My children are well aware of my love of old books. Many years ago, while attending college, my youngest son spied a copy of The War Department’s Manual for Noncommissioned Officers and Privates of Infantry of the Army of the United States—circa 1917, in a small antique shop. He knew I wouldn’t be able to resist it and he was right.
There are some stains on the fabric cover and the binding is a bit loose but the book is in pretty good condition, considering what it might have been through. I can only imagine. I had absolutely no idea if I would ever use the information it contained but I’m one of those people who believes that all things happen for a reason.
Over the years, the book has remained in my research bookcase. I knew it was there if I ever needed it. What surprises me is that without realizing it, over the years I’ve collected quite a few books about the same time period.
War as a subject, has never been one of my consuming interests but there is no denying that it is part of our history. I have never thought history has been particularly well served by teaching only the important dates and accomplishments of the news makers of any particular period. History is lived by the people whose lives are affected by those important dates and generals and movers and shakers who are marked down as having changed the world.
Last year, the germ of a story idea prompted me to browse through the book again; wonder about the young man who might have memorized the information contained inside that one day might save his life. Or at least make it a bit easier.
It wasn’t long after that I came across Doughboy War, The American Expeditionary Force in WWI, a book full of letters and recollections from men that some long ago historian called “the fierce lambs”. They were farmers and clerks, mill workers and students. They were men whose ancestors had settled in the original thirteen colonies and men not long off the boat from Europe. Few were well-educated and many were illiterate. Some didn’t speak English.
Some of their letters made me smile, especially Sgt. Alvin York who related that his platoon was made up of men who could out drink, out fight and out cuss anyone and warned not to look side-ways at any of them unless you were ready to fight. More than a few of the letters made me cry. The soldiers didn’t mince words when relating the horrors of war.
Men go to war for many different reasons; some go because they are patriots and go where and when they are called. Some are running away from something they envision as scarier than war. Some are yearning for an adventure, lured by the stirring rendition of bugle and drum. Each one has a story and it would take a lifetime to unravel them all. I abhor war as much as the next person but I have to tell you that I am in awe when I read the snippets of their stories.
I research as I go and what I’m finding in the books that I’ve purchased over the years is helping me build the hero that was prompted by a small, square soldier’s manual. I just spied a copy of The World War One Source Book, that I haven’t looked through for a long time, but I need to take a break from war and catch up on my Prohibition facts.
Lucky me, for my birthday this year, I received a book on the very subject.
What’s on your research shelf?
Until next month,
***The photo I used for this blog is of Frank Buckles: February 1, 1901-February 27, 2011
Last survivor of The American Expeditionary Force in WWI. If you'd like to find out more about him, here's the link: