The First World War is now a century old. Part of the past, just like the Middle Ages, the Ming Dynasty, or the Roman Empire. There are no combat veterans of the war left alive.
I wasn’t around for either World War, Korea, Vietnam, or even the Gulf War. And yet, like so many things, WWI doesn’t quite feel like ancient history to me — fossilized into stone monuments, stuffed into museums, or snoozing away in the pages of dusty old books.
Sitting around the kitchen table with my grandparents, the war was mentioned many times over the years, as a part of our family history. Far from being some distant event, remote in time and faraway, it felt quite real, immediate and relevant, because it involved our relatives and our family’s own storyline, recited mostly in present tense, or “as if it were yesterday”.
The old folks didn’t talk of geopolitics, military tactics, or Grand Alliances — they spoke of the war’s impact on people they’d known.
Just like accounts of mining disasters in the coal region, never-to-be-forgotten-bad-hairstyles, bygone aunts who were legendary bakers of never-equaled pies, or comic sagas of the-time-that-raccoon-got-into-the-pantry, or The Studebaker With No Brakes Parked on Top of the Hill, etc. something would prompt a memory, and we’d hear about kinfolk in The Great War, passing along a narrative they remembered, or had been told as children.
I’d have a slice of pie, watch my grandmother wildly overbid in Auction Pinochle, try to Sit Up Straight & Not Slouch For Heaven’s Sake, and hear stories of near-death, destruction, and army rations. Hear about places in France that no one knew how to pronounce correctly, or had felt a need to look up the pronunciation, for ninety years. No one cared about “ethnic tensions in the Balkans” or the clash of empires, but they remembered Franz Joseph’s luxuriant whiskers.
One of the stories from my father’s family, mixed up in American wars since the French & Indian, was of an uncle, my great-grandmother’s favorite brother, who was “Never Quite the Same After the War.” His unit had just come back from Pershing’s Mexican “Punitive Expedition,” only to be shipped to France, and be among the first Americans thrown into combat.
He returned disfigured from a gas attack, and my grandmother always remembered her uncle as a frightening figure – a black eyepatch and swollen neck from the mustard gas, wearing his filthy old Army greatcoat for many years, even in the summertime, and generally drunk. I don’t recall anyone from my grandmother’s generation ever using “PTSD,” but they’d say “shell-shocked.”
That’s his helmet in the first picture.
Another g-g-uncle, a sergeant at a hospital in France, survived the war, but died of pneumonia at 42. The old folks on the “kitchen cabinet” discussed whether exposure to gas during the war had “weakened his lungs”.
My mother’s family, more recent immigrants, had brothers fighting on both sides. Mom’s grandfather proudly served in the Austro-Hungarian artillery, on the Italian front. At the end of the war, his unit surrendered and was interned. He soon added Italian to his other four languages, and apparently never had anything but compliments for the kind treatment he received from his captors.
Three of his older brothers fought in France with the U.S. army. One of the brothers was decorated, when his fluent German and fatherly manner persuaded a squad of seventeen-year-old Bavarians to put down their rifles and surrender to him.
And then, a few summers ago, I worked in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, and read the wartime letters of someone from another family, Henry Howard Houston II. I studied and helped to organize his letters and photos — messages from a life long-ago and far from my experience.
Houston’s reactions and comments offer a glimpse of the pre-war Philadelphia elite, the Ivy League, the Mexican border crisis, and finally the life, and death, of the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force.
And, despite being separated by a century and a vastly different lifestyle, I still felt a connection to him, his personality gleaned from reading his personal thoughts, unfiltered by a biographer or historian.
Henry Howard Houston II did not emerge from the First World War as a household name, like Eddie Rickenbacker, or Sgt. Alvin York. He did not shoot down the Red Baron, rescue the “Lost Battalion”, or capture an entire company of enemy soldiers single-handedly. But he, like all the doughboys and medics, deserves to be remembered for his part in that great and bloody struggle we call the First World War.
