Over There: A Doughboy in France 1918
My father’s notebook from World War One has long been a prized possession, together with his dogtags, and a photo of his billet on the front lines. Dad enlisted in the Signal Corps, U.S. Army, was on a July, 1918 convoy to Great Britain from Halifax, and spent several months being assigned ever farther east until reaching his front line position in the American Sector at Mousson Hill, Meurthe-et-Moselle (Lorraine).
We all knew about his notebook entry for Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, as he described intercepting messages from both sides, and finally, the guns falling silent. But with the centennial approaching, it seemed the right time to look at the entire notebook, and see what it contained.
It wasn’t an easy task. Some of the notebook was in pencil, and the handwriting wasn’t always clear. The references, too, were sometimes difficult. I just didn’t have the same frame of referfence that he had, in 1918. Whoever spoke of the past as a different place was quite right. One needs a guide, for 1918 was a different world, and certainly, a different series of battles, than I had understood it to be.
The essential first step was the decision to transcribe the notebook. It was something like giving up smoking! The notebook and its entries fought me for weeks, for one thing. But from time to time there were small victories - when Dad’s writer’s slang or shorthand started to become familiar, for example. It also helped a great deal that I have lived in France, and understood many of his references. But the important thing at this early stage, having made the decision to transcribe the notebook, was – like ceasing to smoke – just keeping at it through the inevitable difficulties.
I made discoveries as the work proceeded. An offhand reference to a fire at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for example, led me to google “Halifax fire,” and discover the cataclysmic explosion and fire that occurred in Halifax harbor in December, 1917 – said to be the largest man made explosion before the development of atomic weapons. Dad was transported across the North Atlantic in a 23 ship convoy, in the HMT Durham Castle, and I was able to find a period photograph of that very ship. Little by little, I had moved beyond transcribing, and was adding details that enriched the text for today’s reader – details that someone from 1918 would already have known.
I did a lot of reading to get some context for the notebook. One recent author of a Doughboy history struck me as quite right, when he said that he had decided to write about officers, because enlisted men left out so many details, probably for security reasons, that officers included in their diaries or notebooks. That was quite true in my father’s case as well. However, some 55 years later, while recuperating from a heart attack, he reread his notebook and dictated several memoranda, adding details and depth. I then had this material as well, and included it with the notebook entries at the right dates. I also included information on Father’s whereabouts for each day, which became of particular interest when he and his Signal Corps company moved to the front.
This movement to the east became understandable thanks to a very readable book about the American Sector and General Pershing, written by General John Eisenhower (“Ike’s” son, also a West Point graduate). It described the American Sector, the communications and railway lines that were built to sustain it during 1917, as the American military buildup took place. The overall picture finally made sense, and I had the feeling that 1918 was no longer foreign.
There were photographs from the time to be included, and maps, and a moving elegy by my daughter to be included. She realized that he had gone to war at 22, exactly her age. She called him “my quiet hero,” a rather Victorian gentleman who saw more than anyone should have to at that age.
It was wonderful to discover shared interests and experiences with my father. He wrote of their disembarkation at Wales and welcome in Cardiff by cheering crowds, with welcome by the Lord Mayor. I remembered a trip to Ireland some ten years ago, when to our surprise the airport passenger waiting room was suddenly filled with American troops, on their way to Iraq. Other passengers at the airport stood and cheered the American troops as they filed past. And his time in France, related over the years, surely was instrumental in my interest in learning French, and teaching in a French school not far from where he had been stationed.
Was the transcription hard work? Absolutely. Was it worth doing? I’ll leave that to the readers. But I did get to understand his experiences more fully, and appreciate the sacrifices of those who fought, “Over There.” And 1918, while still distant, was not such a foreign country after all. I hope that with this centennial, others will find the notebooks and memorabilia of their relatives who served in the Great War and nearer conflicts, and share them. We will all be the richer for these shared experiences.
William S. Shepard’s Series of Diplomatic Mysteries
Now residents of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the Shepards enjoy visits from their daughters and granddaughters, fine and moderate weather, ocean swims at Assateague, Chesapeake Bay crabs, and the company of Rajah and Rani, their two rescued cats.
Prize winning mystery writer William S. Shepard is the creator of a new genre, the diplomatic mystery, whose plots are set in American Embassies overseas. That mirrors Shepard’s own career in the Foreign Service of the United States, during which he served in Singapore, Saigon, Budapest, Athens and Bordeaux, in addition to five Washington tours of duty.
His diplomatic mystery books explore this rich, insider background into the world of high stakes diplomacy and government. His main character is a young career diplomat, Robbie Cutler. The first four books in the series are available as Ebooks. Shepard evokes his last Foreign Service post, Consul General in Bordeaux, in Vintage Murder, the first of the series of five “diplomatic mysteries.” The second, Murder On The Danube, mines his knowledge of Hungary and the 1956 Revolution. In Murder In Dordogne Robbie Cutler and his bride Sylvie are just married, but their honeymoon in the scenic southwest of France is interrupted by murders.
The Saladin Affair, next in the series, has Robbie Cutler transferred to work for the Secretary of State. Like the author once did, Cutler arranges trips on Air Force Two – now enlivened by serial Al Qaeda attempts to assassinate the Secretary of State, as they travel to Dublin, London, Paris, Vienna, Riga and Moscow! And who killed the American Ambassador in Dublin?
The Great Game Murders is the most recent of the series. There is another trip by the Secretary of State, this time to Southeast Asia, India, China and Afghanistan. The duel between Al Qaeda and the United States continues, this time with Al Qaeda seeking to expand its reach with the help of a regional great power nation. And Robbie Cutler’s temporary duty (TDY) assignment to Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, carries its own perils. Fortunately, Uncle Seth helps unravel his perilous Taliban captivity in time!