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100 Years Ago: March 1918

This is the thirty-eighth installment in my series of short reviews of 100-year-old National Geographic Magazines.

The first article in this issue is entitled “The Health and Morale of America’s Citizen Army”. It was written by William Howard Taft, the former President of the United States and the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It has the subtitle, “Personal Observations of Conditions in Our Soldier Cities by a Former Commander-in-Chief of the United States Army and Navy”. It contains 22 black-and-white photographs of which 11 are full-page in size.

Upon receiving reports concerning the conditions in the Army cantonments and the morale of the drafted men they contained, President Taft decided to tour all sixteen cantonments and decide for himself as to the validity of these reports. One of the Soldier Cities was located on the Pacific coast and could not be reached. Another was excluded due to it being under quarantine. Replacing them were a National Guard camp, in Alabama, and the sole naval cantonment, north of Chicago.

From New Year’s Day through February 20, he toured all sixteen camps, giving a total of fifty speeches of an hour or more to the men. In these addresses he argued the case of the United States against Germany, mainly the sinking of our commercial vessels and the murder of 200 of our citizens in those actions. He then went into the more general argument, presenting the case of the world against Germany. Mainly this revolved around that country’s lust for world power through conquest.

Taft finished his presentations by stressing the need for discipline, starting with the necessity of the salute. He sought to win sympathy with the men by referencing the fact that his own son is an enlisted man in the field artillery.

He then discusses what he found in regards to the conditions of the camps and the morale of the men. While early on the camps were incomplete and disorganized, by the time of President Taft’s tour, these bugs had been worked out and, as a result, the morale had significantly improved. He then researches and reports on the health of the enlistees, comparing the mortality rate favorably to the Army of the past. He touches on the cost of the rapidly-built cities and their accompanying overruns. He puts the final bill for the 32 cities and their associated facilities at $200 million.

As to the health conditions in the camps, Taft found that while it was better in the northern camps overall, they are so much better than they had ever been in the past. He then points to the success of the selective draft law and stresses the need to increase the size of the Army from 1.5 million to 5 million or more. This need is mainly due to the disintegration of the Russian army. He ends the article with confidence that we will win the war, thanks in no small part to the training being done at our Soldier Cities.

The second article is entitled “Voyaging on the Volga Amid War and Revolution”. It was written by William T. Ellis and has the subtitle “War-time Sketches on Russia’s Great Waterway”. It contains 16 black-and-white photographs, none of them full-page.

With the author needing to reach the Caucasus from his post in Petrograd and Moscow, he took the opportunity, in August 1917, to take the circuitous route of the river and get “impressions of the people that were clearer than those obtained in the two chief cities”. At 2,305 miles in length, the Volga is the longest river in Europe. It starts in the north near Petrograd, with which it is connected by a canal and the River Neva, thus linked to the Gulf of Finland. It courses through a watershed three times the size of France and empties through a wide delta into the Caspian Sea, the largest inland sea in the world.

His journey down the river starts in Nizhni Novgorod, a city famous for its annual fair. Due to the war, instead of the great bazaar hosting merchants from across Europe and Asia, the city is virtually deserted. In spite of the fact that the Nizhni Fair is no more, traffic on the Volga is growing with it being an integral part of Russia’s transportation system. Barges of cotton from Persia, Oil tankers from Baku, and huge rafts of lumber are just a few of the sights along the river.

The author writes extensively about the many people he observed along his journey. His fellow passengers included peasants of many ethnicities from Slav to Mongol, Semite to Persian, and many other peoples. They traveled in groups, often with their pigs and chickens in tow. They also seemed to be always eating. As an “Americanski”, he was well respected and treated in the highest regard by all he met.

Another group of passengers he observed were the numerous soldiers riding, with free passage, here and there. With the collapse of the Russian Army, these soldiers are apparently leaderless and are doing what ever they want and going wherever they please. The Bolshevik influence upon the countryside is very apparent along the Volga, with a half-dozen towns declaring their independence from Moscow.

He ends the article with the hope that, while the Russian people are currently adrift, that they will one day emerge into “a great and purposeful and brotherly national life.”

The third article is entitled “The Isle of Frankincense”, and was written by Charles K. Moser, formerly the U.S. Consul-General to Aden, Arabia. It contains eleven black-and-white photographs, of which two are full-page in size.

