July 31, 1914: Lightning on the Horizon

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 31, 1914 (3:30 p.m. edition)
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, July 31, 1914 (3:30 p.m. edition)

While World War I officially began on July 28, 1914, it took American media until July 31st to catch up to what was going on–likely in part because that was the day Imperial Russia announced its vast army was mobilizing in preparation for war.

Also, dispatches from foreign correspondents were still relayed by telegraph in some places, so transcription and copyediting naturally took some time. What’s interesting when surveying lesser-known papers like the Honolulu Star-Bulletin above is how much work they put in to their front pages announcing the beginning of hostilities. If anything, they were much more visually interesting (at least to a modern-day eye) than the staid and text-heavy New York Times or Washington Post (though these papers, in their defense, were often using the words of their own foreign correspondents, not press services).

The Star-Bulletin must have had a pretty hard-working staff, as the right side of the page above looks upon close inspection a lot like a live-blog, using reports aggregated from the “Associated Press Service by Federal Wireless”:

Detail from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7/31/1914
Detail from the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 7/31/1914

Another of the many small city papers that used eye-catching graphics to bring home the gravity of developments in Europe was Missoula, Montana’s Daily Missoulian, which published this striking and (to me) oddly modern graphic meant to illustrate the relative sizes of the armies of the initial aggressors:

Graphic from Missoula, MT Daily Missoulian, 7/31/1914
Graphic from Missoula, MT Daily Missoulian, 7/31/1914

Much closer to the action, old line English papers like the Daily Telegraph soldiered on without much obvious drama, though the Telegraph’s coverage was comprehensive. This map published in the July 31st, 1914 Telegraph illustrated known Austrian and Serbian troop movements:

Map from the London (UK) Daily Telegraph, pubbed 7/31/1914
Map from the London (UK) Daily Telegraph, pubbed 7/31/1914

Though the media worldwide had paid close attention to the June 28, 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, it seems like July 31st was the moment everyone realized the size and gravity of what was happening on the Continent. They saw the lightning, and even as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii, they were waiting on the thunder.

Paris, 1914: a solstice gathering

The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion - Wikipedia, public domain image
The Flammarion Engraving, artist unknown, associated with writings of Camille Flammarion – Wikipedia, public domain image

At midnight on June 22, 1914, an august party of dignitaries gathered atop the Eiffel Tower to, according to the following day’s New York Times, “salute sunrise on the occasion of the Summer solstice.”

The gathering was not the first of its kind (it was the eleventh) and perhaps not of historical importance, but the famous names mentioned in the Times article imbued the account with a certain gravity.

A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)
A Jean de Paléologue poster for Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère in 1902 (Wikipedia, public domain)

The Times reported that attendees included astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion, who addressed the gathering. Also among the 200 or so in attendance were leading French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Gustave Eiffel himself, and American astronomer Percival Lowell.

The assemblage had a banquet, at some point Flammarion gave his speech and the Times reported everyone enjoyed “an ‘astronomical burlesque.'”

Then, at 3 a.m., American dancer Loïe Fuller took center stage and performed a “sunrise dance.”

Fuller, a true pioneer in dance, had left America many years before to find her fame in Europe. She became a star in Paris, and it remained her home till her death in 1928. She was a true innovator in style and lighting, famed for her “Serpentine Dance.”

Aside from newspaper accounts, there isn’t much of a record of Mme. Fuller’s appearance on the Tower that solstice, nor of how she choreographed her 1914 “sunrise” steps. This silent short from 1902 of her performing the “Serpentine” illustrates her style.

A sense of what those assembled atop the Eiffel Tower that night may have felt watching the performance can be gleaned from a  quote by her contemporary Arsène Alexandre, who described Fuller as a “marvelous dream-creature you see dancing madly in a vision swirling among her dappled veils which change ten thousand times a minute.”

