expedited in response to pleas from the French during the dark days of the German spring offensives beginning in March. Meanwhile America's financial contributions were soaring, with loans to Britain more than doubling from $1.5 billion in 1917 to $3.6 billion in 1918.

However, it remained to be seen what vision Wilson would present for the post-war order, now that America was in the driver’s seat, not just providing critical manpower but also supplying the Allied war effort and holding billions of dollars of their debt. On January 8, 1918 Wilson sketched out some of the foundational elements of his peace program, the “Fourteen Points,” in a speech to a joint session of Congress on “War Aims and Peace Terms.”

Wilson began by noting that Russia had made a reasonable peace offer to the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk, but had been spurned, as the latter intended “to keep every foot of territory their armed forces had occupied—every province, every city, every point of vantage—as a permanent addition to their territories and their power.” Denouncing the brazen imperialism of the authoritarian governments that ruled the Central Powers, which were running roughshod over their parliaments, Wilson went on to lay out the principles of a just world order built on the democratic ideal that all governments must have the consent of the governed. However, in this, as in his other idealistic programs, the goals remained vague, unrealistic, or contradictory.

First among the Fourteen Points, Wilson insisted that the age of secret alliances, of the sort which brought Europe to war, was over: henceforth all treaties and covenants should be open, public knowledge. He also called for free navigation on the seas, implying the lifting of the Allied naval blockade and the end of U-boat warfare, free trade, and arms reduction agreements.

Most of these proposals were reasonable enough, but others were less plausible. For example, during the adjudication of colonial disputes in which European powers drew and redrew the boundaries of African and Asian possessions, the Europeans were somehow supposed to take into account the interests of the colonial populations themselves—even though the whole colonial enterprise limited native voices to exclude them from politics by design. Calling for self-determination and new national boundaries in Europe, Wilson ignored the fact that the Allies couldn’t even reconcile their own contradictory postwar territorial claims (see cartoon below). Returning to open diplomacy, how could anyone guarantee that countries weren’t engaged in secret alliances behind the scenes?


Burt Randolph Thomas, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Meanwhile, it came as no surprise that Wilson’s most immediate and concrete demands—including the Central Powers evacuating all their conquests in Russia, Poland, France, Belgium, and the Balkans—were non-starters for the Germans, as the military party led by chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his chief strategist, Erich Ludendorff, still believed the war could be won, allowing Germany to keep at least some of her conquests. Wilson’s call for Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire to grant full autonomy to its various subject peoples was, in effect, calling for the dissolution of Germany’s allies.

Coincidentally, on January 8, 1918 Ludendorff also began planning Germany’s giant springtime offensive, “Operation Michael,” in hopes of knocking Britain and France out of the war with 1 million German troops transferred from the dormant Eastern Front, before American troops could arrive in France in large numbers. The mighty blow would fall in late March 1918.

U.S. House Passes Women’s Suffrage Amendment

On January 10, 1918 the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, later known as the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, by the necessary two-thirds majority—but a one-vote margin. This was a huge breakthrough, but by no means the end of the struggle: the Senate would reject the bill twice before approving the amendment for ratification by the states and final adoption on August 18, 1920.

The suffrage movement, demanding voting enfranchisement for women, dated back to the mid-19th century, when it originated in connection with both the American abolitionist and temperance movements, thanks to activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Clara Barton, and others. New western territories gave a boost to the cause: in 1869 the Wyoming territory granted women the right to vote, perhaps in hopes of attracting more women of marriageable age for their male-dominated frontier population, followed by Utah (1870), Washington territory (1883), Kansas (1887), and Colorado (1893)—the latter delivered by a referendum, with 35,798 or 55 percent of male voters voting in favor. A majority of male voters in California chose to give women the right to vote in 1911.

