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The Outbreak of World War One

Over the next few weeks, if you’d like to experience the outbreak of WWI from the perspective of an American student (my grandfather who was 24 at the time) who was planning a tour of Europe but got stranded in Nuremburg, Germany when the war began, check in to this blog.

I have transcribed the letter he wrote to his parents when he returned to the United States after his three week odyssey and will post each day as he experienced it. I am amazed by his resilience and his remarkable ability to put a positive spin on what must have been a disappointing trip.

We begin with his letter to his folks and his arrival in Germany on July 28th after crossing the Atlantic on the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse:

Washington, D. C. September 5, 1914

Dear Folks:

It is 1:30 p.m., and I will see how much I can write all alone here in the office before supper time. I am going to make three copies so I can send one to Forrest and Frank at the same time. (That reminds me, I had better make an extra one for Dean at the same time.) Then you can keep them as long as you want to. I hardly know how to tell everything, unless I just follow my diary, although that isn’t a very systematic way to describe things. You have all read the letter I wrote on ship board, so I will begin with July 28th the day we landed in Bremen.

July 28, 1914

Our porter waked us early (that was the only thing he did on the whole trip to earn his tip) and we went on deck to watch for the first sight of Germany. It was cloudy and rather dark, but we could see a low stretch of land on our right (starboard, I should say) about 6 or 7 miles away. It was very shallow, for there were light houses and light ships and buoys right beside us to mark the channel. Northern Germany has no decent ports at all, it is so flat and sandy. About 9:30 we stopped and a lighter took us all off, – 800 third class passengers and baggage. The Germans were overjoyed at the sight of their native land, though it started to rain hard as soon as we got on the lighter, and we landed at Bremerhaven two hours later in the rain. Bremen is not the port, it is 35 miles above where the big steamers land, and passengers are taken up there by train from Bremerhaven. Being low tide, we couldn’t even land at Bremerhaven, but had to stay about ten miles out.

I was the second one off the boat, and the first one to go through Customs inspection, which consisted of opening my suit case and bag and shutting them, – no questions asked. We had hot chocolate and coffee cake in the waiting room and about 11 o’clock the train took us up to Bremen. The sun came out, and our first glimpse of Germany was more than satisfactory. The country is low and somewhat marshy, but pretty. There were big herds of Holstein cows in almost every pasture, and I suppose dairying is the principal industry around Bremen, though there were quite large rye fields, which looked good. It didn’t look at all like America – – as soon as you began to think it did, along would come a pretty stone house with a red tile roof, windows full of flowers, lace curtains, and immaculately clean doorsteps and front yards; or a shed (always of brick or stone) with a thatched roof, green with moss. My first impression of the country was that it is pretty and prosperous. I didn’t see a single hut or shack or poor looking building. The only thing that didn’t look right was to see the women loading the wagons, plowing the potatoes, and doing the hardest work while the men did the easier work.

At Bremen we went up to the hotel with Rogers and Edwards who were going to buy bicycles and ride up the Rhine leisurely, reaching Geneva, Switzerland in about a month. (I would like to know where they are now.) We thought we would stay till evening, and all the “University Club” of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse would have dinner together in the Rathaus, but we found that a train left for Berlin right away, so we told them all good-bye and got on. That was a dandy ride, through the prettiest country in Germany, except the Rhine; maybe it looked so because it was the first we had seen for so long. The land certainly looked and felt good, though it rocked under my feet for a day. Our train made about 50 miles an hour for about 5 ½ hours (pretty good for a toy train) and it cost us about 1 cent a mile. We came out just as clean as we went in. I like the German trains. In every compartment there is a good map showing just where you are going. We had a delicious dinner on the train: soup, veal, potatoes, gravy, vegetable compote, chocolate and rolls for less than 70 cents. A woman and little girl sat in our compartment. The little girl wanted awfully to talk to us but she couldn’t say a word of English and she laughed at the way we tried to talk German.

We arrived in Berlin about dark and took a droschke to the Hotel Stadt Weimar, which had been recommended to us by Mrs. Roemmele on the boat. It was a very good place, the best possible location in Berlin, right near the intersection of the two principal streets. The crowds were beginning to gather on Unter den Linden. They were singing The Watch on the Rhine, the Austrian National Hymn and something to the tune of “My Country tis of Thee,” and we supposed it was all about the war between Austria and Servia. The crowds and noise kept increasing and the police on horseback had to keep chasing them up and down the street so they wouldn’t block the traffic. We took a little walk and when we tried to come back the police wouldn’t let us cross Unter den Linden. We walked back and tried another street, and they put us back. One of them told us it was too late to get back to our hotel, and we began to think we were out for all night, but we finally did get back and were satisfied to watch the crowd from our balcony after that. Our rooms looked like they might have been made for entertaining the royalty – a great large room with two fine beds, large dressers, wardrobe, etc. and a smaller room with the same furnishings – little electric lamps on a stand beside your bed so you could lie there and read. It was so nice we hated to go to sleep, but when we got inside and pulled the soft, light eider down quilt over us, we couldn’t stay awake a minute.


