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 German and Russian WWI Soldiers Banded Together to Fight Wolves

iStock.com/567185
iStock.com/567185

During the winter of 1917, Russian and German soldiers fighting in the dreary trenches of the Great War’s Eastern Front had a lot to fear: enemy bullets, trench foot, frostbite, countless diseases, shrapnel, bayonets, tanks, sniper fire. Oh, and wolves.

In February of that year, a dispatch from Berlin noted that large packs of wolves were creeping from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia into the interior of the German Empire, not far from the front lines. Like so many living creatures, the animals had been driven from their homes by the war and were now simply looking for something to eat. “As the beasts are very hungry, they penetrate into the villages and kill calves, sheep, goats, and other livestock,” the report, which appeared in the El Paso Herald, says. “In two cases children have been attacked by them.”

According to another dispatch out of St. Petersburg, the wolves were such a nuisance on the battlefield that they were one of the few things that could bring soldiers from both sides together. “Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” the report says, according to the Oklahoma City Times. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.” It was an unspoken agreement among snipers that, if the Russians and Germans decided to engage in a collective wolf-hunt, all firing would cease.

Take this July 1917 New York Times report describing how soldiers in the Kovno-Wilna Minsk district (near modern Vilnius, Lithuania) decided to cease hostilities to fight this furry common enemy:

"Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance. But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger. Fresh packs would appear in place of those that were killed by the Russian and German troops.

"As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague. For a short time there was peace. And in no haphazard fashion was the task of vanquishing the mutual foe undertaken. The wolves were gradually rounded up, and eventually several hundred of them were killed. The others fled in all directions, making their escape from carnage the like of which they had never encountered."

Afterward, the soldiers presumably returned to their posts and resumed pointing their rifles at a more violent and dangerous enemy—each other.

11 Facts About Robert the Bruce, King of Scots

Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn
Edmund LeightonCassell and Company, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The subject of a recent Netflix original movie called Outlaw King, Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s great national heroes. Get to know King Bob a little better.

1. Robert the Bruce was a polyglot who loved telling stories.

He likely spoke Scots, Gaelic, Latin, and Norman French, and was an avid reader who loved studying the lives of previous monarchs. According to a parliamentary brief from around 1364, Robert the Bruce "used continually to read, or have read in his presence, the histories of ancient kings and princes, and how they conducted themselves in their times, both in wartime and in peacetime.” In his free time, he would recite tales about Charlemagne and Hannibal from memory.

2. Despite his reputation as Scotland’s savior, he spent years siding with England.

The Bruce family spent the 1290s complaining that they had been robbed of the Scottish Crown. That’s because, after the deaths of King Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, it was unclear who Scotland's next monarch should be. Debates raged until John Balliol was declared King in 1292. The Bruces, who had closer blood ties to the previous royal family (but not closer paternal ties) considered Balliol an usurper. So when tensions later flared between Balliol and Edward I of England, the resentful Bruces took England’s side.

3. He murdered his biggest political rival.

John Comyn is killed by Robert Bruce and Roger de Kirkpatrick before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, 10 February 1306
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

One of the leading figures standing in the way of Robert the Bruce’s path to Scotland’s throne was Balliol's nephew, John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch. In 1306, Robert arranged a meeting with Comyn in the Chapel of Greyfriars in Dumfries, Scotland. There, Robert accused Comyn of treachery and stabbed him. (And when word spread that Comyn had somehow survived, two of Robert’s cronies returned to the church and finished the deed, spilling Comyn’s blood on the steps of the altar.) Shortly after, Robert declared himself King of Scotland and started to plot an uprising against England.

4. He lived in a cave and was inspired by a very persistent spider.

The uprising did not go exactly according to plan. After Robert the Bruce killed Comyn in a church, Pope Clement V excommunicated him. To add salt to his wounds, Robert's ensuing attempts to battle England became a total failure. In the winter of 1306, he was forced to flee Scotland and was exiled to a cave on Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

Legend has it that as Robert took shelter in the cave, he saw a spider trying—and failing—to spin a web. The creature kept attempting to swing toward a nearby rock and refused to give up. Bruce was so inspired by the spider’s tenacity that he vowed to return to Scotland and fight. Within three years, he was holding his first session of parliament.

