Category Archives: WW1

The demotion of General Wood

General Leonard Wood and New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel inspecting troops in 1915

General Leonard Wood (right) and New York City’s preparationist mayor John Purroy Mitchel (top hat) inspecting troops outside New York City Hall in 1915.

Today marks one of the more dramatic, if lesser-noted, moments in the lead-up to American involvement in the Great War. It was on 25 March 1917 that General Leonard Wood sent acknowledgement of his relief of command of the Department of the East at Governors Island. Though not as well known as Truman’s sacking of MacArthur, Wood’s demotion was equally dramatic. It is probably lesser known because the United States joined the European fray just a month later and the carnage of the Western Front eclipsed the Wood imbroglio. How the war effort would have gone with Wood and not Pershing in command of the AEF is one of the great counterfactuals of World War One.

Wood had been Chief of the General Staff of the Army when President Wilson was inaugurated in March 1913. Some tried to get rid of the outspoken Wood then, but he managed to finish out his term. Afterward, he transferred to New York City where he commanded the powerful Department of the East from Governors Island.

Some of the Wood-Wilson tension came from Wood’s relationship with Theodore Roosevelt. After the Great War began in summer 1914 these two former commanders of the Rough Riders advocated for American preparedness. This ran counter to Wilson’s attempts at neutrality. Wood’s demotion was in part his fault. A former president could criticize the Administration; a current general cannot. Nonetheless, over the next few years Wood’s public statements became more strident and, well, public.

He was also part of the Plattsburg Camp Movement, the semi-official military preparedness experiment in which civilians were trained for military service. Roosevelt’s sons Ted and Archie both attended the 1915 Plattsburg camp. Wood was not easy to get along with. In a letter to his younger brother Archie, Ted Roosevelt later wrote that “Confidentially he give me a pain.”

When Theodore Roosevelt irked Wilson with a rousing Plattsburg speech Wood’s hand in the event was obvious. There were many other incidents over the years but the final straw for Wilson seems to have been a talk that Wood gave at New York City’s DeWitt Clinton High School on 14 March. After consulting with the Secretary of War the following week Wilson decided to make the move. It is revealing to note that his decision to demote Wood came after he decided to ask Congress for a declaration of war, which came in early April.

Wood’s demotion came in the form a division of the Eastern Department into three entities. Wood was given his choice and decided to take the command of the smaller Southeastern Department. Wood put on a brave face stating that “I am a good soldier, and go where I am sent.” The outcry was nonetheless immediate. Roosevelt was outraged, as was New York City mayor John P. Mitchel. Angry letters from Wood allies poured into the New York Times. In a show of support Wood was elected president of the Lincoln Memorial University Endowment Association the day after his demotion.

What would have happened if Leonard Wood had commanded in Europe instead of John Pershing is something we will never know.

(image/Library of Congress)

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The Centennial is coming

Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, June 1914

Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, June 1914

The Centennial of the Great War begins this summer and the United States World War I Centennial Commission is sponsoring a “Centennial Convention and Trade Fair” in Washington DC in mid-June. I may try to go to this. Here are the details. I am happy they are thinking creatively with this. I think the next five years are going to change many of our assumption about the events of 1914-1919.

(image/Imperial War Museum)

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From Gettysburg to Plattsburg

Over the weekend I finished Edward J. Renehan’s The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War. It details the Roosevlt family’s role in the First World War. All four of his sons were in uniform and the youngest, Quentin, was killed. Even daughter Ethel served in France, as a nurse.

A Spanish-American War headstone tilts on a hillside in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery

A Spanish-American War headstone tilts on a hillside in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery

One of my big  things for the upcoming season at Governors Island is to tie the Civil War Generation together with the individuals who came afterward and fought in the Spanish-American and Great Wars. There are all kinds of nationalist, reconciliationist, and other themes to explore. In just one “for instance,” General Joseph Wheeler fought in Cuba with Roosevelt and later served at Governors Island.

Last night I stared The Citizen Soldier: The Plattsburg Camp Movement, 1913-1920. The Plattsburg Camp did not open until 1915, but there were precursors at Gettybsurg and Monterey dating back to 1913. I do not know if the Gettysburg preparationist camp, not to be confused with Camp Colt that came along later, was on the battlefield or not.

In one of those serendipitious moments that is too good to be true, an article came through my in-box this afternoon announcing the publication tomorrow of Teddy Roosevelt and Leonard Wood: Partners in Command. Wood was the original colonel of the Rough Riders, prior to his own promotion and Roosevelt’s ascension to his former position. Wood was on Governors Island during the Taft and Wilson Administrations. Roosevelt and Wood is the posthumous, final book of John S.D. Eisenhower. I am really excited about the possibilities of tying things together.

