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The great war and the steel city

| Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 11:27 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Doughboy statue in Lawrenceville stands watch over downtown on Friday, July 11, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Doughboy statue in Lawrenceville on Friday, July 11, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Doughboy statue honor roll in Lawrenceville on Friday, July 11, 2014.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Sgt. Fred Wertenbach's personal diary is an account of his experiences during World War I.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
A Russian-made Mosin-Nagant rifle in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum collection.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
A M1917 Enfield in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum collection.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
A Springfield .30-06 rifle in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum collection.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
A WWI-era American grenade in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum collection.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Charles F. Gaut, of Irwin, spent WWI with the 28th Division working in the 109th field hospital. Following the war he returned home with a trunk full of personal items which now serves as a time capsule providing a unique perspective on one man's experience in the Great War.
Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Charles F. Gaut's YMCA baseball.
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Lusitania Sunk newpaper front from the Boston Evening Globe
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Guy Wathen | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Charles F. Gaut's WWI soap and soap container.

In a pocket-sized leather diary he was not supposed to possess, in careful script he was not supposed to write, 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 & Museum 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. The “war to end all wars” reverberated thousands of miles back to the Steel City before he put pencil to paper while serving in the 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 600 families of what was then First German Evangelical Protestant Church raised money and sent “care” packages to the homeland.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared America'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 purchased 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,” Pastor Carl August Voss wrote in 1932.

Yet the city and the nation could not shake suspicion of foreign-born residents or their descendants. In 1915, the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Protective League formed to watch 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, he worked for nearly five decades as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Press.

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, saw 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 having no experience in manufacturing weaponry.

Pittsburgh-made steel was used for battleships and tanks. U.S. Steel cranked out barbed wire, used to trip 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 was 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 on 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 overrode cultural tensions among Pittsburgh's immigrants when it became clear that the United States would not remain neutral, said Anne Madarasz of the Senator John 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, boasting 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 on 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 long ago divided.

The Polish Falcons of America, headquartered in Pittsburgh, led those 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 were 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 former empires into countries, a meeting in May 1918 between Slovak-American and Czech-American activists in the Loyal Order of Moose Hall on Penn Avenue produced the Pittsburgh Agreement. The document marked their intent to establish 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 Downtown windows.

Pittsburghers cried for peace and for the fallen.

The city's experience as an industrial center would come into play over the years 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.”

Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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