Monday, July 28, 2014

The Great War Diary

To commemorate the start of World War I, "The Great War," in 1914 -- 100 years ago! -- I've combined a couple of blog posts I wrote awhile back.  It's important that we preserve the memories of people who lived so long ago.  Too often, their letters, diaries, photographs and stories get tossed in a recycling bin when no one wants them at an estate sale....

I often see war-related items at estate sales.  Recently I found a battered small notebook that served as the diary of a serviceman from World War One.  (It was a dollar.  I couldn't leave it there.)  

The soldier, Brennan A. Mitchell, was a member of Battery B, 139th Field Artillery, American Expeditionary Forces in France.   With the diary was a photograph of soldiers in front of a building with a Red Cross sign.

A man of few words, this soldier from Sherman, Texas was part of history in 1918, even if he was often bored and had a little trouble with spelling as he recounted his adventures:

July 17 Arived in NY.

July 22 AWOL three days sent to hospital.  AWOL ever night till Sept.17.

Sept. 19-20 Met Miss Zachary splendid time made the City ever other day till Sept. 29.

Sept. 30 Goldbricked till left on Oct. 6.  [ I had to refresh my memory on this term.  "Goldbricking" is slacking off at work while pretending to be busy.]

After reading through his diary and looking at a number of websites online, I came to the conclusion that Mitchell went to war on the HMS Cedric out of Long Island:

Set sail [to Liverpool] Oct. 6 enjoyed trip until night of 16 Wed. [at] 10:55 ship struck by torpedo or depth bomb. All was in an uproar until we found out we could make port.

Oct. 17, 1918 Thursday we landed in Liverpool Endland. Had a glorious reception by all. Red Cross served coffee.  Hiked through city to camp arrived 1:45 after a two mile hike with full pack.
Up next morn Oct. 18 7 o’clock took bath walked around camp saw first German prisoners also New Zealand soldiers wer in a English camp.

Oct. 20 Sunday Up early washed went to church.  After, went up to vilage with [indecipherable other soldiers' names] drank lots of beer.  Real quaint village.

Shortly after that, Mitchell and his comrades took a train to Southampton and then sailed to Cherbourg, France.

Oct. 23 Left Cherbough in box cars 8 horses or 40 men 50 in our car…rode all night arrived in Aldmans [?] had supper. Arived in Plorenel [Ploermel?] France 12:30 a.m. bed.
Apparently they ended up in the ancient city of Vannes, where he bought two postcards.  They were tucked inside the diary.

Oct. 25 Up early after a very bad rest on floor in old Catholic convent built in 1400 and 1689 a very interesting building still occupied by French peasants. Went to town drank first French wine no good.

Nov. 8 Same things so I wrot nothing. 

Nov. 9 Up early left for Camp De Meucon [American artillery training camp a few kilometers outside Vannes] road 16 miles in trucks hiked 15 miles with full pack. 

Nov. 10 Up early ate washed went to church.  After ran around camp.  Saw captured German guns.

Nov. 11 Up early.  Made gunner so practiced hard all day.  Bed early.

Note the date:  November 11, 1918.  They finally gave him something useful to do, on the day the war ended.

Nov. 12 Same schedule gun practice.  Awful happy heard armisti was signed war won drank too much wine that night had to tie my bed down.

Nov. 13 & 14  Went out to the guns in morning came back was made Battery tailor excused from all formations.  Went to Y. can show came back turned in.

I hadn't realized that the YMCA was involved in serving soldiers during The Great War.  But they were.

Nov. 15 PAY DAY Nothing special only word was that we would leave for US soon.

Nov. 20 Went to range fired four shots.  Nothing else but tailor work.

Nov. 28 Nothing of importance since Nov. 20 only Y.M.C.A shows and some tailor work. Tonight we have orders to leave tomorrow ever one happy.

Only they didn’t leave France for several weeks.  Something of importance finally happened to him a few days later.  

I spent a bit more time deciphering our soldier's handwriting, as he recounted 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 theSS 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,  I found 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, a hundred 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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