Edward J. Klekowski, Libby Klekowski. Americans in Occupied Belgium, 1914/1918: Accounts of the War from Journalists, Tourists, Troops and Medical staff. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 296 pp. $45.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7255-0.
Reviewed by Kevin Braam (U.S. Army)
Published on H-War (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
As the centenaries of major battles and significant events of the First World War occur, there is much renewed interest in scholarship of the war. Ed and Libby Klekowski unveil many personal accounts of American journalists, businessmen, and war adventurers in Americans in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918. Where the title of the book is misleading, the scholarly work conducted by the authors vividly describes the human condition of Americans in Belgium and uncovers the horror brought against the Belgian people by the German army. The authors captivate the reader by revealing the personal experience and individual perspective of the war and its effects in the context of major historical events or large-scale battles. Well-known events that are used include the Battle of Ypres and the assault on several cities, including Brussels and Antwerp. The authors also highlight American involvement in foreign armies as well as the creative efforts of journalists to accurately report on the war.
In early 1914, Brand Whitlock was appointed head of the American Legation in Belgium. He served in this position until the United States declared war against Germany. He was indirectly involved in the lives of many journalists and Americans living abroad. Americans often relied on Whitlock’s political influence in Belgium. The authors note Whitlock’s involvement or perspective on many of the major events of WWI that are described. One journalist who needed Whitlock’s support was popular American author Richard Harding Davis. After remarking that the German “war machine is certainly wonderful” (p. 23) to behold as soldiers marched through the streets of Brussels on August 20, 1914, he set out in pursuit for the front lines. He stumbled upon the advancing German army in the city of Hal. Barely escaping death, he was ordered back to Brussels, where he immediately sought counsel from Brand Whitlock. Many journalists were not as reliant on Whitlock nor did they pursue diplomatic means to reach the front lines. They relied their own ingenuity, often putting their lives at risk.
In August and September 1914, five American journalists including representatives from the Chicago Daily News and the Associated Press deceived German leadership and gained access to areas outside of Brussels. Upon reaching the town of Beaumont, they embedded with the German army. Together this group published an article in September 1914 in the New York Times arguing that “rumors of German atrocities were groundless” (p. 65) despite the compelling evidence of carnage in other towns around Beaumont. The authors compare this opinion with examples from other journalists who witnessed atrocities firsthand. Granville Fortescue, an American writing for the London Daily Telegraph, reported that at Duvain the “Germans murdered about 10 percent” (p. 54) of the population. The authors note that despite conflicting reporting, there is no evidence suggesting francs-tireurs (people conducting guerilla warfare) conducted a “people’s war” against the German army. The German army moved north from the Meuse River region to Antwerp in September 1914. American journalists and civilians caught up in war hysteria made daring efforts to experience the war firsthand.
E. Alexander Powell, a writer for the New York World, made a daring trip from Antwerp to Holland on October 11, 1914. Traveling without German authorization, Powell eventually reached the London office of his employer and published Fighting in Flanders in November of 1914. Journalist and adventures alike were fascinated with the war, seeing it in some ways as a tourist event. Walter Austin, a businessman from Boston, traveled to Belgium posing as a reporter for the Dedham Transcript, knowing journalists could gain access to the front line. After teaming up with other war “gadabouts,” Austin eventually stumbled across the First Battle of Ypres, where “the explosions of shrapnel and the deep booming of howitzers” (p. 112) could be heard all around. In stark contrast to the self-gratifying activity of war tourists, the authors describe in much greater detail the plight of other Americans who participated in the war, prior to official American involvement.
Many Americans volunteered to serve in foreign armies and fight against German aggression. More than sixteen thousand American citizens joined the Canadian army. In 1916 C. Seymour Bullock founded the American Legion, a Canadian brigade comprised entirely of American volunteers. Americans living abroad volunteered as well, serving in the British army as nurses or ambulance attendants. Former associate editor for Collier’s Magazine Arthur H. Gleason and his wife, Helen, volunteered for the Munro Ambulance Corps. Another example was Mary Roberts Rinehart, an author of mystery novels and an educated nurse who toured various medical facilities in support of the Belgian Red Cross and its founder, Dr. Antoine Depage. She worked hard convincing American benefactors to provide personnel and materiel, specifically medical, in support of the war. Through this example, the authors do an excellent job describing the connection American volunteers had to major events of the war. An unfortunate casualty of war, Dr. Depage’s wife, Marie Depage, was a passenger aboard the Lusitania when a German U-boat sank it in May 1915.
U-Boat warfare was responsible for sinking many Allied warships and also passenger ships. Walter Duranty, a writer for the New York Times, arrived in Belgium after Bruges was liberated in October 1918. He wrote several articles about the difficulty German U-Boat crewmembers had after they returned from operations. Alcoholism, debauchery, and an attitude of living for the moment were prevalent among these men. On this topic, the authors transition from describing the personal experience of American citizens to that of German U-boat personnel. The book also takes an interesting new direction as the authors make the bold statement that “Germany lost the First World War and the Kaiser his throne” (p. 205) as a result of the German decision to resume unrestricted U-boat warfare in January 1917. A more convincing argument could have been made if the authors had connected the proposed German war plan with Mexico, examined later in the same chapter discussing U-boats. Analysis on U-boat warfare falls short, but the discussion on the success of the Comission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) brings new light to its significance and the role Americans played in managing the organization.
Herbert Hoover served as chairman for the CRB. The goal of the CRB was the successful delivery of 100,000 tons of foodstuff per month to the Belgian people. Hoover and other wealthy businessmen living in England when the war began volunteered to provide support for the organization. They oversaw the shipping and distribution of food to Americans and Belgian citizens trapped inside cities under German occupation. The CRB brought worldwide attention to the food shortages in Belgium, but majority of donations came from the United States. American leadership of the CRB continued until the American declaration of war.
The Klekowskis' design of this book provides a different approach to revealing personal experiences of warfare. The gripping accounts of nurses on the battlefield, combined with the creative efforts made by journalists to reach the front line, make this work great supplemental reading on any of the major events discussed in the book. This book’s greatest strength is the creative way the authors relate personal experiences of Americans within the framework of a battle or event.
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Kevin Braam. Review of Klekowski, Edward J.; Klekowski, Libby, Americans in Occupied Belgium, 1914/1918: Accounts of the War from Journalists, Tourists, Troops and Medical staff.
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