On the front page on Oct. 7, 1917, in the breathless style of the day, The Hartford Courant informed readers that it had dispatched a correspondent to war-ravaged France, where the 26th Yankee Division from New England had begun to arrive.
"Only Connecticut Correspondent in Field to Report for Home Paper All That May Befall Our Home Boys — To Get in Touch With All Those Who Have Gone or May Go From State in All Activities Connected With the War," the subhead proclaimed.
The correspondent, Daniel D. Bidwell, was no ordinary ink-stained wretch. The Courant's Yale-educated financial editor, a descendant of one of Hartford's first families, had an established reputation as a respected journalist and author. He was a sought-after lecturer, an East Hartford civic and political leader and indefatigable traveler.
A record he set in 1911 for round-the-world travel — 46 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes — would stand for years.
Starting in the summer of 1914, Bidwell had made six trips to Europe. His news reports from abroad appeared in Dublin, London and Paris, The New York Times, in Chicago, Philadelphia and Springfield, as well as in The Courant and The Hartford Times.
Heedless of wartime authority, he had been confronted at bayonet-point by a German soldier and detained by spy-wary French and British officials. His writings and lectures fed a local audience hungry for news about the titanic world war that the U.S., after prolonged neutrality, had entered six months earlier, in April 1917.
Within a month, Bidwell's heavily censored reports from Great Britain told Courant readers about crossing the Atlantic under threat of U-boat attack, and witnessing the aftermath of a zeppelin raid in London. He never reached the Western Front, however, as illness forced his return to East Hartford in November.
Not until a year later, after the Armistice, was he able to return, arriving in France in time to witness President Woodrow Wilson's triumphant arrival in Paris. His subsequent reports detailed the devastated battlefields of northeastern France and provided a controversial account of the death on one of Hartford's most gallant heroes of the war, Maj. George Rau.
The Courant's Man
Daniel Doane Bidwell, born in East Hartford in 1866, descended from a family that had settled in Hartford in 1636. His great-grandfather, an earlier Daniel Bidwell, fought in the American Revolution, and Bidwell retained a lifelong interest in family history. A leader in the Bidwell family association, he funded and directed the local sesquicentennial dedicated to Zebulon Bidwell, a hero of the Battle of Saratoga, in 1927.
After graduating from Yale College in 1886, Bidwell began his career in journalism at the Springfield Union. Stints at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and the New York Ledger followed. He returned to Hartford in 1895, taking a job with the Hartford Evening Post. Two years later he moved to The Hartford Times, where he remained until joining The Courant.
By 1910, Bidwell had a wife and two children, a thriving career and lucrative interests in business and real estate. Active in East Hartford Republican politics, he had served on the town school board and in the state legislature and enjoyed a long affiliation with the state of Connecticut's naval militia.
He had a passion for foreign travel, and found time that year to take a round-the-world vacation, traveling with 600 American passengers aboard a steamer from New York to San Francisco, returning to Connecticut by rail. His account of the journey "indicate[s] clearly that the excursionists were a jolly party and kept themselves well amused,'' wrote a New York Times book reviewer. Bidwell made his record-setting, second trip, from west-to-east, the next year.
Spring 1914 found Bidwell in Ireland reporting on Ulster opposition to the Home Rule Bill. In late July, with war imminent, he returned to Ireland aboard the liner Carmania, arriving in Cork on Aug. 6, one day before his 48th birthday and a day after Britain and France were officially at war with Germany.
A week later, writing from London's Savoy Hotel, Bidwell described the city's mood, observing at one point: "Flags are flying in many places. Yet a Hartford man thinks that were 'The States' to be in the war Asylum street would fly more than the whole number you see along the Strand from Charing Cross to Fleet street."
Crossing the English Channel to Dunkirk, Bidwell reached the French city of Lille on the eve of German occupation, Sept. 2. He later told a group of Hartford bankers that he was briefly held at bayonet point by a German soldier who had overheard Bidwell refer to him, while chatting with a French police officer, as "our wienerwurst friend."
War's Lasting Impression
During his next European trip, in May 1915, Bidwell neglected to register as a foreign national and was detained by Scotland Yard for questioning. Following his release, he continued on to France to within 10 miles of heavy fighting in the Marne Valley. On his return to the coast, he was imprisoned by French military authorities until his credentials could be verified. Those encounters with Allied authorities must have soured his mood because he left Europe believing, he told another reporter, that "the Germans are the better prepared in every way to continue the war indefinitely."
