World War I glows in American memory. Handsome doughboys in leggings and wide-brimmed hats. Dashing air aces like Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker in white silk scarves, piloting those wonderful wood-and-wire biplanes with their evocative names: Sopwith Camel, Curtiss Jenny.
Yes, terrifying tanks and machine guns and barbed wire. But those songs! We can still hum the songs. “Over there, over there, send the word, send the word, over there.” We’re wearing some of the fashions a century latter, even if we don’t know it. Where do you think the “trench” in “trench coat” comes from?
War nostalgia is a particularly perverse form of human folly, and must be resisted. Savoring the pomp and drama that is certainly there, while glossing over the incomprehensible human cost, the death and suffering and loss, is a grotesque insult. It’s like envying someone whose spouse has died because of all the goodies at the funeral.
Thus with the centennial of the end of World War I this Sunday, the famed “11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month,” we are obligated to remember the war fully, not just its joyful conclusion. The full scope and horror, and deep significance that echoes today.
World War I was a bloodbath of incomprehensible proportions: 37 million casualties. Almost 9 million killed. Two million French soldiers died; 460,000 at one battle, the Somme. The French Army lost 27,000 men — half the number of Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War — on the first day of the Battle of Frontiers, Aug. 22, 1914. Another 2 million Germans.
The United States — which entered the war only in April 1917, and took nearly a year to get significant numbers of troops overseas — suffered far less: 112,000 dead, half of those from disease, particularly a flu epidemic that fall.
No wonder we’re so fond of World War I.
This doesn’t even bring up the issue of World War II, which historians agree was a mere continuation of World War I, begun 21 years later, a pause to let a generation grow up to replenish the ranks of cannon fodder.
And for what? I’d defy most Chicagoans to explain why World War I was fought. The most historically-savvy might offer up Archduke Ferdinand being assassinated in Sarajevo, causing various alliances to creak into motion and soon everybody was fighting. But what issues were behind that? Old grudges, old territorial spats.
Chicagoans can be proud that our city resisted the war. Our mayor, Big Bill Thompson, might have become rightly known an avatar of corruption during the Roaring ’20s, but he joined a widespread scorn for the war. Part was pure ward and ethnic politics.
“Chicago is the sixth-largest city in the world,” he said when President Woodrow Wilson — whose re-election slogan in 1916 had been “He kept us out of war” — declared war anyway the next year. “The second-largest Bohemian, the second-largest Norwegian and the second-largest Polish.”
Pacifists who’d been hounded from other cities found refuge in Chicago. Thompson invited one group to meet in Chicago, but Gov. Frank Lowden sent the National Guard up from Springfield by train to try to stop them.
Freelancers abounded. The American Protective League indexed 18,000 registered German aliens and began performing “character checks” for the federal government. The teaching of German was dropped from public schools. Bismarck School became Funston School, and the City Council dutifully scrubbed away German street names.
World War I influences life today in ways we might not think about. Wilson instituted a federal income tax to pay for it.
The Great Migration began in 1916, as Southern blacks were drawn by jobs vacated by men enlisting or being drafted. Chicago’s black population nearly doubled in two years, from 58,000 to 109,000.
The war jump-started Prohibition, both because it got people used to government rationing comestibles, and because big Midwestern brewers — Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz, Anheuser, and Busch — were German and easy to demonize. The war also energized women who, fresh from the factories and war volunteer work, pushed all the harder for the right to vote, granted in 1920. By war’s end, they had stepped from the parlors forever. “In saloons women drank openly with men” the Tribune noted in a story on the Nov. 11, 1918 celebration. Headline: “Loop goes wild.”
Chicago has a number of monuments to the war. The “Victory Monument” at 35th and King honors the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an all-black unit that fought in France. There will be a variety of events at churches and VFW halls. At Cantigny, in Wheaton, visitors are invited to bring their own bells to ring at 11 a.m,. then join in a “Victory Tea.”
The Elks National Memorial in Lincoln Park is probably the most significant tribute to World War I in Chicago and, ironically, is closed Sunday, though open from 12 to 4 p.m. until Nov. 15.
The enormous dome, nearly as tall as the Jefferson Memorial, is tucked at the corner of Diversey and Lakeview. Dedicated in 1926 to the 70,000 Elks who served, later re-dedicated to embrace veterans from other wars, most of the art is the high-minded 19th century tributes to “Charity” and “Brotherhood.” But if you visit — and you should, admission is free — go into the back, into the Grand Reception Hall, one of the most ornate rooms in Chicago, and look at the mural to the right of the door. This is “The Armistice: The Field of Battle, Europe, November 11, 1918” by Eugene Francis Savage, and it skirts the loftiness of the rest of the artwork. Hope is chained to a gun carriage, lofted by soldiers who look half joyful, half crazed. By a dead horse, the corpses of their colleague stare blindly or reach their imploring hands to heaven. The clock on a shattered church is stopped at 11 — the celebrated hour of the Armistice. Above it the Madonna, clad in blood red, holds out her hands, bent at the wrists, a gesture of “Stop!” Her plea of course went unheeded.
The Elks say that the shrine is visited by almost 10 people a day when its open, April 15 through November 15. Wednesday, when I visited, there had been two.
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