The War to End Wars Inc.

The chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world. I am strongly of the opinion that the great majority of people will always find these are moving impulses of our life.

CALVIN COOLIDGE, thirtieth president of the United States

The journalist who warned that war would be bad for business was speaking of Europe, not the United States. In 1914, American arms and munitions manufacturers in particular rubbed their hands, since the Allies, unable to match the output of German factories, would be forced to buy from them.

As Britain and France liquidated their U.S. holdings to foot these bills, New York’s investment houses were quick to extend credit—at the usual rates. By June 1915, France was so desperate for hard currency that it asked citizens to sell their gold to the Banque de France. This went against every instinct of a frugal, essentially peasant society, which had learned by experience that, in hard times, your best friends were a few gold louis buried under the hearthstone or hidden in an old shoe. Nevertheless, a trickle of patriotic citizens climbed the steps of the Banque de France to trade their jewelry and hoarded coins for paper money, a painful sacrifice, and finally in vain. By the end of the war, France and Germany were bankrupt and Britain deeply in debt.

The first businesses to be affected by the war were Paris’s shops and cafés As the Germans advanced in early September 1914, thousands fled. For a few days, it seemed the city’s population of about 1.5 million was reduced almost to nothing. “Paris deprived of its men of fighting age,” one observer moaned. “Paris deserted by its fugitives. Paris silent and meditative. . . . Paris isn’t Paris.”

But the city was not so easily subdued. Those who remained, dismissing the runaways as froussards—panic merchants—turned out to be right. Once the front stabilized, cafés, cabarets, shops, and brothels reopened to brisk business as soldiers were rotated home on leave and Paris swelled with the bureaucracy of war. The returning runaways tried to put a defiant face on their flight. Cocteau wrote, “They all found an apology to offer for their departure. Some used their service as an excuse, others their little girl, their old mother, or their own person, too important to be taken hostage by the Germans. Others pleaded their Duty to The Nation.”

Those who’d gone to England claimed they’d come back because they couldn’t stand the food. Others who’d hidden with relatives at the far end of the country relied on bluster. One of them, taking his usual place in the café, began by announcing “Mark my words. We’ll be in Berlin by Christmas.” Looking up from his paper, a neighbor who hadn’t fled asked innocently. “Oh, is that what they’re saying in Bordeaux?”

This “business as usual” stance was the first sign that no matter how catastrophic the war news, life in the capital would continue with as little disturbance as possible. The Germans might have hung onto Alsace: they would not have Paris.

Now that the invaders were bogged down in their trenches, they didn’t look so threatening. They were soon being mocked everywhere. The proximity of the front to a city full of artists and writers made this war the most comprehensively recorded in history. No conflict ever produced such an avalanche of fiction, poetry, music, photography, painting, and film. As long as everyone believed the war would be over by Christmas, there was a rush to document its triumphant progress. Once they saw otherwise, to stop would have been an admission of defeat.


Poilus on leave give everyone a gift—lice.

Tommy and poilu spank the kaiser.

Alsatians thank Joffre.

Producers of postcards had never been so busy. For soldiers separated from their families for the first time, cards offered a form of communication that didn’t require a high level of literacy. The forces also favored them, since they were easier to handle than letters, particularly for officers who were required to read and censor all mail. Armies on both sides printed their own lettercards that required no writing at all. They simply listed various alternatives—“I am well [ ], injured [ ], recovering [ ], a prisoner [ ] ”—and the sender ticked the relevant box. More sophisticated correspondents sent cards with embroidered inserts or picture cards produced in series of eight. By exchanging these one at a time, a couple could conduct a courtship, leaving it to be consummated during the next leave.

