The War That Changed Everything

To most Americans, the First World War means little. It seems distant, abstract, vague. We pass over it lightly in high school history class, only the most astute among us recalling that the thing blew up when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was murdered by a Bosnian Serb nationalist during a state visit to Sarajevo in June of 1914. But how the devil did that local mishap end up costing twenty million lives (soldier and civilian) and changing the course of history so profoundly that we still feel the aftershocks 100 years later?

For all that, the Great War’s cultural footprint in the United States seems oddly light. We have only a few great works to animate it for us (among them are the novels A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo; the Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, who lived in Cos Cob; the film Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick; and the painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent), and most such works were created at least seventy years ago. England, by contrast, began its war reckonings with soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen—killed in action in 1918—and has renewed them every generation since, most recently with the popular TV drama Downton Abbey.

On one hand, this is understandable. England, France, Germany, Austria, Italy and Russia suffered far greater losses than we did. (Our war dead numbered about 117,000, compared to the British Empire’s 1 million and France’s 1.4 million. Russia suffered roughly 2 million dead, as did Germany.) On the other hand, there remains the disquieting sense that America never adequately examined the First World War. It is “the forgotten war, or so it seems to a British observer” of America, the Scottish historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson wrote. “Considering the extent of the American contribution to the war, this is surprising. World War I seems almost to have fallen into an historical void between the American Civil War and World War II.”

But all hope is not lost. To mark the war’s centennial, the Greenwich Historical Society has mounted a colorful exhibit called Greenwich Faces the Great War, on view at the Bush-Holley House’s Storehouse Gallery through March 22. “It’s all here in microcosm,” says Karen Frederick, the historical society’s curator and exhibitions coordinator. “The whole experience in one town.”

Among the many artifacts on display are the sheet music covers to popular songs of the era (the songs themselves can be heard on iPad minis fixed to the wall); they’re beautifully illustrated, but what they illustrate best is the turn in the national psyche. “Look what happens between 1915 and 1917,” Karen says. “We go from ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier’ to ‘America, Here’s My Boy.’ In two songs, we see this huge shift.”

This shift is largely the exhibit’s theme: American ambivalence to American zeal, with triumph and tragedy mixed in. Once we entered the war in 1917, the government created its first-ever Madison Avenue-style war propaganda machine. “This is a fabulous poster by Joseph Pennell,” Frederick says. “He wanted to show what would happen if the United States was attacked, so he’s painted New York Harbor in flames—he shows the Statue of Liberty with her head knocked off and the torch blown off. Two million of these were printed.” Other posters display strong racist overtones. One showing a large, bloody handprint bears the slogan “The hun—his mark.” Photographs, artwork, newspapers (“Lusitania Sunk!”), diaries (including Elsie Rockefeller’s), helmets, bullets and gas masks, as well as audio snippets of letters and interviews, fill out a picture of the First World War as seen from Greenwich.

But stories are the lifeblood of the exhibit—stories of Greenwichites drawn into the conflict from many angles and filling in many roles, from warrior to artist to pacifist; and suddenly half-forgotten names like Raynal C. Bolling, John Alden Twachtman, English and Anna Walling, and Grace Gallatin Seton come alive again.


The Balkan Beginning

The German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck predicted in 1888, “One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” and he could not have been more right. Austria-Hungary’s vow of revenge on Serbia triggered a domino effect of treaty obligations. Russia came to little Serbia’s aid; the mighty German Empire backed Austria-Hungary and declared war on Russia; and Russia’s ally France then entered the war against Germany on what would become a horrific Western Front—a smoking inferno where French and Belgian forests and towns once stood. The British Empire, meanwhile, allied with both France and Russia and also committed to defend neutral Belgium in the event of attack, had no choice but to throw its helmet into the ring. “In the first week of June,” wrote The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “all of Europe was in a state of peace and prosperity that seemed likely to last forever; by the first week of August, the carnage had begun.” Even so, troops on all sides went off to war believing they’d be, as the slogan went, “home by Christmas.”

