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Eye Witness To History: Allentown's Annie Weaver At The Start Of World War I

Annie Weaver of Allentown was a sensible down to earth sort, not given to flights of fancy. But as she stirred in her hotel room in the ancient university town of Heidelberg, Germany in the pre-dawn hours of a July day in 1914, she was roused to wakefulness by the rhythmic sound of pounding feet on the cobble stone street below her window.

Pulling open the curtains Weaver's eyes fell on a sight that she could never have imagined. Here were wave on wave of goose-stepping German soldiers, the most feared military machine in Europe, in full uniform. There was no music, not even a drum. Their hobnailed boots grated harshly against the pavement. Faint traces of dawning light glinted off the pointed metal spikes of their helmets.

Weaver did not witness this scene just once but several times and always at that early hour. Just as the sun would advance above the horizon Kaiser Wilhelm II's warriors, like mystical figures in a Wagnerian opera, would vanish out of sight as if they had never been. Civilian life would refill the square shortly thereafter.

Reflecting on it several weeks later Weaver wondered if what she had witnessed was the secret mobilization of the German army even before hostilities had broken out into what history has come to call World War I.

The daughter of Henry Weaver, partner in the retail furniture firm of Helfrich and Weaver, Annie Weaver was a 54 year old Allentown post office clerk who had seldom been away from home overnight. But in the summer of 1914 she had embarked on a guided tour of Germany, Switzerland and France.

War seemed distant that summer. Europe had not had a major conflict in over 40 years. Although unrest in the Balkans made some folks nervous, most people thought it was not unusual. The Balkans had been unsettled as far back as the 1870s.

Weaver's first stop was Germany. She was particularly impressed by Berlin. Enlarged and largely rebuilt since 1870 by a newly united Germany, it was full of classically designed buildings and sculpture. She recalled a prosperous people ruled by an efficient if autocratic government.

But on the afternoon of June 28, their last day in Berlin, Weaver and the rest of her tour returned to their open tour bus to find a circular placed on their seats. It stated that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, heir to the throne, had been assassinated in a town called Sarajevo in the Balkans.

Looking back, Weaver remembered it as more bizarre than anything else. "We had no thought of war and were given no warning to return home. None of us or anybody we met thought it could lead to war." At home in America a newspaper editor stated blandly, "one archduke more or less makes little difference." The front page headline in the Morning Call that day read simply, "RAIN FAILS TO MAR CATASAUQUA'S HOMECOMING PARADE."

But as Weaver toured, diplomats all over Europe, aware of the intricate alliance system, were calculating whether the Archduke's assassination might lead to war. And as they did each nation weighed in the balance what the result might be.

That within four years four mighty empires--German, Russia, Austria and Turkey-- would be destroyed, and that the British Empire and the French Republic, though victorious, would be fatally weakened, was not considered possible. But British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey feared it. "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime," he famously noted.

As the chess pieces of diplomacy fell into place Weaver's tour pushed on to Switzerland. They emerged in France in early August and had just settled into their Paris hotel when the thunderbolt of Germany's declaration of war against France and Russia struck. That morning the streets of the French capital were filled with blue coated troops in bright red pants. The pants, a relic of the 19th century, would be replaced when it was discovered they made excellent targets for machine guns.

At Weaver's hotel the only male staff were two waiters and they were about to join their regiments as part of general mobilization. "Everywhere we went we saw men bidding goodbye to their families," she recalled.

The tour was over. Now Weaver had to fend for herself. The U.S. embassy told her she had to get a passport, something that had not been required anywhere in pre-war Europe except for Czarist Russia. This process took weeks and Weaver found herself in a Paris that was dark with shuttered shops and refugees jamming railroad stations fearful of advancing Germans.

With the help of an Englishmen she met, she managed to get her things together and on a train to La Havre for a cross-channel passage to England. A French Boy Scout assisted her with the language and saw she was safely on the ship. 25 years later, she was still corresponding with both of them.

In London she found a city on a war footing but more bustling with the shops still open. "Everywhere we were shown the greatest respect because we were Americans" she recalled. After about a week she managed to get passenger ship passage to America and had an uneventful crossing. A month later her steamer trunk arrived from the Paris hotel where she had been forced to leave it behind.

Arriving in Allentown Weaver was cured of any wanderlust she might have had. In 1939 she declared, "It was great experience and showed me how terrible war is. I have had no desire to go back to Europe as things have never settled down there."

Weaver, 76, died on July 2, 1940, several weeks after Adolf Hitler's German army defeated France and occupied Paris during World War II.

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