Category Archives: World War I

America at war: Suddenly, it’s real

I didn’t learn much about World War I in school. It was the seventies, and there was a backlash underway against the rote memorization of battle dates and that sort of thing. It was all about cause and effect. One day we’d be learning about Archduke Ferdinand and the alliances, and the next day the teacher would say, “Now, after the Allied victory…” We’d say, “Wait, what about the war?” and the teacher would ask us if we really wanted to learn about a bunch of battles. We’d say no and that would be that—on to Versailles.

So my vague impression was that the Americans came in in 1917 and gave new energy to the exhausted Allies, who won fairly quickly. A month of reading the 1918 news set me straight. As depicted in the press, the early stage of the American war effort was a colossal screw-up. American soldiers in France, short on weapons and supplies, did little but consume scarce food supplies and—judging from the humor magazines—hit on French women.*

French cartoon in Judge magazine, That Bewildering Trench Lingo, 1918.

Judge magazine, February 9, 1918

The Wilson administration’s handling of the war was universally regarded as inept. The New Republic said in its January 19 issue that “any friend of the administration who fails at the present time to speak frankly about the effect produced by the breakdown of management of the war upon the state of mind of the public is doing to President Wilson a most indifferent service.” The fuel shortage, it said, is creating a sense that the country is “helplessly drifting into a succession of similar crises, which if they are allowed to develop will continue to paralyze American ability to assist our Allies and do harm to Germany, and which will react balefully on the morale of the nation.” And that’s what the administration’s friends were saying! (New Republic founding editor Walter Lippmann was serving as an aide to Secretary of War Newton Baker.)

Photo portrait of Senator George Chamberlain, 1904.

Senator George Chamberlain, 1904

Congress was so fed up that Republican Senator George Chamberlain introduced a bill to reorganize the government’s conduct of the war through the establishment of a War Council with sweeping powers, accountable only to the President. “The military establishment of America has fallen down,” Chamberlain said in a January 20 speech, because of “inefficiency in every bureau and department of the Government of the United States.”  The New Republic denounced this “crude, ill considered, and indefensible measure,” but said that, if Wilson didn’t come up with better structures for the conduct of the war, “the existing mechanism will continue to creak, and groan and exasperate its victims.”

As January ended and February began, though, American soldiers completed their training and moved to the front lines. A Times correspondent reported that, as they did so, “Every man was happy just because he was going to fight at last, and as the regiments marched along the men sang joyously until they reached a point where all further operations were carried out in complete silence.”

On January 30, there was heavy shelling on an American position on the French front. Two soldiers were killed and one was captured. The Associated Press interviewed one of the wounded, a sandy-haired youth from Bismarck, North Dakota, who “said with a smile to the correspondent, ‘Did you ever hear of such bad luck? Now I’ve got a piece bit out of my leg by a shell splinter…believe me, if I ever get back to that line again—well, all I want is another chance.”

Photograph of British ship SS Tuscania, 1914.

SS Tuscania, 1914

Then, on February 5, the SS Tuscania, a British ship transporting American soldiers across the Atlantic, was torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk in the Irish Sea. The British and American governments were slow to produce casualty lists, and relatives waited anxiously for days. Among them were the cartoonist Richard F. Outcault, creator of Buster Brown and the Yellow Kid, and his wife. “I am expecting hourly to hear from Dick,” Mrs. Outcault told the New York Times, “and I expect to get news soon. He is a level-headed boy, and I am sure he knew how to take care of himself in an emergency.” Richard F. Outcault, Jr., was among the survivors. 210 other families were not so lucky.

The strange air of unreality was gone. America was at war.

*UPDATE 4/1/2019: Remember when I promised to make mistakes? This is one of them. First of all, the soldier is French. And he’s not hitting on the women–one of them is his marraine, or (honorary) godmother. Marraines served as substitute mothers to soldiers without families or whose families were out of reach in German-occupied areas.

