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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Letters from the Front: 1898–1945: Voices of the Wisconsin Past
reviewed by James M. Gallen

Letters from the Front: 1898–1945: 
Voices of the Wisconsin Past
by Michael E. Stevens
Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1992

Before the days of satellite-relayed newscasts and Skyping, the mailman delivered the tenuous lines that brought the sights and sounds of war to loved ones at home. Letters from the Front: 1898–1945 is a collection of letters Wisconsin's soldiers wrote from the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and World Wars I and II. The volume includes a significant selection of letters from the First World War.

Doughboys in Action

Whatever war they are written in, soldiers' letters present a unique perspective on history. Historians can conduct interviews and study documents, photos, and artifacts, while memoirs give us what the participants remember and what they want us to know, but letters are real-time history, what the warriors saw, heard, and felt. They give us snapshots that help us better understand military life than anything else save personal experience.

Although the dreams and attitudes of warriors remain similar over time, readers of Roads to the Great War will be most interested in the letters from 1917–1918. The Doughboys needed training before facing the Hun and early letters are from familiar places such as Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Augusta, Georgia; Newport News, Virginia; and at sea before the flood of correspondence from France.

These letters show the army as a great social leveler: "We had two high school profs in this company, one sanitary engineer and a young new york [sic] millionaire – they are professional dishwashers now." Letters bring the Spanish flu to stark reality: "The regiment that is to go with us has fifty cases of Spanish influenza," and they let a soldier express his appreciation for his upbringing: "There's one thing I'm glad of every time I think of it. . . Mother and Dan allowed me to fool around with the old muskets…which we had so much fun playing war with...I got used to the ideas of military standing."

Departure made soldiers appreciate their blessings. One wrote home:

It gave me a queer pang when I saw the dear old Statue of Liberty fading away in the distance — You never realize how thoroughly patriotic you are, and how wonderfully proud yow are of your country, and how glad you are to be an American as when you see that marvelous New York sky line sinking into the horizon.

Reminiscent of John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" where:

The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. . .

Doughboy Lee Picket wrote home that:

Many song birds, chiefly sky larks, make the mornings beautiful with their songs. Even on the front line while the whistling shells and bursting high explosives make everything hideous, these little birds keep on with their cheerful little songs.

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The stereotypical Western Front experience is life in the trenches, and who can tell it better than one living it:

Your thoughts turn toward home and you wonder what your friends are doing as it is early evening there. You wonder if they can see the same stars that you can see overhead. Then all of a sudden a rocket goes up, bursting over "No Man's Land," casting a red or perhaps a green light…then "Hell breaks loose"…Guns begin to roar and pound all sides of you. . . the noise is deafening…you can hear the "whine" of the shells as they go through the air. In fact, you can tell when a shell is coming toward you as you can hear it "whining" as it comes toward you and all you can do is to crouch down and pray God it will not strike where you are…if a gas shell burst near you, you must stop breathing instantly, until you have put and adjusted your gas-mask! Then you have to work for hours with that on...I pray God that if I have to give up my life in this war it will be with a bullet and not gas.

Death was the men's constant companion and their letters reflect that. We read of Billy Mitchell's agony over his brother's death, while others speak of the untidy graveyards and the utter destruction they cover.

Fortunately it all had an end, and the Armistice meant different things in various places. Lyle Phillips wrote that:
Guns of all calibres (sic) were barking away & overhead the whirr of shells Germany-bound was almost continuous. The whole town shook with the explosions. Then precisely at 11 0'clock. . .every thing (sic) stopped. Not another shot was fired & since then all has been quiet.

Or as Harry Trippe put it:

The armistice went into effect yesterday at 11:00 a.m. but the only way we can notice it is that we do not have to dodge the shells and can see moonlight night, like tonight, without building up an 'Abri' to crawl into when the Boche planes appear. Finally, the men who waxed nostalgic at the receding New York skyline realized that "France sure is no place for an American boy."

The sights and sound that the Doughboys' fathers had seen and heard in Cuba and that their sons would experience in the next war were different, but the steady heartbeat of the WWI American soldier comes through in their letters as well. We are fortunate that the State Historical Society of Wisconsin collected these letters that, though addressed to loved ones at home, are written to us as well.

James M. Gallen

1 comment:

  1. Another fascinating and moving insight into the lives and feelings of the Doughboys at war. Thank you!