World War I decimated a generation. Fought from July 1914 to November 1918, the war’s poison gas, trench warfare, and horrific bloodletting tortured millions and made a mockery of Enlightenment beliefs in the progress of mankind. A classic war poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) poignantly illustrated the terrors visited upon those caught up in the Great War:
Dulce Et Decorum Est Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of disappointed shells that dropped behind. GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And floundering like a man in fire or lime.-- Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-- My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
Wilfred Owen died during the final week of the war on November 4, 1918.
As the world approaches the conflict’s centennial, events of remembrance and historical interpretation are becoming more frequent. Our own collections here at Salisbury House include some remarkable pieces that connect with the story of The War to End All Wars. Carl Weeks, an inveterate collector of books, documents, and letters, acquired significant pieces that directly relate to the war. These items raise some intriguing questions as well.
First, correspondence from a hugely consequential German leader of the early twentieth centuries represents the most important World War I-era artifact in our collections. This letter, penned and signed by Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), dates to October 12, 1915.
We do not have a translation* of the letter, unfortunately, but the date is significant. The years 1914-1915 saw several important German victories on the battlefields of Europe, and Field Marshall Hindenburg’s star was on the rise.
Although Hindenburg had retired from the military in 1911, he was called back into active service when the war broke out in 1914. By the following year – around the time he wrote this letter – Hindenburg had established himself as a formidable commander of Germany’s forces on the Eastern Front. His command led successful campaigns at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in 1914-1915.
One key member of Hindenburg’s staff grew increasingly close to him during these early years of the war. Erich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was assigned to Hindenburg as his Chief of Staff in 1914, and the two men constantly worked together. Indeed, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were jointly responsible for the German victory at Tannenberg and other key advances.
Together, the two men rose to the very height of the German command structure. The National Army Museum in London describes their ascent: “Through a combination of prestige, military efficiency and intrigues against rivals they gradually established themselves over the Kaiser and the German Parliament (the Reichstag) to become supreme warlords of Germany.”Hindenburg, the Kaiser, and Ludendorff, c. 1918
In addition to the letter penned and signed by Hindenburg, the Salisbury House collections includes correspondence and signatures by Ludendorff as well.
Here again, our lack of German language skills impedes our ability to more fully interpret the artifacts. These may date to around 1919, the year following the Armistice and the end of the war.
Still, despite our uncertainties, these letters written by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff connect Salisbury House’s collections to two of the most consequential leaders of the German military during the entirety of the First World War.
After hostilities ceased in November 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff both advocated the “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat. In this rendering, the war’s loss was due to the unpatriotic machinations of socialists, communists, and Jews, among others, and not to the failure of the German high command (e.g. Hindenburg and Ludendorff).
By the 1920s, their careers veered apart. Ludendorff became increasingly involved in ultra-nationalist politics and was a prominent figure in the early Nazi party. In 1925, he ran as the Nazi presidential candidate, but received only 1% of the vote. Ludendorff’s politics and personal beliefs became increasingly unhinged and antisemitic. He died in 1937 in relative obscurity.
Hindenburg, though, remained a prominent figure in Germany, beloved as a war hero. Convinced to stand as a candidate in the 1925 presidential election, he was elected to oversee Germany’s difficult postwar governance. During the final years of his life and presidency, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor (1932), though Hindenburg remained president until his death in 1934.Paul von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, May 1933
At this point, it’s worth asking: when and why did Carl collect these objects? It is tempting to speculate. Given our lack of contextualizing information (a translation of the letters, for example, or historical sources that suggest Carl’s motives), the most responsible interpretation of these artifacts suggests that they were simply just a part of his broader collection. Perhaps Carl viewed the Hindengurg and Ludendorff letters along the same vein as his autographed letters from Charles Cornwallis or the Marquis de Lafayette: collectible documents whose worth rested on their creation by significant historical figures.
Another object from Salisbury House’s World War I-related pieces adds an additional layer to the story. A 1921 letter from the French ambassador to the United States, Jules Jusserand, thanked George S. Murphy of Des Moines for his charitable donation to the postwar recovery efforts in France.
As this correspondence is in English, we have no language barrier, but questions remain. Did Murphy and Carl Weeks know each other? Probably. Murphy’s 1966 obituary indicates that he was a prominent business owner in Des Moines and belonged to several fraternal organizations, including the Kiwanis Club and the Freemasons. It is not unlikely that Weeks and Murphy knew each other through through these groups or business associates.
Was Carl also involved in providing charitable donations to war-ravaged France? Or did Murphy, knowing Carl’s penchant for acquiring letters and signatures of famous men, offer him the letter for his collection?
Here again, we have more questions than answers.
We hope that someday we will have the sources needed to more fully tell the stories of these documents. Until then, however, they remain important, both in their own right and as illustrations of the broader historical significance of our collections here at Salisbury House.* Do you read German? We would welcome a translation of the letters included above. Reach us here. Want more World War I history? Reserve your tickets now for our upcoming History Series lecture by author Michael Nieberg on May 1. His book, Dance of the Furies, explores Europe at the outset of the Great War.