Life Magazine – December 26, 1918

scan0111My dear friend, Debbie, just sent me a copy of an old Life magazine from December, 1918. It’s chocked full of WWI cartoons, articles, and propaganda – a real treat for a WWI buff like me. I was a bit surprised to see how many automobile related advertisements there were in the magazine. Tires, tire chains, bearings, auto radiators and garage heaters. Several were full page ads. I guess cars were the big thing. The model-T came out in 1908 with other companies launching their own versions around that time. The assembly line method was in full swing by 1914, so by 1918 cars were selling fast. Hard to believe since then, they have dominated the planet.

cartoonI liked this cartoon because it reminded me of one of my great Uncle Harry’s letters. He wasn’t married at the time, but he did write home about how he was learning to do a lot of mending and washing in the army. Something he hadn’t done before. On the flip side, his sister, Esther, my grandmother was tending to his bees and driving his team of horses. In the end of the Life magazine, there was a short article about “Girls on the Job,” and how they were doing all the men’s jobs during the war. The article ends with the following. “My Word! What transmogrifications the war has brought to pass!” What a great word – transmogrifications!



Turkey for Thanksgiving?

John and I just spent Thanksgiving with my brother, Steve, and his family in Andover, Massachusetts. On Friday afternoon, with our bellies full of leftovers, we drove back to Vermont, a three and a half hour drive. It gave me a lot of time to think about the Thanksgiving holiday of which I knew very little beyond the Pilgrim story. I wondered if the service men, like my great uncle, celebrated it back in 1918? My uncle never mentioned it in his letters, and he was pretty good about mentioning food in his letters (either the need for it or what they just ate for dinner). Were turkeys, an American native bird, even common in Europe back then?

thanksgiving-wwiWell, as usual, once you start digging a bit on the internet you find a wealth of information. The first thing that popped up was a picture of a couple of servicemen eating what looks like a burnt turkey. That’s the only picture I could find from WWI and it looks staged, but it’s likely that servicemen in the US camps had a turkey dinner on November 28, 1918. It wasn’t an official national holiday back then, but it was celebrated as a day of thanks giving with turkey being the favorite on the menu. And given this was after the Armistice, they certainly had a lot to be thankful for.

wwi-thanksgivingI also found a Thanksgiving menu for a U.S. company in France, and sure enough they wwi-thanks-menuhad roast turkey on the menu with all the fixings. It turns out that the American turkey had been introduced in England in the early 1500s and slowly became a favorite in the royal courts of Europe. By the 1700s, as turkey became more popular for the Christmas holidays, farmers from the countryside would conduct turkey drives, walking flocks of turkeys (300-1000 birds) to the London market.

A little more digging on the internet revealed that turkey drives were common in Vermont too. Back in the early 1800s before railroads, Vermont farmers would drive thousands of turkeys to the Boston markets for Thanksgiving and then again for Christmas. Back then it took about 3 weeks of walking the turkeys to get there. While we’ve all heard of cattle drives, turkey drives sound kind of crazy. They didn’t ride horses either. They walked behind the turkeys to keep them moving. A wagon with supplies and tents would accompany the drive.

Anyway, eating turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas was  pretty much ingrained in the American culture by WWI, so it’s not surprising that servicemen would be given this special treat. I’m still not positive my uncle Harry did in Belgium, but if he missed out, I have no doubt, he made up for it the following year.

November in Belgium

Ypres, Belgium, 1917

Ypres, Belgium, 1917

At this time of year when the farming season is over, and the days are short and the nights cold, I often think of my great uncle Harry fighting in WWI during the fall of 1918. Ninety-eight years ago, Armistice is a week away – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, and Harry is in Belgium. His division, the 37th Buckeye Division, has moved to Belgium to relieve some of the French troops. The Germans are retreating, pushed back by the British and French.


Western Front near Ypres, Belgium

On October 22, Harry and his unit detrain in Ypres, in western Belgium. The city is in ruins, rubble everywhere, crumbling walls, and most of the buildings are piles of stone. Harry calls it “the shell torn country of Belgium and it’s sure shot up.”  They make camp outside of town and sleep in dugouts. The next day they march through a muddy shell hole wasteland that has been the front for almost four years. Trees are nothing but stumps or bare poles, their branches long blown off by the tens of thousands of shells that have volleyed back and forth.

