Fourth in a series commemorating the Centennial of the end of World War I
By Tracy Potter
North Dakota’s sixth Rhodes Scholar was David Nelson of Mayville, who went off to Oxford in September 1914. The world the 23-year-old Nelson was entering was changed forever the previous June as Otto Von Bismarck had predicted, “out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.” Oxford was abuzz over Germany’s occupation of neutral Belgium, and resultant humanitarian crisis.
Herbert Hoover’s Commission for Relief in Belgium inspired students internationally to coordinate delivery of necessities to Belgium. Oxford led the way, and David Nelson joined in. He wrote his parents from neutral Rotterdam December 6, 1914, “I hope N.D., which is prospering because of this war, will be generous in her aid to the Belgians . . . One meets people of all the warring nations in Holland; it is the most interesting spot in Europe at present.”
Nelson crossed into Belgium that week. German officers were “uniformly courteous” and “pay for all they get” at cafes. He was impressed at the lightness of the occupiers’ boot on public life. “Germans, as a rule, treat us very finely. They even stretch the rules in our favor now and then.”
Over the course of two years, Nelson’s attitude about the Germans would change dramatically. Doing well by doing good, the Rhodes Scholar determined Münchener was the last word in beer. The work was as gratifying. A Belgian told him “We have had many kind words from others; they have said many encouraging things to us; but you Americans have done things.”
In Spa, he heard a speech by the burgomaster, the town band playing “Yankee Doodle,” and chants of “Vive L’Amerique” from the crowd.
Nelson returned briefly to Oxford in October 1915, but the war proved too seductive. Five weeks into his term he wrote home that he was thinking about delivering clothing to Dunkirk and might spend Christmas helping the American Hospital in Paris. That turned into a much longer commitment. He joined the American Ambulance Field Service, volunteers aiding wounded French and British soldiers.
Nelson was assigned a converted Ford, in service since the First Battle of the Marne. Work meant keeping his ambulance operating and driving casualties from front-line aid stations to forward field hospitals over roads filled with treacherous potholes from shelling. Driving at night was the worst. Lights were forbidden to avoid unwanted attention from artillery and aircraft. Often roads were clogged with troops and ambulances needed to crawl along, trying not to drive into the ditch.
Nelson came to resent German actions. In a 1916 letter to his mother, he mentioned the torpedoing of a passenger boat from England to France. “Another example of Germany’s benevolent regard for neutrals. Dutch, Norwegian, and Swedish ships are being sunk every week without warning…”
“To most of the people at home who are so far away from the war it appears, I suppose, as a detached affair; it does not affect them personally and they consider Europe mad to be killing off its best men in a useless struggle. Here it is necessary to get to solid ground . . . Now if you are a moral person you must take sides … you have an interest, and a very real interest in seeing the cause of right and justice triumph. To me it is clear beyond a doubt that the great preponderance of right is on the Allied side, and therefore my sympathies and any help I can give are for them.”
In 1917, America joined the war and Nelson was at Fort Snelling becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in the Field Artillery. Eight additional months in Divisional Intelligence School, and he pined to return to the war. The Army had other plans. Nelson was posted to the General Staff in Washington, D.C., and there he stayed until the Armistice.
Nelson returned to Paris as an attaché to the postwar Peace Conference where he was an eyewitness to history. From the Hôtel de Crillon, Nelson saw “the entry of President Wilson into Paris. Every street and square along the line of march was packed with people. French soldiers were lined up three deep the whole distance to control the crowds and keep the way clear. I have never seen so dense a mass as was gathered on the Place de la Concorde…”
“Everyone says that the reception which the President received surpasses any which has been seen in Paris . . . The midinettes decided that it was a rare opportunity to obtain American oversees caps; they would surround any Americans they might see and unless you were wary your cap was gone. The Americans usually retaliate by stealing a kiss. It was amusing to see the large number of bareheaded Americans; I imagine that half of Paris was supplied with American caps.”
David Nelson thought his experiences in WWI had prepared him for life without Oxford. He tried investment banking in New York, but chairing Luther College’s English Department and a girl from Decorah held his interest the rest of his days. Their son, John, compiled and edited the Letter and Diaries of David T. Nelson 1914-1919.
Tracy Potter, Bismarck, travels widely with Laura Anhalt and writes in retirement from a career in heritage tourism. He is author of “Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat” and “Steamboats in Dakota Territory.”