The article is about the island of Socotra, a 73-mile long by 35-mile wide fragment splintered from Africa. In ancient times, this island and the southern Hadramaut in Arabia produced all the Frankincense in the world. Today, the largest supplier is the Warsangli country, in Somaliland.

The author was fortunate enough to be able to join a British political mission to the island. For many months he had been endeavoring to secure some Frankincense trees for the Bureau of Plant Industry at Washington. This trip was his opportunity to do just that.

While the political mission hit a snag when the island’s Sultan refused to meet with them, Mr. Moser, with the help of some British officers, was able to procure camels, donkeys, and men for his expedition inland. The tree from which the Frankincense resin is extracted grows in the higher elevations of the island’s mountain range.

The caravan succeeded in reaching some trees about 3,000 feet up, but they were all too large to be dug up and transported. Running short of time, he offered a reward to any of the men who could go further up the mountain and bring back some smaller, live specimens. Two men returned with trees small enough to be transported by the ship.

Mr. Moser wasted no time bringing his prizes back to the harbor. After getting the trees on the ship, planted in large packing cases half filled with their native earth, the author was looking forward to having them flourish in their future home, Arizona.

Article number four is entitled “A Unique Republic, Where Smuggling Is an Industry”. It was written by Herbert Corey, the author of several other wartime articles from Europe including “On the Monastir Road” and “Shopping Abroad for Our Army in France” among others. The article contains sixteen black-and-white photographs, with seven being the full-page variety. It also contains a sketch map of Spain showing the location of Andorra, the subject of this article.

Map Courtesy of Philip Riviere

While the article purports to be about Andorra, the first half of the article is about Llivia, a Spanish enclave inside France and connected to Spain proper by a neutral dirt road. Travelling by mule-drawn cart from Barcelona, the author made his way through Spain, a country that “drips with spies”, to the French border, a bit east of Andorra. Here he was helped in reaching Llivia by the locals with papers attesting that he was Spanish, and traveling companions who vouched for him and did all the talking.

Back in the seventeenth century Spain lost a war with France and was forced to cede 33 villages and the lands around them to the victory. When the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed, they “rued back” Llivia on the plea that it was a town and not a village. France agreed and Llivia is now a Spanish town within France.

While the people in Spain were friendly and helpful, the residents of Llivia were suspicious of strangers and live with kind of a siege mentality. This is probably due to them being surrounded by France. Even its architecture is designed to withstand an attach, at least by medieval weapons.

After this rather long detour, it was on to Andorra, a republic that dates back to the time a Charlemagne. It measures 25 miles by 20 miles on the crest of the Pyrenees Mountains. Andorra has a total population of about 6,000 people. Even Napoleon said that “it is a political curiosity. It must be preserved.”

While Andorra smuggles at the best of times, now with the war, they are “reaping a golden harvest”. With war-torn France in need of everything Andorra can furnish, the smuggling industry is in overdrive. The chief traffic is in Spanish mules. These pack animals are in great need in France for the war effort.

The author arrived in St. Julian de Loria, the first Andorran village, on a fete day. The public square had been decked with greenery. Peasants were dressed in the fete-day costumes of the hills. A violinist in finery from Barcelona played. But even during the festivities, the “contrabandista” were busy packing their mules for the trip to France.

On his way back to Spain, the author conversed with a priest who said, “The winter is hard and very cold and my people are so poor. But for smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

The fifth, and last, article in this issue is entitled “Plain Tales from the Trenches” with the subtitle “As Told Over the Tea Table in Blighty – A Soldiers’ “Home” in Paris”. It was written by Carol K. Corey, the author of “From the Trenches to Versailles”. It contains seven black-and-white photographs, none of which are full-page in size.

Ms. Corey relates the tales and small talk of the troops in Paris on R&R from the front. Her tea house serves all English-speaking servicemen be they “Tommy” or “Canuck”, “Scotty” or “Aussie”. New Zealanders refer to themselves as “Pig Islanders”, while the French Canadians are just called “Pierre”. Over tea and cake, these hardened warriors get to vent off steam or just enjoy the peacefulness of the moment.

One after the other, she tells of each encounter she had during one day at the tea house. The conversations ranged from personal to humorous. Some bitterness and some lustfulness show through, but mostly there is the gratitude of being in Paris away from the war.

Tom Wilson

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Near and dear to my heart - thanks Tom!



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