WWI Centennial: The Colossus Begins To Move

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 279th installment in the series.

June 13-15, 1917: The Colossus Begins To Move

Following the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in early April, all eyes in Europe were on the great Republic across the sea, with people on both sides of the great conflict wondering (some in hope, others in fear) whether the Americans really intended to join the fight – and if they did, would they arrive in time to affect the outcome of the war?

A little over two months later they had the answer to at least the first question, as the colossus in the west finally began to move. Mid-June saw the arrival of the top American general in France, as well as the successful closing of the First Liberty Bond, kicking off a mass fundraising campaign to pay for the war effort, largely sponsored by the savings of ordinary American citizens. Meanwhile a crash construction program for a vast network of training camps was also getting underway, laying the groundwork for the creation of a new army numbering in the millions; record-breaking procurement programs to build a huge air force, navy, and merchant marine were also swiftly set in motion.

PERSHING IN PARIS 

With the death of Lord Kitchener at sea still fresh in every one’s minds, the voyage of General John “Black Jack” Pershing and his staff across the Atlantic Ocean was kept top secret, in order to protect the top commander of the American Expeditionary Force from ambush by enterprising German U-boats. The gambit worked, as Pershing’s sudden arrival at the British port of Liverpool aboard the ocean liner Baltic on June 8, 1917 seemed to have taken everybody by surprise.

After a train journey to London, Pershing spent four days in the British capital, where he was received by King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace, then met with Prime Minister Lloyd George and conferred with top officials at the War Office. The American commander and his retinue then proceeded by train to the southern port of Folkestone and crossed the English Channel aboard a fast destroyer with a large naval escort, including sea planes and blimps watching for U-boats; the vanguard of the U.S. Army, consisting of 59 officers and 67 enlisted men, arrived in Boulogne and set foot on French soil for the first time on June 13, 1917 (top; below, a doughboy disembarks).

Following a quick tour of Boulogne, which served as the headquarters and main supply hub for the British Expeditionary Force, Pershing’s party continued by train to Paris, where they received a rapturous reception from the city’s population and virtually the entire French government. The American journalist Floyd Gibbons, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, recalled their arrival:

The sooty girders of the Gare du Nord shook with cheers when the special train pulled in. The aisles of the great terminal were carpeted with red plush… General Pershing stepped from his private car. Flashlights boomed and batteries of camera men manoeuvred into positions for the lens barrage. The band of the Garde Republicaine blared forth the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner,” bringing all the military to a halt and a long standing salute. It was followed by the “Marseillaise.” At the conclusion of the train-side greetings and introductions, Marshal Joffre and General Pershing walked down the platform together. The ops of the cars of every train in the station were crowded with workmen. As the tall, slender American commander stepped into view, the privileged observers on the car-tops began to cheer. A minute later, there was a terrific roar from beyond the walls of the station. The crowds outside had heard the cheering within.

There followed a long, slow journey by a convoy of vehicles carrying the Americans and a cross-section of France’s top political and military leaders:

General Pershing and M. Painleve, Minister of War, took seats in a large automobile. They were preceded by a motor containing United States Ambassador Sharp and former Premier Viviani… There were some fifty automobiles in the line, the rear of which was brought up by an enormous motor-bus load of the first American soldiers from the ranks to pass through the streets of Paris. The crowds overflowed the sidewalks. They extended form the building walls out beyond the curbs and into the streets, leaving but a narrow lane through which the motors pressed their way slowly and with the exercise of much care. From the crowded balconies and windows overlooking the route, women and children tossed down showers of flowers and bits of coloured paper. The crowds were so dense that other street traffic became marooned in the dense sea of joyously excited and gesticulating French people. Vehicles thus marooned immediately became islands of vantage. They were soon covered with men and women and children, who climbed on top of them and clung to the sides to get a better look at the khaki-clad occupants of the autos… American flags and red, white and blue bunting waved where the eye rested. English-speaking Frenchmen proudly explained to the uninformed that “Pershing” was pronounced “Peur-chigne” and not “Pair-shang”….

