World War I in let­ters

Mu­seum brings en­light­en­ing ar­chive to In­ter­net

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - TOM DILLARD Tom Dillard is a his­to­rian and re­tired ar­chiv­ist liv­ing near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Ark­topia.td@gmail.com.

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.

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