Saturday, September 30, 2017

Ballad of Bethlehem Steel

Bethlehem Steel, by Aaron Harry Gorson
“War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”
                                                            —Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket (1935)*

The costs of the Great War were staggering. An estimated 41 million people were wounded or lost their lives, and from 1914 – 1918, the Allied and Central Powers poured over 185 billion dollars into waging war.  Adjusted for inflation, the amount today would exceed 4.3 trillion dollars.** 

Before the United States became involved in the global conflict, many Americans wanted nothing to do with the war and hoped to remain neutral.  Others, however, seized war-time opportunities to aggressively pursue profits.  In 1916, at a Washington, D.C. mass meeting of protest against the war, Grace Isabel Colbron gave a public reading of her poem “The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel.”***

The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel or “The Need For Preparedness”
                                    A Tale of the Ticker

A fort is taken, the papers say,
Five thousand dead in the murderous deal.
A victory? No, just another grim day.
            But—up to five hundred goes Bethlehem Steel.

The Masses, July 1916
Cartoon depicting Uncle Sam as war profiteer
A whisper, a rumor, one knows not where—
A sigh, a prayer from a torn heart rent—
A murmur of Peace on the death-laden air—
            But—Bethlehem Steel drops thirty per cent.

“We’ll fight to the death” the diplomats cry.
“We’ll fight to the death,” sigh the weary men.
As the battle roars to the shuddering sky—
            And Bethlehem Steel has a rise of ten.

What matters the loss of a million men?
What matters the waste of blossoming lands?
The children’s cry or the women’s pain?
            If—Bethlehem Steel at six hundred stands?

And so we must join in the slaughter-mill,
We must arm ourselves for a senseless hate,
We must waste our youths in the murder drill—
            That Bethlehem Steel may hold its state.†
                                    —Grace Isabel Colbron

1917 poster
Millions of young men are slaughtered; women and children suffer and die; towns and fields are bombed to barren wastelands, yet each stanza of the poem ends by confidently proclaiming the economic prospects of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation.

The upbeat rhythm and rhymes of the poem mimic the callously optimistic mood of those who profited from the war.  Celebrating those profits in May of 1916, Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel, addressed the executives of the American Iron and Steel Institute: “Boys, we are in a period of great prosperity. I wonder if any of us ever expected, anticipated or dreamed that we should ever see any such state of affairs as we see today….Boys, may this prosperity continue.”††

Just how prosperous was Bethlehem Steel? In the months before war was declared in Europe, the company struggled, operating at only 60% capacity and reducing workers’ hours. But after securing military contracts from Russia, Britain and France, Bethlehem Steel emerged as the leading supplier of Allied ships, munitions, and ordnance. By end of 1917, “orders on hand at Bethlehem Steel were twenty times as great as at the end of 1913,” and stock prices had risen from $30 to $600 a share.°

Charges of war profiteering were not unique to America. Companies in nearly every industrialized country sought to benefit from the war: Krupps (Germany) Renault (France), and Vickers (Britain) are some of the better-known examples. The war-time ideal of sacrifice was challenged when not everyone seemed to accept an equal share of the sacrifice. 

In 1935, fearing the prospect of yet another world war, Smedley Butler spoke out against the capitalist motives that might support such a war.  A retired Major General with the U.S. Marines, Butler condemned war profiteers in his book War is a Racket:
Cartoon appearing in The Masses, Sept 1915

“At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.
How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried the bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?”

Butler concluded, “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the ‘war to end wars.’ This was the ‘war to make the world safe for democracy.’ No one told them that dollars and cents were the real reason. No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits.”°°

Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001.    
* Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket, Round Table Press, 1935, p. 1.
**“World War I casualties,” Wikipedia and “Financial Cost of the First World War,” Spartacus Educational.
***“To Read Original Poem: Miss Colbron Writes Ballad for Meeting Against Preparedness.” Washington Evening Star, 29 Jan. 1916, p. 10.  Colbron was a translator, author, and activist in both the pacifist and suffragist movements. A tribute written after her death in 1943 described her as “a social idealist to the depths of her soul, she was ready at any time to give of her best for any worthwhile project for social reform” (W.L, “In Memoriam: Grace Isabel Colbron. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 3, No. 1, Oct. 1943, p. 114).
†First published in The Public: A Journal of Democracy (10 Dec. 1915), the version included in this post appeared in Seamen’s Journal, Vol. 29, 22 Dec. 1916, p. 11.  Punctuation varies among published editions of the poem; in the Presbyterian Survey (Oct. 1916), the last word of the poem reads “rate”; other versions read “state.”
††Kenneth Warren, Bethlehem Steel: Builder and Arsenal of America, University of Pittsburgh, 2008,      p. 105.
°Warren, Bethlehem Steel, pp. 103-106.
°°Smedley D. Butler, War is a Racket, pp. 2, 33.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sweethearts of the A.E.F.

