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.


Me in a French reenactment trench site on the Western Front, posing next to the rats.

Me in a French reenactment trench site on the Western Front, posing next to the rats.

I’ve been working on a WWI story about a wounded soldier who wakes up in No Man’s Land as evening approaches. He hears and see rats around him. That’s when he realizes he’s paralyzed, and there’s no getting away from them. It’s a pretty gruesome story, but so was the war. And so were the rats.

The rat stories from WWI abound. Conditions in the trenches were unhygienic to say the least. The dead were often buried nearby and in heavy rains would become exposed. Or under certain circumstances dead animals or men couldn’t be buried right away. These became food for rats which multiplied quickly. That’s why ratter dogs became so important. But even so, plenty of soldiers went a little crazy being constantly surrounded by rats. Other stories by soldiers mention waking up to the rats actually chewing on their wounds or biting their faces which always reminds me of the end of 1984 by George Orwell. Pretty horrible stuff.

Here's a blow up of the picture I'm standing next to. It's a French soldier with his dog and all the rats the dog caught.

Here’s a blow up of the picture I’m standing next to. It shows a French soldier with his dog and all the rats the dog caught.

Even Uncle Harry included references to the rats in some of his letters, although being a bit of jokester, he often made light of it. Here’s one of my favorite excerpts dated December 15, 1918:

“Well here we are sleeping in a barn among the rats and cooties both to numerous to mention. The rats have a great time sitting on our foreheads and pulling our noses. And our dining room is swell as it is a nice clean pig yard and with our mess pans on the ground and us on our knees we feed our faces. Well one good thing, what we don’t want we hand over to the four legged kind and with a grunt of satisfaction they come closer and look for more, that’s when they get a hobnail shoe well planted between their eyes.”

My own personal rat story is nothing compared to those of the soldiers in the trenches, but it was pretty unnerving to me. It was when I was in the Peace Corps in Kenya. During the rainy season, it wasn’t unusual for a rat or two to come into your house to get out of the rain. I had put up reed mats to make a ceiling in my little house/apartment which kept the place  getting too hot from the sun heating up the metal roof. Anyway, my friend Melinda was visiting. It was around 9 o’clock at night and we were reading and listening to the scurrying on the mats overhead. Needless to say, we were feeling uneasy.

Well, one dumb rat went charging across the mat and didn’t realize there was a three inch gap between the mat and the wall. It came through and dropped inches away from Melinda’s head. Then it started running around my apartment. Well, of course we screamed and ran outside. My neighbor, Alice, came out and started laughing at us. The Somali guys across the street came over to see what all the laughing and yelling was about. When they heard the story, they charged into my house while me, Melinda and Alice waited outside. We heard all kinds of banging, yelling, and stomping going on inside. A few minutes later, the two guys come out. One of them was still holding his shoe in his hand, while the other was holding the dead rat by the tail.

I love a happy ending.



WWI Flying Ace

Halloween 1979.

Halloween 1979.

So I was rummaging through a drawer of old photos, and I happened upon a Halloween photo from 1979 when I was a WWI flying ace and my hometown friend, Debbie, was a Maine fisherman. In my memories, Debbie was the ace and I was an overgrown girl scout, but the photo proved my memory wrong. Again! Funny how things work out though. Now, I’m a WWI fanatic, and Debbie moved to Bangor, Maine after college, although she’s not a fisherman.

It’s hard to believe that Orville and Wilbur Wright made their historic flight in 1903 and just eleven years later, airplanes were key aspect of military technology in WWI. No doubt, the war sped up their development. They were primarily used for reconnaissance early on, but by the end of the war, machine guns were mounted on them, they were used for dropping bombs, anti-aircraft weaponry had been developed, and daily dogfights were common sights.

On August 12, 1918, my great uncle Harry was in the trenches in the Baccarat Sector in France (a “quiet” sector)  and wrote to his sister, Alice, “you said that you saw an airplane when in Jamestown. Well here there is one flying over my head, and it makes me stick my head down when a shell whizzes over for there is no telling when it will burst.” Seeing an airplane would have been a big event for Alice back in 1918, but Harry was already starting to get used to the daily dog fights.

Being a pilot was probably the most dangerous job in the war. The typical pilot had a life expectancy of only several weeks which didn’t increase by much towards the end of the war even though the airplanes were better and more maneuverable and parachutes were finally issued by the various belligerents. Oh, all except  the Americans that is. Our military higher ups wouldn’t give them to the American pilots. They thought this might lead to too many pilots abandoning their planes at the first sign of danger. Only after the war did these geniuses realize it was a lot easier (and cheaper) to replace a plane than a skilled pilot, so they started issuing parachutes.


From a recent movie about the Red Baron. The only thing missing is a mustache. But check out the white scarf. How did I know?

Probably the most famous WWI flying ace was a German fighter pilot, the Red Baron (Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen). He was only 25 when he was finally shot down and killed in France on April, 1918. He was one of the first members of the German Air Corps and flew for over two years which was a very long time for those guys.

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.