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World War I Centennial News


 

Commisioner O'Connell has family link to Lusitania tragedy

Libby O'Connell

World War One Centennial Commissioner Dr. Libby O’Connell had always heard that an ancestor of hers died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland May 7, 1915.

Her father taught European History so she was raised on stories from the continent, including the sinking of the Lusitania. Still, she found it difficult to believe that a relative of hers had been aboard the ill-fated ship, since she could never verify the story.

As the 100th anniversary of the historic sinking approached, O’Connell, now Chief Historian for the History Channel, was finally able to piece together the fascinating details of her great-great grandmother’s life.

Catherine Sterrit was a singer and pianist in Pennsylvania when she divorced her first husband and remarried. It was this second marriage to Cameron Willey, unknown to O’Connell during her initial archives search, which finally led her to discover the truth.

When her second marriage also ended in divorce—an almost unheard of circumstance in the early part of the 20th century--Catherine Willey left the country. “Like so many other women of her time who had the means, she left America and went to Paris,” O’Connell said. At the outbreak of war in Europe, Willey returned to the United States to visit family and raise money for those in need. “She collected money and jewelry and planned to use the proceeds to set up a home for penniless war widows,” O’Connell said.

Despite German warnings that any ship flying the flag of Great Britain would be sunk upon entering the war zone, Willey was one of more than 1,900 passengers aboard the Lusitania when it sailed from New York’s Pier 54 on May 1, 1915.

The Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo, killing more than 1,100 passengers and crew, including Catherine Willey.

The sinking of the Lusitania was “one of the pivotal moments of World War I,” O’Connell said. “The United States was neutral at the time, but the sinking brought us much closer to joining the war.” Still, it would be nearly two years before the U.S. officially entered the conflict.

Jersey Boys: Irish Soldiers in World War I

USS Agamemnon

By Megan Smolenyak April/May 2015

America entered World War One on April 6th, 1917, and though the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 greatly angered the influential Irish-American community on America’s East Coast, many Irish and Irish-Americans saw it as their duty to enlist. Megan Smolenyak looks at the great state of New Jersey and profiles several of those soldiers, including her grandfather, who heard the call of duty.

He was Pop-Pop to me, and I remembered him as the gentle, older fellow who would give me a penny for gum when we went on a stroll to the neighborhood drug store. Other times, he would sit on the bottom step leading up to the bedrooms in his Chatham, New Jersey split level – the driver accepting my pretend fare as I climbed the stairs behind him to take a seat in our imaginary city bus.

But we lost him when I was only four, so the life of James Vincent Shields remained a mystery to me until I became a genealogist in the sixth grade and started pestering my nana for memories of the past. And even then, it would take some time to learn that he had served in World War I.Born in Jersey City in 1898 to Irish immigrants David and Margaret (McKaig) Shields, James was the ninth of eleven children. In 1923, he married Beatrice Agnes Reynolds after she accepted his proposal with a specially made ring engraved with shamrocks.

Read more: Jersey Boys: Irish Soldiers in World War I

Doomed Doctor wrote 'In Flanders Fields,' the poem of World War I

McCrae and Poem Text

By Michael E. Ruane

There are stories that may not have made the textbooks, offbeat tales of people and events, fragments and glimpses of surprising lives. This is one in a series of vignettes from the forgotten corners of history.

On Sunday morning, May 2, 1915, Lt. Alexis Helmer, 22, of the Canadian field artillery, stepped out of his bunker on the Western Front and was hit by a big German artillery shell.

What was left of him was gathered up in sandbags, the story goes, and buried that day on the battlefield.

A death like Helmer's was commonplace during World War I. But his became famous because of a poem written in his honor, the most popular English-language poem of World War I.

One hundred years ago next month, a Canadian officer and poet, Lt. Col. John McCrae, drafted these lines after reading the "committal service" over Helmer's grave.

Read more: Doomed Doctor wrote 'In Flanders Fields,' the poem of World War I

‘In Flanders Fields' Centennial event May 3 in DC

Flanders Field McCrae 500The Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D. Fellowship will commemorate the centennial of McCrae's timeless poem "In Flanders Fields" at noon on Sunday, May 3, 2015 at the DC War Memorial on the National Mall, 1900 Independence Avenue SW, Washington, DC.

