World War I
Written in 1974 for the Howell, Michigan Bicentennial History
MY YEARS as a teenager were filled with the exciting routine of a small farming community in southern Michigan, surrounded by tantalizing woods and lakes and winding dirt roads. It was not only the time of my own teens, but also the teen years of this aging twentieth century.
Those teen years—particularly 1914 through 1919—were critical for America and the world. My own teen years paralleled them closely as I grew into long trousers while going to school and working in my father’s store in Howell. These were precious, pregnant, poignant times—the Years of World War I. The nation, the world, and I—even the quiet town where I lived—were all making—and being made by—history.
This is a teen’s view of those times in that small town of Howell.
The Years of World War I
The first World War didn’t really begin for me when that bullet killed Archduke Francis Ferdinand.
Europe had been fighting for two years and stirrings of it sometimes seeped into my consciousness. The family of my close friend Herb Pfau had memories and relatives in Germany, and he paid more attention to what was going on over there than I did.
One huge event, in 1915, upset Howell’s calm for a while. German subs sank the Lusitania, with a lot of Americans on board. Grand River Street shivered with excitement and the rural party lines were overloaded for several days. But after that, things settled back again toward crops and weather and wondering if the hitching posts would be taken away from Grand River if the street was ever paved. Until late 1916, I don’t remember very much about what went on in Europe.
Then the big thing happened—Charles Evans Hughes challenged Woodrow Wilson for the presidency. Wilson promised to keep America at peace. On the other side, “Be prepared,” was the slogan. The Detroit papers began printing big battle stories. War talk mixed heavily with the Saturday night socializing along Grand River. People began heating up about politics. In all the election excitement, the European fighting seemed to creep closer and closer.
After the polls closed on election night, my father went downtown to get the returns. I don’t know where he went, or how those returns came in. No radio or television, of course. I suppose the telegraph office, or one of the weekly papers was getting tabulations.
My mother and my brother and I stayed up late, but Win and I were deep in sleep when my father came home. Next morning he woke us up early and sat on the edge of our bed. “Hughes won,” he told us. “I just hope the country will give him better support than they’ve given to Wilson.” Pop’s face looked pretty grim.
But soon we weren’t so certain that Hughes had come out ahead. Each day the Detroit papers brought later news of the results. Wilson began nibbling away at Hughes’s apparent victory. We would grab the Detroit News just as soon as it came each afternoon, to see who was in the lead. I think it was about three weeks before final returns dragged in from some isolated mountain county in California, that at last kept Woodrow Wilson as president.
Wilson won all right, but the European war began getting even bigger and closer. Germany announced “unrestricted submarine warfare.” The people in Howell, and the farmers on Saturday nights, talked about it and wondered what it would mean.
It meant WAR. The lakes and the pastures around Howell were just shaking themselves loose from winter snow and ice when, in early April of 1917, extras came out from Detroit with huge scary black headlines: CONGRESS DECLARES WAR ON GERMANY. From then on, with the grownups—but especially among us kids—the name of Kaiser Wilhelm fell below that of the devil himself. He was the devil. He became the favorite villain in a lot of the games we kids played after school.
War effects started showing up in Howell right away. Little red-bordered service flags, with a blue star on white, began appearing in the windows of homes—and some stores.
A World War is a brain-searing experience, especially for a sensitive young boy. Some of the things that happened pounded deep and forever into me, and landed eventually in the history books of the world. Those were fated times.
I must have realized their historic significance, because on December 9, 1917 I started keeping a daily diary, which I continued for almost exactly a year. Those vital history-jammed teen years of the century were all chronicled in longhand in my daily diary.
The first blizzard of entries blanketing different pages of my diary like a January snowstorm was about coal, cord wood, and store closings.
My brother Winfield and I were down at our general variety store every day, helping out. We would open up about six o’clock almost every morning and do our studying, then when our father came about 8:00 a.m. we’d head for school. We stayed open late—often until 11:00 p.m. on Saturdays—to accommodate the farmers who couldn’t start the long drive into town until the chores and milking were finished.
But on January 16, 1918, my diary notes: “In afternoon we found that we had to open from 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. because of fuel. I made a sign stating this.”
And on the following Monday: “Stores are closed today to save fuel.”
There were many Monday “coal” closings. The thing I remember most is how the coal scarcity affected us at home.
We were living in a ten-room house. It was heated by a grizzly asbestos-lined coal-burning furnace, in the cellar. On February 6 my diary says: “Ran out of coal.”
