Over the past few days I’ve been transcribing one of my grandfather’s letters from 1914. He wrote it to his folks (with carbon copies for his brothers) in early September 1914 after returning from Europe. His summer trip to Europe with two friends, Jim and Bassett, had been interrupted by World War I. They arrived in Germany on July 28, 1914, the day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Within a week, the trains in Germany had stopped running in order to mobilize German troops to the Russian front. My grandfather (JBK) and his companions were stranded in Nuremberg, unsure of when they would get out of Germany and how they would get home.
I can remember times when trips were delayed because of car trouble, or other situations that seemed inconvenient but thinking of my 24 year old grandfather in Europe at the outbreak of WWI gives new meaning to the term “inconvenient.” As if it wasn’t bad enough that wherever they had planned to travel was now out of the question since no trains were running, they were also arrested every time they ventured out of their hotel. It seems the outbreak of war tends to arouse suspicions against “foreigners.”
My grandfather’s account of the events, written after he was safely home in Washington, DC, does not indicate the level of panic that I would attribute to the situation in hindsight. I know very little about WWI so I was surprised to learn that the US didn’t get involved for three years. Out of character with our role in the world these days but because of that, it was very important to JBK and his companions that they be identified as “Amerikans” not English. In a humorous account, JBK describes their plan to avoid suspicion.
“We decided to raise moustaches so we will look more like the Germans. The Kaiser says a man isn’t a man if he can’t raise a moustache. We are going to prove that we are.”
For all of the time I knew my grandfather (he was 65 when I was born and lived to be 92) he had a moustache. Maybe it all started that summer in Germany.