Saturday, October 13, 2012

The War Diary, Part Two

(To read "The War Diary, Part One," click here: )

I've spent a bit more time deciphering our soldier's handwriting, as he recounts his last days in France after the end of World War I.    His spelling didn't improve with time.

Nov. 30  Up early packed left Camp De Meucon 1130 arived in Vannes 1230 -- eight mile in narrow guage train.

Dec. 1, 1918  No sleep all night left Vannes 430AM had lots of fun throwing bread at French kids.  Arived in Brest [a port city in Brittany, France] about 6 oclock on baggage detail missed awful hike of five miles through mud came to camp ate late supper went to bed.

[Dec.] 2 In bed got up ate breakfast back in bed.  Awful muddy camp worst I ever been in.  Done nothing all day.  Bed 8 o'clock. Rec'd. first letter from Preacher.

[Dec.] 3  B Battery on guard and camp detail for day.  Thanks to my being Btry. tailor miss all detail.  All I have done to-day is to lay in bed and listen to all the wild rumors about going home.  Only a little after 5 ashamed to go to bed yet don't know what to do.

Mitchell spent several more days in a similar fashion, then found a variety of other ways to pass the time.

Dec. 6  Up early ate fooled around all day reading.  About five thirty started to drinking rum using port wine for chaser.  Killed all off with [apparently some sort of liqueur].  Got wild cursed the whole battery out went wild, no fights.

Dec. 7 Oh my head is as big as a barrel.  sick.  going to bed 5 oclock dark.

Dec. 8  On detail for work.  Went to town.  Quite a time with the ladies.

Mon. Dec. 9  Apointed Btry. cartoonist but refused to do any work.  Received letter from home.

Tues. Dec. 10  Up eight rained all night.  Went to Reg. Hdq. drew several sketches for History of Btry. B.  7 bells going to bed.

Wed. Dec. 11  Up too late for Breakfast cut Cpt. Cheneworth's slicker off.  Fooled around all day doing absolutely nothing all day but draw two cartoons for history.  Arkie and I are in bed eating candy.  Rumors are that we leave tomorrow 7 bells.

Then something significant finally happened.

Dec. 12, 1918  Up for breakfast ate fooled around went down drew several cartoons.  Got permission to go to town tomorrow to see Pres. Wilson land. 

The website notes:

After nine days at sea aboard the SS George Washington, Woodrow Wilson arrives at Brest, France, on December 13, 1918, and travels by land to Versailles. There, he headed the American delegation to the peace conference seeking a definitive end to World War I. The visit marked the first official visit by a U.S. president to Europe.

Brennan Mitchell gave us his perspective:

Dec. 13, 1918  Up early ate.  Went to town 1030 stationed on street to meet Pres. Wilson.  [He] came by about two o'clock in open top machine.  Salute was given, 21 shots.  Marched back to camp ate.  Orders to leave for US tomorrow.

On December 15 (a day later than he expected), Mitchell and his comrades caught a ride on the SS George Washington back to the States:

On boat 1130 Geo. Washington same as Pres. came over on.  "Oh boy."  Eats fine, good show.

The on-board entertainment apparently included movies; in other diary entries during the crossing of the Atlantic, he mentions seeing films he enjoyed starring "Doug F." (Douglas Fairbanks) and (Mary) "Pickford."

Finally, on December 23, 1918, Mitchell's sojourn was over: 

Up 630 rolled pack ate two meals came in harbor was met by Mayor's Committee of NJ.  Got off boat 430 in J.C. (Jersey City?).  Set out on hike to camp ate took bath now getting ready for bed. 

Mitchell's narrative ends there.  The diary contains a few more blank pages.  Then tucked in the back of the diary is a page of semaphore drawings:

In doing some background research for this post, I discovered that there's footage of the parade with President Wilson in Brest on December 13, 1918, on YouTube. Somewhere in that crowd is Brennan A. Mitchell, whose diary is sitting on my desk as I write:

For all that I occasionally felt I'd like to knock him in the head for his foolish behavior and atrocious spelling, I'm still glad Brennan Mitchell took notes.  He never knew we'd be looking over his shoulder at history, almost 100 years later.  Thank you, soldier.

I donated the War Diary and the large group photo to the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University, where they will be preserved and eventually digitized so students, historians, genealogists -- and you! -- can see and use them.

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