More Gentile Than Grim: Letters Home from World War I
By David Chrisinger
At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, I teach a seminar for student veterans on the history of American veterans coming home from war. In the fall of 2015, the students in my class analyzed hundreds of pages of letters that had been written by soldiers fighting on the Western Front during World War I who had grown up in the town where our university is located. As they read each letter, I asked them to highlight passages that struck a chord with them, that reminded them of their own experiences in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere. What they found surprised them: the letter were more gentile than grim. I mean gentile in the non-religious sense, an inclusive sense, meaning belonging to the same group, which originates from the the Latin gentilis meaning ‘of a family or nation, of the same clan.’ The WWI soldiers were brothers, sisters, comrades.
The student veterans in Chrisinger’s seminar for student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, October 2015
“You can bet I’ll never miss any more wars if I know they are in progress.”
They were surprised, though perhaps they shouldn’t have been, that most of the letters are those of young and confident American doughboys, not the conflicted old men many of my students think of when they try to picture a veteran of the First World War. One soldier wrote in March 1918 that he’s “perfectly satisfied, feels great, sleeps like a log, and wouldn’t come back until we win the war for anything.” Another wrote that “this sure is the life. Why the hell didn’t I get into the Mexican war? You can bet I’ll never miss any more wars if I know they are in progress.”
WWI Officer Writing Home, National Library of Scotland
“They sure do have a pile of nerve to have than on their clothing.”
In their letters, the soldiers are sturdier than their enemies because they are also nobler, more courageous and more compassionate. They are more human than the “Boche,” but also less corruptible. One soldier wrote that he was “talking with an old lady (refugee) Sunday who had her foot shot off by a ‘Boche’ because she refused to feed some soldiers. Another was telling me about her two grandchildren being bayoneted by them—three and six year olds.” He finished his letter sarcastically, “They love the German nation!” Another soldier talked about souvenir hunting and wrote home that he had “collected a few.” Most noteworthy was “one of those belts with ‘Gott mit Uns’ [God is with us] buckle. They sure do have a pile of nerve to have that on their clothing.”
David Chrisinger teaching his seminar to new student veterans at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, November 2014
“I thought for sure that I was in that place where a snowball is so short lived.”
The letters also reveal a desire to entertain with anecdotes, to make the Western Front vivid where they can, but not too grim. Their toned-down language is unmistakable. One soldier wrote about being shelled at the front: “We were supposed to be relieved that evening but the fun started too early so we were right there. And oh boy, when those guns let loose with their roar I thought sure that I was in that place where a snowball is so short lived.”
“It was wonderful and gruesome.”
Many of the letters are written from the point of view of American heroes who understand the gravity of their endeavors, but who are too humble to take much credit. They are playing but small parts in a great drama unfolding around them. One soldier, a medic, writes this about the first battle he witnesses: “I wish I could describe that first advance of ours to you. Right out in the open, up a hill, every man with a bayonet and all keeping a straight line. One could see our creeping barrage, perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them. Right up they went with never a one faltering. They reached the woods alright, with fewer men than they started with, but they kept right on and on. It was wonderful and gruesome, too, but it fascinated a person. Now our work comes in. getting those men to the dressing station. It’s nothing compared to the infantrymen’s job, but we worked until we absolutely dropped in our tracks.”
“I would not have missed my experiences for the world.”
Perhaps the strongest parallel my students noted between their experiences and those of the letter writers had to do with the fundamental paradox of military service—that while it gives you so much in the way of training, experience, and friendship, it also takes much away. As relatively new veterans, this is something most of my students haven’t yet made sense of, much like the soldier who wrote this to his parents in December 1918: “Where do you people get the idea I was lucky in getting over here? I can’t see it. I think the fellows back home were lucky, but then I would not have missed my experiences for the world.”
In the four years that I’ve been teaching student veterans, I’ve seen how impactful studying this history can be. When they discover that others have walked the same path they now find themselves on, it gives them much needed perspective. They see that their challenges are not as unique as they once believed, they are not insurmountable, and that every generation of American veterans has had to face eerily similar challenges, both on the battlefield and once they return home.
“Times change, but all the shit that happens in war sure hasn’t.”
After we finished analyzing the last batch of letters, a quiet hush fell over the classroom. For a few moments I could see the students processing the material, each in their own way. After about a minute of silence, one of the students looked toward the front of the room, locked eyes with me, and leaned back in his chair. “Times change,” he said, “but all the shit that happens in war sure hasn’t.”
David Chrisinger is an author, editor, and university instructor who believes all veterans have a story that needs to be told. To that end, he teaches a seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to new student veterans on the history of American veterans coming home from war and teaches them how to tell their own stories. In 2016, he edited a collection of essays written by his students—See Me for Who I Am—that was published by Hudson Whitman Press. David also teaches week-long writing and storytelling seminars for two non-profit organizations that serve veterans, The War Horse and Team Red, White, and Blue. He’s now writing a book about his grandfather and why he lied for six decades about his experiences fighting in the Pacific during World War II.