In 1917, the world was in unprecedented chaos, with 14 nations warring with each other over land, air and sea. For three years, Americans had been following news of brutal trench warfare, dazzling dogfights, stealthy U-boats and deadly mustard gas, wondering if they would be in the thick of it soon. And then they were. On April 6, the U.S. declared war on Germany, becoming the final nation to join the “Great War.” In the 18 months to follow, Arkansas turned 71,862 young men into soldiers and sent them to war.
Remembering those soldiers, their families back home and the war they fought is the focus of Heritage Month, led by the Arkansas Department of Heritage (ADH). Throughout May and beyond, ADH, the Arkansas World War I Centennial Commission and many other groups will be holding events to commemorate the state’s participation in the war that shook and shaped the world. One hundred years later, memories of those men are as faded as their photographs now are. But many of their stories are preserved in their letters home, as full of optimism, horror, homesickness and patriotism as the day they were written.
Senior Archivist and Manager Brian Robertson said the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies (part of the Central Arkansas Library System–CALS) in Little Rock has extensive WWI photographs, letters and other artifacts that families have donated to the center for preservation and study, as do other private and public collections around the state, many now online.
If you have family mementoes of WWI or other Arkansas history, consider donating the originals or copies to the Butler Center, Robertson said.
Another online resource is the Arkansas Great War Letters Project by the Museum of American History in Cabot. History students from Cabot High School, under the supervision of Museum Director Mike Polston, have been researching, transcribing and putting online dozens of WWI letters published by troops’ hometown Arkansas newspapers, organized by county. Polston explained it was common for newspapers to publish letters sent back home from “the boys.” Soldiers were local heroes, after all.
Polston has been researching WWI for 30 years, but work on the letters site began just weeks ago. “If you visit the site and don’t see anyone from your county represented, just wait,” he advised. “It’s never-ending work, but interesting.”
Soldiers wrote many more letters home. By the end of the war, 2,183 Arkansas boys had died and another 1,751 sustained wounds. Here are some of those boys’ words about their WWI experiences.
Training to be American soldiers
The war started for many young men not far from their hometowns. Camp Robinson in North Little Rock was then Camp Pike, constructed for training thousands of WWI soldiers. Most Arkansas troops started there. Otis Record of Marion County wrote home in 1918 with encouraging words for others about Camp Pike:
“I have seen most all the boys from Marion County, and all seem to be having a good time and enjoying life. You boys who are to come, don’t dread to come the least bit, for Camp Pike is as near like home as can be, not to be home. We get to put our feet under the table three times a day, a good house to stay in and a good bed to sleep on.”
Established next to the city of Lonoke in 1917, Eberts Field was the United States government’s No. 2-ranked aviation training field. The Arkansas Gazette reported at the time it was not uncommon to see hundreds of planes in formation over Eberts Field.
Little Rock businessman Earl Rossner wrote his enlisted friend Curtis Jones of the Eberts aviators’ daily “glide over the housetops”:
“I never saw such fool stunts as those guys pull off, and on some occasions my guts have nearly flown from my mouth at some of them. Life must not be worth much to those men, for they flirt continually with the Southern Trust Bldg. and the Catholic Church Steeple and the telephone wires, coming straight down at the earth from some ungodly altitudes. Nix on the aviation for me.”
Other Arkansas soldiers were sent to far-off or specialized training grounds. Joe Cooper of Malvern was in one of the only balloon companies that served overseas during the war. In 1918, still training at Fort Omaha, Neb., he wrote to his mother about a “most interesting” trip up in a hot air balloon:
“The balloon was tied to a cable, and when we got up 1,100 feet, we floated around like a kite. I was enjoying myself hugely until I began to feel a misgiving in the pit of my stomach. It affects one like a boat. … Well, no one can ever accuse me of having a weak stomach, for I threw my lunch 1,100 feet.”
Wartime letters to and from soldiers were hard to come by, and arrived irregularly, sometimes with months between them despite having been sent almost daily.
During the war, Heber McLaughlin of Pulaski County wrote his mother about running into friends from home. Their talk, he said, kept wandering back to Arkansas, for “that was the part of the world we were all thinking about … We wound up talking about home, spareribs, sweet potatoes. Oh, it was a great party.”
McLaughlin then begs his family and friends to “write, write, write, write everything, whether ‘old Rose’ gave the usual amount of milk this morning, if the biscuits were burned on the bottom at breakfast. …” Nothing was too trivial to be of interest.
