“Cleveland and the Great War” Pressure Life Magazine June 2016

“Cleveland and the Great War”

Pressure Life Magazine June 2016 by Kevin Naughton

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The First World War was arguably the most significant conflict in the last century, setting the stage for geopolitics that still affect our world today. Despite having ended nearly a century ago, its legacy is far-reaching. Many historically and politically significant events have their roots squarely in the so called “Great War”: The Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the subsequent Western paranoia toward communism, the advent of Western intervention in the Middle East and the creation of its modern borders, the rise of Nazism throughout Europe, the considerable strengthening and organization of the American military, and increased English-American cooperation. Yet, in spite of its global impact, the conflict tends to be overshadowed by its louder, more charismatic younger brother, World War Two.

So where was Cleveland during all of this? Well, geographically, it was right where it has always been, but it looked a lot different. Skyscrapers did not yet dominate the skyline as construction of our iconic Terminal Tower would not commence for nearly a decade after the war ended, but the city still boasted the status of the sixth largest city in the United States at the time with a population of well over half a million. Cleveland had already established itself as an industrial city, a characteristic that was visibly evident at the time. “If you look at panoramic views of the Flats, which was the sort of industrial heart of the city, there’s just a pall of smoke over it,” said John Grabowski, a historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society, “and if one got down to the street level, you would find that it was very much an international, polyglot community, with workers from around the world.”

When the war in Europe began in 1914, the then non-interventionist United States was loath to inject itself into a conflict taking place an ocean away. Germany was not yet a genocidal fascist war machine, England and the U.S. did not yet fully trust each other, and nobody in the country really gave a shit about what happened to the struggling French, Russian, or Austro-Hungarian empires. Instead of picking a side, the U.S. elected to benefit economically from its neutrality, taking the opportunity to manufacture and sell equipment, uniforms, munitions, and other goods to both the Central (chiefly Germany and Austro-Hungary) and Entente (chiefly France and England) powers, although British naval blockades did limit dealings with Germany. Cleveland, ever the industrial boom town, was at the forefront of this effort.

“The war really cannibalized the city’s industry,” explained Grabowski, who added, “Cleveland had a direct pipeline to Washington, because Cleveland’s reform mayor, Newton D. Baker, ends up becoming the Secretary of War.” Longtime friends with President Woodrow Wilson, Baker contracted out many of the European demands for military supplies to Cleveland industrialists, who happily obliged them. According to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “by the fall of 1918, it was estimated that the city had produced $750 million worth of munitions in the 4 years since the war had begun.”

Things got interesting when the United States decided to enter the war. While the United States’ military effect upon the outcome of the war bordered upon negligible—most of the killing and dying had already been taken care of by the European powers—many Americans nonetheless fought and died in the last year of the conflict. According to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “almost 41,000 Clevelanders had joined the services; 1,023 of them were killed in the conflict.” That doesn’t include wounded—injuries in the First World War often left soldiers horrifically disfigured—or psychological casualties—the term “shell-shock” was coined during the conflict to describe the completely-debilitating mental breakdowns exhibited by many soldiers after spending too much time in the front—so it’s not a stretch to say that virtually everyone in the city had a friend or family member who was directly affected by the war.

The most profound effect the war had upon the city, however, was demographic. Cleveland’s population at the start of the war was more than a quarter German. So significant was their presence in the city that German was a required language in the Cleveland public school system. To this day, you can see German names atop old brick buildings in some of the more historic parts of the city. Sauerkraut, sausage, and potato pancakes are staples of Cleveland cuisine to this day, not to mention the city’s longtime love affair with beer. At the end of the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s, German Clevelanders even erected a triumphal arch in public square in celebration of their homeland’s victory over the French.

That all changed when the United States declared war on the Central powers. German-Americans, once a proud and civically active part of the city’s populace, were suddenly regarded with suspicion and contempt; they were now the enemy. Some changed their names and went into hiding, withdrawing from the public sphere. Others simply fled. Germans who tried to maintain a sense of national pride for their homeland were ostracized and condemned as traitors, like the German president of Baldwin-Wallace College, who, according to the Western Reserve Historical Society, “aroused the patriotic indignation of his students and faculty at the 1917 Christmas service by attempting to lead them in the singing of the German-language version of ‘Silent Night.’” Public outrage regarding the incident led to his permanent removal from his position.

