February 17, 1915 American Volunteers in WW1

“When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism” – General Henri Gouraud

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic stumbles, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August, there was no turning back. There would be no “Phony War” this time, no “Sitzkreig”, as wags were wont to call the early days of World War 2. The coming storm crashed across the continent like a clap of thunder.

Britain went to war with a professional army of 750,000 men, small by European standards. 8 million men were conscripted or recruited over the next four years, nearly half coming from outside the UK. They came from all over the British empire and beyond. Over 300 Americans volunteered with the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 as did Jamaican William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, but no power so enjoyed the support of foreign volunteers, as France.

Foreign mercenary soldiers have a long history with the French military. Philip VI led 15,000 Italian soldiers against Edward III, in 1346. Napoleon had 60,000 Swiss Guard under contract of the Schweizergarten, in Vienna. King Louis Philippe formed the French Foreign Legion on March 9, 1831.

“American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion cross the Place de L’Opera Paris on August 25, 1914, headed for Rouen” H/T americansatwarinforeignforces.com

The United States was still neutral in the beginning, over two years away from joining the fray. The influx of American volunteers, began almost immediately. They came to join the French Foreign Legion, to drive for the ambulance corps and, later, to fly.

Interestingly, the central powers made limited use of foreign conscripts or recruits. There was the occasional foreign colonial in German units, soldiers of Chinese or African descent. Several Americans volunteered to fly for the Imperial German Flying Corps. Though nominally allied with czarist Russia, longstanding animosities led some Fins to volunteer with the Imperial German army. Irish Republicans took opportunity to attempt an independent Irish Republic and Germany was happy to assist but it was der Löwe von Afrika (Lion of Africa) General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who famously led 11,000 to 12,000 African Askari troops in the only successful invasion into a part of the British empire of all of WW1.

With only a handful of generations come and gone between our time and that of the Great War, WW1 holds a prominent place in modern conceptions of “recent” history. Similarly, the WW1 generation held the Revolution in close regard, the events of the last century and one-half foundational to their own time. Americans were keenly aware in 1914 of the pivotal role played by France, in American independence. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell are but two examples of Americans who left comfortable lives to serve “over there” as a debt of gratitude, to the likes of the Count of Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing famously quipped on arriving on French soil, “Lafayette, we are here”.

The French Foreign Legion operated two regiments at this time comprised of six battalions of 1,000 men each and headquartered in north Africa. The need for manpower was acute. Two-thirds were of German or Austrian background and therefore of suspect loyalty.

Thousands of Americans volunteered for WW1 service in the Legion, notables among their number including composer and songwriter Cole porter, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who would go on to become the first black American fighter pilot in history, William Wellman, director of the 1927 film Wings and winner of the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony and poet Alan Seeger (left), author of “I have a rendezvous with death” and uncle of the folk artist and social activist, Pete Seeger.

William Moll served his five years with the Foreign Legion and returned home to Chicago. He became filthy rich and died, in 1937. Imagine the reading of that will. All those eager relatives and the man left every dime of it, to the French Foreign Legion.

Some Foreign Legion units experienced close to 100% casualties.

Alan Seeger met his rendezvous with death at the Somme, in 1916. Fellow Legion soldier Rif Baer described his last moments: “His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.” Even then, lying mortally wounded in no man’s land Seeger cheered on his passing comrades as the life ebbed out of him.

Not legally “Americans” at this time but members of their own sovereign nations, no fewer than 4,000 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in 1914. Some 15,000 native Americans from many tribal affiliations enlisted with the American Expeditionary Force where members of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree nations learned to talk in code, early forerunners of the famous Navajo code talkers, of WW2.

The Battle of the Frontiers, a series of clashes between August 7 and September 6, 1914 brought no fewer than 2.7 million combatants together producing casualties on both sides, of some 664,000. The motor inventory of entire nations public and private, seemed inadequate to transport the cataract of wounded to places of medical care.

Members of expatriate American business community and embassy employees rushed in to assist in early association with the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in Paris.

US Ambassador Myron Herrick and his wife Carolyn (“Kitty”) were instrumental in the early stages of the war as were wealthy donors such as the Vanderbilts, in early association with the American Hospital, founded four years earlier. As German armies crashed through Belgium and raced to capture Paris, the government fled for Bordeaux. Herrick stayed defiantly in Paris. “Paris belongs not only to France,” he said, “it belongs to the world!”