The United States? Woodrow Wilson was determined

to keep us out of this abstruse European conflict. “Every man who really loves America will act and speak in the true spirit of neutrality,” the President said. “We must be impartial in thought as well as action.” But his sincerity was dubious. Our sympathies lay with our great trading partner, England, and its allies, and we abetted them despite Wilson’s declaration. Herein lies an important Greenwich connection: Remington Arms, the largest American supplier of guns and ammunition to the Allies—whose main plant was in Bridgeport—was run by Greenwich resident Samuel Pryor and largely controlled by two Greenwich Rockefellers: Percy and his father, William, cofounder of Standard Oil. (Remington’s chief was Percy’s brother-in-law Marcellus Hartley Dodge.) Long before America’s entry into the war, Remington—with not-so-neutral government consent—was filling massive orders from England, France and Russia, while German agents slandered Remington’s bullets (“dum-dums”) and may even have fomented strikes at the Bridgeport factory.

Great swaths of the country felt as the Grand Forks, North Dakota, Herald did: “An archduke more or less makes little difference.” Kathleen Hulser, a historian who teaches at Pace University and recently lectured about the war at the Greenwich Historical Society, says most Americans had only a dim understanding of the far-off hostilities. “Part of the whole neutrality stance was, ‘Who knows what they’re fighting about? That’s what Europeans do.’ It was somewhat incomprehensible.” A minority, however, led by the gladiatorial former President Teddy Roosevelt, had no patience for Wilson’s neutrality. Fiercely critical of German aggression in neutral Belgium, Roosevelt demanded that we ramp up for war. (The United States then had a small, insufficiently trained standing army.) In 1915 he and other interventionists, mainly prosperous East Coast Republicans, formed the “Military Preparedness Movement” and began training businessmen in Plattsburgh, New York.

Among the training camp’s first attendees was Raynal C. Bolling, the brilliant young chief attorney of U.S. Steel who lived in a mansion on Doubling Road in Greenwich. As an “aero” enthusiast and National Guardsman, Bolling was tapped to create what would become the American Expeditionary Force’s (as our armed forces in Europe were then known) Air Service—the precursor to our air force—an achievement too little celebrated today. He went over to Europe, as we shall see, but was considered too important to fly combat missions. “I get terribly lonesome at times … but yet I know I could not bear to have no part in all this,” he wrote to his wife back in Greenwich. “Of course, it would be easier if I were out toward the front somewhere in camp and not here in Paris, just a son of a businessman in uniform!”

 

The Greenwich Front

During the period of American neutrality—1914 to 1917—several residents volunteered to fight for other countries or (like Hemingway) to serve as ambulance drivers for the American Field Service. George Appleby Helme was among the latter group. The Belle Haven resident, whose tobacco magnate father had fought in the Battle of Shiloh for the Civil War Confederacy, sent lively dispatches to the Greenwich Press: “We are three miles from the German front with guns booming on three sides, and aeros and observation balloons above us,” he wrote in 1917, as American soldiers began arriving.

Grace Gallatin Thompson Seton, a writer and activist wife of author-illustrator Ernest Thompson Seton of Cos Cob, gave her adventurous spirit to creating the Welfare of the Injured women’s motor unit in 1916, an all-female transport service that operated in the war zone. It was partly her efforts that persuaded Woodrow Wilson to accept women’s suffrage after the war.

One intriguing Greenwich couple were leading Socialists of the day—English and Anna Strunsky Walling. English, a labor leader who had cofounded the NAACP in 1909, went against the Socialist grain in 1917 by ardently supporting the war; Anna who once cowrote a novel with Jack London, just as ardently opposed it. The Wallings eventually split—Anna unwillingly—over their differences. “They show how the war divided not just the country,” Frederick says, “but divided families as well.”

Greenwich artists—many of them schooled in Europe—had a special affinity for France, and grew deeply concerned about the destruction of its people and culture. George Wharton Edwards, a travel writer and illustrator, made a point of preserving European monuments in paint, publishing two gorgeous volumes of lost treasures: Vanished Towers and Chimes of Flanders (1916) and Vanished Halls and Cathedrals of France (1917). In his foreword to the latter, Edwards hinted at the barbarism of the new warfare: “…certainly the destroyers of old never ventured to commit the crimes upon [great architecture] now charged against the legions of the present invader. These fair towns … are sacked, pillaged and burned….”