He died at the front, near Arcis-le-Ponsart, at the age of twenty three, the same age I am now. Thought to be in a safe sector, an artillery shell found him, and a piece of shrapnel pierced his skull. A man who believed war was evil, but fought nonetheless. He never had a chance to join the “Lost Generation”, and lost his life in a foreign land, instead.
But among the yellowed army records and fading photographs, are his personal letters to his family, and reading through his thoughts, was a very interesting and sometimes moving experience.
Since I don’t work for the NSA or Wikileaks, it seemed like a strange thing, to read other people’s mail.
And here’s a secret I haven’t shared with the NSA.
I didn’t much like the guy.
His unthinking elitism, casual evasion of rules, and off-hand shifts in attitude struck me as symptoms of someone who was spoiled and shallow.
Then, just like getting to know someone in real life, or hearing about the dearly departed in my own family, warts and all, I realized, he had flaws, like anyone, but he had a lot of good in him. He volunteered, he walked the walk, he grew up in a hurry, and he sacrificed his own life for his duty. He was an honorable gentleman, and I think, by the end of his short life, a mensch.
Another news flash arrived while I was immersed in his letters — something that surely seems too obvious to all you intelligent readers. This country was a very different place one hundred years ago. I was working in the same city, and walking through the streets of his neighborhood, but Henry’s high-toned Philadelphia was a very alien world.
Here’s one example. In 1916, it was often the rich, educated, and privileged who were the first into the fight, not like today’s poor and underprivileged being shipped out to the Petroleum Wars.
Here’s another change. Houston grew up in a Philadelphia that still honored its Quaker tradition, and even if true pacifists and conscientious objectors were uncommon, then as now, I think that in 1916, it was possible to be regarded as a Patriotic American, without espousing militarism and the glorification of warfare.
Sure, just like the decisions made by most of us, I think Houston entered the war with confused motives. He simply craved excitement and a chance to prove his bravery. He despised war, but then, as he picked up body after body for his ambulance, he came to hate The Enemy, and wished to crush the Kaiser and his soldiers.
His ambivalence over the war was evident in his letters. He began by condemning warfare, serving first as a volunteer non-combatant, rescuing the wounded — then returned as a combatant, an Army officer, using the latest technology for destruction and death, by guiding the flight of one-hundred pound explosive shells, miles through the air, to wound, maim, or kill.
A capsule biography.
He belonged to one of Philadelphia’s most elite families.
His grandfather was a railroad and real estate magnate. If you ever put on your spats and straw boater, and stroll through one of his creations, the Chestnut Hill neighborhood (Philadelphia’s “garden suburb”), you’ll catch of glimpse of Houston’s moneyed background. But it was a family that believed not just in the accumulation of wealth, but also in philanthropy, civic duty, and the promotion of beauty.
Henry had joined the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1916, while the war in Europe had been underway for two years, his unit was activated and became part of the U.S. Army, as the famous “Keystone Division”.
But we had not yet entered the First World War. First, we had a little practice exercise, closer to home.
The Pennsylvanians were one of the first units sent to the Texas-Mexican border, as part of a response to a raid by General Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known in the U.S.by his nickname “Pancho Villa”.
Villa had emerged as a leader during Mexico’s chaotic Civil War/Revolution. He was angry at the U.S. – he resented our recognition of his rival, Carranza, and our imperialistic tactics and economic exploitation. In 1916, Villa crossed the border and raided Columbus, NM, killing civilians and soldiers. Villa’s attack was sensationalized by the American press, and Wilson was forced to respond with a show of decisiveness. (In reality, Villa lost four times as many men as the Americans did during the raid, due to the U.S. Cavalry’s superior training and weaponry, and he’d fled back over the border.)
Woodrow Wilson sent troops under General Pershing, to stabilize the border, and to pursue Villa into Mexico. Houston was part of this first wave of what was called the Punitive Expedition, or the Pancho Villa Expedition.
He described in detail his experiences while serving with the field artillery. He seems to have followed his orders well, most of the time, but perhaps did not fully grasp the concept of Army discipline. When he was no longer assigned to active duty, he decided to explore the Southwest, and he proceeded to write and photograph during jaunts to the Grand Canyon, through the Mexican deserts, and around Texas. His superior officers were less excited about his adventures, since his notice of taking leave was misrouted, and he was technically AWOL. Luckily, in those more relaxed and clubby days, and with his father’s connections, Henry was let off the hook.
