An Analytical View of the War
Posted On: 05/03/2017 - 4:31pm, Posted By: Christine Engels, Archives Manager, Manuscripts Department
April 6, 2017 marked the 100th anniversary of the United States entry into World War I. Every other Wednesday, we will present items from our collections that highlight life in Cincinnati, around the nation and from the battlefields during the war.
When World War I began Charles Rolker (1853-1927) was an American living in London while his Cincinnati-born cousin, Katherine Roelker Wulsin (1860-1948), was living in France [Part of the family used Roelker while others preferred the more Americanized Rolker]. Naturally they kept up a correspondence throughout the war. Charles’s letters stand out to me for their density and entirely logical nature. Unfortunately we do not have Katherine’s letters to Charles but we can see what most concerned her in his responses. Though most of the letters were about the war Charles also gave her advice and urged her not to give too much of herself to others, especially her sons. Through Charles’s letters we can see a bit of a family caught in the middle of a war.
Charles first writes to Katherine on December 6, 1914 and describes how London is urging its citizens to stay hidden from enemy airplanes by blacking out any lights in their homes, to “pull the blinds.” In this letter he is optimistic that the war will end by 1915 but he fears that the men are not well trained and that supplies are sorely lacking. Another theme throughout his letters is the fear that Russia’s internal troubles would delay the war’s end, something he proved to be prescient about.
Charles Roelker, London, to Katherine Roelker Wulsin, December 14, 1914
Charles letters are blunt and filled with facts and figures. The amount of detail he gathered on the war’s progress is astonishing. In his small but neat handwriting he lists out casualties and supply issues and tracks the movement, or lack thereof, of the frontline. He is quite obviously a businessman used to hard facts and figures. He answers Katherine’s questions and asks her some of his own. He finds her hope completely baseless that perhaps the German people would protest and have a revolution, thus ending the war quickly. Katherine’s sons, Lucien and Frederick, both served in the war. Charles, being utterly logical and rational, tried to calm Katherine’s fears by stating the statistics of men killed in the war which he put at around 12% of enlisted men in 1917. Though meant to allay her fears it’s doubtful if a worried mother would find much comfort in that.
All of Charles’s letters are fascinating to read. On February 10, 1915 he wrote, “One result of this war will be, I think that no one will ever again have the power put into his hands to bring about such a war. The people will rule and the Hohenzollerns will go, the Kaiser I hope to a mad house, where he belongs.” Charles had nothing but criticism for Woodrow Wilson as well, stating that he behaved with, “his usual pedagogue principle of putting the wrong foot forward.” Throughout the 1916 election cycle Charles supported Charles Evans Hughes, the republican candidate, though he feared Wilson would win since most Americans did not want to get into the war.
Charles Roelker, New York, to Katherine Roelker Wulsin, April 27, 1917
Charles had strong views on Americans prior to U.S. entry into the war. He felt they were not patriotic enough and that pacifism should not be tolerated. “It would be a blessing if we could shoot a half dozen of them legally or better yet hang them.” Also that “pacifists should be drummed out of the country.” Once the US was in the war he even wrote that it might be a good thing if the German submarines bombed coastal US cities since it would increase recruitment numbers. Charles also mentions visiting some of their German cousins that he believed were supporters of Germany. Though that was distasteful to him they simply avoided the topic of the war while together.
Only once did Charles write about women working in jobs traditionally filled by men and the fact that they were making higher wages than before the war. He notes that it will not be easy to return to pre-war roles and writes, “As far as suffrage goes, I think they will unquestionably get it in England without material opposition and though I don’t like the idea, I must admit they have deserved it.”
Charles moved back to the U.S. during the war and gives a stirring description of the celebrations in New York City at the end of World War I. People crowded the streets yelling “It’s over!” In his last letter on March 22-23, 1919 he strongly criticizes Wilson and his “autocratic ways” and gives his thoughts on the future of Germany and also Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania.