WFA East Coast Chairman Highlights Fort George G. Meade Legacy on the Eve of American Centennial

On Veterans’s Day 2016, Western Front Association East Coast Branch Chairman Paul Cora was invited to speak at the US Army’s Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to honor the heritage of the Post in the context of America’s entry into World War I.  Mr. Cora’s remarks, below, sought to place into context the experience of the State of Maryland and Fort Meade as a microcosm of the American experience in World War I.

Military historian Paul Cora speaks about the role Ft. Meade played in World War I and subsequent wars.

WFA East Coast Chairman Paul Cora speaks about the role Ft. Meade played in World War I.

“One hundred years ago, when this was still farmland, America was neutral and deeply divided on the issue of the European war which in two years had grown into a world war. An agricultural and industrial powerhouse, America was also very much a land of immigrants. For those Americans of German descent – which after decades of steady immigration was the single largest ethnic identity in the country – the issues of American neutrality and the battle for public opinion were especially troubling. This time 100 years ago, however, it was not necessarily unpatriotic to express pride in one’s German heritage, or even to defend the cause of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the European war. Indeed, just up the road in Baltimore, the vibrant German American community there was still basking in the public celebrations of the arrival of the merchant submarine DEUTSCHLAND which docked in Baltimore on its maiden voyage that summer. All this, however, was shortly due to change.

In February 1917, the German High Command elected to roll the dice and risk bringing the neutral United States into the war through resuming the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare on the high seas – that is, the sinking, without warning, of all ships, even those flying the flag of a neutral country, suspected of carrying war materials to Britain and France. By their calculations, the millions of men and millions of tons of war material that America would provide to the Allies wouldn’t matter – Britain would be starved into submission, France would capitulate, and the war would be over before America could even mobilize.

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Once the United States declared War in April 1917, German-Americans were forced to subordinate their feelings of ethnic pride, to a new and emerging sense of patriotic national identity. “Germany was the land of our ancestors”, wrote one Baltimore German-American at the time, “but America is the land of our children.” And so the forging of a unified national identity from many ethnic backgrounds is in many ways a product of World War I, just as America’s emergence as a World Power resulted from our role in “The War to End All Wars” and its aftermath.

The genesis of what would be Camp Meade beginning in the summer of 1917, was part of a massive mobilization unprecedented in American history – within 18 months, some two million American troops of the AEF – the American Expeditionary Forces – had arrived in France – some 400,000 of these passing through Camp Meade in the process.

For Britain and France, the arrival of millions of American Doughboys beginning in 1918 offered boundless opportunities to replenish their decimated ranks – parcel out the Yank battalions among the British and French armies desperately reeling under the weight of the of the latest German offensive, they argued. But this was not to be the case – in a contest of wills, emerging American nationalism won out and an independent American army would be formed in France under General John “Blackjack” Pershing.

General John J. Pershing

General John J. Pershing

For Americans of color, the unprecedented mobilization of World War I provided a catalyst for advancing the cause of equal citizenship. Against the initial plans of the War Department in 1917, African American leaders insisted that conscription should apply to blacks as well as whites, and so as America mobilized in World War I, African American males were drafted into the armed forces.   While serving in segregated units, many of which were relegated to the services of supply – loading and off-loading cargo in seaports and building roads and railroads in France – two African-American infantry divisions were deployed to Europe where they fought with distinction under French command. Elements of one of these – the 93rd Division, trained here at Camp Meade before embarking for France.


The creation of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917-18 involved not only a nucleus of regular troops, but the dramatic expansion of the army through the federalization of the National Guard, and the creation of national army divisions made up of conscripted men. Ultimately the AEF’s ranks numbered 8 regular army divisions, 17 National Guard, and 18 National Army divisions.

Maryland can be seen a microcosm of the national experience in World War I. While Camp Meade was busy training new recruits in the use of rifle, bayonet and gas mask, the State’s first combat unit to arrive in France was Maryland’s 117th Trench Mortar Battery. Originally a company of the Coast Artillery, the 117th was the smallest Maryland unit to see action numbering just 185 officers and men. They were assigned to the 42nd “Rainbow” Division made up of National Guard troops from 26 states and the District of Columbia, and they arrived in France in on October 31, 1917, less than 7 months after the American declaration of war. The men of the 117th were outfitted with the French 58mm trench mortar and trained to provide front-line fire support to the Rainbow division’s two infantry Brigades, and it was while carrying out this role Private Edgar Potts was killed by German counter battery fire on March 9, 1918 – the first Maryland soldier to be killed in World War I. Seeing action in Champagne-Marne operation, Aine-Marne sector, the Battle of St. Mihiel, and finally the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 117th was Maryland’s smallest but longest-serving combat unit with 172 days in the Front Line by the time of the Armistice.

While Edgar Potts’ death with the 117th Trench Mortar Battery marked him as the first Maryland soldier to fall, another Marylander serving with the regular army was destined to be the State’s first officer to be killed in Action. Baltimorean 1st LT George Buchanan Redwood of the 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One” had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in leading a patrol into German front lines on March 28, 1918, capturing several valuable prisoners for interrogation. After this feat, Redwood, was promoted to Regimental Intelligence Officer and remained so until his death on May 28 at the battle of Cantigny. There, during the US Army’s first offensive operation of the war, Lt. Redwood moved forward alone under fire to observe and sketch German positions and was mortally wounded before returning with the vital intelligence. He was posthumously awarded a second DSC, and later the City council voted to rename Baltimore’s German Street “Redwood Street” in his honor.

Maryland’s contribution to the 29th Infantry Division, made up of National Guard troops from Maryland and Virginia, should not be overlooked. The Division’s 115th Infantry, created from the Maryland 1st, 4th and 5th militia regiments, saw bloody fighting in the Argonne Forest, where in 23 days of combat, the Division sustained nearly 40% casualties.

Among those troops which passed through Camp Meade, I can think of none more fitting to speak of today than those of the 313th and 314th Infantry regiments which made up the 157th Infantry Bridge, 79th Infantry Division.   The 313th was made up of so many natives of Baltimore, that the regiment would be known as “Baltimore’s Own,”; while it sister regiment 314th Infantry drew men conscripted not only from Maryland, but many more from Eastern Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The wartime experiences of these two regiments brigaded together would be closely shared.

According to one observer, when the men of the 313th and 314th regiments arrived here in September 1917, Camp Meade “resembled perhaps nothing so much as a western mining camp in full blast; workmen here , there and everywhere with the whole world resounding to the buzz of saws and clang of hammers as barracks after barracks sprang into being.” As feverish as the actual completion of the camp seemed, the pace of the soldiers training was no less feverish: learning to drill, learning to shoot, to dig trenches, don gas masks and charge with bayonets.

When the men of the 313th and 314th arrived in France on July 16, 1918, they were among more than 300,000 American Doughboys who set foot in Europe that month alone – the greatest monthly total of the war – “Lafayette, we are here” was a popular saying of the day. For the American Expeditionary Forces, everything was focused on preparing for the coming “Big Push” against the German lines.

That “Big Push” would come in September in what was destined to be known as the battle of the Meuse-Argonne – the largest All-American offensive of the war.

On September 25, 1918, the 79th Division went “over the top” to attack the German front line at the start of the great battle. Among their first objectives was a fortified ridge atop which sat the ruins of an ancient village called Montfaucon – a fortress position which the Germans had occupied and improved for over four years. There from within the remains of the medieval church was a reinforced observation post named after the German Crown Prince Friedreich Wilhelm; from this and from this vantage point observe for miles into the allied lines, calling down deadly artillery fire on every approach route.

After two days of heavy fighting, the 313th Infantry, supported by the 314th on its right, fought its way up the fortified ridge, through barbed wire entanglements , entrenched machine guns and murderous artillery to capture the heights on September 27, 1918.

The ruins of Montfaucon village, France, today.

The ruins of Montfaucon village, France, today.

So astonished was French Premier Clemenceau, when he heard the news that Montfaucon had fallen to the Americans, he immediately set off for the front to view the legendary section of the German line with its hated observation post which after four years was now in Allied hands.

Today, atop the ridge of Montfaucon, stands one of the most impressive American monuments on the Western Front with its 200-foot memorial tower dedicated to the memory of the 79th Division.

Almost within the shadow of Montfaucon, by the nearby village of Romagne, on ground personally selected by General Pershing, is the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the largest in all Europe and the final resting place for more than 14,000 Doughboys of the AEF including so many men of the 79th Division killed fighting in the Meuse Argonne. This ground has been granted to the United States by France in perpetuity – forever – in recognition of the sacrifice of American troops in the liberation of France in World War I.

For the men of the 313th and 314th Infantry, the fighting at Montfaucon was not the end, but rather the beginning of their Meuse-Argonne experience. Throughout the month of October and into early November , they continued the bloody advance through the Argonne as the German Army stubbornly withdrew.