As for the speaker, Camille Flammarion–he was a forerunner of the likes of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, popularizing astronomy the best way he could at the time, through lectures as well as scientific and speculative writing. Some idea of Flammarion’s way with words can be found in the Augusta Rice Stetson translation of his novel Uranie. In Chapter 3, describing the protagonist’s fanciful flight across several other worlds, Flammarion portrayed a moment among human-like creatures with glowing eyes:

On another globe which we crossed during the night […] human eyes are so constructed as to be luminous, and shine as though some phosphorescent emanation radiated from their strange centres. A night meeting comprising a large number of these persons presents an extremely fantastic appearance, because the brilliancy, as well as the color, of the eyes changes with the different passions by which they are swayed.

Imagine that night, with a cool breeze up there above the hustle and clamor of Paris, that “marvelous dream-creature” turning wildly in her shimmering silks before the crowd. The lights of the city below like Flammarion’s fantastic night meeting of glowing eyes, watching the tower and the sky beyond. It was a moment, a pause.

June 28 was less than a week away.

[The New York Times, edition published 6/23/1914, via Newspapers.com]

June 20, 1914… An Awkward Moment in Hamburg

the Bismarck, later renamed Majestic. Public domain image, Wikipedia
the Bismarck, later renamed Majestic, then HMS Caledonia. Public domain image, Wikipedia

On June 20, 1914, the massive cruise ship to be named after Germany’s revered Otto von Bismarck loomed in Blohm and Voss ship yard in Hamburg. Bismarck’s granddaughter, Countess Hannah von Bismarck, and Kaiser Wilhelm stood nearby. The following day the New York Times reported what was likely an English translation of the Countess’s words: “By command of his majesty the Kaiser, I baptize thee Bismarck.”

After her declaration, the Countess smashed the traditional sacrificial bottle of champagne against the steel leviathan’s hull.

Nothing happened. The bottle was intact. It’s easy to imagine it spinning at the end of its decorative tether like a rude question followed by awkward silence.

Kaiser Wilhelm took action then, propelled by well-known maritime superstition. As reported by the Times, he “rushed forward, seized the bottle and, drawing it back over his right shoulder, sent it crashing against the side of the vessel,” whereupon it shattered. Those assembled must have felt the fate of the Bismarck was secure and the sailors in particular may have felt a bit of relief. As CruiseBrothers Travel News tells us, an unbroken dedicatory bottle of bubbly supposedly means “that bad luck will follow the ship.”

The crowd assembled for the launching celebrated by singing the German national anthem, intoning its characteristic refrain, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”–Germany, Germany above all.

The great Bismarck was the largest ship in the world at the time. It didn’t fall prey to any of the usual bad luck expected to follow vessels with questionable launching conditions. At least, not immediately. It remained the biggest boat around until the mid-1930s.

By the beginning of World War II, the Bismarck was called HMS Caledonia and it was part of the British Navy. It had been turned over to Great Britain at the end of World War I as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

On September 29, 1939, twenty-eight days after World War II began, the former Bismarck caught fire while docked and sank.

The day the Bismarck launched and the crowd sang it into the sea, a key member of the German royal family embarked on a journey. Over 430 miles from Hamburg, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, left their official residence south of Prague.

The Archduke planned to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In eight days, the Archduke and his Countess would be in Sarajevo.

Additional info: History on the Net, Toronto Star.

June 18, 1914, and Ten Days To Go

Franz-Ferdinand of Austria (Wikipedia, public domain image)
Franz-Ferdinand of Austria (Wikipedia, public domain image)

One hundred years ago today, the world had just 10 days to go before the assassinations that would spark the Great War, World War I.

I’ve tossed around, even blogged about ideas such as daily blogging events of the day 100 years ago today, etc., but I’ve found that without the carrot of a paycheck, it’s sometimes hard to motivate myself to really work on a regular daily blog post or a series of posts.

But I still survey news from 100 years ago each day, using Newspapers.com (pay service) and the Library of Congress’s collection of historic newspapers, which is free for anyone to use. I pin or tweet some of the stranger, funnier things and  have posts here about stories that were particularly interesting and begged more research.

What comes home again and again as I read–and I also check out English and various European publications where available–is this was a world unaware. Most books about World War I touch on this right away, how the conflagration that arose from bullets fired into Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, quickly spiraled into a horrific wildfire.

