The following is a guest post by Justina Moloney, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.
I own a special collection of letters my father sent to me during his deployment to Afghanistan six years ago, when I was in my second year of college. They were often short little cards, with songs in my father’s head that reminded him of me–Cinnamon Girl by Neil Young and Crazy Horse–or musings about his own memories of college compared to my own. Mostly, he mentioned how much he missed me and my family, and was ready to come home. As the child of two Army officers, my interest in the veteran experience has always been close to home. Having the opportunity to examine the VHP collections of service members who served during World War I, the war that most fascinates me, is like stumbling upon a treasure trove of information.
Interacting with the collections of young men during war is both quite similar, and, at times, understandably different than with the letters from my father. The VHP collections I’ve encountered feature a number of young men, some freshly awarded their college degrees. They are representative of the predominant population of men in the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF): young, untraveled and sure-minded. In contrast to my father, a seasoned lieutenant colonel, these were young men in their twenties. Some enlisted, and some were officers, but all were in lower ranking positions. Many volunteered out of a sense of duty toward their county and excitement at a chance to confront the “Huns” –otherwise known as the Germans. This life-altering decision provided each man the opportunity to travel outside the United States, often for the first time, to ruminate on the United States’ position in world affairs, and to strengthen their patriotism and sense of duty to their country.
One collection that best illustrates this is that of Joseph Royston Gathings, I. Gathings served with the AEF in France as an infantry officer, and saw combat at major offensives like the Battle of Chateau-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne. His collection includes not only letters he received or sent while deployed, but also a vast collection of them dated prior to his deployment.
A student of law at the University of Mississippi, Gathings’ correspondence is from a number of female friends. Some might even call them girlfriends. From 1914 to 1925, Gathings corresponded with four women, some of whom declared love to “the young Mister Gathings.” I definitely was not anticipating a WWI collection of this nature, but as I read over his letters, I reminded myself that at 25-years-old, this person was just a few months older than I am now. Keeping this important piece of context in mind as I read the letters Gathings wrote to his father, I found it less surprising that he was commenting on how attractive the French girls were, rather than the trials of war.
Not all the collections I reviewed feature girl-crazy young men. The Charles Edmund Worth collection documents a young man in the Navy, also about 25-years-old, stationed in Brazil during WWI. Kept away from the action in Europe, Worth, a highly intelligent young man, viewed his situation as his best shot to travel to a part of the world to which he would never have ventured without the aid of the Navy. Unlike Gathings’ youthful interest in the opposite sex, Worth was a young person interested in the politics of the war, and the observations of a new culture. Worth’s candid letters to his mother share his thoughts on the United States’ place in the international sphere. What reminds me of so many young “twenty-somethings” and their political call-to-action is found in this line:
This war is a blessing to the U.S. in many ways. In the first place, it will broaden us out -we had grown too self-centered, too self-satisfied, too willing that the rest of the world should come to us instead of meeting them half-way…The United States is a peace loving nation, slow to be led to war, but when she does get provoked, and goes into war, look out you who are responsible for she does not do things by halves. (8/30/1918)
Worth even took the initiative to write essays on the social conditions in Brazil, including commentary on the country’s attitude toward alcohol at a time when prohibition was going strong in the United States.
Some young men used their time abroad to educate themselves on that country’s customs and language, sharing this newly acquired knowledge with their families. The collection of Leo J. Bailey is, perhaps, my favorite so far. Bailey, who worked as an educator prior to the war, was deployed to France in the fall of 1917, and immediately used his spare time to become acquainted with the French language. As his unit moved from town to town, he attempted to find natives willing to converse with him in French, while helping them to improve their English. Following an injury, Bailey was shifted away from combat to serve as a prisoner of war (POW) escort. In this role, Bailey improved upon his German by befriending some of the German POWs. Bailey’s memoir, The War as I Saw It, presents his war experience as an opportunity for him to grow and improve. The excitement and humor of his memoir permeates on every page. He wrote it a few years after the war, and shared it with anyone who would read it, civilians and veterans alike.
These three young men were quite different, but their collections illustrate what they were above all else—people in their twenties navigating their lives in the midst of an international conflict. Their war experiences would go on to impact their entire lives. What they each did while they were “over there” is unique, and their varied experiences are captured in their VHP collections. “Over here,” I will always feel a sense of pride at the chance to read their experiences, and will remember that being young is never really that different, even a hundred years later.