Through a Soldier’s Eyes: The Realities of the Great War

IMG-3475The swell of patriotism in Reading and Berks County in 1917 made the war theatre attractive to many young, impressionable men, who were called by their country to fight for freedom. At the time, activities on the home front were entirely focused on bringing a swift and decisive victory in France for our soldiers in the trenches. Countless loan drives helped to pay for the war and the citizens of Reading and Berks County pitched in to support our troops overseas. Meanwhile, new recruits departed as heros from the Outer Station with community celebrations, parades and music.

Surrounded by a community spirit of patriotic duty, young men from Reading and Berks entered the army by volunteering or draft, eager to be a part of the action. The young men who became the American Expeditionary Forces couldn’t wait to make folks at home proud. Unfortunately, what they discovered in Europe were conditions that were unimaginable. They quickly exchanged the romanticism and excitement of the war for a life wrought with hunger, fear and uncertainty.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The soldiers who left Reading on August 25, 1917 became a machine gun company for the First composite National Guard attached to Company I. The company, which was comprised of soldiers from 26 states, departed from Mineola, NY and eventually saw action in France. The following excerpt is from the diary of Samuel Cole of the 125 Infantry, written on the Champagne Front. Cole was a Michigan native, but his account of what life was like during battle is powerful and moving. Many of Cole’s diary entries were matter of fact, detailing when he wrote letters, played a ballgame (Company I vs headquarters), and bunk fatigue. Other entries were duty-driven, describing his service: “hiked to reserve positions – weather hot, worked on barbed wire, saw aero plane battle, piece of shrapnel comes close. Rifle range – Faber, Cavanaugh, Willis, McCarney and I have beer party under tree.”  Yet other entries spoke of hunger and survival, boiling potatoes the size of marbles with small red beets and scavenging for food for days.

When action occurred, such as the conflict at Ferme de Ferret, Cole’s diary entries were lengthy and detailed. Cole vividly recounted days of fighting and the horrors of his experience. He even pasted additional space in the diary to include all the details of the day. The following is a portion of the entry by Cole on the activities he experienced on July 29, 1918:

We go over the top at 2:30 pm, see men get up from hillside ahead and go uphill. We cheer them on. Machine gunners tell us they are Germans, and we are front line. We crossed wheat field from St. Martins Road under heavy barrage, jump across the Oureq River and are ordered up Hill 212. The boys complained about the heavy packs and we were all carrying them. Told them to take them off. We started up the hill in the open. Found Van Wert and some others wounded. Corp. Wojciechowski called to me “lets give them hell Cole”. I shouted back “I’m with you we will show them”. The next time I looked, when he threw up his hands and whirled around shot through the forehead. He was a good friend of mine and a fine chap. It made me so mad I could have taken on the whole German Army. It was a sight I have dreamed about many times since. By the time we reached the top, there was only Smally, Dombrowski and myself out of the eight that started. Dombrowski got a bullet through the groin and crawled back down. Smily had a 20 shot Schechout French automatic Rifle, no extra clips. He went back down to find a rifle, never saw him again. The tallest cover I could find were weeds 3” high, kept down flat. Corp. Bancroft, company runner, crawled up, inquired of Captain Crabb. Reversed my position, laid on my back. Told him on the left somewhere, while we were talking, a shell exploded up front and my left foot went numb. Told Bancroft I was hit, probably by dead shrapnel. He left to look for Crabb. I waited a while, and I decided as I was alone on the extreme right of our unit, I better go back and come up farther on the left where our boys were. Started back bullets flying overhead, got partway down hill and shell exploded to right. Another and another, each one coming closer, the last one dropped 100’ to my right.  Shells started falling to my left coming closer each time. The last one dropped about 50’ away. I could see the jagged fragments of the shell as it exploded, the butt end sailing over my head. Was I ever scared. Up to now I was mad, now I was mad and scared. I went on down the hill, always stopped, took off my shoe and poured the blood out.

The machine gun division mentioned in Cole’s diary entry most likely included the soldiers from Reading. From J. Bennett Nolan’s “The Reading Militia in the Great War” A Divisional Citation of Major-General Charles T. Menoher states:

“Fresh from the battlefront before Chalons, you were thrown against the picked troops of Germany. For eight consecutive days you attacked skillfully prepared positions. You captured great stores of arms and ammunitions. You forced the crossing of the Oureq. You took Hill 212, Sergy, Meurcy, Ferme and Serenges by assault. You drove the enemy, including an Imperial Guard Division, before you for a depth of fifteen kilometers. When your infantry was relieved it was in full pursuit of the retreating Germans and your artillery continued to progress and support another American division in the advance of the Vesle.”

