A trip to England and Holland during World War 1


ALL OFFICES 1234                                                  131615-1

EXCEPT TORONTO AND ENGLAND                      New York, December 15, 1915


At Mr. Woolworth’s request, I will try and give you a little idea of conditions now prevailing abroad and the many difficulties and dangers attending to a limited trip such as mine.

I left New York for Europe to secure permission from the British Government to ship our goods of German and Austrian manufacture to the United States and sailed on the SS “Finland”, on Sunday October 24th, at noon.

The SS “Finland” was formerly of the Red Star Line, running from Antwerp, Belgium, to New York, but when Belgium was invaded by the Germans, this vessel being one of the fleet of the International Mercantile Marine, was changed to New York and Panama service.

She arrived at Colon at the time of the present slide that has blocked the Panama Canal and after laying there almost a month was recalled to take the place of the SS “Lapland” on account of that vessel having been ordered to Canada to transport troops to England.

On the New York – Panama run her crew had been one of all nations but to comply with present war regulations her crew had to be all Americans or English, or men from neutral nations.

The limited time after the Vessel’s return from Colon to discharge her cargo and reload for England and secure a new complement of crew and men, resulted in our having a rather nondescript crew. They were as new to the ship as the passengers, and many amusing instances occurred from their lack of knowledge of this vessel and her arrangement, during the first three days of the trip.

The vessel not being a regular passenger trans – Atlantic liner, was not in any way like the luxurious vessels you have read about, as these wonderful “Queens of the Sea” have either been turned into transports for troops or destroyed by submarines or interned in Hoboken, N.J. so the only thing to do is stay on deck or in your room, as there was no Social Hall, no Library, only a small writing room and smoking room.

The passengers in the first cabin numbered about 81, everyone except about four going abroad on serious missions, either to hasten to the bedside of some dying soldier, or to take part in the war as a soldier or nurse, or engaged in an important business transaction, which made personal safety secondary to the success of their respective callings. You will understand from this that they were by no means a very cheerful or hilarious lot.

As we cleared the dock and turned down the river starting South no one knowing what our fate might be, we were all a sad and a gloomy lot, and while the sailing of an ocean liner always seems to be a time of sadness and grief to those who part, it seemed to me on this particular occasion, there were enough tears shed to have a very appreciable effect on the amount of water in the river, and I must confess as I passed the Woolworth Building where friends so kindly hung out the flag as a last parting, my eyes were dimmed like the rest, but as I gazed upon it and realized that it stood emblematic of “Success”,  I took an extra dab at my eyes and determined to do my little bit at any cost to prove worthy of the confidence of the man who had built this building and of the big company whose home it was and whom I was going abroad to represent.

On applying to the Steward for table accommodations I was informed the “Captain” had requested the pleasure of my company at his table (pure bunk-the Steward does this himself after sizing up the list and as an added source of revenue for himself). However I was pleased to accept and got to knew the Captain and spent many pleasant hours with him in his quarters and on the bridge,- that sacred place on shipboard where passengers are not allowed.

Owing to the limited number of passengers, by Monday night, everybody knew each other, and ship boundby that common tie of danger shared by all, so we were like one family.

Wednesday at ten o’ clock A.M. all the crew were summoned to quarters for a fire and boat drill and owing to the newness of the crew before referred to, their Weber and Field attempts to clear the boats while extremely amusing from, a burlesque standpoint, convinced the passengers that watched,, that should any submarine torpedo us, the best chance of life was to put on a life belt and jump overboard.

The Captain carefully inspected every boat, and when on Friday, they commenced to run new ropes through all the blocks and falls of the boats, and build new rope ladders and then swing the boats out board prepared for instant launching, the nervous passengers decided to sleep in their clothes.

Monday night when entering the war zone, electric reflectors were extended from the sides of the vessel on long poles to throw the light on the name of the ship and the American flag painted on the sides. It was surprising to find how many passengers were troubled with insomnia that night, and found their deck chairs a pleasant place. Everyone rejoiced and went to sleep when we dropped anchor in Falmouth.

