Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, November 25, 2016

When Johnny Doesn't Come Marching Home
reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

When Johnny Doesn't Come Marching Home

by Marian Small
FriesenPress, 2016

John Small, 1912
Defiance, Ohio, Football Squad

When Marian Small inherited a package of her father's letters and diary, she knew exactly what she had to do. As a genealogist and family historian, Marian had already written extensively about her family. With the information about her father's World War I service in her possession, she set about to write his story, too.

John R. Small enlisted in the Ohio National Guard and served on the Mexican border in 1916. After the declaration of war his unit was federalized and he became a sergeant in company G, 147th Infantry Regiment, 37th Division. In 1917 John married Mary, a young lady he had met in the service. Throughout training he proved to be an efficient and capable leader of his men. Due to a shortage of officers, John was de facto platoon leader from the time of his departure for France in June 1918. His leadership was recognized, and in early September he was promoted to first sergeant of Company G.

During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, while advancing under shellfire with his company, John was struck by shell splinters, and his legs were "mangled." He spent six months flat on his back in Army hospitals in France, during which time he underwent many operations on his legs. Returning home in March 1919, John was carried down the ship's gangplank to the dock, hence this book's title.

John's War Mementos 

The section on John's postwar life is poignant. After returning to the United States, he remained in Army hospitals, still flat on his back, and subject to more operations. At one point, after being allowed the use of a wheelchair and tired of awaiting permission to leave the hospital to visit his family, John went AWOL with the help of a friend. Upon his return he was court-martialed and reduced in rank to private. Finally, he received his discharge from the Army in November 1920. His wounds left him "crippled" for life, his right leg virtually useless. John's struggle to obtain full compensation from the government, as well as reinstatement of his rank as first sergeant, were for naught.

John's letters and diary record the common concerns of a World War I soldier; all of his letters to Mary are tender and reflect the great love and care he had for his young newlywed wife.

Marian Small self-published this book through FriesenPress; this in itself is not a problem, but the book would have benefited had a military historian been able to supply some editing, especially with regard to military terms and unit composition. Small has included photographs of some pages from her father's diary; comparing the actual handwritten diary entries to Marian Small's text, we find that she has altered some of the entries and moved and combined some entries. For example, the exciting diary entry recording John's wound is not the same as Marian's text; she appears to have added some information, probably from some letters John had written. In none of the few examples that I examined was the sense of John's meaning altered, yet this is a serious drawback because we don't know for sure what has been amplified or changed from John Small's original diary entries.

The book has no footnotes or end notes, nor is there an index, but Marian has included a selected bibliography. Dozens of photographs from her father's collection are reprinted, augmented by photos Marian has culled from other sources. Readers should remember that this book was not written by a military historian seeking to present a scholarly study. Rather it was written by a family historian for the purposes of recording a soldier's history and preserving his memory for future generations. As such, the book should be considered more of a family heirloom or remembrance rather than a scholarly addition to the growing volume of diaries, letters, and memoirs of American soldiers during the war. Nevertheless, Marian Small is to be commended for publishing her father's documents; it would be wonderful if more people searched their own family archives and perform a similar service.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. A typical act of senseless stupidity on the part of the Army. His a battle being waged a hundred years later by other generations of wounded warriors.

  2. A fascinating and moving personal account. So many WWI veterans were still suffering when WWII broke out.

  3. Not just Army stupidity. A non caring public who watched thousands of the wounded suffer and fought the pensions they deserved. That same public closed their eyes to the conditions that would create WW2. Now they are revered as the greatest generation.