Wednesday Miscellany: Oh and by the way we’re publishing Ulysses

I can’t wait to find out what surprise the Little Review has in store for February 1918 that’s so huge that they can casually toss off “oh, and we’re publishing the first installment of Ulysses in March.”

The Little Review announcement of Ulysses publication, 1918

The Little Review, January 1918

The best art of 1918 is found in some surprising places. For example, ads for constipation medicine.

Nujol constipation ad, painting of mother holding baby. 1918.

Woman’s Home Companion, January 1918

Support the troops! Send them cigarettes from the enemy!*

*Actually just pretend-Turkish: really Liggett & Myers tobacco.

How to be a New York Times war correspondent, 1918-style

So you got hold of a time machine and you want be a New York Times war correspondent in 1918? Here are some tips.

1. If the British Prime Minister gives an important speech on the war, don’t worry about analyzing it. Just send in the official report.

New York Times text, January 6, 1918

New York Times, January 6, 1918

2. To be on the safe side, you might also want to quote a British newspaper’s analysis of the speech in its entirety.

New York Times text, January 6, 1918

New York Times, January 6, 1918.

3. If you don’t know what’s going on, open with a vague statement.

New York Times text, "Judging from most recent reports from Berlin..." January 15, 1918.

New York Times, January 15, 1918

4. Or just come out and admit that you don’t have a clue.

New York times text, "it is fairly clear that something of considerable importance is going on in Berlin."

New York Times, January 16, 1918

5. If you manage to talk with someone who’s actually involved in the war but all he does is spout generalities, throw in lots of atmospherics.

New York Times text, "Yesterday I met the Gordons in their billets and took tea..."

New York Times, January 14, 1918

6. Don’t worry about sending in war news. This will be provided by your colleagues, like a reporter covering the unveiling of a plaque at the Biltmore Hotel honoring its employees at the front, who will come across a letter from one of these employees containing actual war news.

New York Times text, January 1918.

New York Times, January 14, 1918

7. Human interest is also good! If the German press reports that the mistress of the former German emperor has died, write about that. Don’t worry about getting confirmation. The Times can just run another obituary in 1940, when she actually does die.

New York Times headline, Katharina Schmitt of Court Fame Dies.

New York Times, January 12, 1918

I know that reporters in Europe faced censorship and restrictions on their movements. And the Western Front was quiet in January 1918. Still, I have to believe it was possible to do better than this. I can see now why the public was so eager for soldiers’ personal accounts of life at the front, provided in books and public lectures. I hope that, as the war heats up and American lives are increasingly on the line, the Times will provide the public with better information.

The 14 Points: I flunk a pop quiz

President Wilson’s speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, outlining the Fourteen Points—his statement of principles for peace—took Washington by surprise. There was barely enough time for the House and Senate to make arrangements for a joint session. I, on the other hand, knew it was coming, and for the first time My Year in 1918 felt like homework. I decided I might as well turn it into actual homework, and I gave myself a pop quiz: how many of the points could I remember? You can do this too! Just get a piece of paper, write down the numbers 1 to 14, and give it a go!

No? Okay, here they are:

  1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.
  2. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.
  3. The removal of economic barriers and establishment of equal trade conditions.
  4. Reduction of armaments.
  5. Free, open-minded, and impartial adjustment of colonial claims.
  6. The evacuation (by the Germans) of all Russian territory.
  7. The evacuation of Belgium.
  8. The restoration of French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine.
  9. A readjustment of Italy’s borders along the lines of nationality.
  10. Autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary.
  11. The evacuation of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro.
  12. Sovereignty for the Turkish people and autonomy for other peoples under Turkish rule.
  13. An independent Polish state.
  14. A general association of nations.

Here’s what I managed to come up with:

Pop quiz on the 14 Points.

Not very impressive, especially since I was a government major. 32 percent! But I did get some key principles right. On second thought, flunking seems kind of harsh. I’ll bump my grade up to a D+.

