Wonder Woman in WWI

I didn’t jump at John’s suggestion that we go to the new Wonder Woman movie, I didn’t know anything about it and he didn’t either, but I reluctantly agreed. A woman superhero sounded a lot better than most every other movie out there. Had I known that the setting was WWI, I would have been chomping at the bit and leading him to see it.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised all the way round with the movie. Yes, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is drop-dead gorgeous and wears a cheesy outfit, but come on, she’s the Queen of the Amazons. I liked her character though, and Gadot did a  great job making the Amazon Queen naive/tough/caring all at the same time. It took me a minute to recognize her love interest, Chris Pine (the new young Captain Kirk), but his character was also well done. I have to like the characters (and the actors playing them), or I generally don’t like the movie.

But on to the WWI stuff. Overall, I thought they did a good job with that as well. The focus on the chemistry and the poison gas was a nice touch. It really was one of the legacies of WWI and continues today, both against people (as in recent gas attacks against civilians in Syria) and the continual assault against insects and plants (as in pesticides) which started in a big way after WWI. World War I was often called the chemist’s war which I wrote about in a previous blog. And although at first the movie portrayed the Germans as the really bad “guys” in the war, I think they rectified some of that in the end.

Now, some people may have been confused by the American Indian named Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) who shows up as a supporting character in the movie. American Indians did fight with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in WWI (as well as in Canadian forces) although not as many served during WWI as in WWII. The original code talkers started during WWI.

I have another theory of how Chief came to be there. In 1914, a Wild West show was touring Europe. The Wild West shows were really popular both in the U.S. and Europe starting in the late 1800s with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The Indians in the shows were American Indians from a number of different tribes. When the war broke out, this particular Wild West show was trapped in Berlin and not allowed to leave. The Iroquois Nation declared war on Germany because of both the ill treatment of their stranded members in the Wild West show and because of the drafting of Iroquois men into the U.S. Army. I thought I read somewhere that since the Iroquois never had a truce with Germany, they were technically still at war, but I couldn’t find that “fact” again, so it could be an alt-fact.

Anyway, the Chief made perfect sense to me, although once I suspended disbelief in an Amazon Queen fighting in the trenches on the Western Front during WWI with god powers, it was really really easy to believe in an American Indian being there as well.

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The Burning of the World

As often occurs when I’m looking for books at the University library, my eye catches a title that piques my interest. This is how I happened upon “The Burning of the World: A Memoir of 1914” by Bela Zombory-Moldovan. The memoirist in this case is a Hungarian artist, conscripted by the Astro-Hungarian Army at the start of the war. Bela was on holiday in the Adriatic when the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia,  a consequence of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by the Bosnian nationalist, Gavro Princip. This was the spark that started the war.

Bela paints a picture of life at the start of the war and his own brief stint as a second lieutenant fighting the Russians in Galicia. Most of my WWI reading and research has focused on the Western Front, so this trek to the Eastern Front was fascinating and horrible.

When dealing with this part of the world, I definitely needed a map to get my bearings as well as a bit of a history lesson of the area. Pre-WWI, the Austro-Hungarian Empire covered an extensive geography (the outline in blue of the orange, blue and pink areas shown on the map) and was made up of a variety of ethnic groups that were increasingly interested in autonomy and independence from the Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire coalesced in 1867, so by 1914 there were definite rifts occurring among different groups. The post WWI countries are outlined and named in red.

I’d previously read  that the Austro-Hungarian Army was ill prepared for war. Reading this memoir really drove home that view. The book takes place early in the war when the generals and officers were proud and stupid. They sent men with jammed rifles to face Russian artillery. They prevented the men from digging fox holes because “this leads to cowardice and undermines discipline” although the men dug into the sand anyway (with tin lids because they had no shovels). The men in Bela’s platoon started shooting at each other thinking they were firing on the Russians. The Russian Artillery caused massive casualties. The Austro-Hungarian Army, both officers and infantrymen, were ill-trained and untried. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had about 7 million casualties in WWI out of a population of 51 million. This equates to an average of more than 4500 Austro-Hungarian soldiers killed, wounded, or captured every day of the war.