In a final Maryland chapter of the Great War, on the day that the Armistice took effect – November 11, 1918, Private Henry Gunther of the 313th would be killed while attempting to capture a German machine gun position at 10:59 hours – one minute before the cease fire ending the war took effect. Ironically, Gunther was an American of German ancestry. Today Private Henry Gunther of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 157th Infantry Brigade, 79th Division – Private Henry Gunther of Baltimore, Maryland who trained here at Camp Meade, is recognized as the last soldier to be killed in combat in all of World War I.

Early on in the 1920s, American writers and historians largely stopped writing about the war, to some extent this was a result of disillusionment with the peace treaty of Versailles, and with political battles at home over the ratification of the treaty with its League of Nations clause so dearly championed by President Woodrow Wilson. By contrast, British writers and historians never stopped writing about the First World War, and so the narrative which we as Americans inherited has been largely that of our British allies – a narrative in which the American contribution was nearly an afterthought when the war was drawing to a conclusion already. Historians from all backgrounds today, however, agree that the American contribution in the war’s final Hundred Days Offensive in which Allied armies under French Marshal Ferdinand Foche maintained continuous pressure along the front, was vital in bringing the war to an end when it did.

We today are familiar with the term “The Greatest Generation” which has often and rightfully been applied to our World War II veterans. In his book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS author Richard Rubin described the American veterans of World War One as the “generation which raised the ‘Greatest Generation’.”   What a POWERFUL statement this is about our World War 1 veterans. Rubin further went on to describe the unique character of the last living American veterans of World War I as “nineteenth century men and women, living in the 21st Century self-reliant, humble and stoic; never complaining, still marveling at the immensity of the war they helped to win.”

The American veterans of World War One are all gone now. In my own lifetime, I was fortunate enough to have met and talked with a handful of them, but now their memory will exist only in the histories and memorials that are left behind.

The men of the 314th Infantry in particular never forgot what they and their comrades in the 79th Division went through in the World War. The log-cabin style Officers Mess, built by the men of the regiment during their time here at Camp Meade, has survived to the present day after being purchased from the government and moved to Valley Forge, PA in 1922. There it became the repository of their World War One mementoes, souvenirs and artifacts and a place where they could come together to remember.   Cherished, handed down from generation to generation among their descendents, the 314th Infantry Cabin and its collection of artifacts represents a unique and otherwise unattainable means of connecting with the now gone Doughboys of World War I.

I am delighted by the idea that this time next year, on the eve of Veterans Day 2017, when we are truly in the midst of America’s WWI centennial, visitors to the 314th Infantry Memorial Cabin, reassembled just over there within the fenced area, will be able to feel and experience a connection with the Doughboys of World War I inside a structure built by their own hands 100 years ago. And they will likewise be able to interpret and understand their experiences by viewing and appreciating the irreplaceable collection of artifacts displayed at the Fort Meade Museum – occupying a vital place in the story of Fort Meade, and our country.”

314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin as it appeared at Valley Forge from 1922 until 2012.

314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin as it appeared at Valley Forge from 1922 until 2012.

For more information on the 314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin, visit

Grass Roots Remembrance is Key

As was recently estimated by Mark Levitch, creator of the World War 1 Memorial Inventory Project, there may be as many as 10,000 WW1 monuments in various forms throughout the United States. There was not a single national memorial to the war dedicated in their lifetime, yet America’s Doughboy generation did leave their mark on our landscape; the memorials they left behind were often small, local reminders of their service and sacrifice in “The World War” and perhaps that is how they wanted it. As author Richard Rubin described in his book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS, America’s World War I veterans were “self-reliant, humble and stoic; never complaining, still marveling at the immensity of the war they helped win” and this perspective may be a key to understanding the predominantly local and often low-key character of American monuments to “The War to End All Wars.”


For the past several years it has been my privilege to be able to attend a long-standing WW1 memorial service in southeast Pennsylvania. Each Memorial Day Weekend, the Descendants and Friends of the 314th Infantry, AEF, gather at Valley Forge’s Washington Memorial Chapel to remember the achievements and sacrifices of this regiment of the 79th Infantry Division in World War I. Essentially a local event (the men of the 314th were predominantly from southeast Pennsylvania and Delaware), the 314th Infantry Memorial Service, like many of our WW1 monuments, is both simple and poignant, and in many ways it retains the spirit of America’s WW1 generation.

The 314th Infantry Memorial Cabin as it stood on the grounds of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge.

The 314th Infantry Memorial Cabin as it stood on the grounds of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge.

The site of the 314th Memorial Service was not chosen at random – for some 90 years, the Chapel grounds contained the 314th Infantry Cabin, a log structure which had originally been built at Camp Meade, Maryland in 1917 by the men of the regiment. After the war the cabin was purchased by the veterans, dismantled and reassembled at Valley Forge. Over the generations, the cabin served as the repository for the memorabilia, war trophies, and Doughboy memories of the 314th Infantry, the responsibility for which was handed down through the children and grandchildren of the 314th’s WW1 veterans. Today, the historic cabin awaits reassembly at Fort Meade in time for the post’s World War 1 centennial observances, although the descendants and friends of the 314th continue to gather each year in Valley Forge to remember. As Nancy Schaff, President of the 314th Infantry Descendants and Friends, observed in her welcoming remarks at the start of the service, the 2015 gathering was the 93rd annual service in honor of the 314th.

The 2015 service was presided over by the Reverend Roy Almquist, Rector of the Washington Memorial Chapel. Following the presentation of Colors, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem, Rev. Almquist offered prayers of remembrance for the men of the regiment before calling on 314th Descendants & Friends President Nancy Schaff , who welcomed the nearly 100 attendees and gave a brief update on the status of the cabin, as well as her work with the US World War One Centennial Commission and other partnering organizations such as The Western Front Association East Coast Branch and Saving Hallowed Ground.

COL Douglas Mastriano, PhD, speaks at the 2015 Memorial Service to the 314th Infantry, AEF.

COL Douglas Mastriano, PhD, speaks at the 2015 Memorial Service to the 314th Infantry, AEF.

The principal speaker at the service was COL Douglas Mastriano, PhD, of the US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. COL Mastriano is the author of Alvin York: a New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne and is also responsible for researching and creating a five-kilometer historic trail in France’s Argonne Forest which interprets York’s Medal of Honor exploits. In his remarks, COL Mastriano detailed Alvin York’s humble beginnings and early life struggles prior to World War I, comparing him with the Civil War’s Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who rose from obscurity to be the “Hero of Little Roundtop” on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Citing the modest beginnings of both men, COL Mastriano offered them as examples of what all Americans are capable of. In his remarks, he further described Corporal York’s role in capturing some 132 German prisoners on October 8, 1918, bringing home to the Valley Forge attendees a fresh look at the man within the context of America’s experience of World War I.

Following the conclusion of the service, attendees participated in the folding of a 20’X30’ United States’ Flag sponsored by the “Saving Hallowed Ground” project, before adjourning to the Patriot’s Hall for a light reception.

The flag folding activity outside the Washington Memorial Chapel, following the 314th Memorial Service.

The flag folding activity outside the Washington Memorial Chapel, following the 314th Memorial Service.

The remarkable cross-generational effort encompassing the 314th Infantry Memorial Service, the cabin and the artifact collection may be unique among WW1 memorial efforts in the United States. For nearly 100 years each Memorial Day Weekend, those with a connection to the Regiment have paused from their lives and gathered at Valley Forge to remember. Without a doubt the historic 314th cabin and its artifact collection have been the key to keeping the veterans and their descendants connected over the long span of time. As America’s WW1 centennial years approach, the prospect of the reappearance of the cabin as an historic structure at Fort George G. Meade seems particularly appropriate – in a sense, this structure which was preserved by motivated individuals acting on a local level will become an object of national celebration.

Journey to Romagne

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France.  At center in the distance, is the memorial chapel.

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. At center in the distance, is the memorial chapel.

As a young man in my mid-20s, more than 20 years ago,  I had been teaching high school history for several years, right out of college.  I was passionate about my job and eagerly seized professional enrichment opportunities whenever they appeared – and travel was form of enrichment that I particularly enjoyed.

Having a strong interest in the history of the First World War, I decided one year to spend the spring break visiting some of its battlefields, and so I booked a flight to Luxembourg City from which a rental car would put me in easy reach of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  I’d never been to the continent of Europe before, and so this would be a landmark trip for me, though I would undertake it alone as none of my friends was particularly interested in spending a potentially dreary week in March driving around the French countryside.

As an undergraduate, my consciousness of the First World War had been sparked by the publication in the mid-1980s of Siegfried Sassoon’s Long Journey – an abridged version of Sassoon’s Sherston Memoirs edited by Paul Fussell.  I was captivated by the story and from that point on I read every narrative I could find and eventually became particularly focused on the British experience in Flanders, and the French experience at Verdun.  My understanding of the contributions of the American Expeditionary Forces was limited, though I had been fortunate to have grown up with a World War I “Doughboy” as a next-door neighbor – a kindly old gentlemen who had been in the front line in 1918 as a sergeant in the Signal Corps.

