Tag Archives: armistice

The best and worst of November 1918: Fake and real armistices, osculation, and meat we’ll learn to like

With the centenary of the Armistice approaching, I wanted to celebrate, but how? I couldn’t find any planned events for Remembrance Day (as it’s called in the Commonwealth) here in Cape Town.* But I knew that veterans lay a wreath at the war memorial every year, so I figured they’d be doing something special for this one. I arrived at 10:30 and found marching bands marching, bagpipers piping (oddly, “Sarie Marais,” an anti-British song from the Boer War) and a big tent full of people. A young woman gave me a paper poppy.

There were prayers, hymns, and a speech by Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, my old friend from Pretoria in the late eighties. (South Africa can be small-towny like that.) How to celebrate an event like this, in the presence of both current soldiers and elderly white veterans who won their medals doing who knows what, is always a fraught question in South Africa. Ian hit just the right note, highlighting the contributions of black soldiers in South Africa and the United States for whom the Allied victory didn’t bring freedom.

At 11:00, the hour of the Armistice, there was a two-minute silence, a tradition that, it turns out, originated in Cape Town. Representatives of diplomatic missions and veterans’ groups laid wreaths on the monument, and afterwards the rest of us were given white roses. Here’s where I placed mine, thinking about the soldiers I’ve gotten to know in my year of 1918 reading, many of whom who didn’t make it home.

Now on to the best and worst of November.

Best fake news: Allies win the war!

New York Evening World, November 7, 1918 (Library of Congress)

What’s fake about that, you may be asking. Well, check the date.

In one of the most monumental screw-ups in the history of journalism, the United Press Association (which later became the UPI) reported on November 7 that the war had ended. According to a gloating report in the New York Times, which didn’t run the erroneous story, reporters mistook a ceasefire in an area where French and German officials were meeting for the end of the war. The censors, who were responsible for weeding out secrets, not errors, OK’d the story, and the agency cabled its headquarters. Which didn’t bother to check with officials in Washington, the attitude being “What do they know?” Newspapers rushed out extra editions.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Secretary of War Baker said this was news to him, and Secretary of State Lansing checked with Paris and issued a denial, but no one cared. New Yorkers poured onto the streets. In Washington, newspapers were dropped from helicopters.(CORRECTION: From an airplane. As an alert reader has pointed out, helicopters weren’t invented yet.) 1,500 women workers from the State and War Departments, who apparently didn’t take their bosses any more seriously than anyone else did, rushed over to the White House, where they waved American flags and cheered President Wilson.**

Later that night, when word spread that the war was in fact still going on, a lot of people were too drunk to care.

New York Times, November 8, 1918

Luckily, only four days passed before the…

Best real news: Allies win the war!

Or, more succinctly and colorfully,

I worried about the fake victory celebration putting a damper on the real victory celebration, but that was just me being a gloom:

New York Times, November 12, 1918

People went wild with joy all over again.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

What persons were these, I wondered. Three-day-old persons? But the premature celebration had vanished from everyone’s heads, apparently.

New York Times, November 11, 1918

Osculation ensued!

New York Times, November 12, 1918

Best cartoon:

I only kind of get this Harry Gant Dart cartoon–something about the Germans not being in control of their own country anymore–but the drawing is amazing and it’s a refreshing change from all the cartoons about people hanging and strangling the Kaiser.

Judge, November 30, 1918

Best illustration:

Amid the celebration, a reminder of the conflict’s cost.

Frank E. Schoonover, Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

Worst Thanksgiving celebration:

New York Times, November 29, 1918

According to the New York Times, New Yorkers were eager to entertain the troops, including 750 convalescent and wounded soldiers who had returned from France during the week and were quartered at Debarkation Hospital No. 3 at 18th Street and 6th Avenue. Between them, they had received 1,400 invitations–two each! Lavish dinners and theater tickets had been laid on. But, when their uniforms returned from the sterilization department and the soldiers “prepared to don them to sally forth to the feasts,” it turned out that they had  shrunk beyond recognition. A “big soldier,” presented with his outfit, declared it a “Boy Scout uniform.”