Something about the prosaic nature of the news of 1914 prior to June 28 slams the point solidly home… though I’m sure none of it seemed prosaic at the time.

Screengrab from an American paper published 6/19/1914
Screengrab from an American paper published 6/19/1914

In London, the ongoing concern was women’s suffrage. English women seeking political franchise in the early 1900s were absolutely badass and took no prisoners in their drive to get the vote. In the first 6 months of 1914 they were regularly bombing, slashing, marching and beating their way into the public eye. On June 18th, English Prime Minister Asquith finally assented to a meeting with a deputation of protesters, in part to avert their leader’s hunger strike.

Just as the world’s eyes are on the World Cup today, American and English papers were paying close attention to the International Polo Cup. The English had just defeated the American team on June 15th, and the rivalry wasn’t all that friendly in print.

Blurb from the Wilmington, NC Morning Star, pubbed 6/19/1914.
Blurb from the Wilmington, NC Morning Star, pubbed 6/19/1914.

An English account of the victory made it sound as if all those polo grounds were missing was vuvuzelas.

Daily Telegraph, 6/18/1914
Daily Telegraph, 6/18/1914

The Telegraph also reported on a strange murder case in court in Berlin. Young Brunnhilde Wilden had become involved with two doctors at the same time, and from there, things had gotten weird:

A strange murder trial which involves difficult psychological problems was commenced at Elberfeld recently. The defendant, who is indicted on the actual capital crime, is Brunhilde Wilden, an attractive girl of 21 years, belonging to a substantial Dusseldorf family. By her side in the dock stands a medical practitioner, Dr. Nolten, her fellow-townsman, who is charged with having incited and abetted her.

It was believed Brun(n)hilde had become involved with Dr. Nolten but maintained her relationship with the other doctor, whom she was accused of killing.

Meanwhile, in Russia, someone had attempted to kill the Czar, which wasn’t prosaic at all. The Associated Press reported it thusly:

AP report in the East Liverpool, OH Evening Review, 6/18/1914
AP report in the East Liverpool, OH Evening Review, 6/18/1914
Mme Caillaux, US press report pubbed nationwide, 6/19/1914
Mme Caillaux, US press report pubbed nationwide, 6/19/1914

And in France, the papers and the populace were still consumed, as they would be until Franz-Ferdinand’s assassination on June 28, with the ongoing murder trial of Mme. Henriette Caillaux. Madame Caillaux had murdered newspaper editor Gaston Calmette in March, 1914, and her prosecution was a trial of the century sort of event for France at the time.

So the world was cranking on, as it will do. As it does today. There were skirmishes and battles elsewhere, in the Balkans, in Greece. In the United States, the constant slow boil of conflict with a turbulent Mexico to the south seemed to be sorting itself out… but no one was sure, yet. Depending on the paper and its editorial bent, war with Mexico was either still imminent or the threat was finally on the wane.

There were rumblings and explosions and murmurs and rumors, but no one knew the white-hot burst of fury to come.

I am perhaps too obsessed with the concept of history not precisely repeating, but rhyming. That’s why I’m so drawn to examining events a century ago and sometimes finding parallels. Or, where there are no direct parallels, at least asking the question: are we unwittingly closing in on some kind of flashpoint, as well? It would be too bizarre for it to happen precisely 100 years later; no one can believe that and be entirely sane. Yet sometimes I wonder if we’re both living in a world with that potential and if there’s some unexpected place where it will occur.

Interesting as some of the things dominating the news 100 years ago today might have been, there were no portents. The world was humming along in a certain rhythm. There was mayhem, murder and calumny, but no one smelled the blood, mud and gunpowder to come.

If history does rhyme at all, even slant rhyme, this should keep us on our toes today. It might be okay to be a little bit nervous.