IMG-3487

The price of victory was steep for the young men who served in the American Expeditionary Forces. The combination of shell explosions, gas and gun fire made the wide-eyed soldiers hardened by death of friends, wounds suffered in battle, hunger, and the basic will to survive.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

 

 

Advertisements

Pitching In & Going Without: Patriotism in Berks County during the Great War

By May of 1918, the citizens of Reading and Berks County were confronted with the realities of war on a daily basis. The war itself may have been fought on foreign soil, but its presence was felt intimately at home. Whether in the form of food rationing, loan drives, or new recruits leaving for camp in preparation for the battlefields of France, the never-ending sacrifices of war had a huge impact on the citizens of Berks County.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 01 May 1918, Wed Cole Watson.png
Reading Times  May 1, 1918, Cole Watson

The Third Liberty Loan Drive was nearing its completion when the last fight card of the season was scheduled by Cole Watson’s Athletic Club at The Auditorium on April 30th.  At the event, patrons were greeted by Sergeant Manning Grimes of Providence R.I., a wounded soldier who returned from France and made his pledge to the patrons that buying Liberty Bonds will help our boys beat the Kaiser. This was the first time boxing patrons were solicited to purchase Liberty Bonds, and the 1,000 patrons responded with bond purchases in the amount of $9,000.

In addition to raising funds, the people of Berks County were accustomed to going without in a time of war. Citizens were already rationing food on pork, meat and wheat-less days, and by the end of April 1918, the Food Administration introduced a 90-day pastry abstinence, which went into effect on May 1, 1918. The pastry abstinence was enacted to conserve flour shortly after Food Administrator Davies battled with Reading bakeries over the price of bread.  The city of Reading offered residents several areas around town to start war gardens, encouraging citizens to raise their own vegetables for consumption and conserve farm produce for the war effort. Gardens sprung up all over Reading, from the Hampden and Buttonwood reservoir plots, to the grounds near Sternbergh’s Sterling and Spring and Weiser Streets. Open city blocks, city parks with reservoirs or open land on private property were all made available to Reading residents for rent or free of charge.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 24 Apr 1918, Wed
Reading Times  · April 24, 1918

Local media encouraged citizens to do their part and get on board with the war effort. A story appeared in the Reading Times about a much-married slacker who was arrested in Reading and returned to York. Paul Sweitzer, alias George Krause, was arrested for failing to register with his draft board in York. City detectives ran down a series of clues on Sweitzer, who married 16-year-old Augusta Hunf of Reading four years prior. The two lived with Hunf’s parents until they ran away, dressing his bride as a man as they hopped freight trains toward Pittsburgh. They were attacked by tramps out west, where Sweitzer shot one of the tramps. Sweitzer spent 6 months in jail for the shooting, and police sent his wife back home. When Sweitzer returned, he took out an $1,000 insurance policy out on his wife. He then made a concoction for his wife, which made her deathly ill. Sweitzer then disappeared, as his wife was saved by means of a stomach pump from his deadly act. Two years later he published accounts of his fake death. Believing Sweitzer was dead, Hunf later married another man. Sweitzer then married again under the name of Krause. Reading police learned of Krause from his second wife, Mary Phillips. The two had lived in York and then Reading when police were on the lookout for a slacker named Sweitzer. Phillips became suspicious and reported her husband to the police, when they discovered his hidden identity.

On May 18, 1918, 2,000 women marched in the Red Cross March of Mercy, which kicked off the nation’s hundred million drive for the Red Cross, with Berks County’s quota at $150,000. Over 6,000 people marched in the parade, with Ernest J. Poole as chief marshal of the parade. The parade consisted of 5 divisions that formed in City Park and included Red Cross workers, students from the girl’s high school, fraternal organizations, loan workers, civic organizations and students from the boy’s high school. The parade began at the head of Penn Street, marched down to 4th Street and counter-marched to 10th Street before dispersing at Franklin Street. Miss Catherine Gilbert, who dressed as Miss Liberty for the Boy Scouts Liberty Loan parade in April, exchanged her Liberty costume for a Red Cross outfit for this parade.

Red Cross March of Mercy Parade Reading, PA watermark.jpg
Red Cross March of Mercy Parade Reading, PA from the Collection of Berks History Center

Gilbert had just finished up touring the county as Miss Liberty for the War Savings Stamps drive. She then began a week long 90-mile tour of Berks County for a series of open air meetings dressed as a Red Cross Nurse. The tour would leave Reading each evening at 5:30PM, making multiple stops along each route.  The drive had the presence of a British and French soldier, who had seen much service in Europe.  The soldiers attended meetings during the day in Reading and accompanied Miss Gilbert on the evening tours in the county. The evening tours ended with destinations in Boyertown, Hamburg, Birdsboro, Kutztown and Womelsdorf. In each instance, the tour was met with large gatherings, including parades through Hamburg and Boyertown, which were led by the local Boy Scout troops. The drive started on May 20, 1918. Typical of Berks County’s patriotic response for a drive of any type, the county doubled its quota, raising $300,000 for the Red Cross drive. The Wolfinger Knitting Mill went over the top by contributing 100 percent by May 18th, doubling their quota of $195 and thus receiving a 100 percent flag with a gold star.

