Messages from Scholars about History and Culture

The Messengers of War

Article Excerpt with Reflection

George Fernandez

Originally Published in Illustration Magazine, Volume Sixteen, Issue Number Sixty-Two, 2018


The English would rule the seas effectively blockading Germany whose retort was unrestricted submarine warfare on any merchant ship in the area. Around the British Isles the Germans kept their word by sending numerous ships with passengers and crews to the ocean floor, without a flinch.

On the afternoon of April 28, 1915, Castles in the Air, a castle atop the roof on New York’s Forty-Forth Street Theater and home to Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle, was the scene of a fashionable tea dance. The Castles’ were more than glad to demonstrate their latest dance moves to help raise funds for their favorite charity the Blue Cross; an organization establishing hospitals to care for wounded horses in the European conflict.[1] Horses were being used to transport everything from soldiers to ammo and under the most horrendous of conditions. Over 8 million labored until death.

Among the patrons present were Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt and Mrs. Charles Dana Gibson.  Mrs. Vanderbilt was married to millionaire sportsman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt who three days later would leave New York Harbor for Liverpool England aboard the RMS Lusitania, an English luxury passenger ship, the fastest afloat.

Vanderbilt was the primary heir to the Vanderbilt railroad empire. He and his valet Ronald Denyer were traveling first to a meeting of the International Horse Breeders Association and then, as family friend Thomas Slidell put it, “to offer a fleet of wagons and himself as a driver to the Red Cross Society, for he felt every day that he was not doing enough.” Allegedly, Vanderbilt, acting on a premonition, had canceled his passage on the Titanic three years earlier. Fate struck an iceberg, sinking the unsinkable along with 1503 travelers and Vanderbilt’s luggage. The morning of the sailing of the Lusitania Vanderbilt kissed his wife goodbye, with no premonition to speak of. They laughed off warnings by the German Embassy to avoid allied ships, posting a notice in newspapers. The opulent liner passed by Lady Liberty, then through the narrows of Staten Island and Brooklyn into the Atlantic. On May 7th the Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of County Cork, Ireland. A secondary explosion would sink the ship in 18 minutes. Vanderbilt and his faithful valet would drown alongside 1198 others.[2]

This apparent indiscriminate action on the seas off the Celtic coast, in retrospect for many Americans, was pivotal; bringing the war home. It roused a public awakening to a very new reality and prodded President Wilson to demand an end to attacks against unarmed merchant ships. A demand with which the Germans would soon comply.

For many Americans and many artists alike emerged an openly objective clarity of duty. William A. Rogers political cartoons were familiar to innumerable Americans since the 1870’s when he replaced the most famous of the Harpers Weekly artists Thomas Nast. Now with The New York Herald, his pen retorted the poignant despair of the disaster.  The tragedy would also cause one of the first American posters of the war, John Spear’s “Enlist,” illustrating the heartbreaking drowning of a mother cuddling her baby as they slowly drift underwater.

Emotions were running high as the war in Europe continued to lead media headlines bridging the vast expanse of oceans that once defended our shores and there grew an ever-present prospect of hostilities with Mexico. Our preparedness to engage in war on any front was laughable. American ground forces consisted of almost 309,000 regulars while the British military numbered 4 million, the French “poilu” totaled 8.3 million, Russia had 12 million, Austria-Hungary had 7.8, and Germany had 11 million soldiers devoted to the carnage.[3]

While John Spear’s “Enlist” poster seemed to arise by divine compulsion in reaction to the sinking of the Lusitania, other recruitment posters for various military branches were now obviously necessary and commissioned. The Marines would turn to the celebrated Spanish American War artist Howard Chandler Christy for their first poster of the war.

After the Spanish American War, Christy focused his career on illustrating novels and magazines. In one novel, “The Soldiers Dream,” he painted a beautiful woman in the smoke of an infantryman’s pipe who become popularly known as the “Christy Girl.” She was equally chaste but a far more alluring modern successor to Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl,” who was viewed by many as the ideal of female beauty, fashion and athleticism. She reigned as the formative feature character of Life magazine from the Gilded Age of the 1890’s throughout the First World War.

At 47 years of age, Gibson was so popular that his work even graced the shelves of the Kaiser’s private library. The Kaiser so admired Gibson that during the largest annual sailing event in the world, the Keil Regatta in Germany, he invited Gibson’s mother, who was visiting friends, to join him on the imperial yacht.[4]

For decades young women traveled from all across the country to Manhattan dreaming of being the next Gibson Girl. Nancy Palmer was a twenty-year-old beauty who had traveled by train from Poughkeepsie, New York to the Manhattan studio of Charles Dana Gibson high above Carnegie Hall. Gibson invited Nancy to model for him several days later but went on to tell her that he never used models more than two times in succession. She was greatly disappointed, but Gibson promised to arrange for her to meet Howard Chandler Christy, warning that if Christy invited her back to his home in Ohio, she would return to New York as his wife.[5] Three years later, in 1915, Nancy was every man’s muse, being portrayed in a marine uniform in the heroically romantic recruitment poster, “If You Want to Fight.” Four years later they would wed.

