Dodging World War I by pluck and luck

I usually try to separate the topics in my “Reflections” column for the Kendall County Record, Inc. newspapers from HistoryontheFox, but I think, since this week’s column deals with a major world-wide anniversary, that I’m going to suspend my rule, at least for this week.

World War I began 100 years ago this week, generally said to have started on July 28 when troops of the Austro-Hungarian Empire fired on Serbian positions. The attack was the end result of the assassination, exactly a month before, of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian-instigated Bosnian terrorists.

Here in the Fox Valley during the hot summer of 1914, however, Kendall County was consumed by politics and the weather, not war in some far-off place.

Former President Theodore Roosevelt had split with the Republican Party, and his Progressive Party—nicknamed the Bull Moose Party—was on the move. A number of Republicans (including a number here in Kendall County) joined Roosevelt, much to the consternation—and anger—of other GOP stalwarts.

Along with politics, local folks were trying to deal with a brutally hot summer that year, and a lack of rain that had farmers worried about their crops.

So when the crisis, seemingly just one more in a string that stretched back hundreds of years, arose in the Balkans, nobody here paid much attention to it. As much as they tried ignoring what was going on, however, it proved impossible. The assassination touched off a series of complicated and deadly miscalculations by every country in Europe. Although the conflict opened on July 28, it took until Aug. 4 for most of the rest of Europe to become embroiled in a war that eventually spread worldwide.

For a complete account of what happened that fateful summer, read Barbara Tuchman’s seminal The Guns of August, which is available at every library in the country, plus in new electronic formats, especially if you’ve got one of Amazon’s Kindles or have the Kindle app on your smartphone or tablet computer.

Getting back to the topic of this week’s column, though, while the thunder of the guns across the ocean couldn’t be heard here in Kendall County, their effects were certainly felt almost as soon as the firing began. On Aug. 5, Kendall County Record Editor Hugh R. Marshall observed: “As a result of the warlike conditions existing in Europe, conditions in this country have become unsettled…The New York stock exchange was closed following a similar action by the London board and the trade in securities has been at a standstill. Several brokerage firms have failed and the financial market has been of the frenzied order. American tourists in England and Europe are feeling the effects of this war scare. Money is hard to obtain and they may be forced into a long stay abroad. It is said that over 2,000 Chicagoans are thus stranded. To add to this inconvenience, several Atlantic steamship lines have cancelled their regular trips, and the ships are held in port.”

Nancy "Nannie" Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

Nancy “Nannie” Hill was the principal of the old Oak Street School on the west side of Aurora in the summer of 1914 when she and a teacher at the school decided to take a European tour–just in time to get caught up in the outbreak of World War I. This photo shows what the school looked like in 1906.

And, indeed, the war’s outbreak was proving a considerable challenge for a former Kendall County resident. Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill grew to adulthood and then taught in Yorkville for several years before taking a teaching job at Aurora’s Oak Street School (now the Mary A. Todd School) in 1902. An outstanding educator, she was tapped to be the school’s principal in 1909.

In the summer of 1914, Hill and Mrs. Alice Eyman, a teacher at the school, left the U.S. on a European excursion. Touring Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Italy, they arrived at Interlaken, Switzerland on July 30. There, they began their preparations for heading back to the U.S., sending their trunks ahead to Liverpool to be put aboard their ride home, the RMS Franconia. The pair planned to follow their trunks with a leisurely rail journey west through Germany, on to Paris, and across the Channel to England where they’d board the Franconia, and sail from Liverpool on Aug. 18.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S.  from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

The RMS Franconia was to be Nancy Hill’s ride back home to the U.S. from Europe. She was launched July, 23 1910 at the Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson shipyard in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. When World War I broke out, she was taken into service as a troop transport. She was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean by a German U-boat on Oct. 4, 1916.

But on Aug. 1, Germany, France, and Russia announced they were mobilizing their armies, with Britain following a day later. The quickly expanding war in Europe wrecked the pair’s plans—with armies on the march, their trip back through Germany into France was impossible. To complicate matters, the worldwide financial panic created by the outbreak of war noted by Marshall in the Aug. 4 Record, made it impossible for them to cash the checks they were relying on for funds. Neither the banks, nor the famed Thomas Cook agency would accept checks.