Behind the front in what has until recently been German territory, Harry and his company hike to Stadin. They find well kept farms and hardworking Belgians. Harry writes “Here is where I got some good Belgium butter and bread (did I eat? Well I guess).” They continue moving east and rest in Thielt, but “of course we did lots of close order drill. They never forget to do this when we have a few days.”

At the end of October, they move on to get ready to take their turn in the fighting, although on their first drive, it doesn’t quite work out that way.

“Here we had a high old time. The duck (Germans)  left a few days ago and had taken all the civilians with them so we had the town to our self. Some of the boys got too much of the wine and got drunk. We had made our small packs and were all ready waiting orders to go over the top, the big guns were booming, sending their missiles of death over our heads, and there we were having a high old time. Well about 3 or 4 o’clock we marched out of town and into the fray where we were lucky our battalion did not do any fighting, but I and the other fellows had a close call when a shell burst out side a house where we were eating our dinner.”

A little over a week later, they’re back at the front lines, and now it’s their turn for fighting.

“On Nov 8 we hiked to Deynze. We slept in a large factory where the Germans had made a barracks and got our first dose of cooties. From then on we have been scratching. Nov 9 we left Deynze and hiked to Nordes. We stayed all night and at 3 o’clock in the morning we got our mess, made small pack, and waited 3 or 4 hours while the cannons boomed. Then we went forward on our second Belgium drive. This time our company was in the thick of it. Before we left I was over to a French battery of six inch guns and believe me when them guns let loose it just raised me off my feet.”

“We followed a road for a couple of miles in single file, 50 ft between each man. Old Jerry sure did cut loose at us. In the afternoon we crossed the river Escaut River and made a stand on the other side. When we crossed the river, Old Jerry let loose with his machine guns. We were lucky nobody got hurt in our company.”

“The next day at 11 o’clock hostilities ceased and we were sure glad, as we would have been riddled if we had made our advance as planned.”





Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 1918

France 368

Over 14,000 American soldiers who died during the Meuse-Argonne offensive are buried in the American Cemetery there.

It was this time of year in 1918 when the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) headed the Meuse-Argonne Offensive against the Germans. It was one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history with over 26,000 Americans dead and thousands wounded. Many of the dead were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. We visited this quiet lonely place a few years ago.

My great uncle Harry was part of the 37th division (the Buckeye Division) that fought during the initial days of the offensive and helped capture Montfaucon (a German stronghold). Harry’s letter to his family written in 1919 (after armistice) explains a bit of his experiences. This is the excerpt where he talks about the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

“Well we left the trucks somewhere in France and hiked to a woods near Recicort, stayed there a day and then we moved to the woods north of Recicort. Here we took up trench warfare until Sept 26 when after six hours of heavy shelling, we moved toward the German lines. Well, talk about things being blowed up. Every thing was shot to pieces. Well you may ask what was Jerry doing all this while, well he was sending over shells, and machine guns were going put-put all the time. The way the boys in khaki fell showed that old Jerry done some dirty work. One shell killed five men and wounded seven or eight more in my platoon. I was a runner between our Co and E. Co.


Private Harry Johnson, 1918

After 5 days of perfect Hell we were released by the 32 Div. On the last day while we were being relieved a Jerry shell killed six and wounded half a dozen more a few feet from me in the same ditch along a road. I was covered with dirt and blood from my comrades. A piece of shrapnel tore the stock of my gun off, just a foot over my head.

October 1, we hiked all night from dead man’s hill  to Recicort and rested one day. Got some mail also. Oct 2 we entrained in trucks and after a day of misery in them we detrained at a woods near Void. Here we got some cookies from a YMCA, but they did taste good. We left there and hiked all night to Jucy. Everybody was more or less sick as we all had a good sniff of gas on the drive.”

Harry’s division continued to fight near Verdun, and then went to Belgium where they remained until after Armistice.