Tuesday night about eight o’clock, a Patrol ship located us and commenced to signal us by flashlights (all wireless being discontinued before entering the war zone) telling us what to do and where to go and

11:30 P.M., it was the happiness born of ignorance as for a while we had successfully braved the perils of the deep sea submarines,etc. We little knew that our troubles were only just beginning.

Wednesday morning, seven A.M., I was awakened by the Steward on account of landing early, and on stepping out of my stateroom ran into a soldier with fixed bayonet, (not the most cheerful thing before breakfast) and rather surprised at his appearance decided to go around another passageway to the Dining Salon, only to find another one on guard and then discovered the ship was completely guarded by soldiers there to watch each and everyone of us, our actions and appearance.

Breakfast over we were ordered to report to the writing room for examination to prove our identity and right to be in England.

The examination is very thorough, and is conducted by two sets of officers, Scotland Yard (Detective Headquarters) and the Army. All are seated at a table, and commence by the examination of your passport, then reference to a report from New York to see if you are scheduled as a suspected person, then examination of  your letters of introduction, personal, etc. to prove identity, next a vigorous cross examination as to why you want to land, your business etc (because they don’t want you and they don’t mind your knowing it), finally you receive a card entitling” you to go on board the tender, and once again you breathe easy and believe your troubles are over, but perish the thought, you have only just started and what is to follow it so much worse as to make this first examination seem like a social call, as I learned later.

When the tender arrived at the dock I was cheered by the sight of Mr. W.L.Stephenson from our London Office there to meet and lend any assistance he could. The examination of the baggage disposed of we proceeded to march to the station. You will note I say “march” because I must digress at this point long enough to say that Falmouth, while a beautiful harbor, lays at the extreme south western point of England, and only the exigencies of war have made it a landing place for American Line and Holland American Line vessels, therefore there are no conveniences for the handling of passengers and some distance from the deck to the Customs enclosure and thence to the station cannot be slighted by terming it a walk – it’s a march –especially when carrying a well loaded bag.

On arriving at the station, we of course, had to wait until the last passenger got on the train so any attempt at hurrying seemed almost a waste of energy and time. This delightful English town with its primitive facilities seemed to exemplify the teaching from the good book “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. While walking to the platform we heard the tramping of feet and ordering of arms, and looking around saw a squad of soldiers from the ship escorting through a group of men of military age who were trying to sneak through to Germany via England and were now being taken to one of the internment camps. My first thought was “Poor Devils” but then I realized this was just my first sight and of which I saw so many later, of the grimness of war.

We arrived in London at Paddington Station at 9.30 P.M. Wednesday, November 24th and I want again to drop my narrative to tell you of a curious sight that I saw at the end of the station Trurow[sic]; it is a large sign with white letters on a blue background and reads “This town is electrically lit and protected by the Lord’s hand”. I asked Mr. Stephenson about it but he was unable to throw any “light” on the subject, so I am still wondering why that town should be favored by the Almighty, while Edison himself may be the only man who can electrically light us.

On arrival at Paddington I received my first impression of darkened London and the changes that had been made. Women in blue uniforms, lanterns on their arms, were opening and shutting the door of the trains and doing all the work of a regular man.

We left the station for the Hotel Savoy and then I saw and realized to full extent what is meant by “London In Darkness”’ Every street lamp is painted on top and sides with dark green paint and sheds only a faint ray of light about the base of the lamp post. Every building is absolutely shrouded in darkness by heavy green or black curtains and as you speed along in a taxi at every crossing you expect to be run into – we just missed a “bus” by about an inch- pedestrians cannot see where they step, and must feel for the crossing with a cane until they become used to it, and here is one of the illustrations of how rapidly we adapt ourselves to conditions, the people living there go about without any apparent hesitation and find where they want to go, but how they do it is shrouded in as much darkness to me as the city itself. The few times I went out I clung to the arm of my escort like some frightened country girl.

My plan on arriving in London was to leave at once for Rotterdam to see our forwarding agent and find out about our needs before going to the foreign office in London who control the issuance of permits, so next morning I went to the ticket agent and asked for a ticket to Rotterdam. He replied “Do you have you permission to leave England?” I said: “You don’t mean after all the trouble to get in I have to secure permission to get out?” He answered that was the only way and referred me to the Home Office Permit Department.