In an inspired decision, the publishers of L’Illustration decided to devote its pages entirely to news of the war and its most glamorous personalities. From a prewar weekly circulation of 80,000, it leaped to 400,000 and maintained it until the armistice in 1918. Cheaper weeklies such as Le Miroir used less glossy paper and poorer reproduction to cover the same ground. Other publishers joined the rush with magazines featuring suggestive cartoons, pinups, caricatures, and war-related gossip. Le Régiment was aimed at officers on leave, in contrast to the more working-class La Baïonnette. Most influential of all, the glossy La Vie Parisienne filled its pages with drawings of half-nude girls, sexy but sharp-edged cartoons, and pages of small ads for erotic books and photographs and the services of masseuses and manucuristes.

The French, British, and Commonwealth armies all authorized artists to paint, photograph, and film life at the front. Initially, they documented the propagandists’ claim that Germans had raped, murdered, and mutilated their way across what was generally called “Brave Little Belgium.” The August 1914 issue of L’Illustration ran a full-page drawing of a German officer posed proudly in front of burning buildings with his foot on the body of a dead woman, the corpse of a baby lying just behind him to one side and that of a priest on the other.

However, as the horror stories were discredited, cartoonists lightened up. The pickelhaube became an object of derision rather than menace. Speculating on what might happen once the Germans began influencing their new allies, the Turks, a cartoonist showed the citizens of Constantinople forced to goose-step around the city, top their fezes with a spike, and squeeze the humps of their camels to a point.

Artists developed shorthand depictions of the leading players. The British were John Bull, the Americans Uncle Sam or the Statue of Liberty, France the stylized female figure Marianne, wearing the Phrygian cap adopted by the revolutionaries of 1789 as a symbol of freedom.

The Germans posed a problem, since different nations saw them in different ways. British, American, and Australian artists evoked the barbarians that overran Europe in the third century—the Huns. An archetype of the German emerged as a twentieth-century Hun—half man, half beast, sometimes naked but mostly in baggy trousers and boots, occasionally carrying a bloody ax but invariably wearing a pickelhaube. Norman Lindsay in particular drew these monsters with a pen that dripped race hatred and xenophobia.

To the French, Germans were less menacing—shambling gray creatures, dead-eyed, dumb as the vegetables after which they named them: turnips, potatoes or krauts and boche—cabbages. As an all-purpose insult, however, “Hun” won out. The U.S. forces newspaper Stars and Stripes reported, “It was too hard to get the proper pronunciation of ‘boches.’The doughboys tried it with a long ‘o’ and with a short ‘o.’ Then they gave up. ‘Get one of them Bushes for yourself and two for me’ shouted a doughboy who had been left behind to a comrade departing for the trenches.”

Under the camouflage of humor, satire magazines could snipe at the war and its commanders, unlike the daily press, forced to feed its readers propagandist drivel. The communiqués issued by the ministry of information each day at 3:00 p.m., while eagerly awaited, were seldom accurate and often bordered on fiction. Copies of Swiss papers were furiously sought as the only reliable source of war news. Censorship suppressed, for example, all reporting of the Taxis of the Marne, for fear it would reveal how comprehensively Joffre had been outmaneuvered. The most L’Illustrationcould do was tip a wink to the rumor mill by running a photograph of the empty parking area in front of the Gare de l’Est and commenting that taxis had been scarce for a few days.

The worse the reality of the front, the more jolly the terms in which the papers were forced to report it. During the disastrous 1915 spring offensive, a journalist wrote of the troops, “They are all light-hearted! They are having fun!” If you believed the papers, the front resembled a holiday camp where poilus spent their days furnishing and decorating their dugouts like country cottages and painting signs that identified certain trenches as “Avenue Albert 1st” and “Boulevard Joffre.”

Le Matin claimed the trenches had produced a new species of individual, called, in untranslatable slang, a fourbancier. This prodigy was “a colourful character, a jack of all trades, a born handyman, an inventor. He’s a Robinson Crusoe without a Friday, for whom it’s always Sunday. He can knock up the bed head, the candle stick and the candle.” In startlingly bad taste, the report evoked the 1816 wreck of the ship Medusa. Of 147 people who piled onto a raft, only 15 survived, after eating one another. “On the raft of the Medusa,” joked the journalist, a fourbancier “would have unearthed some green peas and knocked up a delicious stew from old boots.”

