Tag Archives: Despina Storch

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.

Despina Storch: The sad fate of a woman of intrigue

Remember Despina Storch, the beautiful Turkish woman who was arrested by the Secret Service as the suspected head of a German spy ring and sent to Ellis Island to be deported?

Despina Storch, 1917 (Underwood & Underwood, N.V.)

She never made it to France. She died on Ellis Island on March 30, 1918, at the age of 23. The cause was pneumonia.

Or was it? Some suspected suicide, especially since two of her three accused co-conspirators, Elizabeth Nix and “Baron”* Robert de Clairmont, had also fallen seriously ill.

An immigration inspector denied the rumors, saying of Mme. Storch, “She made a brave fight for her life and every effort was made to save her. She was physically unable to overcome the ravages of pneumonia. I wish to state positively that she did not commit suicide.”

The suicide theory would have been plausible, though, since Mata Hari’s October 1917 execution by a French firing squad must have been on the group’s mind.

Mata Hari, 1906

Despina Storch’s funeral took place on April 1. Her companion and co-accused, the Count de Beville, was allowed to leave Ellis Island to attend, accompanied by his parents and a Secret Service agent. According to a report in the New York Sun, Beville “bore a plaque of roses and some lilies which he tenderly placed in the folded arms of the dead woman.” He knelt by the casket, praying, for two hours.

He murmured over and over again, and some say the words were “Forgive me,” and others, “Cherie, Cherie, and like French words of endearment.

Willis Music Company, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Outside, a “morbidly inquisitive crowd” milled around the hearse. When the coffin was borne out of the funeral parlor,

the chatter of the crowd hushed, and all that stirred the quiet was the music of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which echoed into the street, as the subway band, on an army recruiting bus, rolled through Fifth avenue, close by.

Mount Olivet Cemetery, date unknown

The Count and his parents accompanied the hearse to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, where Mme. Storch’s “exquisitely carved white coffin” was placed in a vault. Beville “wept silently and cast a last look at the vault as he was led back to the car.”

Thus ended the brief life of the woman the Sun called “the most romantic spy suspect America has yet known.”

Despina Storch in Spain, adapted from an illustration in the Washington Times, June 16, 1918

*The New York Times was dubious about his claim to this title.

Women spies of 1918

I was going to write about women artists in honor of Women’s History Month, but then I opened the March 19, 1918, New York Times and saw that women were hatching international conspiracies all over Manhattan. Change of plan!

First, this:

Two men and two women were arrested, the Times reports, for alleged participation in an international German spy ring. The principal suspect is Despina Davidovitch Storch, the 23-year-old Turkish ex-wife of a French army officer. The Times said of Storch that

she is in appearance a strikingly handsome woman, and in the year that she made her home at the Waldorf-Astoria numbered among her friends many well-known persons, some of whom it was intimated yesterday are not at all anxious now to appear to have been among her admirers.

Despina Storch, 1917 (Underwood & Underwood, N.V.)

Mme. Storch was arrested in Key West with a young Frenchman, the Baron Henri de Beville, as the two were preparing to flee to Cuba. The Baron’s father, according to the apparently sympathetic Times, was “broken hearted as a result of his son’s arrest,” and felt that his son was “a victim of the ‘charms’ of the Turkish woman.”

(This account of masculine helplessness comes from a paper that, remember, wasn’t particularly sympathetic to women getting the vote.)

The pair had been living a peripatetic life. They were taken into custody in Madrid in 1915 as suspected enemy agents, sailed to Cuba after their release, and went on to the United States. They had also lived in Paris and Lisbon, where they amassed bills of $1000 a month. Their equally lavish New York lifestyle attracted the attention of the American authorities, who also found a safe deposit box in Mme. Storch’s name containing “a mass of foreign correspondence and a code.”

Waldorf-Astoria, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Their alleged co-conspirators were picked up in New York. Mrs. Elizabeth Charlotte Nix, who, according to the Times, “is about 40 years of age, but looks ten years younger,” had received a $3000 payment from the German ambassador before he left the country when war was declared, but she denied that it was a spy payment. The principal crime of “Count” Robert de Clairmont, as far as I can tell, was his dubious claim to his title.

The Justice Department official who announced the arrests, Charles F. De Woody,* recommended that the four suspects be deported to France. The problem with trying them in the United States was that—oops!—the espionage law only applied to men. President Wilson had mentioned this problem in his State of the Union address, and Congress was taking action, but not in time to go after Mme. Stroch and Mrs. Nix.

Meanwhile, down in Greenwich Village, a very different sort of (alleged) German-sponsored conspiracy was uncovered.

Agnes Smedley, the twenty-six-year-old “girl,” was arrested with Sailendra Nath Ghose, a “highly educated Hindu” who was already under indictment in San Francisco, for fomenting rebellion against British rule in India. (Uncharacteristically, the Times makes no mention of Smedley’s level of attractiveness.) Their activities were allegedly part of a “worldwide German-directed plot to cause trouble in India” and thereby weaken British war efforts. They sought assistance from several Latin American countries (Ghose lived for a time in Mexico, under the implausible pseudonym of Sanchez) and from Leon Trotsky.

Agnes Smedley

“First women arrested in New York for enemy activities” might not be your idea of an inspiring Women’s History Month first. Well, then, there’s Annette Abbott Adams, the San Francisco-based Assistant U.S. District Attorney who spoke to the Times about the Ghose indictment. She would go on to be the first woman Assistant Attorney General and later a high-ranking California judge.

Annette Abbott Adams, 1914

The indictment against Smedley was eventually dropped. She spent many years in China as a sympathetic chronicler of the Communist Party, and wrote a well-regarded autobiographical 1929 novel, Daughter of the Earth. She counted a Soviet spymaster among her lovers. She died in England at the age of 58, and is buried in Beijing.

As for Despina Storch…stay tuned! (UPDATE: Find out what happened to her here.)

*Even the bureaucrats in this story have picturesque names.