Research Notes – The Great War (12) The American President Hesitates

My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. I hope you find these bits of history as interesting as I do.

Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States in 1913, after serving as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and as Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. Despite being a politician from the Mid-Atlantic states, Wilson was born and spent his early years in Virginia and Georgia, during the time of slavery and The Civil War. The dreadful war that tore the United States asunder had a huge influence on Wilson’s reluctance to commit an American army to fight on foreign soil, even for their closest allies. Nevertheless, by 1916, the USA was neutral in name only.

The war was fought not just with guns and bullets, but with food, clothing and other supplies. Barbed-wire, for instance, had been invented as a means of corralling the huge herds of cattle in the American West. Now it was being used as an obstacle to the soldiers trying to cross the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the trenches on the Western Front. These goods had to be brought in by ship from noncombatant nations willing to supply either side.

From the outset of hostilities, the British had squeezed German supply lines with a naval blockade. The Germans responded with their own lethal weapon – the U-Boat, a shortening of ‘unterseeboot‘, literally ‘undersea boat’. This terrifying weapon would have shifted the balance to a greater degree except for one factor: America. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, had condemned the use of the U-boat against neutral nations and civilian vessels. Fearing American entry into the war, the German government complied. Unrestricted submarine warfare was off the table. When German military commanders reviewed the situation, they realized adhering to these demands was the only thing saving the British from disaster.

The German U-boats patrolling the trade routes found targets in civilian ships despite the rules to stay away. The merchant ships of Britain and France often disguised their ships with flags of neutral countries but often didn’t fool the U-boat commanders stalking them. In those days, submarine captains only had the use of the periscope to decide whether a ship could be targeted or not. There was no sonar, no radar; all information was gathered by eyesight. It could be very easy to make a mistake and the captains tended to err on the side of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. As a result, passenger liners like the Lusitania had been sunk in 1915 to enormous outcry in the United States. The American President threatened but still kept the nation out of the war.

By 1916, the British blockade was beginning to deeply impact Germany’s ability to wage war and to feed and care for its citizens back home. The potentially game-changing U-boats were being held in check and only at the behest of the United States. German leaders were finding this policy more and more incomprehensible. What did the Germans have to fear from America, after all?

At the time of The Spanish-American War, American military strength peaked at 210,000 men. This was in 1898. By 1907, it had dwindled to a mere 64,000 men. The British had that many casualties on the first day of fighting in The Somme. By 1914, the U.S. army had swelled to 98,000 men with another 10,000 added by 1916. The Germans were not intimidated by a 110,000 man army, deficient in experience and in both weapons and material for fighting a modern war. Militarily, the Germans ranked the United States with Denmark, Chile and Holland.

So it was on January 31, 1917 that Germany decided they would be hamstrung no longer. The Imperial German Government notified the American President that they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wired.

Research Notes – The Great War (11) Passchendaele 1917

My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. One of my characters will be in the mud of Passchendaele in 1917. I visited the area in 2013. It is still chilling to think of the horrors that the soldiers endured.

The stalemate along the Western Front in 1917 looked like it might finally be breaking, with successes by British and Canadian forces in taking Messines and Vimy Ridges, respectively. The German salient had been pushed back and the plans to break the line were being formulated. The forthcoming battle would officially be known as the Third Battle of Ypres, but would be more famously known as The Battle of Passhendaele, after the little village a few miles to the east of the site.

The area from Ypres to Passchendaele slopes continuously uphill—not an ideal way for the British to forge into battle. Even the soil around the area was about to become an obstacle. It had the consistency of clay—dense and heavy and prone to holding water. Before the war, the farmers who worked this land had needed to build up an elaborate drainage system to draw off the water during the rainy season. The battles fought in the area over the course of the war had demolished this fragile system, with the result that rain-soaked fields would become mires of thick, clinging mud. The success of the British advance in the Third Battle of Ypres was dependent on the weather cooperating.

June 1917 proved to be a good month for getting ready. In July the weather was for the most part agreeable, and the gun batteries came forward and took up their positions. The standard means of attack was to use heavy artillery to bombard the enemy in their trenches and then to send infantry ‘over the top’ to fight man to man. The initial bombardment could go on for weeks at a time, rendering the field into which the soldiers would follow a nightmare landscape of craters, rubble and ash. Though this approach had so far not proven to be an effective method, the generals were still enthralled by the idea of ‘more’ —more artillery cannons, more guns, more men, and not to mention, more casualties.

Airplanes had become a means of reconnaissance and the reports brought back by the pilots stated that the German morale was low and conditions looked good for an attack. However, British intelligence-gathering during the war was neither very objective nor accurate. The spies were told what the commanders hoped was true, and the spies basically confirmed that it was.