On arrival there you are required to fill out a form of application and send it in with your passport, then sit down in a room all crowded with people all sitting in rows on hard wooden benches, just like one of our police courts, and wait your turn to be called. By slipping a coin to the guard, he placed me in the front row and came out and whispered he had put my application on top. In a short time I was summoned and appeared before the examining officer and required to give my pedigree, also my full business reasons for being there, and answer a hundred or more, to my mind, useless questions, and was finally asked for the names of two British subjects as references. Fortunately I thought of my friend Stephenson and Mr. Pearl, also of the London Office, although I had not met the latter gentleman and was somewhat upset as to what he might say if they ‘phoned him before I could post him, but no fear; England like Providence moves in mysterious ways her wonders to perform, and at no time are you in any danger of being made dizzy by the speed at which they move, for when my examination was over and I expected my permit at once I was requested to call Monday, this was Thursday. I told the official I must leave at once and he said “Well Saturday is the earliest”. Finally I produced a letter I had from the White House, and he asked “Why didn’t you show me this before” evidently feeling a bit put out, and then told me I could have my pass that afternoon or next day, If I would get a letter from our Ambassador vouching for me. This, however, was about as long winded a job as getting a permit. However, I passed the guards in the Embassy and found it was too late to see the Ambassador until next day, Friday, but I secured my letter late that day and my pass for Holland, Saturday, A.M.

With Mr. Miller of London Office, I went and secured my tickets and he kindly stayed with me until train time, 8.13 P.M. Upon arrival at the station I was advised there would be no boat. You must here understand that the boats leave Tilbury and run to Flushing and as the entrance to the Thames is heavily mined, any time it is foggy (and it often is) or there are any war ships in the channel, or mines afloat, the boat doesn’t run and you have to wait. The next serious feature is that when your passport is stamped giving you permission to leave for Holland and you secure your ticket, they fill in the date and you must leave England on that date and failure to do so requires your return to the Permit Dept., the same delay, etc. and all because the boat did not sail.

I waited all day Sunday for news of the boat, and was finally advised about 8 o’clock (too late to reach the train) that they expected the boat to sail although it had not arrived from Holland.

The people who had been informed in time for the train stood in a small pen or enclosure from 9.30 P.M. Sunday until 5.30 A.M. Monday before the boat arrived. No place to sit down, cold, damp and dark, nothing to get to eat or drink. How I missed that treat is a mystery for I seemed to get everything else that was going around from soup to nuts.

Monday I had to get a new permit, new ticket and finally got started for Tilbury to learn all the pleasures held in store at that delightful place. Here again you are examined twice, Scotland Yard and Military, and the examination is much more thorough than the one landing at Falmouth.

While waiting for my turn, I noticed a man whom I afterward learned was a Scotland Yard Detective walking around eyeing me very closely, especially my bag on which there were some old German labels from my last trip.

Not knowing who he was and being annoyed by his scrutiny, I finally said to him “If you have any questions to ask me, I will try and answer them, but don’t keep circling around me, I don’t like it”. He didn’t reply but went to the table and whispered to the examining officer, and when my turn came I surely thought I was going to be locked up, and firmly believe I would have been detained but again for my letter from the White House saved the situation, and I was finally passed to the military officer, although still trailed by my self attached friend. Having passed there after another long thorough examination, my card permitting me to embark was stamped. This card was plainly printed “This card must be surrendered to the officer at the gangplank before embarking” so I put all other papers away and proceeded to have my bag examined, that disposed of I stumbled along the dark dock to the gangway and was stopped by an officer who flashed a small electric bulb attached to his belt. I immediately presented my card, when he said “You seem to know all about this- just what’s required – when were you across before”. I told him this was the first time, but I could read, and thought I was helping him by showing above average American intelligence. However, this did not satisfy him and I was told to step to one side. While waiting, I saw dozens of people coming along with every paper in their possession clutched in their hands, not knowing what was before them and presenting the whole bunch of papers to the officer who selected the card he wanted and permitted them to go aboard while I was held up, finally my kind friend from Scotland Yard came along and was hailed by the embarking officer, and after a whispered consultation, came over and shoved his face close to mine, I told him I was the same man he had been parading around and he had heard my examination and saw my credentials, and he went back and spoke to the officer and I was finally called over permitted to go on board.

