By Nicolette Toussaint
One hundred years ago, my grandfather was leaving his wife, his four small children and his law firm to join the “war to end all wars”.
The trenches where he would soon serve had been dug nearly two years earlier. On July 12 and 13, 1917, the Germans began bombarding allied troops there with mustard gas. Nearly one million French soldiers had already been killed. Conditions were so horrific that several French Army mutinies had already occurred.
Thomas Harry Slusser didn’t have to go to France. At 36, he was too old for the first draft, and his children, aged two to nine, entitled him to defer military service even after that. Still, he signed up, spent four months at the Fort Sheridan officer’s training camp, then sailed overseas on Jan. 7, 1918.
Seven months later, the Chicago Evening American printed a front-page story calling him a hero and running his photo under the headline, “Wife and Four Children Couldn’t Keep this Soldier at Home.”
A century later, one might wonder why not?
The T.H. Slusser I knew was patriotic, iron-willed, and high-minded, rather like President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had won the 1916 election vowing to maintain neutrality, but Germany’s actions — atrocities in Belgium, the sinking of the Lusitania, unrestricted submarine warfare — dragged him inexorably toward war. Duty and honor must have similarly pulled my grandfather toward Europe’s eddy of blood, but I suspect that there was more to it.
By the time the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Wilson and his administration were openly questioning the loyalty of German-Americans. The attorney general approved a plan to use volunteers to gather information on German immigrants and native-born German-Americans suspected of disloyalty. From that volunteer group grew the American Protective League, a vast network of 200,000 untrained, amateur detectives. The APL functioned as a semi-official, but often uncontrolled, branch of the FBI’s forerunner, the Bureau of Investigation.
Although my grandfather was a fifth-generation American, sometimes having a German name could be enough to prompt the APL to investigate one’s private affairs.
Chicago, where my grandfather’s law firm was located, was also home to Chicago ad executive A. M. Briggs, the man who created the APL. The town was a hotbed of anti-German sentiment: Lubeck, Frankfort, and Hamburg streets were renamed Dickens, Charleston, and Shakespeare. German Hospital became Grant Hospital. Famed conductor Frederick Stock, who was born in Germany, was forced to step down from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra until he finalized his naturalization papers.
Across the nation, German-Americans were dragged out of their homes at night and forced to kiss the flag or sing the national anthem. Thousands were forced to buy war bonds. Fearing sabotage, the Red Cross barred those with German surnames. Churches were vandalized. Employers received telephone calls asking if they still had “that German spy” on the payroll.
Like the African-American Buffalo soldiers and the Japanese-Americans of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, German-Americans were subjected to “friendly fire” from fellow citizens. Having sworn to uphold the constitution when he was admitted to the bar, my attorney grandfather must have keenly felt a need not just to profess loyalty, but to prove it.
By June 1917, the first American division reached France. By year’s end, 175,000 Americans were serving there; 18 months later, the American Expeditionary Force numbered nearly two million men.
T.H. Slusser was among them. He became a commander in the First Light Infantry on November 27, 1917. His unit joined the 126th Infantry in the Aisne-Marne offensive in Alsace, then marched with Army of Occupation in Germany after the armistice on November 11, the day that would become my birthday 33 years later.
In its 1918 article, quoting an army field dispatch sent from “somewhere in France”, the Chicago Evening American reported that “Lieutenant Thomas Harry Slusser and Lieutenant Otto H. Buder of Kalamazoo, Michigan “distinguished themselves by charging across an open field swept by machine gun fire.”
As PBS has aired “The Great War”, I have reflected on how much WWI shaped the world we live in today. Bellicose leadership and conflict abroad can still inspire hatred and violence at home. Today, while our allies have reason to question our nation’s commitment to live up to Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy,” I believe that most Americans still aspire to that noble goal.
WWI had an important effect on me too. Had my grandfather not survived his machine gun charge 100 years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this column today. My father wasn’t born until 1925, six years after Thomas Harry Slusser returned from the trenches of France.