Elsie Janis was a comedian who sang, danced, and cartwheeled her way into the hearts of American soldiers. The “Sweetheart of the A.E.F.” was also one of the most popular American entertainers of the early twentieth century.  Janis visited First World War hospitals and military camps, sharing laughter and music with thousands of doughboys, and by March of 1918 she had already given over 400 performances.*

Elsie Janis entertains the troops
From her impersonations of Charlie Chaplin to her frequently repeated shout to the troops, ““Do I come from Ohio? By damn yes!” Janis touched her audiences with “an American performance, by an American girl, done in an American way, the first of its kind to be seen by most of the audience in many months.”**

Whether it was Elsie Janis, the women of Belgium, or sweethearts back home, women often gave soldiers the motivation to fight.  The American military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, championed Janis as “an oasis of color and vivacity in the midst of a dreary desert” proclaiming, “Elsie Janis is as essential to the success of this Army as charge of powder is essential to the success of a shell. More entertainment by her and ‘the likes of her’ and less instruction by people who take themselves seriously—that’s one formula for winning the war!”†

Letters from women back home were equally important to the troops.  One soldier wrote to his sweetheart, “I get a lot of peace thinking about you.  I like to think of the good times we used to have and dream of the good times to come when I get home again.”††

Idealized views of women powerfully influenced the morale of soldiers; Harry L. Parker was a young American lieutenant who saw humor in the situation.
Popular song, 1917

Left Behind

I got a letter from
My girl. She said,
“I love you.
When the mud is
Thick, and
You have a large pack on
Your back
And you are hungry
And tired
Think of me.
I love you.”
And one day we were
On the march.
The mud was
Thick. And
I had a large
On my back
And I was
And tired, when
I fell to thinking
Of her.
A lieutenant
Gave me
A swift kick
And set me to
Double timing
Catch up.
            —Harry L. Parker

The poem’s title evokes the left-right-left of the soldier’s marching cadence, the girl he left behind, and his own lagging pace.  As well, the poem’s uneven line lengths suggest the faltering pace of the man’s attempts to march in step with his company, as they echo his exhaustion and disjointed thoughts. But the awkward line breaks are also what give the poem its whimsical humor. They highlight his sweetheart’s romantic words “Think of me” and “I love you”  and then contrast these with the grueling realities of war: “Pack” and “Hungry.” 

What bridges the gap between the tensions of war and the soldier’s dreams of his girl? An officer’s swift kick to the man’s “left behind” recalls him to his place and sends him double timing to catch up with his unit.  With gently ironic humor, the poem states that individual soldiers are ordered to discard their personal motivations and instead to surrender themselves to the army and its agenda.  
Clemson year book, 1914

Lieutenant H.L Parker (later promoted to Captain) was a doughboy from South Carolina who attended Clemson College, where he was voted “Wittiest” and “Most Original” in his graduating class.  Joining the American Expeditionary Force, he served in the supply department of the Stars and Stripes.  Harry Parker survived the war. In 1924, he earned a doctorate from the University of Paris and began a long and distinguished career as an entomologist and expert in the control of biological pests.