5. He went to battle with a legion of ponies.

For battle, Robert the Bruce preferred to employ a light cavalry of ponies (called hobbies) and small horses (called palfreys) in a tactic known as hobelar warfare. In one famous story, a young English knight named Sir Henry de Bohun sat atop a large warhorse and saw Robert the Bruce mounted upon a palfrey. Bohun decided to charge. Robert saw his oncoming attacker and stood in his stirrups—putting him at the perfect height to swing a battleaxe at the oncoming horseman’s head. After slaying his opponent, the king reportedly complained, “I have broken my good axe.”

6. He loved to eat eels.

Robert the Bruce
iStock.com/fotoVoyager

Robert the Bruce’s physician, Maino de Maineri, criticized the king’s penchant for devouring eels. “I am certain that this fish should not be eaten because I have seen it during the time I was with the king of the Scots, Robert Bruce, who risked many dangers by eating [moray eels], which are by nature like lampreys," de Maineri wrote. "It is true that these [morays] were caught in muddy and corrupt waters.” (Notably, overeating eels was considered the cause of King Henry I England’s death.)

7. His underdog victory at Bannockburn proved that quality could defeat quantity.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce defeated King Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, sending England (as the popular anthem Flower of Scotland goes) “homeward tae think again.” It was a surprising victory; the English had about 2000 armored horsemen and 15,000 foot soldiers, compared to the Scots's 500 horsemen and 7000 foot soldiers. But Robert the Bruce used geography to his advantage, forcing the English to attempt crossing two large and boggy streams. The victory was a huge turning point in the Scottish War of Independence and would help secure Scotland's freedom.

8. He’s firmly intertwined with the Knights Templar mythology.

Treasure hunters speculate that in the 14th century, the Knights Templar fled to Scotland with a trove of valuables because they received support and protection from King Robert the Bruce. Thanks to his help, they say, the Knights were able to hide gold and holy relics—from ancient Gospel scrolls to the Holy Grail—in secret spots across the country (including in Rosslyn Chapel, of The Da Vinci Code fame). But there is little evidence to support these colorful myths. Templar scholar and medieval historian Helen Nicholson said that any remaining Knights Templar were likely hanging out in the balmy climes of Cyprus.

9. He’s still donating money to a Scottish church.

Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh
Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, Cassell, Petter & Galpin, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After the death of his second wife, Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert the Bruce decreed to give the Auld Kirk in Cullen, Scotland—now the Cullen and Deskford Parish—a total of five Scots pounds every year. That's because, in 1327, Elizabeth had died after falling off a horse, and the local congregation generously took care of her remains. Robert was so touched by the gesture that he promised to donate money “for all eternity.” To this day, his bequest is still being paid.

10. Parts of his body are buried in multiple places.

Robert the Bruce died on June 7, 1329, just a month before his 55th birthday. The cause of his death has been a source of much discussion, and disagreement, but most modern scholars believe that he succumbed to leprosy. His funeral was a rather elaborate affair that required nearly 7000 pounds of candle wax just for the funerary candles. Following the fashion for royalty, he was buried in multiple places. His chest was sawed open and his heart and internal organs removed: The guts were buried near his death-place at the Manor of Cardross, near Dumbarton; his corpse interred in Dunfermline Abbey; and his heart placed inside a metal urn to be worn around the neck of Sir James Douglas, who promised to take it to the Holy Lord.

11. His heart was the original “Brave Heart.”

Unfortunately, Sir Douglas never made it to the Holy Land: He got sidetracked and took a detour to fight the Moors in Spain, where he was killed. Before his attackers reached him, Douglas reportedly threw the urn containing the king’s heart and yelled, “Lead on brave heart, I’ll follow thee.” The heart was soon returned to Scotland, where its location was forgotten until a team of archaeologists discovered it in 1921. It’s now interred in Melrose Abbey.

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