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.


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.”





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.”