When the day began on Monday, June 29, 1914, area residents were still taking stock after an early summer storm battered the area about 36 hours before.
Despite the havoc caused by felled trees, fires sparked by lightning and interrupted phone service, “the rain was welcome, coming after several weeks of dry and hot weather, when vegetation was at a standstill and being burned and dried up,” The Washington Observer noted.
That morning’s newspaper highlighted a host of other concerns and preoccupations for local residents: Authorities in the city of Washington were cracking down on street merchants clogging the boulevards, peddling such items as “swinging bunches of bananas”; a Wylandville farmer, John S. Patterson, who had been a mover and shaker in the community, died at age 76; a group fighting for women’s suffrage was forming in Hickory; former President Theodore Roosevelt was due to appear in Pittsburgh the following night to drum up support for the Progressive Party in advance of the 1914 midterm elections; and, at the same time Roosevelt was going to be rousing the faithful 25 miles to the north, a lecture by Chicago socialist William Francis Barnard was scheduled to happen on the corner of Main and Chestnut streets.
That day’s edition of the Observer has a report on the far right side of the front page about the Sunday assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, while the two were traveling through Sarajevo, the capital of the province Bosnia and Herzegovina. Below the initial story, another report states that the aged Austro-Hungarian emperor, Archduke Karl Ludwig, was “deeply grieved” as a result of his son and daughter-in-law’s killing.
Despite the sensational nature of the event, the murder probably didn’t linger long in the consciousness of most of the Observer’s readers. There’s not a word about it in the next day’s edition, which reported that E.M. Weyer, the chairman of the philosophy department at Washington & Jefferson College, would be leading a community group on a summerlong trip through Europe. A few days later, East Bethlehem Township ordered its teachers to refrain from attending public dances from Monday through Friday because of complaints that “certain teachers remained out late at night at dances and as a result were not well-fitted to the day’s work in the school room.”
But the bullet fired into the archduke’s neck proved to be more consequential than many readers could have imagined. Franz Ferdinand’s death 100 years ago this month set in motion the cascade of events that led to the start of what was once known as the Great War but is now more commonly called World War I.
The Europe that Weyer and his party were traveling to would soon be engulfed in strife, and families in Washington and every other corner of the country would be sharing Archduke Karl Ludwig’s grief for their lost sons.
Although it was widely believed by all participants that the conflict, initially pitting the major powers of Europe against Germany, would be over with quickly, that turned out to be a wildly erroneous forecast. It ground on for four years, with America finally jumping into the fray in 1917, with overall casualties from all nations totaling 37 million between the dead and the wounded. It ushered in a new age of all-out warfare, with any gentlemanly pretense stripped away – World War I was steeped in mud, machine-gun fire, poison gas, flame throwers and artillery shells.
And if those didn’t kill some of the participants, disease would often do the trick.
World War I irrevocably changed the world. The harsh terms imposed on Germany at the war’s end set the table for World War II; the Ottoman Empire was broken up, with a host of separate states, like Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon being carved out in the Middle East; and the feeble performance of the Russian military in World War I fueled the resentments and grievances that sparked the Russian Revolution in 1917.
America initially cut a wide path around the European war. In his bid for re-election in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson vowed to steer America away from the war. His campaign motto was “He kept us out of war.” But, within a year, he changed course, arguing that America needed to intervene because “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
As it had in previous wars, the Pittsburgh region ended up serving as a vital supplier of steel and munitions. The Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh developed the first gas mask, and, of course, scores of young men from the region went to war once America declared its involvement, leading to a shortage of policemen and firemen within Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh had been called “the arsenal of the world,” according to Elizabeth Williams, an archivist at LaRoche College and the author of the book, “Pittsburgh in World War I.” But, in reality, “we were the Allies’ arsenal.”
When America stepped into the war, Washington was not unlike hundreds of other cities and towns across the country sending men off to battle, according to Clay Kilgore, director of the Washington County Historical Society. A parade marched down Main Street at the start of the war, and the first men to be drafted were photographed on the steps of the Washington County Courthouse. A similar parade greeted them when they returned home.
“America stepped in late, but without America the war would not have been winnable,” said Michael Kraus, the curator at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh. “It was stuck at a gruesome stalemate.”
According to the commemorative book “Washington’s Part in the World War,” published at its conclusion, it was recorded that, during the war, local coal companies “brought production up to record-breaking levels and the employees vied with each other in effective work.”
The Pittsburgh Window Glass Co. manufactured light armor plates used on tractors, while the Tyler Tube & Pipe Co. manufactured tubes for steamships and locomotive boilers. The Jessop Steel Co., meanwhile, spun out light armor plates for tanks.
Because Southwestern Pennsylvania was a melting pot 100 years ago, with thousands of European immigrants laboring in farms and factories, the bloody dispute 5,000 miles away ended up being played out in workplaces and neighborhoods. At least at the start of the war, most immigrants were inclined to support their country of origin. By the time America stepped in, some Germans “realized they needed to keep their mouths shut,” Williams said.
Just as the Wilson administration moved aggressively to stifle internal dissent after America entered the war, local authorities acted swiftly to get those who were avoiding duty off the streets and enlisted in the cause.
The Observer reported in July 1918 that police in Canonsburg were “rounding up slackers” and that “shirkers and idlers will find that Canonsburg offers small chance of exemption,” from either labor or military service.
The police had “provided itself with a lengthy list of the unemployed and has set about the task of accounting for each name with great zeal.”
Some young men in Washington who marched off to the war ended up not coming home. Moffard Breese, who lived on East Maiden Street, died in a March 1918 bombardment just weeks after he reached France and just a few weeks before his 20th birthday. George McAdams, a 27-year-old, survived a bullet wound to the shoulder and typhoid fever he contracted in the hospital only to end up being killed in his graduation flight in July 1918 after training with the British Royal Flying Corps.
Edward Marshall, 22, of Oregon Street, died in August 1918 from a bursting shell. John Austin Cummins, 19, a Chestnut Street resident was claimed by pneumonia, as were Guy L. Kerns, 23, of Jefferson Avenue and Guy Henry Riggle, 27, of Hall Avenue. Four days after he turned 22, Lewis Edgar Fisher of Brady Avenue was claimed by diphtheria and Alfred McCarty, a 24-year-old who lived on Wayne Street, survived several battles but ended up drowning while he was bathing.
News of these deaths filtered back to Washington slowly, owing to the era’s relatively primitive communications. The Stainbrook family of Jefferson Avenue had three sons on the battlefield in France and, in September 1918, two months before the war ended, 19 letters from them arrived on one day. One son, Gilbert, described conditions as being muddy and “it rains almost every day, and when you get this mud on you, you have to take a hammer and break it up so you can get your clothes off. It’s like a shield and you would turn a bayonet off fine.”
Stainbrook also said, with more than a hint of weariness, “I never wished I were a worm in my life until I came over here. We are like groundhogs – dig a hole, crawl in and stay till we think the danger is over.”