However, the First World War galvanized the women’s suffrage movement across the west, as women demanded recognition of their many personal sacrifices and contributions to the war effort, giving the issue a sense of inevitability. In August 1917 the debate was already considered old news in enlightened circles, according to Mildred Aldrich, a retired American writer living in France, who wrote:

I imagine we have buried for all time what has for so many years been known as the “women question.”… The beauty of the whole matter is that woman has won by acts, not words. She has won by doing a woman’s work ... In every branch of war work done by unarmed men, women have appeared and shown the same courage and the same unfailing patriotism as men … No wonder the suffrage excitement is already ancient history.

Although American women would have to wait a few more years, neutral Denmark adopted women’s suffrage in 1915, and a number of Canadian provinces followed in 1916-1918. Russia’s post-revolutionary Provisional Government granted women the right to vote in 1917. Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, granting the right to vote to 8.4 million female householders, on June 19, 1917, taking effect with elections in December 1918. Germany enshrined women’s suffrage in the Weimar constitution adopted in 1919.

Women’s Work, Women’s War

The wave of women’s suffrage reflected massive social changes that took place during the war, shifting the balance of power between the genders, as European women shouldered heavy duties to sustain the war effort but also gained economic leverage thanks to higher-paid work. In 1917 Julia Stimson, an American chief nurse, proudly noted the changes wrought by the war in Britain, especially the influx of women into what was previously men’s work—while wondering about the long-term consequences:

From the highest to the lowest each woman has her work … Of course the street-sweeping by women is a kind of war work, and the bus conductoring, and delivering mail and telegrams, and driving cars and ambulances. The streets are full of women in uniforms of all sorts, all smart and business-like. Women in England are coming into their own … What is to happen after the men come back can well fill the [mind] … for a change is taking place here that can never be undone.

The huge changes were evident on both sides of the conflict. Ernest Bullitt, an American woman visiting Germany, wrote in her diary in June 1916:

The munition factories pay the highest wages. The average wage for these women now is about eight marks a day. In Germany, as in the other warring countries, there is little the women are not doing. Sturdy peasant girls pace the streets, dig ditches, lay pipes. Women drive the mail wagons and delivery wagons, deliver the post, work in in open mines, work electric walking cranes in iron foundries, sell tickets and take tickets in railway stations, act as conductors in the subway.

Later Bullitt noted that female industrial workers were central to maintaining Germany’s war effort—and like Stimson, predicted a gender clash when the war ended:

There are great numbers in the metal industries doing half-skilled work, and also women doing the skilled work. They manage the travelling cranes in iron and steel foundries, a thing no employer believed was possible. They do what is called “electro-technical” work … They dig the coal and also load the cars … The employers declare they wish to keep the industries which they have entered, and it will be quite a fight to prevent their going on working in many of them.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The numbers of women employed were in keeping with the scale of the conflict. In Britain, in addition to organizations like the Women’s War Auxiliary Corps, which allowed thousands of women to serve in non-combat military roles, and the Women’s Land Army, which employed a quarter-million women in agricultural work, 1.7 million women entered the labor force during the war, bringing the total number of women at work to 4.9 million by 1918, and increasing the proportion of women in the industrial workforce from a quarter to nearly half (46.7 percent).


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In France, women constituted 38 percent of the country’s total work force in 1914 but this increased to 46 percent in 1918, including 430,000 women who made up 30 percent of the total workforce for the arms industry. In Germany the proportion of women in the labor force jumped from 22 percent in 1913 to 35 percent in 1918, including 700,000 in the armaments industry. In Austria-Hungary 42 percent of the empire’s heavy industrial workforce was female by the end of the war.

The move to well-paid factory jobs was economically liberating, allowing women to scale the wage ladder from traditional, poorly compensated female employment. In Britain the number of women working in domestic service fell from 1.66 million to 1.26 million over the course of the war, and the number of British women in trade unions jumped from 437,000 in 1914 to over 1.2 million in 1918, reflecting their growing economic and political clout.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Across Europe, governments and private businesses were compelled to provide childcare for female workers, sometimes in the form of “factory nurseries.” Bullitt noted other concessions to women workers in Germany in her diary in June 1916:

Employers are not allowed to discharge women for child-bearing. They must give them two weeks’ holiday before the child’s birth, and four weeks after. During this period they get two thirds of their wages from their sickness insurance. Also, they may get their doctor and medicines free.