Jere Edwards had just completed his Sunday lectures at the Y.M.C.A. auditorium on the war and the conditions our soldiers experienced at the front. The lectures were well attended. Edwards, the General Secretary of the Reading Y.M.C.A., left late in 1916 to work with the International YMCA in Cairo, Egypt and operate a service hut in France. He returned from Europe in November 1917.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 01 May 1918, Wed
Reading Times · May 01 ,1918

With all the happenings around Reading and Berks at this time, from food rationing and war gardens, loan drives, Red Cross parades and tours, war lectures at the Y.M.C.A., or slackers being picked up for failure to register to their draft boards, the citizens of Reading and Berks County never wavered in their commitment to their patriotic duty. At the time, reports were coming back of casualties to U.S. soldiers, who were fighting at the frontlines. Letters would appear in the Reading Times from a soldier “somewhere in France” telling of life in the trenches. The reality of the Great War left six Berks County soldiers in graves in France and one at the bottom of the Atlantic, all at the hands of the enemy. Others had died from disease. Memorial Day in 1918 had a very solemn meaning for the citizens of Berks.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

All In: Life in a Time of War

img-2877.jpgDuring his popular Sunday lectures on the war conditions in France, Jere Edwards, General Secretary of the Y.M.C.A. of Reading, gave a presentation on “Womanhood and the War – Her Bravery and Sacrifice” which presented women capable of more than just the delicate things in life, but qualified to take her place in any department of activity, even to the extent of engaging in a world war. This report in the Reading Times gave a vivid description of the role women played in Europe and how their involvement was both encouraged and required in the allied efforts abroad.

The nurses of the Red Cross were the first to answer the call, participating long before the United States became involved in the conflict. Initially, they contributed as part of a humanitarian effort, which placed their services wherever they were needed. Once the United States entered the war, the Red Cross immediately served the United States. Those who served in Europe experienced the dangers of the war and risked their lives providing medical care on the front lines. At home, a service flag was unfurled at the Reading Hospital Alumni Association for the women who were doing their part for the war effort overseas.

womenwanted Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 11 Dec 1917,

As young men answered the call to defend their country, women stepped in to fill a much-needed void of male laborers in the workplace. It was not uncommon during WWI to see women employed in the mill at Carpenter Steel, a plant that was vital to war production. The women of Berks also took classes for mechanical drawing at the Boys High School and filled positions that they would not usually be offered, such as clerical, sales and railroad work. The Pennsylvania Railroad published women-only advertisements to hire women for work around the stations and tracks.

As the war continued in Europe, the traditional roles played by the citizens of Reading and Berks County were challenged. While many women volunteered for the Red Cross or the Y.W.C.A., others stepped in and fill the void in the workplace. Money needed to be raised for the war effort as well, and an enthusiastic group led an aggressive campaign to raise funds. By March 1918, everybody had a hand in helping the United States beat the Kaiser: soldiers fought overseas while citizens supported them at home.

call to service Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 28 Mar 1918,

The local stories from Reading and Berks County are a never-ending parade of patriotism in the form of a willingness to serve, an abundance of unwavering patriotism and an endless stream of donations in the form of Liberty Loans, War Saving Stamps, and Red Cross Drives. Each one of these drives were carefully planned and executed with precision. The Third Liberty Loan Drive kicked off in March 1918 with the goal of earning $1,000,000 in local subscriptions. The drive began by training 35 Boy Scouts from the Y.M.C.A. in military drills. Robert L. Leslie of the League Island Navy Yard led the instruction every Thursday night in the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. The drills served as motivation for the boys, who were responsible for carrying out The Liberty Loan Drive. The Scouts went door-to-door, soliciting funds for the loan drive. Locally, the Boy Scouts had a force of 1,200 scouts ready to take to the streets in the name of liberty.

The drive began on April 6, 1918 and was kicked off with a rally at the Rajah Theatre on March 28th. The theatre was packed to capacity with a lively crowd, eager to hear the speeches promoting the Liberty Loan Drive. Sergeant Lawton Dixon, a Canadian, told gripping stories about the battles of France, such as how he lost his leg and his brother while fighting on the battlefield. This wasn’t the only loan promotion going on that day in Reading. A group of women gathered at the Weiser and Douglass school building to listen to Food Administrator Davies talk about Thrift Stamps. The meeting highlighted the fact that liberty came at a price and everyone had to do her part to ensure that liberty was secure.