Three distinct ambulance corps would evolve over time involving no fewer than 3,500 American volunteers. Notable among ther number include the authors Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett who all but invented the hard-boiled crime novel.

Edward “Eddie” Mandell Stone lived in France when the war broke out and enlisted, with Foreign Legion, 2nd Regiment, Battalion C.

A member of a machine-gun section, Eddie (right) was mortally wounded on February 17, 1915 and taken to the Military Hospital at Romilly. He died of his wounds on February 27 becoming the first American combatant to die, in the ‘War to end all wars”.

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons. He wouldn’t live to see the article in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed. He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died three days later, at the age of 29.

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (left) flew for both the Aéronautique Militaire and for the US Army Air Service and is sometimes listed as an Ace, in both. All but 1 of Lufbery’s 17 victories came as a French pilot. Raoul Lufbery was thrown from his aircraft and killed on May 19, 1918.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.   Germany expressed dismay over the very existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core of 38 American volunteers in the beginning, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were two unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

William Thaw with unit mascot mascots, Whiskey and Soda. ca 1916

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

William Graves Sharp took office in December 1914 and served as Ambassador the remainder of the war, but never seemed to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Myron Herrick. Ambassador Herrick returned to Paris in 1921 and remained, until 1929. Herrick greeted Richard Lindberg in 1927 and stood throughout the long funeral ceremonies, for Ferdinand Foch.

It is there the ambassador was believed to have contracted the illness, that would take his life. Now forgotten in his home country, Myron Herrick is well remembered in his adopted nation of France.

Today you can walk through the gardens of Paris’ Place des États-Unis, down the slope from Bartholdi’s sculpture where Lafayette forever shakes hands, with Washington. Up from the monument for American Volunteers in the Great War is the bust of Myron Herrick.

The once governor of Ohio and forgotten diplomat who refused to be moved when everyone around him, ran.

February 7, 1917 The Road to War

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand  began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century.  Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies.  No one wanted to show up late in the event of war.  And so there was war.  By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.

The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.

Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”.  More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.

wwi-submarine

On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.

lusitania-sinking

As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans.  100 of the dead, were children. .

The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.

lusitania-warning
Warnings from the German embassy often ran directly opposite ads for the sailing. Many dismissed such warnings believing such an attack, unlikely.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war.  The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”.  He was right.

SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53.  American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry.  Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed.  The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.  

Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.

Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast.  Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away.  It was February 3, 1917.

President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.

zimmerman-note

Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain.  This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.

Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”

In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw.  The United States entered the Great War about a month later.

At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.

January 30, 1889 If Only

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…

“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.

Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?

In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.

America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”

After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.

Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.

After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.

Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.

So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?

Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages.  On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.

Crown Prince Rudolf and his wife, Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, daughter of King Leopold II

A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.

Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.

Marie Freiin von Vetsera preferred to go by the more fashionable Anglophile version of her name, Mary

On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.

Mayerling

Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.

Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.

Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.

She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.

132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.

But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.

Afterward,

By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.

Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.

Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.

But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?

Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.

Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.

In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother

“Dear Mother
Please forgive me for what I’ve done
I could not resist love
In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland
I am happier in death than life”.

December 10, 1917 A Gift of Gratitude

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston. A gift of gratitude, between two peoples.

A few days short ago, a Christmas tree was erected on Boston Commons. Symbolizing as it does the friendship between the people of two nations, this is no ordinary tree. This tree stands in solemn remembrance of catastrophe, and the bonds between two peoples.

As “The Great War” dragged to the end of the third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”.  With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

Nova Scotia, ca 1900

The Norwegian vessel Imo left her mooring in Halifax harbor on December 6, 1917, destined for New York City.   The French ship Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort.

In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance used as a high explosive.  In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton.

Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her dangerous cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting TNP onboard Mont Blanc.  French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

SS Imo

As might be expected, the pyrotechnic spectacle put on by the flaming ship was too much to resist, and crowds gathered around the harbor.  The high-pitched scream emitted by picric acid under combustion is a principal feature of fireworks displays, to this day.  You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier setting that ablaze as well, before running herself aground.

That’s when Mont Blanc exploded.

Halifax explosion, 2

The detonation and resulting fires killed over 1,800 and wounded another 9,000, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as 50 miles away.

The ferocity of the blast literally tore Mont Blanc’s cannon from its mount and bent the barrel.