Bela is wounded in this early battle with the Russians and returns to Budapest where he is sent to a ward in a military hospital for “crazies.” He leaves the hospital and becomes increasingly disillusioned, not just about the war, but about life. These first months of the war  most people were still riding the patriotic wave and optimistic about the outcome of the war. Bela with his first-hand experiences knew better.

 

 

100 Years Later

April 2017 marked the 100 year anniversary of the U.S. declaring war on Germany and entering the First World War. A PBS special, an op-ed in the New York Times, and a special Time Magazine edition seemed to be the highlights of this important centenary. Contrast this to the speeches, remembrances, and special events in Europe in 2014 (the 100 year anniversary of the start of the war) which isn’t surprising given that the war was fought in Europe (western and eastern Europe primarily) and many more soldiers and civilians lost their lives than American. They’re still finding live shells buried in the farm fields France and Belgium so even 100 years later, the war isn’t really over. Yet, the anti-climax of the U.S. anniversary was a bit disturbing given that this war in my opinion shaped U.S. and global politics, the military-industrial complex, and technology’s trajectory more than anything else in the 20th century.

I was also disturbed by the underlying sentiment in the PBS special and Time articles that made Germany the aggressor, the instigator, the problem, and the U.S. the hero and the liberator. This is WWI we’re talking about, not WWII. It didn’t start because of German aggression. This was a war of Empire and the desire of all Empires was to expand their power and influence. The British Empire was the dominant world power both militarily and economically at the time, and it was doing anything and everything to keep that power. From their perspective, Germany which was building its navy and trying to increase its influence in the world economy was a serious threat. To them. (A good book to shake your perspective of Britain as the “good guy” is found in the Hidden History; The Secret Origins of the First World War.)

All sides were culpable.

But what if the U.S. hadn’t played favorites and loaned millions and sold millions in war goods to France and Britain and thus prolonged the war. Once the stalemate was realized by Britain, France, Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary, in 1915, peace talks might have made headway if Britain and France hadn’t been backed by the U.S. Or what if a more equitable peace would have been brokered by the belligerents had the U.S. not joined at the end of the war. Who’s to say that Hitler wouldn’t have risen to power and a WWII would not have happened? Unfortunately, we can’t run those experiments. So we will never know.

What we do know is that President Wilson and the U.S. caved in at the Treaty of Versailles whether it was due to Wilson contracting the influenza and affecting his capacities as proposed in The Great Influenza or for other reasons. He reneged on his “Peace without Victory” adage, and gave in to France’s demands. The Treaty punished the Germans in ways that destroyed their economy and morale. One thing that many historians do agree on is that the Treaty was a disaster and invariably led to the rise of Hitler, fascism, and WWII. So maybe that’s the real reason, popular history still likes to blame WWI on the Germans, so that we, Americans, French and British, can disavow our own influence and impact in the creation of an even more devastating second world war.

I just wish we could learn to live in peace.

 

National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

I made a lot of stops on my recent drive out and back from Colorado Springs including the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. When I first heard about the museum, maybe 7 or 8 years ago, I figured I’d never get there because what in the world would I ever go to Kansas City for? I couldn’t justify a trip there just for the museum. But it turned out that my route through the heartland to Colorado went right through the City. Go figure.

I had spent the night before in Lawrence, Kansas. A line of thunderstorms and tornadoes blew threw the area that night. Several touched down just east of Kansas City, but my arrival at the Museum was marked with blue skies and gusty winds. Of course, I took a bad selfie. Later, I rode the elevator to the top of the tower and enjoyed a spectacular view of the city. It actually looks like a lovely city.

