In the summer of 1914 my grandfather was a college student spending what he thought would be three weeks touring Europe. Unfortunately he arrived on the eve of WWI and spent most of his time stranded in Germany because the trains stopped running. Here is his account of his adventures that summer. He wrote these in a letter to his parents after he safely returned to the United States. I am so lucky to have the original of his letter.
I’m trying to post each of his letters on the day he wrote them but I’m still a little behind. The night before this was written he had planned to take a train to Switzerland. Instead it looks like our trio is headed for Nuremberg, Germany.
We had another dainty breakfast and came down stairs with our bags to pay our bill when we got our first jolt. The proprietor refused to take an American Express cheque in payment for the bill and after arguing until almost train time we paid him in cash (and we didn’t waste much in tips that time, either). We had just enough left to buy tickets to Nuremberg and a little to buy sausage sandwiches on the way, but we felt thankful enough to get seats in a little half-baggage, half-passenger car right behind the engine and to be on our way. It was a pretty ride, though dirty and tiresome, from 8 am to 5 pm. I bought an extra paper on the way and figured out with the aid of the dictionary that the trains would be taken over by the army at 6 o’clock that evening and no more passenger trains would run for a week, until the mobilization was over. So when we got to Nuremberg, Bassett and I left Jim with the baggage in the station and went out to look for a cheap hotel.
We stopped in the North German Lloyd office, (they had taken a ship from this line to reach Europe) which was open though it was Sunday. The agent spread a little more gloom over the situation by telling us that all North German Lloyd sailings had been cancelled indefinitely , and he had no idea how we were going to get out of Germany. But he very kindly directed us to a little hotel in a side street nearby, that we never would have found ourselves, and we got two rooms with breakfast for 3 marks a day each.
This is the nature of my grandfather – I challenge anyone today to respond to such a dire situation with this attitude. You’ve just been told that your trip home to America has been cancelled “indefinitely” because of the war but you appreciate the advice from the person who gave you this bad news because they tipped you off to a “cheap hotel.” I love my grandfather – always have – but even more now that I know his kind, gentle nature was his innate being – even as a 24 year old in dire straights. And in the midst of a war scare – he takes time to go on for several lines about the beds in Germany.
Afterward Herr Bindl came down to 2.50 a day, when we thought we would have to look for a still cheaper place. The rooms were good and clean and the food was always good and plenty of it. Our experience with beds was funny. The Berlin beds were the best, — the feather cover was light and soft; in Dresden it was a little thicker and heavier; in Nuremberg it was about a foot thick and not very soft or light. I don’t know what they would have been still further south. We laid them all on top of the wardrobe and they reached the ceiling, then we removed the bolster from under the head of our mattress, put one of the fat pillows under the bed, and could almost assume a horizontal position when we went to bed. After we had done that one or two nights, they took away the feather beds and the bolster and we got along very well. Another funny thing they do is fold back the quilt at the bottom so your feet have to stick out. The Germans must think that if they keep their stomachs warm, that is all that is necessary.
We walked around a little bit that evening, but Bassett and I came back to the room and were sitting there about 8:30 when a lot of people came scuffling up our alley followed by three officers. We had seen officers the past few days until we were tired of them, so we didn’t think anything of them, but presently someone knocked at our door, and one of the officers came in, out of breath and told us, in German, that we had been trying to send a telegram. We said we had not. Then he demanded who we were, where from, what doing, where going, and why. I wasn’t scared, and I was racking my brain for enough German words to tell him. They went out for an interpreter, but I think all he knew of English was “Do you speak English?” We were overjoyed at having someone to explain it to, told him our whole story, but he didn’t understand a word of it, and when he tried to talk English, it didn’t sound like any language that I ever heard before. We could understand the ones who spoke German a good deal better. Finally, after marching up and down outside our door they left us and then Jim came in with his hair almost on end, and said that he had started to copy a telegram posted in the window of the North German Lloyd office so we could read it, when an officer came up and grabbed him and led him to the police station, with the whole Sunday night street crowd right after. An American fellow who spoke German saw him and followed, and through him, Jim convinced them he was alright. They searched him all over, read all his letters, counted his money, and sent men to guard us, whom, I suppose they thought were also spies. We heard the next day they had caught a number of Russian spies just outside of town. It made Jim prejudiced against the Germans (he said he never had like them) but I don’t blame them at all for keeping such a close watch. Our names were in the hands of the police within an hour after we arrived. The crowd below (this is a wine and beer restaurant) talked and sang and drank beer all night, but we slept well.