A Red Cross demonstration in Washington during the flu pandemic.
October 13 1918, Washington, DC–The first death from the new, most virulent wave of the Spanish flu was reported in Washington, DC on September 21, having spread from New York by the railroad. By early October, as deaths continue to mount, local health officials banned large public gatherings, shuttered schools and churches. Federal agencies staggered working hours and stopped hiring non-local employees for war work. William Sardo, the son of a funeral director, recalled the atmosphere in the city at the time:
It kept people apart….It took away all your community life, you had no community life, you had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing….People were afraid to kiss one another, people were afraid to eat with one another, they were afraid to have anything that mad contact because that’s how you got the flu….You were constantly afraid, you were afraid because you saw so much death around you, you were surrounded by death….When each day dawned you didn’t know whether you would be there when the sun set that day. It wiped out entire families from the time that the day began in the morning to bedtime at night….They disappeared from the face of the earth.
At its peak, the flu killed 72 people a day. All hospital beds were filled by mid-October. The logistics of burying the dead became more and more difficult. A shortage of gravediggers forced District health officials to conscript Marines, and then prisoners, for the task. On October 10, the District ran out of coffins. Some were available on the open market, but at exorbitant prices. An October 13 editorial in the Washington Post excoriated the “coffin trust” that was “holding the people of the city by the throat and extorting from them outrageous prices for coffins and the disposal of the dead.”
District health officials were able to solve the coffin shortage, at least, later in the week, by using wartime powers to seize a shipment of coffins headed for Pittsburgh (which had a shortage of its own). That fall and winter, nearly 3000 District residents (around 1% of the population) would die of the flu.
October 12 1918, Cloquet–Minnesota suffered multiple tragedies in October 1918. In addition to the rising death toll among her soldiers in France, fire broke out in Northern Minnesota on October 10. By October 12, the fires had spread out of control, eventually destroying 38 towns and villages and burning nearly 400 square miles of land. 500 to 1000 people were killed in the fire; the destruction was so complete in places there are few reliable estimates. Regardless, it remains the second-deadliest wildfire in US history (after the Peshtigo Fire near Green Bay on the same day of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871). One refugee recalled:
As we went along I was reminded of the flight of the Belgians. There was the town burning behind us, and we were fleeing in a terror as real, if not so awful, as that from which they escaped. We passed a family of seven, trudging along, carrying two babes in arms. We stopped long enough to pick up the mother and babes, leaving the father and boys to follow on foot.
Over 50,000 people were displaced, and several thousand took refuge in Duluth, which had largely been spared when the wind changed direction at the last moment. The displacement and cramped conditions of the refugees unfortunately rendered them especially vulnerable to the Spanish flu, whose last and deadliest wave arrived in Duluth a week later. Already by October 12, the flu had caused a shutdown of essentially all public places in Minneapolis.
As was typically the case with such disasters during wartime, many initially blamed the fire on German agents. Tensions were already high in Minnesota, with a large population of immigrants from Germany or German-aligned countries; the previous month, a Finnish-American, Olli Kinkkonen, had been lynched in Duluth. However, in this case, it quickly became clear that the fires were caused by sparks from passing trains and exacerbated by the extremely dry conditions at the time.
As this success never came, the Austrians quickly lost patience; on September 14, Charles unilaterally issued a note to the Allies (and the Pope), calling for an peace conference “at a near date” in neutral territory, for “a confidential and unbinding discussion on the basic principles for the conclusion of peace.” On September 16, US Secretary of State Lansing quickly rejected the offer on Wilson’s behalf:
The Government of the United States feels that there is only one reply which it can make to the suggestion of the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Government. It has repeatedly and with entire candor stated the terms upon which the United States would consider peace and can and will entertain no proposal for a conference upon a matter concerning which it has made its position and purpose so plain.
Lansing here was referring to Wilson’s Fourteen Points; while the Austrians in their note made some positive allusions to them, they stopped well short of accepting them.
