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.”





Woad and Blue Uniforms


Oxidizing the woad solution with an old mixer.

Today I harvested my woad and processed it to make a blue dye for dying my wool. It seemed late to harvest, but the woad was still lush and green so I decided to try it. I found a good site on the internet from a woman in the U.K. who makes and also sells the powdered dye. Aerating the solution causes the dye to oxidize. This causes the dye to form a precipitate which you can then separate from the liquid to make a powder. The powder allows for longer term storage. My dye is settling now.


French soldier. The steel helmet and “horizon blue” uniform indicate this is no earlier than 1915 as that is when the helmet was introduced. Before that, they just wore a brimmed cap.

As I was making the dye though, it got me wondering what dye they used for the “horizon blue” uniforms the French soldiers wore. It turns out that woad, used for dying wool in Europe for millennia, was finally usurped in the 1700s by indigo from India and other places in the far east. Indigo creates deeper and darker blues than woad. By the late 1800s synthetic dyes were becoming common. A synthetic indigo dye was launched in 1897 by a German scientist, Adolf von Baeyer. At the time, the production of natural indigo was around 19,000 tonnes, but by 1914, it was down to only 1000 tonnes having been replaced by synthetic indigo. Baeyer received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1905 for his work on chemical dyes.

So the “horizon blue” uniforms of the French soldiers would have been made from indigo-dyed wool, but it was undoubtedly the synthetic version.

Russian Revolution

Kronstadt demonstration 1917

Protesters in streets.

By the winter of 1916/1917, the Russian army, economy, and country was in a shambles. Over 2 million soldiers had been killed in the fighting, millions more wounded. The tsar’s policies had resulted in food and fuel shortages and rampant inflation. By early March, the population of the capital of Russia, Petrograd (St. Petersburg), were fed up. On international women’s day in 1917, the workers began to strike and protest, filling the streets with tens of thousands of people. More joined each day including 170,000 nearby garrisoned troops. Workers broke into arsenals and took rifles. The capital was in chaos and the worker councils (called soviets) demanded the abdication of the tsar.  This was a true peoples revolution. By the middle of March, Nicholas II abdicated to his brother who abdicated the next day.

All the Soviet leaders we’ve heard so much about from Russian history such as Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky weren’t involved in any of this. They were still in exile during the March revolution.  They rushed and connived ways to get back to Petrograd as soon as they could. Stalin was the first to arrive and immediately resumed his old post as editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper. In the beginning of April, Lenin made it back to Petrograd and took control of the Bolshevik party. The Bolsheviks were one of many parties and players at the time. They soon became major players. Trotsky arrived in Petrograd in May. All summer and into the early fall, there was a power grab by the various parties including the Bolsheviks. By this time Lenin was in charge and planning for an armed rising within the provisional government. In the end of October, they were successful, but violent encounters between the various players continued.


Russian soldiers captured by the Germans.

In the middle of November 1917, Germany and Russia began negotiations for an armistice which soon followed. The end of November marked the beginning civil war in Russia that would last for four years with the Bolsheviks (communists) finally victorious. The armistice with Germany in the winter of 1917/18 allowed the Germans to move all their troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. The Germans hurried an offensive in France during the spring of 1918 in hopes of complete victory before the Americans could build up their troops in Europe. They weren’t successful, and by the summer of 1918 over 2 million American troops were in France.

History does not speak kindly of Nicholas II, the last tsar of the Russian Empire. He did not heed the warnings of Revolution from earlier protests and never instituted substantive changes in the government or the civil side of society. He blundered into the war, like so many of the other leaders at the time, refusing to see the reality of his own military might and those of the enemy. He and his family were put under house arrest in the spring of 1917 and executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.



Armenian Genocide

100yearwalkOne of the most horrific tragedies of WWI was the deportation, starvation, and killing of over 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks during 1915 and 1916 in what was then the Ottoman Empire. The Hundred Year Walk; An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen recounts these horrors primarily through the first-hand accounts of MacKeen’s grandfather, Stepan, related in his diaries that he wrote after the war. Mackeen, a journalist, includes her own visit to Turkey and Syria in 2007 as she follows the route made by her grandfather almost 100 years earlier and the meeting with the descendants of the Sheikh who helped her grandfather. She also includes historical information from other sources as she weaves together his story within the overall tragedy of the Armenian Genocide.

The Christian Armenians within the primarily Muslim Ottoman Empire had at various times throughout history been the target of persecution, but never on the scale seen in 1915/16. The new regime of the Ottoman Empire called the Young Turks sided with the Central Powers in 1914. Within months of the start of the war, the Young Turks disarmed all the Armenians in the country, even those men who served in the army. They executed numerous Armenian intellectuals and leaders, and started mass deportations of Armenians from their historical homeland. Then the real horrors began; forced marches southward to Syria, rape, starvation, and mass murder. MacKeen’s grandfather, Stepan, managed to escape from a caravan that was forced into the desert and then massacred. During his harrowing journey, he is helped by some of the Arabs living in the area. After three years of separation from his mother, brother and sisters, he is reunited at the end of WWI. However, this was not the end of their suffering and persecution, and eventually, he and his family emigrated to the U.S.

This was a tough book to read because of the subject matter even though the author did a wonderful job telling her grandfather’s story and interweaving her own within it. But it was also tough because of what’s happening today. The killing and suffering continue in Syria, in many of the same places where so many Armenians died one hundred years before.

The Irish Fought

A-recruitment-poster-in-I-001Yesterday, I finished edits on a short story, Ghost Dog, to be published in a horror magazine in April. Its about an Irish soldier who fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Over 200,000 Irishmen served in the British Forces during WWI. About 35,000 died. It was an interesting time for Ireland as the Irish were divided over their loyalty to Great Britain. Many  Irish, the Nationalists,  wanted Ireland to be a separate country. This had been a political driving force for the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Unionists were loyal to Great Britain. Both groups enlisted, but their reasons varied.

Many Nationalists were swept up in the cause of protecting small sovereign countries like Serbia and Belgium from being taken over by larger countries. Many Irishmen joined for personal rather than political reasons. Job opportunities were limited in Ireland and poorly paid. Soldiers could earn almost twice what a common laborer could make.  Many men wanted to see the world and see what the war was about. There’s an Irish saying that may explain why some men signed up. Is this a private fight or can anyone join?

In 1916, sentiment about the war changed when two nationalist leaders and 1800 volunteers seized many public buildings in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic. This was called Easter Rising or the Easter Rebellion. The British sent in a sizable armed force and some 500 people were killed, mostly civilians.  The volunteers and their leaders surrendered, but shortly after, 15 of the Nationalists were executed by firing squad. This was a bad move by the British as it fueled anti-British sentiment and the Ireland independence movement.

Soldier recruitment from Ireland plummeted after the Easter Rebellion. Irish nationalism increased. Those who returned from the war after 1916 were often met with open hostility, as Tom Kettle predicted. Tom was a former nationalist MP who served with the British forces in the Battle of the Somme. He wrote, “These men (the 1916 rebellion leaders) will go down in history as heroes and martyrs; and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer.” Tom was killed on the Somme in the summer of 1916.

It only took Ireland eighty years to recognize the soldiers of Ireland who fought in the Great War. In 1998, they dedicated the Island of Ireland Peace Tower located in Mesen, Belgium to all the Irish people who had fallen during WWI. Tom Kettle and all his fellows were finally remembered.