An Adventure in 1914

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Thomas Tileston Wells (1865–1946)

 Note by Christopher Kelly (CRK):

The author of An Adventure in 1914 was Thomas Tileston Wells, my maternal great-grandfather. The text was written in late 1914 or early 1915.

At the time of his adventure, Wells was a forty-eightyear-old lawyer from New York who served each summer as the American consul general to Romania. He was married to Georgina Betts Wells (1868–1956) and had two children, John Wells (1895–1951) and my grandmother, Georgina Lawrence Wells Van Rensselaer (1902–1997), who was an eleven-year-old girl in 1914. (CRK)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]With my wife, son and daughter I left Paris early in the morning of July 13th for a little trip through the Austrian Tyrol and the region of the Dolomites.  That afternoon we arrived at Belfort near the frontier between French and German Alsace; saw the lion carved in the rock which commemorates the heroic defense of the town in 1870 against the Germans, the heavy forts and many soldiers, but we did not then think that these soldiers and forts would be so soon engaged in deadly contest.  We then went on in the train and stopped a few minutes on the French frontier town of Petit Croix.  We went from Petit Croix to Altkirch and Milhause, or Mulhausen, as it is called in Germany, where the terrible battles were fought in the early part of this war, these cities being repeatedly taken and lost by both sides.  All these names have since become familiar to us owing to the war.

We spent a couple of days at Zurich.  One day we went up the lake in a steamer and took tea at the other end.  The country about this lake is not very high, but the lake is very picturesque, and when it is very clear you can get glimpses of the distant snow covered mountains beyond the hills which immediately border the lake.

When we left Zurich we went right through in the train to Innsbruck in the Tyrol.  On our way we passed the picturesque lake of Wallensee, surrounded by high mountains, and then crossed the Rhine into the little principality of Liechtenstein, and as the train stopped for a few minutes near he capital, Schaan-Vaduz, we got out to be able to say that we had been in that country.  This little state has no taxes as its Prince personally pays all the expenses.  He has vast estates and generally lives in Vienna.

Then the train went on into the Austrian territory and we went up the valley of the Ill with towering snow covered mountains on either side, and finally reached the Arlberg tunnel which brought us into the upper Inn valley and we went on down that valley until we came to the beautiful old city of Innsbruck.  In the dining car on that train, my son and happened to sit opposite the great M. Pachitch*, the Prime Minister of Servia, and we had a nice chat with him, but did not mention politics.  He was dissatisfied with the service and the lunch and wrote out a complaint but he gave the waiter a tip of 5 Kronen** – an unusually large sum…

*Nikola Pašić (1845 – 1926) later became the president of Yugolsavia. The Austrians accused the Serbian government of complicity in the assassination of archduke Ferdinand.  It is unclear to this day whether Pašić had any foreknowledge of the conspiracy to kill the Archduke and his wife. (CRK)

** About one US dollar in 1914. (CRK)

We then went back to Innsbruck and arrived there on Thursday, July 23rd, and as we were walking about the streets in the rain, we saw a great crowd looking into the newspaper offices and reading the notice of the Austrian ultimatum to Servia which required an answer within forty-eight hours, an the acceptance of which would have meant that Servia had abandoned its independence.  I immediately thought that there would be a European war as I did not believe that Russia would permit the crushing of Servia.  Servia could not accept the Austrian demands, which seemed to be entirely unjustified, especially the Archduke and his wife were murdered by Austrian subject, in Austrian territory, and moreover the Servian Government had warned the Austrian Government that there was a plot to kill the Archduke and advised him not to g to Sarajevo where, as you mat remember, he and his wife the Duchess of Hohenberg, were murdered on the 28th of June.*  Therefore, I thought the ultimatum was a mere excuse for starting a great European war, and events have proved that I was right.