McCrae's poem immortalized the fear and mystery of a life lived in the face of destruction. His clarion call to carry on in the face of all odds has inspired generations to don a poppy pin, a powerful metaphor for the persistence and beauty of life, in memory of the lost.

The commemoration of the poem's centennial is taking place in support of the honored tradition of soldiers in the arts, and remembrance of all lives lost in World War One. Proceedings will begin at noon and will conclude by 1:00 p.m. with Rear Admiral [Ret.] James J. Carey reading the poem and offering remarks.

The Lt. Col. John McCrae, M.D. Fellowship was founded to continue McCrae's dream of the creation of beauty in any and all situations, no matter how dire they appear. The fellowship will pay for retired soldiers to pursue work in the arts and their curation in and around the Washington area. Donation towards the Fellowship's mission may be made at http://www.inflandersfields.org/donate.html.

Views from the Embassy: Diplomacy and World War One

For many, the guns of August 1914 seem like a story from long ago. Sepia-toned images of dusty, musty relics, mustached gentlemen in pinstripe pants, and ladies in near floor-length skirts dominate images in popular culture. Yet, surprisingly, those who witnessed civilization unraveling at the seams were very 'modern' and through their memoirs, letters home, and correspondence with Washington, they convey similar attitudes and concerns that we would recognize today.

For the men and women in the U.S. diplomatic community in France, as elsewhere in war-torn Europe, their unique, front row seats to events ensured that they had a rendezvous with history. What was it like to experience war on the front lines while representing a neutral nation? How did the actions of the U.S. diplomatic community impact foreign public opinion of the United States? What role did African Americans and women play in the United States' neutral response prior to 1917? What were the tensions between diplomacy and neutrality, and how did the 1914-1918 experience change the U.S. diplomatic corps and the conduct of U.S. diplomacy—and how does it inform our actions today? How did the media coverage of the war change European opinion of the United States—and Americans—and how did U.S. reporters' accounts of war-torn Europe alter the way American culture viewed the larger world? In what ways did the war experience change the world in which we know it? What were the elements that we'd still recognize today?

The centennial of the First World War offers us the opportunity to reexamine events and better understand how the world was irrecoverably altered over the course of four years. Watch the recording of the discussion that took place on Wednesday, April 15 in the video window above to hear the findings of the Office of the Historian's recent "Views From the Embassy" project and contextualize it into the larger picture of the era—and its impacts today.

For more information on the World War One project, please visit the project page.

WW1 Grafitti sheds light on soldiers' experience

Inscriptions reveal soldiers' lives from Canada, Australia, Britain, and the U.S.

World War One Chalk Etching

The Associated Press

A headlamp cuts through the darkness of a rough-hewn passage 100 feet underground to reveal an inscription: "James Cockburn 8th Durham L.I."

It's cut so clean it could have been left yesterday. Only the date next to it — April 1, 1917 — roots it in the horrors of World War I.

The piece of graffiti is just one of nearly 2,000 century-old inscriptions that have recently come to light in Naours, a two-hour drive north of Paris. Many marked a note for posterity in the face of the doom that trench warfare a few dozen miles away would bring to many.

"It shows how soldiers form a sense of place and an understanding of their role in a harsh and hostile environment," said historian Ross Wilson of Chichester University in Britain.

Etchings, even scratched bas-reliefs, were left by many soldiers during the war. But those in Naours "would be one of the highest concentrations of inscriptions on the Western Front" that stretches from Switzerland to the North Sea, said Wilson.

Read more: WW1 Grafitti sheds light on soldiers' experience

Over There and Overlooked

The centennial of the First World War is slipping past unnoticed in the United States, despite its persistent legacy.

World War One Reinforcing Soldiers

By David Frum

In a couple of months, we’ll mark the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, a history-bending event that will probably engage Americans not very much more than any of the other commemorations of the First World War over the past seven months. The United States lost some 115,000 soldiers in the First World War, more than in Vietnam, Korea, and all other post-1945 conflicts combined. Yet the war’s impress on the American mind—once seemingly so deep and indelible—has faded. The war men once called “the Great” has receded almost beyond memory in this country that did so much to win it.

It’s not so elsewhere, of course. I was in a business meeting in a Toronto office building on November 11. At 11 a.m., a buzzer sounded and the intercom announced the two-minute silence that still marks the hour of the armistice in the countries of the former British empire. The participants looked uncertainly at each other. Wasn’t it kind of... hokey to stop and stand? And yet, pause and stand they did, until the intercom buzzed again.