The smaller, but certainly not insignificant, Hungarian population in Cleveland, numbering around 10,000, had a much different experience, largely due to the nature of their residence. Hungary was a largely agricultural nation, and many migrants lived and worked in Cleveland during the offseason, returning to Hungary with their earnings when it was time to work the fields. When the United States declared war upon their home country, most simply chose to remain in Hungary.

Those who stayed in the U.S. were few enough in number to avoid the public hostility that the Germans faced.
Lastly, the history of sordid treatment of Cleveland’s African-American population begins at the end of the war. The war all but curtailed European immigration, and labor shortages caused by increased wartime industrial demands provided a wealth of opportunity in Cleveland for the nation’s black population, who were still just beginning the struggle to find a place in free society. Instead of being welcomed with open arms, however, black migrants were treated with contempt by white Clevelanders, the city tragically succumbing to America’s historically racist tendencies. Ghettos formed and segregation was institutionalized, setting the stage for Cleveland’s long and ugly history of racial tension. The effects proved to be long-lasting: according to a recent study by Alexander Kent and Thomas C. Frohlich of news and commentary site 24/7 Wall St., Cleveland bears the embarrassing status as the most segregated city in the country.

All in all, Cleveland’s role in the First World War serves as a major reminder of the divisive and hateful nature of violent conflict. Remembering the stories of our fellow Clevelanders and countrymen turning on one another underscores an oft-neglected effect of war: the homefront is the stage of many tragedies as well, oftentimes with far-reaching and painful consequences. It is important to keep this in mind, especially in a day and age where saber-rattling seems to be growing louder and louder throughout the world.

Special thanks to the Western Reserve Historical Society, whose help and resources were invaluable in writing this article.

World War 1 in Cleveland from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland

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WORLD WAR I. With a population of 560,665 on the eve of World War I, Cleveland stood as the 6th-largest city in the U.S. It thrived economically on the manufacture of iron and steel, paints and varnishes, foundry and machine-shop products, and electrical machinery and supplies. Although recently surpassed by Detroit in automobile production, it still excelled in the making of auto accessories. Proof of the city’s financial importance was offered late in 1914, when Cleveland was selected as headquarters for the 4th Federal Reserve District (seeFEDERAL RESERVE BANK OF CLEVELAND). The years of U.S. neutrality were bonanza ones for Cleveland’s industries, as its workers satisfied contracts for uniforms, weapons, automobiles and trucks, and chemicals for explosives. By the fall of 1918, it was estimated that the city had produced $750 million worth of munitions in the 4 years since the war had begun. The issues of the war itself were primarily of interest to the 35% of the city’s population (1910 census) of foreign birth. War touched the city more directly with the sinking of the Lusitaniaon 8 May 1915, as 7 Clevelanders were listed among the 114 Americans killed on the torpedoed British liner. By the time Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in Mar. 1917, Clevelanders were packing war meetings in GRAYS ARMORY and aiding the U.S. Naval Reserve in the formation of Lake Erie’s “mosquito fleet” of 500 ships.

A World War I Liberty Loan drive on Public Square, July 1918. WRHS.

Upon America’s entry into the war on 6 Apr. 1917, a county draft board consisting of DANIEL E. MORGANSTARR CADWALLADER, and Dr. Walter B. Laffer was named to supervise the local application of the new Selective Service System. By the year’s end, 25,000 draftees had joined 8,000 volunteers in the area’s total of men under arms. By war’s end, almost 41,000 Clevelanders had joined the services; 1,023 of them were killed in the conflict. Led by Maj. GEO. W. CRILE, Base Hospital Unit No. 4 from Lakeside Hospital had been among the first Americans to reach France, as early as May 1917 (see LAKESIDE UNIT, WORLD WAR I). On the home front, Cleveland factories continued to supply the war effort with arms and equipment. The WHITE MOTOR CORP.. alone produced a total of 18,000 trucks for the use of the U.S. and its allies. As men stepped into the trenches and assembly lines, women were called upon to fill the breach. The CLEVELAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS dropped an old ruling that forced female teachers to resign upon marriage. Gertrude Nader greeted Cedar-Fairmount line commuters in 1918 as Cleveland’s first streetcar “conductorette,” although the female conductors would later lose their jobs as the result of a postwar strike.