The artillery began raining death on July 18th, with the infantry attack scheduled to begin on July 31st. But as the shriek and blast of the heavy mortars went on for those two weeks, the weather began to turn. At first, occasional heavy rains filled the myriad shell holes littering the fields and due to the poor drainage, they remained that way. Still, on that last day of July 1917, the men crawled from the trenches at day break, carrying 60-80 pounds of gear on their backs and began to advance. They made two miles by nightfall and considered it a good start.

The next day, the first of August, it began to rain in earnest. This was no summer shower; it was a steady, soaking, continuous downpour. It rained for two weeks straight. The already saturated soil began to dissolve. The shell holes filled and the engineers tried to build up wooden walkways around them. The soldiers were slipping in the mud, falling in, and with their heavy packs weighing them down, drowning. The boards laid down to create footing were little better. In the rain, they became slick so that the soldiers had to tread carefully. The Germans shot the slow moving infantrymen off the boards, they fell in the mud and drowned.

August gave way to September and still the rain fell. Despite all this misery, the attack went on and finally Canadian troops took and held the village of Passchendaele. The advance on the Ypres Salient had gained the British four miles at the cost of a quarter million men.

British military historian Basil Liddell Hart relates the story of a staff officer who visited the battlefield after the fact. As he gazed out at the sea of mud, he said, “My God, did we send men to advance in that?” He then broke down and wept as his escort led him away.

There would never be another battle like Passchendaele. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night that battles like those fought on the Western Front could never be fought again:

“See that little stream we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. …This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes.”

He meant the only people that could fight that sort of battle were those who possessed a sure faith in their countries, their institutions, and their own unquestioned value systems. Only that kind of faith and confidence could prepare men sufficiently to endure the hell of such battles. Men like that were now gone: rotting in the fields of Belgium and France or if they lived, no longer in possession of such faith.

Nevertheless, the war itself had another year to run. New methods and new weapons were about to change the practice of war forever.

Images courtesy: Canadian War Museum, The Times of London, The Spectator, and Wikipedia

Research Notes – The Great War (10) Keeping House In 1914

My current work in progress is a historical novel partially set during World War One. To write the story accurately, I’ve been reading about all things war related. This is not really about The Great War, but it is about the time period. As with the details of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic and other events that would impact the lives of my historical characters, I want to make sure I write everything authentically. That includes the way they would have worked, eaten, dressed and housed themselves.

My central character in the 1910’s timeline, Gladys Henry, is a young woman who, although would have been considered fairly middle class –her father is a clerk at the bank in their town in the west of England– has had to take on a job when the family falls on hard times. Her father becomes too ill to work and of course, without work there is no pay. In those days, the options for women to work were limited. Without some sort of training in a profession like teaching or nursing, women would likely have to find work as domestic help. This is the case with Gladys. She spends her days as a maid in the services of a wealthy family in the town, cleaning the manor house in which they live.

Now, this all probably sounds very Downton Abby, but I absolutely refuse to rely on another work of fiction as a source for information. (Besides, I really wasn’t a fan after they killed off Matthew. Ugh.) Anyway, in my internet search, I came across an article titled “Home Duties” from a periodical of the time which describes the tasks involved in keeping house in those days.

In cleaning the bedrooms for example, windows would be opened wide, no matter the season. Curtains or draperies would be taken from their rods and shaken out, carpets would be rolled up and removed to the outdoors to have the dust beaten out. The now bare windows would be washed as would all the mirrors. Upholstered furniture would be brushed and leather furniture wiped down with damp, flannel cloths.

Sheets would be stripped from the beds and taken to the laundry where they would be washed and scrubbed by hand and then hung on lines to dry, after-which they would be ironed by a fire-heated iron. The rest of the bedding: blankets, quilts, coverlets, etc. would also be shaken out and left to air on the outside clotheslines. As you can imagine, the weather would have a huge impact on the housekeepers’ ability to perform these duties!

When furniture needed to be polished, a home made polishing agent was concocted. I found this recipe for one in the article:

  • Half pint of cold water
  • One ounce of Castille soap cut into slices and dissolved in the water
  • Half pint of turpentine
  • One ounce white wax, one ounce bee’s wax, dissolved in the turpentine
  • Mix the water solution and the turpentine solution together
  • Add one to two tablespoons menthylated spirits and shake vigorously.

When all was cleaned, dried and removed of wrinkles, everything would be put back in place, and if the rooms would not be in use till guests once again visited, everything would be covered with dust sheets.

Whew…. makes me grateful for my Shark vacuum and my Maytag washing machine. This might seem like research ovrkill, and in truth not all of that will make it into the story. However, just knowing how they performed their duties helps keep mistakes from creeping in. For example, erroneously describing the use of a commercial product which may not have existed in those days. It’s the small things that can make or break a story sometimes. I just wish I had a couple of Victorian ladies to beta read this book for me!