We did most of our living that winter in the large kitchen, which was heated by a cooking range that burned either coal or wood. The stove had a five-gallon reservoir at one end where water was heated every time we built the fire for cooking. So we fared well. When bedtime came, with plenty of quilts and a hot water bottle apiece, we could sleep in the unheated bedrooms.
Down in the store basement my brother and I split mountains of kindling. Almost all goods at the store came packed in heavy wooden boxes, sometimes five feet square, made of thick boards. Usually we sold those boxes for five cents apiece, but that winter we split up hundreds of them (it seemed like thousands) for firewood. The lumber in one of those large boxes, today, might cost twenty-five dollars.
Apparently the stores closed every Monday because of the fuel problem.
In March, one day after school, almost the whole school went down to see our mangy 121 training teacher, Mr. Yeakey, off on his way to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He was the kind of man that the army would want first of all—one of our most popular teachers. We didn’t know what we would do without him.
I recorded that 33 soldier boys left on April 1, 1918, 22 on April 29, 66 on May 29, and about 30 on August 26. There were probably many more who went, but even that was a lot of soldiers from one small Michigan town.
I suppose those months were the times that we learned those war songs that are still floating around in memory, mixing flecks of sadness with sparks of excitement. “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” “Over There,” “There’s a Long, Long Trail A Winding,” “Tell Me Why Nights Are Lonesome,” etc. We would sing those songs at school assemblies, dances, picnics and parties. We loved them.
The coal shortage went right in tandem with a gasoline shortage. On April 18, 1918 I wrote in my diary: “We were going for a little auto ride but have but a little gas and there is none in town.”
We had bought our first automobile—a little 4-cylinder Buick—shortly before America declared war. In September the “Sunday Auto Law” went into effect. The first Sunday—September 2—was optional but after that, Sunday driving would be illegal.
Later in the year, schools and churches and just about everything began closing down, but for a different reason—Spanish influenza. Howell was caught in the epidemic which—for many of the people at home—became nearly as scary as life in the trenches.
Closing laws for public gatherings were put on, lifted, reinstated, repealed, back and forth.
Because of the flu epidemic our school was closed once for a week (when too many teachers were sick) and once for over a month.
My whole diary through this war period is sprinkled with entries: “School closed because of flu.” “Schools reopened.” “Churches closed.” “Ban on all public meetings.” “Ban taken off,” etc. Those closings were vivid in my memory—especially the enforced school vacations, which were like an extra helping of dessert for all of us kids.
After writing these recollections, I looked up “influenza” in the encyclopedia and learned why my diary had that multitude of “ban on” and “ban off” entries. The encyclopedia has three full two-column pages about the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19 and relates that there were three distinct sieges of it which swept almost the entire world. It hit our soldiers in France, and soon struck at the German army. Finally even the remote islands marked only by flyspeck dots on the map of the Pacific felt its effect. One siege would sweep the world and stop, then another would commence. I had always called it an “epidemic.” “Pandemic” means “affecting the majority in a whole country or countries.” After all these years I have learned a new word and have discovered that I have lived through a “pandemic.”
Our family were lucky not to get it. Spanish influenza was one of the tragedies of World War I and (according to the encyclopedia) largely brought on because of war conditions.
Epidemics, pandemics, tragedies, catastrophes and strange phenomena never seem to come singly, and in 1918 they arrived in Howell in huge bunches.
On April 19, we drove over beyond nearby Brighton to see the havoc left by a cyclone the week before. It had made playthings of several barns, missed nearby houses completely, had pounced on a Catholic church, toppled its spire to the ground, then leaped the road into the Catholic cemetery and played marbles with a lot of gravestones. It almost seemed as though the breath of war was blowing down our necks.
At noon on February 7, 1918, word reached us in Howell that an American troop transport, with 3000 soldiers on it, was sunk by the Germans. Only 1900 were saved. Two days later I wrote in my diary: “90 Michigan men were on sunken transport. None from Howell.” War and tragedy were stalking toward us in Seven League Boots.
On Sunday, March 31, 1918, something new happened in America for the first time ever—Daylight Savings Time. Things like that were exciting to Win and me. We couldn’t even think about waiting till next morning to turn the clocks ahead. Setting the alarm for 2:00 a.m., we got up and changed all the clocks in the house at the exact instant the new time law went into effect.
On May 1, 1918, more history was made. As a means of saving grain to ease the war-time food shortages, and in order to achieve greater efficiency in war production, there had for some time been agitation for prohibition. On May 1, Michigan went “dry.” Largely for these same reasons, Congress voted national prohibition into effect well before the Volstead Act was passed.
