A memoir, written sometime between September 1914 and May 1915, recollects the chaotic beginning of World War I.
In June 1914, T. Tileston Wells, an attorney from New York, set out by sea for Europe with his wife, Georgina; his 18-year-old son; and his 11-year-old daughter. Later that same month, while Wells was in Paris, a Serbian national assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, the spark that ultimately led to the Great War. Initially, Wells was reluctant to leave Paris, but his wife was confident no war would come, so they embarked for Austria by train. However, in July, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia, and while the family was vacationing in Cortina, Austria-Hungary officially declared war. The following month, while Wells was touring Riva, Germany and Russia began their conflict, and he was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a Russian spy. He was traveling without a passport—common at the time—but thankfully, he had an introductory letter from William Jennings Bryan, then the U.S. secretary of state. The U.S. Congress appropriated considerable funds to help rescue Americans stuck in Europe at the time, but efforts at rescue were woefully incompetent; meanwhile, banks in Venice, where Wells applied for a passport, weren’t disbursing funds. Wells was eventually able to make to it to Rome in September, right before Benedict XV was selected as the new pope. Soon after, he and his family left Naples on the SS Canopic, which ultimately transported them to Boston. Wells later became a fierce advocate for Serbian relief and the Romanian consul general to America. Kelly (Italy Invades, 2015), Wells’ great-grandson, writes a thoughtful introduction to this remembrance and provides a running editorial commentary that consistently furnishes edifying information about Wells and the war. Wells’ interpretations of the grand history unfolding around him are consistently insightful and prescient and sometimes historically controversial; for example, he contends that Serbia warned Austria of the plan to murder the archduke. It’s fascinating to see a firsthand witness’s account of the war’s start as well as his interpretation of its causes. It’s also thrilling to follow Wells’ attempt to steward his family back to the relative safety of the United States. This is historical scholarship at its best: rigorous, testimonial, and dramatic.
An enthralling introduction to one of the defining events of the 20th century.