A memoir, written sometime between September 1914 and May 1915, recollects the chaotic beginning of World War I.
In June 1914, T. Tileston Wells, an attorney from New York, set out by sea for Europe with his wife, Georgina; his 18-year-old son; and his 11-year-old daughter. Later that same month, while Wells was in Paris, a Serbian national assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, the spark that ultimately led to the Great War. Initially, Wells was reluctant to leave Paris, but his wife was confident no war would come, so they embarked for Austria by train. However, in July, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia, and while the family was vacationing in Cortina, Austria-Hungary officially declared war. The following month, while Wells was touring Riva, Germany and Russia began their conflict, and he was briefly arrested on suspicion of being a Russian spy. He was traveling without a passport—common at the time—but thankfully, he had an introductory letter from William Jennings Bryan, then the U.S. secretary of state.
The U.S. Congress appropriated considerable funds to help rescue Americans stuck in Europe at the time, but efforts at rescue were woefully incompetent; meanwhile, banks in Venice, where Wells applied for a passport, weren’t disbursing funds. Wells was eventually able to make to it to Rome in September, right before Benedict XV was selected as the new pope. Soon after, he and his family left Naples on the SS Canopic, which ultimately transported them to Boston.
Wells later became a fierce advocate for Serbian relief and the Romanian consul general to America. Kelly (Italy Invades, 2015), Wells’ great-grandson, writes a thoughtful introduction to this remembrance and provides a running editorial commentary that consistently furnishes edifying information about Wells and the war. Wells’ interpretations of the grand history unfolding around him are consistently insightful and prescient and sometimes historically controversial; for example, he contends that Serbia warned Austria of the plan to murder the archduke.
It’s fascinating to see a firsthand witness’s account of the war’s start as well as his interpretation of its causes. It’s also thrilling to follow Wells’ attempt to steward his family back to the relative safety of the United States. This is historical scholarship at its best: rigorous, testimonial, and dramatic.
An enthralling introduction to one of the defining events of the 20th century.
by Joe Kilgore
“In each compartment was a printed notice saying that if you opened a window or a door when the train was moving that you were liable to be shot.”
This thin, but handsomely produced hardback is a glimpse of what Europe looked like to an American and his family at the outset of World War I. It’s the first-person chronicle of T. Tileston Wells, a New York attorney who sailed for the continent little knowing that prior to arrival, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be assassinated.
Already in Paris, and with the drums of war rumbling, an ill-advised decision is made to continue the family’s vacation with a trip through Austria. However the further they go, the more they realize that mobilization for war is in full swing. Wells chooses to head for Italy, believing it will be the safest way to begin their trip home. In Riva though, he’s accused of being a Russian spy and only convinces authorities otherwise by producing a letter of introduction from American Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan. Then, in Venice, impending fear of war has caused financial hysteria and it’s rumored that even New York banks are failing, making securing additional cash virtually impossible. So from Florence to Rome to Naples they journey, eventually gaining passage on a steamer to Boston.
The family’s adventure is earnestly captured in Wells’ own words. However it’s enhanced greatly by the writing and editing skills of Kelly. He adds historical context, information regarding different countries’ agendas and different individuals’ motivations, plus a wealth of photographs and illustrations that help the tumultuous times spring vividly to life. This is history carefully crafted and painstakingly packaged—and it’s all in the family. Editor Kelly is author Wells’ great-grandson.
MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW – Reviewer’s Choice
Small Press Bookwatch: March 2017
James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief
Midwest Book Review
“An Adventure in 1914 is a true-life memoir as riveting as an Ernest Hemingway novel…”
Synopsis: An Adventure in 1914 is a memoir written by Thomas Tileston Wells of New York City, and edited by his great-grandson Christopher Kelly. Wells, a lawyer, wrote this document after a harrowing journey he took in the summer of 1914 with his wife and two children. He had planned on pleasurable hikes in the Swiss and Austrian Tyrol. Instead he was a witness to history’s greatest train wreck – the outbreak of World War I. Wells wrote poignantly about the mobilization of European armies and its effect on the soldier’s families. He wrote about the impossibility of using a return ticket on French railway lines when all trains were being used to transport soldiers. Wells was even arrested and threatened by Austrian authorities with immediate execution on the grounds of being a Russian spy! Wells escaped but his manuscript was never published…until now.
Critique: An Adventure in 1914 is a true-life memoir as riveting as an Ernest Hemingway novel. In order to provide proper credit for his great-grandfather’s writings, editor Christopher Kelly retraced Wells’ journey, taking careful photographs as he went. A wealth of these full-color photographs illustrates this vivid, unforgettable testimony of the outbreak war on a never-before-seen scale. An Adventure in 1914 is as enjoyable as it is edifying, and highly recommended for both public library collections and personal reading lists. It should be noted that An Adventure in 1914 is also available in a Kindle edition ($9.99).