Four Questions for Timothy P. Brown
"Learn more about this war and its continued impact on us today"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Author/historian Timothy P. Brown has an interest in World War I, and his interest led him to a unique aspect of the war -- football. The game was in early stages of development at the time of the war, but it was already a nationally-popular pastime to play, and to watch. It was also a growing symbol that brought context and high-relief to the actions taking place in the war, and to the people who were fighting in it. His new book, Fields of Friendly Strife, follows the players of the 1918 Rose Bowl, on the field, and on the battlefields. Timothy Brown gave us some moments to discuss the book, the war, and football.
Tell us about your book. What is it about? Who are the characters that you follow?
Fields of Friendly Strife was released in November 2017 and tells the story of the men and teams of the military training camps that played in the 1918 and 1919 Rose Bowls. The story is set in the context of the evolution of football to that time, its place on college campuses, and why football became a highly visible part of life in the training camps. It follows the Mare Island and Camp Lewis football teams during the 1917 season, through their appearance in the 1918 Rose Bowl, and tracks the sixty percent of those men that shipped to France and variously saw action at Belleau Wood, Soissons, Meuse-Argonne, and in Flanders.
As those men were shipping to Europe, another set of men enter the training camps in 1918 where they train for war while playing in a football season upended by the federalization of American universities by the Students’ Army Training Corps and the demonic march of the Spanish Flu. By season’s end, the Mare Island Marines, which had an entirely new roster, return to Pasadena and the 1919 Rose Bowl to face the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. That game, and the broader Tournament of Roses, celebrated the recent Armistice and honored the sacrifices of those who served overseas.
The book closes with a summary of what happens to the men who return to civilian life, those who remain in the armed forces, as well as those who return to active duty during WWII.
Many off-the-battlefield story elements are told in a lighthearted fashion, particularly the coverage of the social norms and emerging technologies of the day.
How did the book come about? What drew you to this topic? What was your research process?
I came to the story through a backdoor. As a long-time collector of Rose Bowl memorabilia, I was researching a period item when I came across an article written by John Beckett on the 50th anniversary of his having captained the Mare Island Marines in the 1918 Rose Bowl. Beckett claimed that nearly half the men who played in the 1918 Rose Bowl died in action in WWI or WWII. That’s an incredible statistic and continues to be cited to this day, but I could not find another article or book that told the story of how that loss of life occurred, so I decided to pursue the story myself. (I did the same for the 1919 Rose Bowl teams as well.)
The primary research challenge I faced was that neither the Rose Bowl nor the various military museums could identify the full rosters of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines that played on those teams, so I sorted through inconsistent or incorrect information from newspaper articles, military unit and college records, muster rolls, and other sources to assemble the team rosters. It turned out that 178 men played on these teams at some point in their seasons. I then used the same information sources plus census information to determine what happened to each of the players during WWI, WWII and later years. In the end, I tracked down 168 of the 178 players and am still searching for the remaining 10.
The research ultimately showed that Beckett’s claim was greatly exaggerated, but while his claim was the impetus for my research, it became a side story. The core story is these men, almost all of whom were college students or graduates at a time when only two percent of the population attended college. They were also elite athletes including former or future major league baseball players, Olympians, and several who went on to shape the NFL, which was founded several years after the war. One player was a practicing physician, others were dentists and lawyers, and five became Marine generals, so they were prominent young men who were only beginning to show their true promise. Yet they willingly trained for war fully expecting to get into the big fight. All had benefited from their citizenship and each accepted the responsibilities that came with that citizenship.
What did you learn through creating this book? What aspects of the story resonated with you, personally, or have stuck with you?
What resonates with me are the casualties that occurred among these promising young men and the ‘what if’ game that ensues. That’s not a new idea, but I saw it in a different context as a writer rather than a reader since it was my job to provide context around why some men remained in training while others saw action, and how arbitrary decisions can have unforeseen, terrible consequences. For example, I couldn’t help but think how events might have played out differently if George C. Marshall and his staff had devised a slightly different plan for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The plan positioned the 91st Division from Camp Lewis fourth from the left among the nine divisions initiating the attack. That positioning ultimately led to the soldiers of the 91st charging across two miles of open fields under heavy artillery and machine gun fire to take the tiny village of Gesnes. They took heavy casualties attacking Gesnes and one of the men killed in action there spent the previous New Year’s Day playing in the Rose Bowl. Another soldier in the same unit lived to the age of 108, which made him the last living American veteran of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
The 91st Division entered the fight in late September, but units such as the 2nd Division, which included the 5th and 6th Marines, continued to move forward in battle after battle during their eight months of action. Those men did so despite their comrades dying around them, including one of the Mare Island Marine football players. It is humbling to think about what they went through during that time, to say nothing of the troops of the European nations who experienced over four years of war.
On a personal note, it was interesting to find that several Mare Island players, including John Beckett, served in France with the 13th Marines. My grandfather was also over there with the 13th Marines, so I have to think they ran into one another at some point during the year they served together.
Why is this story important to tell? The war happened a long time ago. Football games are only football games. What do you hope people take from your book?
WWI is something of a forgotten war among Americans, so I hope that approaching WWI through the vehicle of football makes it more approachable to those people who might not read traditional books about WWI. Perhaps it will encourage them to learn more about this war and its continued impact on us today.
Beyond that, football should not be dismissed as just a game, particularly during that time. Football during WWI was viewed by many as an approximation of and preparation for war, by others as a source of unit pride, and still others as an entertaining diversion that provided opportunities to raise funds for the Red Cross or other purposes. Regardless of which lens one looks through, football during the 1917 season and in the 1918 Rose Bowl was played at a time when few American had seen battle. Since the battles waged on the friendly fields of strife by the many service football teams were seen by tens or hundreds of thousands of fans, the games came to symbolize the strength, toughness and cleverness the American fighting man would soon bring to the less friendly battlefields of Europe. It was powerful imagery and one look at the propaganda posters of WWI tells us all we need to know about the importance of symbolism during wartime.
Finally, while Fields of Friendly Strife shows these men came of age in a much different time than ours, their story resonates because promising men and women in today’s armed forces continue marching into harm’s way, hoping to return to the loved ones they leave behind. My book tells a comparable story while informing the reader about a unique slice of American life that occurred one century ago.
Note: As the year progresses, I’ll continue adding “Today in History” blog postings regarding the experiences of the men of the WWI Rose Bowls during 1918. The blog is available at http://fieldsoffriendlystrife.com