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.


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.

African Soldiers Fought For France

Grave marker of a West African soldier at the Douaumont Ossuary Cemetery in France

Grave marker of a West African soldier at the Douaumont Ossuary Cemetery in France. We found these graves (segregated and usually in the back) in all the French WWI cemeteries we visited.

I’ve been working on a short story about a Senegalese tirailleur fighting in France during WWI. A tirailleur means rifleman in French, and it’s what the Senegalese soldiers were often called. Senegal and most of West Africa were under French control at the time of the War, and from 1914-1918, French authorities ‘recruited’ about 140,000 men from West Africa who served as combatants on the Western Front. Over 30,000 died. Although a few of these soldiers actually volunteered, most were conscripted through a variety of tactics including coercion, threats of imprisonment for family members, and  force.

I used to think that my great uncle Harry, a farmer from western PA, experienced culture shock fighting in France during WWI. Imagine these soldiers coming from rural Africa with its totally different culture. Most of the tirailleurs didn’t speak French when they were conscripted, and they were taught only rudimentary French and French commands during their service.

In Memoirs of the Maelstrom; A Senegalese Oral History of the First World War (1999 Heinemann Publishing), Joe Lunn presents the results of his research and interviews conducted in the early 1980s of 85 Senegalese WWI veterans. He also researched French documents and other sources to put the experience of these veterans into context before, during and after the War.

Senegal did not gain independence from France until 1960. It’s hard to believe that colonialism was still flourishing into the mid 20th century. Much of the antagonism between Germany and the Allies (England and France especially) in the early 20th century was due to the fact that Germany had a relatively small number of colonies while Britain and France had a very large number. European colonialism (with its political domination and human and resource exploitation) from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries is why a war that started in a European theater really became a world war. Not surprising then that in 1919, Britain, Belgium and France divided up among themselves the German territories in Africa.

One of the most affecting chapters in Lunn’s book was about the use of the Senegalese (and other African) soldiers on the Front. Considering the  racism and the culture of white supremacy at the time, I wasn’t surprised that the French used the African soldiers in hazardous operations and as shock troops as a way to “spare a Frenchman’s life.” What I didn’t realize was that there was no hiding this policy. In the book, Lunn shared tactical drawings from the French War Archives showing the black regiments as first line units of first assault while a white unit was kept behind to “stay their movements if necessary,” basically to keep them advancing and make sure they didn’t retreat.

Lunn also shared from the French War Archives how French commanders at all levels of the French command structure would sacrifice African troops to save French lives. One general during the preparations for an offensive in 1917 insisted on an increased number of African units to “increase the power of our projected strength and permit the sparing-to the extent possible-of French blood.” Lunn shared statistical data showing a much higher percentage of Senegalese casualties in 1917 and 1918 than French soldiers.

Considering that most of these African soldiers were forced into the army of a foreign country (an invading and exploitive country actually) made their sacrifices during the Great War even more heart wrenching.

War Horses

Gas mask for a horse

Gas mask for a horse

“The greatness of a nation can be judged by how its animals are treated.”   – Mahatma Gandhi

My husband and I finally got around to watching the movie, War Horse, the other night. I should say we started it. We’d read the Michael Morpugo children’s novel by the same name years ago and both enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to the movie. Unfortunately, we were pretty put off by the corniness of the first hour and just couldn’t get past it. My husband has a team of Canadian horses that do a lot of work around the farm so we know a little bit about horses. Instead of showing the bond that builds between a human and a horse through the hours and hours of patient training (on both sides), the movie portrayed the process of horse training as a quick chat, nose to nose, and then the horse does whatever the person wants. We actually laughed out loud during the plowing scene, it was so silly. Anyway, the point of this post is not to beat on a Hollywood movie (an easy thing to do), but to talk about the real war horses of WWI.

It’s hard to believe that a war relying so heavily on shells, gas, machine guns and new technological weaponry, also relied so heavily on the horse. While many cavalry officers believed almost to the end that charging on a horse into enemy territory was still the means to win the war, the main benefit of the horses was their ability to pull heavy machinery, wagons, and supplies through the muddy, pitted roads and terrain on both sides of the front. At least they got that part right in the movie; it wasn’t cavalry horses they needed in the war, but strong and sturdy draft horses to do the heavy pulling.

Me with Indy a few years ago.

Indy giving me a tickle a few years ago.

Not only did these horses have to do heavy work day in and day out, they also had to deal with loud noises, shell blasts, machine gun fire, gas, and the horrible smells of death and destruction all around them. It’s heartbreaking to think of these beautiful and sensitive animals put through such misery and fear with no understanding or having no choice in the matter. Our horse, Indy (right), used to get spooked by an orange bucket out of place. He wouldn’t have done well on the front.

There was a serious shortage of horses throughout the war. About a million came from the U.S. even before we entered into the fighting. Providing fodder at the front was both a logistical and supply problem, and more horses died from disease, overwork, and poor nutrition than from shelling and machine gun fire. No one knows the exact death toll, but clearly many millions were killed which is why there were never enough horses. The need for more war horses left a shortage of work horses on the home front, and so accelerated the rapid transformation of the early 20th century from animal power to machine power on farms.

WWI spurred a dramatic shift toward a technological mindset throughout the world, even in my own family. In some of my great Uncle Harry’s letters from France, he talked and worried about his horses and bees. His sister, Esther (my grandmother), took to driving the team and tending his hives while he was in France.  Not surprising then, that she was the one who stayed on as a farmer after the war. Harry moved to Jamestown, a small city in western New York, where he worked in a tool factory, leaving behind forever his horses and farming ways.

The Unknown Soldiers

African American Soldiers in WWI.

