The Guns of August, revisited: Leverett couple’s latest foray into World War I looks at Americans in occupied Belgium

Last modified: Thursday, July 24, 2014
Just over 100 years ago, German troops invaded Belgium — the opening salvo on the Western Front in World War I, an orgy of violence and destruction that would kill and wound perhaps 30 million people and dramatically alter Europe’s map and social order.

Though the United States would not enter the conflict until 1917, a good number of Americans — diplomats, journalists, artists, businessmen — lived in Belgium in August 1914 and watched the German army march through the country, destroying towns and shooting suspected civilian saboteurs. For many in the U.S., these expatriates’ reports became the first accounts of the war.

Those accounts are a gold mine for Ed and Libby Klekowski of Leverett, for whom the American experience in WWI is a subject of intense interest. In the past several years, the retired academics from the University of Massachusetts Amherst have produced two documentary films and a book on the subject. Their newest book chronicles the war in Belgium through the eyes of American witnesses — and the ordeal the country suffered during four years of German occupation.

In “Americans in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918,” published by McFarland Press, the Klekowskis have plumbed the letters, diaries and memoirs of these Americans, as well as other primary sources, to offer a fresh look at this fateful time. It’s a process they used in their first book, 2012’s “Eyewitnesses to the Great War,” which examined less well-known stories of people who served in the conflict, such as Americans who volunteered to drive ambulances for the French army.

“We just have a passion for this,” said Ed Klekowski, a professor emeritus of biology at UMass who still maintains an office at the school. “I did research for years as a biologist, and Libby worked with me. Once we retired, we just moved on to different subjects.”

The couple began their post-academic careers by making a series of documentary films about local history, such as the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir. Their interest in WWI developed in part from visits they began making in the 2000s to see their daughter, Amanda, and her husband, Ulrich von Koppenfels, and their granddaughters, who live in Brussels, Belgium, and have a country home in the Meuse-Argonne region of northeast France.

From those locations, the Klekowskis visited infamous battlefields such as Ypres, the Somme and Verdun, and the enormity of what they saw fascinated them. They’ve been researching the war ever since, from exploring old trench lines and fortifications to investigating small WWI museums in Belgium and France.

Libby Klekowski says their interest in the American presence in wartime Belgium dates to 2004, when they visited the city of Leuven (formerly Louvain) and discovered the Germans had destroyed an historic library of the city’s university (and a good part of the city itself) in August 1914. The library was rebuilt after the war largely with U.S. aid, Klekowski notes, and the names of more than 300 American benefactors are listed on memorial stones in the walls.

“We hadn’t known that story at all, and when we found out about it, we thought ‘What other stories are out there?’ ” she said.

Developing war zone

In fact, there were quite a few. The stories the Klekowskis have unearthed in “Americans in Occupied Belgium” range from the harrowing to the comical — from firsthand accounts of the German sacking of cities to a half-baked attempt by a handful of U.S. soldiers, just after the war, to kidnap Kaiser Wilhelm, the deposed German leader who had gone into exile in the Netherlands in November 1918.

Ed Klekowski, who wrote the text, weaves in a general narrative of the war’s main events in Belgium, such as the series of blood-soaked battles that took place around the western city of Ypres from 1914 to 1917. Libby Klekowski, who edited the book, handled the archival research, digitizing images, including photos from postcards and periodicals of that era.

“We’re always turning up stuff in flea markets [in Europe],” Ed Klekowski said with a laugh. He says they’ve gotten much help from their daughter and son-in-law with some of the materials they uncover, as both can translate documents in French or German or assist in interviews in those languages. The Klekowskis say they’ve also received key assistance from staff at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Library at UMass in tracking down research material.

Much of the first few chapters of the book look at how Americans living in Belgium reacted to the German invasion. Brand Whitlock, the head of the U.S. Legation in Brussels, was a former mayor from Ohio who saw his post in Brussels as a quiet place where he could work on his novels. Instead, he soon had his hands full trying to protect Americans in the midst of war.

U.S. journalists in the country were anxious to cover the biggest breaking story of their careers — even at the risk of their lives. One reporter, Richard Harding Davis, caught up with German troops marching through southwest Belgium, undeterred by the fact he spoke no German and barely any French. But German officers, thinking Davis might be a spy, arrested him and threatened to shoot him.

Davis was ultimately given 48 hours to report back to the German commander in Brussels — or face execution. He made the 50-mile journey by foot and by hitching a ride from a more sympathetic German staff officer in a car; he arrived back in Brussels, in Whitlock’s words, “sunburned and unshaven, powdered grey from head to foot with dust ... he looked like a weary tramp.”

While some Americans fled to the Netherlands, which was neutral, or followed the retreating Belgian army west, others stayed in the country, while thrill-seekers came to watch the war unfold. Walter Austin of Boston, a self-described “War Zone Gadabout,” passed himself off as a correspondent for a Boston-area newspaper and in 1914 visited Antwerp, damaged from shelling and swarming with German soldiers. He and a few other “lame-brained tourists,” Ed Klekowski writes, then somehow managed to drive a car into no man’s land at the Ypres battlefield before a French officer screamed at them to get lost.

Local links

The Klekowskis have uncovered a number of links to the Valley in their book. Gladys Winterbottom — shown driving a car on the book’s front cover — originally from Boston, had married an English officer and went to Belgium to serve with a field hospital aiding wounded soldiers. But earlier in her life, Winterbottom had attended the MacDuffie School in Springfield, and her first husband, Dunlap Pearce Penhallow, was from Amherst.

And Lawrence Wellington of Amherst, a 1912 graduate of Williams College, worked with the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), a predominantly American-funded effort led by future U.S. President Herbert Hoover that brought food to Belgium and northern France, where civilians faced starvation by late 1914. Wellington would later watch German troops deporting residents from the French city of Lille, just over the Belgian border, for forced labor.

“A whole regiment was placed in a given quarter of the city and machine guns were placed in the street,” Wellington wrote in a report, “and six, eight, or ten fully armed soldiers entered each house to remove all inhabitants capable of doing field labor.”

“Americans in Occupied Belgium” provides a grim reminder of the hardships visited on the small country during WWI. In the initial invasion, German troops, convinced they were being fired on by civilian snipers (“franc-tireurs”), shot thousands of civilians and torched houses in reprisal. As the war dragged on, Belgians were deported to Germany to work in the war industry and to help grow more food, as Germany struggled with the effects of a British naval blockade.

“Belgium was, in many respects, a dress rehearsal for the civilian terrors of the Second World War,” Ed Klekowski writes.

Those brutalities led some American men to volunteer to fight in the British and Canadian armies in Belgium before the U.S. entered the war. By contrast, Klekowski says one of the biggest surprises he discovered in his research was how many German-Americans returned to Germany in 1914 to volunteer to fight for the Fatherland.

“We kept running into these accounts from Americans [in Belgium] who would meet German soldiers who spoke English and had studied at Harvard or worked in a bank in Cleveland or what have you,” he said.

Klekowski is using that information in his next venture into WWI: a novel set during the war, the main character a German-American who joins the German army in 1914 in a burst of patriotism, then becomes steadily disillusioned as the fighting drags on.

Though he’s never written a novel before, Klekowski says, things are going well. “So far so good.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.