I wished to go right back to Paris where our heavy luggage was, but my family could not believe that war was coming and wanted to keep on the journey as planned.  I gave in…

After leaving the large town of Bruneck you have some beautiful views of the snow white mountains and presently as the train turns and twists up the valley, you have your first sight of the Dolomites.  These mountains are different from the other mountains of the Alps and the name comes from a geologist of the name of Dolomieu who first examined the magnesian limestone formation of which they are made…

While we were in Cortina rumours of the coming war became more and more frequent, and I kept getting more and more alarmed and finally I persuaded my family to leave, which we did on Thursday, the 30th of July.  Already soldiers were being mobilized an d even in the little village of Cortina we constantly heard military bands and bugles and saw soldiers marching away to Tolbach to take the train for centres of concentration.  We also heard a great deal of rifle practice going on…

* Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serb who participated in the assasination of the Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914.  He was a citizen of Austria-Hungary; Sarajevo was in Bosnia which had been annexed to Austria in 1908.  Too young to be executed according to Hapsburg law (age 19 at the time of the assassination), Princip was imprisoned where he died of tuberculosis in April 1918. (CRK) 

I might say that in Cortina they speak Italian, although the country belongs to Austria, and in some of the neighbouring villages they speak German…The country generally is Italian in sentiment and the people nearly all wish that their country belonged to Italy rather than to Austria…

When we got to Botzen late in the afternoon of July 31st, we saw that the people were very much excited about the war.  Cannons, camp ovens and other military supplies filled the approaches to the railway, and as we arrived at the hotel, a police official notified our driver that he must leave that night for his regiment and that his horses were required immediately to drag cannon.  That night at dinner we heard military bands marching about the town, followed by soldiers, who in turn were followed by all the reservists, who were not yet in uniform, and they in turn by all the young women.  All kept marching about the town with halts occasionally to listen to speeches, singing and shouting until four o’clock in the morning.

We got off the train at Trent which is he the town where the Great Council of the Church, called the Council of Trent, was opened in 1545…It has a beautiful cathedral and other interesting churches, and as we went into the cathedral ad the churches we found them all full of women kneeling, praying and crying because their husbands, sons or sweethearts were leaving for the war.  It was a very sad sight and one never to be forgotten.

We then went on by train to a little place called Mori and then changed to a narrow gauge railway that was to take us to Riva* at the northern and Austrian end of Lake Garda, where we arrived in the early afternoon.  On the way we constantly passed trains full of soldiers and trains with cannon and other military supplies.  In the villages we saw train loads of soldiers leaving and kissing good-bye to their wives and children and very sad they looked, although they tried to keep up their courage by signing patriotic songs.  These people were very much to be pitied because they are really Italian and their country should belong to Italy, as I hope it soon will, for they have been oppressed by the Austrians since the country was given to Austria in 1814.  None of these people care anything about the war, or for the matter of that, anything about Austria, except that they mostly hate it.

Riva is one of the most beautiful places in the world…We went to the great hotel called the Lido Palace Hotel** which is on the lake and has a beautiful garden running out to a little promontory on the lake, but the hotel had a strange look for although there must have been 100, or perhaps 200 waiters and servants, there was no one in the hotel except an American couple and ourselves, and it gave you a creepy feeling to see such a big and beautiful place, meant for so many people, so deserted.  My wife wanted to spend several days at Riva, but that was made impossible by the manager telling us that the hotel would close the next day, so we had a swim in he lake and a row on it, and took tea on the terrace of the hotel gardens and arranged to leave the next morning by the early boat.  Frequently in the night we heard bugle calls and other sounds of military activity and there were two search lights on the lake which were constantly being turned in all directions, and occasionally a flash of light would come through the windows into our rooms.  All of this gave us a very unpleasant feeling and made us appreciate that we were in a country that was already at war, and that martial law was in force.

