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

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin
reviewed by David F. Beer

The Crossed Hands of God: The World War I Diary and Letters of Eugene William McLaurin
Edited by Jerry R.Tompkins. Foreword by Jay Winter
Resource Publications, 2015

Although plenty of personal WWI documents exist, we'll never know how many Doughboys' diaries and letters ever saw the light of day after 1918 and gradually disintegrated and disappeared. So it's exciting to discover material that might well have joined their ranks but instead was resurrected almost a century after being written. Lying in a trunk in family attics for decades, Private Eugene McLaurin's diary and letters could have eventually suffered the fate of so many similar documents long ignored and finally discarded had it not been for their editor, Jerry Tompkins, who discovered and brought them to life again.

U.S. Army Chaplain Conducting a Burial Service
Eugene William McLaurin is much better known for the academic distinction he achieved later in life than as a private and acting chaplain in the AEF's 90th Division during the war. However, we're now extremely fortunate to be able to read his diary from 9 September to 11 November and his letters to his fiancée during this time and through several months of occupation duty. Much took place in this time. Before enlisting, McLaurin was a 29-year-old Presbyterian pastor of a church in Edna, Texas. Surprisingly he entered the army as a private and remained one throughout his service. Nevertheless, he was soon made an acting chaplain whose main duties were to bury the dead and hold occasional services.

Although this book is relatively short at 157 pages, it is a rewarding read that gives us a unique and detailed insight into a tumultuous 14-month interruption in a man's life. The diary and letters are preceded by a foreword by Jay Winter and a preface and introduction which describe the discovery of the documents and the kind of man they reveal Eugene McLaurin to be. Then follows the editor's biography of McLaurin describing his family roots, youth, and education, plus his early ministry and military service. We also learn briefly of his later years as a scholar and professor, and finally his retirement, death, and burial in 1978. All this material, together with several black-and-white photos, provides a helpful and insightful backdrop to a life we now focus on for some critical months. With the diary, we meet the man.

His diary was kept daily and provides a vivid picture of Private McLaurin's war experiences. It also reveals his character and his ability to observe and record details of the action around him in a plain and honest way. Entries vary from one sentence (October 14: "I managed for new clothes today,") to by far the longest and most detailed entry of several pages for 1 November, beginning "This has been a long and a terrible day." This bleak day marked the start of the American advance between the Aisne and Meuse rivers in the Argonne Forest. Some entries are uncompromisingly laconic, depicting events that could hardly be described in gruesome detail:

I slept in trench with runner. I buried Clarence H. Braschel, and parts of an unidentified body. Only one leg and the head could be found. The head had been blown up into a tree, 40 feet away.

One thing that makes the diary particularly interesting is the unique situation McLaurin found himself in. Few privates acted as chaplains and also took such a physical part in stretcher-bearing and in searching for and burying the remains of both American and German soldiers. McLaurin does all this uncomplainingly, just as he also dodges shells, sleeps on the ground in a pup tent or less, painstakingly records the belongings of corpses, and humbly does his duty. Although others, especially the 90th Division senior chaplain, the Reverend Clarence Reese, are concerned that red tape holds up his commission, he carries no resentment with him and is content to end the war still a private.

Over 50 soldiers' names are mentioned in the diary, and their names are also listed toward the back of the book. Many were Texan friends of McLaurin and not all survived the war. But the most important name to him during this time was Myrtle Arthur, to whom he wrote frequent letters during the war and during the period of occupation in Germany. These letters comprise the second half of the book and give us many additional details about the war, the march into Germany, and the life he led as a soldier of occupation.

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The letters are also memorable in that they give us more intimate insights into Eugene McLaurin himself as he gently and politely conducts his courtship from afar with "my own dearest Myrtle". This is the woman he was to spend 51 happily married years with after the war. During these years he would also go on to become a teacher of systematic theology at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas, and subsequently receive a PhD from the University of Texas to become a recognized scholar and professor of New Testament Greek.

As Jay Winter states in his foreword to this engaging book, more than twice as many American soldiers died in World War One than in Vietnam, and their voices deserve to be heard. Thus we owe our thanks to the editor of this book, Jerry R. Tompkins. Tompkins is also the author of D-Days at Dayton on the Scopes Trial of 1925, and his copious research and papers on that case and the late 1960s Epperson v. Arkansas case reside at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. As mentioned earlier in this review, a few years ago Tompkins met the elderly son of Private McLaurin and learned of McLaurin's long-neglected diary and letters. The Crossed Hands of God is the fascinating and informative result of that most fortuitous meeting.

David F. Beer


  1. Sounds like a fascinating account of the WW1 service of a fascinating man.

  2. Great review David, and that's another book to add to my collection.

  3. Excellent review as always. I am looking forward to adding it to my library. Cheers

  4. Hi Dr. beer, I am trying to contact you about the photo in this review. Can you point me in the direction of where to find it in high resolution for a WWI film? Thanks!

    1. I'll be happy to help if I can. You can contact me at

      Posted by the Editor for David Beer