Personal Experiences of World War I

Today’s post comes from Judy Luis-Watson, manager of volunteer & education programs at the National Archives at College Park.

Written by WWI servicemen after their return from the front, 2,300 narratives in the holdings of the National Archives document the experiences of the Lone Star Division during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Twenty-two boxes of Personal War Experiences were discovered during a volunteer project to preserve these old and often fragile records housed at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. Included are the personal stories of the men who served in the 132nd and 142nd Machine Gun Battalions, and the 141st, 142nd, and 143rd Infantry Regiments. These narratives were recently digitized and are now searchable in the National Archives Catalog.

These documents can be difficult to read because of the aging and faded records. Most are handwritten on YMCA or Salvation Army note paper or scrap paper. Many are detailed and moving stories; some are peppered with humor, while others are evidence of men struggling to write.

They come from a series called Records of Divisions (National Archives Identifier 301641), from the Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), that includes the service of each combat division during its participation in World War I. Of the 59 Divisions that were formed, with 28,000 personnel in each Division, only the 36th Division – known as the Lone Star Division, formed by men from the Texas and Oklahoma National Guard – contains Personal War Experiences.

The servicemen were asked to write about their experiences presumably to keep them busy. But is it possible that the very act of writing helped them to process often horrific experiences; and their stories might have offered the leadership some insight into the final Allied offensive of WWI.

Private Dave Faris, Co. I, 141st Inf., 36th Div. 1918, 236.33.61

Private Dave Faris, a runner, had 15 minutes to deliver a very important message about an attack. He ran a quarter of a mile through the “enemy’s bursting shells.” His journey back was even more harrowing as he searched for his unit which had started on the attack.

Corporal Harry S. Hovey Co. E, 142nd Inf., 36th Div. 1918, 236.33.61

Corporal Harry S. Hovey’s brief chronology of his unit’s activity gives his first impression of France and of war.

Corporal W. P. B. Otho, Co. L, 141st Inf., 36th Div. 1918, 236.33.61

Corporal W.P.B. Otho dressed the wounds of soldiers and was in the thick of trench warfare for 22 days. With no opportunity for a bath, he wore the same clothes for about 40 days and lived to write about his war experience.

Corporal Eugene S. McLain Co. D, 132nd M.G. Bn., 36th Div. 1918, 236.33.61

Corporal Eugene McLain found parts of the war “exciting.” He was glad he had the experience and was “also glad when it ended. Because honestly it is Hell.”

Captain Clark Owsley Co. B, 142nd Inf. 36th Div., 1918, 236.33.61

Captain Owsley describes his first experience of going over the top, and his different reactions to seeing dead American and enemy soldiers.

Corporal Joe R. Robinson 142nd Inf. Band 36th Div., 1918, 236.33.61

Corporal Joe Robinson, member of the 142nd Infantry Regiment Band, was part of the clean-up crew, picking up U.S. Government property left by soldiers. He only experienced the front when “he was detailed to go get us some pistols,” and then was hit by a “G2 can explosion.”

Find more Personal War Experiences in the National Archives Catalog.

This post was cross-posted on our sister blog, The Text Message Blog. An earlier post related to The Lone Star Division can be found on The Text Message BlogThe Blue Arrowhead.

In our sister blog, The Unwritten Record, the last post in a series by volunteer Jan Hodges featured the art of Harvey Dunn, one of the AEF’s official artists. Excerpts she selected from the Personal War Experiences provide context for the war art and the combination creates documentation of the Meuse-Argon Offensive that is even more powerful and memorable.

Many thanks to the team of dedicated volunteers and staff at the National Archives who worked to preserve and make these WWI records available online!

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