New Jersey and the Great War

Book Review – New Jersey and the Great War by Richard J. Connors

Connors, Richard J. New Jersey and the Great War: 1914-1919. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, Print.

No one questions The Great War’s monumental impact on the world at large. How it affected areas outside the battle zones sometimes gets lost in analyses of the conflict.  Historian Richard J. Connors made a great stride towards rectifying this gap. In New Jersey and the Great War, he showed how the First World War both shaped and became shaped by the Garden State’s contributions. Both an enlightening and engaging read resulted.

The author explained how the expression above the state capital’s railroad bridge, “Trenton makes, the world takes”, applied to the entire state beginning in 1914. (Page 6) New Jersey served as a source of munitions, shipbuilding and aircraft. “Just as the Du Ponts had come to dominate explosives, John D. Rockefeller dominated oil.” (Page 23)

To my surprise, the city of Hoboken played a much unheralded role in the war. (Pages 37 -39) During America’s neutrality it served as a major location for many of the industries that contributed to the Allied war effort. Following the nation’s entry into the conflict its availability as a major port made it a primary center of embarkation for Europe by American “doughboys.”

While all readers know the dangers of combat, Dr. Connors described how civilians faced comparable risks working in war related industries.

In all its phases, munitions was a dangerous business. Manufacturing powder, loading shells, transporting these to the waterfront, placing munitions onto barges for transfer to ocean going vessels: every step was at high risk…Fires, explosions and related disasters became part of the New Jersey story during the Great War. It was not in a corporation’s interest to publicize these, but news of major tragedies did reach the press. Examples from 1914-17 include and explosion at Du Pont’s Carney’s Point plant in January 1916; disaster at Jersey City’s Black Tom complex in July 1916; the destruction of the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Lyndhurst in January 1917; a major explosion at Du Pont’s Haskell works that same month. (Page 28)

The Du Pont Haskell facility was a particularly treacherous place to work. The plant experienced twenty-five explosions in 1916. (Page 30) Another tragedy occurred when the T. A. Gillespie facility located in the Morgan section of Sayerville exploded in 1918. Historians estimate that it cost one hundred workers their lives. (Page 35)

Dr. Connors balanced his depictions of weaponry and war materiel with the state’s contributions to preserving life.

During the war years, New Jersey did make significant contributions to the survival of military casualties. One was in the field of quality surgical instruments, a Newark specialty. Another was anesthetic ether, where E. R. Squibb of New Brunswick had been active since the late nineteenth century. Arguably the most important was the work of the Johnson brothers, who headed another New Brunswick firm. Johnson and Johnson (J & J) was a nineteenth century pioneer in sterile surgical dressings, absorbent cotton, and bandages. During the Great War the Allies obtained the bulk of these necessities from the firm. (Page 26)

Of interest to both military and local history buffs, the book contained brief but informative histories of both the 29th and 78th infantry divisions. These units included soldiers from New Jersey. As a South Jersey native, I enjoyed reading about the origins of the latter’s home: a facility built during 1917. At the time known as Camp Dix, the facility still operates today.

Dr. Connors concluded his history by discussing Garden Staters who distinguished themselves in combat far above the call of duty. The first appendix detailed service members who received the Medal of Honor for their valor. The next included biographical paragraphs regarding airmen who received the “ace” designation. (James Pearson, the man believed to have been the last surviving American ace of the war, passed away at the age of 97 in Upper Montclair on January 6, 1993.) New Jersey native and World War I casualty Joyce Kilmer’s “Rouge Boquet” rounded out the final one.

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture Dr. Connors presented concerning this subject. His colorful wit and erudition inspired me. At the conclusion of his remarks, I wanted to learn more about New Jersey and the Great War. I found his book of the same title an extraordinary resource to do so.

