Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Chicagoans in the Great War

Chicagoans of the 33rd Division Returning from France

From: The Chicago Tribune, 11 March 2018

By Ron Grossman  

A century ago, Lt. Arthur Keating, who hailed from Van Buren Street on Chicago’s West Side, led an infantry platoon in a raid on enemy-held trenches in northern France. 

“Hey, Arthur, don’t you know me?” one of the captured Germans said in the English of a Chicago street-corner boy. The two of them had been schoolmates at Austin High School.  When World War I began in 1914, Keating’s prisoner returned to his native Germany. Keating joined the U.S. Army. Military historians observe that all wars, whatever their scale, are essentially composed of myriad clashes between small units—like the one Keating described in a letter to his wife, written from a field hospital where he was recovering from his wounds, in November 1918.

Keating’s wife passed his tale on to the Tribune, where it appeared among the daily dispatches chronicling the Great War, as it originally was known. After years of bloodshed and destruction, it seemed that the end of the war must be near. Yet it was far from certain which side would win.

Some Tribune stories of 1918 described the maneuvers of major formations, like the 8th Infantry Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an all-black regiment from Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Others, like the picaresque adventures of another Chicagoan, Bronislav Platkowski, provided a human-scale view of a war with casualty lists beyond comprehension.

Just before World War I, Platkowski traveled from Chicago to a Polish-speaking district of the German empire. He’d gone to see his aging and ill father, but to the local authorities, he was cannon fodder. Impressed into the German army, he served for two years on the Russian front, the site of massive artillery duels. “I was buried by shells three times,” Platkowski told the Tribune. “Several times I was picked up unconscious on the field and taken to hospitals.” Surrendering to the Russians, he escaped a prisoner of war camp and slowly and surreptitiously made his way back to Chicago, he said, where his sweetheart, Rose Skeaja, was waiting for him. The thought of her kept him determined to survive the ordeal. “He expects to recuperate from the long warfare, marry Miss Rose, and settle down in a cottage in Chicago,” the Tribune reported on June 13, 1918. Platkowski’s soldiering days were over by the time the United States entered the war with Germany. 

Ernest Hemingway Was Chicago's Most Famous
Participant in the War

Initially, the U.S. struggled to stay out of the conflict, which pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey against England, France, Italy and Russia. But provoked by Germany’s submarines sinking ships with Americans onboard, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany on 2 April 1917.  “There are, it may be, many months of fiery trial and sacrifice ahead of us,” Wilson told the senators and representatives. Four days later, Congress declared war. Indeed, it took some time just to form and train an expeditionary force, America not having much of a standing army.

Edgar Lee Masters, a Chicago lawyer and a noted poet, traveled to Camp Lee, VA, to report on the process for the Tribune. There he met a nurse who had experience in other wars and had volunteered to go to France with the troops. She didn’t think she would survive. Then, Masters asked her, why go?

You see. . . I have no relative, no one in the world, no home. I have never been married, and I feel towards these soldiers like a mother. They are my boys, all of them, and the war draws them so much closer to me.

Others felt a similar impulse. A Tribune report of Chicago-area casualties included: “Ernest Miller Hemingway (wounded and cited).” A recent graduate of Oak Park High School, he served as a Red Cross volunteer on the Italian front. Wounded by an Austrian shell while handing out chocolates to Italian soldiers, he recuperated in a hospital — an experience he drew upon for his novel A Farewell to Arms.

Chicago Doughboys of the Segregated 370th Infantry
That Served Under French Command

In the spring of 1918, Germany launched a last-ditch effort to win the war by breaking through the French lines. Caught in the middle of the battle was a group of volunteers from Smith College, a women’s college in Northampton, MA. One was Chicagoan Ruth Joslyn. As the Tribune explained in a story with a dateline indicating it was written “Somewhere in France,” Joslyn and her schoolmates “were sent by the alums to engage in the rehabilitation of the Somme district,” devastated by years of being fought over. The young women remained faithful to their mandate, even as they had to retreat from one town to the next, as the German army advanced. They set up a temporary children’s hospital in a Montdidier hotel, borrowed a big stove, and installed it in the court yard, cooking for and serving every hungry refugee and soldier who passed.

While casualties were high on both sides during the First Battle of the Somme, the toll proved fatal for the Germans. They were out of replacements, while French losses were offset by American troops, now arriving by the hundreds of thousands. Near Montdidier, where the Smith students set up a soup kitchen, the Tribune noted that 1,850 Germans were captured, including 52 officers, on 23 July.

By then, the Tribune was not just reporting the war but taking a bow for its participation. “This paper is unusual among newspapers in the fact that it has two editors, and may also be unique in that both are entering the war,” the Tribune noted. One of them, Maj. Robert R. McCormick, was fluent in French. So he initially served as translator for Gen. John Pershing, who commanded the American forces. Then he led an artillery unit during fighting near Cantigny, after which he would later name his Wheaton estate. At the Tribune, he was afterward referred to as “The Colonel,” his highest military rank.

Tribune Editor & Artilleryman
Capt. Joseph M. Patterson

In August 1918 in France, McCormick’s cousin and co-editor, Capt. Joseph Medill Patterson, had just dismounted his horse and was inspecting the artillery battery he commanded when a German airplane dropped a bomb. “An immense crater marked the spot where the animal had stood,” the Tribune reported. [The captain survived, however.]

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  1. One little picky objection to the writer of the Chicago Tribune article. He spouts the current dogma that during WW1 the French "were relatively free of racial prejudice". There are sources that contradict this statement, such as the biography of Eugene Bullard which recounts his experience as a black American in WW1 Paris.

  2. Racial attitudes in France and the United States were extremely different at the time of WWI, which explains while so many African Americans stayed in France after the war. Relative is the key word in this sentence from the Chicago Tribune. Among those who stayed was also Eugene Bullard. He remained there until WWII, having to flee for having worked for the French Resistance. He was later awarded the Legion of Honor when General de Gaulle visited the United States in 1960.

  3. Great comments. As a child Eugene was always taught that racial conditions were better in Europe. I expect he stayed after WW1 because of that. He did come back to the US and died here. Perhaps because his daughters were here. Wonderful article. Thanks for publishing Mike.