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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My Dear People: The World War I Letters of Private Ned Crawford
Reviewed by Peter L. Belmonte

My Dear People: The World War I Letters of Private Ned Crawford

Edited and with commentary by Constance Crawford; 
historical notes by Christopher McManus
Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, 2017

Ned Crawford was a reluctant 31-year-old draftee in April 1918. He acquiesced only because he feared going to jail if he resisted; in fact, he probably came close to declaring himself a conscientious objector. But Crawford went into the army as a private in Company C, 316th Field Signal Battalion (FSB), part of the 91st Division. And he made a fine, if unwilling, soldier.

A Company of the 91st Division Before the Meuse-Argonne Offensive

Crawford was born in rural Ohio and was one of three children raised by a single mother. He left school in the sixth grade and began to work to help support his family. By 1918 he was a telephone lineman and switchboard installer living and working with his best friend, Bill Marshall, in Hood River, OR.

This book consists of 30 letters written by Crawford while serving in France. As the title suggests, most of the letters were addressed to "My Dear People." This refers to Crawford's Oregon friends but mostly to Bill Marshall. Crawford's daughter, Constance Crawford, wrote a commentary for each letter. Christopher McManus wrote a history of the 91st Division, with emphasis on the 316th FSB, and snippets are interspersed among the letters.

Having left school after the sixth grade, Crawford was largely self-educated. His extensive reading is certainly evident in the well-written and articulate letters that are reproduced here. His letters do not reveal a great deal about the daily military duties of a member of a field signal battalion. However, they do convey a sense of what ordinary soldiers had to endure during the war. There is some "shop talk" in the letters, but very often Crawford needles Marshall about his several girlfriends, or he reminisced about extended camping trips the two friends had taken. Of course commentary about food and shelter are also in abundance.

The letters begin in late July 1918, when the 91st Division arrived in France. The division spent some time in training before taking part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in late September and early October. On 2 October, Crawford was on duty in part of a small shack being used as the division's command post when an artillery shell struck, killing two men and injuring five. The shack had to be abandoned because of heavy fire, but it was crucial that telephonic communications be maintained until a new switchboard could be established. Crawford volunteered to remain on duty, and for two hours he remained, alone and under fire, keeping telephone connections operating. The commander of the 316th FSB, Lt. Col. C. L. Wyman, personally witnessed this action, and he provides a wonderful description. The division commander, Maj. Gen. William H. Johnston, also observed Crawford's coolness, and he ordered Wyman to recommend Crawford for the award of the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), which Crawford received in early November.

In late October the division moved to Belgium, where they participated in fighting in Flanders (where Crawford's sarcasm is quickly evident: "I'm getting so I like this mud on my bread" [p. 116]) until the Armistice. In late November, Crawford reveals his impatience to get home in a typically humorous way: "If I am not en route before this letter reaches you I'll surely have exploded. But write anyhow. I'll leave my address with the sgt. before I explode" (p. 159).

Crawford often refers to French and Belgian civilians with a mixture of pity and disgust, and he was not immune from the racial and nationalistic prejudices of the day. He often comments on the French civilian communications system, which he usually regards with disdain: "The [switchboard] men were here today—a couple of old codgers with a collection of tools and repairs about like they used in the intercom on the Ark" (p. 68).

Crawford hated the war and hated the army; he greatly resented this imposition on his freedom. This is evident in many of his letters. Even his promotion to private first class in August 1918 is an occasion to vent:

And you don't know the worst—only yesterday I was made a 1st class private. I figured that I am about the lowest form of animal life. Of course it hurts a little that I should find my valuable months absolutely wasted but the worst hurt is the prospect of an indefinite time put in at so loathsome of life (p. 37).

Despite his antipathy to all things military, Crawford took some pride in his award of the DSC, at least for the period when he was in the army. The last two lines in his final letter, written more than four months after the Armistice, while he and everyone else was fighting boredom and anxious to go home, reveal his sarcastic wit and his pride: "Well, figuring time as a geologist does I think we will be with you soon. P.S. I'm getting pretty chesty lately and have worn the D.S.C. about my work a good deal" (p. 221).

Several maps enhance My Dear People, and 21 photographs of Ned and his surroundings help put the letters in perspective. A list of sources consulted completes the supporting matter.

Constance Crawford's commentaries are informative and articulate. In these she reveals more of her father's character and beliefs. One can easily tell that preparing this book was for her a revealing labor of love. This is a fine collection of letters written by an articulate, if reluctant, U.S. soldier. It is hoped that others will follow Ms. Crawford's lead and publish more firsthand accounts of a war fought so long ago.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. Fascinating insight into a unique personality caught up in the war. I imagine a lot of really disgruntled soldiers didn't bother to write letters about it--at least as far as I know--so this is a good source to know about. Thanks, Pete!

  2. I agree with David. The doughboy letter compilation books that I have reveiwed were always upbeat about being drafted with one soldier even glowing about the opportunity to fight for his country. This book is different. I will have to increase the library. Cheers