 

Lecture Review – Richard J. Connors, Ph.D.: New Jersey and the Great War

Richard J. Connors opened his remarks with perhaps the most unusual preface to a talk regarding warfare: he spoke about love. The man whose death ignited the Great War, Archduke Ferdinand, married for love. The professor then informed his audience that he “falls in love easily” when he addressed the Historical Society of Moorestown. The erudite gentleman explained that he’d fallen in love with the host town upon visiting. Those interested in history certainly loved his talk this October 5th at the Community House.

Dr. Connors holds the title of Professor Emeritus as Seton Hall University. A catalog of his notable works includes: A Cycle of Power: The Local Political Career of Mayor Frank Hague, The New Jersey Constitution of 1776 and New Jersey and the Great War; the latter serving as the basis for his lecture. In addition to writing about military affairs, the professor possesses personal knowledge of the subject. He served as an officer in the Army Corp of Engineers with the Army of Occupation in Okinawa in 1947. From 1951 – 1952 he served in the Korean War.

The professor commenced his talk by describing the European conception of warfare at the advent of the Great War. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, “royal affairs” between rival kingdoms comprised armed conflicts. The Napoleonic Era spawned a transition to “quick and dirty affairs” between nation states. This led planners to anticipate a brief First World War. This miscalculation gave rise to “total warfare.” Conscription allowed for an “army of millions” to take the field against an opponent of equal size. In the end, the conflict led to 30 million soldier and civilian casualties.

Many technological innovations occurred during the 99 years following Napoleon’s defeat until the first shots of the Great War. Tanks, aircraft, flamethrowers, barbed wire, heavy artillery, poison gas and machine guns entered the battlefield for the first time. Many historians cite these developments as reason for the massive loss of life during the war. Dr. Connors added an incisive corollary to that analysis: these weapons “gave a lot of emphasis to the defense.” This would explain why the British suffered nearly 60,000 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Dr. Connors enlightened the audience regarding the role the Garden State played in the war. He used the old real estate aphorism “location, location, location” to explain its significance. New Jersey housed several munitions plants; an industry which experienced a boom (no pun intended) once the war commenced. The state’s refineries also provided a source of fuel for the Allies. Cites, such as Camden, became centers of ship building.

To local history buffs’ delight, Dr. Connors also discussed the 78th and 29th Infantry Divisions. Both units included soldiers from New Jersey. Camp Dix served as the training ground of the former and Camp McClellan for the latter. The professor noted the interesting fact that although located in Alabama, a former Garden State governor and Union general provided that base’s name.

When contemplating wartime casualties, one traditionally thinks of injuries sustained in combat. Dr. Connors reported that flu and pneumonia proved more deadly than the battlefield. According to a study conducted in the early 1930s: Americans suffered 52,000 casualties in battle. The twin scourges of Flu and pneumonia combined for 63,000.

America’s declaration of war on April 2, 1917 led to an eruption of patriotism “overnight.” That seemed an odd, as when asked why the US entered the conflict the professor replied, “Damned if I know.” He went on to hypothesize that the nation did so for the following reasons: 1) while initially ‘neutral’, American financiers such as JP Morgan bankrolled the Allies from 1914 – 1917. These economic ties ensured entering the conflict against the Central Powers. 2) Unrestricted German submarine warfare negatively impacted American business interests. 3) The Zimmerman Note, in which Germany offered to assist Mexico in retaking the American Southwest, became widely reported. Dr. Connors added that both the British and Germans propaganda machines operated stateside during the war. The British possessed more skill in this field due the shared language.

Josef Stalin observed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the deaths of millions is a statistic.” Many historians neglect the human cost of the tragedies they explicate. Dr. Connors avoided this error. He humanized the Great War’s cost by quoting a poem written by New Jersey native Joyce Kilmer: himself a casualty of the conflict.

A discussion that began with the subject of love concluded with its antithesis. At the cessation of hostilities “a demand for peace turned to a demand for revenge.” It became the catalyst for an “age of bigger government.” As Dr. Connors wrote in New Jersey and the Great War: “Subtly and sadly, then, the Great War trained us for World War II.”