To coordinate the city’s war activities, Mayor HARRY L. DAVIS appointed a MAYOR’S ADVISORY WAR COMMITTEE to be financed from money from the Red Cross drive. Supervised under the umbrella of the Mayor’s Committee were such activities as the war gardens campaign, the “Four Minute Men” speakers’ bureau, and local efforts in the Treasury Dept.’s Liberty Loan drives. Clevelanders oversubscribed the first 2 Liberty Loan campaigns by $70 million. Nothing was deemed too excessive in the city’s desire to flaunt its patriotism. The Board of Education honored one of America’s allies by naming a new elementary school after Lafayette. A 1918 Flag Day Pageant in WADE PARK, witnessed by 150,000 Clevelanders, featured a SPIRIT OF `76 tableau personally directed by ARCHIBALD M. WILLARD. On the negative side, a local branch of the American Protective League was organized to aid the Dept. of Justice in locating draft “slackers,” investigating food hoarding, and suppressing alien disturbances. Some violators of the city’s first “gasless Sunday” in Sept. 1918 returned to their cars to find the tires slashed.

Despite the outward appearance of 100% Americanism, there were those who objected to the U.S. entry into the war. Members of the city’s German and Hungarian communities had hoped for continued neutrality, as did many IRISH, who saw any assistance to the Allies as helping their traditional enemy, the English. Radical political groups, including some Socialists, also advocated neutrality. Socialist Eugene Debs’s criticism of the war resulted in his arrest in Cleveland and subsequent imprisonment in 1918 (see DEBS FEDERAL COURT TRIAL). Cleveland’s ethnic communities–“hyphenated Americans” in the parlance of the day–came in for their share of patriotic pressure. An Americanization Board was established by the Mayor’s Advisory Committee, and naturalization classes were inaugurated under the direction of Dr. RAYMOND MOLEY (see AMERICANIZATION). With the cooperation of the Cleveland Board of Education, free language classes were advertised in 24 different locations. Some ethnic newspapers began printing editorials in English to circumvent a law requiring the filing of translations of war-related copy with the local postmaster.

A particularly intense trial was reserved for the city’s 132,000 residents of German extraction. The German language was dropped from the curriculum of the public elementary schools, although its study was retained on grounds of “military necessity” in the high schools. Local members of the American Protective League, in fact, campaigned to outlaw even the public use of the “enemy” language. Directors of the German American Savings Bank wisely voted to conduct future business under the less provocative nomenclature of the AMERICAN SAVINGS BANK. So many obstacles were raised for Cleveland’s German newspaper WAECHTER UND ANZEIGER that one scholar found it surprising that the paper survived the war at all. Not so lucky was the German-American president of BALDWIN-WALLACE COLLEGE, Arthur Louis Breslich, who aroused the patriotic indignation of his students and faculty at the 1917 Christmas service by attempting to lead them in the singing of the German-language version of “Silent Night.” Following protests, petitions, and parades against the president’s “passive” patriotism, Dr. Breslich was permanently suspended from his duties by the Baldwin-Wallace trustees. While the war could not end too soon for the city’s German-Americans, its hysteria lingered months beyond Armistice Day for most Clevelanders. Thanks to a premature story appearing in the CLEVELAND PRESS, Cleveland celebrated the famous “false armistice” on 7 Nov., as well as the real one 4 days later. More than half a million people still flocked to the Allied War Exposition on the lakefront the following week, where they witnessed a simulated battle and toured 3 mi. of trenches. Even Cleveland’s MAY DAY RIOTS of 1919 can be attributed at least partly to the smoldering embers of World War I patriotism.

Although Cleveland joined in the nation’s desire to return to “normalcy,” the war had left it changed in at least one major respect. It effectively blocked the flow of immigration from Europe to the nation’s urban centers, a change that would be institutionalized in the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s. To fill the resultant labor shortages in the country’s war industries, employers turned to the disaffected African American population of the South. Partly as a result of active recruitment and partly from word-of-mouth advertisement, Cleveland’s black population grew by 308%, from 8,448 to 34,451, in the decade ending in 1920 (see AFRICAN AMERICANS). One of the local black newspapers, the CLEVELAND ADVOCATE, began a special “Industrial Page” to assist in their adjustment. Unlike their predecessors, who had tended to come from the border states and live in close proximity with other groups, the new arrivals were more likely to come from the Deep South and settle in areas of dense black concentration. “In the midst of a city that had once been proud of its integrationist tradition,” observed historian Kenneth L. Kusmer, “a black ghetto was taking shape.” World War I thus marked the end of Cleveland’s second demographic era, which saw the original New England stock leavened by the influx of the New Immigration. It ushered in a period of transition in which the European immigrants were to be assimilated and succeeded by a third wave of newcomers from the American South.

Judith G. Cetina

Cuyahoga County Archives

J. E. Vacha

Cleveland Public Schools

Last Modified: 27 Mar 1998 11:13:57 AM