He died in Cannes in 1979, and colleagues remembered his intelligence, quick wit, and “joie de vivre” – as well as noting an intriguing detail from his personal life.  Harry Parker did not return home to a sweetheart in South Carolina, but rather in 1923, he married Henriette Charraire, a young French girl. Their marriage lasted for over fifty-five years, until Henriette was left behind at his death.
*”Elsie One of Us While War Lasts.” Stars and Stripes, 29 March 1918, p. 7.  
**“Elsie Janis Here to Delight AEF: Musical Comedy Star Has Already Set New Handspring Record.” Stars and Stripes, 8 March 1918, p. 6.
†”Elsie.” Stars and Stripes, 15 March, 1918, p. 4.
††Elmer Lewis to Goldie Little, personal letter quoted in Richard, S. Faulkner, Pershing’s Crusaders: The American Soldier in World War I, University Press of Kansas, 2017, p. 536.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

I Sit and Sew

Detail of WWI recruiting poster

Referring to your memorandum of February 12th, relative to the appointment and training of colored nurses for colored soldiers, at the present time colored nurses are not being accepted for service in the Army Nurse Corps, as there are no separate quarters available for them and it is not deemed advisable to assign white and colored nurses to the same posts.
            W.C. Gorgas, Surgeon General, U.S. Army, Feb. 14, 1918*

As America mobilized for war in 1917, political rallies, recruiting events, posters, and news editorials reminded them of why they were joining the bloodiest conflict the world had yet known: they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy.  But an editorial appearing in the New York Tribune voiced the concerns of many Americans and challenged that premise:
Democracy implies equality of privilege and equal obligation of service.  If we fight for this for the world in general we ought to be prepared to practice it among ourselves.  At present we mingle democracy with discriminations.  All the elements of our citizenship do not stand on the same level.**

Crisis, March 1918
The editorial denounced the inequities and harsh treatment that black soldiers were regularly experiencing, but it failed to mention that black women who attempted to assist in the war effort were also the victims of prejudice. Hired for factory work at salaries considerably below those paid to white women performing the same jobs, black women were also frequently barred from volunteering as canteen and aid workers. Perhaps most concerning was the treatment of black nurses. Emmett J. Scott, Special Advisor of Black Affairs to the Secretary of War, sent a memo denouncing the War Department’s discriminatory policies:
 It is difficult for me to understand why some colored nurses have not been given an opportunity to serve. This vexing question is being put to me almost daily by colored newspaper editors, colored physicians, surgeons, etc., who are constantly bombarding my sector of the War Department, inquiring what has been done, and urging that something should be done in the direction of utilizing professional trained and efficient colored nurses.***

Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a poet, playwright, journalist, and political activist. During the war, she was the only black woman to serve on the Women’s Committee of the Council of Defense (organizing women’s groups and supporting women’s war efforts), and she was active in the Circle of Negro War Relief, establishing a local chapter to provide assistance to black soldiers and their families.†  

 In 1918, her war poem “I Sit and Sew” was published in the A.M.E. Church Review.

I Sit and Sew

I sit and sew – a useless task it seems,
Alice Dunbar-Nelson
My hands grown tired, my head weighed down with dreams –
The panoply of war, the martial tread of men,
Grim-faced, stern-eyed, gazing beyond the ken
Of lesser souls, whose eyes have not seen Death,
Nor learned to hold their lives but as a breath –
But – I must sit and sew.

I sit and sew –  my heart aches with desire 
That pageant terrible, that fiercely pouring fire
On wasted fields, and writhing grotesque things
Once men. My soul in pity flings
Appealing cries, yearning only to go
There in that holocaust of hell, those fields of woe 
But  – I must sit and sew.

The little useless seam, the idle patch;
Why dream I here beneath my homely thatch,
When there they lie in sodden mud and rain,
Pitifully calling me, the quick ones and the slain?
You need me, Christ! It is no roseate dream
That beckons me—this pretty futile seam,
It stifles me—God, must I sit and sew?
            —Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Stifled, despairing, yet dreaming, a woman occupies her hands with a mundane domestic task while her heart and mind yearn to leave for the battlefields.  She is not naïve in imagining a glorious war. This woman knows of the “wasted fields” on which lie “writhing grotesque things/ Once men.” It is in fact because of these men who are “Pitifully calling me” that she longs to travel to “that holocaust of hell,” to assist the wounded where they “lie in sodden mud and rain.” But—as is repeated three times in the poem—she is condemned to wait, to sit, to sew.

Crisis, August 1918
In 1920, Dunbar-Nelson’s lengthy essay “Negro Women in War Work” appeared in Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War.††  Her essay describes how “Into this maelstrom of war activity the women of the Negro race hurled themselves joyously. They asked no odds, remembered no grudges, solicited no favors, pleaded for no privileges. They came by the thousands, hands opened wide to give of love and service and patriotism” (375).