There were several highlights at the museum. The first was going into a sound booth and clicking on music, poetry, and speeches from the war. Among other things, I listened to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorem EstIn that little sound proof booth as I listened to a British man read Owen’s poem (Owen was killed about a week before the armistice), I got chills and had to hold back a few tears. Very powerful! Another highlight was watching a diorama of No Man’s Land with lights flashing (for flares and bombs) while a movie of trench warfare streamed in the background. Quite impressive.

Looking down at the No Man’s Land Diorama.

My favorite highlight though, was chatting with the 80 year old Marine Corp veteran of WWII who was a volunteer at the museum. He was stationed upstairs in the original part of the museum and nobody was up there except us. His father had served in WWI in France, just like my great Uncle Harry and my grandfather. We talked about our trips to France and the Western Front, he’d been there several times. We talked about the hospitality of the French when we’d visited. He told me the story of one of the hotel proprietors who remembered him ten years later. We talked about the war and how hardly anyone in the U.S. knows much about it, even though there were so many lessons to be learned, and some still waiting to be learned.

I was heartened to see some high school groups wandering through the exhibits even though the kids looked pretty bored. I probably would have looked the same when I was their age. It took me awhile and some family letters to get me interested, and now I can’t seem to get enough.

 

“I like Ike”

Ike’s parent’s house while growing up in Abilene, Kansas.

On my recent driving trip out west, I stopped in Abilene, Kansas for the night. As this was the childhood home of President Eisenhower, I decided to visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Museum and Library. I was pleasantly surprised when I found out they had just opened a WWI exhibit in the Eisenhower Library the day before.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike) was president from 1953 to 1961 during my infant and toddler years. By most accounts, he was a darn good president. He balanced the budget, ended the Korean War, and kept the peace. Not bad for a lifelong military man. Previously, he served as the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe during WWII which is a whole other story.

Dwight and Mamie 1916.

During WWI, Ike had been a captain in the U.S. Army. He requested on a couple different occasions to be sent to France, but he was thwarted in his efforts. Instead, he served stateside in a variety of different roles including training tank crews in Pennsylvania.

What I found interesting about the WWI exhibit was the information about the roles of previous Presidents in WWI. President Truman (who preceded Ike) was a Captain and served in France. FDR (who preceded Truman) served as Assistant Secretary to the Navy during WWI. Herbert Hoover (who preceded FDR) headed the U.S. Food Administration during WWI and led the efforts in humanitarian aide to Belgium.

The chapel at the Eisenhower Center.

I also visited the chapel where Dwight and Mamie and their four year old son, Doud, who died of scarlet fever are buried.  I toured the inside of his boyhood home. It was left pretty much the way it was when Ike’s mother died in 1946. It was a pretty quiet visit, but I’m glad I stopped.

 

Stranded in Europe

One of my favorite pastimes over the years has been wandering the stacks (hundreds of shelves on two floors) at the UVM library. My searches have ranged from science and engineering to art, literature and books about writing. And of course, WWI. I happened to be in the memoir/biography section recently when I noticed a biography about a young woman in WWI. When I read who it was about, Nancy Johnson (my maiden name), I knew immediately I would read it.

nancyjohnsonThe book is called Deliver Us From Evil: A Southern Belle in Europe at the Outbreak of World War I, by Mary W. Schaller. It’s about Mary’s Grandmother, and she uses her grandmother’s own letters and stories. Unless you’re keen on WWI or your name is Nancy Johnson though, I probably wouldn’t recommend it. Yet, there were some interesting tidbits I learned from reading the book. This time period (late 19th/early 20th century) in U.S. history is often called the Gilded Age. There was a huge amount of wealth being made, but it was concentrated primarily in the upper classes. The author writes that 90% of the wealth in the U.S. was held by 10% of the population. Sound familiar? I think it’s even worse today.

