Tag Archives: World War I

“They are too many”

Paris at peace; Verdun, 1918

Paris at peace; Verdun, 1918

It was originally called Decoration Day, a time to place flowers on the graves of the war dead.  Now, as Memorial Day, it also marks a long weekend, store sales, and the beginning of summer, and the public is often indifferent to the  solemnity of the occasion.

For James Knox Polk Lambert, its meaning was fresh.  In Paris on May 30, 1919–Decoration Day–the Kentucky native was on duty with the YMCA, ministering to soldiers awaiting repatriation after World War I.  “Delightful weather,” he observed in his diary, “and charming scenes–bright sunshine, a clear sky, soft atmosphere, rich blooming flowers, sweet singing birds and throngs of well dressed people from all parts of the world.”

But the contrast between that lovely spring day, and the past year spent touring a country shattered by war, immediately clouded his thoughts.  Wrenched back to all that he had seen during his time overseas, he continued:

It is not possible to decorate with flowers all the graves of this war’s dead.  They are too many, too widely scattered; in France, Belgium, Italy; in the Balkans, the Gallipoli peninsula, Mesopotamia; in Russia and the Far East; in unmarked graves and in the fathomless ocean, but wherever they are, sleeping in great cemeteries or still in lonely graves hard by their rendezvous with death, they are not forgotten.

James Lambert’s diary is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other war collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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General Pershing’s Teeth

After graduation from the Louisville College of Dentistry, Edward Wallace Barr (1887-1962) joined his father’s practice in his home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  When the U.S. entered World War I, however, Barr was commissioned a lieutenant in the Army Dental Corps and sent to France.  As a member of the Sixth Heavy Artillery, he was considered the first dentist to “go into the trenches,” but in November 1917 was put in charge of the dental offices at the general headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces in Chaumont, France.  There, his patients included Commanding General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

E. Wallace Barr's Army ID

E. Wallace Barr’s Army ID

As his appointment book showed, Dr. Barr treated many servicemen until his discharge early in 1919, but perhaps it was only General Pershing who merited a discussion between Barr and Pershing’s former dentist, Colonel Ross T. Oliver of the Chief Surgeon’s Office.  “I am glad you found that upper bridge in good condition,” he wrote Barr.  As to the gum disease affecting the General’s lower molars, “that condition has existed for a number of years.”  His recall of one particularly troublesome tooth that had “such a loss of substance that we could easily run an instrument through the bifurcation” suggested, nevertheless, that Pershing could look forward to many more happy hours in the dentist’s chair.

Records and correspondence relating to E. Wallace Barr’s service in the U.S. Army Dental Corps are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections about medical professionals, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“I have seen enough”

Verdun, 1918

Verdun, 1918

In May 1918, Simpson County, Kentucky native James Knox Polk Lambert (1864-1960) left his Chicago law practice to volunteer with the YMCA in ministering to American soldiers fighting overseas.  During his 15-month tour in England and France, Lambert witnessed the transformation of Europe: a last-ditch German offensive, the Armistice, the wild celebrations following successful negotiation of a peace treaty, and the appalling destruction left behind by the war.  He kept a diary of his activities, and reflected on his experiences in a lengthier journal.  Both are now part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

After the U.S. entered the war, the YMCA was charged with bolstering the welfare and morale of American soldiers with entertainment, educational, religious and other programs.  The end of hostilities, however, did not signal the end of the YMCA’s mandate.  Millions of weary servicemen now turned their eyes toward home, and James Lambert and his colleagues faced the daunting task of keeping them emotionally, spiritually and recreationally occupied as they endured the logistic and bureaucratic trials of mass demobilization.

In addition to the ruin the war brought to the French countryside, Lambert was most struck by the ferocious impatience of the soldiers awaiting repatriation.  “The months of January, February and March [1919],” he wrote, “were marked by the most intense agitation of the boys to go home.”  He found most soldiers he encountered “in the grip of that mania,” unreconciled to the fact that, even at an exit rate of 300,000 men per month, it would take 7 months to get everyone home.  Some of the men, observed Lambert, were obsessed with a rumor that the government was secretly plotting to keep them in the Army for life; so high was the level of anxiety that General John J. Pershing, Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, actually feared a mutiny.  When Lambert suggested that the men spend their time sightseeing and enjoying some postwar tourism courtesy of the YMCA, the reply was predictable: “I have seen enough.  I never want to see this country again.”  For all he had seen, however, James Lambert’s experiences at the close of the Great War marked the beginning of a lifelong fascination with European history and culture.

Touring the battlefields

Touring the battlefields

Click here to access a finding aid for the James Lambert Collection.  For other collections about World War I, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Great War Centennial

John Pleasant Potter, and a flower he picked near French soldiers' graves at Chateau-Thierry

John Pleasant Potter, and a flower he picked near French soldiers’ graves at Chateau-Thierry

A recent biography calls him “the trigger”: 19-year-old south Slav nationalist Gavrilo Princip, who, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, fired his pistol at Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and (though he claimed it was unintentional) at the Archduke’s wife Sophie.  Both died almost instantly.  A month later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the rest of Europe, for various geo-political reasons, followed them into the abyss of World War I.