Many unsuccessful efforts were made by others to wear the shrunken military garb, and, of course, regulations barred them from appearing on the streets in any other clothes.

An emergency order went out, and 125 uniforms were procured. What to do with the rest of the soldiers? Waive the regulations in appreciation of the sacrifices they had made in securing the biggest military victory of all time? Don’t make me laugh!

The fortunate wearers of these went forth, while the others, grumbling at their ill-luck, reclothed themselves in pajamas and hospital blankets.

Thank you for your service, boys!

Worst Meats:

The headline had me worried

Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1918

and the illustrations confirmed my worst fears.

Worst ad:

Since you didn’t die in the war…

Judge, November 9, 1918

Worst magazine cover:

Like I said, not a fan of the Kaisercide trope.

Best magazine cover:

I like this George Wolfe Plank Vanity Fair cover a lot,***

and also the crisp, clear lines of this one from Golfers Magazine,

but the best cover award has to have something to do with what happened during this momentous month.

This J. C. Leyendecker Saturday Evening Post cover is wonderful, but I’ve already given it enough love.****

I was just about to bestow the award on Norman Rockwell’s joyful soldiers on the cover of Life

Life, November 28, 1918

when I thought, “Wait, what about Vogue?”, and found the winner, this gorgeous, understated Georges Lepape cover:

Vogue, November 15, 1918

On to—can it be?—December!

*Of course, only reading news from 100 years ago didn’t help.

**This item, which I cribbed from Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, makes me blush on behalf of my fellow women State Department workers.

***If you’re wondering what’s happened to Erté, there aren’t any copies of the October and November 1918 issues of Harper’s Bazar, or even the covers, anywhere on the internet as far as I can tell.

****Fun fact: the soldier is Neil Hamilton, who later played Police Commissioner Gordon on Batman.

My Year in World War I: A Centenary Reflection

For someone who decided  of her own free will to spend this year reading as if I were living in 1918, I have a curious aversion to reading and writing about World War I.

Part of it goes back to my education. In the seventies, when I was in school, battles and the like were out of fashion among history teachers. It was all cause and effect—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand one day, Versailles the next.

Also, there’s a horrible, reactionary part of my brain that, when faced with a lengthy article by the New York Times’ military critic* about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, says, “Battles are for BOYS!” Believe me, I know how crazy this is. Just within the community I’ve become a part of through this project, Connie Ruzich has been telling the story of World War I through its—often horrifyingly graphic—poetry and Pamela Toler has a book coming out in February on women warriors through the ages. Not to mention Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August, one of the classics of World War I history.** Which I actually have read. Even so, battles aren’t, and never will be, my thing.

An article I didn’t read, New York Times, October 6, 1918

In my post-college years, I learned about the war through novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms and memoirs like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. These left me with a clear sense of the traumatic effects of the war but a sketchy knowledge of how it actually transpired.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, I still can’t tell you how it played out French town by French town, but I have a better understanding of what happened during its last year, both on the battlefield and back home (mostly in the United States***). Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

First of all, the Americans got off to a sloooooow start. I’d always had the idea that the Doughboys showed up in 1917, went to the front to replace the depleted French and British forces, and saved the day.

 

Well, not so much. Or not so quickly, anyway.

To begin with, the United States didn’t have an army that was up to the task; American soldiers needed a huge amount of training. The U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, but American troops didn’t arrive in France in large numbers until almost a year later. When they arrived they were clueless,

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

but cocky.

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

Observers were unimpressed, if this AP report from the American sector, which I’m surprised made it past the censors, is anything to go by:

New York Times, February 21, 1918

A few American soldiers had prior combat experience from fighting with British or French forces. One of them, Captain Jimmy Hall, was shot down in May 1918, just as he was finally able to fly under American colors, and presumed dead. He survived, though, and was captured by the Germans. Hall went on to co-author Mutiny on the Bounty with fellow former aviator Charles Nordhoff.