The other Allies similarly quickly rejected the Austrian note. The Germans, meanwhile, grew even more outraged at Emperor Charles. The only concrete result of the peace move was the cancellation of the planned offensive against neutral Romania, which Austria-Hungary was unwilling to carry out while proposing peace.
American troops marching into the St Mihiel salient. The large hill in the background, Montsec, was simply bypassed on both sides.
September 12 1918, St Mihiel–The Germans had taken St Mihiel on the Meuse nearly four years ago in 1914, and had maintained the salient stretching to the city ever since, despite numerous French attempts to dislodge them. The German position there had cut off the railroad lines leading to Verdun from the south. Pershing, who had been forced by the events of the late spring and early summer to throw in his forces into the fighting a division at a time, was eager to deploy his new First Army on the offensive as a unit, and had chosen St Mihiel as his target for early September.
At the end of August, however, Foch had decided that the French and Americans should attack in force on the west side of the Meuse late , to support the continuing British advance further north. Pershing was furious, but a compromise of sorts was eventually reached. The St Mihiel attack would continue, but with French infantry support reduced to one corps of colonial troops. Furthermore, the Americans would have to turn around and head for the west bank of the Marne almost immediately–an almost impossible logistical task that was left to Lt. Col. George Marshall.
In the meantime, the Germans were aware of the American preparations. The German commander, Max von Gallwitz, wanted to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Americans, but Ludendorff declined and instead ordered a withdrawal from the salient. There was no urgency to the evacuation, however, and it only began on September 11–weakening the German lines just in time for the Americans to attack the next day.
The preliminary bombardment began at 1AM on September 12; the infantry attacked four hours later. There was essentially no resistance. Major Raymond Austin recalled:
Their resistance was so feeble as far as artillery was concerned, and their Infantry, so much of it as was within the zone of our artillery preparation, was badly shaken. Not a shell landed anywhere near my batteries and during the whole fight not more than four shells fell near enough to me to be dangerous…the Boche evidently left in great haste as our advance was extremely rapid. One of my batteries got two cows and several had pigs, chickens, and a great number of rabbits. The main idea of the Germans seems to have been get out of the salient and about all we had to do was to follow them up….The whole thing was a walk-over for us…
We have all been in one fine fight and it was not half so exciting as I had hoped, not as exciting as affairs in Mexico, because there was so much company. When the shelling first started I had some doubts about the advisability of sticking my head over the parapet, but it is just like taking a cold bath, once you get in, it is all right….
I walked right along the firing line of one brigade they were all in shell holes except the general (Douglas Mcarthur [sic]) who was standing on a little hill, I joined him and the creeping barrage came along towards us, but it was very thin and not dangerous. I think each one wanted to leave but each hated to say so, so we let it come over us. The infantry were held up at a town so I happened to find some tanks and sent them through it. I walked behind and some boshe [sic] surrendered to me….
The Americans would take most of the salient within a day at the cost of 7000 casualties, capturing 450 guns and 16,000 prisoners in the process. Among these were elements of the Austrian 35th Division–one of the few encounters between Americans and Austrian forces in the war. Father Francis Duffy, with the 42nd Division, recalled of the Austrians:
They had not been very keen about the war at any time and were made less so on finding that they had been left behind after the bulk of the army had withdrawn. Many of them had been in the United States, and the first question that one of them asked was, “Can I go back now to Sharon, PA?”
One of the worst obstacles to the advance of the German barbed wire, which had been unaffected by the partial withdrawal and was only somewhat reduced by the bombardment. To cross it, the Americans cut it where possible, rolled out 18-foot stretches of chicken wire to collapse it, or simply crossed it themselves if they could. One member of a team of French officers sent after the battle apparently concluded that “the Americans had the advantage over Frenchmen because of their long legs and large feet.”
One of the World Series games played at Comiskey Park.
September 5 1918, Chicago–”The Star-Spangled Banner,” although not yet officially the national anthem of the United States, had grown increasingly popular during the war years as a show of patriotism. In certain cases, this popularity took on a more sinister aspect; the Swiss-German conductor Karl Muck was detained in a camp for enemy aliens in Georgia largely because he had not played the song at a concert in Providence, RI. One venue where the song was not yet regularly played, contrary to our modern expectations, was the baseball stadium.