Read more: Over There and Overlooked

How World War One lead to the Apple Watch

U.S. World War One Soldiers wearing wrist watch

By Christopher Klein
history.com

Yesterday, Apple CEO Tim Cook unveiled his company’s new smartwatch, which will let users make phone calls, read e-mail, surf the web, pay for groceries and even monitor their health right from their wrists. The high-tech Apple Watch, however, may never have come to fruition had World War I not erased the cultural stigma that used to surround wristwatches.

While some credit Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet with designing the first wristwatch in 1810 for Caroline Murat, the younger sister of Napoleon Bonaparte and Queen of Naples, others give the nod to Swiss luxury watch manufacturer Patek Philippe, which developed one for Hungary’s Countess Koscowicz based on an 1868 design. Regardless of the wristwatch’s origins, 19th-century society primarily viewed “bracelet watches” and “wristlets” as dainty, jewel-encrusted baubles to be worn strictly by women for fashion, not practicality.

Into the 1900s, men continued to rely on pocket watches to keep time, although leaders in several countries began to see the wristwatch’s military advantages. In 1880, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I ordered 2,000 wristwatches from Swiss watchmaker Girard-Perregaux to assist his naval officers in timing bombardments. The timepieces were also given to a number of soldiers fighting in the Boer War and the Spanish-American War, but at the dawn of the 20th century, wristwatches continued to be seen as “girlish” novelties as impractical as ankle watches.

Read more: How World War One led to the Apple Watch

Thomas Edison aided the United States military in World War One

Thomas Edison and USS Sachem Crew

The First World War, then known simply as the Great War, was in Edison's time the deadliest war in human history. The war would be waged between the Allied Powers of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia against the Central Powers of Germany, the Austrian-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. However, the four years of conflict would be made even more horrific by the introduction of mechanized warfare, with new advanced technology as a result of the latest industrial age. New innovations in weaponry such as machine guns, tanks, and airplanes all had the potential to cause horrific losses of life on the battlefield.

World War I was significant for Thomas Edison's life and business even before America's entry into the war in April 1917. Unlike contemporaries such as Henry Ford, who advocated a strict pacifist approach, Edison believed in preparedness, in response to potential threats against the United States. This philosophy advocated arming the United States military for war, with the assumption that America would eventually be forced to enter the conflict. Various prominent individuals during this period, including General Leonard Wood, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt , former secretary of war Henry Stimson, and various other prominent politicians and businessmen also advocated this approach, eventually gaining the support of President Woodrow Wilson. Thus, Edison aided the United States military, particularly the Navy, in preparing to defend American shores from enemy attacks, particularly from submarines.

Edison greatly feared the consequences of warfare with modern industrial weapons. As he said in an interview with the New York Times in October 1915,"Science is going to make war a terrible thing –too terrible to contemplate. Pretty soon we can be mowing down men by the thousands or even millions almost by pressing a button." This motivated Edison to aid the United States military in arming itself for defense against potential enemies. During the spring of 1915, Edison described his preparedness ideas, basing them on the stockpiling of munitions and military vehicles and on recruiting a large army of reservists from the private sector, highlighting the concept that military preparedness needed to be organized along industrial lines.

Read more: Thomas Edison aided the United States military in World War One

Pritzker Museum Donates $5 Million to support U.S. World War I Centennial Commission

By Kate Thayer
Chicago Tribune

A $5 million donation from a Chicago military museum will help a national effort to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War with a new memorial, education campaign and traveling exhibit.

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library, which announced the donation Friday, is the founding sponsor of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission — a group formed last year and charged with developing projects to mark the anniversary of the United States' involvement in the war in 1917.

Kenneth Clarke

Kenneth Clarke, president and CEO of the Pritzker museum and library, said remembering the war and those who served brings to light how applicable the history of World War I still is today.

"We believe the Great War is something everybody needs to know about. There are very real examples in today's geopolitical climate that make World War I very relevant today," he said, pointing to boundary conflicts in the Middle East, among other issues.

"As an institution dedicated to preserving and sharing the history and heritage of the Citizen Soldier, the Pritzker Military Museum & Library is proud to support the Centennial Commission in similarly preserving and sharing the history of World War I, so that we can learn lessons from the past to apply to the future," Jennifer Pritzker, museum and library founder and a retired colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard, said in a statement.

Helping pay for the commission's efforts also ensures Chicago will be in the spotlight in a national campaign, Clarke said.

Read more: Pritzker Museum Donates $5 Million to support U.S. World War I Centennial Commission

Evarts Tracy, pioneer of American military camouflage, was renowned architect

By Nancy Piwowar

Plainfield, NJ -- Evarts Tracy was one of the foremost architects in America in 1915, but as World War One came closer to America, he was one of the first men to offer his services to the government. Such patriotism was a family tradition: Tracy was the great-great grandson of Roger Sherman, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the only one to sign three other historic documents: The Association of 1774, The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States.

Tracy was born in New York on May 23, 1868, and moved with his family at the age of six to Plainfield, New Jersey. His parents' house is located on West Eighth Street in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District, Plainfield, New Jersey. He graduated from Yale in 1890.

Tracy married Caroline Streuli on June 23, 1894. In 1900, Evarts Tracy built his own house in Plainfield, New Jersey and occupied it in 1901. Tracy's residence was built perpendicular to the road, and one could surmise that he watched the construction of Muhlenberg Hospital from his residence on Hillside Avenue, which is on a hill overlooking Muhlenberg. His residence was also built to the points of the compass just like his Muhlenberg buildings. Tracy's residence is now part of the Hillside Avenue Historic District, Plainfield, New Jersey.

battlefield camouflage Earlier in 1896, Tracy designed a Nurses' Home for the "old" Muhlenberg in the west end of Plainfield, and it was completed in 1897 (now demolished).

Tracy was into the latest inventions of his time. He purchased a locomobile, "Best Built Car in America," and it was expensive and elegant. He thought so much of his locomobile that the architectural plans of his Hillside Avenue residence shows that he designed a large locomobile opening and door so that he could drive his locomobile right into the basement of his house. This no longer exists at the residence. He enjoyed giving rides to people around the city in his locomobile.

References are made that Tracy retired from the Tracy and Swartwout architectural firm in 1915, but in actuality he offered his services to the country in the Great World War.

Read more: Evarts Tracy

Documenting the First Modern War 100 Years Ago

Sturtevant Read 1917By Darroch Greer

In 2007, a friend of mine from college called me after seeing a photograph of his grandfather on a cover of a book about World War One aviation. He asked me how to make a documentary. Ron King is the grandson of First Yale Unit member John Vorys (Yale 1918, ten-term congressman from Ohio), and his grandfather was sitting next to six classmates in Palm Beach Florida on the cover of a book called The Millionaires' Unit by Marc Wortman (Public Affairs, 2006). The photo was taken in April 1917, and the Yale students had left school to train as pilots in more hospitable weather ten days before the United States declared war on Germany. The Yale Unit became the founding squadron of the U.S. Navy Air Reserve.

Having done most of my documentary work in 19th century American history, I didn't have a strong frame of reference for the Great War. It wasn't touched on at all in secondary school, and my college degree had been in fine arts. Ron attended a talk by the book's author at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and it seemed there might be some unique photos in private family collections. The story was a good one: young, dynamic personalities tackling a new and dangerous technology, running off to war at a time when it seemed romantic.

Read more: Darroch Greer -- The Millionaires' Unit

U.S. Centennial World War One Commemoration Effort Gears Up

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 12, 2014 – It was called The Great War even as it was going on. It engulfed the world, and the world is still feeling its effects.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, and U.S. officials are gearing up to mark the centennial.

In his day job, Robert J. Dalessandro is the deputy secretary for Headquarters Operations at the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). He also is the chair of the World War One Centennial Commission.

The Great War began in July 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This triggered an interconnecting network of alliances to spark mobilization, bringing in the empires of Europe. England, France and Russia lined up against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

A generation of men died in battle on the fields of France. The Somme, Verdun, Ypres and Meuse-Argonne became killing grounds. On the Eastern Front, millions of Germans, Austrians and Russians battled. Overall, about 16.5 million people were killed in the war.

At first, the United States stayed out of it. In fact, when President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, his campaign slogan was "He kept us out of war."

Read more: U.S. Centennial World War One Commemoration Effort Gears Up

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