Dr. Edward W. Ryan, American Badass

Short notices published in the Tacoma Times on May 1, 1914
Short notices published in the Tacoma Times on May 1, 1914

I like plucking little known but fascinating people from the pages of newspapers published 100 years ago, and damned if Dr. Edward W. Ryan, of Scranton, PA, isn’t one of the most interesting I’ve read about. Dr. Ryan was a fearless and manic physician and he was everywhere in the 1910s. He may have first arrived in the public consciousness on today’s date, May 1, 1914. That’s when several American papers published notice that he was about to executed in Mexico, as a spy.

The Mexican Revolution was in full swing in May, 1914, and it seemed like America might join in the fray at any moment to make it a full shooting war between our nations as well, because why not? After all, President William Howard Taft’s secretary of state, Henry Lane Wilson, had colluded with the Mexicans to bring about a coup in 1913, overthrowing Mexican president Francisco Madero and installing Victoriano Huerta in his place. Of course America screwed it up, because Huerta ended up being a brutal dictator. By this time in 1914 troops loyal to him had come face-to-face with American warships at Veracruz and there were prisoners being taken and people getting killed on both sides. U.S. newspapers were in a froth about the whole thing, each day. Events in Mexico were a complete obsession–at least for the media. Like the Spanish Inquisition, no one expected the Great War to come, elsewhere.

So–Dr. Edward Ryan’s arrest wasn’t particularly surprising, given everything going on at the time,

Dr. Edward W. Ryan, badass. (state.gov)
Dr. Edward W. Ryan, badass. (state.gov)

but nothing could stop an early 20th Century American newsman from finding drama. So it was reported on May 1 that “The government is today endeavoring to learn the truth concerning Dr. Edward Ryan, an American, who is reported to be in danger of execution as a spy. It is admitted that Ryan has been acting as an agent of the state department as well as a Red Cross representative, but It is said that not the slightest effort has been made to conceal the fact, so there are no grounds for treating him as a spy.”

My first thought was how interesting it might be if he really was a spy. But after some additional research I discovered Dr. Ryan may not have been a spy–but he was a badass. The Mexicans would end up letting him go, and the tale of how that occurred is worth quoting in full. This is from a document published by the U.S. Department of State about Dr. Ryan, titled “The Amazing Dr. Edward Ryan and the Work of the American Red Cross in Estonia.”

This is the section about Dr. Ryan’s time in Mexico:

Ryan’s quiet life as a New York City doctor came to an abrupt end in 1913. When the U.S. Department of State went looking for volunteers to help evacuate American citizens caught up in the ongoing Mexican revolution, Dr. Ryan answered the call to adventure. After working in various parts of Mexico, Dr. Ryan ended up in the city of Torreón in the state of Coahuila.Everything went well until the day when Dr. Ryan was captured by a rebel leader from the neighboring state of Zacatecas and declared a spy and prisoner of war. And so began Dr. Ryan’s first near death adventure.

As The [Scranton, PA] Republican described it in his obituary, “the conventional order to ‘be shot at sunrise’ became a serious reality for Dr. Ryan, and the next morning, he was lead out to the post where he was to meet his death. His sentence of death was read to him, but he listened to it with such calm contempt and stoic demeanor that his enemies – especially the rebel chief – abandoned their plans for his immediate death. Better to say that they postponed their plans, for the performance was repeated the next day – and for thirteen consecutive days. Then, through some whim of their captors, Dr. Ryan and a few associates who had been taken prisoner with him were set scot-free and went soon on their way back to Mexico City. The local physician later denied the statements of his associates that he had been ‘stoical’ under the harrowing experience in the rebel camp, rather explaining that after the first few sunrises he began to get rather hopeful, and finally got used to it. The State Department of this country interested itself in having Dr. Ryan released and overnight he became a national figure.” While Dr. Ryan seldom talked about any of his own adventures, others – awed by his complete lack of fear – did that for him. And so the Ryan legend was born.

The dude was the real deal. No one wants to die, but a lot of people probably like to think that if it death becomes inevitable, they’ll greet it with that kind of stoic calm–on the surface, anyway.