Arriving in Luxembourg City in March ’92, I loaded my travel possessions – a backpack, a 35mm camera, and a few pre-digital-era roadmaps – into a tiny Renault rental car and set off for Verdun.  Heading southwest through the Luxembourg countryside, I crossed the border into France near Longwy, making my way along a winding, hilly route through rural towns and villages with names like Longuyon and Etain.  As I drove, the miles of French countryside seemed dotted with remnants and markers of numerous European conflicts – wayside crosses from 1870, crumbling pillboxes from the First World War rising up from newly plowed fields, and an occasional Maginot Line outpost jutting unexpectedly from a hillside.  As the road crested a few miles east of the Meuse river that first day, I recall looking down and seeing in the distance the unmistakable twin spires of Verdun Cathedral which seemed so familiar from all the images I’d seen – “Wow,” I recall thinking at that very moment, “I’m actually here!.”

Armed with a large-scale battle map from the French national geography institute titled “Forets de Verdun ed du Mort-homme” I spent the subsequent days exploring the lonely and haunting ruins of the battlefields where in 1916 the armies of both France and Imperial Germany were nearly “bled white.”  Forts Souville, Vaux and Douamont, the command post of Colonel Driant, the trench of the bayonets, the Ossuary, and the ruined village of Fleury were just a few of the key stops in my explorations. Wherever I looked, the ground seemed scarred with the overgrown remnants of trenches and shell holes, and along the roadsides I often came upon small piles of unexploded artillery rounds unearthed by farmers working their fields.  The evidence of what had taken place there some 80 years prior was dramatic and unescapable.

Driving northwest from Verdun through the small farm hamlets of the Meuse river valley, I eventually began to see fewer of the French and German monuments and markers so familiar in the previous days, and instead became aware of an increasing number memorials to the Doughboys of the AEF.  More than one million American troops had fought here in the fall of 1918 taking part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which was the culminating event of the American experience in The Great War.

Eventually I found myself at a place called Montfaucon where atop a 305-meter rise lies the remains of a medieval village which in 1918 was a key position in the German line.  There in the ruins of the ancient church, high above the surrounding landscape, the occupying Germans had hidden a reinforced observation post named for Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm.  From this commanding position, they dominated the region for miles, bringing down artillery fire on anything which moved in daylight. On September 26, 1918, this seemingly impregnable position was captured in bitter fighting by the 314th Infantry, 79th Division AEF.

The ruins of the ancient village and church at Montfaucon.

The ruins of the ancient village and church at Montfaucon.



Adjacent to the ruins of Montfaucon stands the American memorial to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Atop a towering Doric column – the central feature of monument – sits a small observation deck which affords a splendid view of the region in all directions.  Approaching the outwardly deserted monument on the day of my visit, I was disappointed to find that the entrance was locked, but then as I turned to leave one of its French caretakers appeared.  In halting English he asked if I was an American and then explained that the tower was closed on weekdays, but he would open it if I wished to climb to the observation deck.


Ascending the 234 steps of the winding interior stairwell, I reached the observation platform some 200 feet above the entrance, and from there I could see the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne, and indeed those of Verdun in the distance, spread before me as a panorama as far as the eye could see.  Contemplating the view from the quiet solitude of the tower, high above the sparsely populated countryside, I felt utterly alone.  It was then, for the first and only time on that solo trip to Europe, that the adrenaline of the adventure gave way to pangs of homesickness.

Returning to ground level, the Frenchman and I began a brief conversation – he in broken English, and I in broken French – and it soon became apparent that he thought it terrifically important that I, as an American, visit another nearby site; “Romangne,” he kept repeating “Romagne” and after retrieving my map, he pointed to the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon with its notation “Cimatiere Americaine”.

Taking his advice I drove toward Romangne, though I didn’t really know what to expect and wondered what I would find.  Passing through the village and following the signs I soon saw what the caretaker had thought so important for a young American to see – rising from a nearby hillside the unmistakable outline of thousand-upon-thousands of trim headstones segmented among perfectly manicured tree lines and hedgerows.   This was the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery –  largest American cemetery in all Europe;  larger than that in Normandy, larger than that for the Battle of the Bulge, and in fact second only to the American Cemetery in Manila for the number of war dead interred there.

Situated on ground personally selected by General Pershing, the cemetery occupies more than 130 acres and is the final resting place for over 14,000 Americans, most of whom were killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of September-October 1918.  More than 500 of those buried there are unidentified and the cemetery also features a monument to some 954 Americans missing in action during World War I, including those from the expedition to North Russia in 1918-19, who have no known graves.

Acre upon acre of headstones at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Acre upon acre of headstones at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Beautifully landscaped, wonderfully cared for, the cemetery contains acre upon acre, row upon row of white Latin-cross and Star-of-David headstones; it is a place of incredible peace and dignity.

As I walked that afternoon among the headstones, reading names, and recognizing the familiar home states of the deceased – Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, and indeed every state and territory in the Union at that time – I suddenly felt not quite so alone, nor as homesick as I had been standing atop the monument at Montfaucon.  I felt a sense of connection with those laid to rest there, so very far from home.  Taking in the scope of this memorial, it dawned on me for the first time what a remarkable and unprecedented effort the mobilization of American manpower in 1917-18 had been.

At the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, more than 2 million Americans had arrived in France, and more than a million of these had fought in the Meuse-Argonne. Their collective experiences were something that their generation alone could fully appreciate, and yet I as a young American, born more than 50 years after the start of The Great War, felt profoundly moved by this haunting parcel of American ground tucked away in rural northeastern France.  As we approach and experience the centennial of the First World War, I am hopeful that today’s generations of Americans will come to feel that same sense of connection with those who went “Over There”, and those who stayed.


Dissent Was Not Unpatriotic

H.L. Mencken - newspaperman, literary magazine editor, and outspoken pro-German commentator.

H.L. Mencken – newspaperman, literary magazine editor, and outspoken pro-German commentator.

The onset of war in Europe in the summer of 1914 found the United States distantly observant but naturally pre-occupied with its own politics and predominant social issues of the day, amid a blossoming cultural ferment that would ultimately produce a unique 20th-Century American identity.  As a true “nation of immigrants” America had ties to every corner of Europe going back to the first half of the 19th Century in which Irish and German immigration predominated, and continuing through a second wave of immigration in which, by 1900, southern and eastern Europeans were the most numerous.

Despite the changing demographics of American immigration in the first decade of the 20th Century, German descent was still among the most common ethnic heritages shared by Americans in 1914.  As Europe went to war that summer, many of German background became increasingly sensitive to what they perceived as unbalanced pro-Allied reporting of the war in American newspapers – and they were right, since one of Britain’s first acts after the declaration of war was to cut Germany’s trans-Atlantic telegraph cables.  As a result, Germany’s ability to disseminate war news in the neutral United States was extremely hampered.  Indeed, the first official German account of the war’s outbreak did not reach American newspapers until September 8, 1914, and only then via courier through the neutral Netherlands to New York in order to bypass British censors.

Throughout the fall of 1914 and into 1915, German-American groups in various American cities organized public meetings and rallies the purposes of which were to urge unbiased reporting of the war in American newspapers, and strict neutrality on the part of the Federal government.  In time, especially following the torpedoing of the RMS LUSITANIA by a German U-boat, public opinion began to shift and Americans of German descent faced increasingly trying times.  Through 1916, pro-German sentiment was not necessarily unpatriotic.  By the spring of 1917, however, all this would change; the expression of pro-German views would not only be unpopular in many circles, but would eventually become illegal following America’s entry into the war.

Among prominent Americans of German descent, one figure who cast himself into the public debate from the onset of the war was Baltimore’s Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken.  An established newspaper columnist and editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun, Mencken was on the ascent in 1914 to become one of the most important American literary figures of the first half of the 20th Century.  That year, along with drama critic George Jean Nathan, he took on the editorship of The Smart Set, eventually transforming it into one of the country’s best literary magazines.  Later, the two would found The American Mercury – in its day the most important literary periodical in the United States.

As editor for the Baltimore Evening Sun beginning in 1911, H.L. Mencken published a signed daily editorial column called “The Free Lance” in which he offered his views on current events, both local and national. According Terry Teachout, in his 2002 Mencken biography The Skeptic, “[t]hough his readers could not have known it, he was doing something far more original than is generally recognized.  The newspaper column as an institution was still in its infancy in 1911, and the first ‘op-ed’ page, that of Herbert Bayard Swope’s New York Evening World, would not be launched for another decade.  Many columnists were publishing daily miscellanies superficially similar to ‘The Free Lance,’ most of which were made up in part of contributions from their readers, but Mencken appears to have been one of the first modern American newspapermen to write a signed editorial-page column in which he commented on major issues of the day.”

Mencken’s “Free Lance” column would prove an ideal platform for expressing his support for Germany and Austria-Hungary once the war commenced in August 1914.  From the outset of hostilities until the end of 1915 when he gave up the column, H.L. Mencken was the most consistent and strident champion of the Central Powers to be published in Baltimore, and among the outspoken in the country.

