WHEN JOHNNY WENT marching off to war, he left behind one world and entered an entirely new one. It started from his first day at training camp where he found himself in the company of men from all over the country. Despite the variety of customs, accents and religions, however, the soldier took comfort in knowing that these were fellow Americans, all fighting for the same cause. Europe, on the other hand, was something else altogether.
TRANSPORT SHIPS & U-BOATS
All of the 2,079,880 American soldiers who fought in Europe during the Great War had to get there by transport ship. So did all the food, horses, tanks, weapons, airplanes and other supplies needed by the troops. This was a massive undertaking, one which was not lost on Senator Kendrick. In 1917, in a letter from France, Kendrick noted, "One of the first impressions to be had from such a trip is the tremendous stretch of water over which we must transport our troops and supplies, and the huge task involved in landing our men safely in Europe."
Because of the threat of German submarines, called "U-boats," that "tremendous stretch of water" could be very dangerous. Not only was there the cold and enemy to worry about, but rough seas made for a great deal of seasickness. Lt. Harry Henderson, a close childhood friend of Manville and Rosa-Maye Kendrick, wrote of his experiences:
[Date and Location Censored] -- Just a few lines that must perforce be rather formal, as censorship always upsets my originality. We cannot talk about the boat, the people, or much but our health, but the latter is probably good … Are scrambling thru the worst of the “zone” and the appearance of a sea gull is carefully noted by a very pop-eyed and anxious flock of passengers. Some of the rather weak sisters sleep in their clothes and cluster close to the life preservers.
Believing there was safety in numbers, ships traveled in convoys. These large, closely-formed groups were protected on all sides by heavily armed naval vessels. This helped deter the U-boats, which liked to prey on lone, unescorted ships. To disguise their position, the vessels were camouflaged by a mixture of colored stripes, called "dazzle patterns," designed to maximize light refraction.
Soldiers and sailors weren't the only ones crossing the ocean during the war. Along with Red Cross nurses and other volunteers, politicians such as Senator Kendrick rode the transport ships to see for themselves how the war was going. And just like everyone else, they had to watch out for enemy submarines. Although U-boats could easily be sunk by torpedoes, floating mines or depth charges, they were hard to locate. Along with the rest of the crew, transport passengers shared patrol duties, watching around the clock for the appearance of U-boat periscopes.
On February 5, 1918, the SS Tuscania was sunk off the coast of Ireland. It was one of the first American troop transport ships to be torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. Some of the ship's survivors later described their ordeal:
The lifeboats and rafts were drifting helplessly about. In and out among these boats the destroyers raced, looking for traces of the submarine and dropping depth bombs. Each time one of the “ash cans” exploded, the boats would shiver and shake. Those men who were in the water were knocked breathless. The noise of the depth bombs, the bursting of the distress and the illuminating rockets, together with the reports from the destroyer's deck guns, created the impression that a Naval battle was in progress. Most of the boys believed we were being shelled by the Germans.
Harry Henderson was almost a passenger on the Tuscania. As he told Manville in a letter dated February 1918,
I guess I told you I saw the “Arania” might soon before she was sunk from the deck of my boat. That was squeak #1. #2 was when I missed taking the “Tuscania” by a matter of minutes -- it all depended where I stood in line. And #3 was when I was so close to being in a channel collision in a young fog that I'd have sold my commission chances for two bits. One of my friends, whom I saw in the New Willard the day we [were] there, was killed when the “Tuscania” jammed him against a life boat.
AMERICANS IN PARIS - AND BEYOND
While some soldiers were stationed in England, Italy and Belgium, the vast majority of them served in France. American soldiers were given training in basic French phrases, but nothing could prepare them for the culture shock of Paris: it held temptations no farm boy had ever encountered! Not practitioners of the Victorian lifestyle, French women were quite different from "the girl back home," a fact that was not lost on either the soldiers or their women.
Commanding officers warned soldiers about "dallying with the locals," but it was the officers themselves who had the most contact with "the charming French girls." As one Army captain noted, "most of the American officers are behaving scandalously over here." It may have mattered, however, where one was located. Lt. Harry Henderson of Cheyenne, Wyoming, complained that the soldiers in his unit, stationed at the front, "have not spoken to a girl or even seen one for three months at a time," other than young children or old women.