Mont Blanc’s Cannon

It was one of the largest man made, non-nuclear explosions in history. Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three.  Later analysis estimated the output at 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than some tactical nuclear weapons.

Halifax explosion, 3

The first ray of light on the morning of December 7 revealed an apocalyptic scene of devastation, some 1,600 homes destroyed in the blast as a blizzard descended over Nova Scotia.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the US Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 1

The man was as good as his word.  Mayor Curley and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid.  McCall reported that the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour, alone.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax, a sum equivalent to some $665,000 today.

Within 12 hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train to arrive on the scene.

Halifax Herald

There was strong sentiment at the time, that German sabotage lay behind the disaster.  A front-page headline on the December 10 Halifax Herald Newspaper proclaimed “Practically All the Germans in Halifax Are to Be Arrested”.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today.  Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  An enormous Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, to promote Christmas tree exports and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston after the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the official Christmas tree to the city of Boston.  A gift of gratitude, between two peoples. More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller trees, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two Boston homeless shelters.

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate:  17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire, and decorated with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing earlier that year.

A monument was unveiled on Boston Commons on November 30, 2017, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Halifax explosion.  The official 2017 Christmas tree lit up for the first time, that night.

2020 tree

This year’s tree stands 48-feet tall tall, marking 100 years since the Halifax explosion. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work.  It’s a major media event, as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed, before boarding the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to begin its 750-mile journey south.

The trip was a little different this year as the border remains closed, due to COVID restrictions. The 2020 tree arrived by ship in Portland Maine to continue the journey south, by road.

For a small Canadian province, the annual gift is no small commitment.  In 2015 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation cutting & lighting ceremonies, and the promotions that went with it.

The 2020 tree lighting ceremony on December 3 was, like so many things in this year of years, virtual. There were televised remarks from Mayor Marty Walsh and Karen Casey, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia, accompanied by Santa Claus and a squadron of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The switch was thrown and and a live audience of…nobody…enjoyed the ceremonial lighting of the tree.

Thank you, Xi Jinping. You have brought so much warmth into our lives.

BOSTON, MA – DECEMBER 5: Fireworks explode around the Christmas tree on Boston Common at the conclusion of the festivities at the 78th annual tree lighting at the Boston Common on Dec. 5, 2019. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 2016, Premier Stephen McNeil explained the program and why it was worth the expense:  “(It) gives us a chance to showcase our beautiful part of the world to a global community”.   Premier McNeil may have had the last word the following year, on the centennial anniversary of the Halifax catastrophe. “We had massive deaths and injuries”, he said. “It would have been far worse if the people of Boston hadn’t come and supported us.”

December 8, 1941 A Declaration of War

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare. Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

In the early months of the “Great War”, the British Royal Navy imposed a surface blockade on the German high seas fleet.  Even food was treated as a “contraband of war”,  a measure widely regarded as an attempt to starve the German population.   With good reason.  One academic study performed ten years after the war, put the death toll by starvation at 424,000 in Germany alone. The German undersea fleet responded with a  blockade of the British home islands, a devastating measure carried out against an island adversary dependent on massive levels of imports.

1200px-Willy_Stöwer_-_Sinking_of_the_Linda_Blanche_out_of_Liverpool
Sinking of the Linda Blanche out of Liverpoole, by Willy Stöwer

World War 2 was a time of few restrictions on submarine warfare.  Belligerents attacked military and merchant vessels alike with prodigious loss of civilian life, but WW1 didn’t start out that way.

Wary of antagonizing neutral opinion, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg argued against a “shoot without warning”policy but, strict adherence to maritime prize rules risked U-Boats and crews alike.  By early 1915, Germany declared the waters surrounding the British home Isles a war zone where even the vessels of neutral nations were at risk of being sunk.

shq-ship-gun-dropped
“Q-Ship with gun. The hidden gun emerges as the cover and sides, masquerading as a deck structure, are dropped. From “Q” Boat Adventures: The Exploits of the Famous Mystery Ships by a “Q” Boat Commander, by Harold Auten, published by Herbert Jenkins Ltd” – Hat Tip HistoricEngland.org.uk

Desperate to find an effective countermeasure to the German “Unterseeboot”, Great Britain introduced heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry in 1915, phony merchantmen designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks. Britain called these secret countermeasures “Q-ships”, after their home base in Queenstown, in Ireland.

German sailors called them U-Boot-Fälle. “U-boat traps”.

