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Commemorating World War I

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Sepia tone portrait of soldier with hat
Charles Stanley Lamb, Veterans History Project Collection (AFC2001/001/1627), Library of Congress.

In a letter dated November 16, 1918, an Army Private First Class stationed near Verdun, France, wrote to his mother,

Dear Mother: By firelight on the fought-over ground of this stricken country I pause to rush word to you of my safety + well being. The last three weeks were terrible + of them I cannot write. Some indication of their meaning to us will be conveyed by the simple statement that we were on the march for 14 consecutive days + nights only peace coming as it did interrupting a final contact with the enemy, past whose dead and into whose shell fire we dragged our weary bleeding feet.

But, ah, it was peace!

Written five days after the Armistice of World War I, Charles Stanley Lamb’s letter eloquently conveys the unspeakable horrors that he witnessed during his time in France, and the sheer relief that came with the declaration of peace on November 11, 1918. Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1898, and known to his family as Stan, Lamb was drafted into the Army in 1918, and served as a company clerk with the 1st Army Corps. He was a prolific correspondent, writing frequently to family members and his high school sweetheart, Mary, whom he married in 1922. He died in 1962, and his letters and other materials were donated to the Veterans History Project in 2002 by his daughter, Betty and his son, George.

Sepia photo of two men driving an old truck.  Men are wearing helmets and military uniforms.
Longshaw Porritt, left, seated in an American Red Cross ambulance on the Italian Front. Longshaw Porritt Collection (AFC2001/001/86295), Veterans History Project, Library of Congress.

Lamb’s collection is one of nearly 350 World War I era collections that are part of the Veterans History Project. 2014 ushers in the centennial of World War I, and beginning this year, the war will be revisited and commemorated around the globe in a variety of different ways. The publishing world has exploded with new volumes of illustrations, photographs, and historical interpretations of the war. Archives have made public new primary sources, such as soldiers’ diaries, and museums around the world have planned exhibits on the war, its participants, and its permanent effects on global politics, economics, and culture.

For the United States, participation in the Great War began on April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war against Germany. Over four million Americans would go on to serve during the war, both at home and abroad; over 100,000 of them would be killed. The Library of Congress houses a wide variety of material relating to World War I, from sheet music to politicians’ speeches to historical posters.

While small in number, VHP’s World War I collections are a treasure trove of original primary sources. These collections–nearly 100 of which are digitized–tell the stories of Americans who fought in the Great War. Many of our holdings, such as the Longshaw Porritt collection, portray service experiences through stunning  photographs taken both on and off the battlefield. Porritt served as an ambulance driver with both the American Field Service and the American Red Cross; his collection contains over 250 photographs (including the one above) depicting his time in France and Italy. Other collections, such as that of Charles Stanley Lamb, narrate the war through correspondence. A select few collections, like the Arnold Hoke and Clara Hoke collections, or that of last surviving American veteran Frank Buckles, also contain oral history interviews with the veterans themselves.

Scanned paper with handwritten notes reading "Diary October - the most eventful month of my life." writing continues to detail daily events.
Diary of Albert John Carpenter (AFC2001/001/225), Veterans History Project, Library of Congress

Like Lamb’s collection, many of our World War I materials were donated by the children or grandchildren of World War I veterans. Their contributions mean that these nearly 100-year-old materials will be protected from loss and destruction in the future. The Albert John Carpenter collection offers a particular poignant example of the importance of donating World War I material to the Veterans History Project. Carpenter’s original diary (which begins “October: The Most Eventful Month of My Life”) was donated by his family to the Veterans History Project in 2002. Carpenter’s daughter-in-law later related that prior to the donation, the diary had been stored in a closet with other family valuables, most of which were later lost when the home was flooded during Hurricane Rita in 2005. Had Carpenter’s diary not been safely preserved at the Library of Congress, the diary might well have been irreparably damaged.

To commemorate the centennial of the Great War, the Veterans History Project will launch a new Experiencing War web feature focused on World War I during the week of Veteran’s Day, 2014 (itself a holiday with roots in the Great War, as it commemorates the signing of the Armistice at 11 am on November 11, 1918). We look forward to sharing with you even more stories from the Great War. In the meantime, explore our original Experiencing War web feature on the Great War.

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