In a letter sent to his parents on November 10th, 1918, Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Lucius B. Nash wrote, “I expect as I set here writing tonight history is being made as it never was before, and people all over the whole world are thinking of just one thing–“Will Germany accept the Armistice?”
As Nash correctly predicted, history was indeed made that night. The following day, at 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany surrendered, and the conflict known as “The Great War” came to an end. Americans commemorate the World War I Armistice, and the sacrifice of all American veterans, by recognizing Veteran’s Day every November 11th.
Veteran’s Day 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and to pay homage to the occasion, the Veterans History Project has compiled a new online exhibit featuring stories of the Great War. Because there are no surviving American veterans of the war, we turn to letters, diaries, and memoirs, and photographs to interpret the experience of the American Expeditionary Forces. Although these sources may not contain the actual voices of the veterans, nonetheless, these materials provide an in-depth, deeply personal view into the individual experience of the war.
Take, for example, the wartime correspondence written by Corporal William James Bean, a military policeman stationed in France. The separation from his parents and wife hit Bean hard, but by the time of his arrival overseas, he admits, “I never felt better in all my life–of course, I would rather be at home.” He offers descriptions of the French landscape and his interactions with the civilians, and makes notes of important facets of his daily life, such as the activities and support supplied by the local YMCA outpost. Bean’s letters are a poignant example of a soldier’s love for his mother; he includes dried flowers and portrait photographs (such as the one to the right) in his missives to her, noting, “It is hard to make a good-looking picture from a homely face.” Though the general tone throughout his correspondence is cheerful, he notes in August 1918, “I will be glad when this big fuss is over, and we have ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to all.'”
Other featured collections illustrate important historical aspects of the war, such as the use of chemical weapons. Captain Earle Covington Smith served as a gas officer, and humorously referred to himself as an “official nose.” He trained his men to recognize the particular smells of different types of poison gases, so that they could raise the alert should one of the dangerous gas attacks begin. Still other collections interpret the experience of medical personnel such as nurses and ambulance drivers. Army Nurse Nettie Trax thrived amidst the challenges and chaos of wartime nursing; her letters convey the bonds she developed with her patients and her fellow nurses, as well as her delight in exploring different areas of France while on leave.
This Veteran’s Day, we hope that you will take a moment to explore the stories of America’s veterans of the Great War. We also invite you to join our initiative to “Make it Meaningful.” November is a month we set aside for gratitude, and is an ideal time to engage the veterans in your life and community–by conducting an oral history, or by donating original manuscripts or photographs relating to a veteran’s individual service. While World War I may seem part of the distant past, many families possess original letters, diaries, and photographs relating to a relative’s service in the war. While we understand that these are often treasured family heirlooms, we urge you to donate them to the Veterans History Project, where they will be archived and made available to researchers who visit the Library of Congress. This Veteran’s Day, take a minute to look through the family documents in your attic and basement, and consider donating them to the Veterans History Project.