Ludwig Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 15 Mar 1918,

Just as the Liberty Loan Drive was gaining steam, Reading received devastating news about one of its soldiers. On March 14, 1918, the newspapers reported that Paul Ludwig from Company I, Rainbow Division had been killed in battle overseas. At the time, details about the locations of particular regiments were never revealed in the paper – until news reached home of a soldier’s death. Once the news about Ludwig had been published, every family who had a son in the Rainbow Division knew where their child was overseas. The following day, the news reported another loss: William F. Gehring of Company I, Rainbow Division. Ludwig died while fighting on the front lines. His death meant that every young man in who served with Ludwig faced the same dangers. For his sacrifice, Paul Ludwig was awarded the Croix de Guerre from France for his heroism in battle.

As the residents of Reading and Berks grappled with the loss of their own, they also prepared for something that they had never experienced. In an effort to conserve fuel that produced electric power, the United States followed in the footsteps of other countries by enacting Daylight Savings Time on March 19, 1918. The clocks were scheduled to move forward on March 31, 1918, just in time for Easter. The law proved to be so unpopular it was repealed in 1919. The second introduction of Daylight Savings Time, or War Time, was introduced by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942.

daylight savings Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · 22 Mar 1918,

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

Fighting for Democracy at Home and Abroad

6f34ccfc4946326b0341da7f0f3a79f6
Image: Duke University, Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library, Digital Scriptorium

When war erupted in Europe in 1914, the United States was a nation steeped in racial divides. Discrimination was evident everywhere in the country and, in the south, ‘Jim Crow’ laws forced people of color to use separate and usually inferior facilities, denied them equal protection under the law, and condoned vigilante mob violence. Starting in 1915, a devastating boll weevil infestation ravaged the south, destroying cotton crops and putting thousands of African Americans out of work. It was during this time that African Americans began to flee from the south in search of safety, social equality and economic opportunity. Known as the Great Migration, close to 500,000 African Americans moved to northern cities in the largest relocation event America had ever seen.

While many historical accounts cite economic opportunity as the driving force behind the Great Migration, first hand accounts reveal that African Americans relocated primarily in an effort to escape increased oppression from black codes, including ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the southern states. In addition, the industrial economy was growing in the north and a freeze on European immigration made an abundance of low wage jobs available. Despite increased opportunities, racial unrest prevailed during the Great Migration and many African Americans experienced resistance and violence from white citizens as they settled in northern states. One notably violent event occurred in East St. Louis, Missouri on July 2, 1917, when a four day riot between white and black workers left 125 black residents dead.

Violence also erupted at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas when black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry grew tired of racial discrimination by white citizens and police personnel. The soldiers marched to assert their rights and a riot ensued. 4 soldiers and 16 civilians and law enforcement personnel were killed in the conflict. The army court-martialed 110 soldiers. 63 were given life sentences and 13 were hung without due process.

Despite the violence, black press and civil organizations insisted that African Americans be given the opportunity to serve their country in the army. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and stated “the world must be made safe for democracy.” These words resonated deeply in the African American community as they had yet to experience true democracy here in America. How could Wilson’s words be sincere if America set out to fight for democracy in Europe while people of color were treated like second class citizens at home? Viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their equality as citizens, African Americans were eager to join the fight overseas.

harlemhellfighters.jpg
 The Famous 369th Arrive in New York City. Members of the 369th [African American] Infantry; ca. 1917 – 1919; Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165. 

African American draftees were assigned to the 92nd & 93rd Combat Divisions. The army assigned most African American soldiers to service units since many army officials believed that black soldiers were more suited to manual labor than combat duty. However, there were instances where African American soldiers did see combat; most notable was the 93rd Division 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters served in combat on the frontline for 191 days, ceded no ground to the Germans, and were the first regiment to reach the Rhine River after the Armistice. With the longest consecutive duration of service in combat in WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters received a regimental Croix-De-Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. They returned to the United States national heroes.

Unlike the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division did not enjoy the same recognition for their accomplishments and were treated inhumanely even as they served their country.  Depite being segregated during their training in the U.S., which impeded the unit’s cohesion and pride,  the 92nd Division served on the front lines with valor. However, the division faced significant challenges due to racist attitudes, particularly from commanding officers Lieutenant Brigadier General Bullard, and Col. Allen J. Greer. White army officials spread rumors about the black troops to French civilians, calling them rapists. Furthermore, the 92nd Division encountered their most challenging incident during the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. During the offensive, the 368th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division failed to complete an assignment on the front lines. Ignoring the lack of training, equipment, and communicaiton provided to the men, army officials touted the incident as evidence that African American officers and soldiers were failures to the war effort. African American soldiers contested the slanderous assertions of the Army well into the post war period.