Greenwich was home to dozens of families of German origin. Jacob Langeloth, sixty-two, an immigrant mining tycoon who lived in a neoclassical palace in Riverside, dropped dead of a heart attack in August 1914. “Worry, caused by the European war, may have largely induced the death of Mr. Langeloth,” the Times reported. “[He] was formerly a captain in the German army.” Early in the war, there had been no real shame in supporting Germany—perhaps because the German-American contingent was so robust (in the 1880s alone, 1.5 million Germans settled in America). Langeloth’s death, however, constituted a dramatic foreshadowing of the bind in which Greenwich’s Germans would soon find themselves.

Buoyed by the slogan “He kept us out of war,” President Wilson narrowly won re-election in 1916. But events overseas soon overwhelmed his resolve. Already, public opinion had swung against Germany. In 1915 its submarines torpedoed the British ocean liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 people total and 128 Americans, including the parents of Greenwich resident Henry Bruno, Jr., advertising director of the Greenwich News & Graphic. In January 1917 British intelligence intercepted a coded German message to Mexico—the Zimmermann telegram—that was tantamount to a secret declaration of war on the United States. In it, Germany proposed a military alliance with our rambunctious neighbor, promising in return to help Mexico recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Around the same time, Germany broke its pledge to limit submarine warfare and once again began sinking passenger and merchant ships—adding to the growing image of German bloodlust in the American press.

On April 2, 1917, Wilson finally asked Congress to declare war. The studious neutrality the President had hitherto counseled swiftly gave way to patriotic fervor—whose dark side expressed itself as anti-German hysteria. German-language books were burned; towns with German names (like Berlin) were rechristened; the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven was stricken from some community orchestras. Long before freedom fries made America the butt of a worldwide joke, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, hamburgers liberty steaks, and dachshunds liberty pups. We didn’t even let Germany keep its diseases: In 1917, one came down with liberty measles instead of German measles.

U.S. officialdom clamped down in alarming ways. Its rhetoric—Wilson’s included—suggested that German spies were “everywhere afoot” and encouraged vigilante groups to hunt them down. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the flagrantly undemocratic Sedition Act of 1918 in effect forbade public opposition to the war—the defiance of which sent hundreds of Americans to jail. (The Espionage Act is still very much with us; it’s generally invoked not against spies, but against government-employed leakers of classified information, like Edward Snowden. Indeed, the Historical Society’s exhibit reminds us constantly that what’s old is new again.)

Owing largely to its cosmopolitan populace, “Greenwich was not a hotbed of jingoism,” says Kathleen Hulser, the historian. “But librarians were told to watch for anyone who was reading subversive books—defined as anything in German.” One town resident, Austrian native Heinrich Plum, was arrested for refusing to buy war bonds. Greenwich schools joined the national trend of banishing German language classes, and German families endured harassment and bullying. “It was amazing what we were called at the time,” Max Krois told the Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project, a snippet of which can be heard at the exhibit. “Because we were Germans … we were all kinds of spies and many other names.”

Meanwhile, in accordance with national laws, Greenwich registered nearly 200 residents as enemy aliens—no matter if their sons went off to fight under the American flag.


Stories of War

In September 1917, the first five local draftees bade goodbye on the crowded platform at the Greenwich train station. “Many tears were shed by parents, brothers, sisters and friends,” the Press observed as Newkirk Crockett, Charles Reuter, John Banks, Carl Wold and Norman Ritch left for training camp and then for France. (All would make it home alive.) In October 3,500 Greenwichites took part in a Liberty Bond parade with brass bands blaring and, among other factions, fruit pickers brandishing their rakes—“the biggest demonstration the town has ever known,” the paper noted. “Greenwich is fairly bubbling over with [patriotism].”