The “Work or Fight” order issued in May meant that baseball players were now subject to the draft. The implementation of the order was delayed until the start of September, allowing most of the regular season to proceed as normal, but it was still forced to be cut short several weeks early. The World Series was moved up to early September (the earliest it has ever been played), and special draft exemptions were granted to the teams’ players for the duration of the championship.
The World Series opened at Comiskey Park in Chicago; this was normally the home of the White Sox, but was chosen due to its larger seating capacity. Nevertheless, there were still over 10,000 empty seats in the park, likely due to the draft taking up many of the fans who would ordinarily have been there. Babe Ruth, pitching for the Red Sox, would guide his team to a 1-0 shutout, so by the later innings, the small crowd’s enthusiasm was waning. During the seventh-inning stretch, however, the military band present began playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, on furlough from the navy, saluted the flag, and other players soon joined him in the usual civilian manner. The crowd soon joined in on the singing, and “at the very end…the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm,” according to The New York Times.
The Cubs, clearly onto something, played the song again during the seventh-inning stretch of Games 2 and 3. When the series moved to Boston for Game 4, the song was moved to the beginning of the game, where it has traditionally been played since (though it would not become a universal practice until World War II). While it was likely not the first time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played at a baseball game, the modern tradition stems from the 1918 World Series. The Red Sox would win the series in six games, their last World Series victory until 2004; Babe Ruth would be traded to the Yankees after the 1919 season.
A group of “slackers” rounded up by the American Protective League, pictured on September 4.
September 3 1918, New York–The institution of the draft in the United States was not resisted on any large, organized scale; the first Registration Day in June 1917 largely went off without a hitch. However, silently, nearly 3 million men of draft age simply failed to register, while over 300,000 who registered and were called up failed to report (or quickly deserted)–a higher rate of draft-dodging than during the Vietnam War. The Justice Department did not have the resources to track down these “slackers,” and accepted the services of the volunteer American Protective League. The APL’s largest and most controversial operation started in New York on September 3.
Along with police and off-duty military, the APL stopped nearly half a million men over the course of three days. During intermission of the hit play “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” (composed by Irving Berlin while in training at Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island), twenty-five sailors entered the orchestra and announced that every man between the ages of 21 and 31 must stand up and show their draft card. Eventually, the sailors were convinced to wait until the end of the performance, when they stopped every man exiting the theater and detained a few who did not have their cards on their person.
The press was largely supportive of the campaign; The New York Times was apparently cheerful that 40,000 “slackers” had been rounded up by the APL. Ultimately, however, just 199 of the detainees were found to have deliberately evaded the draft; the vast majority had just neglected to carry their draft cards that day. Wilson was pleased at the results, telling a member of his cabinet that it had “put of the fear of God in others.” It provoked an outrage in the Senate, however; progressive Hiram Johnson of California calling it a “Reign of Terror.” The APL soon lost the official sanction of the Justice Department and was dissolved.
A Curtiss 18T “Wasp” of the sort that broke the speed limit.
August 19 1918, Buffalo–Airplane technology had steadily advanced over the course of the war; planes gradually got faster, more maneuverable, and/or able to carry heavier loads. Although late to the war, aviation originated in the United States and airplane production had dramatically increased even before they entered due to Allied demand. After entering, the Americans put more emphasis on developing their own designs; one of these was the Curtiss 18T, known as the “Wasp.” Designed as an escort for strategic bombers, it was meant for speed, having a highly streamlined fuselage. On August 19, it set a new (unofficial, of course, during wartime) airspeed record of 163 mph, laden under expected wartime conditions. It would not see service on the Western Front before the end of the war, however.