City Board 4 Colored 8503.jpg
Photo: From the BHC Research Library Collection

The first African American draftees to leave the City of Reading departed on October 27th 1917. A total of 8 men assembled in front of the Courthouse at 8 AM to begin their departure. The 8 draftees were seated in automobiles draped in American flags. A parade was led by the Cadet Band with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the World (I.B.P.O.E.W.) marching in front. The parade started at the Courthouse, made its way to 6th and Penn, marched down to 4th Street, counter marched to 6th Street, and then headed north on 6th Street to the Outer Station. According to the Reading Eagle’s account of the day “no lot of selected men received a finer farewell”. All lodge members carried American flags as the automobiles slowly moved out 6th Street. The Reading Eagle also noted that the men carried cards bearing the words: “Forward; to preserve for all mankind the freedom that the government of the United States has preserved for us; Reading Pa.” As the draftees and their families made for the Outer Station, the band assembled on the platform and all hats were removed for “The Star Spangled Banner.” The draftees were headed for Camp Meade, Virginia.

It wasn’t until August 5, 1918 when the second group of African American draftees departed from Reading for their service. 31 men gathered at the Baer Building at Court & Church Streets to embark on their journey to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. At 7AM, a parade began and was led by the Reading Patriotic Committee, The Peerless Band and 400 family and friends. Most draftees were members of the I.B.P.O.E.W., or “colored Elks.” The Reading New-Times declared “A happier crowd of selected men never left the Outer Station” as the “good natured draftees” paraded toward the train depot singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

William C. Gilyard was one of approximately 350,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. After the war he moved to Reading, PA, seeking employment opportunities. As a trained blacksmith, one of Gilyard’s first jobs in Reading was with the American Chain and Cable Company, which later became Carpenter Technology. Van Gilyard, William’s grandson and the Vice President of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, says that even as servicemen in WWI, his grandfather and other African American soldiers were subjected to racism and unequal treatment.

“The majority of government officials believed that blacks should not be armed, or that they would turn and flee in the face of battle. That belief contradicts history because blacks served prominently in each war starting from skirmishes, fighting alongside first settlers, colonists, and during the Civil and Spanish-American wars, just to name a few. My grandfather served (in WWI) and he expected to have some equality when he returned home. But of course, when an African American (soldier) returned home and was walking the streets in uniform, it was frowned upon. They were sometimes jumped and their uniforms were torn off of them.”

gilyard3
Central PA African American Museum Vice President, Van Gilyard sharing about the African American experience during World War I

Even in the face of discrimination and unequal treatment, African Americans fought for freedom, both at home and abroad. Their legacy of service and accomplishment lives on today thanks to those who work to preserve African American history. In Berks County, the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum is a premier resource for local African American history.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

The Berks History Center thanks Van Gilyard, Vice President of the Central PA African American Museum, for providing research, resources and his personal contributions to this article. 

 

Resources:

Bryan, Jami, “Fighting for Respect: African-American Soldiers in WWI,” On Point, 2003.

Swick, Gerald D., Wilson Jr., Joseph E., “Come Out Fighting – The 761st Tank Battalion/Deeds Not Words The 92nd Infantry Division,” World War II Magazine, 1998.

http://www.blackpast.org/

Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in World War I

 

Weathering the Storm: Feeling the Effects of the Great War on the Homefront

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1
Reading Times, Thu, Jan 3, 1918 · Page 1

Winter 100 years ago was not unlike our current weather conditions; the winter of 1917-1918 was exceptionally cold. With a healthy accumulation of snow beginning in December and more on its way, temperatures dropped to the single digits as the New Year began.  The citizens of Reading and Berks County were presented with difficult challenges in January 1918. By order of President Wilson, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad had been taken over by the United States government. Nationally, the railroads were deemed inefficient for the government’s needs supporting the war effort. President Wilson appointed William Gibbs McAdoo as Director General of the Railroads. By taking control of all railroads in the United States, McAdoo’s task was to make the roads more efficient in freight transportation by eliminating competitive traffic between rival railroad companies. Locally, it would not be unusual for a P & R car to travel on the Pennsylvania Railroad line or for Pennsylvania employees to work at a P & R station. Both railroads were already cutting passenger services significantly because of the other hardship bestowed upon the local citizens – the shortage of coal.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Wed, Jan 30, 1918.png
Reading Times · Wed, Jan 30, 1918

The origins of the coal shortage came from an act of the government and an act of nature. President Wilson appointed Harry A. Garfield to lead the Federal Fuel Administration (FFA), which was born out of the Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917. The FFA was tasked with conserving energy through the managed use of coal and oil and the war effort was first in line to access the natural resources. After the war effort was satisfied, the remaining coal was distributed down to the state and county level through agents under Garfield. At the time, Reading’s fuel administrator was H.A. Acker. It was Acker’s responsibility to set and enforce the prices of coal on the local level. Coal supplies for the public had lessened since the creation of the FFA and was perceived by the public as a gradual inconvenience. However, the winter of 1917-1918 changed the gradual inconvenience to a severe crisis. The first page of the Reading News-Times would announce when coal cars would enter the city for distribution. Relief arrived in the January 7th edition of the News-Times when the headline proclaimed that 83 cars of coal had reached Reading for distribution.