And yet as Dunbar-Nelson acknowledges, “The problem of the woman of the Negro race was a peculiar one….There were separate regiments for Negro soldiers; should there be separate organizations for relief work among Negro women? If she joined relief organizations, such as the Red Cross Society, and worked with them, would she be assured that her handiwork would reach black hands on the other side of the world, or should she be great-hearted and give her service, simply for the sake of giving, not caring who was to be benefited?” (376).

Dunbar-Nelson’s essay asserts that black women “did all that could be done—all that they were allowed to do” (377), but they were blocked from fully supporting their troops.  Like Emmett J. Scott, she found the order excluding black nurses from overseas service deeply troubling: “Colored women since the inception of the war had felt keenly their exclusion from overseas service. The need for them was acute; their willingness to go was complete; the only thing that was wanted was authoritative sanction” (378).

The African American community feared that without black nurses, black soldiers would receive inadequate medical care. Social codes forbidding intimacies between the races were likely to prevent white women from nursing black soldiers, and segregated hospital facilities were likely to offer substandard medical care. The concerns were real: during the war, black soldiers died at a disproportionately higher rates due to poorly staffed, segregated hospitals.†††

The poem “I Sit and Sew” testifies to the complex intersections of gender and race in America.  In the conclusion to her essay “Negro Women and War Work,” Dunbar-Nelson praises black women for not only their war service, but their persistent hope in the face of discrimination:
She shut her eyes to past wrongs and present discomforts and future uncertainties. She stood large-hearted, strong-handed, clear-minded, splendidly capable, and did, not her bit, but her best, and the world is better for her work and her worth (397).
Crisis, May 1919

*Emmett J. Scott, Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, Homewood Press, 1919, p. 448. 
**“Race Prejudice and the War.” New York Tribune, Sunday, 18 Nov. 1917, p. 2.
***Scott, Official History, p. 451.  The memo was sent by Emmet J. Scott to Dean F.P. Keppel, Office of the Secretary of War, dated 28 Feb 1918. 
†Sandra L. West, “Dunbar-Nelson, Alice (Alice Ruth Moore), ” p. 93.  Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Infobase, 2003.
††Alice Dunbar-Nelson, “Negro Women in War Work,” pp. 374-397. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.
†††Emmett J. Scott, “Did the Negro Soldier Get a Square Deal?” pp. 429-430. Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, edited Emmett J. Scott, Homewood Press, 1919.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Burning Beehives

Burning Beehives

Portrait of Edmond Rostand by Pascaud, 1901
In August of 1914, the Germany army invaded Belgium and pushed into France. Almost immediately there arose French reports of German war atrocities, including accounts of rapes, massacres, and the burning of villages. These were later published in Documents Relating to the War, authored by the French Commission to establish acts committed by the enemy in violation of the law of nations (1915).*  The book was translated and reprinted numerous times during the war, appearing in English in The New York Times Current History of the European War (1917).  In Documents, one eye-witness tells of a curé who was arrested in the village of Fraimbois.  Confronting German officers, the village priest asked why they had burned his beehives and received the reply, “What do you expect? It is war!”

Edmond Rostand, best known for his play Cyrano de Bergerac, shaped the story into a poem that merges history, fable, and patriotic political commentary.**  An excerpt of the poem appears below; it can be read in its entirety in French Poems of the Great War, translated by Ian Higgins.

Burning Beehives

How pleasing: straight away, they burned some beehives…
Image from film More than Honey
O bees, tumbling, buzzing gold in the blue air,
As long as you’re aloft they haven’t triumphed,
O last little glimmer from the golden age!

‘But why ever are you burning my bees?’
The curé of Fraimbois asked the German brute.
‘That’s war!’ replied the General. – Yes, war as waged
By the horde on the buzz and pride of freedom.
Why, then, did they burn this hive of straw?
Because the hive at work intoned a psalm
As it fashioned what resembled sunbeams.
And earlier, remember, on entering Brussels,
The Chiefs had issued orders to their thugs
Fraimbois, France
To trample the flowerbeds underfoot.
As janissaries† rush to please their vizier,
So the soldiers joyed to stamp down the flowers.
That they should blithely now be burning beehives
Is simple logic: it is but one short step,
One goose-step, from trampled flowers to bees in flames.
How they flared and crackled in the blue air,
And dropped! A fine sight; and the perfumed wax
Streaming black! And then, burn a beehive,
And up in smoke go famous names as well—
Plato, Vergil, La Fontaine, Maeterlinck—
Alongside the bees, as if to fade away,
A further fading out of humanism
To mark the triumph of the feldgrau lout.
French vintage postcard 

