I’m Kathleen Holt speaking to you from my home in Cimarron, Kansas. My maternal grandfather was a quiet man who lived several hours away, so I didn’t know him very well. He described himself to us when we were kids: ”T.I. Spence, sitting on a fence, trying to make a d9llar out of 15 cents.”
I didn’t know much about WWI either, since we rarely made it that far in the history classes of my childhood.
It turns out that my grandfather, born in 1892, was one of eight children raised by a widowed mother in hard times. He and his brother, whom we knew as Uncle Cal, hung out at the depot where the station master taught them telegraphy leading to lives spent on oily-smelling, broad-beamed wood floors under the tick-tock of a clock against the staccato clack of telegraphed messages - Morse Code a secret language known only to a few.
In June of 1918, my grandfather left his job with the Union Pacific to join the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was 26 years old, Company C of the 104th, a railroad man on a ship. A wiser, seasoned guide to younger soldiers who entertained themselves playing cards, my grandfather acted as their banker to ensure they had meager pay to send back home.
We know much of this because my grandfather kept a small pocket diary and, of course, thanks to my mother’s oral history skills, we were able to interpret some of this doughboy’s experiences. What strikes one reading the diary is, well, the banality of many of the days.
I’d expected, reading Warhorse, tales of horrors, sloshy battles under terrible conditions, acres and acres of barbed wire and destruction, but many of the entries were less like that and more like this:
Sept 13, 1918 – Rolled packs and started for Bourbonne. Hiked all p.m. in the rain with rifles only. Packs went on trucks. Slept at Signal School.
Or this Christmas Day entry in 1918, a month after the Armistice was signed:
December 25, 1918 – Christmas Day – Everybody happy - plenty of good eats for dinner – cigarettes, cigar and a pound of candy
It is true that as a signalman, my grandfather’s position would have been behind the line or tucked down in a trench. Communications were such that another soldier was required to belly crawl onto the battlefield carrying a strand of wire until connections could be established until my grandfather’s rapid staccato long-long-short-short-short-long could convey orders, essential information or coordinates. But he didn’t detail battles. He did mention on Sunday, Nov. 3, 1918, taking a truck to Espagne via Bar-le-Duc where he saw the first effects of an air raid.
But most days were marching, preparing for inspections – including inspections for cooties, dropped as casually as recounting the loans and payments from his banking services. It seemed he was there to clean up, to clear streets and when he wasn’t on duty, he toured, sending back packets of picture postcards in letters in which he documented writing in his diary.
My cousin found the postcards recently and we look forward to matching diary to postcards and perhaps letters and to recreating this telegrapher's wartime experiences in France. My mother tells that he stayed over in France for several months after the war, and there is a photo of him on a motorcycle that leaves us all wishing we’d known him better.
Warhorse helped me fill in the blanks, imagine the world into which my grandfather traveled = passing the Statue of Liberty at about 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 24, 1918, waking in sight of land Sept. 4. Liverpool. Southhampton. LaHarve. He drew his gas mask on Sept. 11 and his steel helmet and pistol belt on Sept.16.
Obviously, my grandfather returned from foreign shores, his only crossing memories in a life spent in the Midwest.
Thank you, Michael Murpogo for helping me understand my heritage, my family story.
I’ll leave you as my grandfather left many of those he telegraphed or wrote -- initials only – a world pre-texting, pre-tweeting – My signalman grandfather clicked dah-di-di-dit dah-di-dah-dit dah-dit di-di-dah - or he wrote, B C N U.
I’m Kathleen Holt of Cimarron, KS for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.