Although the coal crisis had lessened, the coal supplies remained limited. Local citizens relied on coal to heat and light their homes.  In an effort to relieve the stress of the shortage on local citizens and to ensure that households had sufficient coal to keep warm, the FFA instructed businesses not essential to the war effort to shut down 3 days a week, starting on January 14, 1918. Three days later, in a drastic effort to curb the coal famine, the government ordered all businesses to close 5 days the first week. Every week thereafter, for a duration of 10 weeks, Sundays would become “lightless nights” and Mondays and holidays would become “coal-less days”. In Pennsylvania, the Blue Laws prohibited businesses from opening on a Sunday anyway and that day did not count towards the 5-day closure rule. On the first week of the order, Penn Street looked like Sunday for six days straight – all of the businesses were closed.  Day by day, the crisis brought new adjustments to combat the coal famine. Food stores, saloons and movie theatres were affected by the ban. Those who did not comply with the rules of the FFA were initially given an embarrassing lecture on their lack of patriotism, and subsequently, if they violated the ban again, were given a fine. Shortly after the ban, food stores were ordered to be closed by noon and movie theatres were allowed to remain open.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 26, 1918.png
Reading Times · Sat, Jan 26, 1918

Not everyone was happy to “live with less” as their civic duty in the war effort. Those who refused to go without risked the repercussions as Edith Grant of 139 Lemon St. learned. On January 24, 1918, Ms. Grant was arrested for hoarding coal with bail set at $300. She was charged with having 400 pounds of coal in her cellar and purchasing 1300 pounds on top that. She claimed she was ill and had no coal to heat her house. On the other side of the coal crisis, a York coal broker was held on $5,000 bail for selling coal above the price set by the FFA. Children would go door to door tagging coal shovels with cards prepared by the United States fuel administrator. The cards read: “Save that shovel of coal for Uncle Sam.” On the back of the card were 6 tips on how to conserve your coal supply.

In addition to feeling the effects of energy conservation, the people of Reading and Berks experienced other inconveniences as the war effort continued. Food was another area of national conservation. Meatless, wheat-less and pork-less days were enacted by the United States Food Administration, which was led by Herbert Hoover. Hoover did such an outstanding job heading the Belgium Relief while in London that President Wilson requested he return to the United States to lead the Food Administration. The local administrator for Hoover was Charles T. Davies and the policies enforced were similar to those of the FFA. The popular term regarding the Food administration’s policies was to “Hooverize” your food, or otherwise, to be satisfied with less. The call to restrict consumption as part of the war effort was widely regarded and expected of everyone. An article appeared in the Reading Eagle that former President William Howard Taft, on a trip to Lebanon, made a stop at the Outer Station for lunch. The newspaper reported that Taft, a man who weighed close to 300 pounds, “Hooverized” his lunch by ordering smaller portions than a man of his size would consume.

Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) · Sat, Jan 12, 1918.png
Reading Times  · Sat, Jan 12, 1918

While the war raged on overseas, the City of Reading had its own war to fight at home with the Reading Traction Company, operators of the city’s trolley system. The Traction Company proposed raising the fare for a street car ride from 5 cents to 6 cents, which prompted outrage from the citizens, the Chamber of Commerce and the City of Reading. The Traction Company wanted to raise the fare with no justification for the increase. The coalition of opposing forces demanded the Traction Company to make their case for the increase before they would determine if it was justified. The city hired John P. Fox of New York City, a widely known traction expert, to assess the necessity of the one cent increase. The issue dragged out for several months and was not easily resolved.

ymcapostcard.png
YMCA Building at 631 Washington Street. Postcard belonging to Richard Polityka

Today, while we can relate to feeling the effects of the winter’s wrath, we might be stretched to understand what it is like to feel the impact of war in our daily lives. 100 years ago, the people of Reading and Berks County definitely paid a price, trading in their comfort and excess to support their countrymen overseas.  Many felt as though it was their patriotic duty and nearly everyone kept close tabs on the state of the conflict in Europe. Jerry Edwards, Secretary of the YMCA of Reading would hold Sunday talks at the Reed and Washington Streets facility on the effects of the war on Europe. Edwards spent considerable time overseas, first in Egypt and then France where he served as a camp secretary at both locations. He returned from France in November 1917 to Reading, where he travelled to Dayton Ohio to conduct a lecture series on the conditions of the war. When he returned to Reading, he continued the lecture series at the YMCA Reading branch to capacity crowds in the facilities auditorium.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

Holidays on the Homefront: Reading at Christmastime in 1917

Mon, Dec 17, 1917
Reading Times, December 17, 1917

On December 21, 1917, a Red Cross worker made his way up Penn Street toward the imposing iron gates of the Berks County prison. With him, he carried a service flag and 77 “gifts” to be distributed. Meanwhile, George H. Zellers was delighted serving in an English aviation camp and Sergeant Joseph Eisenbrown sent greetings home from Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia. 