Bidwell accompanied Henry Ford and his entourage during the automaker's quixotic "Peace Ship" voyage to Norway in December 1915, and while aboard an Italian vessel reported on a hair-raising crossing through a line of Austro-Hungarian submarines.
Of his Atlantic crossing in October 1917 "on a ship not named here, after a voyage of --- days from an Atlantic port," traveling with both American troops and civilian passengers, Bidwell described lifeboat drills, a concert performed by an impromptu orchestra of passengers, and beginning French classes, which he helped teach. A lot of his best stuff, he admitted, fell victim to the ship's censor.
"Months later the story may be told in full. At this moment M. le Censeur prefers that certain details be reserved. The devil of it is that these are, of course, the most lively."
His report from London on Oct. 19 describing damage from an overnight zeppelin raid contained an observation that could been applied to a generation later during the Blitz: "All the morning cool spectators viewed the scene, undisturbed by panic or anything like it and strengthened in the resolve to continue the war."
His war did not continue, however. By the first week of November, Bidwell was back at his Burnside Avenue home recovering "from a nervous trouble and from a serious ailment of the eyes," according to a one-paragraph report buried deep inside The Courant's Nov. 15 edition.
In the ensuing 12 months, Bidwell reported about the war from Connecticut, reconstructing scenes and episodes from his earlier travels and giving readers a sense of places like Chateau-Thierry and other villages in the Aisne-Marne region, where Connecticut soldiers fought and died in heavy fighting in the summer of 1918.
He returned to France with a group of American correspondents to cover the Paris Peace Conference. Watching from a hotel balcony on Dec. 17, Bidwell vividly described Wilson's ecstatic reception from Parisians, as the American president and his French counterpart passed beneath him in their motorcar:
"The President Wilson smiles and sweeps an arc with his high hat. Instantly all the air is a vibrant blur of inter-pulsating sound waves.
"'Vive Wilson!' 'vive l'Amerique' and other cheers mingle with a tumult of wild yells, of frenzied applause, of waving hats and hands and tossing handkerchiefs."
From Paris, Bidwell reported stories told to him by troops, doctors, aid workers, clergymen and others with Hartford ties: "Over 3,200 miles separate Paris and Hartford, yet you hardly pass a day here without hearing or seeing a man from your own home town,'' he marveled.
One of those men, Army Capt. Matthew E. Coughlin, Bidwell had met two years earlier in Nogales, Ariz., during the Army's punitive expedition against Pancho Villa.
Coughlin and Maj. Rau, a native of Lorraine who had grown up in East Hartford, had served together as officers in the Connecticut National Guard. After the U.S. entered the war, Connecticut's two guard infantry units were merged to form the 102nd Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, with Rau as a battalion commander.
Rau was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his inspired leadership at the Battle of Seicheprey in April 1918. He had been wounded three times and survived before being killed July 25 near Chateau-Thierry by an artillery round while asleep in his tent, according to the story that Coughlin told Bidwell. That account was subsequently disputed by other 102nd veterans who insisted that Rau died leading an attack.
Leaving Paris in early January 1919, Bidwell toured American battlefields at St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne and interviewed Marshal Petain, the hero of Verdun. He crossed into occupied Rhineland and then on to Bavaria, filing stories reflecting his impressions and interviews with prominent Allied military leaders before returning to the U.S. in February.
Bidwell's experiences during the Great War would continue to shape the remainder of his life.
He represented the city of Hartford and the state of Connecticut at Seicheprey in April 1923 at the laying of a cornerstone for a fountain to memorialize Connecticut soldiers who had died in the battle five years before.
He helped lead the committee formed to erect East Hartford's World War I memorial on Main Street, and under its auspices published a book, "East Hartford's Share in the World War,'' in 1929, the year of the memorial's dedication. A prize-winning short story that he wrote in 1935, "The Yankee Spy," was inspired by his run-in with Scotland Yard in 1915.
Among pallbearers at Bidwell's funeral, on April 26, 1937, were fellow members of the Hartford Exiles. He and 11 other Hartford residents had formed the group while dining in the American grill room of the Hotel Regina in Paris on New Year's Day, 1919. Made up of civilian and military "exiles" attached to the American Expeditionary Forces, the group pledged to hold an annual New Year's Day reunion back home, which they did for many years, adding one or two qualified members a year. The Courant and Times faithfully reported on the festivities.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun