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January 11, 2007: WWI War Diary and Letters from the Front, Expanded: Connecting to the Past

        Almost two years ago, my mother handed me a box of my grandfather’s letters from World War I, written to my grandmother (who at the time was ‘the girl back home’). Sid had been part of the American Field Artillery serving in France. The letters were not particularly organized, but one of the advantages of a computer is the ability to type in letters by date and let the computer sort them out. I was fascinated by this glimpse into the life of a grandfather I’d never known, and remember writing about emotions stirred while reading his words (see the earlier blog article: Feb 11th, 2005).

        Shortly after finishing this transcription project, my uncle loaned me my grandfather’s war diary. This was even better! A diary did not have to be censored. The diary was remarkably small (the better to fit in a pocket) so entries had to be short and succinct. Yet, my grandfather Sid had a knack for covering a wide range of details.

At the first British rest camp....We had an awful march to a camp way across the town and this was the most tiresome trip or hike I have had so far. Nearly had to drop out. Practically nothing to eat all day long made it worse. After about an hour we hit this camp and it sure is some place. We sleep on cement floors and eat nothing (This is the English ration). Took our mess kits and went to a mess hall at 12 o’clock midnight for a light lunch. One small piece of cheese, 1 small slice of bread and ½ cup tea, then went back to the barracks to sleep. Big day & a hard one.

On the way to the French training camps:

Still riding (in box cars). Had no sleep last night as car was so crowded. Passed through Rouen and several other large towns and landed at Messac about 5 pm., unloaded, crossed the river and pitched shelter tents in big field near river. Went in swimming. Ordered to remain within tented area and not to go into town. Beat it through M.P.’s and got a bottle of wine for 6 Francs. Good stuff. Went to bed at taps after singing for about an hour. Buchanon, Westrom & Brown were arrested for fighting in a saloon and put in the guard house.

Training on the 322 guns:

Battery is out on the range again today and firing high explosives. Hope there are no accidents as these high explosive shells are dangerous and occasionally blow a gun up and kill that crew.

1 hr later:

Word just came in from the range that #1 gun blew up and Cpl. Weber (gunner) was badly injured & taken to hospital. Pat Johnson (#1) is being brought in on a stretcher. Don’t know how badly he is injured. Will discontinue this until I hear for sure.

Pat Johnson is here now badly bruised and unable to walk. Gun is total wreck. Weber has big piece of steel embedded in his arm close to his shoulder. Luckily no one was killed. Colonel just left HQ for the range in his side car. Lots of excitement.

And field conditions:

Am really "somewhere in France"-- I have no idea where. We hiked from 4 till 8 and went into the actual war district. Went through Menil La Tour and then we struck a town that was all shot to pieces. Passed through Flirey, also in ruins. We reached here as it started to rain and pulled off the road into a field, unhooked the horses & tied them to carriages. Btry pitched shelter tents but I couldn’t find my roll. Tried to sleep under paulin {tarpaulin} with supplies but without blankets I nearly froze. Got up after an hour of misery and crawled into Sgt. Seafelt’s tent with him & Stg. Armstrong. Slept near Armstrong in a puddle of water and nearly froze to death. Up again at 4:30 a.m. and pulled carriages into woods nearby. Still raining hard, and all of us wet. It was awful. Weren’t allowed to build any fires so had to keep moving around to keep from freezing.

        Once again, I devoured the words, trying to build an impression of my grandfather, and the kind of man he might have been.  After carefully transcribing, then compiling the letters home with war diary entries, I was able to present a spiral bound book to the immediate family last Christmas. At this point, my uncle remembered the 329th Barrage Book, written shortly after his father had returned to the States.

        It’s taken me a while to transcribe parts of that book onto a new blogsite (click here for WWI blogsite), and already I have gotten into transcribing more than I originally intended. It is hard to say why I feel so compelled to transcribe these records. I haven’t turned into a total WWI buff, searching out details of other battles, so I suspect it is more the need to chronicle everything possible about my grandfather’s experience.

        While I transcribe the writings of the 329th, does it allow a connection to that grandfather I never knew—helping to build an emotional bond that takes the place of actual memory? Or is this compulsion driven by current circumstances---being faced with one son in the Navy and the remaining two sons leaning heavily toward the military? Is it easier to look at the devastation of a distant, now silent war than to face the uncertain condition of the future?

        Poor Sid lived long enough to see the buildup toward WW II and it deeply grieved him. "We fought to put an end to wars," was the lament to his children. How far we have come since WWI, how much we have advanced in our knowledge, and yet I still wonder—will humanity ever get beyond war?

Posted on Thursday, January 11, 2007 at 12:46PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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