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 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


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.

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.