Tag Archives: First World War

The Madness Begins~July 28, 1914

reading the news of the start of war

reading the news of the start of war

At 11:10 A.M. on July 28, 1914, Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian Minister for Foreign Affairs, sent the following telegram from Vienna to M. N. Pashitch, Serbian Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs. This declaration of war was received at Nish at 12:30 P.M.:  “The Royal Serbian Government not having answered in a satisfactory manner the note of July 23, 1914, presented by the Austro-Hungarian Minister at Belgrade, the Imperial and Royal Government are themselves compelled to see to the safeguarding of their rights and interests, and, with this object, to have recourse to force of arms. Austria-Hungary consequently considers herself henceforward in state of war with Serbia.”

Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria

Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria


I Owe a Duty to My Country~December 1863~18th to 21st

I Owe a Duty to My Country~ Elisha Hunt Rhodes

President Lincoln attends a lecture about Russia, receives the visiting Russian naval officers and issues assurances that escaped slaves will not be returned to slavery. President Davis assures one of his generals about the size of the enemy army. General Grant is generating excitement in the North, particularly in Washington. The Sanitary Commission prospers. Soldiers write about camp life. In Europe a noble child is born. A little of over fifty years hence his murder will thrust the world into the worst war yet known.

December 18– Friday– Washington, D.C.– President Lincoln attends a lecture on Russia given by Bayard Taylor at Willard’s Hall. [Taylor, age 38, has achieved renown as an author, poet, translator, traveler, and journalist, having by this point in his life spent time in sixteen countries on four continents. He published his first volume of verse at age 19. From May, 1862 to September, 1863, he served as part of the American delegation to the Imperial Russian Court. He is fluent in several languages.]


Bayard Taylor

Bayard Taylor

December 18– Friday– Graz, Austria– Birth of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria. He is the eldest son of Archduke Karl Ludwig and Princess Maria Annunciata, and a nephew to Maximillian who is trying to establish an empire in Mexico. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 will help to precipitate the First Word War.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

December 19– Saturday– New York City– “. . . the Sanitary Commission . . . . we used to talk of what we could do if we could only hope to secure fifty thousand dollars for our treasury. I have already received about nine hundred and twenty thousand dollars, and our branches at Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and other cities have doubtless received as much more.” ~ Diary of George Templeton Strong. [The $920,000 would be about $17,400,000 in today’s dollars, based upon the Consumer Price Index.]

December 19–Saturday– Washington, D.C.– President and Mrs Lincoln host a reception this afternoon at the White House for the visiting officers of the Russian navy. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles notes, “There was a reception to-day from one to three at the President’s. Went over for an hour. Several of the Cabinet, most of the foreign ministers, judges of the Supreme Court, and a gay assemblage of ladies . . . were present.”

Russian naval officers

Russian naval officers

December 19– Saturday– Orange Court House, Virginia– “I am most happy to have this opportunity to write you again. Christmas is near at hand & today finds me in the cold. We are building winter huts but I am afraid that I will not have a cabin to go in to at Christmas . . . working hard to get it done. I had hoped to spend this Christmas with you all but there is no such thing as that now. Adam will not get off either I wish he could get off but he and I will both get furloughs before the winter is over if they continue to give furloughs.” ~ Letter from Confederate soldier Silas Jones to his friend George Kersh.

December 19– Saturday– Richmond, Virginia– “The force of the enemy as estimated by scouts is generally exaggerated. I hope it has been so in this case & if it should be possible to restore confidence among our own people, I trust that desertions will cease and that recruits will flock to your standard. The evacuation of the valley of the Arkansas no doubt produced, as usual in such cases, desertions from the troops raised in that quarter. If the chances of war should enable you to reoccupy it those men would doubtless return to you. But the reoccupation has a higher importance than this– that is the only region where you can obtain the requisite supplies to support an army for the defense of Arkansas or for an advance into Missouri.” ~ Letter from President Jeff Davis to General Kirby Smith.

December 19– Saturday– Richmond, Virginia– “Allegheny College. An effort is being made to purchase the Blue Sulphur Springs property as the seat of this College, and further establishing a fund which shall be devoted to the education of the children of soldiers killed in the service, and of young men who have been disabled in our defense. An agent of the institution is visiting the cities and towns of Virginia to accomplish this praiseworthy object.” ~ Richmond Daily Dispatch. [Blue Sulphur Springs lies in West Virginia, a separation which Virginia did not yet recognize.]