If President Wilson hadn’t forced my hand, I would have waited a while to write about World War I. I’m starting to get the gist of what was going on—mostly, totally chaos in Russia—but it’s so complicated. When I was in school, World War I was treated like World War II: The Prequel. A slightly different line-up of combatants, a less morally clear-cut conflict. Afterwards, I read about the tremendous human cost of the war in books like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. But I never understood the war itself very well.

Here, then, are some early thoughts. On the one hand, the American press is completely consumed by the war. Children’s magazines explain the intricacies of U-boat fighting. Women’s magazines talk about doing your bit by cutting down on butter and sugar. (I’m not sure exactly how this helps.) There’s a war-related illustration on almost every magazine cover.

On the other hand, there’s a tremendous sense of confusion and ambivalence. What exactly are we fighting for, and why? There’s lots of carping in the press about the ineffectiveness of the Allied forces. A few days before Wilson’s address, British Prime Minister Lloyd George gave a speech to trade unionists that struck me more as an effort to maintain the loyalty of his people than as a rallying cry. In this context, Wilson’s speech seems as much a justification for the war as a path to peace.

It will be interesting to see how people in 1918 respond to the 14 points. In the meantime, I’d better brush up on my European geography. You never know when there’s going to be another quiz!

The bonkers world of Marie Corelli

I promised in my first post that there would be heroes and villains. I haven’t found any heroes yet, other than the railroad workers who shot steam at locomotives to defrost them. But I’ve found my first villain: the wildly popular British novelist Marie Corelli.

1909 photograph of Marie Corelli.

Marie Corelli, 1909

According to the January 3, 1918, New York Times, Corelli was fined £71 by the Stratford-on-Avon Police Court for hoarding sugar. Authorized 32 pounds in a ten-week period, she obtained 179 pounds, plus 50 pounds of preserving sugar. The court didn’t buy her lawyer’s argument that she had acted out of patriotism in preserving fruit for future use. When the police showed up at her house, she said, “You are upsetting the country altogether with your food orders. Lloyd George will be resigning tomorrow, and there will be a revolution in less than a week.”

Who was this woman? I decided to learn more, and I found an article she wrote for the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping called “The World’s Greatest Need.” The world’s greatest need, according to Corelli, is sanity—something that is sorely lacking in this article, aside from a well-argued condemnation of corporal punishment. Corelli writes that that the desire to “wallow in blood and slaughter” has prevailed over reason. That’s an understandable sentiment in 1918; it’s her solution that’s a problem. Anyone who violates the peace and progress of the world, she says, “should either be shot like mad-dogs as incurable and dangerous, or imprisoned for life in asylums for the criminally insane.”

Corelli thinks a lot of people are insane. There’s the Scottish woman who, “after accepting many useful kindnesses from a friend” (could it have been Corelli?), cut the friend out of her prayers following a minor disagreement. Not to mention the Futurists, the Cubists, Debussy, writers of “revoltingly sexual fiction,” and other producers of art that is “utterly opposed to truth and nature.” How to return sanity to the world? Simple—just require everyone wishing to marry to submit to “a searching health examination, so that union may be forbidden to the unfit.”

Charles Mackay, Marie’s father

Corelli was an ardent spiritualist; her books deal with mystical and extrasensory phenomena. (If her predictions to the police about Lloyd George and the revolution are any indication, though, she wasn’t a very gifted prognosticator.) Ironically, she was the daughter, by a household servant, of Charles Mackay, whose 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds debunks hocus-pocus of all types.

It can’t have been easy to be Marie Corelli. She was born with the stigma of illegitimacy and mocked by the literary establishment. She may have had a decades-long same-sex relationship with her father’s caretaker; if so, she had to keep it secret. Still, she chose what beliefs to espouse, and she chose some of the worst elements of 1918 thinking—eugenics, superstition, and reactionary literary taste. Not to mention the sugar hoarding!