Celebrations would soon be tempered. On March 26, 1918, the United States suffered its first high-ranking casualty: Colonel Raynal C. Bolling. On the Western Front at last, Bolling and his chauffeur, Private Paul Holder, drove into a machine gun ambush near Amiens, France. (A British officer had assured them the Germans were still three miles off.) When gunfire erupted and punctured the car’s radiator, the men scrambled out and took cover in separate shell holes. A German soldier fired at and missed the unarmed Holder, whereupon Bolling “very coolly loaded his pistol,” the New York Times reported, and shot the enemy dead. In the next instant, however, a second German put a bullet straight through Bolling’s heart. (Holder became a POW and was released in 1919.) Posthumously Bolling was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Croix de Guerre and Legion of Honor. After the war, the noted sculptor Edward Clark Potter—maker of the New York Public Library lions—fashioned a bronze statue of Bolling in uniform, gazing skyward. Today the sculpture stands in its granite base on the front lawn of the Havemeyer Building at Greenwich Avenue and Arch Street—the only monument in town dedicated to a single person.

There are stories with happier outcomes. Douglas Campbell, who graduated from Harvard in 1917 and moved to Greenwich in 1947, was the first American-trained aviator to bring down a German plane. On his first day of combat—April 14, 1918—Campbell spotted a German Albatross zooming in on his tail; banking sharply, he swerved around behind “and shot him and lit him on fire,” he once told an interviewer. Campbell downed five, possibly six, additional planes to become the first American-trained aviator to win the status of fighter ace. (Eddie Rickenbacker was the second.) On June 5, just after he downed a German biplane, shrapnel from an exploding bullet wounded Campbell in the back. His kill tally would likely have been far greater had he not been sent home to recuperate. “Nobody had any plans for tomorrow,” Campbell recalled in his later years, no doubt thinking of his Harvard friend Quentin Roosevelt. The president’s youngest son was fatally shot down in July of that year. Campbell, a Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Cross-winner, went on to enjoy a productive career with Pan-American Airways and died in Greenwich in 1990, aged ninety-four.

Little known is the story of John Alden Twachtman and his horses. Twachtman was a son of the great American impressionist painter John Henry Twachtman, whose life had been cut short by a brain aneurysm in 1902. Alden, too, was a gifted painter—he’d studied at the Yale School of Fine Arts and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris—and would prove an equally gifted soldier and architect. During the war, Colonel Twachtman served with the 103rd Field Artillery, 26th Division—known as “the Yankee division”—which took part in six bloody campaigns. Cited for gallantry in the Second Battle of the Marne, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

It seems Twachtman’s horses were equally brave. Two of them, Hannah and Yarrum, beat him to the war. They were mustered into service in 1916 and sent to France a year later, ahead of Twachtman. According to a brief article in the New York Sun from 1919, “when the unit got to the front, [the horses] were nowhere to be found.” Twachtman never gave up hope of finding them, but understood they were probably lost or dead. In January 1919, two months after the Armistice, Twachtman was riding past a string of wounded horses in France when he heard a familiar neigh rise up among them: Hannah. “The recognition was complete when Hannah stuck her long nose into his pocket for sugar,” the Sun reported. “Later Yarrum turned up.” The official history of the 103rd Field Artillery notes that Hannah had been badly injured three times on the Western Front. Twachtman’s beloved warhorses lived out their lives peacefully at his farm on Round Hill Road.

First World War records list twenty-four dead from Greenwich (about half from illness). The broader damages of the war are hard to calculate, because they are ongoing. The seeds of the Cold War lay partly in Russia’s loss of territories—Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Poland—as the empire devolved into civil war in 1917. And much rancor in the Middle East today (including the emergence of ISIS) extends back to France and Britain’s 1920 reshaping of old Ottoman lands into Iraq, Transjordan, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.

Finally, it’s strange to consider, there probably would have been no Holocaust, no World War II, had the Archduke been spared that day in Sarajevo. As it happened, “the war to end all wars” bred hostilities so complex and so deep that they were bound to rear up again before too long. On September 18, 1922, a twice-wounded veteran of the Bavarian Army declared, “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain … No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!” His name was Adolf Hitler.

 

 

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