However, not all the new employment was new or liberating, especially in sectors like agriculture. Across Europe, peasant women did their best to maintain homesteads in the absence of husbands and sons, relying on older children for labor and using the local church or informal arrangements for childcare for the rest. Elizabeth Ashe, an American woman volunteering with the Red Cross, described one guest of a “refuge” for women with children. “We saw a woman who was here for a few days’ rest, she works in the fields at night with a helmet and gas mask, because the shells drop on her so in the day time she can not work," she wrote. "She has a baby two months old whom she leaves in this refuge.”


Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although used to hard work, many peasant women were unused to the physical strain involved in activities like horse-drawn plowing. Emilie Carles, a Frenchwoman who maintained the farm while her brother was a way, remembered:

Before he left, Joseph taught me to plow. The hardest part wasn’t so much dealing with a mule or yoke of cows as holding on to the handle. I was not tall. I remember we had an ordinary plow, the swing type, with a handle designed for a man. It was far too high for me. When I cut furrows with that contrivance, I got the handle in the chest or face every time I hit a stone.

Nothing Romantic About It

It is important not to romanticize the plight of ordinary women separated from male loved ones and breadwinners and plunged into hardship and uncertainty. Peasant women faced acute financial pressures as they struggled with reduced incomes. One war widow wrote to the French journalist Rene Bazin, explaining her reasons for throwing in the towel:

Although I myself drive our horses, who are too strong to be entrusted to the old men or the boys, and I load the wagons, I’m not making the value of the rental contract owing to the poor harvest and the increases in wages … At present, I can only sow wheat in two-thirds of the land that should be planted in grain. Thus, certain deficit for next year. If I stay on, the little that my husband left to his children will be swallowed up.

At the same time industrial work was hardly a panacea. The fact is, like their peasant counterparts numerous women cracked under the dual strains of factory work and caring for their families. Madeleine Zabriskie, an American socialist activist visiting Germany in 1916, received the following description of one woman from a social worker at a German arms factory:

The woman you inquired about lives in a suburb. She must have been good-looking when she was young, but she has given birth to 12 children, the oldest is thirteen and the youngest six months. Four of her children died … Her husband worked for nine years in the factory. When the war broke out he was mobilized and joined the army August 4, 1914. Until then they had been happy, but that changed everything. They had to move out of their house. They took an apartment of two rooms. It was crowded with nine people in two rooms, but they could not afford anything better. The birth of the last child caused the mother great suffering and she had to give up her factory work … The woman is weak and much shaken in health. At night she worries about her husband and cannot sleep. She weeps a great deal and really the burden laid on her is almost too heavy.

Another German woman wrote to her husband, a POW in France, in August 1917:

I am so sick and tired of human life that I want to cut my own and my children’s throat, I am not afraid of committing a sin, after all I am forced by misery. You have to be the most stupid person on God’s earth when you have children. They take the breadwinner away from the children and let them starve to death, they are crying for bread the whole day long … I have got our four little children, none of them can help earn some money. I have to feed them, wash them, have to mend their clothes, etc. I have to stand in the street all day long and wait for hours until I get a few things to eat … But who cares about a soldier’s wife with a lot of little children, she can perish together with her children.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
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WWI Centennial: Last Christmas At War
Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0
Wellcome Collection, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 298th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

DECEMBER 25, 1917: LAST CHRISTMAS AT WAR

“Christmas was, of course, but a sorry season,” wrote Evelyn, Princess Blücher in Berlin, doubtless speaking for many across a war-torn continent, in her diary in January 1918. She added, “The days come and go, and we have already crossed the borderland and have left the gloom of the old year, only to enter the darkness of a new one. Every hour brings its fears, disappointments, and vague hopes, so that there is but little time for collecting one’s scattered ideas.” Her feelings reflected the general mood in Germany, judging from the testimony of Herbert Sulzbach, a German soldier on leave in Frankfurt. “The consequences of three and a half years of war are weighing heavily on the home country, and you see a great deal, in fact, a never-ending amount of distress," he wrote in his diary on January 12, 1918.

