I HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION

I. HISTORICAL INTRODUCTION Nearly a century after what was variously known as The Great War, The World War and--after 1939--World War I or the First World War, first-hand memory of the 1914-1918 conflict is long-gone. Because of that, it may be helpful to put that conflict in perspective for 21st century readers. Origins of The Great War date back to nation formation, particularly that of Germany, in the 19th Century, followed by a rush of the new major powers--not just European but the United States in North America and Japan in the Far East--to join old empires in building networks of overseas lands. It was also a time when nations formed alliances with other nations, ostensibly for defensive purposes. And it was a period in which centuries-old monarchies were gradually giving way to representative democracies or being threatened with the rise of totalitarian dictatorships. Some historians argue that the key influence was simply newly found national pride superceding centuries of religious, regional and minor principality identification. Although the immediate trigger for World War I was assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s crown prince, the network of alliances actually forced the conflict. The chain went like this: Austria made demands on Serbia, where the murder of its monarch-to-be took place. But Serbia was formally allied with Czarist Russia, in turn allied with France. France was allied with Great Britain. The Kasiser’s Imperial Germany was allied with Austria-Hungary and Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. When Austria attacked Serbia, Russia attacked the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany came to Austria’s defense against Russia. This brought France and Britain, the Allies, into the conflict against the Germanic Central Powers and Turkey. Italy and Japan joined the Allies. The United States and many peripheral European states including Scandinavia, Holland, Switzerland and Spain stayed neutral. All the powers thought the conflict would be over in short order, but in a few months it had spread from the Balkans to Belgium and France, across Poland, the Middle East, and where there were German colonies in East and South Africa, China and Pacific islands, truly a World War. Moreover, modern armaments, especially the machine gun, obliterated traditional means of fighting like cavalry charges and mass infantry attacks. On the Western Front across northern France and the Belgian border, the war bogged down to hopeless, bloody trench warfare. On the high seas, the potent utilization of another new weapon of war, the submarine, eventually drew America into the war after American civilian lives were lost when the Germans sank merchant ships. The Americans arrived in Europe just as the Soviet revolution in Russia enabled Germany to concentrate all its forces against Britain and France. In recent years, historians have revived considerable literary and scholarly interest in this early 20th Century war. Most recently, some scholars and historical journalists acknowledge that the seeds of the West’s continuing conflicts in the Middle East were sown after World War I in the forced dissolution of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Yet most public attention has been focused on the 1939-45 World War II, both because of popular entertainment--movies (“Saving Private Ryan”), television series (“Band of Brothers”) and frequent re-airing of Pearl Harbor attack epics--and because veterans of the Second World War are rapidly dying off. Nevertheless, this account of Northwestern University’s U. S. Army Base Hospital 12 in the First World War is important history because it was arguably the most distinguished such American outfit in the “War to End All Wars.” The Northwestern unit was overseas longer than any other American unit of any kind, suffered the first casualties and treated more patients in France--over 60,000--than any other American hospital with the possible exception of its neighboring Harvard Unit. Moreover, it became the first adventure to the Old World, the land of their forefathers, for hundreds of thousands of energized, proudly democratic ordinary Americans. Cultural differences seemed inevitably to clash but instead, as the distinctly modern Chicago personnel of the Northwestern Unit found, instead were accommodated. Nurse Laura Huckleberry’s saga, told through the initial diary and some 155 letters over a 23-month period to her sweetheart, Chicago journalist John Erle Davis, has been augmented by official reports, newspaper stories, correspondence, and contemporary accounts and memoirs from other Unit 12 members. Moreover, the letters that form the core of the narrative reveal a gentle, suspenseful, true-to-the-era love story. Reminiscences of pre-war activities in Chicago and small-town Indiana provide a window into the social life of the times. One unusual facet of this collection is that it was the man who saved the woman’s letters. Conventional wisdom long held that only sentimental women saved such correspondence. Unfortunately, none of Erle’s letters to Laura survive, although a few of his war letters to his own family are included. Today we enjoy instant, real-time communications across continents and around the world by Internet and the email; but during World War I and until the advent of airmail, a complete exchange of letters--and answers to questions--took six to eight weeks or longer for forwarded mail, by ship and train. The memoirs of Pvt. George R. Baker—edited and published by his son George R. Baker Jr. in 1999 under the title Heroes and Angels—are especially noteworthy. Not being created under censorship, they portray an entirely different and often harrowing experience than Laura was able to relate in her letters, which had to pass under the censor’s eye. Excerpts from Pvt. Baker’s memoir included in this volume also provide the perspective of both an enlisted man and a “university man”—and avid athlete to boot. Finally, the chronological progression of these letters, memoirs and other documents also provides an unexpected window to the typical American’s ready adaptation to other’s languages and expressions--in the preserved, often contemporary words of those who were there. Over the months, “trucks” osmosed to “lorries” and “very good” became “tres bien.”