While Mencken’s identification with the land of his ancestors was, perhaps, predictable, biographer Fred Hobson argued in his 1994 book  Mencken: A Life that his own peculiar nature was as much a factor in his outwardly pro-German stance.  “… [T]he war gave him an intellectually defensible reason to do what, temperamentally, he was already inclined to do – detach himself even further from prevailing American values (which were largely Anglo-Saxon values, after all) and, culturally speaking, go to war with the majority of the American people.”  According to Hobson, “[h]e embraced German culture absolutely and rejected ‘moralistic’ American culture….”

From the outset of the fighting in 1914, Mencken was quick to defend Germany’s actions against what he saw as France and England’s paranoid desire to crush an up-and-coming European rival.  “For 44 long years the French have menaced [Germany’s] security with their melodramatic plans for revanche, and all the while the English have come closer and closer to an offensive and defensive alliance…. Germany has stood in imminent peril ever since the Agadir Crisis of 1911,” wrote Mencken on August 6, 1914.  Continuing in the same August 6 column, “The Free Lance” was quick to poke fun at the French who had “quaked and sputtered every time a German dirigible has been sighted near the border, and everyone knows, too, what imbecile fictions about German ambitions and German plans have been printed in their newspapers.” England was no better, he charged for “no more than three years ago…the London papers devoted their chief news pages day after day to childish gabble about a ‘German invasion,’ and every strange light along the coast set the whole nation trembling….”  England’s real purpose in fighting against Germany was “to gain a crushing advantage over a prospering and hated rival, a new feeling of national security, a release from constant uneasiness.”

During the first year of the war, “The Free Lance” rode roughshod over the Allied cause, championing what Mencken argued were the morally superior actions of the Central Powers.  Side-by-side with his columns appeared a steady stream of irate letters by pro-Allied Evening Sun readers who found his boldly stated views intolerable.  In a letter to the editor dated August 6, 1914 (and signed “A Former Friend of The Free Lance”), a reader took issue with Mencken’s jibes at France asking “how can he dare to make fun at the expense of a nation that will probably lose hundreds of thousands of her sons in a great war she has not desired?”

Other readers assailed Mencken on the grounds that the newspapers would best serve the public by avoiding controversial treatment of the war – though such arguments mirrored the complaints of German-Americans.  “That the ‘Honorable’ Mr. Mencken should sympathize with the Germans is reasonable…but I do not believe it compatible with the policy of an American newspaper that even a Free Lance column should be used to air an individual’s private views,” complained one such reader in early August 1914. Another respondent cautioned, “Let’s all remember that there should only be Americans on this side of the pond and we should… forget the English, French and German animosities of our parents.”

Philosophy of Friederich

Mencken’s consistently pro-German stance was undoubtedly influenced by his German heritage, but the root of his view was more complex.  At the base of his affection for Germany’s cause in the First World War, and indeed the root of his dislike of “Puritanical” American culture, was his unbounded admiration for the writings of the German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche.  In 1907, Mencken had published The Philosophy of Friederich Nietzsche – the first book on Nietzsche written in English and which won him much critical acclaim.  Nietzsche, according to Mencken, “believed that there was need in the world for a class freed from the handicap of law and morality, a class acutely adaptable and immoral; a class bent on achieving, not the equality of all men, but the production, at the top, of the superman.”  According to biographer Terry Teachout, Mencken’s discovery of the German philosopher’s writings had a formative influence in establishing his own sense of self and purpose for, “it was in Nietzsche’s Übermensch that Mencken caught his first glimpse of the role he was preparing to play, the journalist with a hammer for who Judeo-Christian morality was ‘something to wield his sword upon – to fight, to wound, to hate.'”  In a fall 1914 Atlantic Monthly essay titled “The Mailed Fist and It’s Prophet,” Mencken championed the “new Germany” which, in his view, had been challenged and transformed by the philosophy of Nietzsche. “I come to the war: the supreme manifestation of the new Germany, at last the great test of the gospel of strength, of great daring, of efficiency,” he wrote.  “….Germany becomes Nietzsche, Nietzsche becomes Germany.  Turn away from all the fruitless debates over the responsibility of this man or that, the witless straw splitting over non-essentials…. Not peace at any price, but war! Not virtue but efficiency!…. Barbarous? Ruthless? Unchristian?  No doubt.  But so is life itself.  So is all progress worthy the name.  Here at least is honesty to match the barbarity, and, what is more, courage, the willingness to face great hazards, the acceptance of defeat as well as victory.”

Lusitania Headline

The sinking of the RMS LUSITANIA in May 1915 polarized American views on the war, and pushed public opinion further away from the Central Powers and closer to the Allied camp; the editorial pages of Mencken’s Evening Sun brimmed with sentiments that reflected the national mood.  “The destruction of the LUSITANIA by the German Government with the murder of noncombatants, including many Americans, is one of the final acts of frenzied, frantic fanatics, drunk with murder lust…” declared one contributor on May 11, 1915.  “Let all good citizens resolve to ostracize and boycott everything German,” proclaimed another.  “How long…will our United States stand aside and submit to the incredible crime and outrage of German warfare?” asked yet another reader in a letter typical of those printed during the weeks after LUSITANIA went down.

Perhaps due to the presence of Mencken’s column, the Evening Sun typically featured an above-average share of pro-German letters to the editor during the LUSITANIA period.  Many pro-German readers were quick to justify the sinking in terms of cargo and registry of the ship.  “This liner was an auxiliary cruiser of the English Navy, fitted out as such, commanded by a commander of the naval reserve, and partly manned by a trained naval crew.  Besides she carried all kinds of war material, ammunition, and other contraband…to be used against Germany,” cited one German-American reader.  Other German-Americans blamed the US Government for its lackluster enforcement of neutrality.  “The authorities in Washington were very well aware of the intentions of the German submarines, and the first thing the Government should have done was to make these facts public and warn its citizens of the danger awaiting them on British ships,” charged one reader.  “You may call the Germans barbarians, baby killers and murderers,” the letter continued, “but remember that this country profits by receiving the blood-stained money in exchange for arms and ammunition.  An open war waged on the Germans… would be far more honorable than this bogus ‘neutrality.’”

Predictably, Mencken’s “Free Lance” column burgeoned with justifications for the destruction of the LUSITANIA, on the same grounds as those put forth by many German-Americans.  Additionally, Mencken equated the U-boat war with the British blockade intended to bring Germany down through economic deprivation.  The British, Mencken wrote on May 8, the day following the LUSITANIA’s sinking, “are engaged….in a deliberate effort to starve out and murder all Germans, without regard to age or sex.  The German reply to that threat is to have at England with exactly the same stick.”

The continued publication of “The Free Lance” column during the first year of the war inspired a sustained campaign of complaint and hate mail against the columnist.  The campaign was fed by a mixture of anti-German feeling and a dislike for Mencken’s often bombastic style.  The fact of the matter, in broad terms, was that by late 1915 public opinion in the United States had shifted to favor the Allied cause.  By October 1915, H.L. Mencken decided to give up his “Free Lance” column, though he would always insist that he did so to free himself to pursue other projects.  Considering his workload editing two national literary magazines as well as his newspaper work, his claim was not completely unconvincing.

Although the “The Free Lance” column had come to an end, Mencken continued to champion Germany’s cause.  According to biographer Teachout in The Skeptic, “Two days after his last ‘Free Lance’ ran, he embarked on a series of editorial-page articles, starting with two sets of ‘notes for a proposed treatise upon the origin and nature of Puritanism’ in which he explored in greater detail the relationship between Christianity and democracy, taking every opportunity along the way to praise Germany and damn England: ‘At the bottom of Puritanism one always finds envy of the fellow who is having a better time in the world.  At the bottom of democracy one finds the same thing….England is the mother country of Puritanism, and will be its first victim.’”

Despite the continuing decline of support for the cause of the Central Powers by 1916, the expression of pro-German views was still not illegal or, necessarily unpatriotic, and thus it was in this spirit that the Baltimore Sun consented to Mencken’s idea of going to Europe as a war correspondent – in Germany.  Departing in December of that year, Mencken commenced a short stint as a reporter where he briefly visited German positions on the Eastern Front in early 1917.  “MENCKEN IS NOT NEUTRAL.  He is pro-German,” declared the Sun’s advertisement for the assignment.  “But this will not prevent him from giving you the real report of actual conditions in wartime Germany.”

destroy this made brute

The rapid pace of events in German-American diplomatic relations with the reintroduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in the spring of 1917 dramatically cut short Mencken’s reporting assignment overseas, and he rapidly made his way back to the United States.  Writing to novelist Theodore Dreiser after returning to Baltimore on the eve of the US declaration of war, he commented that “Mobs are already afoot here….Last night they raided a pacifist meeting and raised hell.  It is very likely there will be some smashing of windows and other delicate heroics when war is declared.”  Fearing that his own home might be raided, Mencken buried the diary from his recent trip to Germany, along with other “sensitive materials” in his backyard where they remained until late the following year.

