Twentieth Century history is dominated by World War II and its consequences. Often forgotten or minimized the deadliest conflict in human history to that point, the First World War and it’s aftermath.
In the two years that I have been pursuing my PhD in history, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge and historical documentation on America’s epic undertaking to rebuild Europe after World War I. What fascinates me most of all are the amazing stories of courage, sacrifice and overcoming challenges that make history so personal and real even a century later.
One of these stories is captured in the pages of War’s Aftermath by Colonel William R. Grove, a memoir of the experiences of the chief of the American Mission to Poland in 1919, which initiated one of the greatest humanitarian relief operations in history.
The brief Wikipedia entry on Colonel Grove doesn’t do him justice, though it does highlight one of his greatest feats, charging a group of insurgents in the Philippine-American War, pistol in hand, killing or capturing all of them. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, America’s highest decoration, in 1902 for his action.
William Regsburg Grove was born in Montezuma, Iowa in 1872. He later moved to Denver, Colorado, where he began military service in the National Guard. He was sent to the Philippines during the Spanish-American War as Captain in the First Colorado Infantry, and through active service earned the rank of Colonel. In addition to the Medal of Honor, he received the Purple Heart and the Silver Star medal with four oak-leaf clusters for gallantry in action.
He then spent three and a half years as the Chief Quartermaster of the business enterprises of the Panama Canal. During World War I, in 1917, he headed the Subsistence Division in Washington D.C. and in August, 1918 traveled to France where he led the Purchasing Office of the Quartermaster’s Corps in Paris.
In January, 1919, appointed by Herbert Hoover, he led the American Mission to assess conditions in Poland and initiated the machinery of relief that would ultimately supply over $100 million worth of humanitarian relief. For his service Grove was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the War Department, was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honor and received the Polonia Restituta of Poland.
In 1922 he also coordinated the distribution of relief supplies in Ukraine, provided by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, and administered by the American Relief Administration.
War’s Aftermath chronicles the herculean efforts of both Americans and Poles to revitalize the Polish nation which had been devastated by years of warfare, had only regained its independence months earlier and was fighting border battles on multiple fronts. The book’s chapters include titles including “Distress in the Cities”, “A Week’s Routine in Warsaw”, “The Food Arrives” and “Relief for Children”.
Although it was impossible to measure, Grove was confident that American food relief helped to halt the spread of Bolshevism by maintaining order among the civilian populace, particularly during the Polish-Soviet war, when food-related disturbances could have caused chaos behind the front lines:
“American food enabled the Poles to keep order, and the additional interallied support received in the way of clothing, medicines, war equipment and Haller’s Army enabled the Polish Army to stand off its enemies and finally to assume the offensive. Without such aid it is quite possible that the Bolshevists and the Ukrainians might have overrun the country.” (War’s Aftermath, pg. 192)
The first place where emergency shipments food arrived were to Lwów in February, 1919, which was then under siege by Ukrainian nationalists. Leading the American relief there (and later participating in battle against the Bolsheviks as a pilot) was Colonel Merian C. Cooper, who later achieved fame as the director of King Kong.
Though not an academic text, the work is a valuable, primary source based on the direct experience of one of the most important figures in American Relief to Poland. He provides a wealth of anecdotes of his experiences in Poland, including playing chess with Jozef Piłsudski, dining with Ignacy Paderewski, traveling in windowless rail cars in freezing weather, and the pitiful sight of barefoot children walking the streets of Warsaw in winter.
The task of the Americans and their Polish counterparts was not an easy one.
They first had to assess the needs of the country based on visits all over Poland, including the remote borderlands (Kresy), the negotiation and arrangement of food importation facilities and transport in the port of Danzig (Gdańsk), then still controlled by Germany, the financing of relief in the depressed, postwar, economic environment, and the equitable distribution of food to the most needy, while avoiding discrimination against minorities, particularly Polish Jews.
Throughout the book Grove emphasizes his optimism that the Poles will be able to recover from the devastating effects of war and rise again to prominence in Europe. A sobering afterword to Grove’s memoir however is the final chapter by Baron Stefan de Ropp on “Poland of 1940” (the year Grove’s book was published). Little was known then of how truly terrible the consequences of the second world war in the span of a quarter century would be on Poland.
Though William R. Grove passed away in 1952, War’s Aftermath lives on as a testament to the heroic work done by disinterested men who sought to save the suffering and starving men, women and children of Poland, one nation of many that received American relief after World War I.
By chance, my copy of Grove’s book was once owned by Lewis L. Strauss, Herbert Hoover’s private secretary during the postwar relief, and a significant figure in 20th century history.
Unfortunately War’s Aftermath is not a well-known book, though it would be of significant interest to both Polish and American historians. While I have other pressing projects to attend to, namely finishing my PhD dissertation, seeing War’s Aftermath re-published is something I’ll endeavor to do. It’s a very accessible book that will appeal to both historians and general readers, particularly those interested in modern, Polish and American history.
William R. Grove is one of many men who deserve recognition for the tremendous work done to support Poland in the critical moments of its newly regained independence.