I learned since that all spies are fully conversant with
regulations, always have the best credentials, so whenever anyone
comes along who is cool and collected, answers every question, and
seems to know just what is wanted, he immediately becomes an object of serious suspicion.

I will cite here an instance to show how even with their great care  things occur that look mighty  strange to a disinterested observer. On my train to Tilbury was a man on a stretcher in care of two red cross hospital stewards.  He was fully dressed even to a cane which lay on top of the blanket clasped in his hand. He was apparently in the last stages of consumption and after a lengthy examination was passed and carried on board the tender and placed on the floor of the cabin, the center of all eyes and much comment and pity. One of the hospital stewards explained to some people stand­ing near me that the patient was a German dying of consumption who insisted upon going home to die and said he did not think “the poor fool” would live to cross the channel. The next night at Flushing this same dying man appeared on the station platform alone just before the train pulled out smoking a cigarette and took his place in a compartment. You can draw your own conclusions.

Upon arrival at the steamer’s side, I noted the decks
were shrouded in canvas as I presumed to exclude any light showing.
We arrived on board about 13:30 A.M., three hours anda quarter after
our arrival at Tilbury, and the vessel remains at anchor until broad
daylight in the morning as the passage through the mine fields, the
danger of floating mines and the fear of submarines, is so great, that positively no attempt is made to cross in the dark or in misty and foggy weather.

At about seven A.M., we started and shortly after I arose to see what was going on. By the time I had breakfasted, were entering the mine fields. The sudden stopping, starting, backing and general twisting and turning was such as to alarm even the most unconcerned. Stepping upon the deck I found the sides of the vessel still heavily enclosed in canvas and believing this was simply due to lack of time for the deck hand to remove same, stepped to the rail and loosened an end of the canvas and raised it to lock out when a steward came running up and said:  “Dont do that, don’t you know the Scotland Yard men are still on board and if they see you do that you are liable to instant arrest as a spy”. I asked him why and he replied no one was allowed to look while passing through the mines for fear they were there to get their location and pass the news to the enemy, hence the heavy canvas coverings.

It is bad enough to be able to stand on deck, and face danger, but to be shut in unable to see a thing and listen to the sudden stops and starts is an ordeal to try the nerves of even the most callous.

The crossing of the channel even under the most favorable
conditions is not a trip (as your friends who know, will tell you)
to be chosen as a quiet excursion, and crossing four times in ten
days at a time of year when the channel is as friendly as the rest
of Europe to your visit, is not a matter to be passed over lightly
by those subject to “Mal de mere”. However, the Lord was with me
and I managed to hold my own.

We arrived in Flushing about five o’clock P.M. and there we passed through the formality of presenting disembarkation cards, examination of baggage, and finally are free to wait one hour and forty minutes for the train to Rotterdam (my objective point).

Holland, while not actually fighting or at war, has her entire army of 800,000 men mobilized and all her cannon and other equipment ready at the railways to move instantly should the necessity arise.

Every station is under military guard with guns and fixed bayonets, and around the cities, especially at The Hague (the site of the World’s Peace Palace now referred to in Europe as the Comedy House) you find sentry boxes right on the sidewalks at stated intervals and a sentry or guard.

Arrived at Rotterdam about 8:30 P.M. twenty four and a quarter hours after leaving London.  In ordinary times this trip could be made in from eight to ten hours, so you can see how slow travel is even if you are permitted to take the trip.

Mr. B. F. Hunt from our Fuerth Warehouse and Mr. Schroeder, representing our forwarder met me at the station, and we immediately went to the office and started to work as every minute counted. By two thirty in the morning everything was arranged so I knew exactly what I had to do in London.

Next day I had to get permission from the British Consul to return to London, and had my passport visayed. I was asked if I had a picture of myself with me. I had, and when I handed it to the Vice Consul he numbered it and put it in the rogue’s gallery. You can imagine my feelings when informed I could not return to Holland again unless I secured a letter from the American Ambassador in London.

