A Lucky Country

I can walk to work from a few different directions and I took a detour and headed south on LaSalle street. Just north of the Chicago River there is a refurbished office building with a large photo essay on the Eastland disaster. The S.S. Eastland was a passenger ship that capsized in 1915 and killed 845 passengers along the Chicago River (near where this building stands today). The exhibit is called “A Day Unlike Any Other”.

What does this essay say about America, and why are we “A Lucky Country”? As a history buff, when I see any date from the time period 1914-1918 only one thing leaps to mind – World War One. While the United States did participate in World War One, we declared war in 1917 and only had sizable forces on the ground for the 1918 German spring offensive and the subsequent Allied counterattack.

Thus while 1915 is “A Day Unlike Any Other” (and even the wikipedia page on this date, July 24, points to the Eastland disaster) in America, let’s put this in perspective.

According to the time line of World War One (a great service by wikipedia) for the year 1915, here were events near that date:

– the British and the Turkish forces fought “The Battle of Gully Ravine“, one of the brutal battles in the ill-fated invasion of Gallipoli pennisula, battles so intense that they helped to weld together the Australian and New Zealand nations and are still mourned as part of “Anzac Day
– the Italians and Austrians (a German ally) fought pointless battles in the unforgiving terrain of the mountains that separated the two countries “The Second Battle of the Isonzo“. These DOZEN battles caused terrific casualties on both sides and were in a stalemate until the Germans intervened in 1917 in the rout at Caporetto which was part of Hemmingways “A Farewell to Arms”
– At this time the Russians began “The Great Retreat” of 1915 which had them leave Poland and Eastern Europe – their 1914 offensive had ended in a German victory (but had likely saved Britain and France from defeat because the Germans panicked and sent forces Eastward, weakening their thrust towards Paris). The amount of ground that was covered in this retreat is vast and hard to contemplate today given the primitive roads and infrastructure that existed at that time
– during this exact date the Western front armies, the British, French and Germans, were exhausted from their 1914 battles. The British were preparing for the Battle of Loos, which occurred in September 1915, featuring the first British use of poison gas (which fell back on their own lines) and typical WW1 slaughter for virtually no gain. In the notes in Wikipedia they refer to a movie about this battle called “Oh What a Lovely War” and per Wikipedia:

“The battle was referenced in the film Oh What a Lovely War. During the upbeat title song, sung by the chorus of officers, a scoreboard is plainly seen in the background reading “Battle Loos/ British Losses 60,000/ Total Allied Losses 250,000/ Ground Gained 0 Yards”.

Thus at the time that Chicago and all the US was contemplating the Eastland disaster, the Anzacs were dying on the shores of Gallipoli, the Italians were locked in the second of twelve pointless battles along Austria-Hungary’s borders, the Russians were ceding virtually all of Eastern Europe in an enormous retreat, and the British and French were preparing for another slaughter in the West featuring poison gas, trench warfare, huge casualties, and nil results.

That is why we are a lucky country.

Cross posted at LITGM

9 thoughts on “A Lucky Country”

  1. I did a seventh grade book report on the Eastland disaster. It was a huge story in its day.

    It goes onto today. Disasters in the 3rd world routinely claim thousands of lives whereas the same kind disasters of equal magnitude in the U.S. kill only dozens.

  2. Shannon,

    True..and that is why I always tell green alarmists to get out of my face unless they want to spend money on improving infrastructure poor nations. When Katrina happens here, the death toll is a mere sliver of what the equivalent would do in Bangladesh. Why? Infrastructure..medical…transportation…communications otherwise. I tell them if they want me to support something to fight the effects of global warming, then spend it on that….a *proven* expenditure to lower the death/suffering from rising sea levels…rather than spending it on something that is based on research that is flawed and methodology for “fixing” that is even more flawed….

  3. > When Katrina happens here, the death toll is a mere sliver of what the equivalent would do in Bangladesh.

    No it isn’t!! The National Guard killed thousands!! Just ask Cynthia McKinney!!


  4. Hello Carl,

    Thank you for the inclusion of the Eastland Disaster in your blog. Interesting how blogs bounce from man-made disasters to man-made wars to natural disasters to global warming to music.

    A Day Unlike Any Other highlights the history of the disaster while it also commemorates those affected by the tragedy. (The stories of 18 people — victims, survivors, heroes, and others — are featured.)

    Was July 24, 1915 a day unlike any other? In our humble (albeit somewhat biased) opinion, yes, for at least (but not limited to) the following reasons.

    1. No iceberg, no torpedo — 844 people died on a warm summer day, in a narrow river, in the heart of a great city, in water so shallow that only part of the hull was submerged, with instant means of rescue at hand, a mere 19-feet from the safety of the wharf, with thousands on-hand to witness.

    2. The Eastland, a great steel vessel designed to withstand rough weather on the Great Lakes, rolled into the river while still tied to the wharf, likely unprecedented in maritime annals.

    3. The day was one of extremes. It was going to be the marquee entertainment event of a lifetime for thousands of people. It turned terribly tragic in a matter of 2 to 5 minutes.

    4. Disaster preparedness and disaster relief in 1915 were in their infancy and nothing like we know today. Still, the response of individuals, companies, and organizations was admirable.

    5. The criminal court acquitted all charges. The civil court procrastinated for 20 years before acquitting all charges except those against the chief engineer of the Eastland, Joseph Erickson. (Sidebar: Erickson had died of heart disease several years prior to the verdict being rendered.)

    6. No monetary damages/awards (yes, $ 0.00) were paid to the victims’ families by the courts.

    Thank you once again for helping to share the history of the Eastland Disaster.

    Ted Wachholz
    Eastland Disaster Historical Society

  5. Ted, thanks for the comments. I do agree that the Eastland was a disaster and it is an occasion worth commemorating. I am glad that we have information on it near the river so that people of Chicago can learn about something that happened right under their feet.

    I also stand by my thoughts that we are lucky that this is what we consider a disaster and commemorate unlike the Battle of Loos which is pretty much forgotten even though it was over a hundred times the impact in human lives. Gallipoli at least still is somewhat remembered among the Australian and New Zealand peoples.

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