The government took over control of all the railroads in the United States and William McAdoo was put in charge of running them. He was President Wilson’s son-in-law. Herbert Hoover was appointed food controller for the nation. In 1918, the telephone and telegraph service was taken over by the Federal government. What I remember most—and was really upset about—was when the government formed the Railway Express Agency—abolishing the names of Adams Express and Wells Fargo. For us kids, the Wells Fargo stages were a big part of the Wild West United States history, and we resented having the name disappear.
On August 22, in the evening, Howell’s new Service Flag was dedicated and a lot of important people gave speeches from a stand erected at the main intersection.
Bad news was coming from the battle fields in France. Some big campaign had foundered. Then one late afternoon, word seeped in from somewhere that Howell soldiers had been killed in the big drive overseas.
My Uncle Fred—a minister—was visiting us and he gave one of the evening speeches. It was a muggy hot night—the kind that makes the corn grow so fast you can almost see it. And it was a sad night. The whole feeling and mood of the town was strange. The air and the sky were filled with a quiet, heavy dread.
If anyone mentioned weather it was just for talk. If anyone asked about crops, it didn’t really matter and they didn’t expect an answer. The thoughts along Grand River Street that midsummer evening were far over across the ocean.
The war had reached Howell. From then on, gold stars began to replace blue ones on the Service Flags.
I imagine nearly everybody was buying Liberty Bonds and Thrift Stamps. My diary is sprinkled with entries about them. In that war the patriotic fever in Howell was as high as the winter thermometer was low.
On March 19, 1918, I wrote in my diary that Winfield and I sold some Thrift Stamps to an agent that came to sell store goods to our father. On June 24 we closed our store from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. to make War Savings Stamp pledges. My diary of September 3 says: “We all bought some bonds last Saturday of the 4th Liberty Loan.” My diary had various other entries throughout 1918 about our paying for Liberty Loans.
War is a lot like that Spanish influenza plague that swept the world in 1918: few places escaped the flu, and not very much escaped the effects of war. In Howell, the war changed our driving habits, our church going, what we read and talked about, what we ate, the songs we sang, the things we did in school. Not very much remained untouched.
Off and on through most of 1918, we kids were marching and playing war games after school. We did it on our own, because it was our idea of fun. In September, everything changed; we had to start doing it for real. Every boy in high school had to join the Cadet Training Corps. Our whole world became different—more serious somehow, with almost a touch of tragedy lurking in the background. You could almost hear the echo of those War Boots along Grand River Street.
My brother and I were examined for the new military training just one day before his 16th birthday. I was a little over 14 1/2. After supper on September 25, 1918, we walked leisurely down to Dr. Browne’s office, thinking we’d be through in a few minutes so we could go over to the library. We weren’t finished with that physical exam until 9:00 p.m.
Dr. Browne poked and pushed and probed and pounded in places which I didn’t even know I had until then. Once or twice he shook his head up and down and smiled. A couple of other times he shook his head back and forth and scowled. His helper scribbled figures and stuff furiously on a large sheet of paper and—at certain of the entries—shook his head up and down, and at other entries shook it back and forth. He also smiled and scowled. I didn’t do either. I just shook. I was scared.
All of the doctor’s probing and pushing had set my heart to pounding, my hands to sweating, and my fright-juices to flowing, until I guess I didn’t come out very well on the test. But I passed, and was inducted into the Military Training Civilian Cadet Corps of Howell High School. All regular physical education classes were disbanded, and military drill and training took their place. It was the war event that most affected every Howell boy permanently, and which was sunk deepest into my memory.
The teachers, by some sort of secret ballot, chose the officers from our student body. I was made a corporal—the only freshman officer. Lucky for me that Dr. Browne hadn’t done the selecting.
On October 25 I received my official instructions and not only studied them diligently but learned them by heart. I can vividly recall how we khaki-clad kids had to go around saluting nearly everything in sight. Here is why:
Corporal Line, 3rd Squad, Company C.
Your instructions are as follows:
1. Salute all teachers, young and old ladies, members of the school board, your officers, and Seniors.
2. You’re to report to your sergeant the absences of your squad at the command Report.
3. You are to obey your officers and respect them as officers.
Signed, Lieut. D.B. Wines
Those saluting instructions covered just about everybody in town. There were demerits for failure to salute but no penalties for saluting too often. To play it safe, we went around even saluting strangers who visited town, especially if they were young or old ladies. Why risk a demerit, especially since the saluting was sort of fun, anyway?