*Riva del Garda has been a part of Italy since 1918. (CRK)

** The Lido Palace remains popular in 2015. (See

The next morning, Sunday August 2nd, we made an early start to the morning boat that takes you to the Italian end of the lake…When we got to the quay from which the boat sailed, we stopped, and my family got out of the ‘bus and went on board the boat.  I stayed behind to see the trunks taken down and put safely on the boat.  When the trunks were on the boat, I prepared to follow, but was stopped by a man in brown and rather dirty civilian suit, with a beard that had not been shaved for several days, who told me that the tow other Russian spies had been caught, and that now that he had me, all three of us would be shot that afternoon.  I protested that not only was I not a Russian spy, but that I was an American.  The police official, for such I suppose he was, called up some soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets and two of them grabbed me, each holding one of my arms and they made me go to a room nearby which apparently is used for the customs house.  There I again protested that I was an American and they asked for my passport.  I had no passport and told them so, but showed my letters, my visiting cards, and finally my Letter of Credit to prove that I was an American, none of which, however, convinced the police spy.  My son then came back form the boat, he having observed there was some trouble and I asked him to get me my bag but told him to ay nothing to anyone, but simply to fetch the bag.  This he did and I got out of the bag a letter which I had obtained before leaving America form Secretary of State Bryan* “directed to the Diplomatic and Consular officers of the Units States of America, introducing Mr. T. Tileston Wells.”  The letter is as follows:

Department of State,


June 20, 1914


To the

Diplomatic and Consular Officers

Of the United States od America.


At the insistence of the Honorable William F. McCombs, Chairman of the Democratic National Committ4ee, I take pleasure in introducing to you Mr. T. Tileston Wells of New York City, who is about to proceed abroad.

I cordially bespeak for Mr. Wells such courtesies and assistance as you may be able to render, consistently with your official duties

I am, Gentlemen,

Your obedient servant,

W.J. Bryan


* William Jennings Bryan (1860 – 1925) ran twice for President of the United States and famously delivered the Cross of Gold speech.

After the police spy had read this letter, he took it to some officers in uniform who were standing a little way off and they read the letter and as they did so I could see them looking around at me from time to time. After a very short time the police spy came back, handed me back my letter and told me that I could go.  He made no excuse or apology, but I was very pleased to go so and did so readily.  I went on the boat where my wife and daughter were seated, and sat down opposite to them, but saying nothing at the time, fearing that if I showed any excitement that the police official might change his mind and come back.  I can assure you that I counted the seconds until the time to go came and was greatly relieved to see the ropes cast off and the boat start

A few minutes after leaving we made another landing at Tarbole, also in Austrian territory, but after leaving there we soon got into Italian waters and as the boat was Italian I felt that I was thoroughly out of Austria and was very glad of it.

When we left Riva, as we had tickets all the way to Paris and through Milan, we decided that after landing t the south end of the lake at Desenzano, we would go by train to Milan, but as we came down the lake we stopped a the little Italian town of Limone and there we got that morning’s local Italian papers which said that the French army was mobilizing and that Italy had decided to remain neutral in the great war.  Therefore, knowing that the French army would require all the French railways for some days we felt that it would be impossible to go right through to Paris and, therefore, we decided to go to Venice instead to stay until the time was more favorable for going on to Paris…

There were about 700 Americans at Venice at this time, many of them in great distress as they had planned their trips and got their tickets on lines that the war made impossible.  A great many had paid for passages home on the German lines which were not running, or had paid for passages from the North and could not get there, either through Germany or France.  Getting back to America from Italy was difficult because in the first place all Americans wanted to get home ant once, and in the second place the German steamers were not running at all, and few of the English and French were, and moreover it was feared that Italy might join in the war which would interfere with her ships sailing.  Then again there was a great shortage of coal in Italy which made sailing from her ports difficult…

Very soon after the war broke out the English Government chartered a special train to take all the English people in Venice to Genoa and there provided the White Star S.S Cretic* to take them to England.  Nothing of the kind was done for Americans in Italy so far as I have been able to learn, and the appropriation that Congress generously made to help Americans abroad was largely squandered in a great junketing party for the benefit of the agents who were sent our to relieve the distress, and who traveled hither an thither, at Uncles Sam’s expense.