The Christmas of 1917, the fourth during the war (after Yuletides in 1914, 1915, and 1916) would also be the last—although no one could know that, or be able to foretell the epic events that would unfold before 1918 at last brought peace to a shattered world. Jack Martin, a British soldier deployed to Italy to help shore up Italian defenses after Caporetto, wrote in his diary on December 31, 1917:

Thus ends the year of grace 1917, a year of frightful agony and slaughter, of shattered hopes and broken lives; a year where humanity has sunk to incredible depths of inhumanity; a year that has brought tears to the eyes of the Recording Angel … Our souls have been scorched and seared by contact with hell and we yearn for the healing oil of peace.

While most ordinary people longed for peace, they expressed feelings of helplessness in the hands of fate and forces far larger than themselves. The war had long ago taken on a life of its own, defying human comprehension or control, and the end seemed to retreat further and further into an indefinite future. Vera Brittain, now approaching her third year as a volunteer nurse’s aid, recalled that by the beginning of 1918, “I no longer even wondered when the war would end, for I had grown incapable of visualizing the world or my own existence without it.”

RARE REPASTS

It’s worth noting that Christmas was still a time for joy and good cheer, at least for soldiers who were lucky enough to be “in billets” or on leave, where military authorities did their best to provide a traditional Christmas meal. This was easier for the Allies, as food was generally more plentiful in Britain and France than in the Central Powers, where the Allied “starvation blockade” and disruptions to agriculture and transportation were taking a heavy toll. (By the end of the war it is estimated that around 400,000 Germans had died from malnutrition or starvation.)

John Tucker, a British soldier, described festivities with plenty of food and alcohol (which, however, left him with a week-long hangover):

As the officers’ servants were taking their mess-cart to the large YMCA canteen at Arras for their Christmas supplies, we persuaded them to bring us two cases of port wine, some Vermouth, and to lend us a dozen glass tumblers. The cooks did an excellent job and conjured up a large roast dinner of turkey, vegetables, and Christmas pudding. Every man was given a small Bible from the Queen. These came in useful later as cigarette papers. We also managed to get a few Dutch cigars. We settled down at our table after dinner, with tumblers full of port, plenty of bread, cheese, and pickles, and naturally all got very jolly.

Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described their Christmas repast near Ypres: “A whole pig had been roasted and there were potatoes, onions, Brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding, apples, oranges, dates, nuts, cigarettes, and a double rum issue. During this orgy musical selections were given on a portable Decca gramophone.” (Below, a New Zealand commander carves the Christmas turkey).


National Library of New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

The holiday was even more bountiful for American troops, who benefited from the country’s vast breadbasket as well as the government’s determination to keep soldiers (and therefore their voting relations at home) as comfortable and happy as possible. And, of course, concerned family members also lavished gifts on soldiers with care packages. Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier with the Rainbow Division in France, wrote in his diary, “Mumsey and Maude sent me heaps. God bless ‘em both. Lordy, but I’m happy. Had a scrumptious dinner, duck, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, jam, pickles, slaw, doughnuts, peach pie, cake, figs, and coffee. Then they passed out chocolate, cigarettes and cigars. I’m so full I’m in misery.”