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Sunday morning coffee

I’m sorry about the lack of posts this week. I have been sifting through the paperwork I gathered at the LOC last week. I have also been getting ready for the spring semester at the college where I work, which begins tomorrow.

D.C. War Memorial

D.C. War Memorial

Last week when I was in DC I spent a few hours on the National Mall. One of my favorite memorials is one that no one ever visits, the D.C. War Memorial. Granted there is not a whole lot to see there, but it would be nice if it got a bit more foot traffic. When the monument was dedicated on Armistice Day 1931 President Hoover gave the speech and John Philip Sousa came out of retirement to conduct the U.S. Marine Band. The first time I saw the memorial was in July 2005 when I was in D.C. with a friend, and it had fallen into a state of disrepair. It was refurbished in 2011 and looks much better. Still, as you can tell, no one stops to take in its subtle details. Why the monument is so seldom visited would be a great Interpretive opportunity. These are the types of stories I hope get told during the Great War Centennial that will begin this summer. I for one will be working it in at Governors Island.

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Gearing up for the Great War centennial

396px-Image068hA few weeks back I mentioned the the passing of Ike Skelton, the recently appointed chairman of the World War One Centennial Commission. To the best of my knowledge, a new chairperson has not yet been selected. In separate but related news, I did note earlier this week that a Director of Strategic Engagement has been appointed at the National World War One Museum in Kansas City. This is significant because the two institutions seem to be working closely together, which makes good sense.

The Great War centennial is something I am going to focus on here on the blog and elsewhere. For one thing, it will tie neatly into my Interp at Governors Island and the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. I see from the small announcement I came across that the World War One Museum intends to focus on the war in its entirety, from 1914 all the way through the peace process. I hope the Commission does the same thing, though they seem to be leaning more to concentrating on the American angle.

(drawing/Cyrus Leroy Baldridge)

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The Roosevelt’s Armistice Day

The grave of Quentin Roosevelt, France. Lieutenant Roosevelt later received the Croix de Guerre.

The grave of Quentin Roosevelt, France. Lieutenant Roosevelt later received the Croix de Guerre.

As many undoubtedly know, Veterans Day began as Armistice Day. It was on this date in 1918 that the carnage at last came to an end during the Great War. Nearly ten million people were killed in the conflict, and the Roosevelt household was not immune to the suffering. Theodore and Edith’s youngest child, Quentin, was among those who lost their lives. The young lieutenant’s fighter plane went down on Bastille Day 1918 during the Second Battle of the Marne. He was twenty.

Theodore Roosevelt was always proud of his son, but in many ways he never recovered from his son’s death. Already weak from numerous ailments, the former president died just six months later. He too died young, a mere sixty. The history books do not put it quite this way, but in a very real sense he died of a broken heart.

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Ike Skelton, 1931-2013

Rep Ike SkeltonI did not know much about Ike Skelton but I was saddened to learn that he died this week. The former congressman from Missouri had been elected chairman of the U.S. World War 1 Centennial Commission just last month. Skelton served in the U.S. House for thirty-four years, rising to chairman of the Armed Services Committee. As a teenager he once met Harry Truman. Talk about making an impression. Skelton lost his seat in 2010 and was practicing law for a Kansas City firm when President Obama tapped him for the Centennial Commission. Skelton was an excellent choice; his decades of experience in Washington had given him a firm understanding both politics and the military. I was eager to see what direction he intended to take the organization.

The Centennial Commission is something worth keeping an eye on. There are so many directions in which they can take their mandate. Way back, I speculated how they might interpret that mission. It seems they are leaning more toward events from 2017 (The U.S. entered the conflict in April 1917) through 2019, with the Versailles anniversary. I suppose that is fine, but there is a lot else in there as well. The Lusitania (1915) is one example that pops into mind. Yes, it is the United States World War One Centennial Commission but I hope they think wider and put the events of 1914-1919 into their full context. Sadly, the work will happen without the wisdom and guidance of Mr. Skelton.

(image/U.S. Congress)

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99 summers ago . . .

This week marks the 99th anniversaries of the start of the Great War, the series of events that, one-by-one, led tragically and inevitably  to mobilization and the great catastrophe that was 1914-1918. By 4 August 1914 most of the primary players had issued their declarations of war and their armies were now moving across Europe. I mentioned to a friend last week that the WW1 Centennial Commission in Kansas City has just about put its entire advisory body into place. I shuddered, though, when noting that the few remaining positions are going to various “celebrities.” Is it just me, or is having, say, George Clooney giving advice on how we should remember WW1 a bad idea? Hopefully, they will re-think that.