But there was little fun in the drilling; it was serious, monotonous, and hard. We had heavy, cumbersome wooden guns and—a little later—regulation khaki military uniforms.
There was regulation army drill once or twice a week, sometimes by a real army soldier but usually by our own officers. Those cumbersome guns were clumsy—and so were we, to start with. I guess that’s why we kept at it hour after hour.
“Present…arms.” “About …face.” “Right shoulder…arms.” “Charge.”
Our arms were so sore at quitting time that we scarcely had the strength to salute anyone on the way home—unless was a young lady.
After learning to shoulder arms and all the other things like that, we’d march along Howell streets, and often several miles into the country, along east or west Grand River Street.
A boy in my squad died right after our Corps was organized—I think of Spanish influenza, although I am not certain. We had a military funeral for him and my squad acted as pallbearers, pretending to shoot our wooden guns over the coffin.
An hour after the noon whistle blew in Howell on November 7, 1918, that milk factory whistle started blowing again, but this time it didn’t stop. At least, it would hesitate for only long enough to make us think it was going to quit, then start penetrating the air again—short blasts, long blasts, then enormous belches of hiccuping sounds as though it was coming from the belly of some wounded giant.
By this time our Cadet Corps was called out from school on the double. Quicker than we’d ever done it before we fell in on the school grounds, shouldered our wooden guns, and marched down to the main corners, then west on Grand River.
Great crowds were assembling—jamming the streets as we marched through. All traffic was stopped. Flags began to appear. Someone was even passing out small flags to the crowds. People were shouting and hugging each other. We marched down toward the library, about-faced, and marched back. Things were delirious. Captain Flynn and our lieutenants bellowed marching orders, trying to be heard above all the roar and confusion.
We kids marching were guessing what might have happened but had no real idea what everything was all about. There were plenty of tears in the crowd, but we had sense enough to know that all that hubbub wasn’t due to some battlefield catastrophe. For the sixth or eighth time we marched east, again approaching the main intersection. There ahead of us, A. Riley Crittenden—hands high in the air—was holding up a Detroit paper for us to see. As I recall, the whole top third of the page had just one word: “Peace.”
THE WAR WAS OVER! As we marched, we didn’t bat an eye or let out a whoop. But that was one of the most emotional moments that I’ll ever remember in Howell.
That night some of the older fellows hung a stuffed dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm in the streets and set it afire. There were all kinds of celebrations. We sang a lot of the special songs that night.
Actually, the war wasn’t over—not quite. That had been the false armistice. A few days later—November 11—the milk factory whistle blew again. We did more marching. There was cheering, and a lot of the same excitement. But that first day had been the biggest moment of my boyhood in Howell. America was at Peace.
The War and America’s preparations for it—even including all the things that went on in Howell—were like the giant snowballs we kids would roll down Greenaway’s hill. The ball would pick up more snow and more speed all the way down. When it hit the glassy ice in the pond at the bottom, it was a mammoth thing and it just kept on going—getting even larger—on across the ice.
Effects of that war were just gathering speed on Armistice Day, and they didn’t stop on November 11, 1918. Almost everything that had been started just kept right on going. Even some new things were begun. They got bigger and worse, clear on into the middle of 1919.
I couldn’t possibly have remembered or realized the sequence of some of these events if they were not recorded in my diary. A lot of the things that happened after Armistice Day I would have sworn—except for the diary evidence—had occurred before the war was over.
On Tuesday, November 19, 1918, more than a week after Armistice, my diary reads: “Girls started Military Training today.”
Our boys’ Military Training continued right on, with new drills and activities being added which became more warlike all the time. On January 7, 1919, just two days before my 15th birthday, we marched nearly five miles out into the country and executed a bloodcurdling exercise in hunting and tracking down eight “deserters” of our own number. It was all mock, of course, but it had the flavor of real war more than anything we had been up to yet. And the war had been over ever since early November of the year before. The War Boots still seemed to be stalking along Grand River Street.
War didn’t seem to have ceased a bit according to our Military Training schedule.
My diary entries for Thanksgiving Day of 1918—following close after the armistice—and for Thanksgiving of 1919, make me realize that it took nearly an entire year to wind down that war. No mention of peace appears on Thanksgiving Day, 1918, but I refer to November 27, 1919 as “the dawn of the greatest Thanksgiving the United States had ever known.” More than a year after hostilities ended, I guess peace really had come to America and the world. And to Howell.