This picture of industrious craftwork and inspired scrounging wasn’t entirely without foundation. Every unit on both sides had a few such individuals. The platoon in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front has “Kat” Katczinsky, who “can find anything—camp stoves and firewood when it is cold, hay and straw, tables, chairs—but above all he can find food. No one understands how he does it, and it’s as if he conjures it out of thin air. His masterpiece was four cans of lobster. (Mind you, we would really have preferred dripping instead.)”

All Quiet on the Western Front. The fantasy of trench warfare—pets and a little light gardening

Common soldiers with handicraft skills, no matter what their nationality, made good use of the scrap metal, wood, wire, and glass littering the battlefield. “Trench art” crafted by bored but handy troops included badges and money clips, brass matchboxes, and cigarette lighters made from cartridge cases. The casing from a 75 mm cannon shell lent itself to embossing or engraving and was just the right size for a flower vase. Such items became a form of currency, exchanged among the troops and occasionally with the enemy. Though trench art was produced in greater quantity by the French than by all other contingents of the Allied armies combined, Remarque describes hungry Russian prisoners of war trading knick-knacks with German peasants for food. “Our country people are hard and crafty when they are bargaining. They hold the piece of bread or the sausage right under the Russian’s nose until he goes pale with greed, he rolls his eyes, and he’ll agree to anything.”

Serious artists created work of more significance. Fernand Léger painted one of his best pieces on the lid of an ammunition box. “Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle,” the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska wrote to Ezra Pound. “Its heavy unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a long time whether it pleased me or displeased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off and with my knife I carved in it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of things, which I preferred.”

This figure, a stylized mother and child, was one of his last works. He was killed in 1915.

If troops did appear cheerful, they may simply have been drunk. “The 1914–1918 war made everyone drunk,” Gertrude Stein wrote. “There was never so much drunkenness in France as there was then, soldiers all learned to drink, everybody drank.” Just as Gallieni intuited that taxi drivers might cooperate more readily when supplied with the rough vin rouge known as pinard, officers in the trenches understood their men needed alcohol to sustain their morale and find the courage to go “over the top.” A postcard intended for circulation strictly among the troops showed a grinning old soldier clutching six bottles of looted pinard. “With this,” he says, “we’ll give them a good hosing.”

Each poilu carried two 1-liter bidons, or canteens. One generally held water mixed with red wine. The second contained tafia, a cheap rum from Haiti, distilled from molasses after the sugar’s been extracted. Quality rum was aged in wooden casks to improve the flavor and disperse such poisons as fusel oil. In the process, it lost some of its alcohol. Tafia, sold straight from the still, retained all the impurities, as well as a ferociously high alcohol content: in most cases 100 proof—60 percent alcohol. The test of potency was simple. One mixed a few spoonfuls with gunpowder and dropped in a match. If it was the good stuff, it exploded.

According to a history of Haiti, “This rough spirit without finesse was nevertheless effective in its principal objective: to get pirates and the first colonists drunk.” It did as good a job for the poilus. Officers not only encouraged drinking tafia before an attack but sometimes doled out what they called un gout de rendre fou—a drop to make you crazy. American Eugene Bullard, fighting in the Foreign Legion, agreed. “It made us more like madmen than soldiers.”

Though the United States remained neutral until 1917, plenty of Francophiles volunteered earlier. Princeton alone sent 181 recruits, thanks to Presbyterian pastor Sylvester Beach, a former chaplain to Paris’s American Cathedral. He hung Old Glory over the pulpit each Sunday and led his congregation in singing “America the Beautiful.” “In Princeton, we are all for war,” he announced. Inspired, his daughter Sylvia, living in Paris, volunteered as an agricultural worker, freeing a farmer’s son to fight at the front. Back in Paris after the war, she opened the English-language bookshop Shakespeare & Company, which became an informal clubhouse for former volunteers who returned to France as the nucleus of an expatriate literary community.

