Before the Greatest Generation came the Great War.
Long before the Red Army stopped the Nazis on the Eastern Front, the red tide of trench warfare drowned a generation on the Western Front.
We hear more about World War II nowadays because living veterans testify to its horrors. But it was World War I, which began 100 years ago Monday, that first pulled Europe and the United States into a mass slaughter.
The world pays homage to their sacrifice on Nov. 11. (Our own Veterans Day celebrates the armistice that ended the war.) And a few people, writer-actress Rachel Jeffreys among them, still think about the “war to end all wars,” as it was described at the time. Her new show, “Tales From the Great War,” runs this week at Warehouse PAC in Cornelius.
Jeffreys has a personal connection: Grandfather Tom Jeffreys left Llanelli, Wales, to sign up on the day Great Britain entered the war, hoping to do his part in France. Luckily, that didn’t happen, or both Rachel Jeffreys and the show might never have come about. Instead, he served on the HMS Suffolk, an armored cruiser patrolling the seas for U-boats (as German submarines were called).
“At one point, they were guarding the U.S. coast, trying to keep German ships from going back and forth to Bremen with supplies,” she says. “The Deutschland slipped past them into Baltimore harbor. America was still neutral at that point, and Baltimore had plenty of Germans in it, so the mayor gave them a big welcome.”
Jeffreys and her cast of four men tell stories like that one in “Great War,” mingling those with period songs, photographs, snippets of video, poems and other narratives. The audience will be encouraged to speak up or sing along with the likes of “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag” and “Over There.” The play’s neither pro- nor anti-war, though it inevitably asks whether 20 million people died needlessly. (The conflict was triggered by the killing of an Austrian archduke and duchess; Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, and alliances sucked in other nations.)
“This gives a sense of history, but it’s not comprehensive: It’s about daily life during the war,” she says. “Back in Wales, a ‘deserter-catcher’ got five pounds for every person he found running away (from the armed services). That’s what people were talking about.”
You could say this project has been 30 years in the making. Jeffreys interviewed her granddad in 1981, when he was 86, to get his “marvelous tales” on tape.
She turned that chat into a Veterans Day radio show in 1994. Two years later, the BBC Wales TV show “The Pursuit of Happiness” profiled Welsh immigrants in the U.S. Tom Jeffreys’ episode, “Last of the Tough Welshmen,” followed him to his adopted hometown of Baltimore, the place he had once tried to blockade.
His story ended well: The Suffolk sailed east, protecting British territories and eventually getting British sailors out of Vladivostok, Russia. But he returned to Llanelli in 1919 to work in a tinplate mill and learned 627 of its 33,000 inhabitants had died in the war.
Rachel Jeffreys’ most telling statistic may be a financial one. According to her research, the billions spent on the war would have bought a $2,500 house on a $500 acre of land with $1,000 left over for furniture – for every family from the combatant nations of Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Canada, Australia and the United States.