"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 10: World War One (1914-1918)
At first, the war was strictly a European affair. For many years there had been trouble between the Germanic people (Teutons) of Germany and Austria, and the Slavs of Russia and the Balkan countries. The trouble erupted into war when, in June, 1914, a Bosnian Serb assassinated Austrian Crown Prince Archduke Francis Ferdinand. In July, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, and the conflict began. Russia mobilized its troops, threatening Austria, and Germany, siding with Austria, declared war on Russia. Other European countries took sides along ethnic lines and soon the stage was all set for a full-scale war. France and Belgium chose to remain neutral, as did England, provided Germany respected their neutrality. But Germany, wanting additional territory and resources, overran Belgium and France, so England became involved also.
For what must have been a couple of years, land armies of the two sides surged back and forth across Europe, and the Germans invaded and occupied Paris. At sea, a different kind of war was in progress. There were British warships out there, and German submarines were torpedoing and sinking them at an alarming rate. And since supplies for Britain came solely by sea, British cargo ships were attacked and sunk also. Eventually, though, the British learned to cope with the submarines, sinking them with "depth charges" and submarines of their own. Then the frustrated Germans announced, in February, 1917, that henceforth German submarines would sink all ships its fleet encountered, regardless of nationality or destination. This, of course, threatened United States shipping, and in April, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson, who had been elected on his promise to keep our country out of the conflict, declared war on Germany.
In Tomahawk, before 1917, the war seemed far, far away. True, the newspapers had big headlines, and there was a daily map showing the positions and progress (or retreat) of allied forces. United States involvement changed everything. A selective service law was passed, and every male between twenty-one and thirty was required to register. The next year this was expanded to include ages eighteen to forty-five. My Dad registered (he was forty-two), but wasn't drafted, probably because of me! Elmer Bergquist, the elder of the two brothers who had bought one of Dad's motor boats, was drafted and was sent to Camp Douglas, in southern Wisconsin, for training. The war ended before he was scheduled to go overseas, so before long he was home again.
Even before the United States was involved, the war managed to give my mother an uncomfortable moment. She was visiting Mrs. John Lambert (of the Lamberts who owned the vacant lots next door), when Mr. Lambert, a true blue Frenchman who had been reading the account of the war in his newspaper, exploded with: "Those damned German dogs!" Mother, a full-blooded German, was incensed and came home in a "huff", saying: "He should have known better than that!"
Some household commodities became scarce. Sugar and white flour were rationed, so Mother bought a sack of "Graham" flour, which was merely whole wheat flour. And with that flour she made the best tasting bread I have ever eaten, and when it was toasted it was out of this world! I was really disappointed when white flour became available again after the war.
One day word got around Tomahawk that there was to be an aluminum drive. Every household was asked to donate all but its most essential aluminum pots and pans, so the collected aluminum could be recycled into airplane engines used in the Curtiss and Nieuport fighter planes which were battling German planes in "dog-fights" in the air over France. I think we donated a pan or two, but never did know how much aluminum was collected.
Then, in the winter of 1917, the Red Cross recruited volunteers who could knit wool helmets, socks and gloves for the "doughboys" who were spending the winter in the trenches in frigid, wintry Europe. Mother joined this effort and soon we had a miniature "knitting mill" in our dining room. The wool came from the Merrill Woolen Mills (in Merrill, Wisconsin, of course) and arrived in big boxes as bulk wool, all dyed to that familiar khaki army uniform color. First, the wool had to be "carded." This was essentially a combing process in which the wool was loosened and straightened by using a pair of brushlike "cards" with short steel "bristles." After quite a quantity had been carded, Mother got out her spinning wheel, which I think had been her mother's, and which Carol now has. So Mother spun the wool into yarn, while I carded, and Dad carded, and when we couldn't keep up with the spinning wheel, Mom carded too.
After the wool was spun, it was ready to be turned into the finished products. So in every spare moment, Mother sat by the dining room windows and knitted wool helmets, socks and gloves for our soldiers overseas. And I knitted too! Something a lot easier, though. I confined my knitting efforts to wool scarves, which, being straight and simple, were within my knitting capabilities! Not all the yarn arrived in bulk. Sometimes it came already spun, in "skeins", and then I had a different kind of job. My arms and hands became an animated rack which held skeins of yarn to prevent tangling, while Mom wound it into balls. My arms are still tired! This Red Cross knitting program produced over fourteen million wool garments for American soldiers and sailors!
By July, 1918, there were over a million United States soldiers in Europe, and the Germans were retreating. By late fall they had been defeated, and an armistice was signed, ending the war. The exact time of this signing is easy to remember, because it was at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918! So the American army came home, having lost over fifty thousand men in battles which helped win the war.
But now the country faced another more deadly enemy, "Spanish" influenza. Millions of Americans became ill with this disease, and over half a million of them died from it. (Ten times the World War I casualty figure.) I remember going to school with a cloth mask over my face, to protect me from the "germs." Some people wore smelly bags of asafetida for the same purpose, and which didn't work either. Mother was quite ill with the "flu", but Dad and I didn't have it.