“I hope to never go through a more dismal week than the one which followed,” Hill later recalled.

The two women made common cause with a number of other stranded Americans, organizing themselves into a committee. The two teachers volunteered their clerical skills to record the travelers’ data. The first hurdle, getting everyone’s passports, was crossed, and they began looking for a way around or through the war zone. Larger traveling groups left first, pooling their resources to pay their way into Italy and then back to the U.S. from there.

The increasingly desperate women finally nerved themselves to go the U.S. Consulate in Berne, which they discovered to be in a third floor flat served by a rickety elevator.

“The consul is a plain, everyday, good natured man, who with his two assistants received us most cordially,” Hill recalled. “He declared our checks as good as gold, cashed $50 worth at par for us, and then shaking us each by the hand he bade us ‘cheer up,’ which we immediately proceeded to do.”

With their trunks already sent on to England, the pair only had one suitcase between them, including one pair of shoes each. With all the walking they’d been doing trying to find a way to get back to the U.S., their shoes had been well-used.

“In celebration of our suddenly acquired wealth, we spent one morning in a cobbler’s shop getting our shoes resoled,” Hill recalled. “We had been interested in diamond cutting in Dresden, why not in shoemaking in Interlaken? With feet incased in slippers furnished by the cobbler’s wife, we watched the process of reconstruction with interest and probably profit.”

Now well-shod, and with cash in hand, they made ready to seize whatever opportunities presented themselves. So on Aug. 18, when a note on the bulletin board at the American gathering place advertised a way to England, the pair joined with a group with the right connections to travel through France to the Channel. Normally a 24 hour journey, the trip stretched to four grueling days due to military rail traffic. The journey, Hill said, resembled “nothing so much as riding on the Yorkville electric [trolley line] during the old Chautauqua season. The accommodations were about the same and the crowds equal.”

RMS Alaunia was launched on 9 June 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard for one of the ship’s last civilian voyages since upon the outbreak of World War I, she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

RMS Alaunia was launched on June 9, 1913. Nancy Hill and Alice Eyman were aboard the nearly new ship for one of her last civilian voyages, since upon the outbreak of World War I she was taken into British government service as a troop carrier. On Sept. 19, 1916, the Alaunia sank after striking mine laid earlier that day by a German mine laying U-boat.

From Interlaken, their route was to Berne, on to Geneva, across the Swiss frontier to Dijon, France, and finally to Paris. They reached London on Aug. 22, learning the next day that the Franconia had already sailed. “Nothing daunted, we set out early the following day, resolved either to buy a boat or make one,” the intrepid educator recalled.

Luckily, they found passage on the Cunard Line’s RMS. Alaunia. It proved a nerve-wracking voyage, with wartime conditions enforced aboard, not to mention lack of winter clothing on the freezing North Atlantic, their trunks having already preceded them to Boston.

Eager to get home and back to their jobs, Hill and Eyman reached Quebec on Sept. 5, and then raced southwest to Chicago by train, arriving home on Labor Day, before taking up their jobs once again at Oak Street School.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. "Nannie" Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

Nancy L. Hill School, Illinois at Pennsylvania Avenue, Aurora, as it looked in 1976. Formerly the Illinois Avenue School, but reamed in 1928 to honor Nancy L. “Nannie” Hill, long-time principal of the Oak Street School, after her death.

For the next few years, the Record wasn’t quite sure what to make of the war raging in Europe. It soon became clear the conflict would not be brief—as all the protagonists had expected—and that the U.S. would eventually be drawn into it.

For her part, the determined Hill went on to become a beloved figure in the West Aurora School District—after her death in 1928, the newly constructed Illinois Avenue School was renamed Nancy L. Hill Elementary School.

But in the late summer of 1914 here in the Fox Valley, all that was in the future; the emphasis was on Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose campaign, and the entertaining tale of a plucky local woman’s trials and perils trying to get back to the good old U.S. of A.

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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, People in History

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