The Great War and the Steel City: World War I turns 100

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 7:48 p.m.

The Great War started unofficially, with a bullet that killed Austro–Hungarian royal Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 — 100 years ago.

In the following weeks, bedlam broke out among the region's greatest powers: Austria–Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914. The next day, Russia, allied with Serbia, mobilized its troops. France and Germany declared war against each other, and as German forces invaded Belgium, Great Britain took up arms against Germany.

By the first week of August, World War I was underway.

While the United States did not join the war until 1917, the roar of the international conflict resounded in Pittsburgh, where the industry and diverse people of the Steel City churned toward a new era.

•••••

In a pocket–sized leather diary he was not supposed to possess, in careful script he was not supposed to write, the North Side native, Sgt. Fred Wertenbach, of the 28th Infantry Division lamented the heritage that linked him to his enemies, and the war that filled him with rage.

"But love is gone from the world," he wrote on Oct. 4, 1918.

"Only comradeship remains. And hate — hate of men, of my own Germanic blood, who would kill and destroy our soul, is everything.”

Today, the frayed journal is stored at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. His words reflect the conflicting cultural and ethnic loyalties that marked the Steel City's role in the Great War, which left about 16.5 million dead and 20 million wounded.

Wertenbach began the diary slightly more than three years after bedlam broke out among Europe's great powers 100 years ago in early August 1914. But the "war to end all wars" reverberated thousands of miles back to Pittsburgh before he put pencil to paper while serving in the U.S. Army.

"Europe was never the same after World War I, and the city of Pittsburgh was never the same," said Elizabeth Williams–Herrman, author of "Pittsburgh in World War I: Arsenal of the Allies" and an archivist at La Roche College in McCandless.

"It was more than just a couple of monuments; it was something that changed people individually.”

MIXED LOYALTIES

The 1910 Census found one in four people among Pittsburgh's nearly 534,000 residents was foreign–born. Germans made up the largest group — about 30,000. Many settled along the Allegheny River's north shore, in the city of Allegheny, which Pittsburgh annexed in 1907.

The war pitted the Austro–Hungarian and German empires against the Allies of Russia, Britain, France and Serbia. At the outset, German–Americans rallied behind their homeland, said Donn Neal, archivist at Smithfield United Church of Christ. The First German Evangelical Protestant Church then, its 600 families raised money and sent care packages to the homeland.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. entry on the side of the Allies three years later, their loyalties turned.

"The church turned on its heel and became fiercely American and patriotic," Neal said. From the congregation, 121 men went to war, five of whom died. Dozens of women joined the American Red Cross. The congregation and its members bought Liberty Bonds worth $500,000.

"No doubt, the main reason for thus maintaining our peaceful relations with our fellow citizens is to be found in the fact that, while we in no (way) abandoned our respect and love for our German forefathers, we were American patriots to the core," wrote Pastor Carl August Voss in 1932.

Yet the city, and the nation, could not shake suspicion of foreign–born residents or their descendents. In 1915, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Protective League formed to watch out for potential German spies. On yellowed, typewritten pages, a missive from Feb. 5, 1917, details the activities of "W. Zacharias," who worked for the German and Austro–Hungarian consuls from the Hartje Building, Downtown.

"I personally think he is a secret service man for the German government and, acting under this belief, I will endeavor to make his acquaintance and find out more particulars about this mysterious work as a 'draftsman,' read the league's dispatch.

For Wertenbach, his heritage meant added suspicion.

After the war, Wertenbach became a journalist for the Pittsburgh Press for nearly five decades.

PITTSBURGH CONTRIBUTES

About 60,000 men from Allegheny County went to war during the 19 months the United States fought. As many as 1,500 died.

Wertenbach, whose division wore red Keystone patches on their left shoulders, witnessed artillery fire and poison gas kill fellow infantrymen.

"I have read, talked, and listened to war; now I am bringing it. What shall come of it?" he wrote on June 20, 1918. "Shall I see mother and sweetheart again? God knows!”

Industrious Pittsburgh, then the country's eighth–largest city and home to some of the largest manufacturers in the world, built the tools featured in the world's deadliest conflict.

In World War I, "you get factories and engineers, products that are really made to kill a lot of people," said Michael Kraus, curator at Soldiers & Sailors. "And they did.”

Pittsburgh's war effort began on Dec. 30, 1914, when the British government approached Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co. with an order for 3 million artillery shells. Westinghouse filled the order in 45 days, despite no previous experience manufacturing weaponry.

Pittsburgh–made steel built battleships and tanks. U.S. Steel cranked out barbed wire, used to trip up troops in trenches, and horseshoes, nails and book wire for government communiques.

"Our city was basically 24/7 producing war materials for the Allied powers and the Americans," Williams–Herrman said.

One of the new weapons used by both sides were chemicals. Bursts of nerve gas or mustard gas flooded poison into eyes, mouths and bloodstreams, causing choking fits or blisters. Chlorine gas attacks could wipe out thousands of men, burning their throats until they suffocated.

Pittsburgh researcher James Garner of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, which later merged with the Carnegie Institute of Technology to form Carnegie Mellon University, drew upon the principle of charcoal absorption to pioneer a gas mask. He sent a dozen prototypes to the British government; they became the model for masks that thousands of British and American troops wore.