The bee is spirit visible in light,
A drop of honey risen on two wings!
How might it ever find forgiveness from
Such clods? The bee is instant choice, sureness
Of touch and taste: briefly floating, exploring—
Then aim, effort, balance, judgement, skill!
And when the human mind in wonderment
Sees, deep in a hive, its own destiny
Mysteriously sketched out by pure instinct,
To serve the Hun it is disinclined! Rather
This sweet, free order than their Discipline!
Yes, hives murmur. – All murmuring will
At once be shriven, purged and burnt alive!

‘But why,’ the poor priest asked, ‘why burn my beehives?’
Pleasing, then, that to the bees’ good shepherd
The Burner of bees said ‘That’s war.’ –Their war, yes,
But what of ours?

            In those first, tragic days,
When our troops were moving north to Belgium,
It is told that French armoured cavalry
Rode through a Flemish village – I forget
The name – their horses festooned with roses,
French cavalry, Paris 1914
Singing, as they rode, the Marseillaise –
But through their teeth, mouths closed, simply humming;
And it was magnificent.  And this hum
Of Latin anger from across all those flowers,
Wordless, and gestureless, was the growl
Of mind and soul, it was conscience, and reason;
The sound of storm and oratory, pious,
Threatening, and with a fierce, golden
Calm.  Not a single mouth was seen to move,
As though it were the flowers themselves that hummed.
And those who heard it, eyes filled with tears, thought
To hear, in the reddening evening dust,
Some kind of strange Marseillaise hummed by bees…
Thus, with purity and purpose, did our men
Transmute their warlike anthem into a swarm’s hum,
As north they rode, prepared for ambush, prepared to die
For beehives and to save the honey of the world!
            --Edmond Rostand, trans. Ian Higgins

Opening with the bitter irony, the poem condemns the German troops for their rush to destroy life and beauty. In maliciously burning the bees, the invading army has killed the “last little glimmer from the golden age” and launched the world into the chaos and horror of modern, industrialized war.  

French postcard, © Library of International
Contemporary Documentation
Not only has Rostand associated bees with religious martyrs and the enchantment of the natural world (“the hive…intoned a psalm/ As it fashioned…sunbeams”), but bees are one of the oldest symbols of French royalty and power, dating from the Merovingian rulers of the 5th century and adopted by Napoleon as the emblem of his reign. Repeatedly, the poem links the industrious, selfless bees with France and its army: both bees and French troops hum with the “buzz and pride of freedom,” and both are associated with democracy, culture, industriousness, and peace.

Rostand argues that to burn a hive is to annihilate the ideals expressed by philosophers and authors who wrote of the winged insects: bees settled on Plato’s lips when he was a child; Virgil describes his hopes for Rome’s political renewal in “The Bees”; La Fontaine’s fable “The Hornets and the Bees” praises the bees for their practical approach to conflict resolution, and Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee celebrates their “harmonious concord.”

In burning the hives, the Germans have shown themselves to be opposed to all that the bees represent. The poem depicts German troops as earth-bound clods and brutes who joyfully trample flowers and transform all they touch to ugliness. The grey-clad soldiers blithely watch as perfumed beeswax rises in black smoke and as the bees themselves, like a “drop of honey risen on two wings,” flare, crackle, and fall to the ground.  

Rostand’s poem does not object to the war.  Instead, it commends the poilu for their “purity and purpose.” As they hum the Marseillaise, their national anthem, the men of France are “prepared to die/ For beehives and to save the honey of the world.”†† 

*Documents relatifs á la guerre, by Commission instituée en vue de constater les actes commis par l’ennemi en violation du droit des gens.
**For other patriotic and nationalistic war poems, see “Hymn of Hate,” “New Year’s Wishes to the German Army,” “Going to the Front,” “A Litany in the Desert,” and “America at War.”
†Elite troops of the Ottoman Sultan -  his household bodyguards (dating from 14th century).
†† Katharine Tynan’s poem “Telling the Bees” is another poem that relates bees to the Great War.