Alinda Powell, a soldier from Dermott, was one of the 18,322 black soldiers from Arkansas in the war. Writing his sister in 1918, Powell said, “It is awful sad to think of being so far away from home, but we are needed and I am glad to be able to do my bit. We have to undergo some very hard things, but they must be done, and I have learned to do the duty assigned me and to do my best.”
Most Arkansas women remained at home, yet WWI captured the imagination and loyalty of many. In her 2017 book, “Faithful to Our Tasks; Arkansas’s Women and the Great War,” author Elizabeth Griffin Hill details their extensive wartime activities, from organizing local support organizations like the Red Cross (2017 marks the Red Cross’ centennial of work in the state, thanks to the war) to having knitting drives, cooking and food demonstrations despite food shortages (her book has a section of cottage cheese-heavy WWI recipes), entering the workforce, improving education, child welfare and public health, and other efforts Arkansas women undertook while the young men were away.
In an oral history taken by her granddaughter in 1962, “Nanny” Wilson of Rogers recalled her memories of WWI, particularly of some of the “big benefit sings” held locally. Wilson said her four-year-old daughter Jeanne, “who was a doll at the time,” would entertain the crowd, singing popular war songs including “Over There,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “Long Way to Tipperary.”
Helen Cooper, writing to her brother-in-law Joe Cooper, tells of knitting sweaters for the Navy League and Red Cross, and of her reaction to seeing soldiers in uniform: “I get very patriotic when I see a group marching along, keeping step and walking so straight. I just feel like if the Americans do go to fight, Germany is in for the awfullest licking she ever could dream of.”
Bringing a nation together
A short 1918 piece titled Union in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, names one unexpected byproduct of WWI; in Arkansas at least, it began healing old rifts leftover from the Civil War. The paper quotes a “girl from the North who had been living in the South many years” saying:
“… a Yankee still had a cloven hoof and a spiked tail, down here in Arkansas. But the war has done what years had failed to do and done it in a matter of months. This country is just one flame of loyalty. … ‘Our flag, our country!’ — this from women whose fathers and grandfathers fought for the stars and bars …”
The story also related that women in Arkansas, and even the Arkansas Gazette itself, now preferred to call the soldiers “Yanks” (once a deep insult) rather than “Sammies.” Even the secretary of the local United Daughters of the Confederacy declared that Sammies was a “sissy” term: “They’re YANKS… That sounds like a man. We’re all YANKS, every one of us today.”
The reality of warfare
Combat was often more brutal than boys had expected. Little Rock’s Maxwell Lyons had been offered an officer post in the Marines, but turned it down because, he said, he did not feel qualified to lead Marines, having no experience of war himself. That would quickly change. He wrote to his parents after his first combat experience:
“…You remember how the elevated trains sound when you are standing underneath them and hear an express go by. Just multiply the speed considerably and imagine the accompanying whine of a big shell. Then imagine that the roar ceases abruptly near you and explodes with a violence and concussion of tons of dynamite, and you have something of the situation. Then imagine a repetition of this for several hours. Of course, there is always the accompanying whine of shell fragments flying by you, the cries of help from comrades who you are unable to help, the feeling of horror at seeing a companion fall at your side, the deafening noise; the deadly gas; the flash and roar of your own guns; and the prayers of those who are giving their lives for their cause. The personal equation is forgotten. You are merely a part of a huge machine with one idea: to get the other man before he gets you.”
R.F. “Fink” Hayes of Woodruff County, serving on the U.S.S. Frederick, wrote to his mother about his sea adventures: “My ship is just back from a real trip, having actually sunk a sub … after a hot chase we maneuvered over her at 27 miles an hour. … Gee! but it was exciting.”
Clarence Gardner writes home to Hamburg of living in trenches for six weeks that “had been used for three years without having been cleaned,” and where their only entertainment was “shots and shells with the exception of our friends, the rats and cooties.” Although they “fought a hard battle against the lice,” he reports, “to my sorrow, I am compelled to say we never reached our object.”
Ashley County’s Mitchell W. Montgomery wrote to Minnie B. Gardener of capturing German soldiers, many of whom were young boys about 12 years old. Rather than take them prisoner, Montgomery wrote, the U.S. soldiers sent them back to the German commander with a note that, “… they were too young to be out without their mothers with them, and that we were not fighting children, but were fighting men.”
Yellville’s Cpl. L.W. Perry wrote to his uncle of his division’s valor, which earned commendations from the French and President Woodrow Wilson. Perry wrote, “We had to go through three artillery barrages that day … for awhile it looked like there wouldn’t be a one of us come out alive. …”
Wounds and other illness
Many who did come out alive often still ended up wounded. Maxwell Lyons wrote of the “stoic self-sacrifice” of the wounded. “Very few cry out in their pain,” he told his parents. “It seems to be a matter of pride with them to be of as little burden as possible.”
