The secret mission began with vague instructions and a late afternoon train ride from Harrisburg to New York City on Sunday, Oct. 28, 1917.
“I would be met at the Pennsylvania Railroad station by a tall man carrying a New York Evening Post,” Vance McCormick, a Silver Spring Township native, wrote in his diary.
“[I] met him in accordance with instructions at 1 a.m. [Monday] and was placed by my large friend in a private car standing in the station.”
The rendezvous set in motion a journey of diplomatic intrigue that would carry McCormick, a former Carlisle Indian School football coach, across the Atlantic Ocean to an England and France at war with the Central Powers.
The journey and McCormick’s firsthand accounts comprise a chapter in the book “Citizen Extraordinaire: The Diplomatic Diaries of Vance McCormick in London and Paris, 1917-1919.” The chapter was edited by Susan Mechan and Teresa Weisser.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war on Germany in part because of its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant ships sailing the Atlantic Ocean.
Six months later, on Oct. 5, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order creating the War Trade Board, an agency designed to wage economic warfare against the enemy, according to the book.
The chapter says McCormick was named to the board and ordered to travel to Europe as part of the U.S. delegation tasked with coordinating the American war effort with that of the Allies. Led by Col. Edward House, a close friend and adviser to Wilson, the House mission consisted of civilian and military officials.
Within hours of his encounter with the tall man, McCormick was on a secret train bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia, with an Army general, an international lawyer, a marine engineer, a statistician, a group of stenographers and the U.S. assistant secretary of the Treasury.
“We were forbidden to leave the car for fear we might be recognized and the railroad officials were told the train was a theatrical special,” McCormick wrote. The train arrived at Halifax around 9 a.m. Oct. 30 and the delegation was divided among two Navy cruisers, the Huntingdon and the St. Louis. The warships left harbor around noon that day.
Throughout the journey, McCormick wrote, the cruisers were escorted by Navy destroyers constantly on the lookout for enemy U-boats. “They darted back and forth all around us, doing scout duty all day, at a speed of about 30 knots per hour,” he wrote on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The Huntingdon was on high alert.
“Last night and this night we all slept with our clothes on and with life preservers,” McCormick wrote. “The crew were not allowed to sleep in their hammocks, but slept on the decks. … The gun crews were on duty continuously standing by their guns. Large depth bombs [used against submarines] were placed on the quarterdeck, which we thought was very dangerous, as we slept directly under them and if a torpedo had struck that part of our ship nothing would have been left of us.”
The next morning, on Nov. 7, the main engines failed on the St. Louis, leaving the warship adrift without power for about 40 minutes before repairs were made. McCormick was convinced a German submarine would seize the opportunity and torpedo the cruiser. The Huntingdon along with the destroyers circled the St. Louis offering some protection.
Talks with neutrals
Both cruisers made it to Plymouth, England, landing the members of the House mission. “As a representative of the War Trade Board, McCormick worked closely with Allied officials involved in administering the blockade of Germany and with those grappling with the complicated problem of securing additional shipping capacity to replace the tonnage lost to German submarines,” the chapter reads.
“During the two weeks McCormick spent in London, he participated in negotiations regarding trade and financial relations with the neutral nations of Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Holland. He was also heavily involved in conferences regarding the lack of adequate shipping capacity and the consequent difficulties of transporting troops to the battlefields and supplies to the military and to the European home front.”
On Nov. 22, House mission members crossed the English Channel, landing at Calais where they were loaded on a train bound for Paris. The French capital was full of Americans in uniform. The mood was upbeat because two days before the British Army had won the Battle of Cambrai, the first time tanks were used in large numbers in combat.
Even though France was home to the Western Front and the horrors of trench warfare, Paris did not have the look and feel of a city near a warzone. Compared to London, there was more food to eat and no obvious sign of rationing. The streets were brightly lit and there was plenty of hot water in the hotel room.
While in Paris, McCormick represented the U.S. in talks regarding relations between the Allies and the neutral nations of Spain and Switzerland. On Nov. 29, delegates gathered for the Inter-Allied Conference, during which the negotiations were expanded and McCormick was assigned to the Blockade and Tonnage committees, according to “Citizen Extraordinaire.”
“As part of the Blockade Committee, he was involved in negotiating an agreement with the Swiss,” the chapter reads. “His principal contribution to the Tonnage Committee was a proposal for the creation of an Inter-Allied Shipping Board.”
The most vivid diary entry was written on Monday, Dec. 3, while McCormick was on assignment as an observer of the battlefield around Verdun and its fortified citadel, which served as a regional command post.
“Immediately after our early lunch we started for the batteries and trenches at the front,” McCormick wrote. “[We] passed over ground between the Citadel and Fort Souilly through the old city that had been fought over many times in hand to hand fights between the German and the French during the last February campaign. As far as the eye could see, the land that had once been covered with forests was as bare as a floor, and apparently [there was] not a foot of ground that had not been blown up by a shell fire, or broken up by shovel and pick for trenches.”
On arriving at the fort, McCormick saw batteries of Allied artillery send over a constant barrage while the German artillery tried to counter-battery from a great distance away on the plains.
“At the same time, the French flying machines [aircraft] were sailing over the German lines, and being followed by a continual bombarding of shrapnel, which seemed to completely surround the machines, but apparently none of them were touched.”
While all precautions were taken to protect the diplomats, there was at least one occasion where McCormick almost became a casualty as documented in the Dec. 2 diary entry:
“On account of the bombardment we were not able to get into the front line of trenches, which were about 2,400 feet ahead of us. Toward sunset we started down the hill, and soon after we got into the car, and were riding along a road [when] a shell exploded about 200 yards from the road, which was too close for comfort. There was not a whole house standing in any of the small villages about Verdun. The Germans have destroyed every house which might inhabit a man.”
End of a dynasty
The departure of the House mission from Paris was as mysterious as McCormick’s trip to New York, according to the chapter in “Citizen Extraordinaire.” “Members of the mission were driven separately to a Paris train station, all by different routes. Only after their train had left the station were they told that they would sail from the French port of Brest.”
The ship made the trans-Atlantic journey under tight security with a heavy escort landing in New York on Dec. 15. From there, McCormick returned to Harrisburg.
The book “Profiles from the Susquehanna Valley” by Paul Beers includes a chapter on Vance McCormick that describes him as “the last major figure in the Cameron-McCormick dynasty” and as “Harrisburg’s most distinguished citizen for 45 years.”
Following World War I, McCormick accompanied Wilson to Versailles where he served as an adviser to the president. At age 52, McCormick married Gertrude Howard Olmsted and together they had a country home at Olmsted’s Cedar Cliff Farms along the Yellow Breeches Creek. Vance McCormick died at Cedar Cliff on June 16, 1946.