Once war was declared in April 1917, newspapers quietly steered clear of H.L. Mencken and his pro-German views, though he continued to work on assignments not related to the war, as well as his literary magazine editing.  Pro-German views had become decidedly un-patriotic, and by 1918, with the passage of the Sedition Act additions to the Espionage Act of 1917, the public expression of such views was punishable with imprisonment.

The experience of German-Americans during America’s neutrality years, followed by the country’s participation in the First World War, forever transformed that group’s perception of self.  Once proud, distinct and vibrant, the German-American communities in cities throughout the United States were compelled to re-assess their identity in the light of a new 20th Century concept of patriotism forged by the First World War.  While proud of his German heritage, H.L. Mencken’s stance during the years of American neutrality was anything but typical of the German-American perspective – although he was among the most prominent of the pro-German commentators at that time.  His motivations for the views he expressed were entirely rooted in his own particular intellectual point of view.  He was an early combatant in what would later be referred to as “the culture wars” in America.





Working Together to Enrich Our National Collective Memory

The tomb of Manfried Baron von Richthofen, an all but forgotten grave in Berlin today.

The tomb of Manfried Baron von Richthofen, an all but forgotten grave in Berlin today.

In a recent interview with the Reuters news agency, German historian Herfried Muenkler explained the Germans’ comparative apathy toward the centenary of the First World War.  The all-encompassing collective memory of World War II and its associated guilt, combined with the knowledge that their national recollection of the first war was later distorted by the Nazis, has fostered a conscious desire by many Germans to ignore the 2014-18 centenary despite the undoubted impact of the war for virtually every German living in the first quarter of the 20th Century.  “[T]he collective memory of World War Two…overshadows World War One in every category from the loss of lives to the level of German guilt,” said Muenkler, a professor at Humbolt University whose recent book DER GROSSE KRIEG reexamines the traditional view of Imperial Germany’s role in starting the First World War.

The German government is spending a reported 4.7 million Euros on 2014 commemorations – less than one-tenth of that allocated by either France or Britain, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has no plans to participate in commemorations of the First World War according to Reuters.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


In the United States, the federal government has already begun planning for the centenary of American participation in the First World War with the creation of the 12-member US World War One Centennial Commission.  This body of civic leaders, retired soldiers and historians has already begun planning for an ambitious program of promotional support for First World War commemorations and projects by various organizations throughout the country.  While the Commission’s existence indicates a commitment on the part of the US Government to honor the memory of American participation in The Great War 1914-1918 (in contrast to the official stance of the German government) funding for the Commission’s activities falls well short of any of the European governments.  The US World War One Centennial Commission is un-funded, without even travel expenses for its Commissioners being covered.

Centennial Commission

Without federal funding, the Centennial Commission will be engaging in its own fundraising, but it will still be relying heavily on organizations and individuals to achieve its goals over the coming years.  In short, we as Americans will need to work together to ensure that the legacy of the Doughboys, and the context of their achievements and sacrifices shines brightly in the centenary years – and beyond.  We will need to work together to kindle in today’s generations an understanding the impact of the war on American society, and the political legacy of the peace which followed.

June 2014 will mark the start of the World War I centenary as we reach the hundredth anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo which touched off the conflict, and around the world commemorative efforts and planning in various nations will begin spooling into high gear.  June will also be significant for centenary planning in the United States when the Centennial Commission holds its World War I Centennial Convention and Trade Fair in Washington DC on the afternoon of June 14.  This event will provide an opportunity for individuals and organizations to network with the Commission and each other as projects and plans are exhibited and outlined.

Bringing Americans together to enrich our national collective memory of the First World War is the chief purpose of the World War I Centennial Network, and we look forward to working with the United States World War One Centennial Commission to do just that.








A Conversation with US WW1 Centennial Commission Chair Robert J. Dalessandro


On January 14, 2013, President Barrack Obama created the United States World War 1 Centennial Commission when he signed Public Law 112-272.  The Centennial Commission Act provides for the appointment of a 12-member commission whose broad mission is to “ensure a suitable observance of the centennial of World War I, to provide for the designation of memorials to the service of members of the United States Armed Forces in World War I, and for other purposes.”

World War 1 Centennial Network founder Paul Cora recently had the opportunity to speak with Centennial Commission Chair Mr. Robert J. Dalessandro.  In addition to his work on the Commission, Mr. Dalessandro is the Chief of the US Army’s Center of Military History (CMH) and has authored several books on the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.  What follows is an insightful summary of the Centennial Commission’s objectives and planned activities in the coming years.

PC: In addition to being the Chief of the Center of Military History and acting Chair of the Commission, you have written extensively on AEF subjects (AMERICAN LIONS, WILLING PATRIOTS, and ORGANIZATION AND INSIGNIA OF THE AEF).  How did you personally come to be interested in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I?  


RD:  Both my grandfathers served in the First World War; one in the Army and one in the Navy.  One of my earliest memories was marveling at the strange helmet, gas mask and uniform that hung in a corner closet. Neither men spoke much about their service, but the few stories they told ignited a lifelong interest in the war.  Sadly, it took me decades to piece together the details of their service.  This desire to learn more about their deeds instilled my aspiration to work to preserve the memories of the service of other veterans of the war.  I hated the thought that these stories could easily be lost or forgotten.

PC: The text of Public Law 112-272 is readily available online.  How, in your own words, how would you define/summarize the basic mission of the Centennial Commission?

RD: The text of the legislation is easily found, but it is worth restating the principal missions of the Commission.  Our work is specifically focused on encouraging private organizations and State and local governments to organize and participate in activities commemorating the centennial; facilitating and coordinating activities throughout the United States relating to the centennial; serving as a clearinghouse for the collection and dissemination of information about events and plans for the centennial; and developing  recommendations for Congress and the President for commemorating the centennial of World War I.

That said, there is a leadership/communication component, an educational component, and a coordination component to our work.  The Commission leads efforts by raising awareness and encouraging a wide spectrum of organizations to plan programs in support of the centennial.  We must develop education programs targeted to America’s youth, designed to raise their understanding, and, in many cases, expose them for the first time to this watershed moment in history.  Finally, we have to serve as focal point for activities both here in the United States and in some cases overseas, leveraging the activities of partnership organizations.  As an example, we reached out to the American Battlefield Monuments Commission and are working in partnership with their staff to enhance a number of educational initiatives they have launched in preparation for the centennial.

PC: As the Chair of the Centennial Commission, what do you see as the greatest challenge or challenges facing it in achieving its primary mission?

RD: The greatest challenge the Commission faces is creating interest in the war here in America.  We have to confront the often pedestrian notion that the Great War was nothing more than prologue to World War Two.

Popular culture focuses on the World War II period, the Greatest Generation, and a “good” war that we all pulled together and won.  Film productions including Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific have had significant impact on the public understanding of and interest in World War II.   Laurence Stallings, a decorated World War One Marine, captured our challenge best, when he said, “Before June 1944, everybody in America knew that the pivotal battle in American history was fought in the Meuse-Argonne, by July 1944, America’s most desperate struggle was fought in Normandy.”  History had left the Meuse-Argonne and for that matter World War One behind.

I would never lessen the sacrifices of the WWII generation, but sadly the historiography of World War One, as with any event, is oft determined by the popular media – – books, films, etc.  In the case of intensifying interest in World War One, in America, the public conscience has not been fueled by a continuing stream of publications, films and media attention in the way it has in Europe.  In the United Kingdom, simply the mention of the Somme or in France, Verdun, conjures images of glory, sacrifice and barbarity.  We have to undo this injustice to the men and woman that served and sacrificed during World War One.

PC:  What kinds of activities do you see the Commission engaging in over the coming years?

RD:  The Commission has an ambitious plan to engage public interest across a full spectrum of activities.  This plan is currently under development, so I can only speak in abstractions at this point, but our program will embrace a number of large public commemorative events, expanded memorialization efforts, and educational activities targeted both to the general public and academe.

PC:  Are there ways that average Americans can assist the Centennial Commission in achieving its major goals?

RD: Your readers can help by spreading the word.  Take time to share your interest in the Great War with others, pass along our website , organize or support local centennial events, learn about those that served in your town and share that information with local media.  Get involved at local schools, historical organizations and museums. Be our ambassadors.

PC: Why, in your view, should Americans be interested in the Centennial of the First World War and what can they learn by remembering and studying America’s involvement in “The War to End All Wars”?

As with any anniversary period, the centennial is important because it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the history of an event, and in the case of the First World War, an event that shapes history right up to today.

Simply stated, the act of remembrance of history serves as that thread of continuity that binds us to those men and women that have struggled before us.   Far beyond providing an understanding of our shared past, history teaches us that we are part of something far greater than ourselves – – history links us to the men and women who have served this Nation before us. We take their legacies to heart and draw from their strength to overcome our challenges and adversities.