Americans in Britain donated ambulances, and men came from the United States to drive them. As well as Ernest Hemingway, they included Harry Crosby, e.e. cummings, Dashiell Hammett, and John Dos Passos, all later successful writers, and also one Walter Elias Disney, who found fame in another branch of the arts. Aside from A Farewell to Arms, the war produced scores of novels, hundreds of short stories, and unmeasured quantities of verse. Cummings’s imprisonment by the French for three months in an administrative boondoggle inspired his novel The Enormous Room.Harry Crosby, emerging without a scratch from a front where all his friends died, frenziedly celebrated his good fortune in Paris. He and his wife Caresse electrified the city throughout the 1920s and, almost as an afterthought, launched the tradition of Paris expat publishing with their Black Sun Press.

Following a spate of panicky withdrawals from banks after mobilization, the French government froze all movements of funds in and out of France. Banks wouldn’t cash foreign checks or travelers’ checks or convert any currency. Even people with French bank accounts could withdraw only 5 percent of their balance, up to 250 francs. Those with a letter of credit were restricted to 25 pounds. “Nobody had any money,” complained Nina Hamnett. “Paper money was refused everywhere. Only gold and silver were accepted.”

The moratorium blocked those payments from home that kept many expats alive. At the same time, casual jobs dried up. The disappearance of tourists killed the market for guides, translators, even “dance partners”—gigolos. Nobody wanted English lessons anymore, and the need for relief waiters and plongeurs—dishwashers—shrank. With memories of how taxis had saved the city, the police also began confiscating private cars, putting chauffeurs, many of them foreigners, out of work.

The Chinese embassy on Avenue George V, just off the Champs-Elysées, must have appeared provocatively prosperous to the city’s hungry Chinese students. Sixty of them invaded it that August, to find the ambassador enjoying his dinner. The sight of all that food was too much. They politely ate his meal, then emptied the kitchen. The ambassador, who had been inclined to shrug off their plight, hastily cabled Beijing for additional funds to feed hungry nationals.

Police commandeering private cars, 1914

In Montparnasse, foreigners rallied round to support one another. The Russian painter Marie Vassilieff was more systematic than most. According to Nina Hamnett, “she started dinners in her studio at one franc fifty, with one Caporal Bleu cigarette and one glass of wine thrown in. We all went every evening and Modigliani too. A Swiss painter did the cooking.” Along with other British nationals, Hamnett scraped together enough money to get to Dieppe, where ferries left for England. As none were running, the Brits were stuck there, often completely broke. Hamnett stayed in a cheap hotel with a whole girls’ school, trapped on their way back from a tour of Switzerland. She lived on bread and cheese until boats began to run again. Arriving in Folkestone, she didn’t have the money for a train to London. Fortunately, the British capacity for handling domestic disaster was unimpaired; stranded passengers were given tickets and billed later.

In the first fervor of what looked like imminent victory, the hastily organized national groups that paraded with the French reservists had looked noble and inspiring. That rosy impression faded in the darker days of December as the ministry of war realized that amateurs, however well-meaning, might be more trouble than they were worth. Accordingly, it informed all foreigners who wished to fight that they would have to join the Foreign Legion, but that, in any event, enlistment couldn’t begin until all French reservists were settled into their units.

In response, some formed private militias, hoping that disciplined well-drilled recruits would be more attractive to the army. Stranded Americans welcomed news of an American Volunteer Corps, members of which would be paid and, more important, fed. Recruitment began in a shop front under the colonnades of the Palais Royale. Today these former gardens of Prince Louis Philippe II, head of the Bourbon family, are a place of serene beauty, housing the Ministry of Culture and some of the most expensive boutiques in Paris. In 1914, however, the arcades surrounding them had deteriorated into a seedy backwater of crooked gambling clubs and a “meat rack” for prostitutes. Nevertheless, there was space in the gardens for troops to assemble, and for the American Volunteer Corps to parade and drill.