But the true climax, for Howell, was just ahead. The historical high point of all those war years came on Friday, December 12, 1919. I wrote:
“At 8:25 p.m. our family went down to the Presbyterian Church to attend the second number of the lecture course which was a speech by ex-president William Howard Taft. The church was crowded to overflowing. The ex-president was introduced by Mr. L.E. Howlett and he proceeded to talk upon the subject of the League of Nations.”
In my diary I outlined the entire speech. Taft had been scheduled to come to Howell on an earlier date (perhaps during the war) but that appearance had fallen victim to the influenza ban on public gatherings. He made reference to this.
Taft, in 1912, had been defeated by Woodrow Wilson for a second term in the White House. He was a Republican, many of whom were unalterably opposed to America’s entry into the League of Nations. Yet Taft’s whole speech in Howell was to urge the United States to join the League, which President Wilson had been instrumental in founding and for which, as president, he was making the fight—literally-of his life. Just the month before Taft spoke in Howell, Wilson—while on a nationwide speaking tour urging League membership—had had a complete nervous collapse and was never again able effectively to lead his fight for the League or adequately carry on his presidential duties.
The Republican Taft, in Howell, was in fact acting as a spokesman for the Democratic president, Wilson. Taft laid it on the line to us that night. In some respects it was the most critical moment in national affairs that Howell had ever experienced. More than any of us ever realized at the time, the whole future history of the world—and whether America might in another generation be at war again—literally hung in the balance as ex-President Taft spoke to us there in the Presbyterian Church.
One by one, he explained Wilson’s famous 14 points. He tore relentlessly into the opposition. I wrote: “Mr. Taft had a peculiar laugh which was very amusing. He talked in a slow, clear voice but, if he chose, his tones were very base and gruff.”
In light of the words with which Taft closed his Howell speech, it seems strange—and a bit prophetic—that I should be quoting from my wartime diary, relating that speech, just over 50 years after it was given. Here is what I wrote in that diary of December 12, 1919:
“In his closing words Taft said that if in fifty years when we boys were grandfathers, our grandsons came home from school and said, ‘Grandpa, our professor says that the League of Nations is a great thing nowadays and that years ago there was a big struggle about it. You were a boy then. Were you for or against it?’ We would say, if we had opposed it, either of two things. ‘Now run along sonny, you don’t understand such things’ or—we would have lied about it.”
Three weeks before Taft’s Howell speech, the United States Senate in a preliminary vote on the League of Nations, had turned it down. Three months after that Howell speech, the Senate took its final vote—again negative. America never joined the League of Nations.
There was no Soviet Union in 1919. The sun was just starting to set—although no one realized it yet—on the British Empire. America was about to take over the leadership of the world. With what was soon to be the strongest nation on earth outside of its membership, the League of Nations never had a chance.
My diary of December 12, 1919 concludes: “After the speech Mr. Taft shook hands with a few people but soon retired. Papa, Win and I were fortunate enough to shake with him, I being the last of the crowd to do so. He finished speaking at 10:00 p.m.” Taft spend that night in Howell at the home of one of my closest boyhood friends, Bob McPherson, who had an opportunity to talk with him in person.
Right now I am wondering: If the Republican ex-president Taft and the Democratic president Wilson could have prevailed—if America had joined the League of Nations—perhaps there would not have been a Second World War. The final Senate vote was whisker-close. Letters and input to Washington from Howell voters might even have made a difference. The history of the entire world was hanging in the balance that December night in Howell. World War I cost over 30 million lives and unbelievable tragedies.
Small towns are really important.
In writing (in 1974) about Howell’s part in that war, I have been reading deeply as to the war’s causes—and the mistakes made in trying to establish the peace.
One cause of World War I was the dislocation that grew out of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermaths. Another cause was the racial hatred among many of the European nations. After World War I was over, just a few wise steps—if taken—might have averted the second conflict. American membership in the League would have helped.
Now we have finished several more demoralizing wars. Others loom ahead. Each war has its seeds in the last one. Each might well be prevented, with just a few sane steps, if wisdom prevailed.
Kids are growing up in Howell right now who can have the answers to what lies ahead. Maybe about 40 years from now—in the teen years of the 21st century, the years 2013 through 2019—some fine man or woman will run across a yellowed copy of this chronicle in an old attic trunk and say: “Golly, I grew up in the Howell that fellow was writing about. And I’m glad I put my whole weight and life on the side of a saner, more peaceful world.”
Howell is a wonderful place to begin.