The convoy finally arrived at its destination, the Hotel Crillon, a luxury hotel located in a former aristocratic palace, where the crowd called for Pershing to show himself on the balcony. In a deft bit of public diplomacy, the American general honored his host country by catching a corner of the French tricolor and kissing the national flag of America’s “Sister Republic,” prompting another surge of delirious acclamation from the masses below (however Pershing did not utter the phrase, “Lafayette, we are here,” commonly attributed to him; the famous exclamation was actually delivered by his aide, Charles Stanton, during a speech at the tomb of the Revolutionary War hero in the Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 1917).

Pershing had become an instant hero in France and Britain simply by showing up, but it’s worth noting that not everyone was carried away by these carefully staged propaganda scenes or the romantic myths which grew up around him – especially the American soldiers who would do the actual fighting. Thus some critics noted that America’s top general barely spoke any French, still the universal language of educated people in that era. Others remembered that his nickname was actually an unflattering (not to mention racist) epithet bestowed earlier in his career by rank-and-file troops who resented his prickly parade ground manner and strict discipline. Finally, Pershing showed little inclination to share the privations of his men: the four-star “General of the Armies” – the only officer in the U.S. military to receive this title – traveled everywhere aboard his own ten-car headquarters train, including a wagon carrying two luxuriously appointed automobiles, which sometimes carried the 57-year-old general to secret assignations in Paris with his French mistress, the 23-year-old Micheline Resco.

For the time being the American contribution to the Allied war effort would be mostly symbolic as far as manpower was concerned: in July there were 20,000 U.S. troops in France, rising to 65,000 in October and 129,000 by the end of the year. However these numbers would start to rise rapidly in 1918, raising an important question: would newly-arrived American troops be committed piecemeal to fill in the gaps in the depleted French Army, as the French generals demanded, or would they fight as separate American units, serving under their own officers? It was here that Pershing made one of his first major contributions to the U.S. war effort: although the Americans would initially fight alongside French and British troops as part of their training in trench warfare, Pershing insisted they return to their own divisions, eventually forming entire American armies, which played a decisive role on the Western Front.

THE FIRST LIBERTY LOAN

Back home, June 15, 1917 saw the closing of the First Liberty Loan, an official U.S. government bond authorized by Congress to raise money from the American public for the war effort. The stated goal for the Loan was $2 billion, but it was massively “oversubscribed,” raising a total of $3.04 billion by the closing date, reflecting a surge in patriotic feeling as well as the relatively generous terms of interest.

During the war all the major combatants relied on interest-bearing bonds to raise money from their publics, including private citizens and businesses, in part because this was more politically palatable than other techniques like raising taxes or printing money, which spurred inflation, making everyday goods more expensive. The bond drives were accompanied by ubiquitous publicity and propaganda campaigns portraying the bond purchases as both a civic duty and sound investment. 

Over the course of the war, for example, Germany issued nine major loans for public subscription, raising a total of around 93 billion marks, or about 60% of the total war debt of 156 billion marks from 1914-1918. Meanwhile France raised 24.1 billion francs through public war loans and 55 billion francs through ordinary short and medium-term bond sales, accounting for just over half the total debt of 150 billion francs accumulated by the end of the war. British war bonds raised over £1 billion in the last year of the war alone. For its part Austria-Hungary issued eight public loans during the war, while Italy issued five and Russia issued six before the 1917 Revolution.

As time went on, however, public enthusiasm for the war bonds waned, especially in the Central Powers as doubts grew about the chances of victory, raising the question of they would ever be repaid. By contrast the United States government was much better positioned to raise money from the American public, as pre-war public debt was fairly low and war fatigue hadn’t set in, while confidence in victory was high. Over the course of the war the government issued a total of four Liberty Loans and one Victory Loan, raising a total of over $20 billion – a stupendous amount, considering the country’s entire GDP in 1916 (the last peacetime year) was around $41.3 billion.

Map of training camps
Erik Sass

The vast sums raised by the loans helped pay for a breathtakingly ambitious (and remarkably rapid) war construction program, including dozens of training camps across the United States, where millions of drafted men from all over the country would learn the basics of military discipline, drill and maneuver (below, Camp Meade).

Congress had also approved a program to build a huge navy of ten battleships, six battle cruisers, 30 submarines, and 50 destroyers, the latter critical for the fight against German U-boats, and also authorized the formation of a new Emergency Fleet Corporation with the goal of building millions of tons of new cargo shipping to offset huge losses to submarines. Although the success of the EFC was debatable – it didn’t manage to produce any ships before December 1917 – the U.S. also commandeered around 3.5 million tons of shipping from the Central Powers and later neutral powers including the Netherlands, raising total U.S. seagoing tonnage to 12.4 million tons by the end of the war. Last but not least, Congress agreed to a plan to build 22,500 aircraft engines for both the United States Army Air Force (then a single branch under the Army) and the Allies, who were prepared to build thousands of airframes but needed the “Liberty Engines” to power them.

Foreign observers were surprised at how swiftly the new training camps and factories seemed to spring up. Lord Northcliffe, the British newspaper tycoon, recalled the construction of a new camp not far from his estate on Long Island in June 1917: “My American home is some miles out of New York City. When I took up my residence there in June last there were no signs of war about me. I went to Washington and returned after the space of a few days. A vast camp, as big as ours at Witley in Surrey appeared at my doors as though it had grown by magic.”

Not long afterwards he was invited to witness work on a huge complex of camps near San Antonio Texas (see map above):

Early in July there lay three miles outside San Antonio, Texas, a stretch of ground covered with a difficult kind of scrub or bush. On the 6th of July there appeared an army of between nine and ten thousand workmen of every known nationality, directed by young Americans of the Harvard and Yale type. The ten thousand arrived in every kind of conveyance, in mule carts, farm waggons, horse cabs, motors, and huge motor vans. At the end of the day’s work, when the whistle had blown, the scene resembled that of some eccentric elaborately-staged cinematograph film. Together with the army of ten thousand men came many kinds of semi-automatic machinery… In this new town outside of San Antonio twelve miles of rail, twenty-five miles of road, thirty-one miles of water pipe, thirty miles of sewer were accomplished in forty-five days… Nearly all material had to be brought from what appear to us vast distances. As often as not the thermometer stood at 100 degrees, yet the daily photographs taken by the contractors show that progress was continuous, until on August 25th a considerable part of the city was ready for occupation. The strongly and comfortably built huts are all provided with heating arrangements for the winter, and baths hot and cold are attached to each building; there are vast stores and office blocks, several post offices, a huge bakery, laundry, stables for thirteen hundred horses and mules, hospitals, schools; in all between twelve and thirteen hundred buildings.

The men who were soon training in these camps weren’t always as impressed with the comforts provided, often finding barracks and tents cold and drafty and the food unappetizing. As always it was usually a shock for civilians to adjust to military life, where they were suddenly subjected to the rigors and arbitrary whims of military discipline; it was also an eye-opening cultural experience, as volunteers and conscripts found themselves thrown together with people from all walks of life and social strata.

One newly enlisted man, Paul Green, expressed typical sentiments in a letter home in the summer of 1917, in which he described the training camp at Goldsboro, NC:

When I was at Chapel Hill, I thought that was a rough place; but this is the roughest place on earth. The profanity of the soldiers is awful. Co. B. is a roaring, rough set of fellows. There is an old blacksmith that sleeps in our tent who is the roughest man, I know, that ever saw day daylight… The drill leaders are pretty rough on you. Some of the men have fainted each day while drilling since I came. The way they bring them to their senses is to send three men for three buckets of water. Then they dash these on them and in their faces. After doing that they grab them by the collar and shove them back into ranks. One fellow drilled beside me this morning, coughing and vomiting every few minutes. After a short time, he fell out and lay in the hot sun, slobbering like steer. After they had poured about a barrel of water on him, he got better… For my part, I never am going to curse. I’m going to stay straight. It will not be hard for me to do it, for all profanity and vulgarity sickens me.

See the previous installment or all entries.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

WWI Centennial: Americans Attack the St. Mihiel Salient; the Flu Turns Deadly

Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Collier's New Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 318th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here and buy Erik’s new WWI trivia book here!

SEPTEMBER 12-16, 1918: AMERICANS ATTACK THE ST. MIHIEL SALIENT; THE FLU TURNS DEADLY

“Something is going to happen,” wrote Katharine Morse, an American volunteering as a canteen worker, in her diary on September 9, 1918. “We have been used to seeing the French Army go by … But now, by day, by night, it is the Americans who are passing through… Coming home from the canteen in the evening one hears the heavy rattle that means artillery on the move, and standing by the road-side peering through the darkness one can just discern horses and caissons, slat wagons, supply wagons, and, looming ominously in the dim light, the formidable bulk of the great guns.”

Morse was right. Three days later the U.S. First Army launched its biggest American offensive of the war so far, a pincer movement coordinated with French forces to liberate the St. Mihiel salient—the triangular strip of German-occupied territory jutting into free France south of Verdun, with the village of St. Mihiel at its apex on the River Meuse.

Long a thorn in the side of the Allies, the Germans’ possession of the St. Mihiel salient gave them a bridgehead over the Meuse and denied the Allies full use of the important Paris-Nancy-Metz rail line, impeding movement of troops and supplies. However, like Lorraine and the Vosges Mountains to the southeast, this part of the front had been relatively quiet ever since a disastrous French attempt to liberate the salient early in the war.

Following a series of stunning Allied victories in July and August, when the doughboys proved their fighting spirit at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Second Battle of the Marne, and while the British crushed the Germans near Amiens, Allied commander-in-chief Ferdinand Foch and U.S. commander John “Black Jack” Pershing turned their attention to the St. Mihiel salient—an obvious next target, although there was some disagreement about strategy.

Western Front, September 1918
Erik Sass

On one hand, Pershing proposed a massive offensive by up to 20 U.S. divisions from First Army, followed by an immediate attack across the Franco-German frontier to capture Metz, which would deliver a major blow to German morale. Foch countered that this was too ambitious, in part because the Germans almost certainly knew the attack was coming while many U.S. troops were still untested. He instead proposed a limited attack, with 13 American divisions and eight French colonial divisions converging on the village of Vigneulles from north and south, followed by redeployment of U.S. forces under French commanders for a general offensive further west.

Determined to keep American troops under American commanders, Pershing refused Foch’s broader plan outright. This resulted in a compromise that was, paradoxically, even more ambitious than those previously discussed. After conquering the salient with Foch’s proposed limited operation, the U.S. First Army would stay together and immediately redeploy 60 miles northwest to launch a new offensive against the Germans in the Meuse-Argonne region, west of Verdun, in late September. Meanwhile, the planned U.S. Second Army would concentrate along the frontier for an eventual attack on Metz, as Pershing still hoped to execute.

“THE VERY HEAVENS SEEMED TO BE ON FIRE”

Although loose lips among inexperienced doughboys had already given away the coming attack, the Americans still did their best to at least keep the enemy guessing about precisely when and where it would fall. That meant another round of night marches to evade German aerial reconnaissance, typically made by exhausted doughboys in miserable conditions. “The rain was pouring and everyone got drenched. Carried ammunition all night of 10th and 11th until everyone was broken down. Raining and black as pitch each night,” Robert Hanes, an American artillery officer, wrote in his diary on September 10, 1918. On September 12 Hanes noted, “No rations for men or feed for horses was sent up with us so we had to live on what we could pick up for about two days.”

To top it off, like their peers in European armies, the American soldiers carried a backbreaking amount of equipment. Emmet Britton, an American soldier, described a doughboy’s typical shelter and kit, which he carried in addition to a rifle, ammunition, grenades, gas mask, entrenching tools and other equipment:

“Each man carries one-half of a shelter tent, one pole, and five pins. This shelter half is a piece of canvas six feet by four feet, and forms the outside of the roll a man carries. To make up a roll the shelter half is spread on the ground, the one blanket is laid on it and inside of the blanket are placed the poles and pins, the one suit of underwear, and three pairs of socks, which make up all of a man’s outfit with the exception of the toilet articles which include one comb, one tooth brush, one piece of soap, one razor and one shaving brush. Add to that one can of bully beef and eight pieces of hardtack and you have the contents of a man’s pack.”

In another vain attempt to maintain the element of surprise, the Americans also replicated the recent Allied practice of foregoing a prolonged preliminary bombardment, in favor of a short, incredibly intense barrage just before the infantry went “over the top.” At 1 a.m. on September 12, 1918, around 3000 artillery pieces (most of them on loan from the French) opened up with some of the fiercest shelling of the war, firing a stupendous 1.1 million shells by 5 a.m, for an average rate of around 76 shells per second. One awestruck American soldier noted in his diary:

“At about 1 a.m. one of the most terrible barrages I have yet witnessed begins. The noise is deafening. The sky as light as day, words of mine can never describe the scene … The very heavens seemed [to] be on fire, the light of the bursting shells and the roar of the countless guns produced an unearthly uproar and tumult of noise so great that men had to shout into each other’s ears in order to be heard and understood.”