Our forbearers that served during World War One, both on the civilian and military fronts, carry us forward on the foundation they cast of their sweat and their blood and their deeds and their lives. The legacy of their actions is the priceless value of both history and remembrance – – one that we should proudly cherish – – and fervently guard. Simply stated, the study of our past, and particularly the importance of an understanding of the cataclysmic events of the First World War, strengthen the resolve of our actions and informs our future. Just as importantly, many of the current conflicts the world faces today have their roots in World War One, and can only be confronted by understanding that history.

The Economist recently published an article comparing today’s geopolitical setting with the setting that preceded World War One, which makes it imperative to study World War One today so that we do not repeat the decisions and policies that led to that terrible war.

This is why Americans be interested remembering and studying America’s involvement in “The War to End All Wars.”

For more information on the US World War 1 Centennial Commission, visit their website here.





A Conversation with Richard Rubin, author of THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

Author Richard Rubin with WW1 veteran William J. Lake of the 91st Infantry Division, AEF, 2003.

World War 1 Centennial Network founder Paul Cora recently had the opportunity to ask author Richard Rubin about his perspectives on the American experience in World War I based on his recent book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS.  What follows is an insightful slice of the back story behind the book and its author.


PC:  How did you become interested in finding and meeting America’s last veterans of the First World War- i.e. – has WW1 been a long standing interest for you, or was there some significant discovery or experience that made you want to embark on the project that ultimately led to your book?


RR: I’ve been interested in World War I since I was a child – for so long, really, that it’s hard to say exactly how it started.  Was it Snoopy?  Some old documentary that was on TV in the background as I played with Legos on the floor?   The framed portrait of my grandfather in his A.E.F. uniform that hung on the wall in my brother’s room?  I don’t know, but I do remember, very vividly, my mother pointing out the Bronx VA hospital one day as we rode past it on our way into the city, and she told me – this was in the mid-1970’s, when I was maybe 7 or 8 years old – that there were still men in there who had never recovered from being gassed in World War I.  That made a very strong impression on me.  Clearly.

I can say that I’ve also been interested in the notion of “lasts” for quite some time; I read the obituaries every day, and those are the ones I remember best – the last survivor of the Titanic, the last living speaker of a certain language, etc.  I even wrote an essay on the subject, “But Not Least,” for the Atlantic Monthly back in 1997.

The immediate impetus for this project was a radio interview I heard back in early 2003, in which the guest, who had something to do with commemorating World War II, said in a very urgent tone that 1,000 WWII veterans were dying every day, and that we needed to get their stories while we still could.  Usually I would just nod in agreement and keep on working, but for some reason, that day, I thought:  “Well, what about World War I veterans?  Can somebody still get any of their stories?”


PC:  How can today’s generations connect with the experiences and lives of the Americans who went “Over There” nearly a hundred years ago, in your view? What can their stories teach Americans today?


RR: World War I was, in a great many ways, the first “modern” war, not only in terms of technology on and off the battlefield, but in terms of the concerns and perspectives of the men and women who fought it, as well as those on the home front.  They spoke, for the most part, like we do; their faces look familiar to us.  When I look at one of those long photographs of a unit in the AEF, I often marvel at how much the men in it look like people I see walking around today, which is not the case with, say, the Civil War.  I’ve read 95-year-old letters from the trenches that are filled with slang – and even profanities – that I hear on the street every day.  More important, just about every facet of American life today – from civil rights and gender equality to population trends and agricultural policy – has its roots in the First World War.

Their story, really, is our story.  The war was controversial, to say the least; a lot of people didn’t want us to get into it, and some were even sent to prison for speaking out against it once we did.  The media were often complicit with the military and the government; foreign saboteurs wreaked havoc and sowed panic at home.  People were the objects of bigotry, even persecution, because of the sound of their last name or the color of their skin.  Soldiers wrestled with the wisdom of their orders, and questioned the malevolence of the enemy.  They were subjected to horrible new weapons, and saw and did things that threatened their equilibrium, and even their sanity.  Yet they also learned to overcome their differences, to work together for a higher good, to transcend hardship and do profoundly courageous things.  Their stories, in short, can teach us the value of our inheritance as Americans, and how we can emulate their example and honor their legacy.


PC:  What was the most surprising personal discovery in your research and writing of THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS ?


RR:  Probably that these very old men and women – their median age was 107 – were real people, and not gods.  That sounds silly, I know, but I’d never met anyone that old before I started this project, and they seemed kind of mythical to me.  I think there was a part of me that believed, when I set out to find them, that I wouldn’t really be able to “interview” them, that at best trying to talk to somebody that old about things they had seen and done 85, 90, 100 years earlier would be like reading a book – a one-way interaction, in which they said what they had to say, and I just sat there, poised, to try to catch as much of it as I could.  But in most cases, I could actually have real two-way conversations with them, in which I could ask them questions and they could ponder the matter for a moment and then reply, specifically, to what I had asked; and, in some cases, ask me questions, too.  That seems like a simple matter, but I really didn’t know, going into it, if I could do something like that with someone so old.  Fortunately for me, I could, and to a much greater extent than I had any right to expect beforehand.  Now they seem so alive to me that, even though they’ve all been gone for years, I still catch myself thinking about picking up the phone to ask them just one more question.

The other thing that really surprised me – even more than what I just said – was how willing these very old men and women were to talk to me.  Not just willing – they were eager.  You always hear that veterans don’t like talking about their wartime experiences, and for good reason, and I’m sure this was the case with World War I veterans as much as others; I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from since this book was published who tell me that their father or grandfather fought in that war but would never discuss it.  For some reason, though, that wasn’t the case with these last living WWI veterans.  Maybe it’s because I came along so late, and they had at long last had enough time to make their peace with what they had seen and done Over There; maybe they realized how remarkable it was that they had lived so long, and felt some sort of obligation to do something important – like handing off their memories to someone younger – with their unexpected bonus.  Or maybe their willingness to talk was just a function of their stoicism, which I suspect is one of the things that enabled them to live so long.  They saw some terrible things; no one could have blamed them for saying “I don’t want to talk about that.”  But they didn’t.  I was very, very lucky.


PC:  The American national memory of World War I is different from that of most other nations which were involved (and, indeed, different from that of the other conflicts Americans have fought over the last century), and getting Americans interested in the centenary of the war therefore presents a special challenge.   What, in your view, were the strongest elements which went into the making of our national collective memory of “The War to End All Wars”?

RR: There were two:  The first was the trauma America suffered as a result of the war.  In just nineteen months, we lost 117,000 men; afterward, people started wondering what it was all for, and many of them had a hard time coming up with answers.  After all, we hadn’t been attacked, as we would be a generation later at Pearl Harbor; and as it became more and more apparent that the world hadn’t been made Safe for Democracy, and that this war hadn’t Ended All Wars, A lot of cognitive dissonance set in, and America withdrew into itself.

One of the results of that was that Americans, who had produced an awful lot of books about that war while it was going on, and for a few years afterward, stopped writing about it pretty suddenly.  The British, though, never did – if anything, their output on the subject increased as years went by – and so British histories, which were the only histories still being written in English, eventually supplanted American histories as the narrative of the war in this country.  Back then, the British were still pretty upset that America hadn’t entered the war when they did, in 1914, and their histories of that era have a pronounced anti-American bias:  Their view, in essence, is that America showed up quite late to the party, and didn’t really do anything once they got there.  (Some British historians still believe this.)  Over the course of decades of this treatment, most Americans, I think, adopted this tragically inaccurate view of their role in the First World War, and, in my experience, American World War I veterans weren’t the type to stand up for themselves and remind people that they had, in fact, made an indispensible contribution to winning the war.  They weren’t the kind of people who cared to draw attention to themselves.  Now that they’re all gone, I think we owe it to them to set the record straight.  Americans should know just how much we did to win World War I, and how differently things would have turned out if we hadn’t fought.

PC:  As a project, how would you compare the experience of researching and writing THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS with that of your other major writing projects, especially CONFEDERACY OF SILENCE ?

RR:  Most of what I do as a journalist involves researching a story thoroughly and then seeking out people to interview about this or that aspect of it.  In this case, I didn’t have the luxury of researching the story first, because the people I was hoping to interview were very, very old, and I needed to get to them right away.  So I spent several years finding and interviewing people, and was only able to begin research after that phase of the process was finished.  What that meant was that, with very rare exceptions, I wasn’t able to follow-up with the subject if I discovered some discrepancies between their stories and the official record (which I often did), because they had already passed away.  So in a way, I did this book backwards.

Confederacy of Silence was a memoir, which meant that most of the research I did for that book involved plumbing my own memory; even so, the writing process for The Last of the Doughboys was fairly similar to the writing process for Confederacy of Silence.  In both cases I had a tremendous amount of information to organize and then fit together like a mosaic.  And both books were really, in some way, a matter of inviting the reader to take a journey with me:  In Confederacy, the journey was to the Mississippi of my 20’s, in the 1980’s and ‘90’s; in Doughboys, it was to the homes, and the memories, of the last few living veterans of the First World War.  The books I like to read most all seem to involve some kind of journey or other, so perhaps that’s just how I’m inclined to view a good story.