AMERICANS AT WAR AND AT SEA

Christmas at war was a new experience for most Americans, following the country’s entry into the conflict in April 1917. Like their European peers, ordinary American soldiers found the holiday an occasion for reflection. William Russel, an American soldier in the transport section of the U.S. Army Air Force in France, wrote home the day after Christmas, “It is the first Christmas that I have ever been separated from those whom I love, and instead of being a day of festivity, it has changed to a day of thought, and one that will linger in my memory for years, if I am spared.” Later, he noted, “Christmas and New Years have passed, and I must confess it is a sort of relief to have them over. Although both were happy days in so far as the hospitality and very kind treatment by friends went, yet there was an indescribable lonesomeness which made them strange.” (Below, volunteers fill stockings at a U.S. Army hospital in France).


National Library of Medicine, Wikimedia Commons // No known copyright restrictions

While Christmas was a time for contemplation, the war remained an enigma with undeniable but sometimes inexpressible significance for humanity and the individual’s inner life. Julia Stimson, an American volunteering as a nurse in France, wrote home in December 1917:

Oh I wish I could tell you what all this is meaning, as I see it. Maybe some day I can, for every day I am seeing things more clearly, but as yet I can’t write it all down—after a while perhaps. We talk about it, from time to time, some of us, every once in a while, and oh, dear people, no greater thing can ever come into any one’s life than this chance of ours—to get away from little things and self and to know what the things of the Spirit are, and what true values really are.

In 1917 thousands of Americans, soldiers and civilians alike, spent the holiday at sea aboard ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, rendered even more unusual and nerve-wracking by the constant threat of U-boat attack. In fact U-boats sank 400,000 tons of shipping in December 1917 alone—a decrease from earlier in 1917, thanks to the Allies’ adoption of convoy tactics as well as the vigilance of destroyers armed with depth charges.


Erik Sass

By the end of 1917 the shipping struggle was finally starting to turn in the Allies’ favor, due in large part to the massive production of American shipyards, which churned out millions of tons of new shipping. However, net losses from U-boat attacks continued through the first quarter of 1918, and from the perspective of the British Admiralty, the end of 1917 was one of the most perilous moments of the war. For ordinary British and French people, the continuing losses during this period resulted in shortages and rising prices for things like sugar and tobacco.


Erik Sass

Even when Allied convoys made it through unscathed, the experience of crossing the Atlantic under constant threat was unique and unforgettable for American soldiers. Morris Dargan, a railway engineer from Oregon, wrote to his sister describing safety measures on board:

You have asked me whether or not we saw any submarines. No, we didn’t see any, but all through the submarine zone we wore life preservers at all times. We wore them at meals, on the deck, in the hold and in bed. We had lifeboat drill a couple of times each day and were not allowed to throw anything overboard, lest a “sub” would sight it and follow our trail. We were not permitted to talk loudly or to smoke on deck after night, etc.

As always, travelers were impressed by the majesty of the sea, tempered by the menace below the waves. Daniel Poling, a Christian lecturer and temperance advocate en route to the Western Front to observe conditions and speak to troops at YMCA canteens, recalled his winter crossing:

The great liner had reached the danger zone. She drove ahead through the night with ports closed and not a signal showing. Under the stars, both fore and aft, marines watched in silence by the guns. Each man wore or had by him a life-preserver, and there was silence on the deck. Quietly I stood by the rail, and watched the waves break into spray against the mighty vessel’s bow. The phosphorescent glow bathed the sea in wondrous light all about; only the stars and the weird illumination of the waves battled the darkness; there was no moon. It was hard to realize that out there somewhere silent watchers waited to do us hurt.

Not everyone was headed to Europe. Josephine Therese, an American singer returning to America in December 1917 after being interned in Germany for thirteen months, described her Christmastime voyage back to the U.S., which managed to have some exciting incidents even though no U-boats attacked the ship:

We took the safest possible course, swinging in a wide circle northward, which carried us close to Greenland, and the voyage was uninterrupted by Prussian sea perils and otherwise uneventful, except for a few minor incidents, such as a knife duel between two Bulgarians in the steerage, which ended by one throwing the other overboard, never to be seen again … Despite this tragedy, we arrived with the same number of passengers … for a baby was born en route—also in steerage.