The holiday season in Reading and Berks County during the first year of the American involvement in the Great War moved along at a normal pace, despite the additional distractions of war. New recruits were leaving the area for camp on a regular basis, knowing that they would ultimately participate in the war theatre in Europe.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At the bequest of President Wilson, the Red Cross began a national campaign to raise $100 million to support soldiers and civilians affected by the war. The drive ran from December 16th to December 23rd and aimed to enroll 50,000 new memberships.  Adult memberships ranged from $1.00 to $100.00 and junior memberships were $0.25 each. The Mansion House at 5th and Penn Streets served as the headquarters for the drive. During that time, Penn Square was decorated with trees for Christmas and a large Santa was placed on the balcony of the Mansion House with a candle. Santa’s goal was to make his way to the other side of the balcony to light 50,000-membership candles by the end of the drive. On the first day of the drive, Reading was digging out of its second biggest snow in 5 days and 2 trainloads of coal were delivered to relieve the city of its coal shortage. The snow-covered streets made delivering the coal to city homes difficult, and in some cases, impossible.  Despite these poor conditions, the people of Reading were not deterred from making their way to Penn Street for their Christmas shopping.

20091090004
Mansion House on 5th and Penn. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

The Red Cross campaign was kicked off on Saturday, December 15, 1917, with the Penn Wheelmen providing inspiration. Riding a sleigh with a piano mounted on its deck, the Penn Wheelmen, led by Joseph M. Eshelman, William G. Rees and Paul E. Glase, sang patriotic songs through megaphones with various slogans of the Red Cross shouted between the songs. “We want 50,000 members! Where is your button? Have a heart and a dollar!” and “You will want a Red Cross emblem to shine in your window Christmas Eve,” were among the slogans shouted. The Boy Scouts contributed as well, raising a large Red Cross flag on the rooftop of the Mansion House. The first day of enrollment was quite successful, with 15,000 enrollees registered.

The drive brought interesting stories to the daily newspaper, like William H. Luden enrolling all 26 residents at the Boys Home on Schuylkill Avenue in the Red Cross. The most surprising participation in the drive was at the Berks County Prison in City Park. The prison raised a service flag because all 77 inmates at the prison enrolled in the Red Cross. Memberships were distributed as gifts to the inmates. At the same time, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Warden C. Herbert Schwartz on the charge of selling dope to inmates in July 1917. The Red Cross achieved its goal both locally and nationally. The amount of money raised in such a brief time was a monumental achievement; the $100 million at the time is equivalent to over $1 billion today.

2010000000200275
Berks Prison in City Park. BHC Research Library Postcard Collection

Just before the Red Cross campaign began, Reading learned of its second casualty of the war on December 13, 1917. Martin Diebert, formerly of the 200 block of Front Street, was officially listed as a British casualty. At the time, Reading was beginning to experience lightless nights, an order of the fuel administrator in a effort to conserve the coal supply. By 9 p.m. only street lights were burning. The “Great White Way” of Penn Street was dark, making citizens well aware that the country was at war. Neighborhoods were also dark and an eerie feeling crept over the entire city.

The city experienced other unusual happenings as the citizens prepared for the first wartime Christmas. On December 18, 1917, a parade was held on Penn Street by the Foresters of America for Charles S. Rissmiller of Reading for his gold star. Rissmiller was a member of the Foresters and the first Reading casualty of the Great War. Also, the first coasting (sledding) casualty was reported December 20, 1917. Luther E. Schaeffer of 1223 Mulberry Street died when he and his brother hit a curb while coasting at the Spring Street Subway. Luther was steering when he and his brother wrecked. Luther complained of back pain but the boys walked home after the accident. The next day, after still complaining of pain, Luther’s father took him to the Reading Hospital. There they learned that he sustained an injury to his spine and he died two days later.

IMG-2636
WWI Red Cross Pin from the BHC Museum Collection

While life at home was somewhat unsettling, soldiers stationed at camp or overseas longed to be back home. Many sent letters, which were published in the newspaper as Christmas day approached. From the trenches, H. L. Rourke, 18th Canadian Reserve Battalion, formerly of Reading, wrote of his willingness to give up his Christmas cheer for the trenches abroad. At the time he wrote to George Kemp, asking him to forward his address to his friend Will Keffer, who he didn’t know had died since he joined the 18th.