I left Rotterdam Wednesday night and believed my troubles over until I arrived at Tilbury, but to my surprise the Holland Government examines you and your baggage the same as in England.

I was herded in a small room about 15X15 in the midst of a bunch of about 50 sweet smelling Belgian refugees going to England and then to France to enlist in the Army. Therefore, they were given first attention while I waited over two hours for my turn. The examination is much the same except here you fill out a card giving your pedigree and finally secure your embarkation card.  Thinking this all would be required, I put all my papers away and started for the boat only to be stopped by a bayonet and my passport demanded. After a careful comparison of the description in same with your personal appearance the guard passes you and you embark.

There is no need to repeat my experience at Tilbury, as I have told you about it before, so will only say I arrived safely in London after a cold, dark, ride of three hours in the train.

I forgot to mention that the trains in England are all very dimly lighted; each compartment has a light about the size of a quarter in the center that sheds its rays straight down. All blinds are drawn and you can hardly see the other occupants of the compartment.

My work in London successfully finished, I managed to get to Holland but had greater difficulties at the examinations on account of my wanting to again return to London. However, I got through and reached Rotterdam safely.

When I finished my work I tried to return to London, but was informed there was no boat on account of a bombardment of the Belgian Coast and it was uncertain how long I might be marooned in Holland. I forgot to state that in crossing to Flushing this trip, it was just after a heavy storm, and when we were clear of the mine fields, and the canvas enclosure removed, while standing at the rail the boat came to a sudden stop and then started to back. Everyone became excited to know what was wrong and finally a deck steward pointed to a dark object floating some distance ahead on the port bow (forward left hand side of ship) and with every wash of the waves we could see the big round iron top of a mine. We waited until it was well passed before proceeding.  The next morning the Hospital Ship “Anglia” was blown up by hitting one of the floating mines, also the Collier “Lusitania” so you see how narrow our escape was.  There is no warning given, no fifteen minutes to man the boats, when you strike a mine it’s everybody for themselves, with a very slim chance for your life.

We also saw two more mines washed ashore on the Coast of Holland. The first officer told me they never left the dock but what they felt it was their last trip and the nervous strain is so great they have to take the boats off every little while to give officers and crew a chance to rest and relax.

After two days delay was fortunate in getting a boat back and returned to London safely.

While in London I had the opportunity to see the extent of the damage done during the last Zeppelin raid and no accounts published fully convey the horror of this phase of modern warfare. Everyone who has safely witnessed a raid agree it is a wonderful awe inspiring sight, but one they are willing to forego.

I have not told you anything of the pathos of war, of the sights of maimed and crippled, the horror of which will live with me always, but will tell you two that will be enough to convince you we don’t want war.

While standing in the lobby of the Savoy Hotel one morning a young man scarcely thirty, in a Captain’s uniform, entered shuffling along on crutches, his face very white; he had hardly any control of his legs below the knees. As he advanced a fine looking old lady came to meet him, and as she folded him in her arms and said “My Boy, My Boy”, there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere. I learned later that this boy had the tendons of both legs cut by shrapnel and would never be able to walk without crutches again.

The other, a young Major, both eyes shot out, being led by his grief stricken wife. The sorrow in her face as she looked at him and tried to guide and direct his steps was beyond description.

I could go on and write a book but have tried to give you as clearly and briefly as possible, an idea of what European conditions are as seen by an outsider.

There are certain towns in England that are known as
restricted areas. Any person not a British subject entering same are
required to report at once to the Chief of Police, and if they intend
to remain overnight must fill out a blank and secure permission.
The blank covers your pedigree, also your finger prints, and Mr. Oscar
Williams, one of our London Office superintendents, has a whole wallet
full of these blanks.

Mr. Stephenson and I sailed for home on the SS “Nieuw
Amsterdam leaving Falmouth, November 30th, and arrived in New York
December 8th, and as we passed the Woolworth Building and again saw
the flag, this time to say “Welcome Home”, it was with a heart full of thanksgiving I gazed upon it and realized my trip was over and, I was home again.

Yours truly,


This entry was posted in 1915. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.