Publisher's Comments (cont.)
On August 1, 1914, as the Great War erupted in Europe and financial and physical resources were realigned toward the war effort, some 120,000 American travelers scattered across the Continent suddenly found themselves in the midst of a vast war zone without means of escape. Lines of credit were revoked, borders were closed, and vessels and fuel were confiscated, making a departure for home all but impossible. Among the stranded Americans was twenty-five-year-old Nancy Johnson, the daughter of influential U.S. Congressman Ben Johnson of Kentucky, whose idyllic summer holiday was interrupted by an international crisis. Using Nancy Johnson's letters and photographs, her granddaughter Mary W. Schaller recounts the harrowing chronicle of Johnson's flight from war-torn Europe. Augmenting Johnson's correspondence with original research into the plight of American refugees, Schaller deftly constructs a remarkable tale of Johnson and others for whom a European holiday descended without warning into a nightmarish quest for survival.
A native of Bardstown, Kentucky, Johnson (1890-1982) had grown weary of five consecutive seasons of the Washington, D.C., social scene in her father's shadow. In May 1914 she opted to undertake a modern Grand Tour of Europe with her friend Ethel Norris. Armed with letters of introduction written by President Woodrow Wilson, Johnson and Norris anticipated lavish travels through Europe for the next ten months. The duo was in Switzerland, en route from Venice to Paris, when they learned of the German declaration of war on Russia. With civilian train service to Paris canceled, Johnson and Norris retreated to Venice, where Johnson discovered that she could no longer cash checks at the Italian banks. Meanwhile the European nations began requisitioning all available coal for military use, thus preventing visitors from sailing home. Back in Washington, Congressman Johnson was one of many anxious relatives who sent a cache of gold coins to Europe aboard a U.S. warship to aid the stranded Americans. Nancy and her companion struggled to reach Genoa, where they were assured that ships could depart. The American consul general in Genoa was besieged by frantic Americans, and, in lieu of waiting for official directives from the U.S. State Department, he organized a group of wealthy American travelers, including Frederick Vanderbilt, to charter ships for their fellow citizens.
Johnson and Norris were among the elite four hundred passengers on the first ship to leave Genoa, the Principe di Udine. But the two-week voyage home proved to be as tension-filled as the flight that came before it. The Udine was repeatedly stopped by British warships and even had to take evasive actions to dodge attack by German submarines. Despite her trials Johnson returned safely to Washington in late August, but her great adventure weighed heavily on her for the rest of her life.
In recounting Johnson's escape, Schaller gives us a rare firsthand account of the sights, sounds, and fears Americans in Europe experienced at the dawn of the Great War. In Johnson's own characterization of herself, readers witness the transformation of a spoiled southern belle, unwilling to leave her twenty-six pieces of luggage behind, into a determined young woman keenly aware that her survival depended on tapping into heretofore unknown decisiveness and courage.