You’d think that for many, nearly getting shot by Mexican revolutionaries might put the kibosh on further adventuring, but then you’re evidently not thinking like an Edward Ryan. As the State Dept. document goes on to explain, when the Great War erupted across Europe in August, 1914, the Red Cross sent physicians to do work in some of the worst places on the continent. That’s how, in 1915, Dr. Ryan ended up in Serbia. And it may have been the American media’s tendency at the time (and let’s face it, they still do this) to puff up our positive contributions to anything, but in January, 1915, the New York Times published an article, complete with interviews, positing the idea that Dr. Ryan’s actions in Belgrade may have saved Serbia. The Grey Lady quoted Mrs. Slavko Grouitch, an American who’d ended up the wife of the Serbian Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs. She quoted letters from her husband, who wrote that “Dr. Ryan had saved Belgrade and its remaining population when the Austrians captured the place, and … in the presence of the American Minister and other high officials, Dr. Ryan had been thanked by the Crown Prince for the great services he had rendered the [Serbians].”

Dr. Ryan, who specialized in treating “fevers”–illnesses like typhus, for example–was himself killed by malaria while in Tehran on September 18, 1923. He was just 39, and due to work he did throughout the Great War as lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, responsible for the American Red Cross commission to Western Russia and the Baltic, he was a decorated hero. As the Scranton Times-Tribune reported in December, 2012, Serbia eventually awarded Dr. Ryan “commander of the White Eagle and commander of the Order of St. Sava” in addition to “the Charity Cross and the Red Cross.” His service in Estonia after the war led to that nation awarding Dr. Ryan “Officer First Class of the Order of Liberty.” According to the Scranton paper, he received similar awards from France, Russia and Greece, to name a few.

It’s great that his hometown papers remember him, as does the State Department, but Dr. Edward Ryan sounds like the kind of guy who deserves a little more. He packed a lot into 39 years, made all of it count. He was gone when my grandpa was still in short pants, but he has all my respect.

Reductions of Arms, Naval Holidays and Unexpected Eruptions of Insanity

On February 24, 2014, American Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed considerable cuts in US military spending. Hagel’s  cuts seem rational in light of the United States’ costly involvements in various conflicts for more than a decade. From a Defense Department press release:

Hagel called the reductions — including shrinking the Army to its smallest size since before World War II and eliminating an entire fleet of Air Force fighter planes — “difficult choices” that will change defense institutions for years to come, but designed to leave the military capable of fulfilling U.S. defense strategy and defending the homeland against strategic threats.

Hagel admitted there are risks in his proposal. For example, the Defense Dept. report says Hagel’s plan “calls for reducing to as low as 440,000 active duty soldiers from the current size of 520,000, while ensuring the force remains well trained and equipped.” Any reduction in troops for a country that’s had so many stationed overseas for so long seems risky.

There is optimism in the idea of making these cuts. They show strong confidence in our technological advantages and suggest reduced national posturing in favor of calm command of the situation.

That said, I was looking through papers from this date 100 years ago when I found an article that made me question my positive response to Hagel’s press conference.

Great Britain was the leading world super power in the early 20th century, though several nations nipped at its heels.

On February 26, 1914, an article published on American wire services detailed an address from the English First Lord of the Admiralty in which he urged an interesting plan for England and Germany. He proposed both nations take a “naval holiday” and halt construction of battleships for a year. According to the article, “Widespread interest was aroused by the proposal” and significance “attached to the offer,” which the lord made during a discussion of naval expenses and “the inevitably heavy increase in armaments if the rivalry continued.”

The article stated that the official’s plan came about because “the situation in Europe was much clearer […] than it had been for some time.”

The report continued, saying there were “strong evidences of a desire for peace and the greatly improved relations between Great Britain and Germany rendered the moment favorable for the resumption of the consideration […] of a naval holiday.”

Winston Churchill, circa 1914. From a copy of the Ontario Argus, 2/26/1914.
Winston Churchill, circa 1914. From a copy of the Ontario Argus, 2/26/1914.

The First Lord of the Admiralty speaking of Europe’s clear “situation” and good relations between his country and Germany was Winston Churchill, then 40.

Approximately 5 months after his address, World War I began.