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JBK Diary – June 7 – 14, 1912

Friday June 7, 1912 – Fine day

Rose 6:30. Breakfast. Talked with Uncle Martin and Aunt Mary. (Wayland Kingsbury’s oldest sister Mary was married to Martin Fussell and lived in Fayette, Iowa.) Drove out to Roy’s looked around the farm. (Roy Fussell is the oldest child born to Mary and Martin Fussell in 1875 – JBK’s oldest cousin.) Alma (Roy’s youngest sister, born in 1887) drove to train with us. Miss Julia Crissey came down to depot. Charles City at 12:40. Went up town, saw Clarence Crimer & Sanders. Dinner. YMCA. Waited all pm for freight. Talked with Mr. Lapham & Morris Penney. Home at 6:10. Walked home. Met Father, Mother & Clark coming to train with Bill. (I haven’t been able to figure out who Bill is.) Washed up a little & went to Girls’ Glee Club Concert. Met lots of people. Home with Aunt Clara and Aunt Abbie. (Aunt Clara and Aunt Abbie are JBK’s aunts on the Bush side of the family – both would have been close to 60 years old in 1912.)

Saturday June 8, 1912 – Fine

Rose 8:30. Loafed. Went to store, talked with Arthur Cl. and Uncle Bert. Baseball practice with Sem boys all pm. Mowed East lawn before supper. Took bath. Senior class day exercises in the chapel 8 to 9. Band concert on Main Street. Met lots more fellows.

Sunday June 9, 1912 – Fine Baccalaureate Sermon CVS

Rose 7:30 or 8:00. Father and I drove Bill. Took washing and went to west bridge. Helped Harold Dickinson with broken axle. Church full at 10:30. Mr. Potter preached great sermon. Grandmas K & B, Aunt Clara, Aunt Abbie, Gardners & Uncle Bert to dinner. Rode down to Floyd with Clydes in Conley auto. Took Arthur to work. By Ph (?) sacred concert at church. Carey sang. Sat with Uncle Bert, Aunts Abbie and Clara.

Monday June 10, 1912 – Cloudy & Fair

Went to chapel. Carey and I called on Mr. Spaches (?). Looked through new high school with “Mac” and Mr. Boynton. Dinner at Grandma K’s. Played ball after dinner. Took Clark to alumni Ball game CVS won 5 to 1. Daily contest in the Press won by Fen Olson & Clarence Allanson. (I was going to check this against the news in the paper but unfortunately all of the papers from 1912 are missing from the online digitized version of the Mitchell County Press and Osage Advantage.)

Tuesday June 11, 1912 – Cloudy but no rain.

Farewell chapel at 9:30. Sang in quartet. Miss Morrison led ’09 class meeting. Wrote up ball game for Press. Dinner at Burtch’s with Gardners & aunts. May Pole drill & band  on campus. Fine exercises. Saw lots of people. Aunt Clara and I went early to arrange seating at banquet. 190 present. Henry A., Sigurd and I sat together. Letters read speeches. Had to speak as grandson of Grandfather Bush. Meeting in Cong church. Sermon by A W Call of Vinton. Reminisces by alumni. Fine program.

Wednesday June 12, 1912 – Cloudy but no rain.

Rose at 6 o’clock. Went to clipper with Henry Allanson. Rode with father and Billy. Planned picnic. Wrote to Frank. Aunt Grace G’s for dinner. Rode up in Charles Williams Oakland car. ’09 picnic, also ’11s at Mark’s south of town. Misses Morrison, Bacon & Fullerton, Anna Sesch, Bernice & Lucia Merrick, Lou Champion, Lewis Schulte, Ruth Moe, Ada  Weaverling, Vera Tomey, Lee Lernon, Carey B & I rode down in hack. Played three deep, stillpond, baseball and skipped stones. Fine time. Lots to eat. Returned at 6:30. Milked cow. Last commencement program, thirteen orations. Fine class. Milked cow.

Thursday June 13, 1912 – Cloudy

Loafed around home. Moved into Dean’s room, town at noon. Went to depot at noon to see Sem people off. Went up to library with Clark. Read Jack Hazard to him. Joe Naden came up. Played ball with Clark. Supper at 8. Called on Miss Bacon at East hall. Bed at 11:30.

Friday June 14, 1912 – Cloudy cool

Got up at 8 o’clock. Mowed lawn all forenoon – Dean worked at store. Drove Billy after dinner and helped Aunt Clara move to hall. Mother drove out in country to Mrs. B Coles. Loafed, read, sewed up baseballs. Played ball with Dean and Clark. Dean got supper. Read til 10:30. Rain storm.