World War I brought America into its first large-scale, industrialized war, with airplanes, railroads and poison gas playing key roles in the devastation. While a small number of men, like Gustav Hermann Kissel, experienced the dangerous world of aerial combat, most were on the ground and in the trenches, where they endured artillery barrages, gas attacks, poor food and poor sanitation.
The use of poison gas on the battlefield was particularly devastating and required that troops be able to identify and protect against gas attacks. Earl Covington Smith served as a gas officer, ensuring soldiers were equipped with gas masks and able to recognize an impending gas attack, but he relates that the smell of death on the battlefield was so strong that it sometimes led to false alarms. In a letter to his parents, Louis W. Rosen describes being on alert for gas attacks, as well as narrowly avoiding enemy artillery fire as he repaired communication lines.
Despite the constant dangers of life on the front lines, many soldiers found time to document their experiences in diaries. Some, like Irving Greenwald, recorded entries rich in historical detail, while others simply captured brief notes of daily activities. Joseph A. Schweizer’s diary contains only scant details, but his short, stark sentences convey the enormity of his experience.
The major battles involving the United States all occurred on land, but the Navy also played a vital role. Sailors aboard minelayers like the USS Roanoke distributed mines across the North Sea to deter German U-boats. In letters home, Lucius Byron Nash describes a dirty, grueling job, demanding twelve-hour shifts spent on deck in the pouring rain.
In addition to strenuous work and enemy attacks, ill health affected thousands of troops. Francis Edward Mahoney notes in his letters home that he saw men around him die of pneumonia while building barracks in frigid conditions.
Wallace E. Rand survived service on the front lines, but was hospitalized with pneumonia and died just days before the war ended. And Norvel Preston Clotfelter, ill with the Spanish Flu in the final days of the war, heard rumors of an armistice and listened from his hospital bed as the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918.
“Despite your two additional years, you may yet outlive me.”
“Have dysentery & fever. Am so weak I can hardly get around.”
“I try to write in my anxiety to keep my mind from picturing the unknown horrors of my prospective journey.”
“Tonight a regiment marched by, each battalion playing its band and the men singing as they went up to the trenches.”
“I never told you about the front Ma, because I was afraid you would worry...”
“The laying of this barrage has been the biggest thing the Navy has done, and the only offensive operation.”
“There is no need of worrying, Mother, so please look for me home, a year from now.”
“...we just felt our way by a pale moonlight over that field never knowing when the next shell would land.”
“Went over the top to mop up the woods. Met resistance and dug in.”
“There were so many bad odors around that I had to watch the gas sentries from sounding unnecessary alarms.”