Lusitania warning
Notices taken out in the New York Times and others, specifically warned the Lusitania was vulnerable to attack

The “unprovoked” sinking of noncombatant vessels, including the famous Lusitania in which 1,198 passengers lost their lives, became a primary justification for war.  The German Empire, for her part, insisted that many of these vessels carried munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields.

Underwater, the submarines of WWI were slow and blind, on the surface, vulnerable to attack.  In 1916, German policy vacillated between strict adherence to prize rules and unrestricted submarine warfare.  It was a Hobbesian choice. The first put their own people and vessels at extreme risk, the second threatened to bring neutrals like the United States and Brazil,  into the war.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson won re-election with the slogan “He kept us out of war”: a conflict begun in Europe, two years earlier.

In a January 31, 1917 memorandum from German Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff to American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, the Ambassador stated that “sea traffic will be stopped with every available weapon and without further notice”, effective the following day. The German government was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

Anticipating this resumption and expecting the decision to draw the United States into the war, German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann delivered a message to the German ambassador in Mexico, Heinrich von Eckardt. The telegram instructed Ambassador Eckardt that, if the United States seemed likely to enter the war, he was to approach the Mexican Government with a proposal for military alliance, promising “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the United States.

“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”. Signed, ZIMMERMANN

zimmerman-note

The “Zimmermann Telegram” was intercepted and decoded by British intelligence and revealed to the American government on February 24. The contents of the message outraged American public opinion and helped generate support for the United States’ declaration of war.

In the end, the German response to anticipated US action, brought about the very action it was trying to avoid.

President Woodrow Wilson delivered his war message to a joint session of Congress on April 2, stating that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany would make the world “Safe for Democracy”. Congress voted to support American entry into the war on April 6, 1917. The “Great War”, the “War to end all Wars”, had become a World War.

At the time, a secondary explosion within the hull of RMS Lusitania caused many to believe the liner had been struck by a second torpedo.  In 1968, American businessman Gregg Bemis purchased the wreck of the Lusitania for $2,400, from the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association.   In 2007 the Irish government granted Bemis a five-year license to conduct limited excavations at the site.

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Twelve miles off the Irish coast and 300-feet down, a dive was conducted on the wreck in 2008.   Remote submersible operators discovered some 4 million rounds of Remington .303 ammunition in the hold, proof of the German claim that Lusitania was, in fact, a legitimate target under international rules of war.  The UK Daily Mail quoted Bemis:  “There were literally tons and tons of stuff stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters’”.

American historian, author and journalist Wade Hampton Sides accompanied the expedition.  “They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I” he said, “bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.‘”

Lusitania, ammunition

Montana Republican Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a life-long pacifist and the first woman elected to the United States Congress, would be one of only fifty votes against entering WWI.  Congresswoman Rankin was elected to a second and non-consecutive term in 1940. Just in time to be the only vote against entering World War 2, in response to President Franklin Delano’s address to a joint session of Congress, December 8, 1941.

Tally sheet for the congressional declaration of war on Japan, December 8, 1941

November 22, 1923 Black Tom

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.


In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the seas of the Kaiser’s ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at the time, when over a hundred German vessels sought refuge in American harbors.

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The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

To the Central Powers, this trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations, were attacked. Less apparent at the time, was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German agents on US soil.

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“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal contained over two million pounds of ammunition in freight cars, and a hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

Around 2:00 that morning, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some of them tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a massive detonation estimated at 5.5 on the Richter scale.  People from Maryland to Connecticut were awakened in what many believed was an earthquake. The walls of Jersey City’s City Hall were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

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Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan.  Damage done to the Statue of Liberty alone was valued at over $2 million in today’s dollars. To this day, the ladder to Liberty’s torch, remains off limits to visitors.

Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, one ten-week-old infant and a barge captain.

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The explosion at Black Tom was the most spectacular but by no means the only such attack. The archives at cia.gov reports: “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

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Among those responsible for the Black Tom explosion was Naval Lieutenant Lothar Witzke, arrested on February 1, 1918, in Nogales, AZ. Witzke was convicted by court martial and sentenced to death. President Woodrow Wilson later commuted his sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A prison report from Leavenworth shows Witzke heroically risking his own life in prison, entering a boiler room after an explosion and almost surely averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released.  Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

November 11, 1918 Sacred Soil

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. It was a singular event. Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted excavation on Any of these battlefields.