Food will win the war - You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it - Wheat is needed for the allies - waste nothing

Food will win the war – You came here seeking freedom, now you must help to preserve it – Wheat is needed for the allies – waste nothing

I am currently half way through David Laskin’s The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War. WW1 was a frequent topic in my Interpretation at Ellis Island for obvious reasons. One of the lesser known stories of the war was the Black Tom affair of 30 July 1916, in which German saboteurs set of an explosion on a wharf in Jersey City that could be heard as far as Philadelphia. Beyond that serious event, there were a number of issues pertaining to race, nationality, and allegiance that made for discussion. It is a story that has special meaning for me.; members of my own family had just emigrated to the United States in the years before the war and soon found themselves in the trenches. It is a part of my family history I am just now learning about. Laskin’s book examines the war from the perspective of twelve men who had recently come to the United States from Europe and soon found themselves wearing an American uniform in the American Expeditionary Force. Laskin examines the myriad issues–cultural, linguistic, religious, political–these men had to face, often with mixed results. It is a complicated story and, ultimately, a fundamentally American one. I hope these are some of the conversations we have in the next few years.

(image/1917 poster by Charles Edward Chambers, in Yiddish; Library of Congress)

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The other commemoration

A tribute to Indians who served the British Empire in the Great War

Memorial to Indians who served the British Empire in the Great War, Ypres

I was surfing Ye Olde Online Bookseller the other day and couldn’t help but notice that the first of the WW1 centennial titles will be hitting the shops this fall. The books I perused were not being advertised as such, but I have no doubt that publishers have been signing historians for these projects in recent years with the anniversary in mind. I was especially glad to see that Margaret McMillan will have a new book, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. Her Paris 1919 is one of the authoritative books on the Versailles Treaty and its aftermath. When I saw the news of her upcoming title I couldn’t help but think of something a history prof told me once, more as aside than anything. He said it is often a wise move to write history backward, because you know at least the basic outline of events going in. I have no doubt that Professor McMillan’s latest will rise to her usual high standards.

A few of us at work were having coffee the other day when we got on the subject of the Great War centennial. Someone wondered aloud to the group if there was a specific date one can christen as the anniversary of the war. In comparison, there is no 100% consensus on the anniversary of the Civil War sesquicentennial, but Fort Sumter is the most common answer. For World War 1 it could be the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, 28 June 1914; Austria-Hungary’s attack on Serbia on 28 July; or any of the succeeding  dates of mobilization for the various principle participants. I suppose the anniversaries might and will vary from country to country. The United States did not become officially involved until 1917; I would be surprised though if the World War 1 Centennial Commission waited until 2017 to unroll its commemorations.

Here is a piece, with remarkable photos, about a massive undertaking currently underway in Europe to refurbish many thousands of headstones. I have been to Flanders Fields and can testify that it is powerful and moving to see. I am making it a goal right now to get back in the next few years during the anniversary.

It will be interesting to see if the commemoration of the Great War will lead to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the conflict, which would be something given that so many of the problems in the world today can be traced, at least in part, to ’14-’18. Whatever happens, it will be worth watching.

(image/Zeisterre)

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Coming soon: World War 1 Centennial Commission

Liberty Memorial, Kansas City

Liberty Memorial, Kansas City

A few weeks back in late December I was on the Reference Desk when a colleague and I got on the subject of World War One. Specifically, we were talking about how, now that 2013 was here, the 100th anniversary of the Great War was just a year away. No doubt public and filmmakers have been gearing up for the observance for awhile now. You don’t just go out and film a documentary or publish a comprehensive new history of such a cataclysmic event. Such things take time.

Well, as it turns out Congress was also getting into the act: just before the holidays the House and Senate both approved the creation of a World War One Centennial Commission. The bill is now awaiting presidential signature. The twelve member organization will be based in Kansas City, Missouri. This makes sense because the National World War 1 Museum and Liberty Memorial are both in KC. If you have never been, I highly recommend. It’s worth going out of the way. (They are in Kansas City because General Pershing was from the Show Me state.)

It will be interesting to see what the commission does. They could go “narrow” by focusing only on American involvement in the war, which did not begin officially until April 1917; or, the could go “wide” and focus on the war in its entirety. Apparently they are leaning towards the latter. Commissioners will be elected in January and February, and a meeting with international counterparts will be held in Missouri in late March. I hope they do this right.

(image/Charvex)

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