Traveling to Europe had been for a long time, a favorite pastime of well-to-do Americans, and even the not so well-to-do. It still is. In the summer of 1914, there were 120,000 thousand American’s vacationing in Italy, France, Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. Nancy Johnson, the daughter of a rich southern Congressman, was one of them, traveling with a friend under the protection of U.S. State Department personnel. It seems that Nancy was a bit of spoiled  rich kid, but she had her good points too, independence and intelligence.

europe_1914

Europe in 1914

Anyways, when the Archduke was killed on June 28, 1914, most of the Americans didn’t pay any attention and went on their merry way. It wasn’t until various nations declared war (end of July and August 1914) that everything became chaotic in Europe. Trains, horses, and ships were commandeered for the war effort. Banks closed and wouldn’t cash American checks. Then borders closed. Tens of thousands of Americans were stranded without a dime. Most of these were privileged rich Americans too. The U.S. government had to send cash to help out the stranded Americans because the European banks would take nothing else. The U.S. commissioned a ship, a captain, and crew, and added some U.S. marines for good measure and on August 5, the ship left New York City with $2.5 million in gold bullion in its hold. All going to help the Americans stranded in Europe. Wow!

Back in Europe, the U.S. State Department and a group of wealthy stranded Americans weren’t going to wait the two weeks it would take for the money from home to arrive. They were able to charter a ship in Genoa, Italy to take 400 people back to America. Nancy Johnson was one of the selected few to get on board. The only person who could manage to get the money for the charter (500,000 francs in cash) was Frederick W. Vanderbilt. The Italian banks, with a lot of persuading, were willing to give him cash on his credit.

It took two weeks to cross the Atlantic. They were stopped by British warships and required to take action to evade German submarines. But Nancy made it home. She soon married the man her parents had sent her to Europe to forget. Good for you, Nancy.

Women’s Suffrage

suffragettes

1913, Liberty and her attendants in front of the Treasury Building.

As I was driving down to Montpelier (our state capitol) yesterday to join the Women’s March, I couldn’t help but think about all those determined and courageous suffragettes who in the 19th and early 20th century marched and protested and worked so hard to get the vote for women. Not just in this country but around the world. The passage of the U.S. 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteed all women the right to vote. Previously, it was on a state by state basis with some states granting voting rights and others partial voting rights and some not at all. New Zealand (1893) and Australia (1902) were two of the first countries to give voting rights to women. And of course, there are still many places around the world today where women are not full voting citizens.

U.S. women had been working since the mid 1800s (and earlier) for the right to vote.  They had Women’s Conventions, plays, pamphlets, marches, and more. They filed lawsuits, crashed inauguration events, went to jail, and went on hunger strikes to name just a few things. They were uppity! And it wasn’t just voting rights women were working for. Plenty of the things we take for granted now  had to be fought for, like property rights for women, rights to their own earnings, divorce rights, educational rights and opportunities, and the list goes on. In fact, it wasn’t until 1972 (when I was in 9th grade) that Title IX was passed. (“Title IX is a comprehensive federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.”) One of the things this mandated was equal opportunities in terms of team and after school team sports for girls. Up until then our opportunities had been gymnastics and cheer leading. Or in other words, not a whole lot of opportunity.

By the early 20th century, women’s suffrage was gaining even greater strength, but World War I probably delayed its passing in many countries. The lack of male workers, also meant that women were taking on the roles of men in the factories, the farms, and just about everywhere so their activist efforts may have decreased then too. Women filling in for the men probably positively influenced many people’s minds about allowing full citizenship to women. Many countries granted women’s suffrage right after WWI.

Me at the Montpelier Women's March

Me at the Montpelier Women’s March.

All this and more I was thinking about as I sat for 40 minutes barely moving on the interstate trying to get off the Montpelier exit. The state police ended up closing that exit so I was glad I made it through. Many people didn’t get there until the very end of the rally, while others had to turn around and go home. They estimated about 15,000 women, men and children showed up. This in a city that has a population of about 8,000. Phew!!

I was impressed by how polite and peaceable everyone was, but that’s not surprising considering it was Vermont. Yet it also seemed the case at the other women’s marches all over the country and the world yesterday.  And so many young women there too. I was glad to be a part of it.