Much to their dismay and confusion, the first American troops in Europe were used as backups to the British and French armies. The Yanks were thrown into areas described as "meat grinders" while the French troops were sent to positions of least resistance (of course, the French had been fighting the war since 1914 and were becoming increasingly short of manpower).
BLACK JACK PERSHING
When it was his turn to lead, General John J. Pershing, Commander in Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, turned his army into a cohesive force capable of entering and winning battles on its own.
Known as "Black Jack" Pershing, the General had first established a name for himself in the Spanish American War, and again when he went to Mexico to track down the outlaw Pancho Villa in 1916. He had a proven reputation for leadership and a skill for organization that was sorely needed in Europe.
In addition to leading the troops, Pershing was responsible for determining their needs and convincing the American public that those needs had to be met. His eloquent letters of support for agencies such as the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and others were frequently printed in newspapers and magazines. Because it felt he was doing a good job as commander, the nation responded. One of Pershing's favorite organizations was the YMCA, which during and after the war provided recreational opportunities for soldiers overseas:
A sense of obligation for the varied and useful service rendered to the Army in France by the Y.M.C.A. prompts me to join in the appeal for its further financial support. I have opportunity to observe its operations, measure the quality of its personnel and mark its beneficial influence upon our troops, and I wish unreservedly to commend its work for the Army.
Without radio, television or overnight mail, timely war information was hard to come by. Newspaper reporters stationed at the front lines sent their dispatches via telegraph and troop ship, but neither method was entirely satisfactory. Telegrams were fast but had to be brief; ship-borne reports could be lengthy, but swift delivery was impossible. Nevertheless, nearly every issue of every newspaper and magazine in America contained some kind of war news. All the latest details on battles, political intrigues and fundraising efforts were given front page treatment.
For firsthand information, politicians like John Kendrick went on fact-finding tours of the front lines. Their reports helped other congressmen make informed decisions on funding and staffing needs. Kendrick was profoundly moved by what he saw in Europe and expressed his feelings upon his return:
We traveled over hundreds of miles of the front and had a glimpse here and there of the actual line of battle, which was all intensely absorbing of course. It goes without saying that no man who has ever really glimpsed the war in Europe can be quite the same again. The effect of it is one well calculated to sober the mind of most anybody.
Another important source of news was correspondence from the troops themselves. Although military censors carefully blacked out any references to troop movements, unit names or weapon descriptions, these letters helped show the human side of war to a news-hungry nation. Often humorous, these letters were frequently published in local newspapers as a way to give friends and neighbors a sense of what it was like “over there.” Lieutenant Harry Henderson sent his letters to the Cheyenne Tribune. Long and full of amusing anecdotes, they nonetheless gave a clear picture of the desperate conditions faced by trench-bound soldiers. On October 6, 1918, he wrote of life "On the Front":
A real letter usually begins with the set phrase, "It's a quiet Sunday as I take my pen in hand," but altho it's Sunday, I'd hardly call it quiet. Rolling barrages that rumble continuously, sharp rifle reports, the jangle of caissons, the whining of truck motors which are skidding around on the sleazy roads in the rain, and the clatter of mess kits in a nearby rolling kitchen, make a medley of familiar sounds.
Communication worked both ways: not just from the front to home, but vice versa as well. Families writing to their soldiers were advised to be cheerful and uncomplaining. Were they impacted by shortages? Don't mention that to the doughboys! Were they worried about the soldiers' safety? Don't breathe a word of it! As John Kendrick told his niece in 1917:
Instead of writing doleful and pessimistic letters, do not fail to remember to have your letters breathe words of good cheer and encouragement no matter how difficult this is to do. While telling him how much you miss him and how glad you will be to have him at home, do not overlook the very important responsibility of expressing your gratitude and appreciation at the fact of having a man in the family who was man enough to fight for the principles and for the ideals of his country.
Lt. Harry Henderson (Kendrick Collection, TESHS)
A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
April 1997 - December 1998
Detail from Red Cross poster, circa 1917 (Private Collection)
State Historic Site