Though spending Christmas aboard ship was certainly novel, most people who found themselves at sea on the holiday were not eager to repeat the experience. Briggs Adams, an American soldier crossing the Atlantic, noted that the common affliction of seasickness made it hard to spread holiday cheer:

The day before Christmas it began to get pretty rough, and that night the ship rolled so that it was impossible to sleep a wink, for it was a continual fight to keep from rolling out of the bunk. Half the ship was sick [on] Christmas. They decorated the dining room up a bit with paper and flags, but it only made the absence of Christmas greens the more noticeable. There wasn’t one Christmasy thing the whole day … never again will I spend Christmas on the sea.

ENCOUNTERING HORROR

Of course, the ocean voyage was only the beginning of the new experiences facing American soldiers and civilians caught up in the maelstrom of war. Like their European counterparts before them, their first encounters with death and destruction at the front would be etched in their memories forever, although later these horrors became commonplace and routine. Preston Gibson, an American serving in the ambulance corps, wrote home about the scenes around first-aid posts near the Aisne in November 1917:

Near one called Bascule, about half-a-mile from the third line, we found a great number of dead piled up in the road—horses and men. Some of the bodies had to be pulled off the road in order to make it clear for traffic. Besides the bodies that were lying stretched in different positions, some with their heads off, some with chests torn and ripped open, I saw two mounds of dead Chasseurs at Ferme Hemeret, about 15 or 20 in each mound, one body piled on top of the other. Some lay as if in slumber; the faces of others were contorted by the great agony they had passed through; others were in most grotesque positions.

Sudden, sweeping personal losses were a regular part of life in wartime, as Americans were discovering. Coningsby Dawson, an American who had volunteered in the Canadian Army, wrote home in November 1917:

Last week I met one of my gunners on leave. He was standing on the island in Piccadilly Circus. I learnt from him that every officer who was with me at the battery when I was wounded has since been wiped out. Even some who joined since have been done for … Among the killed is poor S., the one who was my best friend in France. You remember that he had a young wife and his first baby was born in February. He used to carry the list of all the people I wanted written to if I were killed, and I had promised to do the same for him … All this was told me casually in the heart of London’s pleasure with the taxis and buses streaming by.

Though French and British troops were more familiar with conditions at the front and somewhat inured to the awful sights, the death and destruction never ceased to horrify even the most hardened soldiers (below, British troops on the Ancre, early 1918). John Jackson, a British soldier, described shell-holes behind the front in December 1917:

These holes were often 10 or 12 feet deep and full up at this time with dirty, slimy water. At the bottom of them in many cases could be seen the bodies of dead men and mules, together with parts of ammunition wagons, the whole creating a stench that was rotten, and sickening.


Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Francis Buckley, a British soldier, recorded similar scenes near Passchendaele, Belgium, in mid-December 1917:

The shell-holes were often full of German dead—I counted nearly 100 within a quarter of a mile of Dan Cottages. And on the forward wooden tracks used by our transport, the ground reeked like a slaughter-house. Fragments of everything just swept off the tracks. The limbs and bodies of the pack-mules lying sometimes in heaps, sometimes at intervals, all along the route.

Conditions at the front often required regular contact with corpses. After recovering from his holiday hangover, the British soldier Tucker described the sickening but very common state of trenches near Cambrai, recently the scene of a short-lived British success with a surprise attack by tanks:

Often there was a soft, rubbery feeling under foot similar to standing on an inflated mattress; this would indicate a dead body in the bottom of the trench, having been trampled deeper in the mud by the feet of perhaps hundreds of men passing over it. Sometimes an arm or leg would be protruding. No one had time or inclination to do anything about this. It soon became a common experience and accepted with indifference.