PATRIOTISM REIGNS

Patriotism overwhelmed cultural tensions among Pittsburgh's immigrants when it became clear the United States would not remain neutral, said Anne Madarasz of the Heinz History Center in the Strip District.

"Once that door shuts, they realize their allegiance needs to be to their new country, and we see a whole new kind of American identity on the rise," Madarasz said.

Ever generous, Pittsburghers consistently overshot the government's quotas for Liberty Bonds, the war's fundraising method. In five rounds, the district contributed more than $500 million, according to a souvenir book, "Pittsburgh and the World War, 1914–1918," published by Morris and Strauch.

The Pittsburgh chapter of the Red Cross at one time was the nation's largest with about 500,000 members. Women spent thousands of hours sewing goods to donate to troops and their families, including more than 4.7 million surgical dressings and 72,000 pairs of woolen socks.

Soldiers sent thank–you letters for coffee and sandwiches they received at Red Cross centers stateside and overseas.

"They are a truly worthy organization," Wertenbach wrote Nov. 18, 1918, at a station overseas.

"We are to sleep in a real spring bed with two blankets.”

VICTORY DANCES

Pittsburgh's Polish–Americans, like those elsewhere, had their own reasons to take up the Allies' cause. Social organizations trained men and women to be mentally and physically ready to reclaim the borders of their homeland, which Germany, Russia, and Austria–Hungary had divided long ago.

The Polish Falcons of America, headquartered in Pittsburgh, led these efforts in the United States and in 1917 held a recruitment rally in the South Side. A Library of Congress photo of the rally shows a city block packed shoulder–to–shoulder with men dressed in suits and caps or fedoras.

"This was their chance," said Tim Kumza, president and CEO of the Polish Falcons. "When the actual time came to really strap on the uniform and get on a boat and sail across and jump into the trenches — boom, they were there.”

Of the more than 38,000 men who enlisted in the internationally organized Polish "Blue Army," about 3,000 came from Pittsburgh, according to Williams–Herrman. Long after hostilities ended, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 gave the Poles back their land.

Before Allied nations carved up former empires into countries, a meeting in May 1918 between Slovak–American and Czech–American activists at the Loyal Order of Moose Hall on Penn Avenue produced the Pittsburgh Agreement. The document marked their intent to create a democratic Czechoslovakia, which the treaty included.

When an armistice was reached on Nov. 11, 1918, Pittsburghers danced in the streets. Mayor E.V. Babcock declared a holiday, and a five–minute citywide prayer. People threw confetti and streamers from windows Downtown. Pittsburghers cried for peace, and for the fallen.

The city's experiences as an industrial center would repeat in decades to come, when weaponry, money and men once again would be called up for war.

Across the Atlantic in France, Wertenbach initially doubted the armistice. Then he heard shooting, singing and a German bugler playing Taps.

"At 11:00 a.m., our barrage and the enemy's ceased," he wrote on Nov. 11. "From Purgatory to Paradise in sixty seconds."

Remembering the War

The bronze soldier rises solemnly above the busy intersection of Butler Street and Penn Avenue.

This World War I memorial at Doughboy Square in Lawrenceville honors those who fought and died in "the war to end all wars." Yet, it is significantly smaller than monuments to veterans of World War II and wars in Korea and Vietnam about two miles away on the North Shore.

That is neither uncommon nor unfitting, said Mark Levitch, a Washington–based art historian who documents WWI monuments online at World War I Memorial Inventory.

"Something humongous — that wasn't the ethos of the period," said Levitch. "Generally, the war was commemorated on a local level. Neighborhoods had a direct connection to the people who served in the war, and those soldiers went back to the places where they were from after the war. I love that (the monuments) have a local flavor."

In cities such as Pittsburgh and Washington, sprawling monuments to more recent wars sit side by side, establishing a memorial row — here on the North Shore, there on the National Mall.

Monuments to WWI vets tend to be smaller and scattered, Levitch and others said.

Frank Buckles, America's last surviving doughboy who died in 2011 at age 110, spent his final years lobbying Congress to build a memorial on the National Mall, an effort reflected in a documentary on Buckles' life produced by his spokesman and friend David DeJonge.

Instead, plans are afoot to rededicate Pershing Park — near the White House, but just off the Mall — to honor all WWI veterans.

"Frank would be opposed to this plan," DeJonge said. "The monument needs to be on the National Mall or nowhere."

A monument honoring Washington–area doughboys is on the National Mall. The national WWI museum and monument is in Kansas City.

In Pittsburgh, there are dozens of WWI stone and bronze monuments.

On East Carson Street in the South Side, an Honor Roll lists names of local soldiers. A monument 15 feet tall and crowned by a bronze eagle watches over West End Park. A stone wall in Duquesne Heights lists neighborhood soldiers who fought, including six who died in battle.

Most honor soldiers from neighborhoods, wards or organizations. A monument in Schenley Park recognizes 450 members of the Allegheny County Medical Society who served.

Others have a larger scope. Pittsburgh's Boulevard of the Allies, opened in 1922, eventually extended three miles to link Downtown and Oakland. It was among the most expensive road project of its day at $1.6 million a mile.

Levitch has documented about 2,000 WWI memorials nationwide and suspects there could be as many as 10,000.

Many monuments are a source of local pride.

"Lawrenceville has adapted the doughboy in their new identity — it's a little bit of old and new," said Elizabeth Williams–Herron, LaRoche College archivist and WWI author. "It is really an impressive sight."

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