Shortly after his tour on the Mexican border, he enlisted in the Regular Army. He went through additional gunnery training at Camp Hancock, GA, but then left the artillery, and resigned his commission, to join the Volunteer Ambulance Services.
The U.S. had not yet entered World War I, so he paid his own way to France, to volunteer as an ambulance driver on the front.
His unit’s heroism while rescuing wounded soldiers under fire, at Verdun and the Argonne, earned the American volunteers the Croix de Guerre .
He would later serve on the same front, this time as a combatant, when he returned as an artillery officer with the U.S. Army.
As a volunteer with the ambulance corps, Houston was in pretty illustrious company – the most famous example being, of course, Ernest Hemingway, but also e.e.cummings, John Dos Passos, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Archibald MacLeish, and Somerset Maugham, among many others.
Houston was at the front for most of 1917. These two different tours of duty in France, one with ambulances, trying to save lives, and the other with the artillery, trying to blow up as many people as possible, are reflected in the deep ambivalence in his writings.
Initially he seemed to think American involvement should be primarily volunteer expeditions like his, for all aspects of warfare. Then, in a series of letters to different people, a different attitude emerges, as he sees the horror of war first-hand. The pacifist tone and references to the evil of war fade away, and he begins to describe the Germans as “barbaric” and inferior as human beings, due to their war-mongering. Houston comes to believe that it was important to crush the Kaiser’s army. He also was honest enough to express fear, one of the humanizing elements in his letters which drew me closer to him.
After his volunteer service, he returned to Camp Hancock, and then Fort Sill, OK, where he received aerial observation training. He would have seen some of the first U.S. military planes (“Jennies” made by Curtiss Wright in Hammondsport, NY, used in the hunt for Pancho Villa.) He became an aerial observer (a “spotter”) for the 53rd Artillery Division, directing artillery fire from above.
It was a tough and unenviable job – trying to make out enemy positions and fortifications from the air, taking photographs with a bulky camera, or trying to signal your artillery battery, with a heavy, primitive radio transmitter, while watching out for enemy fighter planes and ground fire. He was also expected to man a twin Lewis gun to defend his plane. There was no metal armor to protect you from machine gun bullets, only a leather coat and a fuselage made of thin sticks and cloth.
By this point of the war, romantic notions of aerial knights had evaporated, and reconnaissance pilots were fair game for the fighter pilots. Most of the Red Baron’s 80 kills were by shooting down observation planes.
In 1918, Houston returned to France for final training, and then flew into action.
In August, despite being stationed in the “safe” part of the front, he was killed when he returned to an airfield during a German shelling.
He is buried in France, in Suresnes American Cemetery outside of Paris, with several thousand other Americans.
His first cousin, Houston Woodward, also died that summer, shot down while flying for the Lafayette Escadrille.
This brief history doesn’t really do justice to Houston’s experiences or sacrifice, (nor that of all the others like my relatives who served in the AEF, or on the other side) and makes his time in the military seem to fly by, until his inevitable death. There are no stories of heroics — he didn’t capture an entire division of Germans with one round in his pistol, pretending the potato in the other hand was a grenade, he didn’t storm a machine gun nest, or engage in dogfights with the Flying Circus, but instead, he volunteered to save the lives of French soldiers, risking his life, driving through artillery fire, to save the wounded of a nation that wasn’t his. Later he risked his neck again, to create the maps that would help his own artillery and help keep his men alive.
I’ve only given you a tiny piece of Henry’s story, from my very brief time at the APS archive. And this is just one of the millions of such memories stored there — to me real treasures buried inside their vaults. It’s not a very profound thought, but an awful lot of “History” turns out to be stories about people. Some of them we admire, and some…we may even come to think of their stories, as threads in the storyline of our own, extended family. I never met any veterans of the Great War, and now it is too late, but I will pass along some of their stories when I can.
The airplane photos were taken at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in the Hudson Valley of New York State.