December 19– Saturday– near Bean’s Station, Tennessee– “Having witnessed a good deal of the operations of what are known as partisan rangers, I have the honor to petition that all such organizations be abolished. They are usually, so far as my experience has gone, the most trifling troops we have. Acting alone, they accomplish nothing, and when serving with other troops they hang upon the rear to gather up property, and instead of turning it into the proper departments, spirit it away for speculation. Besides, it is evident injustice to the great mass of the army for a small part to be allowed pay for partial captures, while those who do the real work have no special reward. It will create great satisfaction to have all the troops put on the same footing.” ~ Request from Confederate General R Ransom to the War Department in Richmond.

December 19– Saturday– St Andrew’s Bay, Florida–Union forces destroy a number of businesses and about 300 homes in the town.

December 20– Sunday– Washington, D.C.– “I shall not attempt to retract or modify the emancipation proclamation; nor shall I return to slavery any person who is free by the terms of that proclamation, or by any of the acts of Congress.” ~ Response of President Lincoln to Henry C. Wright. [Wight, age 66, is a radical abolitionist, feminist, pacifist and anarchist who had voiced concern that to make peace or as part of the President’s offer of amnesty, that freed black people would be returned to slavery.]

December 20– Sunday– General Longstreet’s camp in eastern Tennessee– “Molly, I may fall one day but if I do I intend by the grace of God to fall in the discharge of my duty and with my face towards heaven and, if it must be so, God grant us a happy meeting there. I would to God I could meet you again on earth.” ~ Letter from Confederate soldier William R Stilwell to his wife Molly.

December 20– Sunday– Prospect, Tennessee– “During the day an incident occurred which shows how many things hard to bear occur during war time. The top of the hill where we are building the Fort has been used by the inhabitants as a Grave Yard, of the course of the ditch takes necessarily disturbs many of the Graves. Last August a year ago a man was buried there by the name of Allen, close to the right of our Sally Port, and where the Grave would be covered by the extreme left of the Breastwork. While waiting there yesterday morning his widow came to beg us to allow her to have her husband’s body removed, so that she could have it buried in some place where it would not likely be disturbed, for she could not bear the thought of a fight taking place over her husband’s grave. It seemed that when Allen died, she herself was sick and had not seen him either during illness or after death. The Colonel very kindly detailed 4 men to take the body up and then seized of my wagons to haul it off. I went with the Detail and helped rebury the poor fellow and shall [not] forget the gratitude of the poor woman. She said she did not think the Yankees could be so kind. She took down all the names of the Squad who helped her, that she might pray for them, and promised me she would pray for me and my wife and children. So if a rebel’s prayers are any account I suppose I shall gain something by it. But best of she got us a good dinner. We had Fried Sausage, Roast & Boiled Pork, Head cheese, Peach Pies and Sweet milk and an invitation to go and see her whenever we could get leave. As I commanded the squad of course I came in for a double share of thanks and invitations, but as she is 60 years old you need not get jealous.” ~ Letter from Union soldier George Cadman to his wife and family.

December 21– Monday– Boston, Massachusetts– “I have been to see about getting together a package of books for you, but the booksellers are so busy it will be several days before I can get them packed and sent. Let me hear from you. I write in haste with numb fingers– it is bitter cold here today.” ~ Letter from John T. Trowbridge to Walt Whitman.

December 21– Monday– Washington, D.C.– “Be it resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the thanks of Congress be, and they hereby are, presented to Major-General Ulysses S. Grant, and through him to the officers and soldiers who have fought under his command during this rebellion, for their gallantry and good conduct in the battles in which they have been engaged; and that the President of the United States be requested to cause a gold medal to be struck, with suitable emblems, devices, and inscriptions, to be presented to Major-General Grant.” ~ President Lincoln issues an executive order to put into effect the joint resolution which passed Congress on Thursday the 17th.

General Grant

General Grant

December 21– Monday– Camp Sedgwick, Virginia– “We are quiet in our winter quarters . . . . We drill when the weather will permit and sleep and smoke when it storms. We have received a number of recruits and about one hundred drafted men who look a little lonesome. . . . . The United States need the services of her sons. I am young and in good health and I feel that I owe a duty to my country. . . . . I like a soldier’s life and without egotism I think I can say that I am doing some service. . . . . so good bye homesickness. I am going, if God wills, to see the end of this wicked rebellion.” ~ Diary of Union officer Elisha Hunt Rhodes.

December 21– Monday– Richmond, Virginia– “Such is the scarcity of provisions, that rats and mice have mostly disappeared, and the cats can hardly be kept off the table.” ~ Diary of John Jones.

December 21– Monday– the Dismal Swamp, Virginia– A squad of black soldiers serving under Union General Edward Wild track a band of Confederate guerrilla fighters into the swamp and burn the Confederate encampment.


Death of an Amazon: The Execution of Mata Hari~1917

On this day in 1917 a beautiful dancer was executed as a spy. Her stage name was Mata Hari. She had been born in Holland and had a difficult marriage to a Dutch army officer which ended in divorce. She earned a reputation in pre-war Paris as an exotic dancer. Men of various nationalities flocked to give her attention. Eventually she was arrested by French authorities and shot as a German spy. The execution took place on the outskirts of Paris just as the sun came up. She was approximately 41 years old. Today there is considerable doubt about her guilt.


Mata Hari

A number of books, over 30, have been written about her and several films made. The recent books at least try for some historical accuracy; the films are sensationalist fiction. It seems to me that some men are shocked–or at least claim to be shocked– by the conduct of women like Mata Hari because they view women as too tender, too gentle, too soft to accomplish such daring feats as being a spy or double agent or even triple agent. And when the woman is quite attractive, such men are readily inclined to sexualize the activities of these women. Somehow this seems to such men to make the women’s conduct “understandable.” For some reason, it seems to me, from early in human history, some males are afraid of Amazons, women who carry a sword or speak their minds or do activities deemed “beyond their proper sphere.” Until all men understand that any woman may be motivated by patriotism or anger or any political reason, I guess we shall endure fantasy and fable about women such as Mata Hari.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the very fictional 1931 film


The best book about the case of Mata Hari is The Fatal Lover: Mata Hari and the Myth of Women in Espionage by the English scholar Julie Wheelwright in 1992. Here is what Kirkus Review said of the book: “While `”Mata Hari” remains synonymous with the femme fatale trading her body for secrets, this readable biography of the original–the Dutch-born exotic dancer executed by the French in 1917 for espionage–argues that she was framed and challenges the whole notion of women agents as sex workers. Margaretha Zelle MacLeod . . . divorced from an abusive Army captain . . . reinvented herself in Paris in 1904. As Hindu temple-dancer “Mata Hari,”she was a sensation, performing almost nude . . . . With her exotic Orientalist persona, her free spending, her penchant for older men in uniform (and her reliance on their monetary gifts), Mata Hari fit the model of celebrated fin-de-siŠcle courtesan–but after the outbreak of WW I, these same attributes made her suspect. Despite months of surveillance, though, French investigators turned up no evidence that Mata Hari had betrayed French interests to Germany. The investigators did malign her for lying about her past, however, and . . . on racial grounds. Meanwhile, according to British author Wheelwright, apparently Mata Hari’s only foray into espionage was on behalf of France, after her future interrogator insincerely recruited her. Wheelwright contends that the wartime culture saw all women (unless clearly passive, chaste, and self- sacrificing) as treacherous; the “international woman” became a symbol of national betrayal. Indeed, court records (sealed for decades) indicate a trumped-up case–a previously reported conclusion that remains overshadowed by legend.”


Mata Hari, dressed in a stage costume, 1910

What follows is an account of her execution as witnessed by a British journalist named Henry Wales. His account was originally published in newspapers through the International News Service on Oct. 19, 1917.Judge for yourself, gentle reader, what kind of person Mata Hari indeed was.


“The first intimation she received that her plea [to the French government for clemency] had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her. Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping- a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties. The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come. ‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her. She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer. Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress. Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly: ‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile. The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up. Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870. The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn. The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth. ‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

 ‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

 Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer. ‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away.

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her. The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over. A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target. She did not move a muscle.

 The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air. It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms. At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Greta Garbo as Mata Hari in the 1931 film

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky. A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman. Mata Hari was surely dead.”