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World War I: Norvel Preston Clotfelter

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(The following is a guest post by Rachel Telford, archivist with the Veterans History Project.)

Norvel Preston Clotfelter. Veterans History Project.
Norvel Preston Clotfelter. Veterans History Project.

In 1917, Norvel Preston Clotfelter’s life was upended when he was drafted into the United States Army. He postponed his wedding, left his job as a school teacher in Mazie, Okla., and began his service at Camp Travis, Texas; he would go on to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces in England and France. But one thing in Clotfelter’s life did not change – he had been keeping a diary since 1912, a habit he would maintain for 37 years – and the 17 months he spent in the Army were no exception. His family recently donated his original wartime diary to the Veterans History Project (VHP), so that his account of his service will be preserved at the Library of Congress for future generations.

As he served in France with the 357th Infantry Regiment, Clotfelter noted his unit’s movements, the weather, commented on the food and briefly described his duties. On Aug. 25, 1918, he was sent to the front lines, noting, “Some of the boys seem to be scared. Others don’t mind it. My first night didn’t bother me at all.” The next night, he is less blasé about his situation, writing “Most of the boys seem to have enough war already. I am one of them.”

On Oct. 13, 1918, Clotfelter began hearing rumors of an armistice, but the rumors proved false, and he would soon learn that the worst was yet to come. On Oct. 27 he writes, “Fine day but we did not enjoy it much. … One shell wounded three this evening. Have dysentery & fever. Am so weak I can hardly get around. Irregular meals, dead horses, bad water, insufficient covering & constant nerve tension are enough to kill anyone.”

As the war dragged on, Clotfelter continued to suffer ill health, lack of food and German attacks, until respite came in an unlikely form – the Spanish Flu. Though it would claim the lives of an estimated 43,000 servicemen mobilized for World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic secured Clotfelter a path away from the front lines. On November 6, he and 20 other men hiked three miles in order to meet their transport to the 359th Field Hospital at Sivry-la-Perche. There, he notes he was “put into influenza ward… Heavy blankets & good eats. Good place to rest.”

As Clotfelter recuperated in the hospital, he once again heard talk of an armistice, and on Nov. 11, 1918, he and his fellow patients listened as heavy artillery barrages ceased at exactly 11 a.m. Clotfelter was honorably discharged from the Army in February 1919 and returned to Mazie, where he married his sweetheart and resumed his job a school teacher.

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! Visit the Veterans History Project website to find out how.

World War I Centennial, 2017-2018: With the most comprehensive collection of multi-format World War I holdings in the nation, the Library of Congress is a unique resource for primary source materials, education plans, public programs and on-site visitor experiences about The Great War including exhibits, symposia and book talks.

Comments (3)

  1. It is easy to sympathize with Clotfelter when he writes of his experiences with “Irregular meals, dead horses, bad water” and the rest of this miserable existence on the front lines. There is good reason why American Civil War General William T. Sherman famously said that “War is hell.” On the other hand, Clotfelter fails to mention that his French and British comrades had been enduring these conditions since August, 1914, a period of three years before the Americans showed up. For those who wish to read an excellent account of how and why the First World War came about, there is “The Guns of August” by Barbara Tuchman, generally considered by we librarians as a standard source.

  2. Sent to Hell from Ann Arbor: A College Student’s World War One, Carl E.W.L.Dahlstrom, Quaker Abbey Press, 2009 is a memoir of a volunteer who received his license to preach in a Swedish evangelical church while he was in a motor transport unit on the western front hauling artillery shells to the front and wounded back through the corpse-strewn mud and ruins between. He never used his preaching license and instead completed his studies and became a professor of English and Philosophy and many long years later was my teacher at Portland State University.I publish his work as I am able.

  3. We are all so proud to know that Norvel’s wartime memories will be preserved at the Library of Congress and not in a tin can in a cow barn where my father and I found it after Norvel’s death. A special thank you to Bob Patrick for expediting its arrival at the Library of Congress. I like knowing that my own grandson can see it in person there someday. If you have the time, you can read the whole story of his time at war by clicking on the link.

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