Stories from the Great War

But first, a programming note: On Wednesday, Aug. 19, public television stations in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere, I assume) will air all three parts of The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2014. Part I includes Dr. Joseph Priestley and his work to identify oxygen. Dr. Priestley's American home and laboratory (built after he and his family fled England) is part of the Pennsylvania Trails of History. (More details and images here.)

Our guest blogger today is Rachel Yerger, a curator in the Bureau of Historic Sites and Museums as part of the PHMC's Collections Advancement Project. Rachel has blogged for Trailheads before, detailing collections care efforts related to the new exhibit at the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum. Today she shares some info about a collection of World War I letters accepted last year at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. In her pre-PHMC life, Rachel worked on the WWI digital archives project, "Home Before the Leaves Fall," at Villanova University.

This past April brought the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the Civil War to an end (and man, will I miss saying "sesquicentennial"!). But fear not, military history nerds, because many World War I centennial commemorations are already underway. Even though the United States did not commit military support to the Allied war efforts until 1917, our centennial commemorative involvement is already gearing up. A few American based projects are up and running and vary in scope from national (Saving Hallowed Ground, a project launched by the WWI Centennial Commission) to local (Home Before the Leaves Fall and The Fallen of the Great War: Philadelphia Project). As other commemorative projects emerge or move forward, it is important that, in addition to the more well-known histories, we make a point to include the accounts and experiences of the common soldier. There are Great War narratives in the form of diaries, letters and postcards hiding in archives all over the country. These sources hold valuable information that can help us better understand what life was like for doughboys during the Great War.

I was lucky enough to read one of these personal histories while inventorying a PA Military Museum archival collection last July. The collection consisted mostly of letters written by Harry Campbell, a supply sergeant in Company C, 110th Infantry Regiment, 28th Division (known as the "Keystone Division"). [Editor's note: I've moved Rachel's background information on the 28th Division to a separate page.]

Supply Sergeant Harry L. Campbell
One the most interesting letters in this collection was not in fact written by Harry Campbell, but by an "R.S.R." This typed letter was tucked in amongst Harry’s letters home, and it isn’t clear who it was intended for or, at first, who R.S.R. was. (Thanks to Virginia Waters, an intern at the PA Military Museum, we now know that R.S.R. was Pvt. Reuben S. Rakestraw, a mechanic in Company C, nicknamed "Shorty.") The letter was written on July 21, 1918, almost a week after the German barrage started the Second Battle of the Marne (July 15-August 6). R.S.R. goes into great detail, and he refers to the first few days of battle as “...four days of hell.” “High explosives and shrapnel were bursting all around us every second and we had to lay there with gas masks on all night....”

At one point R.S.R. was taken prisoner by a German division, but managed to escape. “I swam, waded and crawled down a creek for over a mile and was in the water about 18 hours...." On the 17th of July, he finally came across a French outfit who gave him some food. When he finally met back up with what remained of the Keystone Division, he learned that Harry Campbell and the rest of the kitchen staff had also suffered losses. R.S.R describes Harry as, “...all broken up....” He goes on to describe Harry’s experience: “German aeroplanes [sic] swooped down on them and turned machine guns on them and dropped hand bombs. One team was killed, one kitchen blown up, one driver gassed and their lieutenant had an arm badly shatter with shrapnel.” Even through all that he and Harry had experienced, R.S.R. closes the letter with, “There had to be some outfit there and it is just as well that it was us. With all the wounded and dying I never heard a word of complaint, and all that could, pulled the trigger ‘til the last.”

Private Reuben S. "Shorty" Rakestraw

This descriptive language, the intense situations, the strength and pride with which R.S.R. closed the letter, is all reflective of the greater whole that was the Keystone Division. Because of their brave fighting at the front, the 28th Division earned themselves another nickname, "The Iron Division," given to them by General John Pershing himself. Approximately half of Company C were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. But because of the Iron Division, and the rest of the American Expeditionary Force's perseverance, the Germans were forced to retreat and suffered more losses than the British, French and Americans combined.

The 28th Division's red Keystone insignia

Shorty and Harry met while Company C was training at Camp Hancock, Georgia. Both had enlisted from Somerset County, PA, and quickly became friends. Harry often mentioned Shorty in his letters, and when the pair returned home they remained friends. In fact, Shorty was the one who introduced Harry to his future wife. What little we know about Shorty’s life after The Great War comes from vital records and a survey of Somerset County veterans conducted by the Works Progress Administration. In a sense, we’ve learned more about R.S.R. (and the 28th Division) through this one letter than from all the compiled vital records.

The purpose of commemorative events is remembrance, not just of certain larger-than-life historical figures, but also of men like Harry Campbell and Shorty Rakestraw. These men fought bravely and valiantly with the hope that future generations would be spared another war of this magnitude. We now know that this would not come to fruition, but it was not for a lack of bravery on the part of the men of the 28th Infantry Division. For me, this letter, and the other letters in the Campbell Collection, made the First World War more real than other historical narratives had before. Being able to put large historical events into a personal context is one of the more effective ways to engage people with history. And for a war that is largely forgotten, it is important that we be able to connect modern Americans to the people that experienced this war firsthand. And what better way to do that than by using the doughboy’s own words?


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