November 11. Veteran’s Day.  A federal holiday in the United States, set aside to honor those who have served in the US Armed Forces. The Commonwealth nations call it Remembrance Day and sometimes Poppy Day, harking back to the tradition of the Remembrance Poppy. Once, it was simply “Armistice Day”. The end of the “Great War”.  Before they had numbers.

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Passchendaele

There is barely a piece of 20th century history that can’t be traced back to World War One, the “War to end all Wars”.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained, mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While tribal alliances and religious strife are nothing new in that region, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

Ypres. The aftermath. Stop for a moment if you will, and imagine. What this felt like. What this smelled like. What this looked like. In color.

There were five such battles for the Ypres salient, of WW1

World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.  He was off, by about 36 days.

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It’s hard to understand how a participating citizen of a self-governing Republic, can function without some understanding of our own history. We can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened just a few years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme. It was a singular event.  Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted excavation on Any of these battlefields.

All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

No ordinary dirt, the soil of Flanders Fields is literally infused with the essence of those who fought and died there. The soil from those seventy battlefields was placed in as many WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. 

A hundred-odd years ago, countless British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through the Menenpoort, the Menin Gate in the Belgian city of Ypres. Some 300,000 gave their lives in defense of the “Ypres Salient” of WW1. Some 90,000 of those, have no known graves.

With a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate, those 70 sandbags began their journey.

The sacred soil of Flanders Fields was transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a simple garden.  It was all in preparation for the following year, 2014 and the solemn remembrance of the centenary, of the War to end all Wars.

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I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden. A grassy mound, surrounded by the native trees of Flanders and inscribed with a poem by Dr. John McCrea, the 41-year-old Canadian physician who could have joined the medical corps based on his age and training. He volunteered instead to join a fighting unit, as gunner and medical officer.

His poem is called, “In Flanders Fields”.

In Flanders Fields, by Dr. John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
        In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, never to let it fade into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

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Afterward

Moina Belle Michael was a professor at the University of Georgia. She took a leave of absence when the US entered the war in 1917 and accepted a job at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the Ladies Home Journal, she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  The war would be over in two days.

Dr. McCrae had succumbed to pneumonia by this time, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), at Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Professor Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
 In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it, “We Shall Keep the Faith”.

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina Michael

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields

poppy. red poppy isolated on white background.red poppy.

November 10, 1918 11th Hour

The German King abdicated on November 10, as riots broke out in the streets. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.


In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble.  A policing action, in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria, England and France stealing last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarding their ships and trains.

Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.

Four years later, a generation had been chewed up and spit out, as if in pieces.

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The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Any single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the last 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

As a point of reference, 6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands of sons, brothers and fathers remain missing, to this day.

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Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Had you found yourself stuck in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the muddy trenches of New Year 1917-’18, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Cher Ami

Many of those who fought the “Great War”, weren’t even human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire, twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, to live to the ripe old age of 33.

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First division Rags

First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw and even then, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during a heavy bombardment from German guns, frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, only to be rescued in open ocean to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million making the supreme sacrifice.

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front. Riots were rife at home as well as in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars was collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  The domestic economies of nearly every combatant nation was disintegrating, or teetering on the brink.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the the darkness, expecting to be attacked. Instead, the apparitions of three sedans appeared out of the fog, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by 43-year-old politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned from a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

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The German delegation was stunned at what Foch had to say. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Dismayed, Erzberger responded. The German believed they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Ferdinand Foch had seen his nation destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of 34 demands, each a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With her population starving at home – the German Board of Public Health claimed a month later, that 763,000 civilians were dead of starvation – the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 rail cars and 5,000 trucks.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in that same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

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By this time, 2,250 combatants were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  The plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King abdicated on November 10, as riots broke out in the streets. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out. The war would be over in hours, but specific instructions, were few.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in just a few hours?

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The last six hours

Others continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw a last chance at glory, or promotion. One artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disaster at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on that final day. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

All sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded or missing in those last six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the armistice was signed, than during the D-Day invasion, some 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent, but even so. Such animosity was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had broken the engagement. He’d been busted in rank after that letter home, complaining about conditions.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the German machine gun position, as enemy soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to get back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, he said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

Norman Francis Long
On a personal note:

At sixty-two I still enjoy the memories of a five-year-old, fishing with his grandfather.