I was a history major in college, but I’m not an historian, and I’m certainly not a military historian.  While I always take great pains to make sure everything I write is entirely factual and accurate – part of that is my training as a journalist, and part is just my personality.  That’s one reason that it took me ten years to write Doughboys, when I finished Confederacy in about a third that time – that, and the fact that there was just a great deal more information to process, and triage, and organize, and verify.


For more information on THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS and author Richard Rubin, visit his website here.

Richard Rubin will also speak in York, Pennsylvania on Saturday October 12, 2013.  For more information on the WFA East Coast Branch Fall 2013 Symposium, visit the Branch website here.



Perspectives on a National World War 1 Memorial

The 1932 marble sarcophagus which sits atop the tomb of the American Unknown Soldier of WW1.

The 1932 marble sarcophagus which sits atop the tomb of the American Unknown Soldier of WW1.

Among the most common WW1-related public discussions to surface in recent years has been the question of why no national WW1 memorial exists in the nation’s Capital and what, if anything, should be done to rectify the apparent oversight?  The District of Columbia War Memorial, located on the National Mall and dedicated in 1931 to the memory of those from Washington, D.C. who gave their lives in the First World War, has been a frequent pawn in the debate; could, or even should, this memorial be expanded to become the focal point of American collective memory of “The War to End All Wars”?  Others have proposed an entirely new WW1 memorial for the Mall, despite the opposition of the National Park Service which has placed a moratorium on new monuments there.  From yet another perspective, some have pointed to the impressive Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, with its integral National World War I Museum, a world-class institution designated by Congress in 2004 as the country’s official museum of the First World War, asking why should the Liberty Memorial not be elevated to national status?

The desire for a single focal point for the memory of American participation in The Great War 1914-1918 is interesting to contemplate when viewed in the context of the immediate post-WW1 period – a time when strong opinions of the meaning of American involvement in the European war were formed, and also a period when numerous monuments at the local and state levels were conceived and created.  Inspiration for two national monuments near the Capitol also surfaced in this period; one of these never came to pass, while the other survives and flourishes today.

When President Woodrow Wilson set off for France to attend the Paris peace conference in January 1919, he was at the height of his international popularity.  His widely publicized Fourteen Points had set the stage for the Armistice and placed him in the moral leadership of the Allied cause.  His determination to create a League of Nations to uphold international law and prevent future wars was at the heart of his desire to create a “living memorial” to the sacrifices of the Doughboys.

The Big Four 1919: l-r Orlando of Italy, Lloyd-George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and Wilson of the United States.

The Big Four 1919: l-r Orlando of Italy, Lloyd-George of Great Britain, Clemenceau of France, and Wilson of the United States.

While Wilson assumed a prominent role among “The Big Four” in Paris, his stature at home was under fire – in part due to his indelicate handing of domestic politics toward the close of 1918.  Appealing to the nation immediately prior to Congressional elections that October, he openly called for the electorate to send a Democratic majority to Congress – a measure which fractured the delicate wartime political truce between Congressional Republicans and the Democratic President.  Rather than producing the result Wilson had hoped for (which he felt would have strengthened his hand at an anticipated peace conference), the elections yielded a narrow Republican majority.  A short time later, Wilson further opened the rift with his political opposition by selecting a five-man peace commission which contained only one Republican member, a little-known ex-career diplomat named Henry White.  One prominent Republican Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts (who was also Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations), seemed to many a natural choice for the US delegation in Paris, but he was left out; it was known that Lodge and Wilson detested one another.

Wilson’s success in February 1919 convincing the delegates to the Peace Conference to incorporate the League of Nations into the peace treaty, whenever it reached its final form, was tempered the following month by the publication of a “Round Robin” signed by 39 Senators which stated that the League of Nations was unacceptable in its then present form and therefore jeopardized the ratification of the peace treaty by the United States.  Wilson responded to the challenge on the eve of a second trip to France stating in no uncertain terms that he would return to the US with a peace treaty in which the League of Nations was an integral part.

When Wilson returned from Europe for the final time in July 1919, the battle lines for ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and its component League of Nations, were set.  Senator Lodge used his powerful Foreign Relations Committee position to hold a series of lengthy hearings throughout the summer of 1919.  Wilson responded by attempting to take his case to the American people with a planned whistle-stop speech tour that September.  On September 25, after speaking in Pueblo, Colorado, he collapsed from exhaustion, and several days later suffered a stroke.  Returning to Washington, President Wilson remained incapacitated in the White House and for over seven months did not meet with his cabinet.

Voting largely on party lines in November 1919, and again in March 1920, the Senate declined to ratify the Treaty of Versailles either with or without a set 14 formal reservations added by Senator Lodge.

By the early 1920s, American attitudes toward “The War to End All Wars” had changed; disillusionment with the protracted deadlock between Democrats and Republicans over the Versailles Treaty, combined with disenchantment over the Treaty itself, in which many of the idealistic principles of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were apparently bargained and compromised away, had left a bitter taste and fueled isolationist attitudes.

Despite the protracted political maneuverings of the immediate postwar period, the desire to honor the sacrifice of the nation in The World War was strong among many segments of the population and throughout the 1920s and 1930s literally thousands of memorials of various kinds were erected at local and state levels.  The quest to create a national memorial to honor those Americans who died in The World War was also strong in the immediate post-war period though only partly successful.

One plan to construct what was, at least in part, a WW1 memorial on the National Mall was a joint venture between the Smithsonian Institution and an organization known as the George Washington Memorial Association.  In 1914 the two organizations sponsored an architectural design competition for a large multi-use facility honoring the nation’s first President to be built on Constitution Avenue near 7th Street.  Apparently, by the time ground was broken in 1921, the building’s focus had expanded and “The George Washington Victory Memorial Building” would also pay tribute to the Doughboys with a museum and archives dedicated to The World War.  By 1924 the construction site, which included the completed foundation and grand entrance stairway, was fenced in while fundraising efforts were mounted to complete the project.  For over a decade, the organizers persevered, but evidently were unable to generate the public support needed to finish the building.  Undoubtedly the onset of The Great Depression in 1929 sealed the fate of “The George Washington Victory Memorial Building”, though one must also consider the war’s political aftermath in America when evaluating the failure of the public fundraising effort.  Finally, in 1937, the uncompleted building’s foundation and stairway were pulled down to make way for what is today The National Gallery.

An artist's rendering of the planned George Washington Victory Memorial Building.

An artist’s rendering of the planned George Washington Victory Memorial Building.

On March 4, 1921, while the debate over the Versailles Treaty raged in the Senate, the government set the wheels in motion for a national memorial that would, ultimately, be realized.   On that day Congress, approved a plan for the burial of an unidentified American soldier near the recently completed Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery.  Accordingly, on October 22, 1921, the body of an unidentified American was exhumed from each of the nation’s four WW1 cemeteries in France. Each body was examined to confirm that it was that of an AEF soldier who had died from wounds sustained in combat, after which the remains were placed in wooden caskets and transported to the town hall of Chalons-sur-Marne (now known as Chalons-en-Campagne) some 90 miles east of Paris, where an honor guard of French troops awaited their arrival.  A picked group of six highly decorated non-commissioned officers from the US Army occupation force in the Rhineland then converged on Chalons-sur-Marne to act as official pall bearers for the unknowns.  Among those was Sergeant Edward F. Younger who had been twice wounded and received the Distinguished Service Cross while participating in the battles of Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne.  To his surprise, Sergeant Younger was directed by the presiding officer to choose one of the unknowns to be buried at Arlington.  Left alone with the four unmarked caskets, Sgt. Younger circled them three times before placing a bouquet of roses on the third casket from the left.  The remaining three unknowns were subsequently re-interred at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, while the casket chosen by Sgt. Younger was transported to Le Havre and embarked on the cruiser USS OLYMPIA which arrived at the Washington Navy Yard on November 9, 1921.  After lying in state at the Capitol, the casket of The Unknown Soldier was buried in a specially prepared tomb at Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, the third anniversary of the Armistice.

The now-familiar marble sarcophagus which sits atop the Unknown Soldier of WW1 was installed and dedicated in 1932.  Later, American unknown soldiers from WW2, Korea and Vietnam were interred in tombs adjacent to the WW1 unknown and collectively this spot near Arlington’s Memorial Amphitheater is today known as The Tomb of the Unknowns (although the Vietnam unknown was later identified and exhumed for reburial in 1998).  Guarded 24 hours a day by soldiers from the 3rd United States Infantry, the tomb of America’s WW1 Unknown Soldier is among the most hallowed ground in the nation and one of the most iconic places in the Washington, DC metro area.


The burial of the Unknown Soldier of WW1, Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1921.

The burial of the Unknown Soldier of WW1, Arlington National Cemetery, November 11, 1921.

