Professors Abroad

Friends Worry About Americans Abroad

Geneva Daily Times, August 1, 1914.

Alexander L. Harris

Alexander L. Harris.

Alexander L. Harris, Instructor in French and German

Harris had just arrived in Cologne when war broke out. Fortunately, he was able to quickly return to his native Canada without incident. He described his journey in a letter to Milton H. Turk, Dean of William Smith College, which has been transcribed below.

219 Stuart St.

Kingston, Ontario, Aug. 28, 1914

Dear Dr. Turk,

Tuesday morning I arrived in Montreal per S.S. “Athenia.” I have just received a visit from Dr. Young, who informs me that I am the only survivor of the Modern Language Department. I have written the president, but do not know if my letter would find him at home. Should it be considered desirable that I arrive in Geneva earlier than the date fixed for re-opening the college I can set out at any time.

Traveling now is not attended with any great difficulty, as far as baggage is concerned, seeing that I have left most of my personal effects on the continent. But I am not worrying greatly over that. I was only too glad to escape with a comparatively whole skin. Few of us expected war to burst forth with so little warning. In fact I thought the state of affairs safe enough to warrant my leaving Paris for Cologne. Accordingly Friday, July 31st, found me seated in an express bound for Germany. It was the last regular train to cross the frontier, as I learned later. After an all-day journey, during which we were made to realize the nearness of the danger, the train finally pulled into Cologne past six o’clock. There all was excitement. Huge posters were up declaring Germany in a state of war and calling out the reserves. Soldiers and guns were stationed on top of the huge cathedral. I determined to leave as soon as possible, but could not get a train until Saturday morning. That first of August was a day many of us will not soon forget. There was a tremendous rush for seats in the train, the stuffy compartments were overcrowded, the weather hot and the delays interminably long. Yet I was far luckier than most, for I was in the dining car the greater part of the time. It was close upon midnight when we reached the Hook of Holland, and glad we were to see a steamer; for reports had been current all along the line that the boat had been cancelled. There was not accommodation for the number on board and some of us spent the night dozing on deck in a drizzling rain. However, we reached London on Sunday afternoon. In Cologne I had secured a five-pound Bank of England note, hence suffered less than most from the prolonged bank holiday. I was overjoyed to secure a steerage passage (although dignified by the name of Second Cabin Extension) to Canada two weeks after my arrival in Great Britain. I certainly had the most wonderful good fortune all along and only wish that Dr. Williamson and Prof. Barney had shared it with me.

Please remember me to Mrs. Turk.

Sincerely yours,

Alex L. Harris

Edward J. Williamson

Edward J. Williamson.

Edward J. Williamson, Professor of German Language and Literature

Prof. Williamson was in Berlin when war was declared. As a Canadian and a subject of the British Empire, he was an enemy of the state, and was not allowed to leave. The German government initially only allowed him to write in German, but eventually he was allowed to write in English. Several of his letters to Dean Turk survive in the Archives, one of which is transcribed below.

Berlin, Aug 24/14

Dear Milton,

Despite my efforts to get away I am still here and goodness only knows how long I may have to remain. At present I am preparing a petition which I expect to lay before the Foreign Office and am collecting as many testimonials as I possibly can to back up my case. However I am not at all confident that my efforts will meet with success. The ambassador has done practically all that he can do for me, but would I am sure be willing to help me in any way consistent with his position.

This is not the first time that I have been inconvenienced by the fact that I was born in Canada. However this is the most serious scrape that I ever got mixed up in and as yet I do not see any way out of this difficulty. All I want is permission to get out of Germany, but that is a difficult matter in the case of one who is supposed to be an enemy of the country. I often find myself laughing at the situation. That I who have devoted most of my life to the acquisition of German culture, who am engaged in trying to spread that culture in a land with which Germany is supposed to be on terms of friendship, that I should be detained here on a technicality and prevented from doing what Germany is most anxious to have done—there is something very incongruous about it all.

However I am getting along all right and would really enjoy it if I were not anxious to get back to my work. At present I am well supplied with money, but if they keep me here for several weeks I shall have no funds for fresh supplies. Tell Mr. Chew that if I have to cable for money it will have to be cabled back through the State Dep’t at Washington to the American Embassy, Britain. I am hoping however that I shall get as far as England at least before I run short.

Remember me to all my Geneva friends and tell them not to worry about me. Also write to Florence for I doubt whether she receives all that I write to her.

Hoping that I may not have to stay here forever.

Yours in captivity,


Prisoner in German Capital

Geneva Daily Times, September 22, 1914.

After a few weeks, Williamson learned from an American in Berlin that he could apply for American protection as someone who had lived and worked for years in the United States. The American Embassy issued him a temporary passport, and he made his way to the Netherlands, England, and then Canada.

Other professors, such as Winfield S. Barney and John A. Silver were also abroad when the war began. Barney was in Tours, France, and witnessed the large-scale mobilization of the French army. He had difficulty cashing checks but after a few weeks was able to travel to Paris and then home. Silver was in Vienna, but as a guest of Frederic Penfield, American Ambassador to Austria-Hungary, he had no difficulty leaving Europe. In fact, he returned the following summer.