PFC Norman Franklin Long was wounded during the Great War, before they had numbers, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963. A few short hours before his namesake, my brother Norm, was born.

A 1977 fire in the national archives, left us without the means to learn the details of his service.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery.  Section 41, grave marker 2161.

Rest in peace, Grampa.  You left us, too soon.

November 4, 1918 Dulce et decorum est

And finally it came, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as his mother and father, opened the dread telegram. “Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

The words come down to us some 2,000 years from the Roman poet, Horace. Dulcē et decōrum est prō patriā mōrī. It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, Wilfred Owen was working as a private English tutor, in Bordeaux. At first in no hurry to sign up, Owen considered joining the French Army before returning home, to England.

In October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles Training Corps. Originally formed in 1859, the Artists Rifles was a British special forces regiment, raised in London and comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects, symbolized by the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva.

It must have felt natural.  Wilfred Owen was a poet, a talent first discovered about ten years earlier, at the age of ten or eleven.

Owen was commissioned Second Lieutenant after six-months training, and posted with the Manchester Regiment of line infantry.  An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected in 1916 and he was shipped to France, joining the 2nd Manchester regiment near Beaumont Hamel, on the river Somme.

He was contemptuous of his men at first, considering them all to be louts and barbarians.  He wrote home to his mother Susan in 1917, describing his company as “expressionless lumps”.  The war was soon to beat that out of him.

Owen was close with his mother, his letters home telling a tale of mud and frostbite, of endless hours under heavy bombardment, sheltered only by a muddy, flooded dugout, of the fall through shell-shattered earth into the cellar below, that earned him a trip to the hospital.  It would not be his last.

He was caught in an explosion during the bitter battle of St. Quentin, blown off his feet and into a hole, there to spend days fading in and out of consciousness amidst the mangled remains of a fellow officer.

Following this experience, soldiers reported Owen behaving strangely. He was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock, what we now understand to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, for treatment.

There, Dr. Arthur Brock encouraged Owen to work on his poetry, to overcome shell shock.  There he met another patient, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. The chance meeting would elevate Wilfred Owen to one of the great war poets, of his generation.

Owen’s work was different before this time, vaguely self important but never self pitying. Never the pacifist – he held those people in contempt – Owen’s nightmares now brought forth a savage honesty and bottomless compassion for the burdens of the ordinary soldier.  Tales of trench life:  of gas, of lice, of mud and death, of hell and returning to earth, steeped in contempt for the patriotic sentimentality of non-combatants and the slurs of cowardice, so lightly dispensed by the women of the “White Feather” movement.

Anthem for Doomed Youth gives a sense of this period:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

Owen continued to write through his convalescence, his fame as author and poet growing with the late months of 1917 and into March of the following year. Supporters requested non-combat postings on his behalf, but such requests were turned down. It’s unlikely he would have accepted them, anyway. His letters reveal a deep sense of obligation, an intention to return to the front to be part of that life and to tell the story of the common man, thrust by his government into uncommon conditions.

Wilfred Owen well understood his special talent.  He wanted to return to front line combat, made all the more urgent when Sassoon was once again wounded, and removed from the front.

Back in France, Owen captured a German machine gun position on September 29, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.  Posthumously.

He wrote home to his mother on October 31, from the shelter of a cellar in a small wood called Bois l’Évêque, near the Sambre–Oise Canal.  It was the last such note she would ever receive.  “Of this I am certain” he wrote, ” you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Sambre-Oise Canal, now

The 44-mile Sambre-Oise Canal flows through the Meuse river basin, a network of 38 locks directing the water’s flow and connecting the Netherlands and Belgium with the central waterways of France. Forces of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex forced the canal on November 4 in coordination with elements of the 2nd Manchester Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers. British forces were to cross surrounding fields lined with high hedges, then to traverse the canal by portable foot bridges or climbing across lock gates.

The battle of the Sambre–Oise Canal was one of the last Allied victories of the Great War, but not without cost. Lock houses on the opposite side formed strong points for German defensive fire, from small arms and machine guns.

Wilfred Owen was leading a raiding party when the German machine gun barked and chattered to life, the bullets tearing into his body. The armistice ending the ‘War to End All Wars” was to come a week later, nearly to the hour.

Sambre-Oise Canal, then

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as Tom and Susan Owen, the 25-year-old’s mother and father, opened the dread telegram.

“Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

Wilfred March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 1917

May 13, 1916 The Lafayette Escadrille

Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Norman Prince

Knowing his father would not approve, Norman Prince of Beverly Massachusetts concealed his flight training.  Using the name George Manor,  Norman earned his wings in 1911 in the Quincy, Massachusetts neighborhood of Squantum.

A fluent French speaker with a family estate in Pau, France, Norman sailed in January 1915, to join the French war effort.

The earliest vestiges of the American Hospital of Paris and what would become the American Ambulance Field Service can be found five years earlier, in 1906. Long before the American entry in 1917, individual sympathies brought Americans into the war to fight for Britain and France. They traveled to Europe to fight the Axis Powers joining the Foreign Legion, the Flying Corps or, like Ernest Hemingway, the Ambulance Service.

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Squadron Insignia pin

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons.

Prince would not live to see the article, in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed.  He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor.  He died three days later, at the age of 29.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

LtCol_William_Thaw_with_lion_cub_mascots_of_Lafayette_Escradrille_c1916
Lt. Col. William Thaw II with lion cub mascots Whiskey and Soda

Thaw pooled his money with three other pilots to purchase a male lion cub, the first of two such mascots kept by the Escadrille.  He bought the lion from a Brazilian dentist for 500 francs and bought a dog ticket, walking the lion onto the train on a leash.

Explanations that this was an “African dog” proved less than persuasive, and the pair was thrown off the train.  “Whiskey” would have to ride to his new home in a cage, stuck in cargo.

captain_georges_thenault_and_fram_1917 (1)A female lion, “Soda”, was purchased sometime later.  The lions were destined to spend their adult years in a Paris zoo but both remembered from whence they had come.  Both animals recognized William Thaw on a later visit to the zoo, rolling onto their backs in expectation of a good belly rub.

French Lieutenant Colonel Georges Thenault owned a “splendid police dog” named Fram who was the best of friends with Whiskey, though he learned to keep to himself at dinner time.

Originally authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.  Nevertheless, Germany was dismayed at the existence of such a unit and complained that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Lafayette EscadrilleEscadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core group of 38 American volunteers, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were the unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

This early in aviation history, flying duty was hazardous to say the least.  Planes were flimsy and plagued with mechanical difficulties. Machine guns jammed and other parts failed when they were needed most.  There were countless wounds in addition to fatal injuries. At least one man actually asked to be sent back to the trenches, where he felt safer.

Kiffin Rockwell "In American Escadrille "movie" picture May 1916"
Kiffin Rockwell

The first major action of the Escadrille Américaine took place at the Battle of Verdun on May 13, 1916.

Kiffin Rockwell of Newport Tennessee became the first American to shoot down an enemy aircraft on May 18, later losing his own life when he was shot down by the gunner in a German Albatross observation plane on September 23. French born American citizen Raoul Lufbery became the squadron’s first Ace with 5 confirmed kills, and went on to be the highest scoring flying ace in the unit with 17 confirmed victories. He was killed on May 19, 1918 when his Nieuport 28 flipped over while he attempted to clear a jam in his machine gun.

The unit sustained its first fatality on June 24, 1916 when Victor Chapman was attacked by German flying ace Leutnant Kurt Wintgens, north of Douaumont.  Chapman was carrying oranges at the time, intended for his buddy Clyde Balsley, who was in hospital recuperating from an earlier incident.

Edmond_Charles_Clinton_Genet_circa_1915-1917
Edmond Genet

Ossining, New York native Edmond Genet was a bit of a celebrity among American expats, as the second-great grandson of Edmond-Charles Genêt, of the Founding-era Citizen Genêt Affair.  Genet sailed for France at the end of January 1915, joining the French Foreign Legion, and finally the Lafayette Escadrille on January 22, 1917.

Genet had left while on leave from the US Navy, and was therefore classified as a deserter. The decision weighed heavily on him.  Edmond Genet was shot down and killed by anti-aircraft artillery on April 17, eleven days after the American declaration of war, officially making him the first American fatality in the War to end all Wars.  The war department sent his family a letter after his death, stating that his service was considered in all respects, honorable.

38 American pilots passed through the Lafayette Escadrille, “the Valiant 38”, eleven of whom were either killed in action or died later as the result of wounds received.  The unit flew for the French Air Service until the US’ entry into the war, when it passed into the 103rd Aero Squadron, American Expeditionary Force.

Raoul Lufbery
Raoul Lufbery

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.