Friday, May 13, 2011

Researching the Battle of Cantigny

On the morning of May 28, 1918, the Americans made their first offensive in the Great War by attacking the German-held village of Cantigny, located some 70 miles north of Paris.  Leading the attack was the 28th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. First Division--the "Big Red One," as they will come to be known.

From the beginning, I knew that Cantigny would be central to the novel, Lilac Wine.

Over the last year, I have done much reading about the battle.  But I needed to know more.  Today, I took a trip to the research library of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois.  The museum is located on the estate of Robert McCormick, the one-time publisher of the Chicago Tribune and a veteran of World War I.  He renamed his estate after that famous battle and, according to his will, had it dedicated as a public park after his death.  The research library, which is open to the public, houses artifacts, pictures, diaries and all things military.

There, I discovered some treasures that have helped me shape the narrative of Lilac Wine.

I was able to examine pictures I had never seen before related to the Battle of Cantigny, including aerial shots of the battle in progress:

Aerial view of the Battle of Cantigny.
Aerial view of the Battle of Cantigny. 

German soldier emerging from the ruins of Cantigny.

Wounded American soldier at Cantigny.

But the most notable find was a history of the 28th Regiment annotated by a soldier who had been there.  His annotations give a glimpse into the battle that texts cannot recreate.  The soldier's name was Floyd Henry Weeks.  He served in M Company of the 28th regiment.  The book dates from 1920 and the annotations are in pencil and ink.

Here is what he says about Martin O'Connor:  "The 1st man in M co. to give up his life.  3-28-18"

And Maniphe Stonecipher:  "I never saw a braver man in all my life--he died at Paris-Soissons Road 7/21/18 after attacts [sic] against machine guns that were holding up everything on the third day of the Ainse Marne offensive."

According to Weeks, Robert Purdy was "a prince.  Killed at Soissons."

2nd Lt. William Payne was "some guy.  A heartbreaker with the froulines.  Boy, I'll bet when he gets home he'll have some explainin."

He called Major Willis Tack  "West Point Willy."

Gerald Tyler was "a good scout and a fine officer.  Never gave you hell and always furnished an alibi for you."

It's one thing reading about a battle.  But reading the notes from a soldier scribbled in his own hand adds a different dimension to the story.  The people become more than just names on a fading page.  They become real.
Thank you, Floyd Henry Weeks.

During the assault on Cantigny, 199 doughboys were killed, including 13 officers.  652 men were wounded.  200 men were gassed and 16 men went missing and were never found.

Beating all expectations, the Americans held the town.


Lilac Wine is a novel in progress.

The First Division Museum, located in Wheaton, Illinois, is a great place to visit.  It is one of the best museums in the area.  There, you can walk through the ruins of of Cantigny and visit a reconstructed World War I trench.  You can walk the beaches of Normandy and the jungles of Vietnam.  For more information, click here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Anti-German Hysteria in the First World War

Anti-German sign outside of Edison Park, Chicago, 1917.
At the outbreak of the First World War, anti-German hysteria swept the United States.  Symphonies refused to play the works of Beethoven and Bach.  Saloons stopped serving pretzels.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage.”  The teaching of the German language was removed from schools.  City streets with German names were changed in Chicago and other cities throughout the United States. 

And it gets worse. In April of 1918, German-born Robert Prager was seized by a mob in Collinsville, Illinois. He was stripped of his clothes, wrapped in the American flag and led to the center of town. Along the way, he was forced to kiss the flag several times. Then, he was hanged before a cheering crowd of several hundred. Newspapers applauded the lynching. At the trial, the men accused of his murder were acquitted. The jury wore red, white and blue ribbons to court and took only 25 minutes to find the perpetrators not guilty.

Shortly after war was declared on Germany, Robert Bishop was sitting in his favorite saloon, Conrad’s, in the South Loop in downtown Chicago. Although the proprietor, Conrad Mueller, had been in the United States for many years, his business was seeing a slump. And, like many German nationals at the time, he found himself the target of abuse:

Robert had never seen that man in Conrad’s before. He was a short, balding man with a well-trimmed mustache---no one out of the ordinary. He certainly didn’t raise suspicion like some people did when they walked into bars. Upon hearing the accent of the barkeep, however, he launched into a tirade against “huns” and “krauts.” It had been a relatively quiet evening up until that point. Robert sat by himself at the bar, warm with beer. Like others in Conrad’s, he had attempted to simply ignore the man. But when the loudmouth started blaming Conrad for the sinking of the Lusitania, he had had enough.
     “You’re a fucking baby-killer! Go back to your own country!” the man screamed.
     And with that, Robert lost it. He jumped from his seat and punched the man squarely in the face. The man was startled and when he lunged for Robert in return, Robert pummeled the man’s face with his fists. It wasn’t much of a contest. The man was drunk and disoriented. Some of the other patrons, who had sat not saying or doing anything when the incident began, started cheering and applauding. Robert got lost in the moment, caught up in the energy of the fight. He swung viciously and pushed. At one point, he had the man on the ground and was about to smash a bottle into his face when his arm was stopped. He flashed in anger at the person who had dared to stop him at this crescendo.
     Conrad, who held his arm, didn’t need to say anything. His eyes said it all. There was no anger in those eyes. No resentment. If those eyes could speak, they spoke gentle words, as if to say, “enough. No more. It is done.”
     And all of the anger rushed from Robert like air. His knees almost gave out. He felt exhausted. He staggered over to a barstool as the man on the floor coughed and rolled over in the sawdust. Conrad walked over to him.
     “My name is Conrad Mueller,” he said. The bar was silent. “I own this place. I may not be from here. But I am an American. I love this country more than you can possible imagine. This country has given me much to be thankful for.” He knelt down beside the man, who recoiled nervously, expecting another punch, no doubt.
      “When the Lusitania was sunk, you have no idea what that did to me. I gave up my homeland. Do you understand? Six months later I became American citizen. So, be careful who you tell to go back to his country. This is my country.”
     Conrad then turned, retied his apron and took his place behind the bar. Slowly the other patrons resumed their conversations, clinked their glasses together in cheers and began laughing once again. No one even saw the man get up and leave the bar.
     Conrad set a mug of Edelweiss in front of Robert.
     “There are ways to do things, my young friend,” he said. “And most of the time, you don’t need these.” He held up his fists. “Using these is too easy. And that is the problem with the world today, I am afraid.” He then set his hands gently once again on the top of the mahogany bar and, reaching for a white rag, began wiping it down.
     “But the things he said----“
     “Words is all. I have been around for a long time. And I have been called worse things. Trust me.”   (Lilac Wine, Chapter 17)
In terms of anti-German sentiment, Chicago was not quite as bad as other areas, probably due to the high concentration of German-Americans within the city.  In 1900, 1 out of every 4 Chicagoans were either born in Germany or had at least one parent from Germany.  Nonetheless, Germans living in Chicago also found themselves the object of scorn and suspicion.  The conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was forced to step down due to his German nationality.   Beer gardens, a staple in German bars throughout the north side, closed.  And many German-Americans Americanized their names so as to alleviate any suspicion cast upon them. 

In periods of war and conflict, such reactions are not uncommon.  Many may look back on the situation facing German-Americans during World War I as an anomaly; a relic from the past.  Yet recent events regarding Muslim Americans prove otherwise.

In Lilac Wine, Robert Bishop, a young man with no enthusiasm for the war, finds himself on the wrong side of public opinion.  Outspoken and loyal to friends, Robert faces this sentiment head-on, with disastrous results.