U.S. Declares War on Germany

wilsonsloganNinety-eight years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United Stated declared war on the German Empire. The next day it declared war on Austria-Hungary. Since the start of the war in the summer of 1914,  President Woodrow Wilson had vowed to keep the United States out of the war. In fact, that was his 1916 re-election slogan – “He kept us out of war.” The U.S. policy was neutrality early on, however with the British blockade against Germany, we mostly sold goods to Britain and France. Then we let them buy on credit. By 1917, Britain and France owed $2.25 billion in loans to the United States, while Germany owed only $27 million. That doesn’t seem neutral to me.

There are many reasons given for the change in stance of the President and the country in deciding to go to war. In January of 1917, the Germans resumed unrestricted submarine warfare which meant they would again attack passenger and merchant ships, especially merchant ships since these were likely loaded with supplies for Britain and France. Following the sinking of Lusitania in 1915 and an unarmed French ship in 1916 by German U-boats, President Wilson threatened to terminate diplomatic relations with Germany if they continued attacking nonmilitary vessels. The Germans relented then, but by 1917 with the continued British blockade on their ports, they were desperate.

Another reason often given for the change in stance was something called the Zimmerman Telegram. British Intelligence intercepted and decrypted a telegram sent to Mexico from the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, which promised the Mexican Government they could recover territory they lost to the US in the Mexican-American war if they helped Germany win the war. As you can imagine, this made a lot of people mad.

While both of these reasons added fuel to the fire  and were great for getting the citizenry riled up, I can’t help thinking about the Russian revolution (which started in March 1917 with help from a mutinous Russian Army), and how if the Germans didn’t have to fight on two fronts and had to deal only with the Western Front, they probably had a pretty good chance of defeating Britain and France. And if they did, then what would have happened to our $2.25 billion in loans? You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the surface to find the monetary reasons behind any war.

Instead, we hear the rhetoric of “the war to end all war” and “making the world safe for democracy.” The latter is especially ironic since we didn’t even have democracy in the U.S. (e.g. women didn’t have the right to vote, segregation and intimidation ruled rampant for African Americans, treaties were broken with Native American tribes, and immigrants worked for pennies in life threatening situations). Worldwide, we had a system of colonization that was inequitable for the native peoples of Africa and Asia!


Harry on right. No date or description on photograph, but likely before 1917. Harry looks to be late teens or early 20s.

My own relatives, my great uncle Harry who would soon be drafted and fight in France, and his family (including my grandmother Esther) lived on a farm near Highland Corners in western Pennsylvania. They might have read about the U.S. war declaration in the local paper or heard it from neighbors. Like many Swedish Americans (as with German-Americans and Irish-Americans) they may even have been quite upset that the U.S. was getting involved the war. Yet, they were probably busy finishing up the  apple tree pruning in their orchard, checking on the honeybees to see if they had made it through the winter, and getting ready for bark peeling camp. The war would have seemed very far away.

Hell is Mud

Although it’s starting a little late this year, we’re coming to that special time in Vermont.  Mud Season! When the muddy ruts in the road suck your tires into their depths and the only way to save yourself and your car is to drive faster. When your favorite footwear are your muck boots and your floor and carpet have a new pattern – brown paw prints.

Battle of Passchendaele, 1917, near Ypres, Flanders.

Battle of Passchendaele, 1917, near Ypres, Flanders.


German horse and cart deep in mud in Russia.

And all that is nothing compared to parts of the Western Front during the Great War. The low lying areas of Belgium and France were especially bad. There, the water table was often seasonally very high which meant digging only a foot below the soil surface might result in a water-filled hole. The Germans often took the high ground and kept relatively dry, but the muddy Allied trenches and shell-pocked No Man’s Land near Ypres, Passchendaele, and the Somme are infamous. And the mud wasn’t just wet earth. It was full of human waste, rotting food, corpses and dead animals, broken equipment, rusting metal shells, shrapnel, barbed wire and tin cans. It was a slimy, stinking, foul ooze that literally swallowed men and animals if they weren’t careful. Thousands of men fell into the mud never to be seen again. Sometimes horses and mules became so stuck that the soldiers had to take off their traces and leave them to die in the mud.