Here in Kentucky, Bowling Green lawyer Clarence McElroy learned of the widening conflict from clients living abroad.  In letters from Surrey, England, Margaret Whitehead Robertson’s reactions ranged from uncertainty to defiance to resignation.  Having recently sold a house, she asked McElroy in August 1914 to invest the proceeds at home rather than overseas, “as no one is sure about the war.  Of course, we all hope England & her allies will win but the war may last 2 or 3 years.”  A few weeks later: “This war is such a dreadful calamity, and everybody I know thinks Kaiser Wilhelm II will have a great deal to answer for, for bringing about a European war.  The Allies are doing splendidly, and we are all disgusted with German atrocities and their terrible military system, which wants to rule the world.”

By October, Margaret was recovering from the initial upheaval.  Vacationing in Eastbourne with her sister Charlotte, who was knitting socks for the soldiers, she noted that the area was enjoying a prosperous autumn “to make up for the bad summer season when people were afraid to come to the seaside at the beginning of the war.”  But after Christmas, rumor had again unsettled her.  She wanted to escape wet and snowy England for Switzerland, but had heard that if Italy entered the war, the food supply to Switzerland might be cut off.  “These are horrible times,” she observed, “and I do wish the war were over.”

The Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library holds many other World War I-era collections, especially relating to the period after the United States entered the war in 1917.  For example: a scrapbook chronicling the military service of Bowling Green’s John Pleasant Potter, lovingly kept by his mother; letters from Victor Strahm, the son of WKU music director Franz Strahm and a much-decorated air ace; letters of Simpson County native George DeWitt Harris, who died of battle wounds suffered in France; as well as patriotic speeches, poems and postcards.  For other collections about World War I, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Military Resources in WKU Archives

1917 saw the creation of the Army ROTC program at Western under the National Defense Act of 1916.  In 1918, the Board of Regents allowed for the formation of the Student’s Army Training Corps.  Barracks were provided for participating students.  In January 1919, this group became the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

During World War II the 321st Army Air Force Cadet Training Detachment took up residence on campus. From 1943 through 1944 the group published a newsletter The Open Post, which has been digitized and is now available TopScholar.

A Military Bibliography of primary and secondary sources in WKU Archives has been created.  It documents WKU student military units such as the Pershing Rifles and Scabbard & Blade.  There is information regarding veterans, World War II, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War as well.

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Brothers at War

WWI Sheet Music

“Over There” sheet music with Norman Rockwell illustration, 1918.

Brittany Crowley, a student worker in Manuscripts & Folklife Archives, contributes this item about a recently processed collection:

Upon America’s entry into World War I in 1917 and the implementation of the Selective Service Act that same year, thousands of young men were drafted into military service. A recent addition to the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections contains letters of two of these WWI soldiers: brothers John and Andrew Johnson of Wooster, Ohio.

John, the eldest, was stationed at Camp Jackson and Camp Wadsworth, both in South Carolina, and Camp Upton, New York, before being sent to France in late 1918. While at Camp Jackson, John wrote to his mother of the numerous “vaccinations and inoculations” the soldiers must receive. John described that the shots made most of the men sick, but that they did not bother him at all. John also noted the prevalence of both venereal disease and influenza around the camps, thus leading to frequent quarantines.

John was sent to France in October of 1918, just a month before the war was over. Although he did not see any combat, John often wrote to his mother describing the conditions in war-torn France: “The French people here seem to be of the peasant class, the only thing they seem to have a good supply of is Beer and Wine…there is absolutely no candy to be had at any price.” As a farmer, John often compared techniques and equipment used in France to those used “back home.”

The younger brother, Andrew, was a student at Ohio State University before being drafted and sent to Camp Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. While John was proud of his service in the Army, Andrew was far less patriotic; he spent much of his time attempting to get released. While Andrew mostly wrote to his mother of daily life at camp, he also described happenings in Louisville, including the ban on social activities due to the “Spanish flu” and a strike being conducted by the streetcar men (although he didn’t understand why they were striking considering they made “forty seven cents an hour”).  To see a finding aid for this collection click here.  To search for other World War I collections search TopSCHOLAR.


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Veterans Day

Victor Strahm

Victor Strahm

The son of longtime music professor Franz Strahm and a WKU graduate, Victor Strahm (1897-1957) began flight training after the U.S. entered World War I.  By the time the war ended, he had achieved the coveted designation of “ace.”  Victor’s letters home to his parents comprise only one of the scores of collections at the Kentucky Library & Museum that document the lives and experiences of veterans from the Civil War through Iraq and Afghanistan.  An ongoing project seeks to document the experiences of WKU alumni in particular.  Click here for a finding aid to Victor Strahm’s papers and here to learn more about the WKU Veterans History Project.  Lest we forget, WKU’s Special Collections Library collects.

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A Message from the King

World War I message from King George V

World War I message from King George V

“Well, I got my gun,” wrote Wilson Sprowl to his family from Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan.  It was June, 1918, and the Monroe County, Kentucky resident, in training for duty with the American Expeditionary Force, boasted of his prowess on the rifle range.  Tied with another soldier for the top score, he reported that “I warent beet.”  A month earlier, Wilson’s biggest complaint was the series of inoculations that had left him with a sore arm and caused some of his mates to become sick or faint.

One of the letters Wilson sent home was not his own; it was instead a neatly handwritten message from George V of the United Kingdom.  The King welcomed Wilson and his fellow recruits “on your way to take your stand beside the Armies of many Nations now fighting in the Old World the great battle of human freedom.”  He wrote of his desire to shake the hand of each American soldier and “bid you God speed on your mission.”

Wilson Sprowl’s mission, unfortunately, ended with his death on October 4, 1918.

A finding aid for Wilson Sprowl’s letters in the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library can be downloaded here.  For more World War I materials, search TopScholar and KenCat.


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