One look at Irving Greenwald’s diary is all it takes to bring to mind the old adage “good things come in small packages.” This World War I diary, written by Private Irving Greenwald from December 1917 to January 1919, was donated to the Veterans History Project (VHP) in December 2015 by his family. Original World War I materials of any kind are cause for major excitement around the VHP office, but the Greenwald diary is especially notable for several reasons.
The diary itself is very small—pocket-sized, only slightly larger than a pack of cigarettes. When Greenwald’s grandson brought it by the VHP offices last December, and opened it up to show us the contents, I gasped: the diary is written in the tiniest, most-minute handwriting I have ever seen. It starts off small, and then gets even smaller, and then smaller still. It is unfathomable how Greenwald was able to write such in such small print—particularly in light of the fact that much of the diary was written while he was serving in combat in France, and then after he was injured and recuperating in the hospital.
Some portions of the diary can be read by the naked eye, but much of it is so small, and blurred with age, as to render it illegible. Very fortunately, the diary was transcribed by Greenwald’s daughter and sister in the late 1930s. Reading through the diary transcript, I got goosebumps all over again. Greenwald wrote in a staccato, rat-a-tat manner, focusing on specific elements of his daily routine. At first glance, his prose seems mostly fact-based, without a lot of extraneous emotional content. Reading further, I realized that not only are his entries jam-packed with rich historical details, but they also contain deeply poignant passages that convey the enormity of his experiences in a few concise sentences. I’m tempted to quote the entire diary here, but at nearly 500 pages long, it is a bit too lengthy for that! Here’s an early entry that caught my eye; in it, Greenwald describes receiving a pass that will allow him time away from training at Camp Upton so that he may visit his wife:
December 23, 1917: Up at 6:45. Roll call. Breakfast, orange, pettijohn’s, hash, coffee. Made bed. Tidied bunk. Then began great preparations for journey home. Shined shoes, dressed, packed grip, shaved with infinite care. 9:30 and get my pass. I walked on air.
Greenwald’s diary also connects to one of the most famous American units of World War I, as he was part of the “Lost Battalion,” a group known for the losses they incurred during battle in the Argonne Forest in October 1918. Part of the 77th Division, the nine companies that were part of the Lost Battalion were cut off from the rest of the Allied forces and spent a week in a ravine surrounded by the Germans. Of the more than 500 soldiers in the group, only 194 survived; the rest were killed, missing in action or taken prisoner. Following their rescue, the Lost Battalion immediately became notable for the circumstances of the battle, and the story has become part of WWI lore. For example, carrier pigeons were used by stranded members of the unit to communicate with headquarters; one of these carrier pigeons, Cher Ami, was eventually preserved and is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
VHP is extremely grateful to Irving Greenwald’s family for their decision to donate this valuable and fascinating historical resource. Do you have original WWI material that you would like to see preserved at the Library of Congress? Please consider donating it to the Veterans History Project! Go to www.loc.gov/vets to find out how.