After he left Camp Hancock, Joseph Eisenbrown rose to the rank of Lieutenant by September 1918. He sent home war relics, which were displayed in G. O. Glase Carpet store on Penn Square. Eisenbrown later attained the rank of Major by 1939 and served in both World Wars. Lieutenant George H. Zellers of Morgantown wasn’t as fortunate. Engaged in a dogfight with German aircraft, Zellers’ plane was riddled with machine gun fire after he flamed two German fighters on July 30, 1918. Zellers managed to fly back to his own lines only to die after landing his damaged plane. In his December 26, 1917 letter, Zellers noted that he was a quick learner. Zellers excelled in training and became a trusted flier for the British as an American officer. Zellers was a 1911 Reading High School graduate and a biology teacher in Hazelton when he enlisted. The same day Zellers’ letter was published, Second Lieutenant Ralph M. Getz of Reading received a unique distinction – he was the first officer or enlisted man in the entire United States Army to be honorably discharged from the Great War.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War. 

WWI: Don’t Be a Slacker!

slacker.png
Reading Times,  October 2, 1918

It was an unseasonably warm, sunny day when Aaron Krick of Reading wandered along the railroad tracks outside of Dauberville on October 8, 1918.  At 65 degrees, it was a perfect day for a walk and Krick had no intention of breaking the law. Suddenly the young man was confronted by uniformed railway police. After being accused of trespassing and arrested, Krick was hauled before the Alderman. He was asked to produce his draft registration card, but acknowledged that he did not possess one. He did not know that the country was at war, he told the Alderman, and he had no intention of joining the army. Aaron Krick was a “slacker.”

When our country entered the Great War in April 1917, the U.S. Army was ill-prepared to wage war against Germany. President Wilson asked for an Army of 1,000,000 men, and at first, relied on volunteers to meet that quota. When the volunteer pool slowed well below the desired number of recruits, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed on May 8th that year. The Act required all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30 to register for the draft. Nationally, the draft was a success. 2 million of the 4.8 million men in service came from the draft. However, the number of men who “dodged” the draft nationally was somewhere around 325,000.

24250998_963693037113044_257933854_o.jpg
WWI Draft Cards, Berks History Center Museum Collection

The term slacker had its beginnings on a national level. One week after the United States entered the war, a column appeared in the New York Evening World, which described the many different slackers and how a slacker is “willing to die of old age for his country.” The article also spoke directly to the reader, stating that before you called someone out for being a slacker, you must first look at yourself and make sure you were not a slacker as well.

In the eyes of a nation at war, draft dodging was taken seriously. The dodgers were constantly sought by the Department of Justice, who were responsible for their prosecution. If, like Aaron Krick, a young man was of age and did not register for the draft, he was detained by the authorities. In the instance that a young man registered for the draft but did not report, they were sought by authorities and held for the actions of the Department of Justice. Such was the case with Pedro Gomenz and Eugene Berlanger, who evaded the call to the Fleetwood board by going to Reading. They were prosecuted and branded as slackers. If a man was rounded up as a slacker, his name was published and he was considered a traitor to the U. S. and a disgrace to the community.

slacker 1
Reading Times,  December 16, 1918

The term slacker also applied to those with actions that were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he too was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, as an employee of Carpenter Steel did during a Red Cross drive, they were subject to ridicule by coworkers. Slacker Day was proclaimed at Carpenter Steel where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers. One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. When he made it back to his feet, he was blasted with a fire hose as he left the property. Two other men who did not contribute to the drive discovered a sign mounted at their station in the water department which said, “There are two slackers here.” They claimed they had contributed and ripped up the sign. Their coworkers then posted another sign with an American flag draped over it. The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much to the Red Cross as they had claimed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag. One did so willingly while the other man’s actions did not go over well. He was chased from the area while women from another department threw stones at him as he left the facility.

slacker 2.png
Reading Times,  November 15 1918

In Reading, Mayor Edward Filbert worked to break up the “loafing ring” of industrial slackers. He instructed city detectives to round up all industrial slackers and force them to work or hand them a jail sentence. Movie theatres, such as the Lyric, 808-810 Penn St., The Queen, 410 N 11th St., and the Majestic, 108 Oley St., showed moving pictures about slackers. The patriotic fever that was strong in this community during the Great War would not stand for anyone who “slacked” behind in their duties to their country and community. For some branded as slackers, jail might have been preferable than the wrath they faced in the community.

As for Aaron Krick, the man who wasn’t registered for the draft in October 1918 and claimed that he didn’t know the country was at war, he wasn’t completely honest with the Alderman in Dauberville. In September 1917, Krick was arrested in Reading for…being a slacker! Krick’s actual residence was Mohnton but he moved to Reading to avoid the draft and cause confusion as to which precinct he was registered. Krick continued to be investigated by police as late as 1921, when he was arrested at 9th and Penn Sts. on a charge of suspicion. Police believed he was wanted for being a draft dodger.

Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.