August 16 1918, Vladivostok–Like the other Allies, the Americans sent troops to Russia during their civil war. The first of them, around 3000 men from the 27th US Infantry, arrived in Vladivostok from the Philippines on August 16. Their main goal was to protect American supplies that had been sent there to aid the long-since-ceased Russian war effort, as well as to aid the Czechoslovak Legion in its efforts to extricate itself from Russia and proceed to the Western Front to resume its part in the war. Although the American commander in Siberia, General Graves (who would arrive the next month), tried his best to stay out of Russian politics, the task was difficult; he had been warned by the War Secretary to “Watch your step, you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite.” The Czechs had decisively intervened in favor of the Whites (installing a White government in Vladivostok), the Bolsheviks had announced that a de facto state of war existed with the United States and the other Allies, and the day before the Americans landed, Wilson had severed diplomatic relations with the government in Moscow. Wilson also said that the American role there should include the “steady[ing of] any efforts at self-government or self-defense in which the Russians themselves may be willing to accept assistance.”
Although not explicitly stated, another reason for the American presence was to keep an eye on the Japanese. Wilson had encouraged the Japanese to land at Vladivostok themselves (which they had done, in large numbers, starting at the beginning of August), but was distrustful of their motives, and wanted to ensure that they did not expand their influence into Siberia permanently. The American forces would remain in and around Vladivostok until April 1920, suffering 189 deaths (mainly from disease and exposure) in that time span.
August 15 1918, Ekaterinodar [Krasnodar]–In April, the Volunteer Army, at that time the only significant anti-Bolshevik force, was nearly broken when it attempted to take the city of Ekaterinodar. Its commander, General Kornilov, was killed by a Red shell, leading Lenin to prematurely declare victory in the civil war. His successor, Denikin, retreated from the city and rebuilt his force from the Kuban Cossacks. Aided by harsh Red rule that alienated the local population, as well as uprisings on the Don and Volga that cut off the local Reds, he went back on the offensive in June. Despite pleas from other White forces to assist them–the Don Cossacks were threatening Tsaritsyn [Volgograd], and the Czechs and Komuch were heavily engaged on the Volga–Denikin knew his force’s limits, and concentrated on the Kuban.
On August 15, the Volunteer Army was able to take Ekaterinodar, site of its earlier defeat. The local Red government was forced to flee southeast to Pyatigorsk, even further away from any other Red units. The fall of Ekaterinodar also cut off a force of around 30,000 Reds in the Taman Peninsula to the west; they would have to conduct a 300-mile march to get to safety. In the coming weeks, Denikin would quickly secure most of the rest of the western Kuban, including Novorossiysk, the Reds’ last port on the Black Sea.
On the same day, in Moscow, the United States severed relations with the Bolshevik government. The Bolsheviks had made it clear they considered the Allies to be at war with them, and acted accordingly. The United States would not recognize the Soviet government until late 1933.
The Sentinel’s Helmet, designed for limited use by soldiers in forward positions; it shows clear inspiration from late medieval pieces. It saw some limited field tests in France; it proved to be very protective, but was simply too heavy.
August 4 1918, New York–Among the more unlikely contributions to the American war effort was that of the arms and armor staff at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Trench warfare and modern artillery meant that armor once again had use on the battlefield (beginning with steel helmets in 1915), and their expertise in this formerly-obsolete craft was prized once again beyond the art world. After the United States entered the war, the Met’s curator of arms and armor, Bashford Dean, was made head of the newly-formed “Armor Unit,” and charged with designing helmets and other pieces of armor for American soldiers. The museum’s work with the Army was made public on August 4, 1918.
A helmet needed to be adequately protective, cheap to manufacture, lightweight, and also visually distinctive from the British, French, and German helmets already in use; the helmets had become one of the major ways to distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield. One of Dean’s favored designs was his Helmet Model No. 5, pictured below:
Ultimately, despite its other excellent qualities, the design was rejected by American field commanders because it looked too similar to both the German and the British designs. His next model (No. 8) went into mass production in November 1918, too late to see use in the war.
Dean’s group also designed armor for other parts of the body, though no more than a few examples before the end of the war. Press coverage in August 1918 stressed the leg and arm armor being developed, noting the high incidence of wounds to such areas being seen in field hospitals. To the modern reader, this seems like it may be an example of survivorship bias; those with wounds to more vital areas may not have made it to a hospital to begin with.