For many, it was all too obvious that the United States was being drawn into the war and a sense of urgency purveyed amongst ideologues, especially those with power. Henry Ford was the wealthiest automaker in the world and a mechanical genius. To keep pace with demand for his Model T his motor company introduced mass-production, which was possibly the greatest innovation of twentieth-century industrialization.[6]

Ford was a pacifist whose views were feverous regarding the senseless deaths of young soldiers, battle after battle, and stalemate after stalemate. He believed the war to be a product of moneylenders and Wall Street parasites.[7] Convinced that the belligerent nations wanted to negotiate peace, he invited distinguished pacifists to join him on a “Peace Ship” to Europe and unite with the representatives of affected nations to continuously mediate until the war was ended. In late November he met with President Wilson to discuss his proposal which Wilson rejected.[8]

Disappointed but determined Ford chartered the Scandinavian-American liner Oscar and on the bitterly cold morning of December 4, departed from Hoboken New Jersey for Norway as an enthusiastic crowd of fifteen thousand waved, sang and wished well to Ford and his party.[9]

President Wilson’s resistance to the preparedness movement had been steadfast, but by late summer of 1915 he began to waver and indicate support for a “reasonable preparedness.”[10] During the crossing of the “Peace Ship” there was word that President Wilson had met with Congress asking for a significant increase in military spending. Pacifists across the country felt betrayed. The ambassadors of goodwill aboard the Oscar were at once furiously divided. Even Bud Fisher, the creator of our nation’s first daily newspaper comic strip, the exceptionally popular, Mutt and Jeff, couldn’t resist using the two companions to poke fun at Ford for a solid week with his strip.[11]

By the time Ford arrived in Norway he was terribly ill. So much so that he abandoned his colleagues for America five days later. His expedition was a resounding failure and as journalist and historian Mark Sullivan wrote,” it deprived every other peace movement in the country of force and conviction.”


My article, “The Messengers of War,” brought closure to a circle of scholarship that began innocently enough in the Fall of 2014 with a WWI poster exhibition presentation I performed at Farmingdale College’s Gleeson Hall, dressed up like Uncle Sam.

From the beginning, there was no intention of publishing a 12706-word, 41-page article that was accompanied by 86 images. I never foresaw having to secure copyright approval for each and every one of those images from museums, major Library collections and other national institutional archives throughout the United States; nor had I intended on presenting at an International Conference on WWI. It all simply happened. As opportunities serendipitously presented themselves, I said yes.

My work as a consultant for the permanent collection of the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators, allowed intimate access into a chapter of illustration history that had previously been of little interest to me.

My true interest and reputation as an Illustration scholar had been built on an innate love for the individual histories of notable artist/practitioners, especially during American Illustrations formative years or ‘Golden Age’.

The aforementioned Poster exhibition started me on a 4-year journey of discovery that was to become a daily obsession due to its synchronistic relationship to the Society of Illustrators. Beginning in 1914, the Society’s members would play a crucial role in contributing to the war effort and its outcome.

These Society members were the illustrative hero’s I began studying as an undergraduate candidate at the School of Visual Arts in the early 1980’s. I revisited the individual histories of these legendary illustrators, such as Charles Gibson, Monty Flagg, N.C. Wyeth, Harvey Dunn, and Norman Rockwell, but this time, was laser focused on their personal lives and experiences during the Great War.

I began taking notes. Countless pages of notes, and post-its swelled into a 6-inch thick binder. It was extraordinary how these artists lives intertwined and how each had their own take on shared events that I wove together, laced with socio-economic events taking place throughout the United States during the war. I love to write, and to freshly restage these events, was fun and a hell of a lot of work.

Interestingly enough, I soon began to realize that there was nothing ever written that intelligibly presented America’s artistic output of World War I combining political cartoons, comics, animation, magazine cover art, and propaganda posters in a logical historical timeline connected to specific events. For example, Artists were creating posters recruiting American nurses to volunteer their services in France. I’ve seen and appreciated these posters for their combined artistry and messaging but never realized they were done a year or so before America declared war on Germany, at a time when J.P. Morgan’s daughter was running a hospital for wounded soldiers out of a family chateau in France. J.P. Morgan was lending tens of millions of dollars to finance France during the war. After reviewing my research in total, I began to piece together a written visual inventory and timeline clearly linking the artist work to reactions to specific events at home or abroad.

The greatest writing challenge to me, overall, was reinterpreting a collage of perspectives, with each having been written by very different voices and to then seamlessly give this 12,000 word-story a single voice, my voice. The writing process always brings me into a timeless realm of consciousness, where I would easily spend an entire day on a single paragraph. I’d like to romantically think of it as a stream of consciousness, but that stream, countless times, was a river of rapids, so, I will also admit to finding myself often frustrated with not finding the right words. I’d take a break, say a prayer, beg for clarity, and then get back at it; endlessly going back and forth between my research, my writing and a thesaurus. In the end, always intuitively seeking both chronological fluidity and harmony.

That word-story would become, “The Messengers of War,” which was published in November of 2018 to coincide with the Centennial Celebration of the end of the Great War.

  1. “Ways of Smart Society,” National Courier 5, no. 18, 9.
  2. “Mr. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt,” The Lusitania Resource,
  3. Jim Garamone, “World War I: Building the American Military,” US Army,
  4. Fairfax Downey, Portrait of an Era as Drawn by C. D. Gibson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), 319.
  5. James Phillip Head, An Affair with Beauty–The Mystique of Howard Chandler Christy: The Magic of Youth (Minneapolis MN: North Loop Books, 2016), 74-77.
  6. Ellis, Echoes, 47-48.
  7. Ellis, Echoes 61.
  8. Ellis, Echoes 257.
  9. Ellis, Echoes 253-262
  10. Kennedy, Over Here, 32.
  11. Ellis, Echoes, 262-263.


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