Lyons himself had just spent a month in a French hospital after drinking gassed water that burnt the lining and membrane from his throat and stomach. For two weeks, he had been unable to swallow anything at all. He complains of being confined to his bed (and away from the action) for a month, insisting, “They kept me in bed by the simple expedient of taking away my clothes and substituting merely a short pajama shirt that came to my waist.”
Army Lt. George B. Fletcher of Lonoke County, serving in the Medical Corps, wrote of his unsanitary trench medic facilities being overrun with rats and his desperate system of battlefield triage. He reassured his parents that he was in excellent health and that they should not worry about him.
Capt. Paul E. Johnson led a medical detachment up a hill to a dugout in the thick of the zone that became known as “No Man’s Land.” He wrote that the enemy fire did not cease while his troops sought and cared for the wounded. For eight days under attack, they had almost no food. They slept in mud, exposed in the heavy rain and cold. Johnson wrote: “I looked death in the face so often during those days and nights of horror that I ceased to have any fear of it and developed the attitude of most of the soldiers: ‘Ain’t no use to dodge. If it’s got your name on it, it will get you.’”
Influenza and other illnesses flourished during war camps, killing more U.S. troops than battle wounds did. Bryon Redwine of Clay County wrote from occupied Germany in February 1919 that he had fought in and survived five of the hardest battles, “but do not know how long I will be [alive], as the influenza is getting a great many.”
The deadly influenza pandemic followed the soldiers home after the war, too, killing 7,000 Arkansans — more than three times the number killed in the war itself. During the war, the Red Cross set up its first operations in Arkansas. Their efforts probably kept the influenza pandemic from claiming many more Arkansas lives.
On Nov. 11, 1918, more than four years since the world erupted into warfare and just over 18 months since the United States declared war on Germany, it was over. At 6 that morning, the Germans signed the Armistice of Compiègne, which went into effect at 11 a.m. — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It marked a complete defeat of the Germans by the Allies. To the soldiers in the field, the ceasefire took on a surreal quality as word spread, and the gunfire and shelling simply stopped.
Pvt. Hugh E. Coody of Hamburg wrote from Germany to his sister, as published in the Ashley County Eagle, “We were up near the Metz sector on the 11th day when the guns quit firing; and O, joy, I can’t express the joyful feeling I had. Shortly after the firing ceased the boys began celebrating. It was something like an Xmas chivaree.”
His hometown friend Clarence Gardener was more reflective: “Friend and foe fell around us until the eleventh of November came and all was over. I will never forget how quiet everything sounded that night.”
David Peel, Jr., of Bentonville, writing to his mother the day after the Armistice, talks of the fierce fighting right up until the end, saying the Germans “wanted to shoot up all the ammunition and continued to fire until the last minute.” Of the ceasefire, he wrote: “It was a beautiful wind-up. … When the word was sent along the line to stop firing, the Germans began to yell and sing … one came out and shouted, ‘Don’t shoot us, Americans, we are going [to]leave!’”
Emmette M. Hartley wondered “how did the people of Lonoke survive the shock. … bet there were some rejoicing in the dear old town, as the old song went, ‘There was a hot time in the old town that night!’”
And approaching the Thanksgiving holiday, Alice Stoker of Jelks got a letter from her brother Charles Clark, a sailor who had recently survived several German submarine attacks at sea: “This is one Thanksgiving we should be unusual thankful for peace in the world after a long and bloody struggle with an unmerciful enemy,” he wrote her. “Thank God he is conquered at last, and for it the world owes ‘Uncle Sam’ a debt of gratitude.”
One hundred years later, we remain grateful for their service.
For more letters, photographs and information about World War I in Arkansas, visit the following links and resources. Also be sure to visit ww1arkansas.com for podcasts, events and locations of Arkansas WWI memorial sites, including Herman Davis State Park in Manila.
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System; butlercenter.org/arkansas-and-the-great-war
The Arkansas Great War Letters Project; chsarkansasgreatwar.weebly.com
Arkansas World War I Centennial Commission; wwiarkansas.com
“To Can a Kaiser; Arkansas and the Great War” (2015, Butler Center Books), edited by Michael B. Polston and Guy Lancaster
“Faithful to Our Tasks; Arkansas’s Women and the Great War” (2017, Butler Center Books) by Elizabeth Griffin Hill