Thursday, October 2, 2014

My Steadfast Tin Soldier, a Sequel

Two Family Relics found during construction
As promised at the close of last week's blog (See "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," 9-25-2014), the discovery of a W.W. I toy soldier opened my mind to the significance of that period of history to my family.  The photograph at right shows the toy soldier beside a glass vase also discovered in the soil as Smiley Concrete crew did their work at our homesite.  (The bouquet is a road-side arrangement I gathered a few steps from the house.)

By chance, I had just begun reading a book titled The Secret Rooms, A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, and a Family Secret, which I had purchased because it dealt with Belvoir Castle.  The small village of Branston was part of the Belvoir Estate in Leicestershire, and my grandmother, Lillian Hall, had been born in one of the cottages belonging to the Duke of Rutland in that village.  Generations of the Hall family had lived on the Duke's Estate before my great-grandfather George Hall immigrated to America with his family in 1882, and he continued to correspond and visit with family in England.

Belvoir Castle photographed by LBF during visit to Branston
It was coincidence that the discovery of the little W.W. I soldier at the farm occurred just as I had begun to read the book by Catherine Bailey about the impact of that war on the 9th Duke of Rutland and the tenants of the Belvoir Estate.  The toy soldier had awakened my appreciation for how the war must have impacted my great-grandparents and my grandmother, so imagine my response to this passage in the book:  "...John's [the 9th Duke] regiment had incurred appalling casualties.  On 13 October 1915--the day the North Midlands had lost a quarter of their strength--the Leicestershires had suffered 820 casualties:  the equivalent, almost, of an entire battalion.  Twenty of John's fellow officers had been killed or wounded.  ...  A significant proportion of the regiment's casualties had come from villages on the Belvoir estate.  They were the sons of the butcher, the blacksmith, the postmaster--and the sons of gamekeepers, farmers, estate workers and tenants.  John's father, Henry, the 8th Duke of Rutland, had been Honorary Colonel of two of the regiment's battalions; he had personally recruited a large number of the soldiers."  My great-great grandfather William Hall had been a gardner at the duke's castle!

In July 1915, according to author Catherine Bailey, "...the Lincoln and Leicester Brigade--recruited from the Duke's Leicestershire estates--had lost seventy-five men after a mine exploded under their trenches."  My personal genealogy records of my Hall family do not reflect any names connected with these tragic dates; however, my ancestors must have known several of the soldiers killed or wounded during the battles during W.W. I.

British W.W. I Recruiting Poster
It was not just soldiers who suffered during the war, however. The first Zeppelin raids on England occurred in January of 1915, and the first raid against London occurred on the 31st of May that year.  The psychological effect had more impact than any military advantage.  The raids continued in 1916, and they were reaching into the Midlands beyond London to the north and northeast.  There were only four Zeppelin raids in 1918, and all were against targets in the Midlands and the north.

During a visit to Branston with our mothers, my husband and I had paused in Coventry along the way.  In 1918 Coventry was one of the bombing sites struck by the Zeppelin raids, targeted by mistake in the belief that it was Birmingham.  Obviously, there was reason for fear not only in London but also in villages like those of my own ancestors.

The mention of recruitment of soldiers from the Belvoir Estate by the 8th Duke of Rutland is an example of how volunteers were drawn from local populations.  These recruits then trained together and were assigned to the same units, creating so-called "Pals battalions."  The obvious result was that when one of these battalions suffered huge casualties, entire villages, neighborhoods, and towns suffered disproportionately.  Beginning in January of 1916 with conscription, Pals battalions were no longer raised as before.

Soldiers in KS being treated for the Influenza Pandemic 
 For three years, the United States remained officially neutral, but on April 17, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson committed the US to the war.  By the time W.W. I ended, more than 4-million "Doughboys" had served, with half of them participating overseas.  Government records indicate that "over 25% of the entire male population of the country between the ages of 18 and 31 were in military service."  My little toy soldier was created to depict the service of those men.

The photograph at right was taken of soldiers from Fort Riley, KS being treated for Influenza at the hospital ward at Camp Funston.  This pandemic, often called the Spanish flu, came in 3 waves--Spring 1918, Autumn 1918, and Winter 1919.)  It is called the Spanish Flu not because it originated there but rather because wartime censors minimized reports of the devastating flu to protect morale.  Spain was not engaged in the fighting and their press was free to describe the epidemic's grave impact, giving the false impression that it originated there or was worse in that country.  The result was the pandemic being commonly referred to as the Spanish flu.

1st Edition Cover of Porter's book
It is not certain where the flu originated, but in the US it was first noticed in Haskell County, KS.  It is also theorized that Chinese laborers brought to work behind the British and French lines were the source.  The crowded conditions, malnourishment, and other wartime factors did cause it to spread among soldiers rapidly.  Ironically, death was more likely to occur among healthy young adults for this reason:  their stronger immune systems  attacked the virus and destroyed their own bodies, whereas the weaker immune systems of children and adults of middle age and older did less fatal harm while battling the virus, allowing them to recover.  Of course, this did not bode well for young soldiers.

It is estimated that between 50 and 100 million deaths occurred in 1918 and 1919 as a result of the flu, and the deaths were world wide, perhaps as many as 1 of every 18 people.  An interesting website created by titled "The 'Spanish' Influenza pandemic and its relation to World War I," has a computer model of the pandemic that allows the selection of variables, such as 'American troop movements' and 'Armistice celebrations' to be changed to see how various conditions may have impacted the spread of the disease.  At any rate, the pandemic paid no regard to national boundaries nor military allegiances in its deadly spread.

It is amazing to me that history that defined an era is so quickly forgotten by future generations.  Yet, I confess that I was not aware of the Spanish Flu Pandemic until after the Millennium when I launched my Great Books Reading Project.  Pale Horse, Pale Rider was one of the books I included on my list of must-read books, and that is where I first learned of the pandemic during W.W. I.  I recommend a feature titled "Why Libraries Should Stock 'Pale Horse, Pale Rider," at which captures my feelings about the importance of Katherine Anne Porter's book.  The novella involves a romance between a young woman in love with a young man who returns her great affection but feels duty-bound to become a soldier.  While she fears his death on the battlefield, it is influenza that defeats him.  Author and university professor Alice McDermott concludes her above-cited essay with these words:  "Porter herself wrote that the arts 'are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.'  We discard voices such as hers [Porter's] at our peril."  As I did the research for this blog, Porter's book, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, sprang to mind, and I wanted to share its significance and recommend it to those who read my blog.

What an amazing journey the little steadfast soldier who waited in the dark earth for nearly a century to be discovered has inspired me to take.  I hope you have enjoyed coming along with me in experiencing those dangerous times in the world's history during the Great War meant to end all wars.  It may also help you to understand the worry and sacrifices your own ancestors endured during that time.  Sharing this story seems particularly relevant in our own war-weary world now facing its own pandemic.  


The Blog Fodder said...

I did not know why it was called Spanish flu. It gets mentioned every time there is a serious flu outbreak as sort of the benchmark against which epidemics are measured.
Amazing set of coincidences, I will say.

Bill Parker said...

Enjoy your blogs Lynda. Keep up the good work.