This week marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entrance into World War I, on April 6, 1917. What was hoped to be the “war to end all wars” turned out to be nothing of the sort, and stands instead as one of the great disasters of the 20th century, marked by the senseless and utter wasting of millions of young lives and the high idealism of those so wasted.
Prominent families in the Hudson Valley were not spared. Before the days of college deferments, smoking but not inhaling, and that sanctuary known as the Texas Air National Guard, the sons and daughters of elite families didn’t just talk the talk but actually walked the walk of service to higher ideals by responding to the twin calls of patriotism and the fight against tyranny. Sons drove ambulances, fought with the French, and, when the time came, enlisted in our own armed forces. Daughters went to France to act as nurses or work in relief organizations. Being away from the fighting, the daughters returned. But not all the sons.
Far upriver from New York City, in Barrytown, the Astor estate known as Rokeby was home to the “Astor orphans”, the children of Margaret Astor Ward and John Winthrop Chanler. By the end of 1877 both Margaret and John were dead, leaving behind their ten children aged 15 and younger. One of these children, Elizabeth Astor Winthrop Chanler, born 1866, married in 1898 the writer John Jay Chapman. Chapman was a widower, his
first wife, Minna Timmins, having died in childbirth the year before. Chapman brought into the marriage with Elizabeth three children from his previous union with Timmins, the oldest a boy named Victor Emmanuel, born in 1890.
Victor Emmanuel didn’t wait for the United States to officially enter The Great War to become involved. He joined the French Foreign Legion in August 1914. Mired in the trench warfare that developed, Victor grew bored and managed a transfer to the air service, where he trained as a pilot and joined the Lafayette Escadrille, a fighter unit composed largely of like-minded American volunteers. On June 23, 1916, making a non-combat flight, Victor happened upon a dogfight between three Allied and five German planes. He plunged in. The three Allied planes made good their escape, but Victor was shot down and killed. He was the first American pilot killed in the war, and became a cause célèbre in both France and the United States. A memoir written by Victor’s father, including Victor’s letters, can be found here.
Not far from Rokeby, in Rhinebeck, Thomas Holy Suckley (pronounced SOOK-lee) built in 1852 a house on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River and named the estate Wilderstein. Upon Thomas’ death in 1888, the estate was inherited by his son Robert Bowne Suckley.
Robert was a builder and a tinkerer, and over the years he transformed the modest house his father had built into a Queen Anne-style jewel. Modern students of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognize immediately the name Suckley as belonging to one of FDR’s cousins and confidantes in later life, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley. Less familiar is the story of Daisy’s older brother Henry, lovingly nicknamed “Nummie” throughout his childhood and adolescence. In all, Robert and his wife, Elizabeth “Bessie” Montgomery, had seven children, four boys and three girls, of which Daisy was the fifth child and the first daughter. Daisy’s oldest brother, Rutsen, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of five the year before Daisy was born. Of the siblings that Daisy grew up with, Henry, born in 1887, was the oldest.
The Suckleys had spent years living in Europe before the war. At the outbreak of hostilities Henry joined the American Field Service, which was setting up an ambulance corps in France and seemed a natural fit for Henry, as he was conversant in French and German and could get by in Italian, and like his father was a tinkerer who loved to drive and work on automobiles. Furthermore, as the author Cynthia Owen Philip notes in her book “Wilderstein and the Suckleys”, due to his family connections Henry knew people of means. Later in the war members of the New York Stock Exchange would fund the purchase of 25 ambulances that were placed under Henry’s command.
Henry spent the years 1915 and 1916 in France, with occasional visits home, bringing wounded soldiers from the front to where they could be treated. During this time Henry’s neighbor Victor Chapman was killed. On December 27, 1916 Henry received the orders he had been waiting for – a transfer to the eastern front, with a unit under his command. Not long after, on March 18, 1917, the dreaded cablegram arrived at Wilderstein. In his diary, Robert wrote “HMS [Henry’s initials] at Zemlak, Albania, struck by a fragment of a bomb dropped by aviators. Was taken to hospital at Koritza at once. No hope!” Henry died the next day.
While not a Hudson River Family, the Roosevelts of Oyster Bay on Long Island come to the attention of anyone studying the lives of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Though they became estranged in the early decades of the 20th century, prior to that the two branches of the Roosevelt family were closely connected. James Roosevelt, FDR’s father, for a time pursued Teddy Roosevelt’s sister Anna, only to be disappointed. Later, it was at a family party arranged by Anna that Mr. James met Sara Delano, who would become his wife and the mother of FDR. Furthermore, TR’s brother Elliott became, first, godfather to Franklin, and of course later the father of Eleanor, FDR’s future wife. And when Mr. James’s first son, James “Rosy” Roosevelt, lost his wife while serving in a diplomatic post in England, it was TR’s sister Anna who traveled to London to take charge of Rosy’s two now motherless children.
The life of Teddy Roosevelt became the model for the young Franklin Roosevelt – state legislator, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of New York, President of the United States. Teddy had six children, the first a daughter named Alice, whose mother tragically died just two days after her birth. A few years later Teddy married Edith Kermit Carow, a childhood friend. Teddy and Edith brought five children to the world, four boys and a girl.
Following America’s entry into the war in April, 1917 all four boys enlisted, two with the army, one with the British army, and the youngest, Quentin, with a newly formed air
unit. Quentin trained at an airfield on Long Island, then was posted to a training facility in France. Eventually, he joined a combat unit and flew his first combat mission on July 4, 1918. His first confirmed kill came less than a week later, on July 10. Four days later, on July 14, 1918, he himself was killed behind enemy lines, over the village of Chamery, near Rheims. Quentin’s mother dealt with her grief, in part, by remarking that “You cannot bring up boys as eagles and expect them to turn out sparrows.”
Quentin’s three brothers survived the war, all having served with distinction. In fact, they would serve again in the Second World War, and Quentin’s oldest brother, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., would earn the Medal of Honor for his actions on D-Day at Utah beach.
Whatever one thinks of the monied class of the Gilded Age and the early 20th century, in at least three of the families whose stories we still read and whose homes we still visit a commitment to higher ideals and to “the strenuous life”, as Teddy Roosevelt put it, really was the order of the day.