Tens of thousands of women volunteering as nurses in field hospitals as well as larger convalescent centers at home also directly experienced the horrors of war, treating badly wounded and dying men. Still serving as a V.A.D. in France, Brittain wrote home on December 5, 1917:

We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case—to say nothing of 10 cases—of mustard gas in its early stages—could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard- colored suppurating blisters, with blinded eyes—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently—all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke … and yet people persist in saying that God made the war, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.

THE SPECTER OF DISEASE

Disease was a common killer from the beginning of the war, with typhus, dysentery, malaria, and gas gangrene killing hundreds of thousands and incapacitating millions more across Europe, the Middle East, and other theaters of war. Over the course of the war typhus, carried by ubiquitous body lice, killed 200,000 people in Serbia alone, out of a total population of 3 million, as well as 60,000 Habsburg prisoners of war. During the Russian Civil War, just beginning, typhus would kill an estimated 3 million people from 1918-1922.

But even these losses would pale in comparison to the scourge nature would unleash on the world in 1918-1920, in the form of the highly contagious and breathtakingly deadly influenza epidemic. Although it became known a the “Spanish flu” due to reports of the high death toll in neutral Spain, where the press was free from wartime censorship, the flu was a global pandemic that killed anywhere from 50 to 100 million people—more than the war’s own total of around 20 million.

The flu was a natural phenomenon, but wartime conditions undoubtedly played a major role in enabling its spread, and may also have made it more deadly. Throwing together millions of soldiers—most of them young men who had never been far from home and therefore lacked immunity to new diseases—in cold, drafty barracks and tents, with primitive communal canteens, latrines and showers, provided perfect breeding grounds for the flu as well as other diseases. The movement of millions of human beings around the world also provided an ideal vector for the virus to reach distant populations. And bringing together large numbers of people from different places may have enabled several flu viruses to swap DNA and become even more dangerous (the flu epidemic actually unfolded in two main stages, the second far more lethal).

As 1917 drew to a close, no one could have predicted the unprecedented global flu epidemic about to scour the planet, but many observers noted the sharp uptick in communicable disease around this time. Already, during the American Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico, army doctors recorded outbreak of a mysterious ailment causing severe bronchitis in troops stationed in northern Mexico and along the southwestern border region; some of these troops later returned to Fort Riley, Kansas—site of the first recorded flu outbreak in March 1918.


Erik Sass

There’s no way to know whether the two events were linked, but there’s little doubt that all the conditions for an epidemic were in place, including food and fuel shortages in Europe which left people physically weakened and cold (below, snow at Hooge, Belgium, on New Year’s Day). Although better off than their counterparts in the Central Powers, Allied soldiers and civilians often went hungry too, due to shortages and supply disruptions. Martin, the British soldier in Italy, wrote on December 10, 1917:

The rations are so short that the cooks have to be most careful in issuing them—as long as every man gets the same there can be no complaint … Before allowing any plate to be removed we demand to know if any one has any objection; thus we avoid the possibility of any subsequent criticism or complaint … We cannot say that we are suffering actual starvation but most assuredly we know the pangs of continual hunger. For breakfast we get a plate of porridge or a slice of bacon, for dinner, bully stew but no potatoes and once or twice we have had boiled rice.


Archives New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Paris in January 1918, Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer born in France, noted that in the city, “Deaths from pneumonia have occurred by dozens daily.” On the other side of the Atlantic, the winter of 1917-1918 was one of the coldest on record in North America, blanketing even southern camps in snow and freezing rain. On December 1, 1917, August P. Gardner, a former congressman from Massachusetts and the son-in-law of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, wrote to Joseph P. Tumulty, a secretary to President Wilson, about conditions at Camp Wheeler, Georgia:

There have been 100 deaths from pneumonia and 11 deaths from other causes at this camp. Of this number 96 have occurred within the last three weeks. To my mind the explanation is fairly simple. The following are the conditions as I see them: Between October 16th and 30th, we received about 10,000 drafted men from Camp Gordon, Camp Pike, and Camp Jackson. With the exception of about 3000 from Camp Pike, they came without overcoats, in cotton outer garments, and cotton underclothes; some without blouses. None of them had had experience in sleeping out-of-doors and none were accustomed to camping out … Being from rural areas, many had never had measles, and this disease spread rapidly. Better soil in which to sow the seeds of pneumonia could not be imagined. The Base Hospital at Camp Wheeler is calculated for 500 patients, and over three times this number of sick men were of necessity thrust upon it.

