Twilight of the Special Relationship

Michael O’Brien

Reveille Press £14.99

The author of this book, Mike O’Brien, is a retired librarian whose original degree is in American studies, hence his interest in the American aspects of World War I. In particular, he has studied the issue of Americans in the British Army, as opposed to Americans who, for example, joined the Canadian forces. Given the common frontier between the United States and Canada, it was of course easy for enthusiastic American volunteers to go to Canada to join Commonwealth forces, or indeed forces of the British Empire as it was then.

This book deals with the issue of Americans who joined the British forces and died as a result. It is one of those unfortunate truisms of World War I research that it is easier to find soldiers who were killed than those who survived, though indeed there is some mention of those as well. The introduction deals with the somewhat tricky relationship between the UK and its former colony. By 1914, the “special relationship” between the two countries was diminishing, not least because of the dilution of the Anglo-Saxon population by waves of immigration from central, eastern and southern Europe. So, this episode of their common history is in many ways the last hurrah for the true special relationship, hence the title for the book.

The United States did not enter World War I until 1917. Indeed, President Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 election partly on the basis of keeping his country out of World War I. He did, however, have family connections both to England and to Northern Ireland, and so British historians who paint him as being anti-British have rather got it wrong.

One of the key issues in identifying Americans in other armies is how to know whether a casualty is non-Canadian or non-British, as the case may be. Usually, the only source of information is if any has been provided to the CWGC by the family, and that then will have been recorded by them in cemetery or memorial records. Indeed, an American author called Chris Dickon has used this method to trawl through the CWGC records to identify casualties with an American connection, and of course there are more in the Canadian forces than in the British ones. Obviously, an American address is not proof of American citizenship. The person concerned could have been an immigrant, or a Canadian who just happened to be working in the United States. Mike’s book deals with these issues and the very tricky political situation, certainly in the first two years of the war leading up to the American entry into World War I in April 1917.

The Americans in the British forces were often wealthy and educated, sometimes with a British connection such as being at a British university. However, there were those who were simply “working Joes” rather than “hi hats”. Some of the working Joes crossed the Atlantic by working as crew in a horse transporter, as such ships required men to help look after the horses in the journey to Europe but would return to America in ballast, and so were quite happy if the crew jumped ship in the UK.

While some of the American recruits had some sort of connection with the UK, others did not and were simply looking for adventure or thought that they should oppose the militarism of the Kaiser’s Germany. Indeed, German Americans seem to have largely joined the American army when America entered the war rather than try and support the “old country”, not least as many were from families who had left it because of unhappiness with their lives there. There was also the practical problem that reaching the Kaiser’s Germany from America was difficult, partly due to the Royal Navy blockade, and partly due to the fact that few American ships would have been going to Germany as opposed to the UK, which it supplied with a variety of goods long before America’s entry into the war.

Mike has put together quite remarkable personal histories for a whole variety of these “British” Americans. It indicates the painstaking research which has been undertaken, including having an encyclopedic knowledge of American books and media which cover this period. I should add at this point that Mike’s writing style is very accessible and very easy to get on with.

Perhaps my two favourite characters that Mike describes are, firstly, one who has a connection with my own family. Lt Albert Spalding was the son of a famous baseball player who turned businessman and founded the Spalding sports equipment company. Albert was in fact the illegitimate son but after the death of Spalding senior’s wife, he adopted Albert as his own son. In the book, Mike describes the very complicated family manoeuvrings which went on, including the effect of a lady who had a major influence on Spalding senior’s second wife and who was the instigator of a crank sect.

Spalding Jr joined the British Army on 29 August 1914 when he was living in London. He had of course to deny that he was really American in order to be allowed to join the British Army. This issue was a tightrope act for the British administration, insofar as they wanted to have the American recruits but did not want to upset the neutral American government, so frequently the American recruits describe themselves as being Canadian. Of course, when one looks at the records the obvious question is why would somebody who was really Canadian join the British Army when the Canadian army was already in the war anyway? The likelihood is that they were Americans disguising their true nationality.

By first of July 1916, Albert was a lieutenant in the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers, part of the 36th (Ulster) Division located at Thiepval on the Somme. He was killed in the German second-line trench. His body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the missing. The family connection is that my own grandfather was an ordinary private in the 10th Inniskilling Fusiliers at this time. He was fatally wounded on 1st July, dying of wounds on 3rd July. Surely, grandfather must have known Albert Spalding.

As Spalding was listed as missing rather than killed in action, initially, he continued after his death to be a plaintiff in his brothers’ action against the crank spiritualist. Eventually, the case was settled in the family’s favour.

Like many of the American recruits later in the war, George Harding was a flyer. However, his flying career was a short one in that he was the only American victim of Baron von Richthofen. One remarkable aspect of the engagement is that von Richthofen’s report mis-identifies the type of plane which Harding was flying. It was a new type known as a Dolphin. Harding’s body was so badly burned that he was buried in a French churchyard in an unidentified grave. In 1919, his sister who was an actress in a company entertaining troops in France searched the area, located a likely grave and persuaded the authorities to exhume the body which she identified as that of her brother. He is now buried in the small cemetery at Dive Copse. Of personal interest to me is that when we were at the cemetery during the Somme centenary commemorations, somebody had placed an American flag on the wrong grave, as there are in fact two casualties named Harding in the cemetery. When we returned the next day, there was no sign of the American flag on either grave. I wonder if the person who planted the flag realised that George Harding had been hospitalised for gonorrhoea, not once but twice which undoubtedly delayed his appearance on the Western Front.

Overall, this is an excellent book which is the product of considerable work and research by the author. It is also very readable and in commemorating the stories, good or bad, of these men it preserves their memory.Image00005