Hanes, the American artillery officer, left a similar account of stunning contrasts:

“You can never imagine the amount of noise made when the artillery opens up in one of these drives. It had been raining for two days steadily and we were all wet and muddy from head to foot. I had fallen down on an average of every 10 minutes for the two days as the ground was so slick I couldn’t stand. My men had been carrying ammunition to the guns for two of the blackest nights you have ever seen when suddenly everything was made light by the blazing of hundreds of guns all over the sector. We poured thousands of shells into the bloody rascals for about four hours and then started our barrage for the Infantry to advance under. They say it was a dandy and it certainly did the work as the Infantry met very little resistance and took thousands of scared and bewildered prisoners. One German officer was found dressed in his dress uniform, bag packed and orderly, waiting with him to surrender.

As it happened, the majority of the German forces occupying the St. Mihiel salient, who had plenty of warning about the impending attack, managed to withdraw just as the offensive was launched—in many cases retreating within view of the advancing doughboys. Altogether the advancing Americans captured around 13,000 German prisoners, a middling number for a major First World War battle. Thus the St. Mihiel offensive counted as an American victory, but one that fell short of Allied expectations (below, American troops in liberated St. Mihiel).

Entering St. Mihiel, World War I
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Although only a few hundred French light tanks were available for the St. Mihiel offensive, the advancing infantry were supported by the largest concentration of air power ever assembled to date. At least 1500 Allied planes scoured the skies, attacked enemy forces on the ground, and harried German lines of supply and communication to the rear. Eddie Rickenbacker, the most successful American ace of the war, described carrying out a ground attack against the retreating Germans:

“Guns, stores, and ammunition were being hauled away to safety with all possible speed … One especially attractive target presented itself to us as we flew along this road. A whole battery of Boche 3-inch guns was coming towards us on the double. They covered fully half a mile of the roadway. Dipping down at the head of the column I sprinkled a few bullets over the leading teams. Horses fell right and left. One driver leaped away from his seat and started running for the ditch. Halfway across the road he threw up his arms and rolled over upon his face. He had stepped full in front of my stream of machine-gun bullets! All down the line we continued our fire—now tilting our aeroplanes down for a short burst, then zooming back up for a little altitude in which to repeat the performance. The whole column was thrown into the wildest confusion. Horses plunged and broke away. Some were killed and fell in their tracks.”

Although the St. Mihiel offensive was a relatively easy “walkover” by the blood-soaked standards of the First World War, it was some American soldiers’ first introduction to battle, and many were clearly horrified by the gruesome sights they encountered. One soldier described the carnage wrought by German defensive shelling of the advancing troops:

“A large shell had made a direct hit upon four boys. All were dead. Limbs were mangled, bodies were torn. It was a sight revolting beyond description. Of one of my comrades I could only find small fragments of his poor body. None were larger than my hand … with the exception [of] his head, jerked completely from body. The powder-blackened face of a young Jewish boy stared immobile into eternity. Nearby was his hand which had been popped off at the arm just [at the] back of the wrist.”

Others however found themselves becoming hardened to horrors of war. Lieutenant Phelps Harding noted his acclimation to gruesome sights in a letter to his wife recounting the advance. “We passed dead men of both armies, but many more Boche than Americans,” he wrote. “I was surprised at the indifference I felt toward dead Americans—they seemed a perfectly natural thing to come across, and I felt absolutely no shudder go down my back as I would have had I seen the same thing a year ago.”

Conditions continued to be extremely challenging, as the supply service struggled to keep up with the advancing troops and American troops scrambled to redeploy to the Meuse-Argonne front for the next planned offensive. On September 22 Hanes recorded an excruciatingly slow advance. “The distance was only about seven kilometers but we were on the road about seven hours making it on account of the terrific traffic jams. The rain poured all night and the wind blew a gale. This is the most horrible night I have ever had,” he wrote.

On the other side, St. Mihiel was another nail in the coffin of German morale. Although the occupying troops had withdrawn successfully under fire, there was no way for the German high command to cover up the plain fact of another retreat before superior enemy forces.

Ominously, both German officers and rank-and-file troops were now eager to be taken prisoner for the short remaining duration of the war. Some likely reasoned that there was no point in sacrificing their lives for a lost cause. In a letter home dated September 19, Hanes wrote, “the prisoners as they came back seemed to be very well satisfied. Some of the infantrymen said, when they captured them, they shook hands with each other, laughed, and seemed to be most pleased that they had been captured.”

Heber Blankenhorn, an American propaganda officer, may have been describing the same surrendering officer recounted by Hanes: “One German major was found with his kit all packed up, his arms folded, waiting to go to prison camp. He was furious with his high command... So, in high dudgeon and righteous indignation, he made no effort to escape.” And a German intelligence report from September 1918 noted an informant’s warning, based on conversations with ordinary soldiers, that there was no doubt “these men wanted to find out about the best way to get taken prisoner without any risk and attracting attention, and how to act as a prisoner in order to be treated well.”

INFLUENZA EPIDEMIC BECOMES EVEN DEADLIER

The first phase of the misnamed Spanish flu, which emerged in spring 1918, had been extremely virulent but relatively benign. The epidemic killed only a small proportion of those who became ill. However, in fall 1918, the second, far deadlier phase began with simultaneous outbreaks among troops in transit camps in Boston, Massachusetts; Brest, France; and Freetown, Sierra Leone—all within a few weeks in early and mid-September. The first report in Boston noted high mortality among wounded soldiers arriving back from Europe for medical treatment in the U.S. on September 5, 1918.

It’s unclear what caused the flu epidemic to suddenly become so deadly, but scientists speculate the virus may have undergone a “genetic recombination event,” in which two different strains of the virus infect the same cell and then swap DNA, creating a strain that is even more virulent and dangerous.

By some estimates, the flu may have killed as many as 100 million people around the world, far more than the war itself. While it ravaged combatant and noncombatant nations alike, its impact was worst in war-torn Europe. Contemporary accounts leave a frightening picture of rapid, widespread infection leaving whole communities powerless. Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer with the French Army, wrote home in October:

“This disease is certainly quick and deadly in its effect and creates a panic among those who have it, as they die frequently in three or four days. My chauffeur is just recovering. He was so scared, two days ago, when I went to see him the hospital, lest he die in France, that he was almost speechless. Four friends of one of the French officers in my office dined together last week, and now two are dead and buried."

Morse, the American volunteer, remarked on the incredible speed of the epidemic. “Curiously enough, it hit the camp all in a heap after dinner,” she recalled. “Thirty percent of the boys, the two officers, the building detail, and myself were all laid low between one and six o’clock.” Richard Wade Derby, an American medical officer, noted that the flu accounted for the vast majority of hospital admissions: “The evacuations mounted to four or five hundred a day, of which only a fifth were battle casualties.”

The flu was especially devastating for Germany, now at the limits of its manpower and suffering severe shortages of food and fuel. In October 1918, Evelyn, Princess Blücher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, wrote in her diary:

“Whilst depicting the last agony of the country at large, one is apt to forget the sufferings of the individual, but what the war is not destroying in human life, the terrible grippe epidemic is carrying off. One hears of whole families dying out in a few hours, and it is an extraordinary fact that most of the victims are young girls and women. An uncanny idea, death thus restoring the balance between men and women for life.”

After devastating the cities, the flu epidemic swept through the countryside, according to Blücher:

“There is hardly a family that has been spared. From our housekeeper at Krieblowitz I hear that the whole village is stricken with it, and the wretched people are lying about on the floors of their cottages in woeful heaps, shivering with fever and with no medicaments or anyone to attend them. The doctor from Canth is unable to come, as he is absolutely overworked, having the whole district to look after, his colleague being already dead of the grippe. I wired at once to the Convent of the Grey Sisters at Breslau, asking them to send a nurse, which they did immediately, and I heard this morning that from the moment of her arrival she only had three hours’ sleep for the next 48 hours, there were so many people to attend to.”

At a major Berlin department store, Blücher heard the following horrifying detail, reminiscent of medieval Europe’s Black Death:

“They told me that hundreds of their staff were at the moment laid up with the grippe, and that 70 of their girls had died last week of it. Herr B——, who has just arrived from Hamburg and lunched with us today, says it is like the plague there, 400 people dying in one day; and as they have not coffins enough to put the corpses in, they have used furniture vans to carry them to the cemetery … We are returning every day nearer to the barbarism of the Middle Ages in every way.”

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

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