100 years ago this month, Americans struggled with aggressive world powers, emerging technology, and media trolls while holding a raging debate about sex. While that may sound familiar, what was allowed back then was surprising, even to a researcher seeking controversy.
I stumbled upon these facts while researching my World War I novel The End of Innocence (Sourcebooks Landmark, August 26). The novel is a love story about a German and American studying at Harvard during the early days of World War I. It was inspired by a heated dispute at Harvard University about whether to commemorate students who fought for Harvard's enemies in World War I.
What started out as a university story became enmeshed in a tale of sex, spies, musicians, puttees, mud and the mayhem that marked the calamitous times on the Western Front and in America. Here are seven little-known but true facts I found while researching The End of Innocence:
1. Foreign powers used social media too: Today we hear reports of the Russian government demanding its journalists plant social media comments in U.S. stories. (Perhaps you've seen people like "Igor of Clemson University" taking an unusual interest in your opinion on Ukraine in your Twitter feed.) 100 years ago British agents interested in drawing the U.S. into war planted stories and found a willing ally in Providence Journal editor John Ranthom. His false reports stirred up anger against many innocent Germans living in the U.S.
2. Enemy Aliens: In World War 1, more than 250,000 Germans living in the United States were forced to register at their local post offices and carry their registration cards with them at all times. 2,048 Germans living in America were arrested and forced to live in internment camps. Many interned were elite German musicians from symphonies and orchestras (the celebrities of their day). In one prison camp, the prisoners played Beethoven's Eroica before a prison audience of two thousand people. That concert was considered by eye-witnesses, themselves great musicians, to be the best work the world-famous conductor Karl Muck, formerly of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had ever accomplished.
3. No condoms for American soldiers. In World War I, the United States was the only major force that did not provide condoms for its soldiers. (Britain went to war with this policy but reversed it quickly.) Prevailing U.S. moral codes had led to the passage and enforcement of the Comstock laws that prohibited mailing any birth control device or information through the mail and these morals led to soldiers sent to war without useful protection against sexually transmitted disease. An estimated 400,000 military men were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.
4. The Red Baron started off in a dead end career. The German protagonist of my novel, Wils Brandl, has a military career that follows the early war months of the famous fighter pilot, the Red Baron (Manfred von Richtofen). Like the fictitious Wils, the real-life Manfred was a Prussian. He started his war service with the Uhlans, a regiment of cavalry lancers. When his cavalry unit was disbanded, Manfred was moved into the signal corps during the winter of 1914. The he crawled through the mud to string telegraph wires along the Western Front and won an Iron Cross (third class). In the spring of 1915, Manfred transferred to the Imperial Air Service where he became famous for his 80 aerial combat kills. The Red Baron's plane was shot down on April 21, 1918 and he was buried with full military honors by his enemies, the British and Australians.
5. Ugg, no boots! British soldiers wrapped the bottom of their legs with long strips of cloth called puttees, which had been imported from Hindu dress. Puttees were more practical than boots as boots would get sucked off in the mud, but puttees stayed put. This practice was continued until 1938. At the beginning of the war, French and British soldiers in wore cloth caps that were of little protective value. Metal helmets started to be introduced in 1915. The British enlisted man's kit weighed approximately 61 pounds. It included a shovel, bayonet, compass, mess tin, canteen, maps flashlight, rations, clothing, ammunition, pack, pistol, and rifle.
6. Fortitude in all aspects of life: It's hard to believe just what soldiers endured in trench warfare. In the Western Front trenches, soldiers had little warm food, eating primarily crackers, stale bread, jam and turnip stew. Tea was brought to the front line in gasoline cans. Soldiers took bismuth tablets to help with their indigestion and put lemon acid in their water to cover its bad smell. Bismuth is a key ingredient in today's Pepto-Bismol.
7. It's true: Miracles happened, even in war: During the unofficial Christmas Truce of 1914, 100,000 British and German troops participated in an impromptu cessation of war. Smaller truces broke out in 1915 and recently scholars discovered evidence of a truce in 1916. Later truces were discouraged due to the bitterness and scale of the war and official disapproval by commanding officers.