The Folks

Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War by [Griffin, Margaret Porter]

I wish I could have known the grandparents on my mother’s side of the family like I did on my father’s side.  Having older relatives to mentor and dote on you as a child is something that can never be replaced.  But I came close to getting acquainted with their lives, at least a part of them, when I transcribed and typed around 400 letters they wrote to each other when they were courting.  I thought, “This is a wonderful story.”  So I’ve edited and published their correspondence in a new book.

Its working title was “Miss Maggie and the Captain.”  The era was World War I, and he (Jesse) was in a Mississippi training camp while she (Margaret – yes, I’m named after her) taught school back in northeastern Indiana.  But I thought it should be called something to do with the times, so I settled on Folks on the Home Front: Letters from the First World War.  The term “home front” was actually first used in 1917.

As I say in the synopsis on the back cover, things took more time then: corresponding, cooking, cleaning house, and traveling.  But we do much of what they did, one hundred years later.  We work at home and school.  We look at the new cars coming out (although these were really the new cars, the first that families bought).  We like to watch baseball games as they did.  And we get together with our friends, eat, tell stories, tell jokes.

There was a frightening World War in progress, and the United States was gearing up for the effort.  Everyone was concerned, pro or con; and many like my grandfather involved directly as soldiers.

To make more sense and to connect my grandparents’ story to what was going on around them, I researched World War I events for quite a while.  In the library there are many books on the Civil War and on World War II, but not so for World War I.  I hope that this book will help fill in a bit of the gap.  And that readers will enjoy their expressions, their experiences, and their devotion to each other.

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The young family at home on the farm in the late 1920s.  My mother, who is the baby in this picture, would save all of their letters; Jesse and Margaret had ten children in all.

Folks on the Home Front (175 pages; Dogear Publishing, Indianapolis, 2017) is available by ordering on Amazon or contacting me personally.

I am available for presentations on the book in general and have compiled activities for classrooms on locating primary source material.  I’d love to tell you more about my Folks on the Home Front.

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Never Forgotten

“These weren’t just names — they were family members,” says Lisa Ann Maynard in a touching documentary about her great uncle, Paul, who died in France on the day of the Armistice, November 11, 1918.

The American Battle Monuments Commission is responsible for this piece.  It is a striking compilation of primary sources: recordings, newsreels, photographs, and letters.  Though I’ve been searching for information about World War I for the past year and a half, I had not seen most of them.  Many thanks to fellow blogger Keith Muchowski for bringing this excellent 30-minute film to my attention.

My recently-finished manuscript also speaks of the common folks living in the era of World War I: farmers, schoolteachers and shopkeepers who were writing to soldiers who longed just to join them at home.

I too had a great uncle, Leo, who died in France late in the same war.  In fact, the week before his death, German commanders had told the Kaiser they could not win.  But he and his comrades followed orders.  A talented artist and newspaper cartoonist, Uncle Leo was sketching maps on the front lines.  For Sergeant Maynard and Corporal Porter, let’s remember the price paid for our freedom.  They and many others are never forgotten.

 

Leo Ross Porter, World War I soldier from Angola, Indiana 

The Parents’ Generation

Are we always once removed from history?

It’s hard to believe that those men in the black and white movies — the ones with side parts, baggy suits and ties — are half my age.  They will always be older than I am because when I saw them first, they were.

Even in their thirties and forties adults in b/w photographs appear older, to me.  I suppose I associate the idea of “grownup” with the styles of the time.  It’s more than that, though.

It could be because they’re the generation from whom we learned.

When we were growing up, World War II seemed long ago and far away.  It is unimaginable the Holocaust happened just twenty years before I learned about it in school.  Today twenty years ago isn’t that far back.  Is it?

History is always then.  It was.

My grandmother’s family in an early Auburn automobile.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through 100 year-old letters written by my grandparents.  As the events of their day unfold, I learn about farmers planting extra acreage for the war effort, neighbor boys enlisting or being drafted, and the desire to “get that old Kaiser’s hide.”

I also catch parallel glimpses of future generations: teasing younger siblings about “going on the chase;” planning surprise birthday parties, family get-togethers, or just the day’s meals; wondering what’s going to happen next.

Just as their letters are primary sources now, yours and mine soon will be.  Except we haven’t written or saved as many.  Our grandchildren will look back on visual images of us that were far faster, easier, and plentiful — but fewer letters and journals where they can get inside our heads.

I puzzle at colorless photographs and movies and letters with pristine loops.  That was then.  Style and technology are different now, but the living of life is not.  I guess that’s where history and the present meet up, and we’re all the same age.

Looking for the Great War

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What do you remember about World War I?  Obviously you weren’t there, but what comes to mind from earlier studying or reading?  Are there stories about someone in your family who was a soldier?

A century ago Great Britain and France were in a stalemate with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  After a year’s combat, trenches zigzagged across France from Belgium to Switzerland. “No Man’s Land” waited ominously between the fences of barbed wire for men to try to break through the enemy’s line.  They were mowed down by machine guns, time after time.

The United States was officially neutral at the time, but many were involved in a preparedness campaign.  We joined the Allied Powers in April 1917.

When I looked for resources about it, I found few in comparison to those of the Civil War and World War II.  Why is that?

Probably the best recent book I’ve seen is The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin (Mariner Books, 2012).  A dozen or so years ago, he searched for remaining American veterans of the “Great War”  and interviewed them.  They all had lived past the age of 100, and all had remarkable reminiscences. The result is a treasure of information uncovered in a sliver of time which is now gone.

Maybe, with the centennial of the United States’s entrance into the First World War coming up, there will be more books, articles and TV documentaries.  I know of one book, which I’m just about finished proofreading, and will be sharing some of what I’ve found here.

Over Here

nyc october 2014 library lion and over here exhibition poster

On our recent visit to New York City, my daughter and I were able to see an exhibition about the Great War at their famous public library.  Michael Inman, NYPL Curator of Rare Books, who spent the last five years organizing “Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind,” graciously gave us a guided tour.  While I had read quite a bit about Theodore Roosevelt urging the nation to be ready for the war, I didn’t realize the extent to which the government used mass media to shape public opinion about it.

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During Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, he worked with Jane Addams on social problems.  However, their voices competed when it came to talking about entering the war.  Roosevelt wrote a book called Fear God and Do Your Own Part, while Addams, a pacifist, wrote, “We must hold at all times that war…affords no solution for vexed international problems…”

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The sinking of the Lusitania was the catalyst that propelled us to join the Allied Powers.  Center, back is the original “Uncle Sam Wants You” poster.

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 People across the country were urged to be “100% American” and buy Liberty Bonds.

From 1914 to 1918, the new inventions of recorded sound and motion pictures were put to use.  Songwriters George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin wrote nationalistic pieces that were widely played by the public.  But there was a song called “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” that became very popular, too.  Silent movies such as The Beast of Berlin and My Four Years in Germany added fuel for opposing the Axis Powers.  In 1916, camps like one in Plattsburg, New York, sprang up to train volunteers who anticipated serving overseas when the time came.

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A new government agency, the Committee on Public Information (CPI), was created in 1917 by President Wilson to convince Americans to buy into the war effort.  George Creel, head of the bureau, said, “I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion.  The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.”  The CPI was dissolved after the armistice, but a brochure detailing this exhibition states, “…the techniques it pioneered in the realm of mass persuasion are used to this day by governments, corporations, and public relations firms around the world.”

The First World War and these carefully chosen materials shake us into remembering that, as Marshall McLuhan said, often times the medium is the message.

All photographs on this page by Amy Griffin.  To see more of the exhibit online, visit http://www.nypl.org/over-here.