African American Soldiers in WWI.

The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I by Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA. 1974) is another one of my favorite books about WWI. This book was updated in 1996 with a modified title (The Unknown Soldiers: African American Troops in World War I) and new introduction by Bernard C. Nalty, but I read the original version.

The authors chronicle the experiences of African American troops during the Great War; something I never heard about in any of my history classes. Over 370,000 African Americans served; the majority of troops were delegated duties of laborer in the Service of Supply (SoS) units (critical and underappreciated work), but four African American regiments fought with the French Army. The existing well-trained regular African American Army units like the Buffalo Soldiers were kept out of France and on duty on the Mexican Border or in the Philippines, but two National Guard regiments and two regiments made up of drafted African American men had General Pershing in a quandary. The American Army (American Expeditionary Forces – AEF) was strictly segregated at the time. Pershing didn’t know what to do with those regiments, so he ended up loaning them to the French who were clamoring for fresh troops. The French welcomed the African American soldiers and had them fighting side by side with French troops as well as conscripted Africans from the French colonies.

The book is meticulously researched and provides countless examples of the blatant racism, violence, and abuse from American society, the government, and the American Army directed toward African Americans. It is both sickening and infuriating to read about institutionalized and cultural prejudice and race-motivated injustices of the time. These men worked, fought and died for the United States but were treated as completely inferior to white American troops in everything from training, rations, equipment and leave opportunities. A good example from the book related to an AEF document called “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops” sent to French officials telling them how African Americans should be treated and why. The idea was that the French should not treat these soldiers with anything even remotely approaching equality, because then these men would be “spoiled” when they went back home. This document was strongly disapproved by the French who for the most part did exactly as they pleased without the advice of the Americans.

Another example from the book that struck a chord with me was about group that made a poster during a demonstration in 1917. It showed kneeling women pleading with President Wilson “to make America safe for democracy before trying to do that job for the world.” Making the world “Safe for Democracy” was something Wilson said when he asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April, 1917 and was often used to justify the war effort. Unfortunately, the poster was confiscated and never made it to the President. For me, it wasn’t just because of the injustices to African American men at the time that made this ironic, but also because women didn’t have the right to vote back then. Some democracy.

The Harlem Hellfighters (369th Infantry regiment ) was the National Guard Regiment from New York City made up of African Americans. The entire 369th regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s military decoration awarded to soldiers or units that distinguish themselves through acts of heroism. Secretary Baker was reported to have called the 369th the all-round most serviceable regiment sent to France. But none of that weighed with the ongoing discrimination. They were still mistreated, bumped in terms of sailing home, and excluded in special rations. As the authors note, “Perhaps the height of pettiness in discrimination against black troops of the 369th was their exclusion from the special holiday rations issued to all other American soldiers on Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Nothing changed for these returned veterans in terms of the country’s attitude toward them. Only New York gave an outstanding celebration for their 369th regiment upon returning home. Toni Morrison has a wonderful scene in Jazz where she writes about this homecoming. Elsewhere in the country, little attention was given to these men, except in the south where returning veterans were often met with hostility and violence including beatings and death. The authors note that racial violence and race riots in the summer of 1919 seemed to be triggered by “the return of black veterans,” who were fed up with “moderate Negroes as well as President Wilson.”

With all the rhetoric about making the world safe for democracy, it is clear that there was no real democracy in the U.S.  This and the fact that the War to End all Wars didn’t are the ultimate ironies of WWI.

To End All Wars

“History is not the past. It is the stories we tell about the past. How we tell these stories – triumphantly or self-critically, metaphysically or dialectally – has a lot to do with whether we cut short or advance our evolution as human beings.”
Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

Encaustic on barn board

“Over the Top” Encaustic on barn board by Nancy Hayden

Last night I finished reading To End All Wars; A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, by Adam Hochschild. It’s an excellent read about WWI but with a twist. He doesn’t focus exclusively on battles, generals and the war machine, instead he brings in the complex social fabric (e.g. suffragettes, peace activists, conscientious objectors and socialists) and weaves it within the aristocracy, colonialism, capitalism, nationalism, and militarism of the early 20th century. Focusing on Britain, Hochschild sets the stage by including the Boer War in South Africa and British provocation and atrocities that seemed to be a foreshadowing of what was coming in WWI. He then leads us through four years of national fervor, military blundering and disregard for one’s own men at the Somme and Passchendaele, government propaganda, and the prejudice and ill treatment of those citizens opposed to the war.

Although much of WWI has been forgotten, it was a key turning point in modern history and instead of being the war to end all wars it led to an even greater world war (WWII) some twenty years later. And while it may have been a tipping point for the slow demise of government sanctioned empire and colonialism and the road toward social justice including women’s rights, prison reform, and class reform, there is no denying that it accelerated technological advances in weaponry, rockets, chemical warfare and our current military machine. One of the great and prophetic quotes about science that Hochschild relays is from an unlikely source, Lord Lansdowne, a great landowner, former viceroy of India and secretary of war, “Just as this war has been more dreadful than any war in history, so, we may be sure, would the next war be even more dreadful than this. The prostitution of science for purposes of pure destruction is not likely to stop short.” Nor has it.

The title for the book is appropriate given that it focuses on socialism and peace activism in the time of war as much as the military aspects, and is itself both a plea and a pathway for standing up for peace at all times, especially in times of war. WWI started one hundred years ago and changed forever the face of war. As Grace Lee Boggs states, how we tell the stories of the past, in this case by raising the forgotten voices of those calling for social justice, peace, and world citizenship in the midst of the national fervor and world war is critical for how we address similar inequality, nationalism and class privilege in the 21st century. I hope that someday, we will learn from our past.