Pennsylvanians fled Europe as World War I began
It was by chance alone that the German warship had missed spotting the RMS Teutonic in the heavy fog.
The White Star ocean liner sat motionless for nine hours in the waters off the coast of England with not a single light showing.
Mary White and Marjorie McIntire, both of Carlisle, were passengers onboard the civilian vessel carrying Americans home from a Europe in turmoil.
It was early August 1914 and World War I had just started. The women were in France studying abroad as part of a group organized by Dickinson College professor William Weidman Landis.
Not only did they survive the crossing to land in Montreal, but they also returned to Cumberland County by train and shared their eyewitness account with a Carlisle Evening Herald reporter.
The women remembered how the crew kept the fog horn silent out of fear any sound could alert the prowling warship that would force the Teutonic to return to Liverpool.
“About the middle of the night the rays from a powerful searchlight were thrown upon the prow of the vessel,” the ladies said in an Aug. 19 story. The fog had saved the liner.
Fear and paranoia was the norm in the early days of the Great War. There was a man on the Teutonic who kept pigeons in his cabin. “When this was discovered by the captain, the birds were immediately confiscated,” the women told the reporter. “It is not known whether he was a spy or not, nor is it known whether he sent any messages to any other ship.”
Scramble for sanctuary
White and McIntire recalled in vivid detail the scene at the Liverpool docks where stranded foreigners had offered passengers up to $2,000 for their tickets. “Many people of the wealthier class were obliged to take steerage passage in order to get home,” they told the newspaper.
The desperation was there from the beginning. The women were in Paris on July 29, 1914 when they first heard of the declaration of war between France and Germany. “Until that time, everything was quiet and peaceful,” the article read. Though there were rumors about the war, the civilian population was calm — but that changed on July 30 when the rumors became more frequent and were discussed openly at hotels and public venues.
“When the morning of the 31st dawned, Paris was aroused,” the women said. “Everybody was excited and things were in an uproar. The male employees of the hotels, the stores, banks and all other places of business left their positions and prepared to join their regiments at the first call.”
That included the porters at the Lord Byron Hotel where the Landis party stayed. While the men of the group took charge of the baggage, Professor Landis verified arrangements he had made earlier to have it transported to the railroad station. They were lucky. By then, the French government had confiscated a lot of the civilian vehicles for military use.
“As we grew nearer and nearer, the sounds of an uproar came to our ears, and when we turned a corner and came into view of the station, the sight which met our eyes, we will never forget,” White said. “It seemed as if half of Paris had gathered at the station in order to leave the city.
“The most fortunate ones had their baggage with them, but thousands were without any luggage at all,” White added. “It was understood that the last train out of the city for the use of foreigners would leave soon after we arrived there ... Men, women and children were trampled under the feet of the mob who tried to board the train ... When the train pulled out of the station, every car was jammed full to overflowing. People were sitting on the floors, were hanging on the backs of the seats. The platforms were crowded and every available inch of space was occupied.”
The women had barely escaped only to experience other hardships. On their voyage across the channel, a British torpedo boat fired an artillery shell across the bow of the refugee ship.
The Royal Navy officer wanted the liner to veer away from Southampton because of the threat of mines. The liner captain refused to budge saying he had a thousand civilian passengers onboard seeking refuge. The men worked out a compromise where a harbor pilot steered the ship through the minefield.
From Russia with judge
In Carlisle, local residents were anxious for any word from those stranded in the war zone. The Evening Herald on Aug. 4, 1914 reported how the stress level increased after telegraph communications were interrupted and ocean traffic was brought to a near standstill with the announcement that England had declared war on the kaiser. “No messages have been received by friends or relatives here since the trouble began,” The Herald story read. “Judge and Mrs. E. W. Biddle with a party of friends are reported to be in Russia. Efforts to communicate with them have proved fruitless.”
Nearly a month later, The Evening Sentinel ran a story on Sept. 3, 1914 based on an interview a reporter had with Judge Edward Biddle who made it home safely. Biddle said “it seemed providential” that they had left St. Petersburg, Russia, for Sweden only a few hours before that government had issued the order to mobilize troops and to cut off all land routes to the rest of Europe.
Biddle was convinced that had they stayed in Russia another day, they could have been stranded for the duration of the war unless they could arrange for passage through Siberia and the Pacific Ocean.
“It is estimated there are still 50,000 Americans in Europe of whom one-third are in Great Britain,” Biddle said.
He said while many were striving to secure passage home, they were stymied by a lack of trans-Atlantic travel accommodations. Airliners did not exist and many passenger ships had been taken over by the governments of the warring nations.
“We were fortunate to secure a first-class cabin on a vessel sailing from Liverpool to Montreal on Aug. 29,” Biddle said. “This we purchased early in the month from two Ohio ladies who had become so frightened and nervous that they sold their stateroom to us and left in the steerage a few days earlier to get home as soon as possible.”
The judge and his entourage were lucky. At least, they had their baggage. There were piles of luggage sitting out unprotected in European hotels, railroad stations and harbors. “The great portion of this, it is believed will never be recovered by the owners,” Biddle said. He added conditions could have been worse were it not for a committee of Americans who came together in London to help their stranded countrymen.
“These noble people relieved thousands of cases of distress, giving of their time and money without stint for many weeks, and their work is still going on,” Biddle said. “Passage home was provided for every stranded person who merited assistance.”