*SS Cretic sailed from 1902 until 1928, was used a troopship to bring American soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force to Europe in 1918. She was part of the White Star Line from 1903 to 1923.  (CRK)

The hotel keepers at Venice were very good and told us we need not pay our bill to them until we got back to America and this in spite if the fact that many of them were embarrassed by the effects of the royal decree which exempted banks from paying depositors more than 5% of their deposits per month.  I suppose that measure was necessary but it worked a good deal of hardship as you can well imagine.

Food supplies at this time in Venice wee, however, abundant and cheap, because a Royal decree forbade their export, cutting off the market and the supply was much greater than the demand.  You could get eggs in Venice for less than a cent a piece and milk and butter and meat including fowls and chickens, as well as vegetables and fruits.

However, there was great suffering in Italy caused by this war.  Quantities of Italian laborers  have sought work for many years past, outside of their own country, not only in America, but in South America, Austria, France and Switzerland.  Almost all work stopped in the countries that were at war and the times have been very bad lately in South America, so that thousand of poor Italians had to return to Italy.  We saw many of these refugees with their children and babies and bundles.

They aroused pity I can assure you.  How Italy is going to take care of all these industrious, but unfortunate people, who unwillingly had to come back at this time, I do not know, but perhaps their situation has been improved to a certain extent by taking the places of some of those who were mobilized by the Italian army or navy.  When the war started between the great countries who are now fighting, Italy slowly began to mobilize her army and navy, getting them ready for war, and has been slowly but st4eaaidly at it ever since.

This brings up the question as to whether Italy is likely to join in the war.  It seems to me that she is, because the sentiment in favour of the war and against Austria is growing all the time, and moreover it appears to be for the interest of the country to do so.  Austria is the hereditary enemy of Italy and the people of the north of Italy especially remember too well the persecutions which they suffered during Austrian occupation not to hate that country, which they do to a man cordially, so that it never would have been possible for the Italian Government to have gone to war with Austria and Germany against France and England, because the people would not have stood it and there would have been a revolution immediately.  However, Italy had no need under the terms of the Triple Alliance of joining in the war, her reasons are more than an excuse, as the crushing of Servia by Austria was contrary to the interests of Italy, and as Italy was not consulted in advance about the note that produced the war, she was not obliged to join in it.  If she had been consulted about the note she would have objected to it and then it would not have been sent.  It was because the Austrians and Germans knew that Italy would not permit the note to be sent, if she were consulted, that they did not consult her.

However, there is every reason to believe that both Germany and Austria brought every possible pressure to bear, both by threats and offers of reward, such as giving Italy the Trentino,* which is the country about Trent and Riva of which I have already told you.  However, nothing availed and Italy has up to the present time remained neutral.  But the feeling is growing in favour of a war against Austria and I have no doubt that a pretext for the war will soon be found, especially now that the Marquis of San Guiliano, so long the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and rather well disposed to Austria, has resigned from the Cabinet.

At Venice we spent a great deal of time reading the extras of the papers with the so-called latest news of the war, and in the evening we would go to the Piazza of San Marco, and sit down at a table in front of Florian’s,** order some black coffee which we would slowly sip and discuss the war news and listen to the splendid band.

Note by CRK.  Wells proceeded from Venice to Rome.  On September 3, 1914 they observed the sfumata rise above St. Peter’s indicating the selection of a new Pope – “Benedetto Diecimo Quinto” or Benedict XV.  Wells and his family then went to Naples where they managed to board a British steamer which departed on September 10.  The ship stopped briefly at Almeria in Spain, in Gibraltar and at the Azores.  Wells expressed anxiety about the possible presence of German cruisers that could be hunting for merchant and passenger ships though none were encountered.  They arrived safely in Boston about two weeks after their departure from Naples.

On May 23, 1915 Italy, as predicted by Wells, declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany and Austria-Hungary did offer the possibility of some of Trentino (as well as French Tunisia) to Italy. The Allies, however, were prepared to offer all of Trentino along with Gorizia and Trieste in order to join the Triple Entente.

** Caffe Florian remains a popular tourist destination in Venice (see