If you’ve been studying a subject for as long as I have, you may think there isn’t anything left to discover. I’ve been studying World War I and how it changed the lives of ordinary people since I was a teenager. When I embarked on writing A Tale of Two Nations: Canada. U.S. and WW1, my goal was to educate the reader. Little did I know I also would educate myself.
Newspapers from 1914-1918 were my primary sources when writing A Tale of Two Nations. These sources are unmarred by hindsight and analysis. News reports were often chaotic and incomplete, sometimes contradicting other reports. But, more importantly, they were full of information that didn’t make it into history books. It is this “lost” information that I found the most fascinating.
Here are five of the things I learned while writing A Tale of Two Nations:
1. Fist Fights Broke Out in Times Square
After the sinking of the Lusitania in May 2015, war rhetoric ran high in the United States. Many wanted the U.S. to join the war in retaliation for the innocent people who were killed as a consequence of the ship’s torpedoing.
In the days immediately following the sinking, thousands of people gathered in Times Square outside the New York Times building to debate. Debaters had been gathering there since the war’s beginning to argue for and against American involvement in the war. Now, however, the crowds were substantially larger.
Pro-German speakers were heckled by the predominately anti-German crowded and told that if they continued to speak for Germany they would be thrown into detention camps.
Women also joined the debate for the first time, arguing passionately for their beliefs.
Fights often broke out in the crowds, and the city stationed extra police at the square. The crowds were so densely packed, however, it was difficult to throw an actual punch, and most became firm slaps.
2. Fist Fights Broke Out at the 1916 Republican National Convention
During the election of 1916, the Republican Party was split into mainstream Republicans (whose motto was America First) and the Progressives who supported former President Teddy Roosevelt.
The Rooseveltians, as TR’s supporters were called, were a passionate bunch. Their chant was “We want Teddy.” Rooseveltians often interrupted Republican meetings with the chant, much to the annoyance of the mainstream.
As the Republican and Progressive national conventions were ready to open in Chicago in June 1916, tempers flared.
Rooseveltians marched through the streets of Chicago to the Congress Plaza Hotel. There, they were confronted by the supporters of presidential candidate and Illinois Sen. Lawrence Sherman. Punches began to fly, clothing was ripped and banners destroyed.
Trouble followed the Rooseveltians wherever they went, it seemed. A few days later, a fight began between them and the supporters of presidential candidate and New York Sen. Elihu Root. This time, the Rooseveltians made it half way through the hotel lobby before the police, billy clubs in hand, forcefully removed protestors from the premises.
3. The First U.S. Congresswoman Voted Against the War
Montana Rep. Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, took office in 1917. She was among few Congress members who voted against the U.S. declaring war on Germany.
Newspapers painted Rankin as an emotional woman who could barely control herself and bawled liked a baby when it came her time to vote for the war resolution. Her friends refuted this claim, saying she was composed and never let her emotions control her.
Carrie Chapman Catt, chairwoman of the National Woman Suffrage Party, said, “I predicted two weeks ago that no matter which way Miss Rankin voted she would be criticized. If she voted for war, she would offend the pacifists; if she voted against it, she would offend the militarists.”
In the end, simply by being a woman, Rankin offended everyone.
4. Pacifists Turned Violent
Pacifists lobbied U.S. Congress members in vain to stop the nation’s declaration of war. In Washington, D.C., they were forbidden to demonstrate or march. This made many pacifists desperate.
Pacifist Alexander Bannwart tried to approach Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. Lodge, who called pacifists an intolerant group of people, hit Bannwart in the jaw, and a Senate messenger boy beat him. Bannwart, though, was the one who was arrested for starting the fight.
The pacifists’ D.C. office was invaded multiple times by harassers, and the majority of the pacifists left the city.
Elsewhere in the country, pacifist demonstrations turned violent and were met with opposition.
In New York City, an Englishman, who refused to stand for “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his dinner guests were pelted with salad and mayonnaise at a restaurant.
5. Before Modern Psychiatry, There was Concern for Soldiers’ Minds
Men who suffered from shell shock were often called troublemakers and told to just “get a grip.” As time went on, the new field of psychiatry began to understand that shell shock was a condition with a known cause that could be treated.
Rev. Robert Eadie, a forward thinking Canadian and Presbyterian pastor, knew that when the war ended, soldiers’ minds needed attention. He was concerned the soldiers returning from Europe would suffer from depression. They needed jobs and to be taken care of. Eadie said. Canada had promised it would look after these men and in 1918 it was time to fulfill that promise, he said.
Bonus Things I Learned while Writing A Tale of Two Nations
There were many things I learned that I did not include in A Tale of Two Nations because they didn’t fit the theme of the book. These include a cure for cancer being found in 1915, crime rates being much higher than we think of for the “good old days” and an obsession with animal stories.
The most surprising thing of all, however, might just be the crassness of newspaper headlines. Newspapers were bombarded with wartime and Spanish Flu death reports, so they focused on prominent citizens and heroic cases. Instead of saying “John Doe Killed in Action” or “John Doe Dies of War Wounds,” headlines said “John Doe Dead.”
These accurate, but insensitive headlines, extended beyond soldiers’ deaths. A fireworks explosion in Spain injured 50 people and killed 25, some by decapitation. The horror of the tragedy was muted by the hilarious headline that accompanied it: “Fireworks Blow Many Heads Off.”
Other headlines of this type include “His Heart Torn From His Body” and “Girl’s Finger on Picket.”
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