A classic WWI book written by a former French soldier, Henri Barbusse, and first published in 1916 called Le Feu or (Under Fire) drives home the horror of mud. From the beginning of the novel to the very end, his description of mud is tangible. “You can see a maze of long ditches in which the last remnants of night linger. This is the trench. The bottom of it is carpeted with a viscous layer that clings noisily to the foot at every step and smells foul around each dugout because of the night’s urine” (pg 7).

The final scene of the novel finds a group of faceless, nameless men (literally, for it is dark and no one knows who is talking) lying in the mud and rain. They carry on a long conversation about the stupidity of war, “[t]wo armies fighting each other-that’s like one great army committing suicide!” (343). Only to find on the final page that they form a new squad, and the cycle of war continues.

Standing in water and mud led to trench foot which could be particularly troublesome for soldiers, in some cases leading to gangrene and foot amputations. The foul mud often resulted in debilitating and deadly bouts of dysentery among the troops as well. Not only shells and machine gun bullets were the deadly enemies of the regular soldiers in the trenches, but mud was too.

mapwesternfrontMy great uncle Harry spent most of his time in France near Verdun which is farther south of the level muddy lands of Flanders. He fought at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, but in late October and November he was in Belgium as part of an offensive to drive the Germans east. It wasn’t until his return to France in December and January that he went through some of the muddy hellish places that are legendary. And there he experienced mud. He writes, “[We] are now in a much better part of France. It is hillier here than where we were. There, it was nothing but mud till a fellow thinks but mud.”

So as I gear up for our spring thaw and the muddy roads, I will be grateful for our mud season. It is really not such a big deal after all.




A Long Winter Means a Joyful Spring

Yesterday, I went to a garden talk at a local library, and last week we started working outside, cleaning up greenhouses, wood chipping, and pruning. It’s been a long winter in Vermont, but the signs of spring are starting to show, albeit slowly.


WWI Post Card.

It was about this time (March 18, 1919) that my great uncle Harry boarded the U.S. Battleship Kansas and steamed home after being in Europe for nine months. He’d had a long winter as well. On November 11, 1918, when Armistice began he was in Belgium where he stayed for a few more weeks. By December 1918, his regiment had made their way back to France, and in January, he was in Gesnes, France waiting for word to ship out.

All during late 1917 and up until November 1918, the US had been sending millions of soldiers to France. After Armistice they had to bring them back and quickly. But how could they bring back millions within a few months when it had taken almost a year to send them over? By spring 1918, the French were starting to get tired of the rowdy Americans as well, so it became even more critical to speed their debarkation. It was a huge logistical problem for the American Forces and took longer than everyone had hoped.

Many of the regular soldiers, like Harry, thought that after Armistice they would go home quickly. But it was actually over 4 months that he had to wait, and many other units waited even longer. When January came, Harry realized he wasn’t going home any time soon, and he wasn’t happy about it. On January 26, he wrote the following in a letter to the Folks at Home (I’ve added some punctuation for ease of reading).

             “I am sure disgusted with the army. It seems as though a fellow is never to get home by the looks of things. I don’t believe we will get out of this country before spring. It would be all right if only they did not drill us six hours every day.”
             “Last Sunday we hiked 12 miles and back about 24 miles in all to get deloused and a bath. The dirty suckers had to do it on a Sunday so they could drill us on the week days. Well, don’t worry about me as I am all right. I will not go to the bad although it is enough to drive a fellow, and I am not the only one. The reason that I am ornery today is because I did not get much of a breakfast, bread and dishwater coffee. Some meal.”

One of the things the army did while waiting to send home the troops was to keep them busy. That meant hours of drilling and hiking and the regular military routine. Not surprisingly, the men didn’t like it. But it kept them out of trouble for the most part.


Harry with sisters, Esther (far left – my grandmother) and Jenny (right).

On April 1, 1919, Harry arrived in the U.S. and wrote the following note to his family. This was the last letter he sent that was saved by my grandmother and then by my mother.

          “Just landed on U.S. soil. Some tickled boy I am. Had a very plightful voyage. We left France March 18 on the battleship Kansas. I am enjoying the very best of health and hope to get home soon. I suppose we will go to Camp Lee from here. I have not written for some time because I have been on the homeward road for the last two months. I would not be surprised if I get home in a week or ten days… won’t that be a joyous time.”