In 2014 perception of our world situation is clearer than it would have been for anyone taking the temperature of the times in 1914. Anyone curious and engaged with access to the internet can get a better grasp on the situation in Ukraine in 50 minutes than 1914 English military intelligence might have had on tensions in Austro-Hungary in 5 months.

So it would be silly to use the irony of Churchill’s proposal coming a scant few months before the Great War to predict events in the world today. And the parallel is weak, if you poke at it–for example, America’s proposed draw-down of troop force is for the US alone. It’s budgetary, not pacific. Chuck Hagel didn’t invite China or Russia to do the same because the world situation seems just fine now; he knows it’s not.

Ignore the coincidence, then, and take what happened so soon after Churchill’s open hand to Germany as a word to the wise. In February, 1914, Churchill said there were “strong evidences of a desire for peace.”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28. The war began on July 28.

Five months from now, everything will likely be fine and Hagel’s announcement won’t seem ironic. After all, in our hyper-connected world, how could things change that fast and a nation as powerful as the United States not have some warning?

Well… each year, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) issues a “Preventive Priorities Survey.” Its purpose is to evaluate possible future violent conflicts around the world. The survey also determines how likely a given conflict might be in the year to come.

The 2014 survey, issued in mid-December 2013, has a number of solid predictions for what they call Tier I, high priority conflicts, including:

-A severe North Korean crisis caused by a military provocation, internal political instability, or threatening nuclear weapons/long-range missiles

-A mass-casualty terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or a treaty ally

-A highly disruptive cyberattack on U.S. critical infrastructure

-Renewed threat of military strikes against Iran as a result of a breakdown in nuclear negotiations and/or clear evidence of Iran’s intent to develop a nuclear weapons capability

-Increasing internal violence and political instability in Pakistan

Venezuela, which is currently in such a state of unrest that Pope Francis has called for calm and dialogue, was highlighted on the CFR’s 2014 conflict map. It was labeled Tier III, or “low priority.”

Ukraine, which in the last week toppled its President after months of protest, was not highlighted at all. Now the Russian military is on alert as tensions rise between Russia and the new, still wobbly Ukrainian leadership over the Crimea.

It isn’t that World War III may be right around the corner. That’s a stretch. But even today, Venezuela and Ukraine alone prove that international affairs can explode in remarkable, unpredictable ways. Those events can defeat the deeply informed minds in the United States Defense Department or the experienced analysts at the CFR and render their plans and warnings moot. Just as in the past, when a chain reaction of chaos blooming across Europe confounded–perhaps–a mind like Winston Churchill’s.

I wonder if Churchill ever thought of that “naval holiday” proposal as the Great War raged, and shook his head in dismay.


Take a Ride on the Lusitania! (History From an Ad)

Ad published 2/25/1914 in the New York Tribune
Ad published 2/25/1914 in the New York Tribune

A New Yorker thoroughly reading the Tribune on February 25, 1914 might have spotted this page 15 ad from the Cunard Line. The ad touted Cunard’s fleet of -tanias, calling them the fastest in the world.

And there, at the head, the Lusitania. If that Tribune reader had the means, they could have purchased a ticket for a March departure. They would have been on their way to the continent in less than a month. Travel records available via Ancestry.com show the Lusitania was in port at New York twice that March, on the 6th and the 27th.

The Great War exploded across Europe in August, 1914. In a way, this ad for leisurely cruises to alluring European destinations underscores the speed with which those nations fell into conflict. By September that year the British Admiralty had requisitioned both the Lusitania and the Mauretania. By November, the Lusitania was making just one ocean crossing a month. On her return trips to England, she was carrying munitions manufactured in the “neutral” United States.

Then, on May 7, 1915, the German U-boat designated U-20 torpedoed the great ship 14 miles off Kinsale in the south of Ireland. It only took one torpedo. A second explosion ensued, likely from ignited munitions. About 20 minutes later, over 1200 souls went down with the ship.

The Mauretania would sail on. She was taken out of service in 1934, a victim of Cunard’s merger with the White Star Line (of Titanic fame), as well as the Great Depression. The “magnificent” Aquitania lasted until 1949 and she was scrapped in 1950.

[Additional information: Lusitania.net]