James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917

The U.S. armed forces were segregated, and most African-American units were led by white officers. A few African-Americans received commissions, though, including Benjamin O. Davis, a Spanish-American War veteran who was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918 (for the duration of the war, anyway—his rank later reverted to captain). Davis went on, during World War II, to become the first African-American general in the U.S. armed forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the first African-American general in the Air Force.

Benjamin O. Davis, 1901

On the logistical side, America’s entry into the war was a colossal screw-up. The United States wasn’t producing many weapons or planes, and a fuel shortage, exacerbated by one of the coldest winters on record, slowed the shipment of what military equipment had been produced. In January, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield took the drastic step of ordering all industry east of the Mississippi to shut down for a week, and then for the next five Mondays. There was grumbling, but surprisingly no one questioned whether closing down the country was in the fuel administrator’s job description.

Springfield (OH) Daily News, January 19, 1918 (clarkcountyhistory.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, Food Czar Herbert Hoover, who had gained celebrity status by organizing relief efforts in Belgium,**** was coordinating a food conservation campaign focused on “wheatless Wednesdays” and “meatless Tuesdays.” “Hooverize!” was the watchword.

U.S. Food Administration poster, John Sheridan, 1918

Anxiety over German spies was high.

Life, March 14, 1918

A few real ones, like 23-year-old spy ring leader Despina Storch, were rounded up, along with a lot of people who had committed “crimes” like painting pencils a treasonous color.

New York Times, July 6, 1918

Women took over men’s work,

Life magazine, August 22, 1918

although they were reminded not to get too attached to their “war jobs,”

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

and thousands of American women served in Europe in military or civilian roles, most of them as nurses.

Carl Rakeman, 1918

Americans took the war with deadly seriousness. “Slackers,” as draft evaders were known, were widely condemned,

Sheet music, 1917 (Library of Congress)

and pacifists were vilified. The staff of The Masses, a socialist magazine that was shut down in 1917, went on trial twice in 1918, charged under the Espionage Act with conspiracy to obstruct military recruitment. Both times, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision and a mistrial was declared. Art Young, one of the defendants, sketched the proceedings for The Masses’ successor, The Liberator.

Art Young, The Liberator, June 1918

But just because war is a serious business doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor. Lt. Percy Crosby’s Private Dubb was a big hit,

That Rookie from the 13th Squad, Percy L. Crosby, 1918

as were Edward Streeter’s***** “Dere Mable” letters, supposedly written by semi-literate soldier Bill to his girlfriend back home.

Illustration from “Dere Mable” by G. William Breck, 1918

Once deployed, Dubb, Bill, and their compatriots rose to the task. American casualties mounted sharply as the Allied troops fought back the last German offensive in the Battles of Meuse-Argonne, which began on September 26 and lasted until the armistice. This remains the deadliest battle in United States history–26,277 American lives lost.

American soldiers, Argonne forest, September 26, 1918 (AP)

American participation in World War I didn’t last long enough to produce a literature equivalent to that of the British war poets, whose ranks included Rupert Brooke (who died in 1915), Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the war’s end), and Sigfried Sassoon (who survived). American veterans like Ernest Hemingway (who was seriously wounded while serving in Italy as an ambulance driver) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was commissioned but never made it overseas) would make their mark writing about the scars the war left on their generation.

Ernest Hemingway, Milan, 1918

Some American voices of the war stay with us, though. American Alan Seeger, who fought with the French Foreign Legion and was killed in 1916, left behind his poem “I Have A Rendez-Vous with Death.”

Francis Hogan (behindtheirlines.com)

I’ll end with a poem that is not as well-known but that has stayed with me since I read it, toward the beginning of this project, in the February 9, 1918, issue of The New Republic.

Corporal Hogan was killed on October 18, 1918, 24 days before the Armistice. He was 21 years old.

*An actual job title.

**Or all the women who have actually fought in battles, like Maria Bochkareva and the Battalion of Death.

***This is as good a place as any to point out that the America-centrism of this blog is not just because I’m American, it’s also because of differences in copyright laws that make American publications from 1918 more available than publications from other countries.

****1918 being an era when fuel administrators and relief coordinators and food safety scientists were celebrities.

*****Streeter later wrote the novel Father of the Bride.