Similarly, Paul Elliott Green wrote home from Camp Sevier, South Carolina, on November 22, 1917, “We are quarantined for an indefinite time on account of measles, pneumonia, and meningitis. Many poor boys have died, as many as six in one night.” And Kenneth Gow, an officer in training in Camp Wadsworth, wrote home on December 14, 1917:

The thermometer has remained in the vicinity of 6 degrees since the first of the week, and we have about 8 inches of snow on the ground. It is impossible to keep warm. Everything is frozen up, and we have to melt snow for water to wash in. On Tuesday afternoon the regiment was suddenly ordered out on an inspection evening parade by some Regular Army inspecting officers. We stood for an hour shivering in a blinding snowstorm from the North, with a biting wind driving the snow into our eyes and ears.

THE LOOMING RECKONING

Even while unaware of the impending natural disaster, the Allies had plenty to fear as 1918 dawned. Italy’s defeat at Caporetto and Russia’s withdrawal from the war opened the way for Germany to transfer around a million men to the Western Front, where they would unleash a titanic assault in the spring in an attempt to settle the war before large numbers of American troops began to arrive in Europe. No one could predict the shape or direction of the German attack, but there was no question—it was coming, and the final result would depend in large part on how quickly America could ride to the rescue.

Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in a village outside Paris, confided in a letter home, “I don’t deny that I study the map today with a nervous dread of what is before us on the road.” Morris Dargan, the railway engineer from Oregon, warned in a letter home that “next spring … will mark the most momentous hours of the whole war.” Russel, the American soldier serving in the air force supply corps in France, noted, “The French are so down to bone and sinew, and have so little physical strength left … of course, there is great anxiety as to what the late winter and early spring may bring.” And Katharine Morse, an American volunteering in canteens for soldiers, noted disturbing talk that France was all but beaten:

And underneath all this runs another rumor, still darker, still more disquieting. The French, the gallant French, they say, are "laying down.” They are ready to make peace at any price. They are played out, sick to death of it all! “Forty-two months in the trenches!” cried a sergeant en permission last night; “It is enough! I am through. Let the Americans do it!” And this feeling, they tell us, is widespread. The people see our soldiers day after day, in the training camps, inactive. “What are they here for?” they are asking. “Why don’t they fight? Are they going to wait until it is all over?”

On the other side, the recent victories in Russia and Italy held out the hope that all the sacrifices might not be in vain after all. Adolf Hitler, then a regimental messenger on the Western Front, later wrote in Mein Kampf:

Towards the end of 1917 it seemed as if we had got over the worst phases of moral depression after the front. After the Russian collapse the whole army recovered its courage and hope, and we were gradually becoming more and more convinced that the struggle would end in our favor … The Italian collapse in the autumn of 1917 had a wonderful effect; for this victory proved that it was possible to break through another front besides the Russian.

But the Germans were in a race against time, and not just because of the prospect of American troops starting to arrive in force. They also faced growing anger on the home front, due to the murderous toll of the war, which by the beginning of 1918 had claimed the lives of around 1.3 million soldiers, and the terrible privations faced by civilians, increasingly blamed on the German government and military as well as the enemy. In her final diary entry of 1917, Blücher noted with unease, “If the war continues much longer the people will follow Russia’s example and take the matter into their own hands.”

This would be the year of reckoning.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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