World War I in letters
Museum brings enlightening archive to Internet
An important new resource documenting the role of Arkansans in World War I has recently been posted on the Internet. “The Arkansas Great War Letter Project” contains almost 500 letters written by Arkansas soldiers from 35 counties. The project is the work of the Museum of American History at Cabot High School in Lonoke County.
Readers might be surprised to learn that a high school has a museum, but it has been in existence for more than 30 years. The primary leader of the museum is Michael Polston, a former history teacher, who continues to sponsor the museum program despite his retirement a few years ago. Polston has long had an interest in the role of Arkansans in the war.
Almost 72,000 Arkansans served during the war — though not all saw combat and many never made it to Europe before the armistice was signed in November 1919. A large percentage of Arkansans called up for service failed the physical examinations. A total of 2,183 Arkansas soldiers died during the war, most from diseases and accidents, while 1,751 were injured.
All of the letters collected by Polston and his students were originally published in newspapers throughout Arkansas. After reading letters from their sons, many parents shared the letters by giving them to local newspaper editors for publication.
Many of the letters begin with an assurance to anxious parents that all is well. Most of the young soldiers had never traveled outside the state, so Europe was a source of amazement. Pvt. Harry G. Yelvington of the tiny Ashley County hamlet of Mist, found France beautiful but “strange to me as I never knew anything about any place except good old Arkansas, and very little of it.”
John Lindall of Hot Spring County sent a long letter to the editor of the Malvern Times Journal in which he told of sightseeing in France. “Paris by far exceeds my expectations,” Lindall wrote before concluding that “it is undoubtedly the finest and most magnificent city in the world.”
Like soldiers in any war, the Arkansas troopers had plenty of complaints. Harl K. Jones of near De Queen in Sevier County exclaimed: “Holy smoke, but I have been so busy scratching … the cooties. Just think of having your shirt covered with little white crawling things which itch and bite like the devil and you in a place where you can’t even wash your hands.”
Letters home were censored by the military for security reasons, but they contained a surprising amount of battlefield details. William M. Woodsmall of Little Rock told his mother of a perilous engagement in which his company became lost in thick woods, were subjected to what is today called “friendly fire,” and “we finally got clear of our own shells and ran into Fritz’s [German] machine gun bullets.” Woodsmall then attacked the machine gun nest, killed the crew and brought back the machine gun.
Woodsmall would later receive the Distinguished Service Cross as well as the French Croix de Guerre. Despite the close calls, Woodsmall lived to the ripe old age of 90, not dying until 1978.
Lt. Grady H. Forgy of Mena wrote in a letter to a friend that he not only suffered a wound to the leg, but “I got a pretty bad case of shell shock… I was pretty nervous for a week, but am almost well now and ready to go back.”
The Arkansas soldiers developed a healthy respect for German airplanes. Charles R. Batchelder of Pulaski County survived aerial bombing, but he noted that “we are in danger in any walk of life and we will not go before our time.” Within three years of his returning home after the war, Batchelder, who was a Rock Island Railroad conductor, was killed in a train accident.
Not all Arkansas recruits were sent to Europe. Jewel M. Lantz of Baxter County was assigned to a saw mill in Vancouver, Wash., to mill spruce lumber for “the manufacture of flying machines.” Even more surprising, Pvt. Charles A. Jacobus, a school teacher from Arkansas County, was stationed at a hospital in, of all places, Vladivostok, Siberia, Russia.
One of the most harrowing letters in the collection was written by Leo F. Terzia, a timber worker from southern Arkansas, who survived the sinking of his transport ship by a German submarine. Embarking from New Jersey, the S.S. Tuscania, a converted passenger ship, made the crossing without incident, but the vessel was sunk as it neared the British coast.
In a long letter to his brother, Terzia recounted how his lifeboat with 32 men aboard made it to shore “without being smashed to pieces against the rocks.” Remarking on the stress, Terzia concluded, “I did not close my eyes for five long nights.” More than 200 lives were lost in the sinking.
The war had a sobering impact on all who served, but a letter from Capt. John Snyder to his mother in Craighead County addressed his hopes for the future: “Let me assure you, mother dear, that I shall certainly not be soured in life after the war. And I’m most certain that even though I should forget to smile over here, the moment that I [see] you would be quite enough to bring back to my face the happiest smile that I ever smiled, mother dear.”
After the war, Capt. Snyder went on to an outstanding career in business and later served as President Harry Truman’s secretary of the Treasury.
The Letters Project can be accessed at www.chs arkansasgreatwar.com.