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Rev. Joseph M. Rowland Image from Rowland's "Travels inthe Old World."
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Rowland (second from right) and his party on a trip to the Pyramids as part of their1914 excursion. Image from Rowland's "Travels in the Old World."
In June 28, 1914, traveling through Europe with a group of 50 ministers and friends aboard the crowded Continental Express train bound for Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Rev. Joseph M. Rowland, pastor of Laurel Street Methodist Church, entered the Serbian city of Sarajevo.
Rowland later recollected his journey in travelogues titled Travels in the Old World and A Pilgrimage to Palestine. As editor of the Richmond Christian Advocate, he possessed a flair for language. Of Sarajevo and the shooting that precipitated World War I, he noted, "We passed through the town in which the Austrian prince and his wife were murdered on the very day of the crime. Little did we think what a great matter a little fire would kindle. But the fire was already there and it took only that to fan the flame. From what we heard of the man, we do not think he was worth what he has cost the world."
Rowland embarked on this excursion to the Old World and the Holy Lands with the apparent blessing of his parishioners and his wife, Lyde, who stayed in Richmond with their children.
The Richmond group crossed the Atlantic on the German cruise liner Pretoria which, at 3 a.m. on June 17, 1914, collided in fog with the New York — the same liner that the Titanic nearly bashed into when leaving Southampton on its luckless maiden voyage two years prior. According to Rowland, some of the frightened passengers, ordered from their beds to the upper decks with life preservers on, remembered those tragic headlines. The holes that the vessels rammed into each other were above their water lines. Pretoria completed the voyage to Cuxhaven, near Hamburg, without further incident.
Rowland praised the German "love for beauty and cleanliness," passion for art and nature, efficiency of state-run transit systems, quality of schools and technology. He admired the people's "thrift and energy," though he did not appreciate how Germans apparently regarded their women as "beasts of burden." He observed females working in fields, on the railroads, sweeping streets, driving wagons "and doing all kinds of menial labor done by negroes in our country." Neither did he approve of the beer drinking — "It's consumed by all classes and both sexes, of all ages and at all times" — nor of "military drunkenness" — that is, martial displays everywhere, and the vainglorious Kaiser Wilhelm II.
In Dresden, the visitors appreciated the art, including Raphael's Sistine Madonna. From there, it was two days and restless nights on the Continental Express train, where the Richmond party secured 12 berths in the sleeper car, which they divided among the older members. Rowland didn't sleep. "We were passing through countries recently shaken by war, with battlefields much in evidence," he remarked, possibly referencing remnants from recent Balkan conflicts, "while seething, surging all about us the [cauldron] of nations was about ready to boil over again."
His descriptions of the signs of oncoming conflict are reminiscent of scenes from The Grand Budapest Hotel. "At every turn, guards and officials of vicious [mien] and piercing eye came stalking through the train in gaudy uniform and clanking steel. They overhauled us, scrutinized us, looked at our passports, fumbled through our luggage, examined our eyes … They gesticulated over us and made signs and motions."
The Richmonders arrived in Constantinople, with its houses stretched around the Bosphorus and bathed in golden light. "It looked like a necklace of pearls about a fair lady's neck, but once beyond the border and into the city of Turks, we felt we were in the garbage can of creation with somebody sitting on the lid."
Then it was onward to the ancient biblical cities to walk where those to whom Rowland had devoted his life had also walked. He found great disparities, immense poverty, beauty and mystery. His group saw Pompeii and Rome, and were slated to depart from Naples on another German ship. But the rising hostilities interned their ship and others. The British White Star Line vessel Canopic became a last-resort ferry for those affected. The ship opened its public rooms to house the rush of passengers. An Italian count with family in America, who couldn't buy passage, stole on, Rowland recalled, and when he was found out, the captain restricted him to the pantry. Others came aboard having lost their luggage, and had no cash for food. "We saw some well-to-do people who went over with us, in the steerage going home." There was anxiety about German mines and submarines scattered in the waters. Rowland said two ships went down behind Canopic and killed 1,000 people. Canopic was erroneously reported captured after it did not arrive as scheduled in the Azores Islands; in fact, it avoided them on purpose after radio reports indicating the Germans lay in wait there.
In his travel journal, Rowland analyzed the conflict. "Many think we are on the verge of the greatest revolution that may even blot European civilization from the earth and leave other hands to build upon the ruins as they may be able," he wrote.
World War I cost more than 10 million lives, and bequeathed its unresolved issues to the next generation. The international tensions that exploded that summer 100 years ago continue echoing today.
Rowland wrote a few novels, including Blue Ridge Breeze. He died, at age 58, in a car crash near the Amelia County Courthouse also involving his wife and mother-in-law.