A journalist looking for the Corps’ headquarters found it “crowded in between the shops of questionable jewelers and questionable booksellers.” A limp American flag hung outside. Inside, three men distributed application forms to potential recruits. Some of the latter frowned over questions like “Why are you volunteering?”

“Because you love France,” the journalist suggested, “and want to help in preserving her as the beacon-light of civilization?”

The recruit gratefully wrote this down, was signed up, and ordered to present himself at 8:00 a.m. every morning for drill. Only then did he ask the most important question.

“When is the grub going to begin on this deal?”

The American Volunteer Force faded away when the French army opened applications for the Foreign Legion. Tens of thousands applied, but only six hundred Americans were accepted. The small number suggests a calculated snub, particularly since it included men from South American countries and a few African Americans who chose not to enlist in the U.S. Army, since they were not, during the early days of the war, allowed into combat but used almost entirely as laborers. Among those accepted by the Legion was Eugene Bullard, a former boxer from Ohio who later became the first African American air ace.

Other than the trickle of volunteers for ambulance and other noncombatant services, the United States would stay out of the war for three years. In 1914, those Americans destined to become its most famous combatants hardly knew the war was taking place. General John Pershing, later to command the American Expeditionary Force, was patrolling the Mexican border, chasing bandit Pancho Villa. He only took over the AEF when his predecessor died suddenly. Future air ace Eddie Rickenbacker hadn’t even learned to fly. Alvin York was a drunken logger and railway worker in the backwoods of Tennessee. When he registered for the draft in 1917, the man who would become a legend for silencing 32 machine guns, killing 28 Germans, and capturing 132 more, cited religious objections to the war, scrawling laboriously on the recruitment form “Don’t Want To Fight.”

For three years, the promise of American manpower, industry, and above all money hung tantalizingly on the horizon, inspiring Europeans to both desire and despair. “God damn them!” wrote one exasperated critic. “Are they ever coming in? With their beautiful vainglorious talk. When is it reasonable to think the Americans will be able to put in that immense army of three million, fully equipped, each man with a hair mattress, a hot water bottle, a gramophone and a medicine chest?” It wasn’t until German submarines began systematic attacks on its shipping that, in April 1917, the United States reluctantly went to war. Even then, it was many months before its troops were ready to fight in France. Until they did, they clashed with British and Australian troops already fighting for two years or more and aggrieved by Russia’s withdrawal. An Australian gunner wrote home in November 1917:

What do you think of Russia. The rotters have left us in the muck. They are worse than our strike leaders. Never mind Wait till the “Yanks” start. According to their guessing etc they intend to finish the business when they start. They can’t beat our boys anyhow & they take care to keep their guessing to themselves when any are about. Half a dozen got poking muck at one of our infantry boys & he bogged right in & mixed things up till they cleared out.

Meanwhile, American volunteers drove ambulances or ammunition trucks and observed the war like the tourists who would follow them after 1918. Malcolm Cowley described a moment when his unit found itself caught between French and German artillery. They took refuge in the grounds of an old château while shells roared overhead, “as if we were underneath a freight yard where heavy trains were being shunted back and forth.” Cowley’s evocation of the moment, except for the implication of some remote risk of injury and death, would not be out of place in any memoir of travel in rural France.

We looked indifferently at the lake, now empty of swans, and the formal statues chipped by machine-gun fire, and talked in quiet voices—about Mallarmé, the Russian ballet, the respective virtues of two college magazines. On the steps of the château, in the last dim sunlight, a red-faced boy from Harvard was studying Russian out of a French text-book. Four other gentlemen volunteers were rolling dice on an outspread blanket. A French artillery brigade on a hillside nearby—rapid firing 75s—was laying down a barrage; the guns flashed like fireflies among the trees.

If only someone had thought to bring a guitar.

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