Threatened American Museum Ships Are Unique as WW1 Monuments

USS TEXAS underway shortly after commissioning.

USS TEXAS underway shortly after commissioning.

Naval vessels which saw service in the First World War are comparatively rare among preserved structures, and those which are extant today represent the oldest steel-hulled warships in existence.  While a naval arms race, chiefly between Great Britain and Imperial Germany, was significant in the rise of international tensions leading to the outbreak of war in 1914, survivors from these once substantial fleets are extremely rare.  In St. Petersburg, Russia, the cruiser AURORA, which saw service in the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and WW1 with the Imperial Russian Navy, and later the Soviet Navy, has been a permanently-moored memorial since the 1950s.  In Northern Ireland, the Jutland-veteran cruiser HMS CAROLINE has been preserved through her long service as a Royal Navy drill ship and will soon undergo restoration in conjunction with the centenary of the war.

In the United States, where more historic warships are on display than any other nation, two vessels with connections to the First World War have been preserved, though both of these ships face dire threats as we approach the war’s centenary.

USS TEXAS (BB35), commissioned in 1914, is the only example of a dreadnought battleship left in the world today.  During much of 1918, following America’s entry into the First World War, TEXAS escorted convoys, sortied with the British Grand Fleet, and was part of the Allied force which met the Imperial German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea on its way to surrender at the British naval base of Scapa Flow.

Modernized between the wars, TEXAS remained in service during World War II and was decorated for combat action in the Normandy campaign in 1944, as well as in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.  In 1948, the battleship was donated to her namesake state and placed on display in the Houston Ship Channel near the San Jacinto monument.

The battleship TEXAS as she appears today near the Houston Ship Channel.

The battleship TEXAS as she appears today near the Houston Ship Channel.

Over the decades, countless visitors from across the country and around the world have explored the USS TEXAS, drawn not only for the ship’s connection with US naval actions in both world wars, but also to appreciate her as a priceless example of historic pre-World-War-I American naval construction.

The preservation of USS TEXAS since her decommissioning has not been without its challenges.  In the 1980s, after some 40 years on display, the ship faced a serious threat to her underwater hull body brought on by long-term immersion in the mud and silt of her permanent berth.  In a massive multi-year undertaking beginning in 1988, the battleship was refloated and towed to dry dock where decades of deterioration to her hull plating was addressed, and steps to substantially restore her late World War II appearance were completed.  In the summer of 2012, massive flooding brought on by numerous leaks in the ship’s aging hull required temporary closure of the vessel while costly dewatering, residual fuel containment, and temporary repairs were undertaken.  Starting in April 2013, the Texas Parks and Recreation Department, which has custody of the vessel, will begin a massive $17M stabilization project aimed at replacing some of the most badly deteriorated portions of the vessel’s structure below the waterline.

While stewards of the battleship TEXAS will be digging deeply into endowment funds to stabilize critical areas of ship, the custodians of the armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, another historic American vessel with a connection to the First World War, face an even graver challenge.

USS OLYMPIA in her Spanish-American War configuration.

USS OLYMPIA in her Spanish-American War configuration.

Commissioned in 1895, the protected cruiser OLYMPIA is the oldest steel-hulled warship in the world.  Her main claim to fame is having served as flagship for Commodore George Dewey at the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War.  As a pre-dreadnaught design, OLYMPIA was outclassed by subsequent naval technology during the first decade of the 20th Century and was eventually placed in reserve.  Following America’s entry in the First World War, however, the famed cruiser was returned to active duty where she patrolled the American coast and escorted convoys in the Atlantic.  In April 1918, OLYMPIA carried an American expeditionary force to Russia, then in the midst of revolution and civil war, and subsequently was involved with the occupation of Archangel during the American intervention there.  In 1921, the ship had the honor of transporting the remains of the Unknown Soldier from France to the US for burial at Arlington Cemetery.

After decommissioning in 1922, OLYMPIA was docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, eventually attaining the status of a preserved relic.  In 1957, the ship was turned over to the Cruiser Olympia Association for restoration to her 1898 configuration and public display on the Philadelphia waterfront.  Last dry docked for hull maintenance in 1945, OLYMPIA’s condition below the waterline has steadily deteriorated over the intervening decades, and now the famous ship, which is under the auspices of the Independence Seaport Museum, is in a race with time for her very existence.  With an estimated $10M needed to dry dock and stabilize the cruiser, and without the ability to fund such a project, The Independence Seaport in Philadelphia has been directed by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Donated Ship Program, to solicit potential new owners who may be able to save the ship before she is scrapped or sunk as an artificial reef.  Ironically, the Navy’s cost estimate to prepare the ship for “reefing” approaches the projected cost of stabilization – i.e. saving it.

The armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA as she appears today on the Philadelphia waterfront.

The armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA as she appears today on the Philadelphia waterfront.

What can the public gain from the preservation of these historic naval ships?  Why should the considerable costs incurred in such projects be borne by Americans?

Historic vessels such as TEXAS and OLYMPIA represent a tangible connection with events that shaped who we are as Americans; the stories which they tell have the power to inspire today’s generation as well as tomorrow’s; both of these vessels form part of our national collective memory of American involvement in the First World War.  More than just collections of objects on exhibition, ships such as these offer the visitor a total-tactile-immersion experience that connects them not only with the individuals who manned these ships during events of national importance, but also with those countless Americans who designed, built, and maintained them across the decades, often using skills and methods which have long since vanished.  Indeed, in these two ships we have remarkable examples of historic American engineering which can never be replaced; likewise the connection to the past which they provide is unattainable once lost.













As Monuments Are Rediscovered, So Too Should Context

Wayside Cross honoring the WW1 dead from Baltimore County, Maryland.

Wayside Cross honoring the WW1 dead from Baltimore County, Maryland.

From the time I was a young child in the early 1970s, I became aware of a very small but striking monument in the heart of my hometown that honored the dead from a conflict that had taken place a long, long time before.  This was the wayside cross memorial in Towson, Maryland, erected in the 1920s, which paid tribute to those from Baltimore County who had given their lives in “The World War.”

The wayside cross in Towson always seemed a bit out of place to me amid the busy shopping district with its hurrying passers-by and bustling traffic.  Indeed, the memorial stood just a few feet outside a street entrance to Hutzler’s department store which had opened in the 1950s and was in many ways the centerpiece of the downtown area.  In fact, the monument often seemed “lost” amid the commercial landscape, with few seeming to take much notice of it – its bronze plaques listing the names of the long-forgotten dead had darkened with time and the simple black iron fence at its base appeared like something from another age.

My early impressions of World War I, and with them the context of my hometown’s wayside cross, were shaped by the times in which I grew up.  The generation of World War II and Korea were still very much in their prime and the turbulence of the 1960s had redefined our worldview; World War I – the “war to end all wars” – was something with which only very elderly people seemed to be connected, and they were few and far-between.  My childhood next-door-neighbor, a soft-spoken, white-haired old gentleman in my earliest recollections, had been a Doughboy in 1918 serving in the Signal Corps in France; from what I could learn his war had been one of horse-drawn transport, mustard gas, shell shock, and going “over the top.”  Being within reception of several Washington, DC television stations, I can recall an early 1970s commercial advertising tours of the Woodrow Wilson House set to the tune “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” played softly on a piano.  It all seemed so quaint when compared with complex modern times, and that simple wayside cross monument with its dignified, almost under-stated message, appeared very much a product of a bygone era.

Over the years, as I learned more about the First World War, I came to recognize these memorials in my travels, and to appreciate them not only for their intended purpose, but for their great variety of forms.   In contrast with the simple wayside cross of my hometown, statues were erected in various parts of the country ranging in size and complexity from variations on the familiar “Spirit of the American Doughboy” by sculptor E.M. Viquesney, groups of figures representing soldiers, sailors and airmen, to large bronzes depicting Joan of Arc on horseback.  In some locales, elaborate structures were built, such as the Newport News Victory Arch which resembles the Arc de Triumph in Paris, the temple-like Maryland War Memorial Building in Baltimore, and the Liberty Memorial tower in Kansas City.

WW1 Memorial in Gloucester, Massachussetts depicting Joan of Arc

WW1 Memorial in Gloucester, Massachussetts depicting Joan of Arc

With the coming centenary of the First World War, monuments across the United States are now being “rediscovered” in the towns and cities where they have stood in many cases for nearly 90 years.  In some instances these monuments have been restored from states of disrepair; in others there have been actual rediscoveries of plaques and tablets that had been tucked away and forgotten, and communities have sought to bring these monuments back into the public view.

The rediscovery and reconnection with the context of these memorials, indeed, the enrichment of our national collective memory of The Great War, is the central focus of the World War 1 Centennial Network.  By promoting our diverse strengths and areas of expertise, the member organizations of the Network can create and cross-promote dynamic public programs, exhibitions, tours, publications and media programs that capture the imagination of Americans and place them in touch with the broader meaning behind the memorials and monuments left behind by the generation that went “over there.”